The United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin has refused to grant certification in a two-year-old dispute over uniforms for airline personnel. In Gilbert v. Lands’ End, Inc., Case No. 19-cv-823-jdp (W.D. Wisc. Aug. 18, 2021), Delta Airlines contracted with the Lands’ End clothing company to provide uniforms for some of its employees. These included roughly 100 different kinds of clothing ranging from pants and skirts to jackets. Delta employees were provided an initial set of the uniforms by the employer, along with credits through which they could buy additional pieces from Lands’ End.
The contract to purchase the uniforms between Delta and Lands’ End contained several important provisions. The first of these related to compliance with certain minimum apparel manufacturing standards. The second was characterized as a guarantee of 100 percent satisfaction. Significantly, that guarantee was coupled by a set procedure by which current Delta employees could seek a replacement or refund for goods found to be unsatisfactory.
Approximately 64,000 individuals received the uniforms. Roughly 1,600 complained of skin irritation or allergies and another 358 complained that the red dye in some of the uniforms bled (known as crocking). As the court noted, the vast majority of employees had no complaint. In two separate lawsuits, however, the plaintiffs contended that the Lands’ End uniforms were defective and they sought class action status.
The district court ultimately denied class certification. While some of its reasons were fact specific, much of the opinion turned on the terms of the sales agreement between Lands’ End and the airline. As to the claims of the breach of the satisfaction guarantee, the court noted in detail how the plaintiffs had failed to follow the requirements and procedures set forth in the sales agreement. It rejected the notion that requirements such as the return of the allegedly unsatisfactory items were somehow unenforceable.
The remainder of the opinion was taken up with the claim that at least some of the goods were defective because of bleeding, or crocking. The problem with this claim was that it was highly individualized in at least two respects. First, the 100 or so different goods were of different types and made by different manufacturers using different chemical processes. This much is common sense, as anyone who has done laundry knows red dyes are prone to bleeding at least to some degree, white goods tend not to bleed, etc. Second, based on the contract in particular, the question was not simply whether crocking took place with some goods, but whether it did so in a way that violated industry standards. Finally, how each employee used the goods varied, including the degree to which they followed the goods’ laundering instructions. The results of washing particularly newer red goods with whites is a frequent topic of humor.
The Gilbert decision presents an unusual fact pattern but underscores the problem with many types of employment class claims in that differences among class members can arise from any number of actions, including class members’ own conduct.
The bottom line: Even in claims against third parties, subtle differences in each claimed member’s claim and in the actions of class members themselves may defeat certification.