On October 27, 2010, the Second Circuit affirmed a federal court’s refusal to certify a proposed class of Hertz Station Managers allegedly denied overtime under New York law.  (Myers v. Hertz Corp., No. 08-1037 (2d Cir. Oct. 27, 2010)).  In doing so, the court addressed the potential difficulties of certifying Rule 23 overtime exemption cases and expounded on the appropriate certification standard for FLSA exemption cases.  

In a case the court described as “procedurally convoluted,” the plaintiffs originally sought to proceeded as a collective action under the FLSA.  After the district court denied this motion, the plaintiffs then moved for certification under Rule 23 based on alleged violations of unpaid overtime under New York Labor Law § 191.  While the court found the plaintiffs’ state law claim to be nothing more than an alternative method of seeking redress for an underlying FLSA violation, it addressed the plaintiffs’ appeal by using the traditional requirements of Rule 23. 

Finding that it only needed to address Rule 23’s predominance requirement, the court determined the relevant “question of law and fact” to be whether the plaintiffs established they were entitled to overtime under the FLSA.  The court found this to be a “complex, disputed” issue whose resolution required answering a number of subsidiary questions involving whether the plaintiffs fell under the FLSA’s executive exemption.  The court noted that while the exemption issue may not be an inherently individualized inquiry, the exemption inquiry does require examination of actual duties performed and involve evidence that the plaintiffs’ jobs “were similar in ways material to the establishment of the exemption criteria.”

The plaintiffs relied on two categories of evidence to show the required common proof:  (1) Hertz decided to classify all station managers as exempt without an examination of each individual manager’s duties; and (2) testimony of Hertz representatives which, plaintiffs claimed, established that station managers’ duties did not vary materially across Hertz locations.  With respect to the first category, the court found that the existence of such a blanket exemption policy, standing alone, “is not determinative of the main concern in the predominance inquiry:  the balance between individual and common issues.”  The court further explained that such a policy does not establish whether all plaintiffs were actually entitled to overtime pay, and that the question of entitlement to overtime pay is still answered by examining the employee’s actual duties.  As to the second category, the court found that the proffered testimony was general, largely inconclusive, and only provided mixed support for the plaintiffs.  Thus, the court found that the district court did not abuse its discretion in declining to certify a class.

While the court declined to review the district court’s refusal to conditionally certify the plaintiffs’ FLSA claims, it elected to provide guidance on the standard district courts should apply to motions seeking certification of a collective action under § 216(b) of the FLSA.  The court noted that district courts of the Second Circuit have largely adopted a two-step method.  While not required, the court found this approach to be “sensible.”  The court stated that in FLSA exemption cases, plaintiffs make the showing necessary to send notice to potential opt-ins (the first stage) by “making some showing that ‘there are other employees . . . who are similarly situated with respect to their job requirements and with regard to their pay provisions,’ on which the criteria for many FLSA exemptions are based, who are classified as exempt pursuant to a common policy or scheme.”  The court cautioned that while this is a low standard of proof, it cannot be satisfied simply by “unsupported assertions.”  In the second stage, the district court must determine whether the collective action may go forward by determining whether the plaintiffs who have opted in are in fact similarly situated to the named plaintiffs.   

The bottom line:  As this case demonstrates, Plaintiffs seeking a Rule 23 overtime class do not show predominance simply because the employer used a blanket exemption policy.  Rather, the determinative issue should be whether the plaintiffs’ job duties are similar enough so that the applicability of the overtime exemption(s) can be determined on a class-wide basis.