When I was growing up, my father had a workshop he used to relax on weekends.  While he enjoyed doing projects, he also regularly misplaced tools, much to the frustration of everyone.  When my brother moved out of the house, he also lost the only other person he could blame for losing them.  In the 1980s, however, he discovered Harbor Freight Tools, where he could buy cheap tools in bulk and not really care whether he lost them or not.  To this day, I believe he has, for example, at least eight dozen tape measures kicking around his workshop, basement, garage, and shed, and similar numbers of screwdrivers, hammers, pliers, and whatever special might have appeared in the Harbor Freight catalog.  It is difficult to go more than a few steps without finding an inexpensive tool for just about any job.   Hence, I have had a soft spot for Harbor Freight for three decades.

Whether it is good karma from such memories, good lawyering, or good luck, Harbor Freight is now the subject of an excellent opinion from the District of Kansas decertifying a class of Harbor Freight store managers.  In Green v. Harbor Freight Tools USA, Inc.pdf., Case No. 2:09-cv-02380-JAR (D. Kan. Aug. 17, 2012), the five original plaintiffs sought to represent a class of store managers for the Harbor Freight retail stores that have sprung up across the company.  The crux of their claim was that although they were given the title of Store Manager, they were in fact micromanaged by company guidelines and by company District Managers, and thus no longer performed exempt work and should have been entitled to overtime.  The district court granted conditional certification in 2010, and 81 managers opted into the litigation.  By the time of the court’s ruling on decertification, 31 plaintiffs remained, all of whom had been deposed.  With discovery completed, Harbor Freight moved to decertify the conditionally certified class.

The court’s opinion carefully reviews the evidence presented by both sides in support of (or against) the application of the executive and administrative exemptions.  The plaintiffs, on their part, relied on the common job description, uniform classification policy, and claims that managers spent 80-90 percent of their time on non-exempt duties such as stocking, cleaning, or running the cash register.  The court acknowledged this evidence in support of conditional certification, but found that it was not enough to prevent decertification at the second stage of the case.  Among other things, the court noted that there were differences among the class members in the time spent performing various duties, in their freedom to make personnel decisions, and the existence of two potential exemptions.  It also found problems with collective treatment in that the plaintiffs had claimed in their resumes that they had done exempt work, casting questions on their credibility and requiring an individualized inquiry.  Ultimately, it found that the putative class members were not similarly situated, that their claims would require a manager-by-manager inquiry, and that fairness and efficiency prevented the case from being handled on a class basis effectively.

The Harbor Freight case is one of many that have decertified FLSA cases at the end of discovery.  Cases that may look like class or collective actions under a lighter standard often prove to be unmanageable after a little discovery and application of even a moderately rigorous analysis.

The Bottom Line:  Another court has decertified a conditionally-certified FLSA class based on the different day-to-day experiences of putative class members.