Grocery stores have taken on special prominence as being on the front lines of the current coronavirus pandemic. Just as that role was becoming apparent, the federal district court in Maryland issued a strong opinion not only denying conditional certification for a class of grocery store managers, but also dismissing many of their claims.
In Hunt v. Aldi, Inc., Case No. 8:18-cv-2485-PX (D. Md. Mar. 16, 2020), the plaintiffs were store managers working for the Aldi’s discount grocery store chain. They brought suit pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging, predictably, that they were misclassified as exempt because they did not, they asserted, actually manage their stores. As is usually the case, they also sought conditional certification of a class of store managers nationwide.
While the claims and approach in this case were typical, a little bit of common sense suggests serious problems for the plaintiffs. Illinois-based Aldi’s has over 1800 stores nationwide, broken into numerous, locally managed regions of different sizes. Stores themselves range in size from only 8 or 9 employees up to as many as 35-45. Store managers make salaries in the neighborhood of $60,000 annually plus significant bonuses based upon the productivity of their stores. These facts immediately suggest problems based on the range of store size and the likely duties of the managers responsible for those stores. And they raise the obvious question of, if not the store manager, who is actually running a grocery store with 3 or 4 dozen employees.
Following the common playbook, the plaintiffs submitted virtually identical declarations claiming that they performed few managerial duties and knew that other store managers nationwide did not manage much either.
The district court was not impressed by this showing. Interestingly, the court looked to declarations of store managers who had not opted into the case reflecting their almost ceaseless management of their stores. It similarly considered the testimony of district managers who indicated their fulfilling a largely advisory role for local store managers. This reliance was interesting, as some courts inexplicably refuse to consider such testimony at the conditional certification stage. Similarly, the plaintiffs’ deposition testimony frequently undercut the statements contained in their cookie-cutter declarations.
Against this backdrop, the district court made several important rulings. Most importantly, the court denied conditional certification, finding that a collective action would not further efficiency as clearly every manager’s situation would need to be examined individually. The court rejected the plaintiffs’ attempt to rely on uniform job descriptions, as those documents reflected that the store managers were properly classified, not that there was a violation of the statute.
Second, the court dismissed the claims of many of the managers on personal jurisdiction grounds. The court’s approach to this issue was also interesting. Rather than rely, as many courts have, on the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Bristol Myers Squibb v. Superior Court, 137 S. Ct. 1773 (2017), the court simply found that under traditional principles there was no basis for personal jurisdiction. These plaintiffs did not live or work in Maryland and there were insufficient ties for suit to be brought in that state.
The Hunt decision is of interest because the court actually considered what the plaintiffs’ claims might entail at a relatively early stage and declined conditional certification. The plaintiffs no doubt expected to have an order requiring notice to the putative class, followed by a settlement by the employer simply to avoid the cost and risk of further litigation.
The bottom line: Courts willing to look at what litigation would actually entail may be less inclined to grant conditional certification.