Authorship credit: S. Jeanine Conley

Editor’s Note: Analysis of the Cuevas decision can also be read on Baker Hostetler’s Class Action Lawsuit Defense blog.

In Cuevas v. Citizens Financial Group Inc.pdf, Case No. 10-cv-5582 (E.D.N.Y. May 2, 2012), the plaintiff brought an action on behalf of all Assistant Bank Managers (“ABMs”) who had worked at one of the 230 Citizens Bank branches located in New York State since December 1, 2004. He claimed that defendants Citizens Financial Group, Inc. and its parent improperly classified the ABMs as exempt from overtime pay requirements in violation of the New York Labor Law (“NYLL”).  In a decision that arguably ignores individualized issues as well as the reasoning in Dukes, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York certified the class, holding that the plaintiff established by a preponderance of the evidence that a money damages class action was warranted under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(b)(3).

The plaintiff premised his motion to certify both on the defendants’ blanket exemption for ABMs and the fact that their “primary job duties” were defined by “clearly established company-wide policies.”  The defendants opposed certification on several grounds, including arguing that the plaintiff could not satisfy the commonality and predominance requirements because actual ABM job duties and activities varied and individualized proof would be required for each class member.  The Court disagreed, holding that commonality and predominance are not defeated simply because individualized proof may be necessary to assess whether the defendants properly classified the ABMs.  In that regard, the Court found that the variations identified by the defendants were not large enough to defeat certification in the face of “company-wide policy documents.”

More troubling, however, was the Court’s heavy reliance on cases pre-dating the Supreme Court’s Dukes decision and its holding that class certification was appropriate because the crux of the case is whether company-wide policies—like defendants’ company-wide policy classifying all ABM employees as exempt from overtime pay requirements—violated the putative class members’ statutory rights. The Court held that “the question of whether ABM duties, as defined in defendants’ company-wide policies, support an ‘exempt’ classification under the NYLL is a common issue capable of classwide resolution.”

The Court thus ruled that the proposed class action would achieve economies of time, effort, and expense and promote uniformity of decision to persons similarly situated without sacrificing procedural fairness.  Akin to the “issue certification” some courts are permitting in the Rule 23(b)(2) context in the aftermath of Dukes, this case exemplifies the direction a handful of courts are taking—minimizing individualized differences in the face of a single common issue—and defendants are well-advised to make sure that their submissions at the class certification stage demonstrate not only the existence of individualized issues, but also that those issues destroy any seeming efficiency in trying the case as a class.

The Bottom Line:  A minority of courts are side-stepping the clear guidance in Dukes to certify classes that will ultimately require individualized inquiries.