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Class of IBM Employees Decertified Because Of Need For Individual Assessment

Posted in Class Actions

I have often written that conditional certification in a FLSA collective action is fairly easy to get and de-certifying a class is difficult, once that conditional certification has been achieved.  Well, every rule has its exceptions.  A federal district court judge has recently de-certified a class of IBM call center employees who were claiming compensation for preliminary work.  The case is entitled Seward v. IBM Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York.

The court concluded that too much individual assessment was warranted, thus destroying the needed commonality for the class to exist.  The court stated that the “plaintiff did not show he shares common factual and employment settings with all of the opt-in plaintiffs due to the existence of a sufficiently uniform and pervasive policy requiring off-the-clock work.”

The plaintiffs had requested that the judge assign them to sub-classes as opposed to a single “large” class, but as they had not raised that issue before the Magistrate Judge (who had issued a report recommending de-certification) the Judge refused to consider that request.  The response from the plaintiffs is that they will file individual suits.  Their lawyer asserted that they "intend to file dozens of individual cases to protect our clients’ rights."

This case is similar to others I have posted on and is typical of this new wave of class action suits based on off-the-clock working time that is allegedly not being paid.  The lead plaintiff claimed that he (and the others) were not compensated for their time booting up their computers and the computer programs that were necessary for them to do their work.  Thus, their theory is that these preliminary activities were integral to the performance of their primary job.

The company seized upon the “individual” defense.  It argued that the workers worked on a number of different teams, in different departments and also their work procedures differed as well.  The Magistrate Judge agreed, finding that there was not the requisite commonality or overall practice that required off-the-clock work.  The Magistrate found that as there were differences in their job duties, as well as management expectations of the various teams, commonality was lacking.

I applaud this result.  I emphasize again that the first line of defense in collective actions is the individuality theory.  A caveat—-don’t wish for something because you may just get it. If the defense succeeds in destroying the class, the employer, as here, may be faced with and left to defend dozens (or hundreds) of individual lawsuits.