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Morris White, Lawrence Carrington, and George Gardner, Individually v. Western Beef Properties

December 9, 2011

MORRIS WHITE, LAWRENCE CARRINGTON, AND GEORGE GARDNER, INDIVIDUALLY
AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHER PERSONS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
WESTERN BEEF PROPERTIES, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Dearie, Judge.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

In Parts I and II of a Report and Recommendation dated September 26, 2011, Magistrate Judge Joan M. Azrack recommends that the Court deny plaintiffs' motion under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for class certification of their state law overtime claims. ECF No. 162. Vigorous, copious litigation addressed to Rule 23's "commonality" and related "predominance" requirements ensued: before the Court are plaintiffs' timely objections (ECF Nos. 163, 164), defendants' response to those objections (ECF Nos. 166, 167 with Exhibits A-J), a subsequent set of papers from plaintiffs styled as their "reply objections" (ECF No. 168) and, lastly, a "sur-reply" with additional exhibits from defendants. ECF No. 172 and Exhibits A-C. Rule 72 does not contemplate the reply-round of submissions. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(2) (authorizing "objections" and a "respon[se]" thereto). *fn1 The Court has accepted and reviewed all post R&R filings as part of its de novo review of the full body of materials submitted to Magistrate Judge Azrack on the motion, which include: each of the unabridged deposition transcripts, the deposition excerpts, the declarations, additional exhibits, the many briefs, and all cited authorities. ECF Nos. 145-160. The Court has also studied the jurisprudence emerging in the wake of Wal-Mart v. Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 564 U.S.__, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011), a subject the parties' did not fully address at the R&R juncture. Finally, the Court embarks on its Rule 23 analysis already quite familiar with the parties' essential theories on certification, as it has decided two prior motions that substantially previewed the certification-related issues. See Memorandum & Order dated June 17, 2008, ECF No. 32 (denying defendants' motion to dismiss the class allegations, concluding, at the pleading stage, that the tension between a possible FLSA opt-in collective action to recover unpaid overtime and a possible Rule 23 opt-out class on the parallel state law claim did not require dismissal of the state law claims); Memorandum & Order dated July 23, 2009, ECF No.72 (based, again, only on the pleadings, provisionally certifying plaintiffs' federal overtime claim as a collective action under section 16(b) of the FLSA).

As explained more fully below, what enabled plaintiffs to prevail on motions addressed to the pleadings is not sufficient at the Rule 23 stage, where the party seeking certification must satisfy each of the Rule's requirements by a preponderance of the evidence. Based on all of the materials inventoried above, the Court has independently arrived at the same conclusion as Magistrate Judge Azrack on class certification largely for the reasons set forth in the R&R, but also for the additional reasons, mostly a matter of emphasis, addressed below. Accordingly, the Court adopts Parts I and II of the R&R in their entirety and as supplemented here, and denies plaintiffs' motion for class certification.*fn2

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 72(b)(3) provides that, when resolving objections to the report and recommendation of a magistrate judge, the Court "must determine de novo any part of the magistrate judge's disposition that has been properly objected to" and then either "accept, reject, or modify the recommended disposition; receive further evidence; or return the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions." Fed. R. Civ. P. 72(b)(3). Accord 28 U.S.C. § 636 ("[a] judge of the court shall make a de novo determination of those portions of the report . . . to which objection is made," and "may accept, reject, or modify, in whole or in part, the findings or recommendations made by the magistrate judge" or "may also receive further evidence or recommit the matter to the magistrate judge with instructions").

As the Supreme Court instructed some time ago,

It should be clear that . . . the statute calls for a de novo determination, not a de novo hearing. We find nothing in the legislative history of the statute to support the contention that the judge is required to rehear the contested testimony in order to carry out the statutory command to make the required "determination."

United States v. Raddatz, 447 U.S. 667, 674 (1980). Indeed, the phrase "de novo determination" in section 636 "permit[s] whatever reliance a district judge, in the exercise of sound judicial discretion, ch[ooses] to place on a magistrate's proposed findings and recommendation," provided the district court remains the ultimate decision-maker. Raddatz, 447 U.S. at 676.

"The district judge is not required to review, under a de novo or any other standard, [the] factual or legal conclusions of the magistrate judge as to those portions of the Report and Recommendation to which no objections are addressed, so long as such are not clearly erroneous." United States v. Burke, 09 CR 135 (SJ), 2011 WL 2609837, *1, (E.D.N.Y. July 1, 2011) (internal citations omitted).

DISCUSSION

I.

Wal-Mart unequivocally instructs district courts that "[w]hat matters to class certification . . . is not the raising of common 'questions' -- even in droves -- but, rather the capacity of a classwide proceeding to generate common answers apt to drive the resolution of the litigation." 131 S. Ct. at 2551 (internal quotation and citation omitted) (emphasis in original). Therefore, in order for there to be a legitimate "cause to believe that all [of a proposed class's] claims can productively be litigated at once," not only must those claims "depend upon a common contention," id., at 2551, but "[t]hat common contention . . . must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwide resolution-which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that it central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke." Id. (emphasis added).

Magistrate Judge Azrack correctly identified this principle, see R&R at 6, and properly applied it to the sprawling factual record in this case. See R&R at 7 and 9-12. She appropriately concluded that the liability question here was not resolvable "in one stroke" because of the tremendously disparate accounts the putative class members offer of their duties in general and of the component that is or might be managerial for purposes of the management exemption. In the face of such varying accounts by department managers ("DMs") and assistant depart managers ("ADMs") of their work responsibilities, the Court agrees that the only valid way to resolve the liability question in this case will be individualized application of the management exemption's duties test. Many DMs or ADMs may well have a valid claim that defendants' misclassified them as exempt, but the relevant point for class certification purposes is that plaintiffs cannot show how a factfinder would resolve that crucial liability question other than on an employee-by-employee basis.

Mindful that the Court's prior rulings in this matter may be deemed to have forecast a different result here, the Court emphasizes that those decisions were based solely on the pleadings, whereas the denial of Rule 23 certification, occurring after the close of discovery, is based on deficiencies in plaintiffs' proof. Management exemption misclassification suits, the Court recognizes, are not categorically incapable of class treatment. See, e.g., Myers v. Hertz Corp., 624 F.3d 537, 549 (2d Cir. 2010), cert. denied, __U.S.__, 132 S. Ct. 368 (Oct. 3, 2011). ("We do not understand Hertz to contend that exemption [in the overtime context] is an inherently individualized inquiry, such that class treatment will never be appropriate in exemption cases and we note that district courts in this Circuit have certified classes on state law claims that turn on the question of FLSA exemption for a particular group of employees") (emphasis in original) (internal citations omitted). Rather, as Myers explains, class certification in management exemption suits is appropriate where there is "evidence tending to show that the plaintiffs' jobs were similar in ...


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