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On October 10, 2012, a California Court of Appeal held that a wage and hour class action could not be certified where the common company-wide policy at issue did not answer the “central liability” question of the case.
The case, Morgan v. Wet Seal, Inc., was brought by former Wet Seal employees against the clothing store alleging that the company violated California law by requiring employees to 1) purchase Wet Seal clothing and merchandise as a condition of employment; and 2) travel between Wet Seal business locations without reimbursing them for mileage. The plaintiffs moved for class certification, pointing to written company policies as evidence of the common issues of fact and law that predominated over individual issues. Wet Seal opposed the plaintiff’s motion for class certification arguing, among other things, that their written policies actually undermined the plaintiff’s claims. The policies at issue specifically state that employees are not required to wear Wet Seal clothing and that employees may be eligible for reimbursement for mileage.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s holding that the facially legal policies made it impossible to use a class-wide method of proving liability. For example, the Court explained that the plaintiffs’ dress code claims raised issues of 1) whether Wet Seal requires employees to wear the merchandise as a condition of employment; 2) whether the allegedly required attire constitutes a uniform; and 3) whether any given purchase by an employee constituted a “necessary expenditure.” Here, the Court found that the policy explicitly did not require wear and the policy’s description of the dress code as “consistent with the current fashion style that is reflected in the stores” was too broad and vague to constitute a “uniform” under the definition provided by the DLSE. Therefore, any question of liability would inevitably turn on what each Plaintiff was told, who told it to them, how they interpreted that information, whether the interpretation was reasonable and whether the employee then purchased merchandise pursuant to that conversation.
The Court of Appeal emphasized that the allegation of a companywide policy is not sufficient in and of itself to establish that common issues predominated because “there was no class wide method of proof for resolving this key liability question.” The anecdotal evidence provided in Plaintiffs’ declarations attempting to show a practice of requiring employees to purchase Wet Seal clothing as a uniform only reinforced the Court’s conclusion that liability would have to be decided on an individualized basis.