In Benton v. Telecom Network Specialists, Inc., the California Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District affirmed that employee wage and hour and meal break cases may be suitable for class certification even where employees experience diverse damages.

The case supports the proposition that courts considering whether common issues predominate for class certification purposes must focus on plaintiffs’ theory of liability and not on whether class members will have to prove their damages individually.

Telecom Network Specialists, Inc. (“TNS”) finds technical workers for large telecommunications companies to install, maintain and repair equipment at cell towers.  In June of 2006, a worker filed a class action complaint against TNS alleging numerous violations of California labor laws, including failure to pay overtime and failure to provide adequate meal and rest breaks.

The trial court denied plaintiffs’ motion for class certification on the grounds that the workers’ claims were too varied for class treatment because (1) the technicians operated under different working conditions, some of which allowed for breaks while others did not, and (2) the staffing companies that provided workers to TNS each had their own differing policies regarding rest and meal breaks.  The trial court analysis assumed that TNS was the proper employer.

Plaintiffs appealed and the court reversed.  In so holding, the court relied on three recent cases holding that the class certification analysis must focus on the commonality of the allegations against the employer as opposed to the difficulty in determining individual damages:

  • In Brinker v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004 (2012), the California Supreme Court held that claims alleging an employer had violated rest break laws were amenable to class certification even though certain employees may have waived the break requirement.  For the purposes of certification, it was sufficient that plaintiffs had alleged a uniform, improper policy.
  • In Bradley v. Superior Court, 211 Cal. App. 4th 1129 (2012), another case involving telecommunications technicians, the court allowed for the certification of claims alleging the employer had a policy preventing adequate rest and meal breaks, though some plaintiffs had not actually missed meal breaks.
  •  In Faulkinbury v. Superior Court, 216 Cal. App. 4th 220 (2013), a case involving meal breaks, the court stated:  “Whether or not the employee was able to take the required break goes to damages, and the fact that individual employees may have different damages does not require denial of the class certification motion.”

Pursuant to these principles, the Benton court held that just because TNS employees worked under a variety of conditions was not sufficient to deny class certification.

Rather than focusing on whether plaintiffs’ theory of liability . . . was susceptible to common proof, the court improperly focused on whether individualized inquiry would be required to determine which technicians had missed their meal and rest periods.”

The court reached the same conclusion with respect to plaintiffs’ overtime claims.  Accordingly, the court reversed the trial court’s order and remanded with instructions to reconsider the class certification motion in light of the ruling.