Employment Alert: “Something We Cannot Do”: Mies Confirms Limited Review of Class Certification Orders

In Mies v. Sephora U.S.A., Inc., No. A139410, published February 26, 2015 (Mies), the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District held that a trial court’s broad discretion to rule on class certification encompasses any conclusions drawn by the trial court after weighing conflicting evidence regarding whether individual or common questions predominate.

Mies was an employee of Sephora U.S.A., Inc. (Sephora) who alleged Sephora misclassified her as an exempt employee, failed to pay overtime wages, and failed to compensate her for missed meal periods. The lawsuit was filed as a class action on behalf of 99 California-based “Specialists” who were former and current employees of Sephora. Mies moved for certification of the proposed class. In support of her motion, Mies presented evidence that the duties of a Specialist were set according to a company-wide policy and, therefore, were amenable to class treatment. The parties offered conflicting evidence by way of declarations on the issue of how much time Specialists actually spent performing managerial duties. The declarations offered by Sephora suggested Specialists spent most of their time engaged in managerial tasks. On the other hand, Mies offered declarations indicating they spent less than 50% of their time engaged in managerial tasks.

While the trial court acknowledged Sephora had generally applicable policies suggesting how much time Specialists spent engaged in management activities, it concluded the central issue for trial was how the Specialists spend their time and not whether a given task is exempt. The trial court further found that statistical evidence offered by Mies to prove class-wide liability was undeveloped and insufficient to show how it could manage class issues and would violate Sephora’s right to due process. Based on these considerations, it denied class certification on grounds that individualized questions, rather than common questions, predominate.

Noting the trial court did not use improper criteria or apply erroneous legal assumptions, the Court of Appeal concluded the trial court’s decision could only be reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. After acknowledging that the trial properly allowed the parties to present evidence in support of and in opposition to the plaintiff’s allegations that the classification of Specialists was a standardized issue, the court concluded this “balancing” of evidence was appropriate and relevant to the question of whether common issues or individualized issues predominate. Emphasizing the narrow scope of its review, the Court of Appeal characterized Mies’ position as a request “to reweigh the evidence on appeal, something we cannot do.”

Mies confirms that it is the trial court’s responsibility to weigh disputed evidence in order to determine whether class certification is proper in any particular case. Absent a finding that the trial court based its decision on erroneous assumptions or improper criteria, the role of an appellate court is limited to determining if the trial court’s reasoning is reasonable and based on substantial evidence. Mies emphatically stands for the proposition that it is improper for an appellate court to reconsider the weight of the evidence considered below.

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March 5, 2015