In an unpublished 3-0 decision, the Fourth District Court of Appeal has reversed the dismissal of our firm's meal and rest period class action lawsuit against Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. As we mentioned last month, the primary issue was whether a putative class member has the right to intervene or amend a complaint when the original class representative tentatively releases his claims as a part of a settlement which does not settle the claims of his entire class. A secondary issue involved whether the court could dismiss the class action, over the objection of putative class members, without notice to the class.
The case began as an overtime, meal and rest period class action entitled Edmisten v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. After we filed the complaint, we discovered that there was already a consolidated action (Williams v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc.) seeking overtime pay for Dollar Tree store managers, so we dropped the overtime claims and proceeded with a meal and rest period claim on behalf of all Dollar Tree retail store workers in California, including both hourly and salaried workers. Eventually, the Williams case (with which we were not involved) settled, and the agreement included a release of meal and rest period claims for store managers. Mr. Edmisten decided to participate in that settlement so he could recover his overtime pay.
As a result of the Williams settlement, and Mr. Edmisten's decision to include himself in it, Dollar Tree moved to dismiss the entire Edmisten case. Not surprisingly, employees who didn't get anything from the Williams settlement objected. Ms. Andrade, an assistant manager not included in the Williams settlement, sought to replace Mr. Edmisten with a motion to amend, or, alternative intervene.
In a single hearing, the trial court denied her motion and instead granted Dollar Tree’s motion to dismiss. The trial court explained the reasons for its rulings, emphasizing two points. First, because the class was uncertified, the court concluded Andrade was not a class member and therefore not entitled to intervene. Second, the court reasoned Andrade was not a suitable class representative to take Edmisten’s place because Edmisten “asserted the claims of . . . salaried employees” alleging they were misclassified, whereas Andrade was an hourly employee. On Andrade's behalf, we appealed in the matter entitled Andrade v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc.
The Court of Appeal agreed with us, holding that "[b]ecause the court’s rulings contravened La Sala and Rule 1860, and were based on unsupported factual findings, we must reverse the order." From the moment we were served with the motion to dismiss, we thought Dollar Tree's positions were tenuous, at best, and bordering on frivolous. We were unable to persuade the trial judge, but to our delight, the Court of Appeal agreed with virtually everything we said.
If a named plaintiff can no longer suitably represent the class, the court must "at least afford plaintiffs the opportunity to amend their complaint, to redefine the class, or to add new individual plaintiffs, or both, in order to establish a suitable representative.” ... The court erred by failing to do so. In addition, the court’s dismissal of the action failed to comply with California Rules of Court, Rule 1860. Rule 1860 governs dismissals of class actions and is “illustrative of the protection afforded absent class members.” (citing Shapell Industries, Inc. v. Superior Court (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 1101, 1109, 1110 [“California courts recognize and preserve the rights of absent class members, even before the issue of certification has been determined”].) Rule 1860(a) requires, inter alia, that any request for dismissal be accompanied by an affidavit or a declaration “clearly stat[ing] whether consideration, direct or indirect, is being given for the dismissal and . . . describ[ing] the consideration in detail.” Subdivision (c) provides that “[i]f the court has not ruled on class certification . . . , the action may be dismissed without notice to the class members if the court finds that the dismissal will not prejudice them.” Here, the court’s dismissal of the action did not comply with the foregoing requirements. ... And while the court found (wrongly, as we discuss post) that Andrade would not be harmed by the dismissal, the court did not address the issue of whether other putative class members would be prejudiced.
During oral argument in the trial court, we were frustrated by the fact that Dollar Tree made several critical false assertions of fact, none of which were anywhere in the declarations. Yet, over our objection, the trial court adopted those false assertions in its findings of fact in its ruling. The Court of Appeal looked at those assertions closely and caught them all, noting that the trial court "made unsupported factual findings in reaching its rulings" with "no support in the record" for any of the crucial factual determinations. In a footnote, the Court of Appeal also criticized Dollar Tree for misrepresenting the record, and specifically, for "falsely contend[ing]" that the Williams and Edmisten cases were identical. The court also noted that one of Dollar Tree's misrepresentations was exposed by an admission their own counsel had made in a January 2004 letter to the Williams class counsel.
The motion to dismiss is a tool more class action defense counsel are trying to use as a way of avoiding certification motions. The motions are almost never properly taken. To date, Dollar Tree was the only case in which our opposition to such a motion failed. Though unpublished, Andrade v. Dollar Tree offers a good roadmap to class representatives opposing these motions. If you would like to read the opinion, you can download it here in pdf or Word format. Any current or former retail store workers at any California Dollar Tree store can get more information by contacting us here.