Appeals Court Reverses Denial of Class Certification in Unpaid Wages Claim


In a wage-and-hour class action, the Illinois Second District Court of Appeal reversed all parts of a Kane County trial court’s ruling denying class certification. Our Chicago unpaid overtime lawyers were interested to read the ruling in Cruz et al v. Unilock Chicago, Inc., 383 Ill.App.3d 752, 892 N.E.2d 78, 322 Ill.Dec. 831 (2008), because it helped establish that trial courts may go beyond the complaint to determine class certification — but reminded them that they should not determine class certification on the merits of the case.

Wilfredo Cruz and the four other lead plaintiffs worked at Unilock Chicago’s Aurora manufacturing plant, which makes cement paving “stones.” They were hourly employees with a half-hour lunch break. In their complaint, the plaintiffs said they were required to be at their stations 10-15 minutes before work started, in uniform, to discuss anything the previous shift needed them to know. This required employees to show up 15-30 minutes early to change and get to their stations. Similarly, they say they were required to wait for the next shift to arrive before leaving, brief that shift, clean up and change. They say they punched in for these times, but Unilock had an automatic system that deducted up to 30 minutes before a shift and 15 minutes afterward, in order to meet the company’s labor budget. Furthermore, they claim that Unilock automatically deducted the 30-minute lunch break from their time records, then regularly required them to cut short or work through lunch. If necessary, these deletions would be backed up by a manual edit by the plant’s manager, who removed time before or shifts that went past the 30- or 15-minute defaults.

Unilock disputes much of this. It concedes that time records were manually edited, but said this was necessary because workers forgot to punch in or out, and that edits were confirmed with shift supervisors. This actually added time, it argued. Nonetheless, the plaintiffs sued, claiming that all of these practices resulted in underpayment of both regular time and overtime. Citing violations of the Illinois Wage Payment and Collection Act and the Minimum Wage Law, they moved to certify a class of more than 300 current and former hourly employees who had worked at Unilock’s Aurora plant since June of 1999. The trial court denied this motion for class certification, saying that plaintiffs had failed to meet any of the four standards for class certification. Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the trial court improperly made findings of fact and rulings that assessed the merit of the claims themselves, rather than of the class certification request.

The Second District agreed. It started its analysis by refereeing the parties’ disagreement about whether courts may consider facts and allegations beyond the complaint in order to determine class certification. After a review of caselaw, the court decided that they can, relying in part on Szabo v. Bridgeport Machines, Inc., 249 F.3d 672 (7th Cir.2001). However, it was careful to say that courts should look into whether the plaintiff’s claim would satisfy the requirements for class certification, not the merits of the claim itself.

The Third next agreed with plaintiffs that the trial court had impermissibly decided several class certification issues on the merits of the case. For example, the trial court relied on depositions and pleadings when it determined that nobody had lost pay because employees who arrived early were permitted to leave early, “accept[ing] as conclusive the defendant’s evidence.” This and other examples are factual determinations that should not be determined at the class certification stage, the appeals court said. Many applied to the numerosity requirement of class certification. Not only were the trial court’s reasons for ruling on numerosity improper, the appeals court said, but evidence submitted by plaintiffs shows that 80 to 90 employees did not receive overtime, and defendants offered nothing in support of their assertion that this evidence was manipulated. For that and other reasons, the appeals court found sufficient evidence that the proposed class met the numerosity requirement.

It then addressed the requirement that class members have common questions to decide, which predominate over other issues in their cases. Again, it found that the trial court was incorrect in determining that these issues didn’t exist. The trial court wrote that there was no commonality or predominance because there was no evidence supporting the plaintiffs’ contentions about widespread unfair policies or time record manipulation. The plaintiffs argued that these conclusions ignored evidence or improperly reached the merits of the claim, and the appeals court agreed. The existence of disputed policies like requirements to work through lunch or editing time records is a common question, the appeals court said, regardless of how strong the evidence for it is at the pretrial stage. It would also be a predominant issue if the trial court determines that there was such a policy — which is a question for the merits of the claim, the court noted.

Finally, the appeals court rejected the trial court’s determination that the class representatives are inadequate because plaintiff Cruz had been a low-level supervisor. The trial court incorrectly relied on caselaw that isn’t sufficiently similar, the appeals court wrote, to determine that a supervisor cannot represent a class including the supervised. When the supervisor’s interests are the same as those of the supervisees and he or she did not participate in the alleged wrongdoing, it is inappropriate to deny his or her adequacy. Jefferson v. Windy City Maintenance, Inc., No. 96-C-7686, 1998 WL 474115 (N.D.Ill. August 4, 1998). Furthermore, if evidence implicating Cruz arises in discovery, the appeals court said, he can be discharged without discharging all the representatives. Thus, it reversed the trial court on all counts and remanded the case to Kane County circuit court with instructions to certify the class.

Based in Chicago and Oak Brook, Ill., Lubin Austermuehle represents individuals and groups of workers who were unfairly denied wages and overtime by an employer. Under state and federal law, workers must be paid for all of their work, not just the work that happens to fit the employer’s budget. When workers go over 40 hours a week, it is the law that they be paid time and a half for the extra hours. Unfortunately, some employers try to save money by manipulating timesheets, making illegal policies or simply ignoring the law. Many employees don’t realize they even have a right to file a law suit. Our Wheaton, Aurora, Geneva, Elgin, St. Charles, Batavia and Kane County wage and hour attorneys help these workers fight back, through individual claims or class action claims.

If you believe you’re a victim of “wage theft” by a current or former employer, you should talk to the experienced Waukegan wage and hour attorneys at Lubin Austermuehle. To learn more at a free consultation, please contact us through the Internet or call toll-free at 630-333-0333.

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