Class Action Alleging Employer Coerced Restaurant Employees to Share Tips in Violation of Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Decertified as Class Action because “Critical Questions of Fact” in Proposed Class Action “Vary from Plaintiff to Plaintiff and Restaurant to Restaurant” Texas Federal Court Holds
Plaintiff filed a class action against her employer, Brinker International, alleging violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA); specifically, plaintiff alleged that at its Chili’s restaurants, defendant required that servers share their tips with “Quality Assurance employees (QAs). Roussell v. Brinker International, Inc. ___ F.R.D. ___ (S.D. Tex. September 30, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 1]. The district court certified the lawsuit as a class action on behalf of approximately 3500 servers, id. The 3500 servers who opted into the FLSA class action worked at 775 Chili’s restaurants in 45 states, id., at 3. In July 2008, the federal court reaffirmed that “the question of whether QAs were eligible to participate in a mandatory tip pool could be tried collectively,” but it expressed concern that “the question of manager coercion could not be fairly tried using representative testimony based on Plaintiffs’ original trial plan.” Id. The district court requested that plaintiff submit a revised trial plan, id. Plaintiff proposed a three-phase trial plan, id., at 2; defense attorney objected to the proposal and requested that the district court decertify the class action, id., at 3. The federal court granted defendant’s motion and decertified the lawsuit as a class action.
Plaintiff argued that class action treatment was warranted and proposed the following trial plan. The federal court summarized the proposed class action trial plan at page 2 of its opinion. In Phase 1, the court would decide whether QAs are entitled to share in server tips. It they are found to be ineligible, then in Phase 2 the court “a second jury [would] consider whether a test flight of 20 to 50 of the opt-ins deposed in this case were coerced or required to share tips with QAs”; plaintiff argued that Phase 2 would “clarify the legal and evidentiary issues necessary to fully adjudicate such claims.” Roussell, at 2. In Phase 3, the federal court would hold a case management conference to determine how to resolve the claims of the remaining opt-in class members, id. Defense attorneys argued that the revised trial plan did not solve the deficiencies in the original plan, id., at 3. The district court agreed, explaining at pages 3 and 4: “One of the questions central to liability in this case is whether Plaintiffs were coerced by different managers at the 775 stores to share tips with QAs. Plaintiffs’ Revised Trial Plan does not demonstrate that this question can be fairly tried collectively ….” The federal court explained that class action treatment “is only justified in cases in which plaintiffs are similarly situated and where proceeding collectively will not render trial unfair to defendants.” Id., at 4. Class action treatment was inappropriate in this case because “this lawsuit involves critical questions of fact that vary from plaintiff to plaintiff and restaurant to restaurant, and does not allow resolution of the case in a single collective proceeding.” Id., at 5. Accordingly, it granted the defense motion to decertify the class action, id., at 5-6.