$795,000 Class Action Settlement obtained by Goyette & Associates for County Employees
On October 18, 2016 Judge Alan Perkins in the Sacramento County Superior Court complex litigation Department granted final approval of a class action settlement in which Sacramento County will pay out $ 795,000 to a group of Wastewater Treatment Plant employees and Goyette & Associates as their legal counsel. This settlement was achieved after nearly five years of hard-fought litigation.
It all started in 2010 when a group of employees who worked as Wastewater Treatment Plant Operators and in related positions at the Sacramento County regional treatment plant in Elk Grove contacted Goyette & Associates over their concerns that they were not being paid for pre-shift tasks required by the County. Gary Goyette, the lead class action attorney at the firm, assessed the facts against California wage law and concluded that a class action lawsuit was warranted, since the employees were required to dress into their uniforms and protective footwear in assigned locker rooms, and then travel to their assigned work areas at the plant – – all prior to the start of their scheduled work shifts when they began to be paid for their work time.
After Steve Cox, the lead named Plaintiff filed a grievance, and after a claim for damages was filed with the County, the lawsuit was filed and the litigation began. Goyette & Associates first navigated through two different motions by the County which sought to have the lawsuit dismissed, and then proceeded with discovery to prepare for the most important step in the lawsuit: getting the Court to ‘certify’ the class covering the three named Plaintiffs and all similarly situated class members. After an initial motion for this certification, additional discovery to assess electronic gate records (tracking class members’ arrival and departure times at the plant), and an amended motion, the Court granted class certification for the portion of the pre-shift time incurred involving dressing in the assigned locker rooms. Due to the aggressive, expert defense work by the attorneys representing the County, the Court did not certify the class for the pre-shift travel time to the assigned work areas, citing too many differences between the positions covered by the proposed class.
With this class certification for at least part of the pre-shift, unpaid time at issue, the Plaintiffs/class members and the County agreed to go to mediation to see if the lawsuit could be settled. Settlement would mean compromises by both sides to avoid the significant time, cost and uncertainty involved in completing the litigation of the suit through to trial, and possibly even beyond in the Court of Appeal. Under the expert guidance of retired Judge Raul Ramirez as the mediator, a tentative settlement of the class action was reached; the named Plaintiffs and class members would release all their claims in exchange for the County providing a class settlement fund of $ 538,500 to be divided among the 151 class members, based on how long each had worked at the plant within the damage recovery period. Ultimately the Court granted preliminary approval of the settlement, requiring the parties to send a settlement Notice and Claim Forms to all the class members. After over 90% of the class members submitted their Claim Forms to obtain their share of the class settlement fund, the Court granted final approval of the settlement.
The litigation and settlement of this lawsuit over a five year period is a good example of the challenges involved in class actions. Representative employees have to come forward and take the risk of serving as named Plaintiffs. Evidence must be gathered and presented to the Court to show that the named Plaintiffs’ claims are essentially the same as the claims by the members of the proposed class in order to get certification of the class. And both before and after this certification, the Plaintiffs’ attorneys must overcome the legal obstacles established by the experienced attorneys defending the employer to show that the claims do in fact involve violations of existing wage law. At least in this case, the end result was a fair compromise, resulting in monetary recovery for the class members for at least part of the unpaid pre-shift time at issue.