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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Class Status Won’t Help Techs in Wage Fight

CHICAGO (CN) - A federal judge properly barred satellite technicians from fighting their minimum wage and overtime claims as a class, the 7th Circuit ruled.

DirectSat USA provides installation and maintenance services for DirecTV products. The company employs service technicians in the Midwest and Northeast. Technicians are paid for each job they complete, rather than receiving an hourly wage.

In several class and collective actions, seeking to represent 2,341 technicians nationwide, workers alleged violations of under the Fair Labor Standards Act and parallel state laws.

They claimed that DirectSat compelled technicians to do work for which they were not compensated, such as picking up tools prior to their first service call each day, causing them to work more than 40 hours per week without overtime.

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb originally certified three subclasses: technicians who under-recorded hours, technicians who were not compensated for work before or after service calls, and technicians whose wages for nonproductive work were calculated improperly.

After plaintiffs' lawyers failed to propose a specific litigation plan and method for calculating damages, however, Crabb decertified the subclasses and left the case to proceed as one action with three plaintiffs. That trio settled with DirectSat but later took advantage of a provision to appeal their class decertification.

A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit upheld decertification Monday.

If DirectSat had simply forbidden the technicians from lunch breaks, resulting in more than a 40-hour workweek, it would be easy to compute damages, according to the ruling. But DirectSat's piece-rate pay system makes calculation nearly impossible.

"Remember that the technicians are paid on a piece-rate system, which implies - since workers differ in their effort and efficiency - that some, maybe many, of the technicians may not work more than 40 hours a week and may even work fewer hours; others may work more than 40 hours a week," Judge Richard Posner wrote for the panel.

The court shot down a solution proposed by lawyers for the plaintiffs, who called for the testimony of 42 "representative" class members.

"To extrapolate from the experience of the 42 to that of the 2341 would require that all 2341 have done roughly the same amount of work, including the same amount of overtime work, and had been paid the same wage," Posner wrote. "No one thinks there was such uniformity."

Without uniformity, some class members who worked less overtime would enjoy a substantial windfall from the damages award, while members who worked more overtime could remain largely uncompensated, according to the ruling.

Moreover, because most DirectSat workers do not record their hours, they would have to estimate from memory.

While this could suffice to some extent, "what can't support an inference about the work time of thousands of workers is evidence of the experience of a small, unrepresentative sample of them," Posner noted.

Posner criticized plaintiffs' counsel for failing to propose a reasonable calculation method.

"They must think that like most class action suits this one would not be tried - that if we ordered a class or classes certified, DirectSat would settle," he wrote. "That may be a realistic conjecture, but class counsel cannot be permitted to force settlement by refusing to agree to a reasonable method of trial should settlement negotiations fail. Essentially they asked the district judge to embark on a shapeless, freewheeling trial that would combine liability and damages and would be virtually evidence-free so far as damages were concerned."

Posner added that the class members would be more likely to obtain monetary relief by complaining to the Department of Labor, which enforces the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The three named plaintiffs in the appeal were Aaron Espenscheid, Gary Idler and Michael Clay. They were represented by Axley Brynelson LLP.

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