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Grape Growers Spoiled Motion to Unravel Class

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) - Kern County table grape growers cannot decertify the class action alleging that they underpay fieldworkers, a federal judge ruled.

The case has its origins in the November 2005 action Doe v. D.M. Camp & Sons. El Rancho Farms was named as a defendant in the first amended complaint, but the court ordered the workers in 2008 to file individual pleadings against each grower. Angelica and Maria Rosales filed a new class action against El Rancho on behalf of nonexempt agricultural, packing and storage shed workers. Among other things, they claimed El Rancho did not pay them all wages earned, did not let them take meal and rest breaks, and did not give them accurate itemized wage statements.

The court declined in January 2012 to certify the class against El Rancho, citing conflicting evidence and a failure to prove that it was a joint employer for the fieldworkers.

After the plaintiffs claimed that new evidence supporting their claims warranted reconsideration, however, the court in July granted their motion and certified a class applying to "[a]ll employees of Garza Contracting, Inc. who worked at El Rancho Farms facilities from 11/9/2001 through 12/31/2008 and who were provided a 12:00 noon meal break on shifts starting before 7:00 a.m."

Though nondispositive motions were due by April 29, 2013, and dispositive motions were due before June 10, 2013, El Rancho sought in November 2013 to modify the scheduling order so that it could file a dispositive motion to decertify the class. It claimed that the Supreme Court's March 2013 decision in Comcast v. Behrend is prompting rapid changes in case law pertaining to nondispositive motions.

U.S. District Judge Jennifer Thurston shot it down Tuesday by pointing out that El Rancho's decertification motion is dispositive because it determines whether or not the case moves forward. The appropriate deadline was June 10.

"In any event, El Rancho does not explain why it waited nearly five months after the dispositive motion deadline to file its request for modification of the scheduling order," Thurston wrote (emphasis in original). "Although defendant argues that the basis for its request for decertification is the Supreme Court's ruling in Comcast, that case was issued with more than two months remaining for the filing of dispositive motions. Defendant failed to demonstrate any efforts to see decertification within the timeframe set by the court. Therefore, the court cannot find defendant acted with the diligence required to satisfy the good cause standard of Rule 16."

Thurston also noted that Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows the court to return to certification issues at any time during litigation.

El Rancho argued for decertification on the grounds that the employment records prevent the plaintiffs from identifying each worker forced to work more than six hours without a meal period. Though payroll registers identify the workers, they do not show when fieldworkers worked or how many hours they worked on a particular day. Given the limited nature of the records in evidence, El Rancho argued, the plaintiffs cannot determine liability or the resulting damages, and their class must be decertified.

Thurston rejected this argument by pointing to the Ninth Circuit's decision in Levya v. Medline Industries Inc., which found that difficulty determining individualized damages cannot defeat class certification.

"Even if El Rancho and Garza lack detailed records, it is undisputed that the records that are available are capable of determining the total amount of damages due the class even if to whom the damages should be paid is less than clear from the records. ... Consequently, plaintiffs have satisfied the burden to 'show that their damages stemmed from the defendant's actions that created the legal liability," Thurston wrote, citing the ruling in Comcast.

Since El Rancho was supposed to keep detailed records about each employee, including when they began working, meal periods taken and total hours worked, the fact that it failed to maintain these records "cannot be used to preclude the class claims here," the judge added.

Thurston gave the parties 14 days after the order's publication to file written objections to it, and an additional 14 days to file replies to the objections. If the parties do not file objections, they may waive their right to appeal the court's decision, according to the ruling.

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