Like Pioneer Electronics (USA), Inc. v. Superior Court, 40 Cal.4th 360 (2007), the Supreme Court's opinion in Gentry v. Superior Court, ___ Cal.4th ___, 2007 WL 2445122 (Aug. 30, 2007) is very favorable to class actions generally, and to wage and hour class actions in particular.
First of all, the Court reaffirmed the importance of class actions in our judicial system in general, and in wage and hour cases in particular. “By preventing ‘a failure of justice in our judicial system,’ the class action not only benefits the individual litigant but serves the public interest in the enforcement of legal rights and statutory sanctions.” Gentry, slip op. at 20 (quoting Bell v. Farmers Insurance Exchange, 115 Cal.App.4th 715, 741 (2004)). For this reason, among others, the Gentry court determined that individual wage and hour hearings before the Labor Commissioner (Berman hearings) “are neither effective nor practical substitutes for class action [proceedings].” Id. at 24.
Additionally, throughout its opinion, the Gentry court favorably cited Bell, a leading Court of Appeal decision affirming class certification in a wage and hour (misclassification) case involving far more complex evidence than many wage and hour class actions. The Gentry court repeatedly expressed its agreement with the Bell decision, its reasoning, and its holdings. See, e.g., Gentry, slip op. at 10, 13, 14, 16, 20, 24 (citing Bell, 115 Cal.App.4th 715). These favorable citations strengthen Bell's value as precedent.
The Gentry court went on to observe that class actions are particularly appropriate in wage and hour cases, where, “absent effective enforcement, the employer’s cost of paying occasional judgments and fines may be significantly outweighed by the cost savings of not [complying with the Labor Code].” Gentry, slip op. at 20. As the Supreme Court has previously observed, when employers and other defendants find compliance with the law more costly than violation, a class action will be “the only effective way to halt and redress such exploitation.” Linder, 23 Cal.4th at 446.
What's also interesting about Gentry is that Chief Justice George turned out to be the swing vote. You may have noticed that in another wage and hour case, Prachasaisoradej v. Ralph's Grocery Co., ___ Cal.4th ___ (Aug. 23, 2007), decided one week before Gentry, Chief Justice George and Justices Baxter, Chin and Corrigan formed the four-justice majority in favor of the employer. In Gentry, Chief Justice George swung the other way, leaving Justices Baxter, Chin and Corrigan as the three-justice minority in favor of the employer. In another recent wage and hour case, Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc., 40 Cal.4th 1094 (2007), the Court unanimously adopted the employees' position. More time would be needed to analyze these decisions and try to discern what may have influenced certain justices' votes.