Depositions are one of the most important parts of class discovery. (And for many lawyers, they’re also the most fun.) Since so few class actions go to trial, a deposition of a named plaintiff is when the defense lawyer finally gets to act like a lawyer on TV, confronting the named plaintiff with evidence, poking holes in poorly-constructed stories or arguments. But how much of the named plaintiff deposition is mere theatrics and how much is useful for actually defeating certification? For an excellent example of well-deployed depositions, let’s look at a recent FLSA case: Lugo v. Farmer’s Pride, Inc., 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88139 (E.D. Pa. Aug. 25, 2010).
The substantive allegations in the case involve "doffing and donning" (a nickname for FLSA cases alleging that plaintiffs were not paid for time spent putting on and taking off work clothes. In this case, Farmer’s Pride owned a chicken-processing plant in Pennsylvania. In order to work in various departments of the plant, workers had to wear various items of protective clothing, including smocks, hair and beard nets, safety glasses, hearing protection, and protective sleeves. (Failure to do so could result in disciplinary action.)
Farmer’s Pride moved to decertify the collective action, arguing that "donning and doffing" practices varied by department within its plant, by individual worker’s routines, and by compensation scheme (there were two different compensation schemes, one in place until 2007, one in place afterward). The plaintiffs argued that Farmer’s Pride had overstated the differences.
But, because Farmer’s Pride had relied heavily on deposition testimony from the named plaintiffs and other plant employees, the plaintiffs had a hard time convincing the court that these differences were inconsequential. How did Farmer’s Pride use the depositions?
- It used them to question the plaintiffs’ ability to testify on others’ behalf (typicality). "Defendant also questions the ability of Marco or Caba to speak to the practices and experiences of other hourly production workers, identifying statements in prior deposition testimony by Marco that she did not have knowledge of these facts ( and noting Caba’s admission at the evidentiary hearing that she was "not paying attention to what other people [were] doing." (Internal citations omitted.)
- It used them to question the named plaintiffs’ credibility (adequacy). "Defendant contends that the inconsistencies present in Marco and Caba’s testimony are indicative of a more pervasive problem in the testimony that both named and opt-in plaintiffs have offered over the course of this litigation. In support, defendant points to multiple instances where named or opt-in plaintiffs have provided inconsistent testimony or have admitted to inaccuracies in prior testimony or discovery responses." (Internal citations omitted.)
- And it used them to question plaintiffs’ counsel’s credibility (adequacy of counsel). "Defendant also offers the testimony of Hasaan Hargett, a former plaintiff in this lawsuit and current hourly production worker at defendant’s plant, who detailed at the evidentiary hearing how the facts in the interrogatory response submitted on his behalf were inaccurate, despite the fact that he brought these inaccuracies to the attention of plaintiffs’ counsel prior to submission. According to defendant, these numerous contradictions betray an attempt by plaintiffs to manufacture a level of similarity that is not in fact present, and undermine any notion that their testimony can be considered representative in this case."" (Internal citations omitted.)
The defendant’s strategy worked; the Court found that the inconsistencies among the testimony of various class member meant that the named plaintiffs’ testimony could not stand in for the testimony of other class (or collective action) members. In its words:
[T]hough plaintiffs tout the testimony of these plaintiffs as representative, neither Marco nor Caba provided a reliable basis which would warrant the Court’s acceptance of their own personal facts as applying to others; rather, the Court finds that the record as a whole does not support the conclusion that their particular experiences were shared by all plaintiffs, or reflected a common practice or policy of defendant. Lastly, as defendant has effectively demonstrated, the testimony offered by plaintiffs in general is plagued by inconsistencies that diminish its reliability and show the importance of cross-examination of each plaintiff.
(Internal quotations omitted, emphasis added.) What’s the lesson we can learn from this case? No matter how redundant it may seem, be thorough in asking about each class member’s experience. The more specifically class members testify about their own individual experiences, the more evident it will become that a class may not be appropriate.