A federal judge in Charlotte has taken the wind out of the sails of a class-action lawsuit against a national freight hauler accused of shortchanging more than 2,000 truck drivers across the country.
U.S. District Court Judge Frank D. Whitney determined in an Aug. 3 decertification order that the truckers cannot sue as a class for breach of contract because they lack commonality. The order effectively shrinks the class down to the lead plaintiff, James Foster of Charlotte, and significantly reduces the estimated $100 million in damages that the drivers had sought.
“The face of the ruling removes the truly large dollars from the litigation. But to be sure, plaintiffs’ counsel can appeal,” said an attorney for CEVA Freight, John R. Wester of Robinson Bradshaw & Hinson in Charlotte.
Drivers working as independent contractors for CEVA had accused the Texas-based company of underpaying them. Whitney had granted the plaintiffs class certification in January 2011, but he recently went back and decertified the class after deposition testimony revealed that CEVA’s station managers in different states had negotiated individualized payment arrangements with truck drivers.
Whitney found that there is no longer proof of any glue holding together the alleged reasons for all company’s payment decisions, “much less a ‘common contention’ ‘of such a nature that is capable of classwide resolution’” – a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision last year in Wal-Mart Stores v. Dukes.
Wester, who is defending CEVA with partners David C. Wright III, Adam K. Doerr and Stephen M. Cox, called Whitney’s decision a “careful analysis of the class-action elements, illustrating the significance of the Supreme Court’s opinion in Wal-Mart v. Dukes.”
The attorneys for the drivers, R. James Lore of Cary and Wood R. Foster Jr. of Siegel Brill Greupner Duffy & Foster in Minneapolis, did not return messages seeking comment.
Whitney is the latest federal judge in North Carolina to interpret the Wal-Mart decision, which held that female employees alleging gender discrimination could not sue as a class because they failed to prove that they were harmed by a company-wide policy.
Earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Max O. Cogburn Jr. in Charlotte dismissed a similar class-action employee suit against the Family Dollar chain of discount stores. Wester, Wright and Doer are also defending Family Dollar in that case.
The Family Dollar case has been stayed pending an appeal of the dismissal, while the CEVA suit is scheduled to begin trial on Aug. 20.-