That was the bottom line of a New Jersey Supreme Court ruling Thursday, which overturned a trial court, and agreed that a class action was the best way to handle the dispute over whether the company denied workers rest and meal breaks and forced them to work “off the clock.”
Justices voted in the 5 to 1 majority that the matter has “common questions of law and fact predominate over individualized questions.”
The justices also threw their support behind the notion that the state legal system could give a proper consideration to a difficult topic affect thousands of people. “A finding of unmanageability requires more than mere difficulty in trying the case or the existence of novel challenges. Here, the Court is satisfied that the likely manageability obstacles of the present litigation can be overcome. Courts inCalifornia and Pennsylvania have conducted trials of similarly-pled, statewide class actions against Wal-Mart. Our trial courts are equally capable of managing such litigation.”
Chief Justice James R. Zazzali, writing for the court, said the latest decision would also help level the legal playing field.
“By allowing this manageable litigation to proceed, we permit a class of hourly, retail employees to unite and – on an equal footing with their adversary – to seek relief for their “small claims” that arise from defendant’s alleged violation of contractual promises, statutory enactments, and regulatory mandates.”
Wal-Mart said it is studying its next legal move. “We’re disappointed with the decision and we are studying the opinion,” Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley told Reuters. “It’s important to note that the judge’s decision was not on the merits of the complaint, but whether or not it should proceed as class action. An increasing number of courts have ruled that cases like this are not suited for class treatment.”
According to the lawsuit, the employees contend the world’s largest retailer failed to pay the workers for all time worked by forcing them “to work through meal breaks, locking employees in retail stores after they had clocked out and by coercing employees to work off the clock.”
Hourly employees working between three and six hours are entitled to a paid, 15-minute break. Shifts exceeding six hours garner two such breaks along with a thirty-minute, unpaid meal break, according to the company’s guidelines.
Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling is here .