Rodriguez v. Kaiaffa, LLC

Decision Date06 October 2020
Docket NumberSC 20274
CourtConnecticut Supreme Court
PartiesJACQUELINE RODRIGUEZ v. KAIAFFA, LLC, ET AL.

Robinson, C. J., and Palmer, McDonald, D'Auria, Mullins, Kahn and Ecker, Js.*

Syllabus

Pursuant to statute (§ 31-60 [b]), the Commissioner of Labor shall adopt regulations that carry out the purposes of the minimum wage laws, and such regulations shall entitle employers, as part of the minimum fair wage, to a tip credit by including gratuities in an amount equal to a certain percentage of the minimum fair wage per hour for persons, other than bartenders, who are employed in the hotel and restaurant industry and who regularly and customarily receive gratuities.

Pursuant further to a Department of Labor regulation (§ 31-62-E4), "[i]f an employee performs both service and non-service duties, and the time spent on each is definitely segregated and so recorded, the allowance for gratuities as permitted as part of the minimum fair wage may be applied to the hours worked in the service category," but, "[i]f an employee performs both service and non-service duties and the time spent on each cannot be definitely segregated and so recorded, or is not definitely segregated and so recorded, no allowances for gratuities may be applied as part of the minimum fair wage."

The defendants, K Co. and its single member, C, appealed from the trial court's order certifying for class action status an action brought by the plaintiff, who was employed at one of the six restaurants in Connecticut operated by the defendants under the name Chip's Family Restaurants. In addition to waiting tables, servers at the restaurants were required to perform "side work," such as cleaning tables and appliances, restocking, slicing lemons, and preparing food toppings. The plaintiff alleged in her complaint that the defendants violated Connecticut wage laws when they failed to pay their servers, during a certain time period, the minimum hourly wage mandated by § 31-60 (b) by unlawfully deducting a tip credit from the servers' wages for the time they spent on side work, which the plaintiff claimed was nonservice in nature under § 31-62-E4 of the regulations. The trial court granted the plaintiff's motion for class certification and certified a class consisting of all individuals employed as servers "at any Connecticut Chip's Family Restaurant" during a certain time period. In so doing, the court declined to define the terms "service" and "nonservice," as used in § 31-62-E4 of the regulations, and, instead, found that, regardless of whether the side work constituted a service or nonservice duty, the class members' claims were all the same, namely, that each server performed side work during every shift and was entitled to the full minimum wage because the defendants failed to segregate and record the time servers spent performing services and nonservice duties. The court specifically noted that the proposed class included several hundred servers employed at six different restaurants and that they shared the same claim, irrespective of variations in the type, amount, or manner of side work tasks performed by individual servers at each restaurant. Accordingly, the court concluded that each requirement for class certification—numerosity, commonality, typicality, and adequacy of representation—set forth in the applicable rule of practice (§ 9-7) had been satisfied and that the predominance and superiority considerations under the applicable rule of practice (§ 9-8 (3)) also had been met. Thereafter, the defendants appealed from the court's order granting class certification pursuant to the statute (§ 52-265a) permitting the Chief Justice to certify an interlocutory appeal involving a matter of substantial public interest. Held:

1. The defendants could not prevail on their claim that the trial court improperly declined to inquire into the merits of the plaintiff's legal theory and to decide that the tasks assigned as side work constituted service duties under § 31-62-E4 of the regulations in determining whether the commonality and predominance requirements for class certification had been met; the court should inquire into the merits of a case only to the extent necessary to ensure that a plaintiff has met the requirements of the class action rules, and, in the present case, the defendants failed to demonstrate how the trial court's determining the meanings of "service" and "nonservice" would affect whether common issues predominate.

2. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the four class certification requirements of Practice Book § 9-7 had been satisfied: the defendants did not challenge the trial court's finding that the numerosity requirement was satisfied by the proposed class of several hundred servers employed at the six restaurants; moreover, the commonality requirement was satisfied, as the defendants used a single, common side work policy that was applicable at all six restaurants, the evidence demonstrated an overarching policy of the servers' performing generally consistent side work tasks, and any factual variations in how servers at the different locations performed side work were likely to be insubstantial; furthermore, the adequacy of representation and typicality requirements were satisfied because the plaintiff asserted a cognizable claim against the defendants, namely, violations of Connecticut wage laws and regulations, and her standing in this case allowed her to typically and adequately represent class members with claims against the defendants.

3. The trial court did not abuse its discretion in concluding that the predominance and superiority requirements of Practice Book § 9-8 had been satisfied: common issues of law or fact predominated over questions affecting only individual members, as much of the proof necessary to establish the contested element of the plaintiff's claim, namely, whether the servers performed both service and nonservice duties, was apparent from the defendants' own admissions, and the plaintiff was not required to prove the precise nature of the servers' side work duties because, under the minimum wage laws, it is the employer's burden to establish that the servers were service employees who were subject to the tip credit; moreover, the trial court correctly determined that the plaintiffs could use representative testimony, rather than individual testimony, to prove that the tasks assigned as side work were nonservice in nature, as the evidence indicated that all servers were trained in a similar manner, the tasks assigned to servers were relatively uniform, and a common side work policy was used at all six restaurants, despite minor variations in the manner and frequency that individual servers may have performed certain tasks; furthermore, in light of this court's conclusion that the use of representative testimony was proper, the trial court correctly determined that a class action was superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy, especially as it would promote judicial efficiency and provide many individuals, who likely would not bring such a claim, an opportunity for relief.

4. There was no merit to the defendants' claim that the trial court improperly defined the class by referring to "Connecticut Chip's Family Restaurant," which is not a legal entity, in its certification order; the court used a term that clearly encompassed all six restaurants operated by the defendants, allowing for individual servers to easily recognize whether they qualify as class members based on their employment at a Chip's restaurant and for their eligibility to be readily ascertained and definitively verified.

Procedural History

Action to recover damages for the defendants' alleged violations of Connecticut wage laws and regulations, and for other relief, brought to the Superior Court in the judicial district of New Haven, where the case was transferred to the judicial district of Hartford, Complex Litigation Docket; thereafter, the court, Schuman, J., granted the plaintiff's motion for class certification, and the defendants, upon certification by the Chief Justice pursuant to General Statutes § 52-265a that a matter of substantial public interest was at issue, appealed to this court. Affirmed.

Jeffrey J. White, with whom were Wystan M. Ackerman, Stephen W. Aronson, and, on the brief, Denis J.O'Malley, for the appellants (defendants).

Richard E. Hayber, with whom was Thomas J. Durkin, for the appellee (plaintiff).

David R. Golder and Allison P. Dearington filed a brief for the Restaurant Law Center as amicus curiae.

Keren Salim and James Bhandary-Alexander filed a brief for the Connecticut Employment Lawyers Association as amicus curiae.

Opinion

ROBINSON, C. J. This public interest appeal requires us to consider the extent to which a trial court should consider the merits of a party's legal theory before certifying a class action pursuant to Practice Book §§ 9-7 and 9-8. The defendants, Kaiaffa, LLC, and George Chatzopoulos, appeal from the order of the trial court certifying a class action of servers employed by Chip's Family Restaurant (Chip's).1 The plaintiff, Jacqueline Rodriguez, alleged in her class action complaint that the defendants had violated Connecticut wage laws; see General Statutes § 31-58 et seq.; and regulations by improperly deducting a tip credit from her earnings and paying her and other class members below the minimum wage for the performance of "nonservice" tasks in connection with their duties as servers.2 The defendants claim that, in certifying the class, the trial court improperly assumed the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff's claim when it failed to determine if she relied on an incorrect interpretation of one of the regulations implementing Connecticut wage laws. See Regs., Conn. State Agencies § 31-62-E4.3 The defendants also contend, inter alia, that the trial court abused its discretion in concluding that the...

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