SEATTLE (Legal Newsline) - A Washington state appeals court has mostly upheld a trial court’s findings in a class action lawsuit brought against an armored vehicle company by a group of employees for allegedly denying them meal periods and rest breaks.

The Washington State Court of Appeals, Division 1, filed its decision March 27. Acting Chief Judge Michael J. Trickey authored the ruling.

“We affirm the trial court’s class certification and summary judgment decisions, but reverse its award of double damages on meal period violations. We also reverse the award of prejudgment interest on the rest break damages, but not on the meal period violations,” the appeals court concluded. “We remand for a new calculation of damages.”

In February 2009, three Garda CL Northwest Inc. employees, Lawrence Hill, Adam Wise and Robert Miller, sued Garda, alleging the company did not provide them with legally sufficient rest breaks or meal periods, in violation of the Washington Industrial Welfare Act and the Minimum Wage Act. They moved for class certification, which the trial court granted in July 2010.

The class consists of nearly 500 current and former Garda employees who worked for Garda between Feb. 11, 2006 and Feb. 7, 2015. The court appointed Hill, Wise and Miller as the named representatives of the class.

Garda moved to compel arbitration under the terms of collective bargaining agreements, or CBAs, but the Washington Supreme Court held the arbitration procedures were unconscionable and remanded the case back to the trial court in September 2013.

In June 2015, the case proceeded to a bench trial on the issue of damages and in September to a trial on double damages.

In October, the court found for the plaintiffs, awarding $4,209,596.61 in back pay damages, $1,668,235.62 in double damages and $2,350,255.63 in prejudgment interest.

In December, the trial court awarded the plaintiffs $1,127,734.50 in attorney fees, after applying a 1.5 lodestar multiplier.

Garda appealed.

The armored truck company picks up, transports and delivers currency and other valuables. Each truck has a two-person crew, consisting of a driver and a messenger. The truck routes vary in length and number of stops, with some requiring as long as 10 hours to complete.

Garda operates branches in seven cities in Washington: Seattle, Tacoma, Mount Vernon, Wenatchee, Yakima, Spokane and Pasco.

Garda, in its appeal, argues the trial court abused its discretion by certifying the class without making a “clear record” of its reasons.

“We hold that the trial court’s order was sufficient because it identified the common question that predominated and explained why a class action was superior to individual actions,” Trickey wrote for the appeals court.

Garda argues the trial court also erred by concluding that neither the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994, or FAAAA, nor a section of the Labor Management Relations Act, or LMRA, preempts the plaintiffs’ claims.

“We hold that the FAAAA does not preempt the Plaintiffs’ claims because complying with Washington law would not have had a significant impact on Garda’s operations if Garda had sought a variance,” Trickey explained. “We also hold that section 301 of the LMRA does not preempt the Plaintiffs’ claims because the Plaintiffs’ rights are independent and non-negotiable, and we do not have to interpret the Plaintiffs’ various collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) with Garda in order to resolve the issue.”

The company also maintains that the trial court erred by granting the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion on Garda’s liability for failing to provide meal periods and rest breaks.

It contends the plaintiffs waived their right to meal periods when they acknowledged their CBAs, which purported to contain waivers.

However, the plaintiffs could not waive their meal periods through a CBA, the appeals court pointed out in its ruling.

Garda also argues that questions of material fact remain whether the plaintiffs were able to take rest breaks. 

Not so, the appeals court ruled.

“We hold that Garda’s own testimony and materials established that there was a policy against taking true breaks,” Trickey wrote. “Accordingly, we affirm summary judgment on Garda’s liability.”

Garda also argues the trial court erred by awarding double damages for the missed meal periods because those are not wage violations and its conduct was not willful.

“We hold that failing to provide meal breaks is a wage violation, but agree that Garda’s conduct was not willful,” Trickey wrote. “Therefore, we reverse the award of double damages for the meal period violations.”

In turn, the company contends the lower court should not have awarded prejudgment interest for any damages for which it awarded double damages.

“Because prejudgment interest is not available when the plaintiff receives punitive damages, such as double damages, we reverse the award of prejudgment interest on the rest break damages,” Trickey explained.

Finally, Garda argues the trial court abused its discretion by applying a 1.5 lodestar multiplier to the plaintiffs’ attorney fee award.

A lodestar multiplier refers to a method of computing attorney’s fees whereby a trial court must multiply the number of hours reasonably spent by trial counsel by a reasonable hourly rate.

The appeals court, in this instance, sided with the plaintiffs.

“This multiplier was reasonable given the risks of the case and the fact that the Plaintiffs’ attorneys took the case on a contingency basis,” Trickey wrote for the court. “We affirm.”

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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