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Pursuing money damages does not automatically doom motions for class certification in employment discrimination cases, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled. The appeals court said it was unwilling to adopt a strict rule limiting class certification to cases where only injunctive or declaratory relief is sought; instead, it said that classes can still be certified even where plaintiffs are seeking more than “incidental” monetary relief. In so ruling, the court vacated the dismissal of a discrimination case brought by 1,300 black Metro-North Commuter Railroad workers. The court said its ruling in Robinson v. Metro-North Commuter Railroad Co., 00-9417, ran counter to a decision by the 5th Circuit that was cited by Southern District of New York Judge Jed S. Rakoff in his decision to deny class certification to the railroad workers and dismiss the case. Writing for the 2nd Circuit, Chief Judge John M. Walker Jr. said the court was unwilling to adopt a “bright line rule” barring class certification in cases where money damages are sought in addition to equitable relief such as an injunction or a declaratory judgment. Walker said that prior to the passage of Civil Rights Act of 1991, plaintiffs seeking monetary awards for disparate impact and disparate treatment under Title VII could only recover back and front pay, which was considered equitable relief. The 1991 act, while keeping intact the remedial structure for disparate impact claims, authorized compensatory and punitive damages in disparate treatment suits. Walker noted that class certification under Rule 23(b)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure is intended for cases where “broad class-wide injunctive relief” is needed, but that rule is “silent on to what extent — if at all — monetary relief may also be sought.” “To date,” he said, “our circuit precedent has provided no guidance to lower courts” assessing whether the final relief sought relates predominantly to money damages so as to preclude class treatment. Lacking a clear standard, Walker said, Judge Rakoff followed the 5th Circuit and applied a standard that finds class action status inappropriate where “the inherently individualized nature of the determination of damages predominates over the injunctive relief sought.” The one exception to that standard, Rakoff said, was where the money relief sought is “incidental” to the injunctive relief. But the problem with this approach, Walker said, was that it “forecloses” certification even where the plaintiffs are primarily interested in injunctive relief. “Thus the question we must decide is whether this bright-line bar to (b)(2) class treatment of ALL claims for compensatory damages and other non-incidental damages (e.g., punitive damages) is appropriate,” Chief Judge Walker said. “[W]e believe that it is not and therefore decline to adopt the incidental damages approach set out by the Fifth Circuit … and followed by the district court below.” The standard being set forth by the 2nd Circuit, he said, was that a district court, after holding a class certification hearing and weighing the relative importance of the remedies sought, may grant certification if the “positive weight or value” to the plaintiffs of the injunctive or declaratory relief “is predominate,” even though money damages are sought, and whether “class treatment would be efficient and manageable, thereby achieving an appreciable measure of judicial economy.” While this approach requires an “ad hoc balancing that will vary from case to case,” Walker said district judges should satisfy themselves that plaintiffs would have brought suit for injunctive or declaratory relief “even in the absence of possible monetary recovery,” and that “the injunctive or declaratory relief sought would be both reasonably necessary and appropriate were plaintiffs to succeed on the merits.” “Insignificant or sham requests for injunctive relief should not provide cover for (b)(2) certification of claims that are brought essentially for monetary recovery,” he said. The court went on to find that Judge Rakoff erred in refusing to bifurcate the plaintiffs’ claim of Metro-North’s allegedly discriminatory pattern-or-practice and certify the liability stage of the claim for (b)(2) class treatment. “Here, litigating the pattern-or-practice liability phase for the class as a whole would both reduce the range of issues in dispute and promote judicial economy,” Walker said. The court also agreed with the plaintiffs that Rakoff should have certified the class for plaintiffs’ claim of disparate impact: a facially neutral practice or policy that has the effect of discriminating against a protected class. “Given that the 1991 Act did not alter the general remedial structure of disparate impact claims, we think it plain that (b)(2) certification of disparate impact claims seeking both injunctive and monetary relief remains appropriate,” he said. The court also made clear that its decision “does not relate to the underlying merits of the class claims.” It then remanded the case for certification of the class for the disparate impact claim, and “to consider whether the pattern-or-practice disparate treatment claim is appropriate for (b)(2) certification in light of the standard we set forth today.” Should Judge Rakoff find (b)(2) certification of the pattern-or-practice claim is inappropriate, Chief Judge Walker said, he should bifurcate the claim and “certify the liability stage of that claim for (b)(2) class treatment.” Judges Guido Calabresi and Rosemary Pooler joined in the decision. Alan L. Fuchsberg of the Jacob D. Fuchsberg Law Firm represented the plaintiffs. Myron D. Rumeld of Proskauer Rose represented Metro-North.

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