California Chipotle Workers Denied Class Action Certification

In recent years, popular restaurant chain Chipotle has battled accusations of wage theft and an EEOC complaint about sexual harassment and retaliation. Now, Chipotle caught a break after a federal judge in California denied a class action request on behalf of similarly-situated workers. 

The proposed class was made up of approximately 43,000 workers, mostly Hispanic or Mexican hourly wage earners.

They were asking the court to consider their claims of:

The goal of the class is to show a “company-wide” practice at Chipotle. 

What is a Class Action Certification?

When a lawsuit is filed, the law requires that all parties with an interest in the outcome of the suit be joined as a party in the suit. A one-time wage and hour dispute with one employee is not a complicated matter for courts to handle. When a company’s corporate policy impacts hundreds or even thousands of employees, they are all required to be joined as parties in the lawsuit, it can get complicated.

As you can imagine, that would create quite a mess for the courts. A class action is a procedural device that balances judicial efficiency with the plaintiff’s rights in the lawsuit.

Class action cases designate one or more representative plaintiffs whose cases are heard first by the court. If these cases are successful, the court’s rulings will apply for the benefit of the entire class.

Have you ever gotten an email telling you that you can claim part of a settlement since you had used a product or service? If so, you may have been part of a class. 

Before a class action goes forward, however, the court must “certify” the class. In certifying the class, the court considers whether the cases share “common questions of law or fact,” which would make a class action more efficient.  

Why Are the Workers Suing Chipotle?

In the denied class action, workers claimed Chipotle maintained two unwritten policies that applied at all 400 California Chipotle locations:

  • English-only policy. Workers claim that they were not allowed to speak Spanish while on the clock at Chipotle. At the hearing on the class-action status, however, some of the 12 representative claimants offered inconsistent testimony on this issue. While some employees claimed they were prohibited from speaking Spanish at all, others testified that they were permitted to speak Spanish among themselves while at work. 
  • Proficiency promotion policy. Employees also claim that Chipotle applied unwritten standards when making promotions to management positions. According to the employment lawsuit, Chipotle had a subjective English-proficiency requirement before an employee could be promoted to a management position.

The testimony on the English-proficiency claim indicated that some employees did not have a similar experience. While there was some testimony of some similar experiences, it all came from employees at the same location and under the same supervisor. 

Ultimately, the court found that employees in 4 of the 400 locations were told, at different times while working at Chipotle, that they needed to improve their English in order to be promoted. But the court found that this did not amount to evidence of a uniform employment policy that applied to all potential class members. 

Why Did the Court Deny the Class Action Certification? 

The court denied the class action certification because there were not “common issues of law and fact” among the proposed class. Since some of the employees experienced different policies, they could not all be considered together to determine whether Chipotle had a company-wide policy of discrimination against Mexican or Hispanic employees who spoke Spanish. 

Does that mean the mistreated employees are out of luck? Not at all. Although the court denied the class-action status, the employees can still pursue their claims individually.