Starbucks Corp. v. Superior Court of Orange County, 194 Cal. App. 4th 820 (Cal. Ct. App. 2011)

Issue: Whether precertification discovery can be conducted requiring an employer to search through old job applications for minor marijuana convictions that had been expunged from the state’s records in accordance with the law before the date of the job application and sending letters to those job applicants matching the purported members of the class action.

Facts: The case had initially begun in 2005 when the original three plaintiffs applied for jobs at Starbucks. They filed it as a class action against Starbucks, on behalf of 135,000 job applicants who had been asked, on the job application, to disclose minor marijuana convictions which had been destroyed/“obliterated” under state law. Governor Brown, in the 1970s, enacted a state law that required the complete destruction of all records of minor marijuana convictions that are more than two years old. Importantly, the law also prohibited employers from seeking any records pertaining to minor marijuana convictions from any source. The plaintiffs sought a $200 statutory penalty against Starbucks illegal job application.

Procedural History: In 2007, the trial court certified the class of all persons who had applied to work at Starbucks since 2004. However, the appellate court held that the actual parties did not have standing to represent the class action because they had no actual marijuana convictions to reveal. The trial court then allowed the plaintiffs file an amended complaint which would include only applicants with marijuana convictions and later allowed them to conduct further discovery to find a “suitable” class representative. Starbucks was ordered to randomly review batches of 25 job applications until they found 25 applicants with minor marijuana convictions that were supposed to be “destroyed” by the law. They would be sent letters as members of the class, disclosing their names to the class’s counsel and becoming the primary parties, unless they decided to opt out.

Holding(s): The law requires destruction of criminal records for minor marijuana convictions and prohibits employers from inquiring into such convictions. Thus, the court held that these records are given the highest degree of privacy and must be treated as if they never existed.

However, the court found that the trial court abused its discretion in granting discovery by ordering Starbucks to search its job applications to identify all applicants with marijuana convictions and forward the names of those employees to a neutral administrator who would then send an opt-out letter to their last known address to provide them with a chance to opt out of the class action and thus maintain their privacy interests.

Reasoning: The court applied a balancing test that weighed the actual or potential abuses of the class action procedure against the potential benefits that might be gained from the legal action. The precertification class discovery (before the class is actually certified) will harm the alleged/potential class member’s privacy rights, violating, to some extent, the same rights that the legal action seeks to assert.

The court concluded by noting in dicta that since there is apparently no way to identify class members without violating their privacy rights, as granted by the California minor marijuana convictions law, there may be no ascertainable class for purposes of this legal action (“let alone a class representative plaintiff”).

By: Matthew Crawford

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