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Bradley v. Vox Media, Inc.

United States District Court, District of Columbia

March 6, 2019

CHERYL C. BRADLEY, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
VOX MEDIA, INC. d/b/a SB NATION, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss and now move to certify conditionally a class of similarly-situated past and current Site Managers and Managing Editors who worked for Defendant Vox Media, Inc., d/b/a SB Nation. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., permits conditional class certification, followed by discovery and a potential further motion to modify or decertify the class. Vox Media opposes conditional certification, arguing that Plaintiffs have failed adequately to show that the proposed class members are similarly situated. Vox Media prematurely requests this Court to conduct a stringent analysis of the potential class. The Court will grant Plaintiffs' motion to certify conditionally a class of “all current or former Site Managers and Managing Editors who performed work in the United States for Vox Media, Inc. in its SB Nation business division within the past three years” and authorize notice to be sent to potential class members. After notice and discovery, Vox Media may move to modify or decertify the class and reintroduce its argument that the class members are not similarly-situated.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The Court discussed the facts in detail in its memorandum opinion denying the motion to dismiss and the facts will only briefly be readdressed here. See Bradley v. Vox Media, Inc., 320 F.Supp.3d 178, 179-81 (D.D.C. 2018). Vox Media is a corporation that maintains and operates approximately 319 sports websites through its business division, SB Nation. First Am. Collective Action Compl. (Am. Compl.) [Dkt. 16] ¶ 11. Each website is maintained by a Site Manager. See, e.g., Id. ¶¶ 14, 23, 33. Vox Media manages its Site Managers through Blogger Agreements and direct supervision by League Managers. Id. ¶¶ 13, 70-73. Each Blogger Agreement outlines when and how often Site Managers must create new content, specifies that Vox Media maintains the authority to edit or remove such content, and includes a non-compete clause. Id. ¶¶ 53-59.

         Plaintiffs Cheryl Bradley, John Wakefield, and Maija Varda were Site Managers for three different Vox Media websites, Mile High Hockey, Through it All Together, and Twinkie Town, respectively. See Id. ¶¶ 14, 23, 33. The relationship between each Plaintiff and Vox Media was governed by a Blogger Agreement. See Id. ¶¶ 13, 22, 32. Plaintiffs allege that, as Site Managers, they were required to watch and report on breaking news, recruitment, and games for their assigned teams. See Id. ¶¶ 16, 18-19, 27-29, 35-38. Although Plaintiffs worked between 30 and 60 hours a week, they were each paid a flat monthly fee, rather than hourly, and were not paid overtime. See Id. ¶¶ 20-21, 30-31, 40-41.

         Plaintiffs allege that the proposed class members are similarly situated because they were all “misclassified as independent contractors, worked pursuant to Vox's . . . common pay practices and, as a result of such practices, were not paid the full and legally mandated minimum wage or overtime premiums for hours worked over forty (40) during the workweek.” Id. ¶ 117. The “common pay practices” identified by Plaintiffs include: flat monthly rates, compensation not dependent on the amount of content created, and the inability of Site Managers to engage in advertisement agreements or otherwise benefit from advertising revenue on their sites. Id. ¶¶ 68-69, 72-75.

         On October 23, 2017, Plaintiffs moved to certify the class conditionally. See Pls.' Mot. for Conditional Cert. [Dkt. 17]; Mem. of Law in Supp. of Pls.' Mot. for Conditional Cert. (Mem.) [Dkt. 17-1]. The motion was held in abeyance pending the Court's ruling on Defendant's motion to dismiss. The Court denied Vox Media's motion to dismiss on September 4, 2018, and briefing was completed on the motion to conditionally certify the class. See Def. Vox Media, Inc.'s Opp'n to Pls.' Mot. for Conditional Cert. (Opp'n) [Dkt. 33]; Pls.' Reply Mem. of Law in Further Supp. of Mot. for Conditional Cert. [Dkt. 35]. The motion is ripe for review.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         The Fair Labor Standards Act provides employees with a private right of action to sue their employers for unpaid minimum wage and unpaid overtime compensation. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). “[B]ecause individual wage and hour claims might be too small in dollar terms to support a litigation effort, ” Chase v. AIMCO Props., L.P., 374 F.Supp.2d 196, 198 (D.D.C. 2005), the FLSA permits employees to sue on “behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). A collective action under the FLSA does not require certification under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 and Plaintiffs are not required to show numerosity, commonality, and typicality. See Blount v. U.S. Sec. Assocs., 945 F.Supp.2d 88, 92 (D.D.C. 2013). Judges on this Bench have uniformly applied a two-stage certification process. “At the first stage, the plaintiffs must make a ‘modest factual showing sufficient to demonstrate that they and potential plaintiffs together were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.'” Id. (quoting Hunter v. Sprint Corp., 346 F.Supp.2d 113, 117 (D.D.C. 2004)). Once that showing is made, the proposed class is certified conditionally in order to “facilitate notice of the collective action to potential plaintiffs to give them the opportunity to opt in to the litigation.” Id. Stage two follows the opt-in process and discovery and is when “the defendant may move to decertify the class based on the evidentiary record developed during the discovery period.” Id. at 93. At that point, with a factual record and a motion from a defendant, the Court makes “a factual determination [as to] whether the plaintiffs who have opted in are in fact ‘similarly situated' to the named plaintiffs.” Id. If the class survives this second stage, the case proceeds to trial as a class. If the class does not survive the second stage, then “the opt-in plaintiffs are dismissed without prejudice, and the named plaintiffs proceed to trial.” Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Plaintiffs move to certify conditionally a class of “all current or former Site Managers and Managing Editors who performed work in the United States for Vox Media, Inc. in its SB Nation business division within the past three years” (hereinafter “the proposed Class”), Mem. at 1, and to require Vox Media to produce “the names, last known addresses, telephone numbers, and email addresses of all potential members of the [proposed] Class” to permit Plaintiffs to send notice to all potential class members. Id. Vox Media argues that Plaintiffs fail to show that potential class members are substantially similar to the Plaintiffs and provides declarations from a handful of Site Managers that it believes are significantly different from the Plaintiffs themselves. Additionally, Vox Media disputes the propriety of notifying potential class members via telephone and the use of reminder notices.

         A. Conditional Certification

         Plaintiffs allege that Vox Media uses a common policy of misclassifying Site Managers and Managing Editors as independent contractors to avoid paying minimum wage and overtime wages. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 68-75, 108-10, 117-18. Plaintiffs acknowledge that there may be circumstances unique to each of the class members, but stress that stage one involves only conditional certification and that their allegation that a common policy affected every putative class member is sufficient. Mem. at 12-13 (citing Hallissey v. Am. Online, Inc., No. 99-3785, 2008 WL 465112, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 19, 2008)). Plaintiffs argue further that Vox Media's use of “strikingly similar” Blogger Agreements which classify Site Managers as independent contractors, demonstrates the existence of a common policy, thereby meeting the “modest factual showing” necessary to warrant conditional certification. Id. at 14.

         In its opposition, Vox Media focuses on demonstrating that potential members of the proposed class are not similarly situated, as shown by declarations of six Site Managers that demonstrate the variety of circumstances. See Decl. of James Bankoff [Dkt. 33-1]; Decl. of Christopher Gates [Dkt. 33-2]; Decl. of Rebecca Lawson Gennaro [Dkt. 33-3]; Decl. of Taylor Baird [Dkt. 33-4]; Decl. of Timothy Riordan [Dkt. 33-5]; Decl. of Stephen Cohn [Dkt. 33-6]. Vox Media asks the Court to use the “economic ...


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