Fourth Department Affirms Class Certification for Buffalo Jills in Case Against NFL, Bills

In Ferrari v The National Football League, four former members of the Buffalo Jills, the Bills’ cheerleading squad, brought a proposed class action against the NFL, the Bills, and their employer alleging that they weren’t paid for hundreds of hours of work because they were “deliberately misclassified as independent contractors rather than employees.” The Jills’ complaint can be found here.  This suit came on the heels of similar cases brought against the Raiders, Bengals, and 49ers by the teams’ cheerleading squads.  While those cases were either settled (Raiders and Bengals) or dismissed (49ers), the Buffalo Jills case has gone forward.

The latest fight in the case was over class certification, basically, whether the four named plaintiffs in the Jills case can represent the interests and press the wage claims on behalf of all of the current and former members of the Jills as a whole.  Class certification is a key point in a case like this.  If a class is certified, the plaintiffs will have a much stronger position to negotiate a settlement of the case and likely for more money.  If the court doesn’t think the interests are sufficiently similar, however, and all of the plaintiffs are made to bring and prove their own harms and damages, the NFL and Bills would be in a much stronger position.  It’s far less likely that individual Jills will hire their own attorneys and pay to litigate a case for what could end up being a small amount of damages. So, without class certification, many proposed class actions end up being dismissed.  The juice just wouldn’t be worth the squeeze at that point.

In the Jills case, Supreme Court, Erie County held that the Jills’ claims had common questions—whether they were improperly classified as independent contractors instead of employees, and thus were denied wages they should have been paid for appearances in the community—and there were enough affected individuals that the case would be better tried as a class action. Recognizing that this was a pivotal issue in the case, the NFL and Bills appealed.

The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, however, affirmed the class certification order, holding that all five requirements for class certification under CPLR 901(a) had been met.  These are the five requirements that the Court looked at:

a. One or more members of a class may sue or be sued as representative parties on behalf of all if:
1. the class is so numerous that joinder of all members, whether otherwise required or permitted, is impracticable;
2. there are questions of law or fact common to the class which predominate over any questions affecting only individual members;
3. the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class;
4. the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class; and
5. a class action is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy.

Particularly, the Court held that “the common questions include whether the putative class members were employees or independent contractors and whether defendants failed to pay them in accordance with the law, and we conclude that those questions  predominate over individual questions of damages” (Opn, at 3). The Court also noted that the claims of the four named plaintiffs were the same as the potential class members, and that the named plaintiffs can adequately protect the interests of the rest of the class.  Finally, the Court held that the class action was the preferable means of litigating these claims against the NFL and Bills because “this is a case where the cost of prosecuting individual actions would deprive many of the putative class members of their day in court” (Opn, at 4).

This was a big win for the Jills, and the case will now go back to the Erie County trial court, where the parties will go through discovery, depositions, motion practice, and possibly try to reach a settlement.

The Appellate Division, Fourth Department’s order can be found here.

 

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