Kentucky Supreme Court rules that Class Action Suits are now available for claims arising under the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act

In modern times, a substantial number of people in America have been involved in class action lawsuits, whether it is because they are a party in the case or they received notification they were entitled to recovery from a class action suit, and everything in between. Just recently, however, the Kentucky Supreme Court weighed in on an important, if complicated issue, regarding class actions. Namely, whether a particular Kentucky statute, KRS 337.385, authorizes class action suits in cases involving the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act. In 2014, the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled that plaintiffs could not bring class action claims under the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act for things such as unpaid wages, wage theft, and unpaid overtime. However, on August 24, 2017, in McCann v. Sullivan University, No. 2015-SC-144 (Ky. Aug. 24, 2017), the Kentucky Supreme Court unequivocally found that Kentucky employees have a right to bring class action claims for wage violations.

Before discussing the case, however, it is useful to briefly describe what a class action suit is. A class action lawsuit is considered “a procedural device that permits one or more plaintiffs to file and prosecute a lawsuit on behalf of a larger group, or “class”. Put simply, the device allows courts to manage lawsuits that would otherwise be unmanageable if each class member (individuals who have suffered the same wrong at the hands of the defendant) were required to be joined in the lawsuit as a named plaintiff.”[1] While the process involves gaining certification from the class ensuring the case is proper for the class,[2] a class action can be very beneficial for a plaintiff, as most defendants will attempt to settle out of court with a plaintiff class to avoid trial.[3] In Kentucky, while the procedure to create a class action is very similar to the Federal Rule,[4] the issue that has arisen is whether claims under the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act, particularly under KRS 337.385(2), are governed by the Kentucky Civil Rules and thus allow for a class action to take place.

The main issue that has plagued Kentucky courts in this regard has been through the finding that the Kentucky Rules of Civil Procedure apply to all cases barring those that are considered “special statutory proceedings.”[5] The courts have found that cases involving dependency, neglect, and abuse actions[6] and election contests[7] as special statutory proceedings and thus not governed by the Rules of Civil Procedure as most cases are. Therefore, the rules regarding class actions do not apply in these cases and make it extremely difficult, if not impossible to certify a class action suit. The recent case thus tackles the question of whether claims arising out of KRS 337.385(2), which allows for recovery of unpaid wages, constitutes a special statutory proceeding.[8] Ultimately, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled that this claim does not fall under a special statutory proceeding and therefore, because the statute does not expressly prohibit class action suits, a class action can brought under this statute.[9]

Ultimately, this case helps to resolve some of the ambiguities surrounding class actions in employment cases and allows plaintiffs access to a procedural mechanism to ensure their rights and claims are properly protected at trial. It also may encourage employers to be more wary of how they treat their employees in order to ensure a class of former employees do not join together to sue them for lost wages under the Wage and Hour Act. If, however, you feel as if you are entitled to a claim under the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act for unpaid wages, unpaid overtime, missed lunch, break, or rest periods, you should seek counsel immediately to discuss the legal remedies available to you.

[1]           Class Action, Cornell Law School, https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/class_action (last accessed Aug. 27, 2017).

[2]           Fed. R. Civ. P. 23.

[3]           See The Phases of a Class Action Lawsuit, LawInfo, http://resources.lawinfo.com/class-action/the-phases-of-a-class-action-lawsuit.html  (last accessed Aug. 27, 2017).

[4]           See KY R. Civ. P. 23.

[5]           McCann v. Sullivan Univ., No. 2015-SC-000144-DG, 3 (Ky. Aug. 24, 2017).

[6]           Id. at 4.

[7]           Brock v. Saylor, 189 S.W.2d 688, 689 (Ky. 1945).

[8]           McCann, supra note 5, at 6.

[9]           Id. at 8-9.

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