Los Angeles Superior Court Confirms that Proposed Class Action Lawsuit Challenging USC’s Deception of Students in its Online Master of Social Work Program Will Go Forward

On April 2, 2024, the Los Angeles Superior Court issued a decision in Luna v. University of Southern California largely denying the University of Southern California’s (USC) attempts to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims and narrow the case.  The court confirmed that all of the plaintiffs can proceed with their claims that USC misrepresents to students that its online Master of Social Work (MSW) program is exactly the “same” as USC’s long-standing and well-respected on-campus MSW program, when in reality USC outsourced the online program to a for-profit partner and provided different content and services.  The misrepresentation claims now proceed to discovery and class certification.  The court also allowed Plaintiffs to plead additional facts to support their assertion that USC racially targeted prospective students for hard sell techniques in violation of California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act.

The court’s decision is available here, and further information about the case is available on the website for co-counsel The Project on Predatory Student Lending here.

Federal District Court Rejects Trucking Companies’ Challenge to Assembly Bill 5’s Worker Misclassification Test

On March 15, 2024, the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of California issued a final decision in California Trucking Association v. Bonta, rejecting claims by the trucking industry that Assembly Bill 5’s (“AB 5”) “ABC” test for employment status is preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (“FAAAA”), a federal statute that deregulated the trucking industry, or that it violates the Dormant Commerce Clause or Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  Under the “ABC” test, a worker is presumed to be an employee unless the employer can establish all three of the following requirements: (A) the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of the work and in fact; (B) the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business.

The same federal district court had issued a preliminary injunction against the application of AB 5 in the trucking industry before the law took effect, but that decision was overturned by the Ninth Circuit in 2021.  Since then, AB 5 has been in effect, and the district court’s decision makes clear that the State is permitted to use the “ABC” test, in its entirety, to combat misclassification in the trucking industry.  Evidence presented in the case showed that driver compensation in the trucking industry has fallen steadily for decades as misclassification practices became dominant, and many misclassified drivers end up earning less than the minimum wage (causing high turnover in the industry and safety concerns).

Altshuler Berzon LLP represents the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which intervened in the case on the side of the State to defend AB 5.  The district court’s decision can be found here.

Ninth Circuit Reaffirms McGill and Blair, Holds Mandatory Arbitration Agreement that Prohibits “Public Injunctions” Unenforceable in Consumer Class Action

On March 14, 2024, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously affirmed a decision by U.S. District Court Judge James Donato denying Defendant RAC Acceptance East, LLC’s (RAC) motion to compel arbitration.

The underlying case, McBurnie v. Acceptance Now, Case No. 3:21-cv-01429, in which Altshuler Berzon LLP is co-counsel with Dostart Hannink LLP, is a putative class action on behalf of California consumers that challenges predatory fees charged to consumers by RAC in connection with rent-to-own transactions.  Plaintiffs allege that RAC charged California consumers two unlawful fees—1) a $45 “processing fee” at the point of transaction; and 2) a $1.99 “expedited payment fee” whenever a consumer made a rental payment by telephone rather than at a store or online—in violation of California’s Karnette Act and other statutes, which prohibits companies from charging fees for rent-to-own transactions unless the fees are reasonable and cover costs actually incurred by the company. Plaintiffs seek statutory damages and a public injunction that would prohibit this practice.

In denying the motion to compel arbitration, Judge Donato rejected RAC’s argument that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Viking River Cruises, Inc. v. Moriana, 596 U.S. 639 (2022), overruled prior Ninth Circuit precedent in Blair v. Rent-A-Center, Inc., 928 F.3d 819 (9th Cir. 2019), which had held that RAC’s consumer arbitration agreements were unenforceable under California law because they required consumers to waive their ability to seek public injunctive relief – a remedy the California Supreme Court in McGill had held was an unwaivable substantive statutory right.  In its published decision, the Ninth Circuit agreed with Judge Donato, holding that “[f]ar from overruling our holding in Blair, Viking River reaffirms it.”  This ruling is a key victory in clarifying post-Viking River that California consumers cannot be forced into arbitration if they would be required to give up their ability to seek public injunctive relief.

The case will now return to the district court where plaintiffs’ motion for class certification is currently fully briefed and awaiting hearing.

The decision can be found here.

Federal district court denies Aetna’s motion to dismiss class action lawsuit alleging Aetna’s fertility policies discriminate against LGBTQ people

On February 29, 2024, U.S. District Court Judge Haywood Gilliam denied Aetna’s motion to dismiss a case alleging that Aetna’s policies discriminate against LGBTQ people seeking fertility treatment coverage nationwide.

The lawsuit, which Altshuler Berzon LLP, together with the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC) and Katz Banks Kumin LLP, originally filed in April 2023, alleges that Aetna’s discriminatory infertility policy requires LGBTQ people who wish to become pregnant to pay more and wait longer before accessing the fertility benefits covered by their Aetna health plans, compared to those in heterosexual relationships. Aetna makes fertility treatments readily accessible to plan members in heterosexual relationships who seek them but requires LGBTQ plan members who wish to have children with their partners to submit proof that they have undergone six or 12 cycles (depending on age) of arduous and expensive artificial insemination treatments – among the very fertility treatments for which they seek coverage – before they can access the fertility benefits included in their health plans.

In denying Aetna’s motion to dismiss, Judge Gilliam rejected Aetna’s argument that its fertility policy is “facially neutral,” ruling that Plaintiff Mara Berton has plausibly alleged that she and others Aetna members with same-sex partners face “inherently different and more demanding burdens” under Aetna’s fertility coverage policy. Importantly, Judge Gilliam held that a policy that makes access to fertility coverage inherently more burdensome for LGBTQ plan members violates Section 1557 of the Affordable Care Act, which prohibits discrimination in health care based on sex, including sexual orientation and gender identity. This ruling is a major step forward in ensuring that LGBTQ people have equal access to health care benefits, including fertility treatment coverage.

The court’s decision can be found here, and further information is available here.

Lawsuit filed against professional hockey leagues’ anticompetitive practices that exploit teenage players

Altshuler Berzon LLP, along with five other law firms, filed a landmark antitrust case in New York federal court against the National Hockey League, the Canadian Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, the Western Hockey League, the Québec Maritimes Junior Hockey League, and each of those leagues’ member clubs, challenging the systematic exploitation of teenaged athletes pursuing their dream of playing in the NHL. This historic class action is about Defendants’ unlawful agreements to restrain competition for these players, rendering them little more than the property of the major junior teams that draft them and compensating them at artificially suppressed, non-competitive levels. Plaintiffs in the case are the World Association of Icehockey Players Unions North America Division, as well as two former hockey players, who seek to represent a class of similarly situated hockey players.

For more information, please visit https://hockeyantitrustlitigation.com/ and see here.

 

Lawsuit filed challenging Starbucks’ claims of “100% ethical sourcing” despite reported human rights and labor abuses in its supply chain

On January 10, 2024, the National Consumers League, represented by Altshuler Berzon LLP, filed a lawsuit against Starbucks Corporation under the District of Columbia Consumer Protection Procedures Act.  The lawsuit, filed in the District of Columbia Superior Court, alleges that Starbucks has engaged in the unfair and deceptive trade practice of misrepresenting to consumers that it is “committed to 100% ethical coffee sourcing” and to “100% ethically sourced tea” when in reality Starbucks does not ethically source its coffee beans or tea leaves. Instead, the lawsuit alleges, Starbucks sources coffee beans and tea leaves from cooperatives and farms that have committed documented, severe human rights and labor abuses, including the use of child labor and forced labor as well as rampant and egregious sexual harassment and assault.

Starbucks prominently displays that it is “Committed to 100% Ethical Coffee Sourcing” on the front of every retail bag of coffee beans and every box of K-Cup coffee pods it sells throughout the country.  But according to the lawsuit, governmental investigators and journalists have repeatedly uncovered egregious forms of worker exploitation occurring on farms supplying to Starbucks and/or “certified” by Starbucks as “ethical” in countries including Brazil, Guatemala, and Kenya.

A copy of the complaint can be found here.  Altshuler Berzon LLP is counsel for the plaintiff National Consumers League along with James & Hoffman, P.C. and The Rezvani Law Firm LLC.  The National Consumers League press statement can be found here.

News reports can be found here:

NBC News

Forbes

 

Lawsuit filed seeking to end forced labor in Alabama’s prison system

On December 12, 2023, ten individuals currently and formerly incarcerated by the Alabama Department of Corrections, joined by the Union of Southern Service Workers, The Woods Foundation, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, Mid-South Council, filed a federal class action lawsuit against Alabama state officials and public and private employers, challenging a modern-day form of “convict leasing” in the Alabama prison system that disproportionately traps Black incarcerated persons in a forced labor scheme that generates approximately $450 million in annual economic benefits for the state. Plaintiffs allege that incarcerated persons in Alabama are forced to work, often for little or no money, for the benefit of the state and the many public and private employers that participate in the forced labor scheme. The complaint also alleges that Alabama is maintaining a parole system that forces incarcerated persons to remain subjected to the extraordinarily violent and dangerous Alabama prison system—and its forced labor scheme—long after they qualify for release under evidence-based criteria the Parole Board is required to consider, and that Alabama racially discriminates in the granting of parole and setting of parole rehearing dates. Plaintiffs allege violations of the U.S. Constitution, the Alabama Constitution, and other federal laws designed to prevent human trafficking and discrimination.

The defendants include the governor and attorney general of Alabama, the chair of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, local governments such as the City of Montgomery, and private employers such as Bama Budweiser and franchisees of McDonald’s, KFC, and Wendy’s, among others. The suit seeks to ensure that Alabama’s parole system functions constitutionally, an end to the state’s forced-labor practices, damages for the harmed individuals, and disgorgement of economic benefits. Altshuler Berzon LLP is serving as counsel to the plaintiffs, along with Justice Catalyst Law, Faraino, LLC, and Quinn, Connor, Weaver, Davies & Rouco LLP.

 

The complaint can be found here.

 

News reports on the lawsuit can be found here:

NYTimes

Washington Post

NPR (*NPR erroneously states that there are 14 plaintiffs; there are 13.)

Lawsuit filed challenging Florida law that discriminates against trans and nonbinary teachers

On December 13, 2023, Altshuler Berzon LLP, together with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Southern Legal Council, filed a lawsuit in the Northern District of Florida challenging Florida’s so-called “pronoun ban.”  The relevant portion of the challenged statute prohibits teachers and other school personnel from “provid[ing]” any students with titles and pronouns like “Ms.” and “she/her” if those titles and pronouns do not “correspond” to Florida’s definition of sex.  As a result of this law, plaintiffs and other transgender and nonbinary teachers are facing an effective gag-order that prevents them from expressing who they are both inside and outside the classroom.

The lawsuit alleges that the Florida law, Fla. Stat. § 1000.071(3), violates Title VII, the First Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, and Title IX.  Plaintiffs seek damages and injunctive relief against Florida’s Department of Education, its State Board of Education, its Commissioner of Education, its Education Practices Commissioner, and various local school boards.

The complaint can be found here.

Inland Empire United Reaches Settlement with Riverside County in Voting Rights Case

On September 12, 2023, Inland Empire United and individual Riverside County residents represented by Altshuler Berzon LLP reached a settlement agreement with Riverside County to dramatically expand access to political participation in Riverside County for historically underrepresented communities. The settlement in Inland Empire United, et al. v. Riverside County, et al., No. CVRI2202423 (Riverside Superior Court), guarantees county funding of $1.75 per voter in low turnout areas for voter education and outreach efforts in contested elections through 2030 (substantially more than the County has funded in previous elections), as well as Spanish language translation of Board of Supervisors and Registrar of Voters documents and live Spanish interpretation of meetings and hearings through 2030. The settlement will also ensure that the County provides Spanish language ballots and election materials through 2030, and will require that any redistricting of the supervisorial map that occurs in the County through 2030 will be done by an independent redistricting commission, rather than by the Board of Supervisors themselves.

 

The settlement resolves litigation filed by Inland Empire United and the individual petitioners in 2022 challenging the supervisorial map adopted in 2021 as unlawful under California’s FAIR MAPS Act. Petitioners argued that the map diluted the ability of members of the underrepresented Latino community to equally and fully participate in the political process. The settlement provides relief targeted to expand those opportunities.

 

Altshuler Berzon LLP represents Inland Empire United and four individual petitioners in the case. The ACLU Foundation of Southern California and Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP represent two other individual petitioners. For a prior post about this litigation, see here.

 

The final settlement agreement is here.

Altshuler Berzon LLP files class action lawsuit against Caltech and Simplilearn alleging that they misled students about their Caltech Cybersecurity Bootcamp.

On July 20, 2023, Altshuler Berzon LLP, together with the National Student Legal Defense Network (Student Defense), filed a class action lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court alleging that the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Simplilearn Americas, Inc. (Simpilearn) misled students into enrolling in the Caltech Cybsersecurity Bootcamp.  The lawsuit alleges that Caltech and its for-profit-partner Simplilearn represent to prospective students that the Bootcamp is a Caltech program when, in fact, Simplilearn runs the Bootcamp, which is a Caltech program in name only.

The lawsuit alleges violations of California’s Consumer Legal Remedies Act, False Advertising Law, Unfair Competition Law, and the common law prohibition of unjust enrichment.  Plaintiff was a student in the Caltech Cybsersecurity Bootcamp and, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, seeks damages, restitution, and injunctive relief to prevent Caltech and Simplilearn from continuing to deceive students, and to make former and current students whole.

The complaint can be found here, and further information about the case is available here.