A judge has certified a class action lawsuit alleging Long Beach City College is violating minimum wage laws for part-time faculty, a ruling that could have significant financial consequences for the local college along with legal and legislative repercussions around the state.

The April decision by Superior Court Judge Stuart Rice means the two original plaintiffs, both art history professors at LBCC, can also sue on behalf of other colleagues who believe they are owed back pay for hours spent on non-classroom activities like grading, preparation and meetings with students.

The lawsuit could involve as many as 1,200 other part-time faculty, said Eileen Goldsmith, the attorney representing the lead plaintiffs, Karen Roberts and Seija Rohkea.

“There is a real need for systemic change in how part-time faculty are compensated,” she said. “It’s a tough way to make a living.”

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Long Beach City College issued a statement Thursday saying it doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Attorneys for LBCC argued in legal documents that the case did not qualify for class action status because the two original plaintiffs are “not typical of the putative class,” meaning their cases warrant individual consideration.

The district noted in particular that Roberts has held leadership positions for years in the union that represents certified hourly instructors, and as part of collective bargaining negotiations “agreed to the very conditions which she seeks to challenge.”

Roberts was the lead negotiator in the current union agreement, which set the hourly rate of pay for part-time instructors between $64.51 and $93.74 per hour, depending on educational levels, seniority and other factors. But the instructors are only compensated for time spent in the classroom, and the instructors receive no pay for working hours outside of class.

In court documents, however, LBCC attorneys said that none of the duties described by the professors are explicitly required to be done outside the classroom.

“For example,” college attorneys said, “part-time faculty are required to prepare a syllabus no later than the end of the second week of class. They could complete their syllabi during in-class instructional time.”

The attorneys for LBCC also argue that the claims of uncompensated time vary widely from three hours per week to 24 hours per week and that those determinations should be made individually, not as a group.

In his ruling April 9, the judge said the college is free to make those arguments during trial; he did not take a position on the merit of the case, but only the question of whether the legal issues follow a pattern that could be applied to other plaintiffs.

His finding in favor of the professors could significantly increase the district’s potential liability.

There are roughly 700 part-time faculty at LBCC at any given time, and the lawsuit can now include any part-time instructor who worked at LBCC as far back as 2019, three years before Roberts and Rohkea filed their lawsuit. Any member of the class could also opt out.

Goldsmith, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said it was too early to say how much the plaintiffs will request in damages, which will depend on a number of factors including the number of hours that were uncompensated and the size of the class.

Class action lawsuits are typically settled out of court and can result in massive sums — though the amount each individual plaintiff receives is typically lower than what they would receive in an individual settlement.

The legal issues at stake in the Long Beach case are already having repercussions around the state. At least two bills have been proposed in the state Legislature to improve the working conditions of part-time faculty, and the Long Beach lawsuit has since spurred others.

Seven professors who teach at eight community colleges in California — including Los Angeles and Cerritos — have filed suit against the colleges where they teach and the California Community College system, according to EdSource.

Part-time faculty make up roughly 70% of the faculty ranks in the state’s 115 community colleges, research shows.

Melissa Evans is the Chief Executive Officer of the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal. Reach her at [email protected], @melissaevansLBP or 562-512-6354.