S.D.N.Y.: Following Conditional Certification, Court Permits Notice Via Social Media

Mark v. Gawker Media LLC

As is often the case, in its order granting plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification and to permit notice, the court in this case ordered the parties to confer regarding the terms of the proposed notice, the length of the notice period, and the means of transmitting such notice. Of note here, the plaintiff requested several alternative means of notice, including posting at defendant’s physical office, requiring that defendant post the notice on its blogs and/or websites, and that plaintiff be permitted to post copies of the court-approved notice on dedicated social media sites. Although the court denied some of plaintiff’s requests in this regard, it granted plaintiff’s request that he be permitted to transmit the notice via social media.

Discussing this issue the court explained:

Plaintiff’s final request is to use social media to target potential plaintiffs. They want to use dedicated social media pages entitled “Gawker Intern Lawsuit” or “Gawker Class Action”—names that match the URLs of the websites that the parties agree will be used to provide notice—on sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Defendants argue, first, that there is “no evidence here that any former Gawker intern uses Twitter or could reasonably be expected to receive notice in that way,” and second, that creating social media pages would “deprive[ ] the Court of control over the message delivered to potential collective members.” As to the former argument, the Court finds it unrealistic that Defendant’s former interns do not maintain social media accounts; the vast majority likely have at least one such account, if not more. As to the latter, the Court exercises control only over the materials prepared and sent by the parties, not over the discussion that takes place by and among potential class members after notice is sent. The Court’s inability to control “discussion of the lawsuit” on social media sites, as Defendants put it, is no different from the Court’s inability to control two potential plaintiffs’ discussions of the lawsuit in person, by telephone, or even on a social media page that could be created by such a person without the parties’ intervention. The Court’s role is to ensure the fairness and accuracy of the parties’ communications with potential plaintiffs—not to be the arbiter of all discussions not involving the parties that may take place thereafter.

In a footnote, the court explained that its ruling was supported by the widespread use of social media by 18-30 year olds, the same group who comprised the putative class:

The Pew Research Center notes that as of January 2014, 89% of 18—to 29–year–olds use social networking sites. See “Social Networking Fact Sheet,” The Pew Internet Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/ (last accessed Oct. 31, 2014).

Thus, the court concluded:

To the extent Plaintiffs propose to use social media to provide potential plaintiffs with notice that mirrors the notice otherwise approved by the Court, that request is granted. Before disseminating any notice by social media, the Plaintiffs shall confer with Defendants over the form and substance of any proposed social media postings, and submit to the court a joint letter describing the postings and any disputes about their contents that the parties cannot resolve themselves. The disputes already settled in this order—for example, the prohibition on the use of Defendant’s logos-shall govern any social media notice as well…  Plaintiffs may send notice via social media sites, subject to the Court’s further approval of the form and content of such notice.

Click Mark v. Gawker Media LLC to read the entire Order.

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E.D.Pa.: Late Payment of Wages Constitutes Non-Payment of Wages, Subjecting Employer to Liquidated Damages Under FLSA

Gordon v. Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim. The issue before the court was whether a defendant/employer who makes payment to its employee of his or her wages, but does so 1 week after such wages are due, is nonetheless liable for liquidated damages under the FLSA. Answering the question in the affirmative, the court held that late payment (in this case 1 week after the regular payday) constituted non-payment under the FLSA, and therefore liquidated damages were due under the FLSA notwithstanding the fact the employer had ultimately made payment of the wages due.

As a starting point for deciding the issue, the court examined the purpose of liquidated damages, as stated previously stated by the Third Circuit:

[t]hese liquidated damages … compensate employees for the losses they may have suffered by reason of not receiving their proper wages at the time they were due.” Id. at 1299 (emphasis added). Our Court of Appeals clearly contemplated that injury from lost wages under the FLSA is to be measured from the payday on which wages are ordinarily to be paid.

Explaining that the Third Circuit had not spoken on the issue subsequent to the 1991 case, Selker, that it quoted, the court turned to the case law from other circuits for guidance on the issue:

[t]he Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cited the Selker decision favorably in Biggs v. Wilson, 1 F.3d 1537, 1542 (9th Cir.1993). There the court undertook a detailed analysis of whether late payment constitutes nonpayment under the FLSA. The issue in that case was whether the State of California, in paying its highway maintenance workers 14–15 days late as a result of a budget impasse, violated the FLSA. Drawing on the language of the statute, mandatory and persuasive authority from other federal courts including Selker, the opinion of the Department of Labor, and policy considerations, the court concluded that payment at a point after payday is tantamount to nonpayment under the FLSA.   Id . at 1539–44. Invited by the state to craft a balancing test to distinguish late payment from nonpayment, the court found that any such line drawing would be unworkable under the statutory scheme and detrimental to employees seeking the statute’s protection. Id. at 1540.

Squaring Third Circuit jurisprudence with that of the Ninth Circuit, the Court held “that late payment of wages is the equivalent of nonpayment for purposes of the FLSA.

The court also rejected the argument that this was an overly harsh result, especially because of the FLSA’s remedial purpose:

This may appear to be a harsh result, causing an otherwise diligent employer who misses payday by a day or two to be subject to liability under the statute. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that the FLSA is to be liberally construed to achieve its purpose. Mitchell v. Lublin, McGaughy & Assocs., 358 U.S. 207, 211, 79 S.Ct. 260, 3 L.Ed.2d 243 (1959). The law is there to protect those who are receiving a minimum wage and are living from paycheck to paycheck. A delay of a few days or a week in the remittance of wages may only be a minor inconvenience to some, but for those at the lower end of the economic scale, even a brief delay can have serious and immediate adverse consequences.

Thus, the court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.  

Click Gordon v. Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

Editor’s Note:  Within weeks of this decision, the Court of Federal Claims was called upon to rule upon the same issue and agreed with the Gordon court’s analysis and holding.  In the context of government workers, whose paychecks were delayed approximately 2 weeks, by the government’s shutdown in the fall of 2013, the court held that late payment constitutes non-payment, such that the FLSA’s liquidated damages provisions were triggered.  Click Martin v. United States to read the Opinion and Order in that case.

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DOL Announces It Will Not Enforce New Regulations Regarding FLSA Rights of Home Health Workers for First 6 Months of 2015

The Department of Labor’s (Department) October 1, 2013, Final Rule amending regulations regarding domestic service employment, which extends the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime protections to most home care workers will become effective on January 1, 2015. However, by an announcement dated October 6, 2014, the DOL advised that it will not be enforcing the regulations for the first 6 months that the regulations are in effect.

Critically important, while the DOL will not be bringing enforcement actions—as it is able to do under the FLSA—this announcement does not effect home health workers’ rights to bring private enforcement actions themselves through private lawsuits.

In a thoughtful commentary regarding the importance of the new regulation, issued on his blog on the day of the DOL’s recent announcement, former Deputy Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, Seth Harris, has this to say:

Home health workers are the people who care for people with disabilities and seniors so that they may live in the community rather than in nursing homes or other institutions.  Their work is essential.  They allow each of us to rest assured that we will be able to live in dignity in our homes if age, happenstance, or genetics result in physical, mental, or developmental disabilities.  Yet, these workers have not been protected by the federal minimum wage or the requirement that workers who work more than 40 hours in a week receive overtime pay for those additional hours.  These requirements are found in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home health workers have been excluded from the FLSA.  On January 1, that exclusion ends.  Home health workers will be entitled to at least the federal minimum wage and time-and-one-half for overtime worked beginning New Year’s Day.

While Harris went further to explain that he thought that the new regulations would likely lack teeth, in light of this delayed enforcement policy—given the relatively small sums of money individuals stand to lose from unscrupulous employers who ignore the new regulation—that may not turn out to be accurate. While many smaller home health agencies will likely feel free to skirt the new regulation, at least initially, most of the larger national home health agencies have already put the wheels in motion to make the necessary changes to comply with the new law about to go into effect. However, if you are a home health worker, who is still being denied your rightful minimum wages and/or overtime pay, after the new law goes into effect on January 1, 2015, you should contact a wage and hour lawyer to investigate whether you have a claim to recover your rightful wages.

Click DOL Announcement to read the official announcement, and Harris Blog to read Seth Harris’ commentary on this issue.

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Filed under Department of Labor, Exemptions, Minimum Wage, Wage and Hour News

9th Cir.: Finding of Willfulness Affirmed Where Defendant Involved in Prior Related Litigation; Offsets Applied on a Workweek-By-Workweek Basis

Haro v. City of Los Angeles

This case was on appeal by the Defendant, City of Los Angeles, following an order granting the plaintiffs summary judgment on their claims. Specifically, city fire department dispatchers and aeromedical technicians brought action challenging city employer’s classification of them as employees “engaged in fire protection,” for purpose of standard overtime exemption under Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). As discussed here, in addition to finding—as a matter of law—that the defendant has misclassified the employees at issue as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions, the court below also held that such misclassification was willful and that any offsets claimed were limited in application to the weeks in which the monies paid for the alleged offsets were paid to plaintiffs.

Addressing the facts relevant to the willfulness issue, the Ninth Circuit explained:

In 1985, the Supreme Court held that FLSA overtime requirements apply to governmental functions. Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth., 469 U.S. 528, 531, 105 S.Ct. 1005, 83 L.Ed.2d 1016 (1985). That same year, the City sent the Department of Labor a letter with twenty questions regarding application of the FLSA to City employees, including Fire Department paramedics. The City did not inquire as to dispatchers or aeromedical technicians.

In 1997, in Acrich v. City of Los Angeles, single-function paramedics (those paramedics not also trained as firefighters) sued the City, asserting they were improperly classified under § 207(k). In 1999, the City again contacted the Department of Labor regarding whether single-function paramedics were “fire protection” employees under the FLSA. The City settled Acrich in 2000, after which it began paying single-function paramedics the standard overtime rate of time and a half for hours worked over forty in a workweek.

In 1999, in Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, dual-trained paramedics (those trained as both paramedics and firefighters) and Quality Improvement Analysts sued the City, asserting that they too had been improperly classified under § 207(k). After a bench trial, the district court held that the City had improperly classified these employees. The district court also ruled that the City had not acted reasonably or in good faith, and awarded liquidated damages equal to the plaintiffs’ back pay. The City appealed as to the paramedics, but not as to the Quality Improvement Analysts. This court affirmed the district court’s ruling in August 2005. See Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, 420 F.3d 981 (9th Cir.2005) (Pregerson, J.), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1176, 126 S.Ct. 1344, 164 L.Ed.2d 58 (2006).

Citing these facts, and the fact that the defendant itself never considered the plaintiffs to be exempt until they attempted to raise an exemption defense in the course of the litigation of the case, the Ninth Circuit held that the court below had properly deemed the defendant’s FLSA violations to be willful:

The City’s conduct in this case was willful, thus entitling Plaintiffs to a three-year statute of limitations. The City has extensively litigated the meaning of § 207(k). In 2002, the district court in Cleveland ruled that the City was in violation of § 207(k) as to dual-trained paramedics and those who held desk job positions as Quality Improvement Analysts. The City did not appeal as to the Quality Improvement Analysts, and lost on appeal as to the paramedics. Yet at no time thereafter did the City take any steps to obtain an opinion letter from the Department of Labor regarding Plaintiffs’ positions, although it had done so as to other employees. Ignoring these red flags and failing to make an effort to examine the positions at issue in this case show willfulness.

Also, the City itself appears not to have viewed dispatchers as “engaged in fire protection” until this case was underway. When this lawsuit began, the City had assigned dispatchers to the Bureau of Support Services, which included the Supply and Maintenance Division, Fire Facilities Division, and Operations Control Division. The Fire Department’s Manual of Operations states that the primary objectives of the Bureau of Support Services include “the dispatching of resources and equipment to the scene of emergencies; operation of the Department’s … Dispatch Center … and the development, maintenance and repair of Fire Department Facilities.” Three months before the parties entered into their mutual stipulation of facts, however, the City reassigned the dispatchers to the Bureau of Emergency Services, which, according to the Manual of Operations, includes “[a]ll personnel normally engaged in fire fighting …” The timing of this reassignment provides further evidence that the City’s behavior was willful.

Thus, we affirm the district court’s finding that the City’s conduct was willful and justifies a third year of withheld overtime pay.

The Ninth Circuit then went on to discuss the proper methodology for calculating damages, where a defendant claims an offset for monies already paid to the employees and claims same as partial payment for overtime wages, an issue of first impression in the Ninth Circuit and one in which the Circuits are in conflict. Framing the issue, the Court explained:

The district court issued an order selecting Plaintiffs’ calculation method. The district court first noted that circuits are split over whether a workweek-by-workweek method must be used, and the Ninth Circuit has not yet addressed the issue. While the Sixth and Seventh Circuits have ruled that a week-by-week offset must be used, the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits have held that offsets may be applied cumulatively over longer periods of time. The district court was persuaded by the reasoning of the Sixth and Seventh Circuits.

Holding that the FLSA mandates a workweek-by-workweek application of any applicable offsets, the Court explained:

There is still, however, a split of authority over how to calculate offsets, and the Ninth Circuit has not yet decided the matter. The reasoning from circuits supporting a week-by-week offset is persuasive. In Howard v. City of Springfield, 274 F.3d 1141 (7th Cir.2001), the Seventh Circuit disagreed with the defendant that offsetting on a workweek basis would create an undeserved windfall. Id. at 1148. The court noted that

if the City were able to use premium payments [in a cumulative fashion], the City would be the recipient of the windfall, and in fact would be placed in a substantially better position than if it had complied with the overtime requirements of the FLSA all along…. It is contrary to the language and the purpose of the statute. Id.

Likewise, in Herman v. Fabri–Centers of America, Inc., 308 F.3d 580 (6th Cir.2002), the Sixth Circuit extensively reviewed the FLSA’s plain language, caselaw, and § 207(h)‘s legislative history to find in favor of a workweek restriction. Id. at 586–90.

Both the Seventh Circuit in Howard and the Sixth Circuit in Herman note that the Department of Labor’s regulations implementing the FLSA support prompt payment of overtime, suggesting that overtime payments should be credited within the same workweek in which they were paid:

The general rule is that overtime compensation earned in a particular workweek must be paid on the regular pay day for the period in which such workweek ends. When the correct amount of overtime compensation cannot be determined until some time after the regular pay period, however, the requirements of the Act will be satisfied if the employer pays the excess overtime compensation as soon after the regular pay period as is practicable. Payment may not be delayed for a period longer than is reasonably necessary for the employer to compute and arrange for payment of the amount due and in no event may payment be delayed beyond the next payday after such computation can be made. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 778.106); Herman, 308 F.3d at 589.

The City cites alternative, yet unpersuasive, caselaw supporting a cumulative approach. In Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d 1473 (11th Cir.1990), the Eleventh Circuit held that previously-paid overtime can be cumulatively offset against the damages calculated. Yet the court summarily decided the issue, citing no supporting authority. Id. at 1481.

Likewise, in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s cumulative offset calculation. Yet that case is inapposite, as the court explicitly stated that ” § 207(h) does not apply in this case,” and that ” § 207(h), and the cases interpreting it, are inapplicable.” Id. at 827.

We thus affirm the district court’s decision that previously-paid overtime should be offset using a week-by-week calculation.

Click Haro v. City of Los Angeles to read the entire Opinion.

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11th Cir.: District Court Correctly Refused to Enforce Arbitration Agreement Obtained From Putative Class Members With Motion for Conditional Cert Pending

Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc.

Employers seem to getting increasingly aggressive with class waivers, arbitration agreements in the wake of recent high court rulings which are seemingly boundless. In the wake of these recent decisions, some employers—who previously did not include waivers or arbitration agreements in their employment agreements—are seeking to play catch up. Troublingly, we seem to be seeing more and more situations where employers, facing the prospect of class/collective actions based on their often willful violations of wage and hour laws are attempting to force arbitration agreements on their employees in an effort to blunt efforts by their employees to recover their rightful wages. However, most courts faced with such situations have invalidated these improperly obtained arbitration clauses, recognizing that employers are in a position to exert undue pressure on employees fearful for their jobs, and that such arbitration “agreements” are frequently anything but an agreement between two parties consenting to arbitration of their own will.

In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit was called upon to review one such decision by a district court (first discussed here) that held such a forced arbitration clause to be invalid, and affirmed the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to enforce arbitration under the agreements at issue.

Laying out the salient facts of the case, the court explained:

To support its order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration, the district court made the following findings of fact:

Citi Trends devised and implemented a new alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—after it was served with the complaint in this action on February 27, 2012, and after the district court set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. Weeks after the district court’s May 31, 2012 scheduling order, Citi Trends began to roll out its new ADR policy. The ADR policy included a mandatory agreement to arbitrate all disputes individually rather than collectively.

By June 30, 2012, Citi Trends sent its human resource representatives to meet with store managers to roll out the new ADR policy—but only to putative collective action members (i.e., store managers). Throughout the summer, Citi Trends’s human resource representatives met individually with all store managers across the country. Citi Trends had two employees in each ADR meeting: a human resources representative and a “witness.”

The human resources representative who met with the store managers advised Citi Trends in its employment decisions. Thus, the store managers reasonably believed the human resources representative had authority to make or influence employment decisions, including hiring and firing decisions.

Store managers were ordered to attend the ADR meetings by their supervisors. Citi Trends did not inform the store managers of the true purpose of the mandatory meetings. Instead of telling the store managers that the meetings concerned the company’s new ADR policy, Citi Trends told the store managers that the mandatory meetings concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook.

Typically, Citi Trends rolled out its new employee handbook in a group setting. The handbook was generally provided in printed form (i.e., not as a photocopy), and the employees were required to sign for the handbook. Here, however, Citi Trends did not follow any of its general procedures for rolling out the employee handbook. Instead, Citi Trends (1) held two-on-one private meetings with each store manager in a small, back room in Citi Trends retail stores—the same places where the store interrogated or investigated its employees, (2) discussed only the ADR policy and the fill-in-the-blank declarations related to the store managers’ job duties, (3) provided photocopied versions of the employee handbooks as the store managers left the meetings, and (4) did not require the store managers to sign for the photocopied employee handbook.FN6 The district court found that this rushed and atypical rollout of the employee handbook demonstrated that Citi Trends’s handbook rollout was “pretext for presenting the [arbitration] Agreement to the [store managers] to derail their participation in this lawsuit.”

When a store manager arrived at the back-room meetings, a human resources representative greeted the store manager. A second individual was also at each meeting; however, this person was not introduced to, or known by, the store managers.

At the meetings, Citi Trends’s human resources representative gave the store managers these documents: the arbitration agreement, a fill-in-the-blank declaration, and the store manager disclosure. The store managers were asked to sign each of these documents at the meeting.

Citi Trends informed the store managers that the arbitration agreement was a condition of continued employment. The store managers understood that they would be fired if they did not assent to the arbitration agreement or the new ADR policy. Thus, the store managers lacked meaningful choice in whether to sign the arbitration agreements or other documents. The district court found the setting of the back-room meetings to be a “highly coercive” and “interrogation-like.”

Opt-in plaintiffs testified that they signed the documents but felt intimidated by the human resources representative. They also felt pressured to sign the arbitration agreements to avoid losing their jobs. Even when specifically requested, Citi Trends did not give the store managers copies of the documents that the store managers signed.

The district court found that Citi Trends did not conceive or begin to institute its ADR policy until after the district court held a scheduling conference to determine when and how Billingsley must move for conditional certification. Citi Trends then rolled out its ADR policy in a “blitzkrieg fashion” and only required potential members of this collective action to agree to the ADR policy. The district court found that Citi Trend’s “ADR roll-out was a hurried reaction specifically targeted at curtailing this litigation.”

The district court found that the “purpose and effect” of the arbitration agreement was “to protect Citi Trends in this lawsuit.” The district court also found that the timing of the arbitration agreement’s rollout “was calculated to reduce or eliminate the number of collective action opt-in Plaintiffs in this case” and the rollout was “replete with deceit” and “designed to be[ ] intimidating and coercive.”

After a discussion of the FLSA, its remedial purpose and the broad discretion afforded to courts in managing collective actions, the Eleventh Circuit held that that the district court properly exercised its broad discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, because such a denial was in line with the court’s responsibilities to manage communications between the parties and putative class members. Specifically, the court reasoned:

Given the “broad authority” that the district court has to manage parties and counsel in an FLSA collective action, the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Citi Trends’s conduct in the summer of 2012 undermined the court’s authority to manage the collective action. Nor did the district abuse its discretion in determining that—to correct the effect of Citi Trends’s misconduct—it would allow putative collective action members to join the lawsuit notwithstanding their coerced signing of the arbitration agreements.

Whatever right Citi Trends may have had to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, the district court found that its effort in the summer of 2012 was confusing, misleading, coercive, and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its store managers to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this FLSA collective action. Since the arbitration agreements by their terms will directly affect this lawsuit, the district court had authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171, 110 S.Ct. at 486–87; see also Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (class action).

The district court simply did what other district courts routinely do: exercise discretion to correct the effects of pre-certification communications with potential FLSA collective action members after misleading, coercive, or improper communications are made. See, e.g., Balasanyan v. Nordstrom, Inc., No. 11–CV2609–JM–WMC, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2, 4 (S.D.Cal. Mar.8, 2012) (refusing to enforce individual arbitration agreement in an FLSA action because the defendant’s imposition of the agreement was an improper class communication); Williams v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 10–7181, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12 (E.D.Pa. July 13, 2011) (invalidating arbitration agreement imposed on the defendant’s employees during pre-certification stage of FLSA litigation and ordering corrective measures because the arbitration agreement was a “confusing and unfair communication” with the potential opt-in plaintiffs); Ojeda–Sanchez v. Bland Farms, 600 F.Supp.2d 1373, 1379–81 (S.D.Ga.2009) (granting a limited protective order in FLSA collective action where the defendants engaged in unsupervised, unsolicited, in-person interviews of the plaintiffs in an environment that encouraged speedy and uninformed decision-making); Longcrier v. HL–A Co., 595 F.Supp.2d 1218, 1229–30 (S.D.Ala.2008) (striking declarations obtained through the defendants’ abusive and misleading communications with prospective opt-in plaintiffs); Jones v. Casey’s Gen. Stores, 517 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1086, 1089 (S.D.Iowa 2007) (limiting the plaintiffs’ counsel from affirmatively soliciting potential opt-in plaintiffs to join the FLSA action and requiring counsel to modify their website to provide “only a factual, accurate, and balanced outline of the proceedings”); Maddox v. Knowledge Learning Corp., 499 F.Supp.2d 1338, 1342–44 (N.D.Ga.2007) (observing that district courts in § 216(b) actions rely on broad case management discretion by limiting misleading, pre-certification communications and exercising that discretion in the case before the court by ordering the plaintiffs to correct false, unbalanced, and misleading statements on their website); Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 299 F.Supp.2d 664, 667–70 (E.D.Tex.2003) (sanctioning the employer and enjoining the employer from communicating ex parte with potential class action members because the employer intentionally attempted to subvert the district court’s role in the FLSA collective action by unilaterally sending a misleading and coercive letter to potential plaintiffs that encouraged those persons not to join).

District courts’ corrective actions have included refusal to enforce arbitration agreements instituted through improper means and where the timing of the execution of those agreements was similar to the post-filing, pre-certification timing in this case. See, e.g., Balasanyan, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2; Williams, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12; see also In re Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litig., 361 F.Supp.2d at 252–54 (imposing similar corrective action in Rule 23 class action).

The district court did not abuse its discretion in correcting the effects of Citi Trends’s improper behavior in this case. The district court held an initial hearing, after which it denied Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration. The court then reconsidered its order, held an additional two-day evidentiary hearing, made specific and detailed findings of fact that were supported by the record, and took minimal action to correct the effects of Citi Trends’s conduct.

The district court limited its order temporally and substantively. The district court limited its order to those agreements signed under the coercive conditions used by Citi Trends in the summer of 2012. And, the district court limited its order to this particular FLSA action. The court specifically said that it was not ruling on the enforceability of the arbitration agreements as they relate to other cases or controversies. The district did not restrict Citi Trends from entering into new arbitration agreements with the store managers; nor did the court prevent store managers from electing to comply with the terms of the arbitration agreements that they signed in the summer of 2012.

The district court’s limited remedial action is not an abuse of its considerable discretion to manage this collective action. Accord Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (holding that a district court’s power to manage a class action included the power to prohibit a defendant from making “unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class”). That is especially true given the opt-in nature of FLSA collective actions. Because FLSA plaintiffs must opt-in, unsupervised, unilateral communications with those potential plaintiffs can sabotage the goal of the FLSA’s informed consent requirement by planting the slightest seed of doubt or worry through the one-sided, unrebutted presentation of “facts.” Because the damage from misstatements could well be irreparable, the district court must be able to exercise its discretion to attempt to correct the effects of such actions. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170, 110 S.Ct. at 486 (noting that court intervention in the collective action notice process may be necessary).

Because we affirm the district court’s decision to deny enforceability of the arbitration agreements in this case, we necessarily must affirm the district court’s order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration.

Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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Filed under Arbitration, Collective Actions, Pre-Certification Communications

D.D.C.: Laborers on Governmental Job, Who Have Exhausted Their Administrative Remedy, May Bring Case Under Davis-Bacon Act Against Bond of General Contractor; 2 Year SOL Applies

Castro v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland

It has long been the law that generally employees lack the right to bring a private cause of action under the Davis Bacon Act (DBA). Rather, the sole avenue under which aggrieved employees, on governmental jobs, can seek repayment of their improperly withheld wages under the DBA is through a proceeding brought by the Department of Labor. However, the Department of Labor rarely brings such proceedings and thus, workers on governmental projects are often left without a remedy where they have been the victims of wage theft. This case sheds some light on another avenue that such employees can use to attempt to recover their wages however. In this case, after exhausting their administrative remedies (i.e. filing with the DOL and being told the DOL could not pursue their claims) the plaintiffs—employees of a sub-contractor on a job for the District of Columbia—sued on the bond of general contractor to seek payment of their wages. Denying the defendant-bond company’s motion to dismiss, the court explained that this was a valid cause of action.

Discussing the relevant facts and procedural history, the court explained:

Plaintiffs were employed by S & J Acoustics, a second-tier subcontractor (or subsubcontractor) retained to complete ceiling installation on the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory, a building owned by the District of Columbia. See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 2, 5. Pursuant to the DBA, 40 U.S.C. § 3141, et seq., and the DCLMA, D.C.Code § 2–201.01, et seq., the project’s prime contractor, Whiting–Turner Contracting Co., provided a payment bond to the District of Columbia as an assurance that project laborers would receive payment at Department of Labormandated hourly rates. See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 3, 8. In bringing this action against Defendants (1) Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland and (2) Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America, who insured Whiting–Turner’s bond as co-sureties, see id., ¶ 3, Plaintiffs allege that they were not paid for their contributions to the project in accordance with these designated wage rates. See id., ¶¶ 16–18, 21. As background, the DCLMA requires contractors on governmentfunded projects to secure payment bonds to protect the interests of suppliers of materials and subcontractors, and the DBA establishes prevailing wage rates for workers who contribute to government-funded construction projects.

Prior to initiating this action, Plaintiffs filed an administrative complaint with DOL, requesting that payments to the project’s prime contractor be withheld until an investigation could be completed and Plaintiffs compensated for the alleged back wages. See id., ¶¶ 23–25. As the project had since wound up and all payments had been released to Whiting–Turner, the DOL investigator closed the case without making any findings on Plaintiffs’ eligibility for relief under the DBA. See id., ¶¶ 24–25. After Plaintiffs brought suit and Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss, the Court sua sponte raised the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction, questioning whether Plaintiffs had sufficiently exhausted their administrative remedies with DOL. See Order to Show Cause at 2–3. Out of deference to DOL’s plenary role in making DBA back-wage determinations, the Court issued a temporary stay in the proceedings and ordered Plaintiffs to return to DOL and request that conclusive findings be made. See ECF No. 16 (Order) at 4. Plaintiffs did so, but without success. DOL refused to take further action on the ground that the government had already made all payments to the prime contractor and had no further funds to withhold. See Joint Status Report, ¶¶ 6–7 & Exh. A. Satisfied that Plaintiffs had made all efforts to exhaust remedies with DOL, the Court concluded that it did have subjectmatter jurisdiction under the DBA and could consequently address the substance of their claims and Defendants’ pending Motion to Dismiss. See Castro v. Fid. & Deposit Co. of Maryland, No. 13–818, 2014 WL 495464 (D.D.C. Feb. 7, 2014).

Under these circumstances, the defendant argued that the plaintiffs lacked any remedy. The court summarized the defendants contentions as follows:

Defendants first argue that Plaintiffs cannot invoke the DCLMA to sue on Whiting Turner’s payment bond because eligibility under the statute is restricted to those suppliers of labor and materials that have been retained either by the prime contractor or by an immediate subcontractor. See Mot. to Dismiss at 9; Reply at 1–2. Since Plaintiffs were hired by a second- tier subcontractor, Defendants suggest that they fall outside of the scope of the statute. See Supp. to Mot. to Dismiss at 3.

Defendants further maintain that Plaintiffs also have no remedy under the DBA. They premise this argument on the text of DBA § 3144(a)(2), which provides that “laborers and mechanics have the same right [of] action … as is conferred by law on persons furnishing labor or materials.” See Reply at 4. The use of the phrase “same right,” according to Defendants, demonstrates that § 3144(a)(2) does not actually grant aggrieved workers an independent cause of action, but merely references the applicable bond statute – in this case, DCLMA § 2–201.02. See Mot. to Dismiss at 9; Reply at 1 (“Plaintiffs do not have separate cause [sic ] of action against the Defendants in this case under the DBA….”). Alternatively, even if § 3144(a)(2) does create a freestanding cause of action, Defendants reason that the result should be the same because “the rights, if any, that were conferred [by § 3144(a)(2) ] were limited by the express terms of the bond statute.” Reply at 7. The DBA, by this logic, merely duplicates the DCLMA, mirroring its procedural requirements and limitations on eligibility.

Addressing the defendants’ contentions, the court first analyzed the scope and requirements of the DCLMA, acknowledging that plaintiffs lacked standing thereunder, because like the federal Miller Act, it applies only to prime contractor and immediate subcontractors. That did not end the court’s inquiry however. It then turned to an examination of § 3144(a)(2) of the DBA to determine whether it provides an independent remedy with its own terms and conditions. Holding that the DBA, under these circumstances, provided the plaintiffs with a remedy the court explained:

The game is not over, however, because the DBA protects precisely those “ordinary laborers” that the Miller Act appears to exclude. The DBA applies to any construction contracts for public works and public projects that exceed $2,000 in value and to which either the Federal Government or the District of Columbia is a party. See 40 U.S.C. § 3142(a). It obliges contractors on such projects to pay workers in accordance with prevailing wage rates, established by the Secretary of Labor. See id. In the event that contractors do not comply with prevailing wage rates, a worker may seek redress through the mechanism set out in DBA § 3144(a)(2). Promulgated in 1935 – just six days after the federal Miller Act was updated to reflect its current language – § 3144(a)(2) is broadly worded, granting a right of action to “all the laborers and mechanics who have not been paid the wages required” pursuant to the DBA. In contrast to the Miller Act and DCLMA, which condition their protections on a requisite level of contractual proximity to the prime contractor, DBA eligibility appears to hinge upon a laborer’s presence at the job site. Section 3144(a)(2) stipulates that each “contractor or subcontractor” involved in a “contract” governed by the DBA “shall pay all mechanics and laborers employed directly on the site of the work, unconditionally and at least once a week … regardless of any contractual relationship which may be alleged to exist between the contractor or subcontractor and the laborers and mechanics.” § 3142(c)(1) (emphasis added).

Although the DBA does not separately delineate the terms “contract,” “contractor,” “subcontractor,” or “laborer,” these terms are defined in corresponding regulations promulgated by the Secretary of Labor. See 29 C.F.R. § 5.2. The term “contract” comprises “any prime contract which is subject … to the labor standards provisions of [the DBA] and any subcontract of any tier thereunder, let under the prime contract.” § 5.2(h) (emphasis added). This definition, unlike that in the DCLMA, is not limited by a particular degree of separation from the prime contractor. The regulations, in fact, expressly disavow any requirement that a worker demonstrate a particular contractual relationship, instead providing that “[e]very person performing the duties of a laborer or mechanic in the construction … of a public building or public work … is employed regardless of any contractual relationship alleged to exist between the contractor and such person.” § 5.2(o). The regulatory definition of “laborer” is governed by function, not by contractual formality, and extends to “at least those workers whose duties are manual or physical in nature.” § 5.2(m).

Even in the unlikely event that a court were to find the text of the DBA ambiguous, it would still be bound to apply DOL’s regulatory definitions in making its decision. “Because the Secretary of Labor has interpreted the Act,” courts must defer to the Secretary’s judgment provided that these “interpretations are reasonable.” AKM LLC v. Sec’y of Labor, 675 F.3d 752, 754 (D.C.Cir.2012) (citing Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, 467 U.S. 837, 843 (1984)). In this case, the regulatory interpretations are more than merely reasonable – they are grounded in the most basic common sense. Because a prime contractor should have ample notice of laborers working at its project site, it can institute sufficient controls to ensure that they are accounted for and paid for their contributions, regardless of any particular contractual arrangement. In contrast to the situation with suppliers, who may come and go without any physical connection to a job site, there is far less risk that laborers will be completely “[un]known to the prime contractor,” U.S. ex rel. E & H Steel Corp., 509 F.3d at 187, and thereby expose it to unforeseen liability.

The court then explained that where, as here, workers had exhausted their administrative remedy (i.e. filed with the DOL), they were entitled to bring a private cause of action under the DBA:

Clearly titled as a “[r]ight of action,” DBA § 3144(a)(2) provides that, if the Secretary of Labor’s withholdings under the terms of a contract are “insufficient to reimburse all the laborers and mechanics who have not been paid the wages required[,] … the laborers and mechanics have the same right to bring a civil action and intervene against the contractor and the contractor’s sureties as is conferred by law on persons furnishing labor or materials.” (Emphasis added). Two points are notable here. First, the express title of § 3144(a)(2) indicates that Congress believed that it was creating a new and fully functional right of action, and not merely a superficial reference to remedies already available under the bond statutes. While many battles have been waged over whether or not an aggrieved worker can claim an implied right of action under the DBA and thereby circumvent the administrative-exhaustion requirements of § 3144(a), see, e.g., Univers. Research Ass’n v. Coutu, 450 U.S. 754, 780 (1981), courts have long recognized that § 3144(a)(2) furnishes an express cause of action once remedies have been exhausted. See, e.g., U.S. ex rel. Bradbury v. TLT Const. Corp., 138 F.Supp.2d 237, 241 (D.R.I.2001).

Second, the formulation “all the laborers … who have not been paid” sets an expansive scope of application that is not obviously restricted by what follows. If Congress had intended to limit the scope of eligibility to sue on a bond to the narrow class of workers who might qualify under the terms of the Miller Act, it stands to reason that the legislature would have said so in clear and unambiguous terms or, more plausibly, would have completely omitted § 3144(a)(2) from the DBA. If Defendants are correct, § 3144(a)(2) would be mere surplusage, offering nothing of value over and above the remedies already available via the Miller Act and DCLMA. The Court cannot ignore the ” ‘cardinal principle of statutory construction’ that ‘a statute ought, upon the whole, to be so construed that, if it can be prevented, no clause, sentence, or word shall be superfluous, void, or insignificant.’ ” TRW Inc. v. Andrews, 534 U.S. 19, 31 (2001) (quoting Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167, 174 (2001)).

Perhaps even more troubling, Defendants’ assessment of § 3144(a)(2) would create two arbitrary classes of workers – first, those who satisfy the technical qualifications imposed by the terms of the Miller Act and DCLMA, and second, all otherwise DBA-eligible workers. If the Court were to endorse Defendants’ highly restrictive interpretation, it might encourage prime contractors to insulate themselves behind several layers of subcontracts and thus opt out of the obligation to pay DBA-mandated wages, particularly as a project draws to a close and the government is no longer able to withhold funds. It should be obvious, accordingly, that all laborers present on the worksite of a DBA-eligible project should stand to benefit from the Act’s protections, regardless of contractual formalities. The Court thus concludes that § 3144(a)(2) of the DBA creates an independent cause of action that grants the ability to collect on a prime contractor’s bond to all eligible on-site workers, regardless of who hired them.

Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff’s were limited by a one year statute of limitations, and held that a two year statute of limitations was applicable to the claims, pursuant to the Portal-to-Portal Act.

Click Castro v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland to read the entire Memorandum Opinion of the court.

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8th Cir.: Informal Input Regarding Personnel Decisions Does Not Satisfy Hire/Fire Prong of Executive Exemption

Madden v. Lumber One Home Center, Inc.

Following a jury verdict in favor of the defendant-employer below, the trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, holding that—as a matter of law—defendant had failed to satisfy its burden of proof regarding the executive exemption. Defendant appealed and the Eighth Circuit affirmed with respect to two of the plaintiffs, but reversed as to one. As discussed here, the Eighth Circuit’s analysis focused on the hire/fire prong of the executive exemption. Significantly, the court explained in detail what types of involvement in personnel decisions rise to the level required for application of the executive exemption.

Initially the court restated the applicable regulation:

We determine whether an employee meets the executive exemption by applying Department of Labor regulations. See Fife v. Bosley, 100 F.3d 87, 89 (8th Cir.1996). The Department of Labor defines an “executive” employee—that is, one exempt from FLSA requirements relating to overtime pay—as follows:

(a) The term ‘employee employed in a bona fide executive capacity’ in section 13(a)(1) of the Act shall mean any employee:

(1) Compensated on a salary basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week (or $380 per week, if employed in American Samoa by employers other than the Federal Government), exclusive of board, lodging or other facilities;

(2) Whose primary duty is management of the enterprise in which the employee is employed or of a customarily recognized department or subdivision thereof;

(3) Who customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees; and

(4) Who has the authority to hire or fire other employees or whose suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees are given particular weight.

29 C.F.R. § 541.100.

The court then framed the issue before it:

At issue in this case is whether the plaintiffs’ job duties met the requirements of the fourth element. In other words, we must determine whether the jury was presented with evidence that reasonably would support an inference that the plaintiffs had the ability to hire and fire other employees, or that their hiring recommendations were given “particular weight.” The Department of Labor defines “particular weight” as follows:

To determine whether an employee’s suggestions and recommendations are given ‘particular weight,’ factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, whether it is part of the employee’s job duties to make such suggestions and recommendations; the frequency with which such suggestions and recommendations are made or requested; and the frequency with which the employee’s suggestions and recommendations are relied upon. Generally, an executive’s suggestions and recommendations must pertain to employees whom the executive customarily and regularly directs. It does not include an occasional suggestion with regard to the change in status of a co-worker. An employee’s suggestions and recommendations may still be deemed to have ‘particular weight’ even if a higher level manager’s recommendation has more importance and even if the employee does not have authority to make the ultimate decision as to the employee’s change in status. 29 C.F.R. § 541.105. The district court, in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, found that Lumber One presented no evidence that the plaintiffs had the authority to make personnel decisions or that Morton gave their hiring recommendations particular weight.

Clarifying what type and amount of input into personnel decisions satisfies an employer’s burden regarding the executive exemption, the Eighth Circuit explained:

We first address what type and what amount of input into personnel decisions is sufficient to satisfy the fourth element of the FLSA’s executive exemption. Second, we look at the evidence in this case. We conclude that Lumber One failed to show that Madden and O’Bar met the executive exemption standard but that Lumber One did prove that Wortman was eligible for the executive exemption.

Courts previously addressing what is required by the fourth element of the FLSA executive exemption suggest that more than informal input, solicited from all employees, is needed to prove applicability of the executive exemption. See, e.g., Lovelady v. Allsup’s Convenience Stores, Inc., 304 F. App’x 301, 306 (5th Cir.2005) (per curiam) (unpublished) (affirming the district court’s decision that plaintiff-store managers met the fourth element because their hiring recommendations were almost always followed and they could fire employees without obtaining authorization from a higher manager); Grace v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 845 F.Supp.2d 653, 663 (W.D.N.C.2012) (finding fourth element satisfied because plaintiff, a store manager, selected applicants for interviews, conducted interviews, and recommended employees for promotions and demotions, and her recommendations were almost always followed by the district manager); Rainey v. McWane, Inc., 552 F.Supp.2d 626, 632 (E.D.Tex.2008) (finding fourth element satisfied because plaintiff, a production supervisor, completed weekly employee evaluations, recommended employee discipline, and recommended which temporary employees should be hired permanently); Goulas v. LaGreca, No. 12–898, 2013 WL 2477030, at *10 (E.D. La. June 7, 2013) (finding fourth element satisfied because the employer was grooming the plaintiff to eventually take over the company, and the employer terminated employees based on plaintiff’s recommendations). These cases provide useful guidance for understanding what is needed to satisfy the fourth element of the executive exemption. After looking at the different factors these courts used to find the fourth element satisfied, including the offering of personnel recommendations that were acted upon by managers, involvement in screening applicants for interviews, and participation in interviews, among others, it is apparent that many different employee duties and levels of involvement can work to satisfy this fourth element. When we look at the evidence regarding how Lumber One utilized Madden and O’Bar in this case, however, we find that it simply does not meet the standard. Cf. 5 C.F.R. 551.202(e) (“[T]he designation of an employee as FLSA exempt or nonexempt must ultimately rest on the duties actually performed by the employee.”).

Discussing the law in the context of this case, the Eighth Circuit explained:

The evidence presented at trial concerning the plaintiffs’ duties consisted solely of testimony from the plaintiffs, Morton, and office manager Amy Quimby. Morton testified that none of the plaintiffs hired or fired other employees. Therefore, in order to satisfy the fourth element, Lumber One needed to present evidence at trial that the plaintiffs were consulted about personnel decisions and that Morton gave each of their opinions particular weight regarding specific hiring decisions. Prior to hiring a new employee, Morton generally asked all of the Mayflower employees if they knew the applicant and could provide information about that person, and Lumber One believes this is sufficient to support the jury’s verdict.

At trial, Morton generically described how he elicited input from employees about applicants and how he used the information he received. For example, when asked if the plaintiffs were ever consulted during the screening process for new applicants, Morton responded: “[W]e would always ask all of our people if they knew someone before we hired them. When we would be interviewing them, we would ask for input from them because these guys were from the local area and we’d always ask if they knew the people or could recommend or knew anything at all about them.” Morton also said he took this information seriously, adding that “it was good information. We’re hiring blind here, so any input we could have or reference, it was used in making that determination.” Lumber One did not present any evidence that the plaintiffs were involved in, for instance, screening applicants, conducting interviews, checking references, or anything else related to its hiring process.

In determining that Lumber One’s practice of soliciting informal recommendations from all staff members is insufficient to meet the fourth element of the executive exemption, we find Rooney v. Town of Groton, 577 F.Supp.2d 513 (D.Mass.2008), instructive. In Rooney, the court held that a police lieutenant satisfied all of the requirements for designation as an exempt executive employee. Id. at 523–32. Concerning the fourth element, the court noted that the lieutenant was a member of an interview panel that ranked applicants, discussed the merits of applicants, and made hiring recommendations. Id. at 531. In addition, the police chief took the lieutenant’s opinion into consideration when determining which employees to promote. Id. While the lieutenant had no control over the ultimate hiring and personnel decisions, the court found that he was sufficiently involved in the hiring process to classify him as an exempt executive employee. Id.

Rooney specifically addresses Lumber One’s argument that Morton could have given the plaintiffs’ recommendations particular weight even though he asked all of his employees for input. In Rooney, the lieutenant characterized his recommendations to the police chief as the same type of recommendation an ordinary patrolman could provide to the chief, so he should not have been classified as an exempt employee. Rooney, 577 F.Supp.2d at 531. The court rejected his argument, finding that the lieutenant’s recommendations were given more weight than an ordinary patrolman. The court concluded that “the regulation does not state that Rooney must be the only officer in the department whose recommendations and suggestions are given particular weight, but rather that a ‘higher level manager’s recommendation [may have] more importance.’ ” Id. (citing 29 C.F.R. § 541.105).

In the present case, Morton testified that he solicited input from all employees. He did not testify that some employees’ input had more influence than others. Lumber One argues that requiring Morton to testify that he placed “particular weight” on each plaintiff’s input, as Lumber One claims the district court did in the order granting the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, is unfair because it requires a lay person to use legal jargon in his testimony. We agree that Morton was not required to use the exact phrase “particular weight.” Morton could have used any number of words to convey that he gave the plaintiffs’ recommendations special consideration when making hiring decisions. The material point, however, is that in order to meet the fourth element of the executive exemption, Lumber One must present some proof that the purported executives’ input into personnel decisions was given particular weight. 29 C.F.R. § 541.105. For example, one way they could have done this is to show that the purported executives’ input had more influence than hourly employee’ input. This is especially true if that recommendation is the only evidence relied on for the exemption, which is what happened in this case.

Lumber One also argues that because the business was struggling financially in 2008 and did not hire many employees, the plaintiffs were simply unable to participate in personnel decisions because none were being made. In this regard, we note that the Office of Personnel Management’s regulation stating that FLSA exemptions are based on actual job functions, not intended responsibilities, is persuasive in this circumstance. See 5 C.F.R. § 551.202(e) (noting that FLSA exemptions are based on “duties actually performed by the employee”). The Rooney court acknowledged that the police department in that case was small and that its size should be a factor “taken into account when determining the frequency of recommendations made by the plaintiff. It is reasonable to assume that generally a smaller police department would have correspondingly fewer new hires, fires, and promotions.” 577 F.Supp.2d at 531. The same is true with Lumber One. Morton estimated that he hired between six and eight employees during the time the plaintiffs were employed at Lumber One. Morton testified that he generally asked all of the employees if they knew applicants, but there is no evidence that the plaintiffs had any sort of involvement in the hiring process like the lieutenant in Rooney. The plaintiffs did not participate in the interviews, did not review resumes, did not rank applicants, and did not make hiring recommendations outside of informal reference checks. Contra id. at 522 (“[Rooney] has acted as a member of an interview panel, ranked applicants on account of their suitability for the position, discussed the merits of applicants, made applicant recommendations to the Chief regarding the applicant’s suitability, discussed the potential promotion of a Patrolman to the rank of Sergeant, and discussed the assignment of an officer to an administrative position[.]“). And Morton asked all employees for informal reference checks, not just the plaintiffs. Morton asserts that he would have involved the plaintiffs more if he had hired more employees. This may be true, but it requires the jury to impermissibly speculate and to rely on intended rather than actual job functions. See Clark v. Long, 255 F.3d 555, 557 (8th Cir.2001) (“[When ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, t]he nonmovant receives the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the evidence, but those inferences may not be based solely on speculation.” (emphasis added)).

Having fleshed out the applicable law and the parties’ respective arguments, the court initially explained why two of the plaintiffs were properly held to be non-exempt:

Against this backdrop, we now turn to the evidence regarding each individual plaintiff. At trial, Morton could not recall Madden or O’Bar providing a single personnel recommendation. Morton stated that he could only recall the company’s “general policy there as to how we did that.” In response to the question, “Did any of the plaintiffs hire Lumber One employees?” Morton responded, “No, they didn’t. Well, Doug [Wortman] was involved in hiring some of the truck drivers.” When questioned if O’Bar ever provided a recommendation for an applicant, Morton responded, “Not that I recall.” Morton said he intended to include O’Bar in the hiring process, but because Lumber One was not hiring while she was employed, she never had the opportunity to participate. Later in the trial, counsel asked Morton if he could remember O’Bar recommending any applicant for hire. Morton responded, “Offhand today, I can’t tell you one, no.”

Morton similarly could not remember Madden being involved in any hiring decision. When asked about Madden, Morton again referenced only the general policy: “Once again, what we would do, anytime that we hired anybody, which we hired very, very few in this time period, and I don’t recall—you know, it depends on what time frame we’re talking about, but we would always ask all of our people if they knew someone before we hired them.” When asked again, “Is it your testimony that [Madden] did not recommend anybody for hiring?” Morton responded, “I do not remember, to be honest with you. I know that we consulted with him or asked him if he knew people.” Morton asserted that he “definitely remember[ed] asking Terry Madden if he knew people that we were interviewing,” but Morton could not provide additional information related to any recommendations Madden may have provided. When asked if Madden hired any employees, Morton replied, “No, ma’am, he did not hire any.”

Morton’s testimony is simply not enough to satisfy the fourth element of the FLSA’s executive exemption for Madden and O’Bar. To be sure, one of the jury’s main responsibilities is to make credibility determinations. However, here the jury was forced to speculate due to Morton’s lack of memory regarding specific recommendations and hiring decisions. Moreover, Morton’s admissions that Madden and O’Bar were not involved directly in hiring contradicts Lumber One’s contentions that the plaintiffs were actually Lumber One executive employees whose input was solicited and considered prior to making personnel decisions. Indeed, for a jury to reach that conclusion, a jury had to speculate that, if Morton were able to recall specifics from 2008 and 2009, he would be able to testify about Madden and O’Bar’s involvement in personnel decisions. This is not a credibility determination; this is speculation. See Wilson, 382 F.3d at 770 (“Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only when the record contains no proof beyond speculation to support the verdict.”). While it should be rare that a judge elects to override a jury verdict, the district court was correct in this case to do so. See Hunt v. Neb. Pub. Power Dist., 282 F.3d 1021, 1029 (8th Cir.2002) (“We recogniz[e] that the law places a high standard on overturning a jury verdict … because of the danger that the jury’s rightful province will be invaded when judgment as a matter of law is misused.” (internal citation omitted)). Lumber One simply presented no evidence that would allow a jury to determine, without conjecture, that Lumber One satisfied the fourth element with respect to Madden and O’Bar.

The court went on to hold that, applying the same test, there had been sufficient evidence at trial for the jury to hold that the third plaintiff was an exempt executive:

In contrast, we conclude that Lumber One did present sufficient evidence to allow a jury to conclude that Wortman provided a recommendation for at least one employee and that Morton relied on that recommendation when deciding to hire the applicant. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment as to Wortman and reinstate that portion of the jury verdict in favor of Lumber One.

Morton testified at trial that Wortman knew two applicants, truck drivers Fred Dempsey and Anthony Dixon, and that Morton appreciated Wortman’s input regarding both applicants’ qualifications. Morton testified that “we’re brand-new, so I asked everybody there for a reference on any new hire at this point to—and [Wortman] recommended these guys, said they were good folks, Fred [Dempsey] in particular. I think he and Fred had a—somewhat of a friendship maybe in the past.” Morton later asserted that if Wortman had provided a bad recommendation, Morton would not have hired Dempsey. Morton testified that “when we did do that little bit of hiring, we asked everyone. We tapped every resource we had…. [Wortman] would put his stamp of approval on, and I’ll use Fred Dempsey, for instance, you know, if he would have said, no, we don’t want him, he would not have been there.”

Morton’s testimony provided sufficient evidence that reasonably could lead a jury to believe that Wortman provided recommendations about Dempsey and that Morton gave particular weight to Wortman’s recommendation when deciding to hire Dempsey. See 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1); 29 C.F.R. § 541.100. In addition, Wortman testified that although he was not hired to supervise employees, Morton occasionally had him direct the truck drivers, which included Dempsey, regarding where to make deliveries. See
29 C.F.R. § 541.105 (generally requiring that an executive’s recommendations pertain to employees whom the executive directs). Because there is evidence regarding Wortman’s involvement in at least one personnel decision, we conclude that the district court erred by overturning the jury’s verdict finding that Wortman was an executive employee who was exempt from FLSA overtime pay requirements.

Taken together, this opinion is instructive regarding the type and amount of input an employee must have in order to meet the hire/fire prong of the executive exemption.

Click Madden v. Lumber One Home Center, Inc. to read the entire Decision.

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