Monthly Archives: May 2011

S.D.Tex.: Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss Collective Action Allegations Denied; Argument Inappropriately Raised at Pleading Stage

Richardson v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A.

This case was before the court on the Motion to Dismiss Collective Action Allegations, or, in the Alternative, Motion for More Definite Statement (“Motion”).  Plaintiff, a former personal banker for Wells Fargo, filed this collective action alleging that Defendant violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by failing to pay him overtime compensation for hours worked in excess of forty (40) per week. Plaintiff purported to sue also on behalf of all Wells Fargo personal bankers throughout the United States.  Defendant filed the Motion, asserting that Plaintiff failed to plead sufficient facts to support the collective action allegations.

Holding such a motion was inappropriately made at the pleading stage, the court explained:

“Plaintiff alleges sufficient facts in his Complaint to satisfy the pleading requirements for collective actions under the FLSA. Plaintiff alleges that he and other similarly-situated personal bankers working for Wells Fargo were improperly classified as non-exempt, regularly worked more than forty hours per week, and were not paid overtime compensation for those additional hours. These are all factual allegations that, if proven, state a plausible claim for relief under the FLSA. See, e.g., Hoffman v. Cemex, Inc., 2009 WL 4825224, *3 (S.D.Tex. Dec.8, 2009) (Rosenthal, J.).

Additionally, dismissal of the collective action allegations under Rule 12(b)(6) is not appropriate. Whether the case should proceed as a collective action is properly addressed when Plaintiff moves for conditional certification and issuance of notice to the class. Id. at *4 (citing Mooney v. Aramco Servs. Co., 54 F.3d 1207, 1212 (5th Cir.1995)).

For the same reasons that dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is unwarranted, there is no need for Plaintiff to file a more definite statement. Plaintiff alleges an adequate factual basis for the FLSA claim and the Federal Rules require no more at this stage.

Plaintiff has adequately pled his FLSA claim. Whether the case should proceed as a collective action will be determined if and when Plaintiff moves for conditional certification and the issuance of notice.”

Armed with recent Supreme Court jurisprudence (Iqbal and Twombly), FLSA defendants are making more and more motions to dismiss as here.  However, as this court correctly held, such motions, in effect, to “decertify” collective actions before they reach “stage 1″ or the conditional certification stage are inappropriately made at the pleading stage of a case.

Click Richardson v. Wells Fargo Bank, N.A. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

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2d. Cir.: Award of Attorney’s Fees for All Time Worked Cannot Be Based Solely Upon Court’s Observation of Counsel

Scott v. City of New York

This case was before the Second Circuit for the second time on the issue of attorney’s fees.  The plaintiffs prevailed in the underling case, but the plaintiffs’ attorney failed to keep contemporaneous time records.  Nonetheless, following judgment for employees in a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) suit, the trial court awarded plaintiffs’ attorney partial attorney fees.  On the first appeal, the defendant appealed, and plaintiffs’ attorney cross-appealed from denial of certain fees.  In a decision discussed here, the Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 130, vacated the initial fee award and remanded because the district court did not explain the basis on which attorney was excepted from requirement to submit contemporaneous time records with fee application.  Upon remand, the District Court, 2011 WL 867242, reinstated original award, and based the award on its own observations of plaintiffs’ counsel during the case.  Both parties appealed.  The Second Circuit held that the district court’s personal observation and opinions of attorney (alone) did not constitute exceptional circumstances that permitted award of attorney’s fees.  Thus, the case was again remanded for a finding as to reasonable attorney’s fees.

The court reasoned:

“An award based entirely on the district court judge’s personal observation and opinions of the applying attorney, however, is contrary to Carey and must be vacated. If nothing else, permitting that basis for what should be a rare exception is completely unfair to an attorney who has done identical work, failed to keep the required contemporaneous records but whose reputation is unknown to the judge. It would also be unfair to that lesser-known attorney who has done good work but for one reason or another has failed to impress the judge. Moreover, such an “exception” is not an exception to the Carey rule at all. It is an abrogation. We interpreted Carey as conditioning attorney’s fees on contemporaneous records in all but the “rarest of cases.” Scott, 626 F.3d at 133. A district court judge has an opportunity to see and evaluate a lawyer’s work in all cases. On appellate review there are additional considerations. As we recognized in Carey, it is difficult if not impossible for courts of appeal to meaningfully review awards based entirely on a district court’s sense of fairness. 711 F.2d at 1147. Without contemporaneous records “we have little choice but to show considerable deference to the District Court’s conclusion as to how many hours were reasonably compensable.” Id. Abuse of discretion review in these instances, however, requires a more searching inquiry. While it is true that we will—by default—need to rely on a district court’s estimate of compensable time when Carey’s narrow exception is triggered, such deference is a necessary evil brought about only by some other good reason. It is not a justification unto itself.

We have been pointed to no evidence that would permit us to conclude that this case falls within an exception to the Carey rule that would justify an award of all the fees for time that might be documented by an attorney’s contemporaneous records. Nonetheless, we are persuaded that Puccio should be eligible to recover limited fees for any contemporaneously documented time that he was physically before the district court. We thus hold that entries in official court records (e.g. the docket, minute entries, and transcriptions of proceedings) may serve as reliable documentation of an attorney’s compensable hours in court at hearings and at trial and in conferences with the judge or other court personnel. Where the court’s docket reflects that Puccio was in the courtroom participating in trial or was in chambers in conference with the judge and other counsel, these entries, comparable to contemporaneous attorney time records, may be effective substitutes for Puccio’s own contemporaneous records. In so holding, we hasten to add that this is not an invitation for district courts to engage in the type of conjecture that has occurred here with respect to Puccio’s purported 120 hours of trial time. Instead, attorneys seeking fees must point to entries in the official court records that specifically and expressly demonstrate their presence before the court and indicate with reasonable certainty the duration of that presence. No accommodation is to be made for travel time or out-of-court preparation because that will vary from attorney to attorney and issue by issue. Finally, we emphasize that the onus of gathering the applicable docket entries and other court records, if any, is on the applying attorney, not the district court. The district courts are under no obligation to award fees based on such time. Our holding today merely clarifies that using such remedies in this limited fashion will not run afoul of Carey if the district court chooses to do so. We believe that such a regime prevents a totally inequitable result in cases such as this while, at the same time, preserving the strong incentive Carey creates for lawyers to keep and submit contemporaneous records.”

Accordingly, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s order reinstating plaitniffs’ attorney’s fees, and remanded the case to the district court so that plaintiff could submit a new application for attorney’s fees based exclusively on official court records.

As some have noted, the series of decisions rendered in this case seem to be in contradiction to previous Second Circuit jurisprudence, which has not required contemporaneous time records in order to support an award of fees.  Since the Second Circuit did not explicitly overrule its prior cases, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the Scott decisions will have on future cases.

Click Scott v. City of New York to read the entire Second Circuit opinion.

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M.D.Tenn.: Contract Cleaners Not Joint Employees of the Restaurants Cleaned, Despite Fact They Exclusively Cleaned Defendant’s Restaurants

Politron v. Worldwide Domestic Services, LLC

Plaintiffs filed this action for unpaid wages and overtime pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq. Plaintiffs’  alleged that they were hired by Defendant Worldwide Domestic Services, Inc. (“Worldwide”) during the time period of October 2010 to December 2010 to clean Chili’s restaurants in the Middle Tennessee area.  The case arose from Plaintiffs’ contention that paychecks issued to the Plaintiffs by Worldwide bounced due to insufficient funds.  Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants’ failure to pay Plaintiffs at least minimum wage for each hour worked is a violation of the FLSA and, as discussed here, that Defendants Worldwide, Elite Commercial Cleaning, LLC and Chili’s, Inc. were “joint employers” under the FLSA.

Acknowledging that the Sixth Circuit had yet to formulate a specific test for the application of joint employment under the FLSA, the court instead discussed law from other courts, who have developed such tests.  Applying the various factors other courts have used, the court determined that the restaurant owner Defendant, was not properly alleged to be a joint employer here.

The court reasoned:

“Here, the Court finds that the agreement between Brinker and Worldwide, as alleged in Plaintiffs’ Amended Complaint, was an outsourcing type of relationship. Worldwide contracted with Brinker to have its restaurants cleaned after hours. Plaintiffs admit that they worked at the direction of Worldwide. Plaintiffs’ work was dependent upon Worldwide’s ability to get and keep contracts for cleaning. Plaintiffs agree that no one from Brinker supervised, trained or directed them; no Brinker employees were even present when Plaintiffs worked. Brinker had no control over their wages, no authority to hire, fire or discipline them, and kept no employment records for Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs received their relevant income tax information from Worldwide or from Defendant Elite Commercial Cleaning. There is no allegation that Brinker knew which employees worked or how many hours they worked.

Although Plaintiffs contend that every hour they worked was at Chili’s and they used some equipment from the restaurants (they also used equipment from Worldwide), the Court finds that the factors indicating a joint employer are outweighed by those which indicate no such relationship between Plaintiffs and Brinker.”

Although the case is not groundbreaking, it does demonstrate the flaws in allowing such “outsourcing” to abrogate a company’s responsibilities to those who provide its essential services under the FLSA.

Click Politron v. Worldwide Domestic Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision.

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C.D.A.C.: Court Declines to Adopt “Economic Reality” Test and Confirms Prisoners Are Not Covered by FLSA

Shipley v. Woolrich, Inc.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s appeal of an order dismissing his FLSA case below, based on the fact that, as a federal prisoner, he was not an employee subject to FLSA coverage.  The district court sua sponte dismissed the complaint, relying on the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Henthorn v. Dep’t of the Navy, 29 F.3d 682, 686 (D.C . Cir.1994), in which they noted that convicted criminals are not protected by the Thirteenth Amendment against involuntary servitude and that a prisoner is barred from asserting a claim under the FLSA where the prisoner’s labor is compelled and/or where any compensation he receives is set and paid by his custodian.

On appeal the plaintiff argued that the court should adopt an “economic reality” test based on whether the labor in question involves a “service,” such as the janitorial chores performed in Henthorn, or rather involves a “good,” such as the making of clothes performed by the plaintiff.

Rejecting this argument, the court reasoned:

“In Henthorn the appellant asked us to adopt a somewhat similar “economic reality” test that would have made a distinction, for purposes of applying the FLSA, between work inside or outside the prison compound. We declined the request, holding instead that a prerequisite to finding that an inmate is covered “under the FLSA is that the prisoner has freely contracted with a non-prison employer to sell his labor.” 29 F.3d at 686. Here we likewise reject Shipley’s request and follow our holding in Henthorn.

In Henthorn we stated that at the pleading stage “a federal prisoner seeking to state a claim under the FLSA must allege that his work was performed without legal compulsion and that his compensation was set and paid by a source other than the Bureau of Prisons itself.” Id. at 687. Here, Shipley has made no allegation that his work was voluntary or that he was paid by anyone other than UNICOR, an entity within the organizational structure of the Bureau of Prisons.”

While the court made clear that work performed for a private entity may sometimes qualify a prisoner as an “employee” subject to the FLSA coverage, such facts were not present here.

Click Shipley v. Woolrich, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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2d. Cir.: Where Employee’s Falsification of Time Records Was Carried Out at Employer’s Behest, Employer Cannot Be Exonerated by Fact That Employee Entered Erroneous Hours on Timesheets

Kuebel v. Black & Decker Inc.

This case was before the Second Circuit on Plaintiff’s appeal of an order awarding Defendant summary judgment.  Plaintiff asserted two distinct claims below: (1) that work performed on his PDA and in Defendant’s computer system (at home) extended his continuous workday such that Defendant’s failure to pay him for all time up to including such work was a violation of the FLSA; and (2) that he was entitled to be paid for off-the-clock work that he did not report because his supervisors instructed him not to.  While the court affirmed summary judgment on the “continuous workday” claim, it reversed as to the off-the-clock claim, holding that “[a]t least where the employee’s falsifications were carried out at the instruction of the employer or the employer’s agents, the employer cannot be exonerated by the fact that the employee physically entered the erroneous hours into the timesheets.”

With respect to the off-the-clock claims, the relevant facts cited by the court were:

“[plaintiff] asserts that he falsified his timesheets because his supervisors instructed him not to record more than forty hours per week. He testified that at monthly meetings, “there was always a point that [Idigo] and Mr. Davolt and [another manager] would always indicate that we [Retail Specialists] were not to put more than forty hours on our time sheet,” and that Davolt “told all of the reps that they were only to record forty hours a week, … no matter what they worked during that particular week.” Kuebel further testified that during a personal discussion with Davolt on February 22, 2007, Davolt said to him, “you can’t work overtime, you’re only supposed to put forty hours on your timecard.”

Discussing the viability of the off-the-clock claims that Plaintiff asserts he was owed overtime wages for time he allegedly worked, but admittedly did not report, the court first discussed the general legal principles applicable to FLSA claims where the Plaintiff alleges Defendant failed in its recordkeeping obligations (to maintain accurate time records), under Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680, 686–87 (1946).  The court below had determined that Plaintiff was not entitled to Anderson’s lenient burden of proof where, as here, he acknowledged that he falsified his own records.  However, the Second Circuit disagreed, holding:

“At least where the employee’s falsifications were carried out at the instruction of the employer or the employer’s agents, the employer cannot be exonerated by the fact that the employee physically entered the erroneous hours into the timesheets. As the district court emphasized, Kuebel admits that it was he who falsified his timesheets, notwithstanding B & D’s official policy requiring accurate recordkeeping. But his testimony—which must be credited at the summary judgement stage—was that he did so because his managers instructed him not to record more than forty hours per week. He specifically testified that at company meetings and during discussions with one of his supervisors, it was conveyed to him that he was not to record overtime no matter how many hours he actually worked. In other words, Kuebel has testified that it was B & D, through its managers, that caused the inaccuracies in his timesheets. While ultimately a factfinder might or might not credit this testimony, that is a determination for trial, not summary judgment. In sum, we hold that because Kuebel has presented evidence indicating that his employer’s records are inaccurate—and that although it was he who purposefully rendered them inaccurate, he did so at his managers’ direction—the district court should have afforded Kuebel the benefit of Anderson’s “just and reasonable inference” standard. See Allen, 495 F.3d at 1317–18 (finding just and reasonable inference standard applicable at summary judgment where plaintiffs had not recorded overtime, but “testified that they were discouraged from accurately recording overtime work on their time sheets, and were encouraged to falsify their own records by submitting time sheets that reflected their scheduled, rather than actual, hours”).  A contrary conclusion would undermine the remedial goals of the FLSA, as it would permit an employer to obligate its employees to record their own time, have its managers unofficially pressure them not to record overtime, and then, when an employee sues for unpaid overtime, assert that his claim fails because his timesheets do not show any overtime.”

Given the procedural posture of the case, the court found that Plaintiff had presented an issue of fact for the jury to decide, thus rendering summary judgment inappropriate, reasoning:

“Ultimately, the dispute as to the precise amount of Kuebel’s uncompensated work is one of fact for trial. As stated above, a plaintiff establishes a violation of the FLSA by proving that he performed uncompensated work of which his employer was or should have been aware. The Anderson test simply addresses whether there is a reasonable basis for calculating damages, assuming that a violation has been shown. Brown, 534 F.3d at 596. It does not entitle an employer to summary judgment where the employee’s estimates of his uncompensated overtime are somewhat inconsistent.

The district court further held that, in any event, the following evidence was sufficient to “negate the inference that [Kuebel] had performed work off-the-clock”: (1) B & D’s written policies and training materials stating that time worked must be accurately recorded; (2) Kuebel’s own time records; and (3) Beacon reports for Kuebel showing low in-store hours. Kuebel II, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 46533, at *39–40. We disagree. B & D’s evidence raises factual and credibility questions for trial, but it does not afford a basis for summary judgment. First, while the existence of B & D’s official policies requiring accurate timekeeping may detract from Kuebel’s credibility, it does not entitle B & D to judgment as a matter of law in light of Kuebel’s testimony that he was instructed by his managers not to record all of his hours. Second, that Kuebel’s timesheets do not show any overtime does not resolve the central question necessitating a trial, which, as we have seen, is whether Kuebel worked overtime but did not record it at his managers’ behest. Finally, to the extent that Kuebel’s Beacon hours—or, for that matter, his manager’s testimony that the condition of his stores was often subpar—suggest that Kuebel typically worked less than forty hours a week, such evidence also raises a factual issue for trial.”

Similarly, the court held that Plaintiff had created an issue of fact despite Defendant’s contention that it lacked knowledge of any unrecorded off-the-clock hours allegedly worked by Plaintiff, stating:

“We conclude that Kuebel has raised a genuine issue of material fact as to whether B & D knew he was working off the clock. Kuebel testified that on several occasions, he specifically complained to his supervisor, Davolt, that he was working more than forty hours per week but recording only forty. The district court discounted Kuebel’s testimony, relying on the fact that he never lodged a formal complaint using B & D’s anonymous reporting hotline. Id. at *44–45. But while that fact might conceivably hurt Kuebel’s credibility at trial, it does not warrant summary judgment for B & D.”

While it remains to be seen whether Plaintiff will actually prevail on his claims, given the FLSA’s non-delegable duty on employers, there can be little question that the Second Circuit reached the correct conclusion in holding that an employer who requires an employee to falsify his or her time records may not then benefit from such falsification.  Stay tuned to see how this one turns out…

Click Kuebel v. Black & Decker Inc. to read the entire opinion.

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E.D.Va.: Plaintiff Alleged Actionable Retaliation Claim, Where Asserted Former Employer Denied Him Work as Independent Contractor In Retaliation for Testimony in Co-Employee’s Case

Boscarello v. Audio Video Systems, Inc.

In this Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) retaliation action, a former employee sued his former employers alleging that defendants retaliated against him, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), by refusing to provide him work as an independent contractor following his submission of an affidavit supporting a current employee’s FLSA claim against the employers.  The case was before the court on defendants’ motion to dismiss, for failure to state a claim.  At issue on defendants’ motion was whether a former employee states a valid FLSA retaliation claim where, the alleged retaliation consists of the employer’s refusal to provide its former employee work as an independent contractor, work that the employer was not contractually obligated to provide, but which the employer indicated would be provided.  Following Fourth Circuit precedent, the court held that the Plaintiff had indeed stated a valid cause of action.

Click Boscarello v. Audio Video Systems, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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M.D.La.: Defendant Not Entitled to FWW in Salary Misclassification Case, Where Failed to Pay Plaintiff “Fixed Salary” as Required by 778.114

McCumber v. Eye Care Center of America, Inc.

This case was before the court on the parties cross-motions seeking summary judgment.  As discussed here, the court held that Plaintiff’s unpaid overtime damages, if any, were to be calculated using the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology, rather than the fluctuating workweek (“FWW”) methodology.  Although the Defendant claimed it was entitled to use the FWW to calculate Plaintiff’s damages, due to the fact that Plaintiff was salaried misclassified, the court disagreed.  The court held that Defendant had failed to pay Plaintiff a “fixed salary” as required for application of 29 C.F.R. § 778.114, because  the evidence showed that Defendant docked Plaintiff’s pay on at least 2 occasions when Plaintiff worked fewer than 40 hours in a workweek.

Reviewing the parties’ respective arguments and holding that any damages ultimately found due were to be calculated at time and a half, the court reasoned:

“Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment seeks judgment in its favor declaring that any wages found to be due plaintiff in this case shall be calculated using the fluctuating workweek method (“FWW method”) pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 778.114.  Subsection (a) of the provision at issue instructs that

‘[a]n employee employed on a salary basis may have hours of work which fluctuate from week to week and the salary may be paid him pursuant to an understanding with his employer that he will receive such fixed amount as straight time pay for whatever hours he is called upon to work in a workweek, whether few or many.’

Under the FWW method, the amount of overtime owed to such an employee is paid at the rate of one-half-time pay, rather than one-and-a-half-time pay. The reason for this is that, according to the salary agreement among the parties, all the hours worked by the employee have already been compensated at straight-time pay and, thus, these hours are only shortchanged by half-time pay, rather than completely uncompensated.

In order to calculate the amount actually due under the FWW method, the fixed weekly salary is divided by the number of hours actually worked in a particular week. The resulting sum is the employee’s “regular rate of pay.” An employee found to be due overtime pay would be paid one half of the regular rate of pay for each hour of overtime worked in that particular week. While the regular rate of pay decreases as hours worked each week increase, the fixed salary must be sufficient such that the regular rate of pay never falls below the minimum wage requirement of 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1).

In addition to the requirement that the minimum wage requirement be sustained by the regular rate of pay calculation, the employer who has allegedly misclassified a position as exempt under the FLSA bears the burden of proving that there existed a “clear mutual understanding” among the employer and employee that the fixed weekly salary is compensation for the hours worked in any given workweek, no matter how few or many, in order to impose the FWW method for calculating overtime due.

Defendants argue that “it is undisputed that [p]laintiff was classified as exempt under the FLSA and was paid a fixed salary of $40,000 per year, regardless of the hours he worked.”  Defendants point to plaintiff’s testimony that he was “usually paid a set amount in each paycheck” and “often worked before and more often after the time set on the schedule” as evidence that plaintiff and defendants were parties to a “clear mutual understanding” that his salary was fixed, despite his varying hours .

The court has examined plaintiff’s written statement, as cited by defendants, and finds that the citation offered by defendants quotes only a portion of plaintiff’s statement. In its entirety, the passages cited by defendants reads

22. I was usually paid a set amount in each paycheck, plus production and other bonuses.

23. The weekly schedule made by the store manager was the minimum time I was expected to work. I often worked before and more often after the time set on the schedule when there were orders to fill or equipment to maintain or repair, or when I had to drive to one of the other labs in the district to repair or maintain equipment. I was also frequently called in to repair machinery on my days off.

Plaintiff asserts that he was not party to a “clear mutual understanding” as is required for application of the FWW method. Plaintiff points out that, on at least two occasions, his biweekly paycheck was reduced by 8 hours so that he was paid for only 72 hours, though he is usually paid for 80 hours.  Plaintiff argues that, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 778.114(c), the FWW method is inapplicable in the instant case because subsection (c) clearly instructs that the employer must pay the salary agreed to by the parties even when the employee does not work the full number of hours scheduled.

Plaintiff further asserts that ECCA internal policies instruct general managers to assume a 40 hour workweek when scheduling various management personnel to work in their stores.  Plaintiff also points to the ECCA policy entitled “Work Schedules and Attendance,” which states that “[t]he normal workweek will consist of forty hours. The normal workday will consist of eight hours of work with an unpaid meal period.”  Plaintiff argues that these policies, as well as the documented deductions in his biweekly paychecks demonstrate that defendants expected plaintiff to work a minimum of 40 hours and, in the event he failed to do so and did not claim leave or other holiday to make up for the time, defendants expected not to pay him the full amount of his salary.

The court has reviewed the documentary evidence cited by plaintiff, as well as plaintiff’s statement, cited by defendants and finds that defendants have failed to demonstrate that no genuine dispute exists as to the applicability of the FWW method in this case. In light of the documentary evidence produced by plaintiff, the court finds that plaintiff has demonstrated that, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 778.114(c), the FWW method is inapplicable to the case at bar. More specifically, the court finds that the check summary documents offered by plaintiff demonstrate that, on two occasions (9/25/2009 and 10/9/2009), plaintiff failed to work the required 80 hours in a designated two-week period and did not claim any holiday or vacation to make up for the shortage in his hours and, accordingly, eight hours worth of pay was deducted from his salary.  Thus, no sincere argument may be made by defendants that its intention was to pay plaintiff a set salary regardless of the hours he worked in a given week, as required for application of the FWW method. On the contrary, the evidence before the court demonstrates defendants’ expectation that plaintiff work a minimum of forty hours each week and that he would be compensated only for those hours he worked or for which he claimed holidays or vacation to which he was entitled. Defendants’ motion will be denied as to its request for application of the FWW method in this case and, accordingly, any overtime found by the jury to be owed to plaintiff shall be compensated at the rate of one and one-half times the amount of plaintiff’s regular hourly wage pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 541.207(a)(1).”

Click McCumber v. Eye Care Center of America, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Ruling.

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6th Cir.: Applying “Primary Benefit” Test, Students in Work-Study Program Were Not Employees Under FLSA

Solis v. Laurelbrook Sanitarium and School, Inc.

This case was before the Sixth Circuit on the Secretary of Labor’s appeal of the decision below, holding that the student-workers at Defendant’s sanitarium were not “employees” under the FLSA, and thus, were not entitled to the child labor protections afforded by the FLSA.  Of interest here, the Sixth Circuit clarified the test to be used under circumstances where students perform work as part of a work-study program, in which they are not compensated for such work monetarily.  After surveying the applicable case law, the DOL’s regulations and its interpretations of same, the court held that the applicable test was the “primary benefit” test.  In other words, the issue of whether such student-workers are covered by the FLSA or not turns on whether the “employer” or they themselves derive the “primary benefit” of the work performed.  Here, reviewing the specific facts of the case, the Sixth Circuit held that the trial court had properly concluded that the student-workers were non-employees, properly excluded from the coverage of the FLSA.

Describing the general factual background, the court explained:

“In conformity with its beliefs, Laurelbrook operates a boarding school for students in grades nine through twelve, an elementary school for children of staff members, and a 50–bed intermediate-care nursing home that assists in the students’ practical training (the Sanitarium). The school has been approved and accredited by the Tennessee Department of Education since the 1970s. The State of Tennessee accredits certain private schools through independent authorized accrediting agencies. The E.A. Sutherland Education Association (EASEA) is one such agency, whose purpose is to consider and adjudicate requests for accreditation from self-supporting (as opposed to denominational) schools, like Laurelbrook, which are operated by members of the Seventh–Day Adventist Church. Laurelbrook is currently accredited through EASEA.”

After surveying the applicable law and deeming the “primary benefit” test to be the proper test for determining whether the student-workers were employees, the court reasoned the student-workers here were not “employees” under the FLSA:

“In applying the primary benefit test, the district court recognized that students’ activities at Laurelbrook contribute to Laurelbrook’s maintenance, thereby benefitting Laurelbrook’s operations. Laurelbrook receives payment for services it provides to patients at the Sanitarium; some of these services are performed by students at no cost to Laurelbrook.  Hours worked by students in the Sanitarium also contribute to the Sanitarium’s satisfaction of its licensing requirements. Laurelbrook sells flowers and produce grown at Laurelbrook with student help. The proceeds from these sales go directly to Laurelbrook’s operations. As part of a course on collision repair, students assist in repairing cars for the public. Beneficiaries of these services pay Laurelbrook directly and the money is recycled back into school programs. Laurelbrook also earns revenue from the sale of wood pallets the students help build.

The value of these benefits to Laurelbrook, however, is offset in various ways. The district court found that Laurelbrook students do not displace compensated workers, and instructors must spend extra time supervising the students at the expense of performing productive work. Specifically, the court found that Laurelbrook is sufficiently staffed such that if the students did not perform work at the Sanitarium, the staff members could continue to provide the same services there without interruption. And while not specifically mentioned by the district court in its findings, there was evidence at trial that the same was also true of the work performed by students outside the Sanitarium. There was also testimony that, were it not for the instructors’ supervisory responsibilities, instructors would be able to complete more productive tasks in less time. Moreover, as the district court found, Laurelbrook is not in competition with other institutions for labor, so Laurelbrook does not enjoy an unfair advantage over other institutions by reason of work performed by its students…

Students do not receive wages for duties they perform. They are not entitled to a job with Laurelbrook upon graduation, and are expected to move on after graduation.”

On the other side of the ledger are the tangible and intangible benefits that accrue to the students. The district court found that Laurelbrook provides it students with significant tangible benefits. Students are provided with hands-on training comparable to training provided in public school vocational courses, allowing them to be competitive in various vocations upon graduation. Students learn to operate tools normally used in the trades they are learning, while being supervised by instructors. Students engage in courses of study that have been considered and approved of by the state accrediting agency. In short, the educational aspect of the instruction at Laurelbrook is sound, in contrast to the training program at issue in Baptist Hospital, where the supervision was inadequate, the exposure to various aspects of the trade limited, and the overall value to the students nil. None of these educational shortcomings is present here. Indeed, the Tennessee Department of Education, through EASEA, has determined that Laurelbrook’s vocational program provides benefits to the students sufficient to warrant accreditation.

Significant, too, are the intangible benefits students receive at Laurelbrook. As the district court found, receiving a well-rounded education—one that includes hands-on, practical training—is a tenet of the Seventh–Day Adventist Church. Laurelbrook provides students with the opportunity to obtain such an education in an environment consistent with their beliefs. The district court found that the vocational training portion of the education teaches students about responsibility and the dignity of manual labor. Thought not mentioned in the district court’s opinion, there is ample evidentiary support for these findings. Parents testified to the benefits their children received from the program, stating that the students learn the importance of working hard and seeing a task through to completion. Some parents testified that their children have become more responsible and have taken on leadership roles since participating in Laurelbrook’s program. Service in the Sanitarium engenders sensitivity and respect for the elderly and infirm. Laurelbrook alumni testified that the leadership skills and work ethic developed at Laurelbrook have proved highly valuable in their future endeavors. Employers also testified that Laurelbrook alumni have a strong work ethic, leadership skills, and other practical skills that graduates of other vocational programs lack.

The Secretary discounts the value of these intangible benefits, but we agree with the district court that they are of significant value. Courts that have addressed the value of such benefits have likewise concluded that they are significant enough to tip the scale of primary benefit in the students’ favor even where the school receives tangible benefits from the students’ activities. See, e.g., Blair, 420 F.3d at 829; Woods, 400 F.Supp.2d at 1166; Bobilin, 403 F.Supp. at 1108. The overall value of broad educational benefits should not be discounted simply because they are intangible.

After considering all of the evidence, the district court found that there is benefit to Laurelbrook’s operations from the students’ activities, but the primary benefit of the program runs to the students. We find no error in the district court’s application of the primary benefit test.”

Click Solis v. Laurelbrook Sanitarium & School to read the entire opinion.

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