M.D.Tenn.: Contractual Limitation of FLSA Claims to One Year SOL Unenforceable; Provision Severed and Arb Agreement Enforced

Pruiett v. West End Restaurants, LLC

Before the court in this putative collective action were the defendants’ motion to dismiss and remand the case to arbitration, as well as plaintiffs’ motion to conditionally certify the case as a collective action.  As discussed here, the court held that the provision within the arbitration agreement purporting to reduce the applicable statute of limitations to one year (from either two or three years) was unenforceable.  However, because the court further held that the unenforceable provision was severable, it severed the statute of limitations provision and otherwise held the arbitration agreement to be enforceable.  Thus, it remanded the case to arbitration after striking the unenforceable provision.

After reviewing a history of applicable case law and determining that the enforceability of the provision in question was an issue of first impression, the court reasoned that allowing an employer to contractually shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims would unduly abridge the statutory rights granted under the FLSA.  The court explained:

“The FLSA requires employers to pay their employees a statutory minimum wage and to pay overtime compensation at a rate not less than one and one-half times the employees’ regular rate of pay. 29 U.S.C. §§ 206 and 207 (2011). An employer who fails to comply with these provisions is liable for the unlawfully withheld compensation, as well as an additional equal amount of liquidated damages. Id. at § 216(b). These damages, including liquidated damages, are compensatory. Elwell v. Univ. Hosp. Home Care Servs., 276 F.3d 832, 840 (6th Cir.2002).

A plaintiff seeking to recover under the FLSA must file the claim within two years of accrual of the cause of action, or within three years of accrual for a willful violation. 29 U.S.C. § 255(a) (2011). Each paycheck that fails to include required wages constitutes a separate statutory violation. See Archer v. Sullivan Cnty., Nos. 95–5214, 95–5215, 129 F.3d 1263, 1997 WL 720406, at *2 (6th Cir.1997). The plaintiff may recover compensatory damages under § 216(b) as far back as the statute of limitations will reach—that is, the plaintiff may recover up to two years of compensatory damages if the violation was not willful, and up to three years of compensatory damages if the violation was willful, dating back from the date of the complaint. See, e.g., Campbell v. Kelly, No. 3:09–cv–435, 2011 WL 3862019, at *10 (S.D.Ohio Aug.31, 2011) (finding that, where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on November 16, 2009, the plaintiff could seek relief dating back to November 17, 2007 for a non-willful violation, or back to November 17, 2006 for a willful violation); Sisk v. Sara Lee Corp., 590 F.Supp.2d 1001, 1004 (W.D.Tenn.2008) (finding that where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on May 7, 2007, the “relevant time period” for willful violations began on May 7, 2004); Herman v. Palo Grp. Foster Home, Inc., 976 F.Supp. 696, 700, 705–06 (W.D.Mich.1997) (finding that defendant willfully violated FLSA and awarding back wages and liquidated damages for period of three years prior to filing of complaint), aff’d, 183 F.3d 468 (6th Cir.1999) (upholding damages award). Thus, under the FLSA, a plaintiff’s substantive right to full compensation is determined by the statute of limitations. As a consequence, unlike the federal statutory claims at issue in Morrison, Daimler–Chrysler, and Ray, shortening the statute of limitations for an FLSA claim necessarily precludes a successful plaintiff from receiving full compensatory recovery under the statute.

Indeed, BrickTop’s does not dispute that enforcing the contractual limitations provision would limit the Plaintiffs to one year of compensatory damages recovery, even though the FLSA entitles Plaintiffs to more. Thus, Defendants concede that the provision prevents plaintiffs from recovering the “full panoply” of compensatory remedies to which the FLSA entitles them. That is not a permissible result. Plaintiffs’ substantive right to full compensation under the FLSA may not be bargained away. Accordingly, the contractual limitations provision is unenforceable as to FLSA claims.

In reaching this holding, the court has undertaken the necessary statute-specific analysis that neither the Boaz court nor the Wineman court conducted. In Wineman, which was issued before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Penn Plaza limited Barrentine to its facts, the district court found that a six-month contractual limitations provision in an employment agreement was not enforceable as to FLSA claims. Wineman, 352 F.Supp.2d at 821–23. The defendant had argued, as BrickTop’s does here, that waiver of the FLSA statute of limitations constituted waiver of a procedural right, not a substantive right. Id. at 922. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that, “in light of the public policy implications, … that is a distinction without a difference.” Id. In support of this reasoning, the court relied on Barrentine for the proposition that even FLSA procedural rights, including the right to the judicial forum, could not be abridged, compromised, or waived by private agreement. Id. at 823. Thus, the court characterized the shortened limitations period as “a compromise of employees’ rights under the FLSA” in violation of public policy. Id. at 822–23. It did not analyze whether the shortened statute of limitations affected FLSA remedies, likely based on its assumption that Barrentine rendered that inquiry irrelevant.

In Boaz, the district court enforced a six-month contractual limitation on FLSA claims, but, like Wineman, did not analyze whether that limitation affected FLSA remedies. In Boaz, the plaintiff had asserted claims under Title VII for race and gender discrimination, as well as FLSA claims for pay discrimination and failure to pay overtime compensation. Id. at 932. At the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff, relying on Wineman, contended that her FLSA claims were not time-barred by a six-month limitations provision in her employment agreement. The court declined to follow Wineman, reasoning that the subsequent Penn Plaza decision limited Barrentine to its facts, and found that federal statutory procedural rights may be abridged. Id. The court observed that several courts had found that limitations provisions were enforceable as to other federal statutes, including discrimination claims under § 1981, ERISA claims, and FMLA claims. Id. at 933. It is also noted that, as a general matter, statutes of limitations are procedural, not substantive. Id. However, without any analysis specific to the FLSA, the court summarily concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations is procedural and, therefore, waivable.

Thus, although Boaz and Wineman reached differing conclusions about the enforceability of a contractual limitation on FLSA claims, neither reached the crucial inquiry presented here. In particular, the reasoning in Boaz is flawed for two reasons. First, the Boaz court misinterpreted Penn Plaza, which merely held that statutory claims may be arbitrated, but did not address whether the statute of limitations for any federal statute—let alone the FLSA—constituted a waivable right. Second, the court should not have concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations was purely “procedural” without assessing whether enforcing a shortened limitation on FLSA claims prevented successful plaintiffs from vindicating their substantive right to full compensation.”

Click Pruiett v. West End Restaurants, LLC to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

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