Monthly Archives: February 2012

D.N.J.: Absent Exercise of Discretion in Loading Trucks, Loader Not Subject to Motor Carrier Act (MCA) Exemption

Chellis v. New Century Transp., Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim.  Defendant asserted that, on its face, plaintiff’s complaint demonstrated that plaintiff was exempt under the motor carrier act, because plaintiff pled that he was a truck loader.  However, the court disagreed, citing plaintiff’s additional allegation that he did not exercise any discretion in loading the trucks.

Significantly, the Complaint alleged the following:

“(1) Plaintiff worked as a truck loader for Defendant. (Compl.¶ 16) Plaintiff’s duties consisted of executing load plans developed by his superiors. (Id. at ¶¶ 19–20) Plaintiff did not have responsibility for exercising his own discretion or judgment when loading. (Id. at ¶¶ 22–24) Despite working in excess of forty fours a week, Plaintiff was not paid overtime.”

Holding that Plaintiff’s allegations were sufficient, the court reasoned:

“To fall within the exemption, a loader’s duties must include “the proper loading of his employer’s motor vehicles so that they may be safely operated on the highways of the country.” 29 C.F.R. § 782.5(a). An employee has safety of operation duties when:

he has responsibility when such motor vehicles are being loaded, for exercising judgment and discretion in planning and building a balanced load or in placing, distributing, or securing the pieces of freight in such a manner that the safe operation of the vehicles on the highways in interstate or foreign commerce will not be jeopardized.

Id.

The parties’ disagreement stems principally from statutory construction. Defendant argues that the regulation is disjunctive. Therefore, Plaintiff need only have duties “in placing, distributing, or securing the pieces of freight” to fall within the exemption. Id.

Plaintiff argues that “for exercising judgment and discretion in planning” modifies subsequent clauses. Id. Merely placing freight on a truck does not fall within the exemption absent the responsibility for using discretion and judgment for such placement. Because Plaintiff alleges that he could not exercise discretion, he was not a loader as defined by the regulation.

Considering the staggering use of disjunctives and conjunctives in the same sentence, the disagreement is understandable. Although this Circuit has not addressed the issue, the balance of courts around the country tend to agree with Plaintiff.  See, e.g., Lewis v. Eskridge Trucking Co., 2011 WL 4598189, *1 (11th Cir.2011) (emphasizing discretion and responsibility in analyzing the loader exemption); Vaughn v. Watkins Motor Lines, Inc., 291 F.3d 900, 904 (6th Cir.2002) (“the plaintiffs and [defendant] disagree as to whether these two dockworkers exercised the judgment and discretion necessary to be considered loaders.”); Shultz v. Kelley, 431 F.2d 1364, 1368 (10th Cir.1970) (a loader must “exercis[e] judgment and discretion in (1) planning and building a balanced load or (2) placing, (3) distributing, or (4) securing the pieces of freight.”). The Court agrees with this analysis.

Here, Plaintiff clearly alleges that he did not have responsibility for exercising judgment or discretion when loading the trucks. (See Compl. ¶¶ 22–26) Therefore, the exemption does not apply and the Motion will be denied.”

Click Chellis v. New Century Transportation, Inc. to read the entire Order Denying Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss.

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W.D.N.Y.: Common Law Claims Not Preempted To the Extent They Provide a Remedy Not Available Under the FLSA

Gordon v. Kaleida Health

In an unusual procedural posture, this case was before the court on plaintiffs’ motion to remand their state common law claims, based on lack of subject matter jurisdiction.  The court held that it had subject matter jurisdiction however, because of FLSA preemption considerations.  As discussed here, the court held that common law claims seeking to recover straight-time compensation otherwise not covered under the FLSA are not preempted by the FLSA.

Discussing the issue the court reasoned:

“In many district court cases where this issue has arisen, the plaintiffs’ common law claims were brought in conjunction with FLSA claims, based on the same facts, and seeking the same relief. In such cases, most courts have had no trouble dismissing the common law claims as preempted to the extent recovery is available under the FLSA, even where the plaintiff also brought wage claims under a parallel state statute. See, e.g., Guensel v. Mount Olive Bd. of Educ., Civ. No. 10–4452, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132102, at *19, 2011 WL 5599717 (D.N.J. Nov. 16, 2011) (common law claims that are “directly covered” by FLSA must be brought under the FLSA); DeMarco v. Northwestern Mem. Healthcare, Civ. No. 10–C–397, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 88541, at *17–18, 2011 WL 3510905 (N.D.Ill. Aug. 10, 2011) (unjust enrichment and other state common law claims seeking relief available under the FLSA are preempted); Bouthner v. Cleveland Constr., Inc., Civ. No. RDB–11–244, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 79316, at *21–22, 2011 WL 2976868 (D.Md. July 21, 2011) (although common law claim made no reference to FLSA, it was preempted where claim sought wages mandated by FLSA).

Two courts in this Circuit have expressly concluded that common law claims are preempted to the extent they seek recovery available under the FLSA, but are not preempted to the extent that state law provides a remedy not available under federal law. DeSilva v. N. Shore–Long Island Jewish Health Sys., 770 F.Supp.2d 497, 532–33 (E.D.N.Y.2011) (finding common law claims preempted by FLSA to extent they sought overtime wages, but not preempted to extent they sought straight-time pay not available under the FLSA); Barrus v. Dick’s Sporting Goods, Inc., 732 F.Supp.2d 243, 263 (W.D.N.Y.2010)  (dismissing common law claims seeking unpaid overtime as preempted by FLSA, but allowing claim for unpaid straight time wages to go forward). Other district courts have held likewise. See, e .g., Monahan v. Smyth Auto., Inc., No. 10–CV–00048, 2011 Dist. LEXIS 9877, at *9–11, 2011 WL 379129 (S.D. Oh Feb. 2, 2011) (unjust enrichment claim not preempted where it was based on alleged failure to pay the state’s minimum wage, which was higher than FLSA minimum wage rate); Mickle v. Wellman Prods. LLC, No. 08–CV–0297, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63697, at *10–11, 2008 WL 3925266 (N.D.Okla.2008) (while state statute created a distinct cause of action for overtime compensation, the plaintiffs’ common law claim seeking such relief was duplicative of remedies provided by the FLSA and was preempted).

The law on this issue is by no means settled—some courts have declined to find common law claims preempted where a state’s statute incorporates the FLSA’s minimum wage and/or overtime provisions, and others have dismissed entirely common law claims for which the FLSA provides only partial relief. However, I find the foregoing cases from within this Circuit persuasive. As the DiSilva court noted, the FLSA’s savings clause expressly provides that wage and hour actions may be brought under state wage statutes, “it says nothing about a party’s ability to pursue general common law claims that have no specific relevance to the labor law context.” 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 27138, at *93 (emphasis in original).

Here, Plaintiffs common law claims are not brought in conjunction with any claim for relief under the FLSA or the NYLL. They refer generally to statutory law only as the basis for calculating damages. This vague reference to “state law” is not enough to draw purely common law claims into the ambit of the FLSA’s savings clause. Accordingly, to the extent Plaintiffs are seeking unpaid overtime wages that are available under the FLSA, their common law claims are preempted, and to the extent they are seeking straight-time wages for which no federal relief is available, they are not.”

Click Gordon v. Kaleida Health to read the entire Decision and Order.

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Filed under Class Certification, State Law Claims

4th Cir.: Intracompany Complaints Regarding FLSA Violations Are Protected Activity Within the Meaning of Anti-Retaliation Provision of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)

Minor v. Bostwick Laboratories, Inc.

Jafari v. Old Dominion Transit Management Co.

In two new opinions, one published (Minor) and one unpublished (Jafari) the Fourth Circuit confirmed that post-Kasten, intracompany complaints of FLSA violations are sufficient to trigger the protections of the anti-retaliation provision of 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).

In Minor, the lower court had dismissed the plaintiff’s complaint premised on a violation of 215, holding that internal complaints, as opposed to those to a government agency, do not constitute protected activity.  Reversing the lower court, the Fourth Circuit held that such intracompany complaints are indeed protected activity and thus, trigger the protections of 215.

Framing the issue the Fourth Circuit explained:

“The sole question presented by this appeal is whether an employee’s complaint lodged within her company—as opposed to a complaint filed with a court or government agency—may trigger the protection of the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision. This is an issue of first impression in this circuit.”

Initially the court noted that neither Kasten, nor any Fourth Circuit case law was directly on point.  However, following the majority of circuits to have addresssed the issue, the court concluded that the statute was ambiguous as to this point and given the remedial nature of the FLSA such informal complaints should be protected.

After discussing the ambiguity in 215’s language regarding “filing” a complaint, the court reasoned:

“The Supreme Court in Kasten determined that oral complaints could constitute protected activity within the meaning of § 215(a)(3) based upon “functional considerations.” 131 S.Ct. at 1333. In light of the ambiguous nature of § 215(a)(3)‘s “filed any complaint” language, we find that these same functional considerations dictate that intracompany complaints qualify as protected activity within the meaning of the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision.

We first consider the basic goals of the FLSA. Consistent with other authority, we conclude that, because of the statute’s remedial purpose, § 215(a)(3) must be interpreted to include intracompany complaints.

The FLSA was enacted to combat “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” 29 U.S.C. § 202(a). “The central aim of the Act was to achieve … certain minimum labor standards.” Mitchell v. Robert DeMario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U.S. 288, 292, 80 S.Ct. 332, 4 L.Ed.2d 323 (1960). To ensure compliance with the provisions enacted to serve this purpose, Congress “chose to rely on information and complaints from employees seeking to vindicate rights claimed to have been denied.” Id. It included the antiretaliation provision in recognition of the fact that “fear of economic retaliation might often operate to induce aggrieved employees quietly to accept substandard conditions.” Id. In light of these objectives, the Supreme Court has consistently held that the FLSA “must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” Tenn. Coal, Iron & R.R. Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 597, 64 S.Ct. 698, 88 L.Ed. 949 (1944). We likewise recognized in Ball that where the statutory language permits, “we are instructed to read the FLSA to effect its remedial purposes.” 228 F.3d at 363–64.

With the statute’s purpose in mind, Kasten stated that “an interpretation [of § 215(a)(3) ] that limited the provision’s coverage to written complaints would undermine the [FLSA’s] basic objectives.” 131 S.Ct. at 1333. The Supreme Court further observed that such a limitation on the scope of the anti-retaliation provision would circumscribe flexibility in enforcing the FLSA. Id . at 1334. As a supporting point, the Supreme Court stated that “insofar as the antiretaliation provision covers complaints made to employers …, [limiting the scope of § 215(a)(3) ] would discourage the use of desirable informal workplace grievance procedures to secure compliance with the Act.” Id. Following this reasoning, we conclude that an interpretation that limits § 215(a)(3)‘s coverage to complaints made before an administrative or judicial body would overly circumscribe the reach of the antiretaliation provision in contravention of the FLSA’s remedial purpose. Allowing intracompany complaints to constitute protected activity within the meaning of § 215(a)(3), on the other hand, comports with the statute’s objectives as described by Congress’s findings and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of those findings.

Amici offer several persuasive policy arguments in support of this conclusion. They point out that protection of internal complaints encourages resolution of FLSA violations without resort to drawn-out litigation—and that failure to protect internal complaints may have the perverse result of encouraging employers to fire employees who believe they have been treated illegally before they file a formal complaint. Our sister circuits have voiced the same concerns in concluding that § 215(a)(3) protects intracompany complaints. See Valerio v. Putnam Assocs., Inc., 173 F.3d 35, 43 (1st Cir.1999) (“By protecting only those employees who kept secret their belief that they were being illegally treated until they filed a legal proceeding, the Act would discourage prior discussion of the matter between employee and employer, and would have the bizarre effect both of discouraging early settlement and creating an incentive for the employer to fire an employee as soon as possible after learning the employee believed he was being treated illegally.”).

Indeed, the majority of circuits to consider the question of whether intracompany complaints are protected activity within the meaning of “filed any complaint” have answered in the affirmative, basing their decisions on the FLSA’s remedial purpose.FN8 See, e.g., Hagan v. Echostar Satellite, LLC, 529 F.3d 617, 626 (5th Cir .2008) (“We adopt the majority rule, which allows an informal, internal complaint to constitute protected activity under Section 215(a)(3), because it better captures the anti-retaliation goals of that section.”); Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1004 (9th Cir.1999) (en banc) (finding that § 215(a)(3) covered internal complaints based on its remedial purpose); Valerio, 173 at 42 (same); EEOC v. White & Son Enters., 881 F.2d 1006, 1011 (11th Cir.1989) (same); Love v. RE/MAX of Am., Inc., 738 F.2d 383, 387 (10th Cir.1984) (same); Brennan v. Maxey’s Yamaha, Inc., 513 F.2d 179, 181 (8th Cir.1975) (same); see also EEOC v. Romeo Cmty. Sch., 976 F.2d 985, 989 (6th Cir.1992) (holding that an employee’s complaints to her employer were sufficient to trigger protection of the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision without explaining its rationale). Cf. Brock v. Richardson, 812 F.2d 121, 124–25 (3d Cir.1987) (holding that, because of the FLSA’s remedial purpose, a retaliatory firing based on an employer’s belief that an employee had filed a complaint—even when he had not—was prohibited by § 215(a)(3)). Thus, we adopt the majority view by holding that the remedial purpose of the FLSA requires intracompany complaints to be considered protected activity within the meaning of its antiretaliation provision.

Supporting our conclusion is the Secretary of Labor and the EEOC’s consistent position that intracompany complaints are included within the meaning of “filed any complaint.” We afford agency interpretations that do not have the force of law, like agency manuals and litigation documents, respect to the extent that they possess the “power to persuade.” Christensen v. Harris Cnty., 529 U.S. 576, 587, 120 S.Ct. 1655, 146 L.Ed.2d 621 (2000) (quoting Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140, 65 S.Ct. 161, 89 L.Ed. 124 (1944)). Factors we consider when determining whether an agency interpretation has the power to persuade include “the thoroughness evident in its consideration, the validity of its reasoning, [and] its consistency with earlier and later pronouncements.” Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140; see also Cunningham v. Scibana, 259 F.3d 303, 306–07 (4th Cir.2001).

Here, the EEOC has set forth the position that intracompany complaints constitute “fil[ing] any complaint” within the meaning of § 215(a)(3) in the compliance manual it issues to field offices. 2 EEOC Compliance Manual § 8–II(B) & 8–II(B) n. 12 (2006). In addition, both the Secretary and the EEOC have argued in litigation that intracompany complaints are covered by the FLSA’s antiretaliation provision. See, e.g., Br. for the Sec. of Labor and the EEOC as Amici Curiae at 26–30; Br. for the Sec. of Labor as Amicus Curiae, Kasten v. Saint–Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 570 F.3d 834 (7th Cir.2009) (No. 08–2820). Thus, although it is not determinative, because the Secretary and the EEOC have consistently advanced this reasonable and thoroughly considered position, it “add[s] force to our conclusion.” Kasten, 131 S.Ct. at 1335.

We conclude by emphasizing that our holding that intracompany complaints may constitute “fil[ing] any complaint” under § 215(a)(3) does not mean that every instance of an employee “letting off steam” to his employer constitutes protected activity. Kasten, 131 S.Ct. at 1334. To the contrary, “the statute requires fair notice” to employers. Id. To protect employers from unnecessary uncertainty, “some degree of formality” is required for an employee complaint to constitute protected activity, “certainly to the point where the recipient has been given fair notice that a grievance has been lodged and does, or should, reasonably understand that matter as part of its business concerns.” Id. Therefore, the proper standard for the district court to apply is the aforementioned test articulated in Kasten: whether Minor’s complaint to her employer was “sufficiently clear and detailed for a reasonable employer to understand it, in light of both content and context, as an assertion of rights protected by the statute and a call for their protection.” Id. at 1335.

Minor’s allegations here meet the standard we have articulated to the extent required to survive a motion to dismiss. The facts as alleged in her complaint indicate that Minor expressed her concerns regarding FLSA violations to the chief operating officer of her company in a meeting specifically called for that purpose. Minor also alleges that this executive-level employee agreed to investigate her claims. At this stage, these allegations are sufficient. We note again that we express no view as to whether Minor should ultimately prevail under the standard we have articulated. We simply hold that, on the facts alleged, her complaint survives a motion to dismiss.”

Click Minor v. Bostwick Laboratories, Inc. to read the entire published Opinion.  Click Jafari v. Old Dominion Transit Management Co. to read the companion unpublished Opinion.  Also of interest is the DOL/EEOC Amici Brief filed in Jafari.

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2 New Decisions Regarding Enforcement of Arbitration Agreements in Context of FLSA Claims Reach Opposite Results

Recent weeks have brought more opinions regarding the issue of whether specific arbitration agreements are enforceable.  However, as two recent opinions show, these decisions continue to be fact-specific in virtually all instances, and judge and/or state-law specific in others.  In the first case, Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc., relying on Texas state law, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision holding that an arbitration agreement allowing the employer to unilaterally change the terms lacked the necessary consideration to render the agreement enforceable.  In a second case, LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc., a court within the Southern District of New York examined a different arbitration-related issue- the substantive unconscionability of a collective action waiver- concluding that compelling a potentially high value FLSA claim to arbitration on an individual basis does not conflict with the substantive law regarding the FLSA’s collective action provisions.  Significantly, the court’s conclusion in this regard appears to conflict with another recent holding discussed here, in which another court within the same district held that collective action waivers are unenforceable per se, because they prevent employees from vindicating their substantive statutory rights under the FLSA.

Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc.

Law360 aptly summarized this decision as follows:

“The Fifth Circuit on Wednesday allowed a proposed overtime class action against 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc. to go forward, finding an arbitration agreement at issue contained an ‘escape hatch’ for the fitness chain that made it unenforceable.

In a unanimous, published opinion, the appeals court upheld a Texas federal court’s ruling that the arbitration agreement in 24 Hour Fitness’ employee handbook was illusory because it allowed the company to retroactively modify or terminate the agreement.

Because 24 Hour Fitness reserved the right to unilaterally adjust the conditions of employment — including those which required employees to arbitrate claims on an individual basis — the appeals court found that the arbitration agreement was invalid from the outset.

‘If a 24 Hour Fitness employee sought to invoke arbitration with the company pursuant to the agreement, nothing would prevent 24 Hour Fitness from changing the agreement and making those changes applicable to that pending dispute if it determined that arbitration was no longer in its interest,’ the panel said.

Click Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc. to read the entire Fifth Circuit Opinion.

 

LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc.

In LaVoice, the court held that an arbitration agreement, requiring individual arbitration was enforceable, despite plaintiff’s argument that such an scheme would deprive plaintiff of substantive statutory rights to proceed collectively under the FLSA.  Discussing the issue, the court reasoned:

“…LaVoice also argues that the arbitration agreements between him and UBS are unenforceable because they would preclude him from exercising his statutory rights. To support this position, LaVoice likens the class waivers in the instant case with those that were found unenforceable in the Amex line of cases. LaVoice also draws comparison between his circumstances and those of the plaintiff in Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547 (S.D.N.Y.2011).

The enforceability of a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement must be considered on a case-by-case basis “on its own merits, governed with a healthy regard for the fact that the FAA is a congressional declaration of a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.” Amex II, 634 F.3d at 199. Turning to the class waiver at issue and LaVoice’s specific circumstances, this Court finds that the “practical effect of enforcement of the waiver” in the instant case would not “preclude” LaVoice from exercising his rights under the statutes. Id. at 196. The Court comes to its finding that LaVoice’s statutory rights will not be precluded by enforcement of the class waiver after reviewing his submissions regarding: his estimated damages claim, his estimated attorneys’ fees, his estimated expert fees, his disinclination to pursue his claims individually, his counsel’s disinclination to pursue the claims individually, and his likelihood of success at arbitration.

Although LaVoice and Defendants contest the value of LaVoice’s overtime claim, in reaching its decision, the Court accepts the figure cited in LaVoice’s own opposition papers of overtime claims between $127,000 to $132,000. Aff. Jeffrey G. Smith in Supp. of Opp’n. to Mot. to Compel Arbitration at ¶ 5. Assuming this self-reported value of claims, the Court finds that LaVoice’s circumstances differ drastically on their face from those of the plaintiffs in either the Amex line of cases or Sutherland. Plaintiffs in those cases could each only claim de minimus damages of less than $6000.

With respect to the estimated attorneys’ fees, the Court finds that, unlike the arbitration agreement at issue in Sutherland, the arbitration agreements at issue in the instant case would permit LaVoice to recover an award of attorneys’ fees. Since the agreements authorize the arbitrator(s) to “award whatever remedies would be available to the parties in a court of law” and awards of attorneys’ fees are mandatory for the prevailing party under the FLSA, the agreements themselves crate no impediment to LaVoice’s recovery of fees. See Ex. 6 to Decl. of Matthew Levitan at 20; Ex. 10 to Decl. of Matthew Levitan at 3; and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“The court in such action shall … allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.”) The instant case is therefore distinguishable from Sutherland and its consideration of attorneys’ fees in determining whether plaintiff’s claims were unarbitrable. See also Banus v. Citigroup Global Mkts., Inc., No. 09–7128, 2010 WL 1643780, at *10 n. 61 (S.D.N.Y. Apr.23, 2010) (enforcing class action waiver in arbitration agreement where plaintiff’s estimated recovery was $45,675.36 and attorney’s fees would be “at least $100,000.”)

The court also evaluated and rejected plaintiff’s claim that expert costs to be incurred would be prohibitive in an individual claim, whereas spreading the cost over a collective group would be more palatable and rejected same, in the context of plaintiff’s proffered argument that his counsel would be disinclined to pursue his claims on an individual basis by themselves.

The court concluded, “[i]n light of the foregoing, the Court finds that LaVoice has not met his “burden of showing the likelihood of incurring” such “prohibitively expensive” costs such that the class waiver provisions in the instant action would preclude him from bringing his claims against Defendants in an individual or collective capacity. Amex II, 634 F.3d at 197 (citing Randolph, 531 U.S. at 92.)”

Click LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order compelling the case to arbitration on an individual basis.

As more and more cases are decided following recent United States Supreme Court jurisprudence on arbitrability and class waiver issues, it’s becoming more and more clear that the results are very fact-specific to each case.  Hopefully, higher courts will begin to weigh in on some of the broader issues and give some clarity in the near future.

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Filed under Arbitration, Class Waivers, Collective Actions