Category Archives: Affirmative Defenses

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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6th Cir.: Employment Contract That Purported to Shorten FLSA Statute of Limitations to 6 Months Invalid

Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc.

Employers continue to include language in employment contracts which purports to shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims. By law, the statute of limitations is 2 years on such claims if the employee is unable to show the employers violations are willful, and 3 years if the employee can make such a showing. Recently, the Sixth Circuit reviewed FedEx’s contract that purported to reduce that time to 6 months.  As discussed below, it struck down the employers’ attempts to shorten the statute of limitations. Reasoning that same was an impermissible waiver of rights under the FLSA, the court agreed that such a limitation was unenforceable. In so doing, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court, which had held that such an abridgement of FLSA rights was permissible.

Initially the court briefly reiterated longstanding black-letter law regarding the non-waivable nature of FLSA rights:

Shortly after the FLSA was enacted, the Supreme Court expressed concern that an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights under the Act. See Brooklyn Savs. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706–10, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945). Such waivers, according to the Court, would “nullify” the Act’s purpose of “achiev[ing] a uniform national policy of guaranteeing compensation for all work or employment engaged in by employees covered by the Act.” Jewell Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local No. 6167, United Mine Workers of Am., 325 U.S. 161, 167, 65 S.Ct. 1063, 89 L.Ed. 1534 (1945); see also O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707. The Court therefore held that employees may not, either prospectively or retrospectively, waive their FLSA rights to minimum wages, overtime, or liquidated damages. D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946); O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707; see also Runyan v. Nat’l Cash Register Corp., 787 F.2d 1039, 1041–42 (6th Cir.1986) (en banc).

The court then struck the contract clause at issue reasoning:

The issue here is whether Boaz’s employment agreement operates as a waiver of her rights under the FLSA. Boaz accrued a FLSA claim every time that FedEx issued her an allegedly illegal paycheck. See Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 187 (6th Cir.2008). She filed suit more than six months, but less than three years, after her last such paycheck—putting her outside the contractual limitations period, but within the statutory one.

An employment agreement “cannot be utilized to deprive employees of their statutory [FLSA] rights.” Jewell Ridge, 325 U.S. at 167 (quotation omitted). That is precisely the effect that Boaz’s agreement has here. Thus, as applied to Boaz’s claim under the FLSA, the six-month limitations period in her employment agreement is invalid.

In so doing, the court rejected FedEx’s reliance on what it deemed inapposite case law:

FedEx (along with its amicus, Quicken Loans) responds that courts have enforced agreements that shorten an employee’s limitations period for claims arising under statutes other than the FLSA—such as Title VII. And FedEx argues that the discrimination barred by Title VII (i.e., racial discrimination) is just as bad as the discrimination barred by the FLSA, and hence that, if an employee can shorten her Title VII limitations period, she should be able to shorten her FLSA limitations period too. But that argument is meritless for two reasons. First, employees can waive their claims under Title VII. See, e.g., Alexander v. Gardner–Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 52, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). Second—and relatedly—an employer that pays an employee less than minimum wage arguably gains a competitive advantage by doing so. See Citicorp Indus. Credit, Inc. v. Brock, 483 U.S. 27, 36, 107 S.Ct. 2694, 97 L.Ed.2d 23 (1987). An employer who refuses to hire African–Americans or some other racial group does not. The Court’s rationale for prohibiting waiver of FLSA claims is therefore not present for Title VII claims.

FedEx also relies on Floss v. Ryan’s Family Steak Houses, Inc., 211 F.3d 306 (6th Cir.2000). There, we held that an employee asserting an FLSA claim can waive her right to a judicial forum, and instead arbitrate the claim. Id. at 313, 316. From that holding FedEx extrapolates that employees can waive their “procedural” rights under the FLSA even if they cannot waive their “substantive” ones. But the FLSA caselaw does not recognize any such distinction. That is not surprising, given that the distinction between procedural and substantive rights is notoriously elusive. See Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman, 486 U.S. 717, 726, 108 S.Ct. 2117, 100 L.Ed.2d 743 (1988). More to the point, Floss itself said that an employee can waive his right to a judicial forum only if the alternative forum “allow[s] for the effective vindication of [the employee's] claim.” 211 F.3d at 313. The provision at issue here does the opposite.

The limitations provision in Boaz’s employment agreement operates as a waiver of her FLSA claim. As applied to that claim, therefore, the provision is invalid.

Click Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc. to read the entire Opinion. Click DOL Amicus Brief, to read the amicus brief submitted by the Department of Labor in support of the Plaintiff-Appellant.

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N.D.Cal.: Agreement to Shorten Statute of Limitations to Six Months Procedurally and Substantively Unconscionable Under California Law

Bowlin v. Goodwill Industries of Greater East Bay, Inc.

This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment as to the defendant’s twenty-sixth affirmative defense, which asserted that the claims were barred based on the six-month limitations provision contained in an agreement between the parties that the plaintiff was required to sign as part of his employment with the defendant. The plaintiff argued that the clause in the agreement between the parties shortening the time in which the plaintiff had to bring his claims was unconscionable, rendering the agreement unenforceable, and his claims timely. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion holding that the six-month limitations period was in fact unconscionable under California law.

Initially the court held the agreement was procedurally unconscionable, because the agreement was a contract of adhesion. Discussing this issue, the court reasoned:

The threshold inquiry in California’s unconscionability analysis is whether the … agreement is adhesive.” Nagrampa v. MailCoups, Inc., 469 F.3d 1257, 1281 (9th Cir.2006) (quoting Armendariz, 99 Cal.Rptr.2d 745, 6 P.3d at 689). A contract of adhesion is “a standardized contract, which, imposed and drafted by the party of superior bargaining strength, relegates to the subscribing party only the opportunity to adhere to the contract or reject it.” Armendariz, 99 Cal.Rptr.2d 745, 6 P.3d at 689. A finding that a contract is adhesive is essentially a finding of procedural unconscionability.   Nagrampa, 469 F.3d at 1281;Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 279 F.3d 889, 893 (9th Cir.2002) (“The [contract] is procedurally unconscionable because it is a contract of adhesion….); Flores v. Transamerica HomeFirst, Inc., 93 Cal.App.4th 846, 113 Cal.Rptr.2d 376, 382 (Cal.Ct.App.2001). The critical factor for determining both adhesion and procedural unconscionability is whether the contract “was presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis” and “oppressive due to an inequality of bargaining power that result[ed] in no real negotiation and an absence of meaningful choice.” Nagrampa, 469 F.3d at 1281.

Goodwill’s senior human resources administrator, Grizelda Guzman, states that “all employees were presented with [agreement at issue] in 2008.” Dkt. No. 32–1 ¶ 5. This suggests that the agreement was a standard contract, drafted by Goodwill. As the moving party, however, it is Bowlin’s burden to show that there is no genuine factual dispute that the manner in which the contract was presented to him renders it procedurally unconscionable. To this end, Bowlin submits a declaration and avers that “a manager presented [him] with a copy of the agreement … to initial and sign while [he] was working,” that no one “reviewed the terms or content of the agreement with [him],” and that he “was not able to discuss, negotiate or modify any of the terms or content of the agreement.” Dkt. No. 29–1 ¶¶ 2–4… Accordingly, the Court finds that as a matter of law, the agreement is procedurally unconscionable.

The court then held that the agreement was also substantively unconscionable, holding that, as a matter of law, applying a six-month limitations period to wage and hour claims is unduly harsh.

Because the court held that the agreement was both procedurally and substantively unconscionable, it struck the six-month limitations period from the parties’ agreement and granted the plaintiff’s motion for partial summary judgment.

Click Bowlin v. Goodwill Industries of Greater East Bay, Inc. to read the entire Order Granting Motion for Partial Summary Judgment.

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2 Recent Decisions Discuss the Applicability of the Secondary Agricultural Exemption

The so-called “secondary” agricultural exemption, is one of the lesser known and litigated exemptions. Two recent cases shed light on how far the exemption actually reaches. Discussing the exemption, 2 courts reached different conclusions regarding whether the employees at issue were in fact exempt as secondary agricultural employees. In the first case, the Eleventh Circuit held that employees of an agricultural business, who were employed in Home Depot retail store locations, solely to care for their employer’s plants prior to sale to third parties, were subject to the exemption. In the second case, a district court in the Eastern District of California held that a truck driver who occasionally transported feed for the dairy cows to his employer’s dairy ranch was not exempt under the agricultural exemption, and held that the transport of milk that had been ultra filtrated might not qualify as “agricultural” work. Notably, each decision turned on a different element of the exemptions requirements as discussed below.

Rodriguez v. Pure Beauty Farms, Inc.

In the first case, the Eleventh Circuit held that employees who worked for their employer, a commercial nursery, and maintained their employer’s plants at Home Depot locations, for ultimate sale to third-party customers were subject to the secondary agricultural exemption. The court reasoned that the plaintiffs’ work caring for plants displayed in stores was incident to or in conjunction with nursery farming operations, and so qualified for secondary agricultural exemption. In so holding, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ contention that the employees were engaged in separate business enterprise of selling plants, since they handled only their employers’ plants, albeit in Home Depot locations, and held that the Home Depots where they performed their work qualified as “farms” within the meaning of the regulation.

Initially the court laid out the three prerequisites for application of the secondary agricultural exemption: (1) the “practice must be performed either by a farmer or on a farm”; (2) it must “be performed either in connection with the farmer’s own farming operations or in connection with farming operations conducted on the farm where the practice is performed”; and (3) it must be “performed ‘as an incident to or in conjunction with’ the farming operations.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.129; see also Sariol, 490 F.3d at 1279–80.

The court quickly disposed of the first two elements, finding that they clearly applied. Turning to the third element, the court held that the work performed by the employees was indeed incident to or in conjunction with the defendant’s farming operations, reasoning:

The parties’ dispute focuses primarily on the third requirement—whether the practices Rodriguez and Hernandez performed for the Farms, but on Home Depot store-sites, were “incident to or in conjunction with” the Farms’ farming operations. See 29 C.F .R. § 780.129. “Generally, a practice performed in connection with farming operations is within the statutory language only if it constitutes an established part of agriculture, is subordinate to the farming operations involved, and does not amount to an independent business.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.144. When, as here, the practice is performed on “agricultural or horticultural commodities,” to determine whether “the practice is conducted as a separate business activity rather than as a part of agriculture,” consideration is given to, among other things: (1) whether “the type of product resulting from the practice” remains in its raw or natural state or changes; (2) “the value added to the product as a result of the practice and whether a sales organization is maintained for the disposal of the product”; and (3) whether the product is “sold under the producer’s own label rather than under that of the purchaser.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.147. A farmer or his employees selling the farmer’s own agricultural commodities is also a practice “incident to or in conjunction with the farming operations” as long as “it does not amount to a separate business.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.158(a).

In addition, the Department of Labor has specific regulations addressing employees of nurseries. If nursery employees are engaged in “[p]lanting, cultivating, watering, spraying, fertilizing, pruning, bracing, and feeding the growing crop,” they are employed in agriculture. 29 C.F.R. § 780.205. “Employees of a grower of nursery stock who work in packing and storage sheds sorting the stock, grading and trimming it, racking it in bins, and packing it for shipment are employed in ‘agriculture’ provided they handle only products grown by their employer and their activities constitute an established part of their employer’s agricultural activities and are subordinate to his farming operations.” 29 C.F.R. § 780.209 (emphasis added). However, if the “grower of nursery stock operates, as a separate enterprise, a processing establishment or an establishment for the wholesale of retail distribution of such commodities, the employees in such separate enterprise are not engaged in agriculture.” Id. (citations omitted). “Although the handling and the sale of nursery commodities by the grower at or near the place where they were grown may be incidental to his farming operations, the character of these operations changes when they are performed in an establishment set up as a marketing point to aid the distribution of those products.” Id.

After briefly discussing similar cases, the court explained:

Here, the Farms handles and sells only its own plants, and Rodriguez and Hernandez watered, pruned, and cared for only the Farms’ plants situated at the Home Depot stores. Unlike the employees in Mitchell, Rodriguez and Hernandez did not work in a wholesale distribution center for other growers’ horticultural products. Cf. Mitchell, 267 F.2d at 290–91; see also Adkins v. Mid–American Growers, Inc., 167 F.3d 355, 357 (7th Cir.1999) (explaining that when an employer “buys plants and then resells them without doing significant agricultural work it is operating as a wholesaler rather than as a grower, and wholesalers of agricultural commodities are not exempt from the Act”); Wirtz v. Jackson & Perkins Co., 312 F.2d 48, 51 (2d Cir.1963) (stating that “[w]ere any significant portion of the stock handled in defendant’s storages purchased from … independent sources” the agricultural exemption would not apply because it “is inapplicable to services performed by employees of mere distributors of agricultural products”). Rodriguez and Hernandez are more akin to the flower shop employees in Walling, who handled and sold only their employer’s own nursery stock. See Walling, 132 F.2d at 6.

In any event, the kind of work Rodriguez and Hernandez performed on the Farms’ plants is explicitly identified in the regulations as “agricultural,” such as watering them, pruning away dead limbs, leaves and buds and preparing them for market by handling, inspecting and sorting them. See 29 C.F.R. § 780.205. Nothing Rodriguez and Hernandez did to the plants changed them from their natural state, such that they could be said to be engaged in the separate enterprise of processing or manufacturing. Cf. Mitchell v. Budd, 350 U.S. 473, 480–82, 76 S.Ct. 527, 532, 100 L.Ed. 565 (1956) (concluding that workers at tobacco-bulking plant, where a lengthy fermentation process substantially changed the tobacco’s physical properties and chemical content, were not exempt as agricultural workers). Indeed, by ensuring that the Farms’ plants continued to receive adequate water and light and were pruned and insect-free while in the staging areas, Rodriguez and Hernandez’s work was directly connected with and subordinate to the Farms’ own nursery-farming operations.

Click Rodriguez v. Pure Beauty Farms, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

Williams v. Hilarides

In the second case, there were three issues regarding the application of the agricultural exemption before the court: (1) whether the fact that Plaintiff occasionally transported feed for the dairy cows to Defendant’s dairy ranch has any effect on the court’s determination of Plaintiff’s exempt status; (2) whether Plaintiff’s usual activity of hauling milk from the farm constituted agricultural work within the meaning of the exemption; and (3) whether application of the agricultural exemption is appropriate where the product shipped by Defendant to the cheese plant was a product which Plaintiff characterizes as being manufactured from raw milk by a process of ultrafiltration which removes significant amounts of water.

The court quickly disposed of the first issue, noting that the amount of time that an employee spends on so-called “agricultural” activities each week is determinative of whether the exemption applies (week-to-week):

The first issue—whether the fact that Plaintiff occasionally hauled feed for the dairy cows to Defendant’s farm—requires little discussion. Put simply, exemption from overtime pay entitlement under FLSA is an all-or-nothing proposition. If any portion of the employee’s workweek is spent in work that is not agricultural and therefore not exempt, no exemption may be claimed by the same employer for any amount of work that is agricultural under FLSA. Wyatt v. Holtville Alfalfa Mills, Inc., 106 F.Supp. 624, 629 (S.D.Cal.1952). In other words, an employee’s hours worked in a given workweek are not exempt under the agriculture exemption unless all the work performed that week was exempt agricultural work. Thus, it is of no import to the court’s determination of Plaintiff’s overtime exemption status that Plaintiff may have spent some small amount of time hauling hay for feed for the cattle if it is determined that Plaintiff’s trips to the Hilmar Cheese Plant are determined to be not agricultural in nature.

Discussing the second issue, the court analyzed the CFR regulations and case law pertaining to employees engaged in hauling agricultural goods and concluded that the hauling of such goods necessarily constitutes secondary agricultural work falling within the scope of the exemption.

Turning to the final issue, whether the transport of the raw milk that had been subject the ultra filtration process constituted agricultural work, the court held that issues of fact precluded a finding of same:

Plaintiff’s opposition to Defendant’s motion for summary adjudication raises the issue of whether the product that Plaintiff transported from Defendant’s farm to the cheese plant was a “dairy product” or was an industrial product such that the agriculture exemption was inapplicable. Defendant’s reply to Plaintiff’s contention is essentially limited to the claim that the product hauled by Plaintiff to the cheese plant was milk destined to be made into cheese and the fact that it was treated by ultrafiltration is of no consequence. Plaintiff cites two cases, Mitchell v. Budd, 350 U.S. 473, 76 S.Ct. 527, 100 L.Ed. 565 (1956) and N.L.R.B. v. Tepper, 297 F.2d 280 (1961), to support the contention that the hauling of a dairy product that is the result of the application of a process that removes the dairy product from its raw, natural state does not constitute employment in agriculture for purposes of the FLSA. As the court previously noted, at the time these cases were decided, the overtime provisions of section 7 of the FLSA contained a subsection that exempted those employed in agriculture from overtime but providing that the exemption applied only to activities carried out with respect to commodities in their “raw or natural state.” 29 U.S.C. §§ 207(c), (d) (repealed 1972); Hodgson v. Twin City Foods, Inc., 464 F.2d 246, 250 n. 3 (9th Cir.1972).

Finding no specific regulation directly on point, as to whether the milk that had undergone the ultra filtration was still milk in its “raw” state, the court denied defendant’s motion, noting it had failed to carry its burden of proof on the issue:

As noted above, Defendant has the burden to show that there is no issue of material fact as to whether Plaintiff is exempt from the overtime provisions of 29 U.S.C. § 207(b). Where Defendant fails to carry his burden is in the failure to show the process of transforming milk into the ultrafiltered product that Plaintiff transported to the cheese factory is, in fact, an agricultural, as opposed to manufacturing, function. If the court has no basis upon which it can conclude that the product Plaintiff was hauling to the cheese plant was a “dairy product” (as opposed to a manufactured product), the court cannot conclude that Defendant was engaged in “agriculture” when he shipped his product to the cheese plant or that Plaintiff was correspondingly carrying out an agricultural function. Defendant’s motion for summary adjudication must therefore fail. There is no question that reasonable minds could differ as to both sub-parts (B) and (C) of this opinion. However, the court finds that the application of guidelines established by Congress clearly prevent Defendant from meeting the high burden of production of proof that would allow the court to grant summary adjudication.

Click Williams v. Hilarides to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Adjudication.

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N.D.Ala.: GM’s Salary Based on Forecast Sales of Store Did Not Qualify As a “Bona Fide Commission Plan;” Retail Exemption Inapplicable

Kuntsmann v. Aaron Rents, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The defendant asserted that plaintiff was exempt under either the executive exemption, administrative exemption or the so-called combination exemption of the two. As discussed here, the defendant further argued that even if the plaintiff was not properly deemed exempt under any of the 3 exemptions, he was paid in accordance with 207(i), the “retail exemption” and thus not entitled to overtime compensation. After holding that issues of fact regarding the plaintiff’s primary duties precluded summary judgment, the court addressed the defendant’s final contention regarding the retail exemption and held that it was inapplicable because the plaintiff had not been paid “commissions” as required for application of the retail exemption.

Describing the compensation plan at issue, the court explained:

During his time as GM of that store, Kuntsmann was the highest ranking and only employee in the store whom Aaron classified as exempt from the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirements. Aaron’s compensation scheme for GMs is based on the revenue and operating profits of each individual store. The GM of each store receives a monthly income that approximates the expected financial performance of the store in a month. This approximation, called the “draw,” is compared with the actual earnings of the store on a monthly basis. Then, Aaron adjusts salary upwards when the store performance exceeds the draw and sometimes downward when the store performance does not meet the draw. GMs are also eligible for monthly bonuses based on set financial goals. Aaron reviews each store’s performance twice a year and can increase or decrease the draw according to performance. Aaron also looks at the financial performance of the store at the end of each quarter and provides the GM a bonus if his total monthly commission is greater than the GM’s quarterly draw.

After disposing of the plaintiff’s argument that the retail exemption argument was waived by the defendant’s failure to assert it in its answer (the court reasoned that it wasn’t really an exemption despite referring to it as same, but rather an “exception”), and discussing the elements necessary for the retail exemption, the court explained that it was not applicable, because the plaintiff had not been paid under a “bona fide commission plan.” After noting a lack of authority on the issue, the court distinguished two prior cases from within the Eleventh Circuit.

First, the court noted that time did not play any role in the compensation system at bar, which the court reasoned supported its finding that the plaintiff had not been paid a commission as defendant claimed:

The compensation scheme examined in Klinedinst is distinguishable from the one at issue in the present case. The Eleventh Circuit emphasized the importance of time as a factor in the Klinedinst compensation scheme; time does not play a role in the compensation of an Aaron’s GM. In addition, inherent differences appear between how the auto mechanics in Klinedinst and the GMs at Aaron earn their compensation. The auto mechanics’ compensation derived from each individual job that they performed that was assigned a particular number of “flag hours.” The connection between individual sales and the compensation of an Aaron GM is much more attenuated, however. At Aaron, GMs are neither paid on a “per job basis,” nor an hourly basis but a monthly compensation based on previous quarters’ revenue that could possibly be increased or decreased based on the store’s profits. The payment system in Klinedinst is different enough from the Aaron compensation scheme so that the opinion does not guide this court’s analysis as to whether Aaron’s payment scheme meets the final requirements of § 207(i) at the summary judgment stage—whether its compensation scheme qualifies as a bona fide commission plan.

The court also reasoned that plaintiff’s salary at issue was not a “commission,” because he was not being paid based on total sales attributed to him, but rather based on his store’s overall profits and whether they exceeded the company’s expectations:

A great difference exists between simply adding up total sales attributed to a salesperson each month and then giving the salesperson a certain percentage of those sales in compensation, and awarding a store manager a “bonus” if his store’s profits exceeded the company’s predictions. As Kuntsmann argued, his monthly salary was based on a published rate and did not change based solely on his sales or the store’s sales alone. The payment system in Ethan Allen diverges enough from the Aaron compensation scheme so that the opinion does not direct this court’s analysis as to whether Aaron’s scheme qualifies as a bona fide commission plan under § 207(i).

Thus, the court concluded:

Therefore, this court finds that Aaron has not demonstrated that its compensation scheme qualifies as a “bona fide commission plan.” 29 U.S.C. § 207(i). Although some circuits have doubted the validity of the “clear and affirmative evidence” standard, the Eleventh Circuit has not retreated from this standard, and Aaron has not met it regarding the applicability of the § 207(i) exception. Moreover, regardless of how exacting Aaron’s burden should be when proving the applicability of an FLSA exception, the Eleventh Circuit has also instructed this court to construe FLSA exceptions “narrowly and sensibly.” Klinedinst, 260 F.3d at 1254. After narrowly construing § 207(i), the court has serious doubts as to whether Aaron’ compensation scheme qualifies under the statutory section. While recognizing that determining whether a compensation system qualifies as a bona fide commission plan is a question of law for the court, Aaron has not met its burden of proof at this stage.

Click Kuntsmann v. Aaron Rents, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

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S.D.N.Y.: De Minimis Exception Applies Only in Cases Where There is a “Practical Administrative Difficulty in Recording Time”

Chavez v. Panda Jive, Inc.

Anyone who handles more than a handful of FLSA cases no doubt knows that defendants often raise an affirmative defense regarding the de minimis nature of the work. Typically the defense asserted claims that even if the defendants failed to properly pay the plaintiff for all time due and owing under the FLSA, such time was de minimis, so no damages are due and owing. And, while most of the decisions discussing the issue focus on the amount of time that is (or is not) de minimis as a matter of law, a recent case sheds light on the narrow circumstances where the defense is even available to an employer. And, as it turns out, the defense is likely applicable far less than you might have thought, only in circumstances where there is a “practical administrative difficulty in recording [the employee's] time,” as discussed briefly in this case.

In this case, the plaintiff’s time records clearly showed overtime hours worked, however the defendant paid him only straight time for his overtime hours, and not time and a half. As the court’s opinion indicates, initially the defendant had raised an exemption defense, however because the plaintiff was admittedly paid by the hour, the defendant ultimately conceded that the plaintiff was generally entitled to overtime (which he was not paid) when he worked over 40 hours in a work week. However, the defendant asserted that because such time was “de minimis” it was not recoverable under the FLSA. Rejecting defendant’s contention, the court explained:

The de minimis exception applies, however, only in cases where there is a “practical administrative difficulty of recording additional time,” such as an employee’s commuting time. Singh v. City of New York, 524 F.3d 361, 371 (2d Cir.2008) (Sotomayor, J.); Reich v. N.Y. Transit Auth., 45 F.3d 646, 652 (2d Cir.1995). This is not such a case: defendants concede that they paid Chavez only straight time for hours for which their own records explicitly show he was owed time and a half. See, e.g., Reply Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment dated May 4, 2012 at 4–5; Tr. at 5–6. Accordingly, the Court grants summary judgment to plaintiff on the issue of liability against defendant Panda Jive for overtime hours Chavez worked prior to moving back to Penelope’s kitchen in December 2009.

Click Chavez v. Panda Jive, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Order.

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5th Cir.: Where Employees Were Represented in Grievance Process By Their Union and Its Attorneys, Private Settlement of a Bona Fide Dispute Enforceable

Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C.

Following the entry of summary judgment on behalf of the defendants, the plaintiffs appealed. As discussed here, plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s holding that the private settlement reached between their union and one of their alleged employers was binding and enforceable. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that absent: (1) court approval, (2) DOL supervision, or (3) a showing that they had been paid their wages in full without compromise, the settlement previously reached was not binding and/or enforceable. Affirming the decision below, the Fifth Circuit held that the settlement agreement was binding and enforceable notwithstanding the lack of court or DOL supervision, because it was a resolution of a bona fide dispute. While it is not entirely clear, it appears that the Fifth Circuit reasoned that the agreement, at least arguably could be said to be “without compromise,” thus making it binding and enforceable.

The case concerned grips and other movie production employees who worked on the set of a movie. Laying out the relevant procedural/factual background, the Fifth Circuit explained:

The plaintiffs “filed a grievance against Spring Break Louisiana alleging that they had not been paid wages for work they performed. The Union sent a representative to investigate the merits of the claims. After his investigation, the representative concluded that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they alleged they had worked. The Union and Spring Break Louisiana entered into a Settlement Agreement pertaining to the disputed hours allegedly worked by Appellants.”

Discussing the issue of whether the private settlement here was binding and enforceable the Fifth Circuit reasoned:

The district court concluded that the plain language of the Settlement Agreement “is binding upon the [Appellants] in their individual capacities and prohibits those individuals from pursuing future legal action against Spring Break Louisiana after receiving their settlement payments.” We agree. The Settlement Agreement, in relevant part, states:

The Union on its own behalf and on behalf of the IATSE Employees agrees and acknowledges that the Union has not and will not file any complaints, charges or other proceedings against Producer, its successors, licenses and/or assignees, with any agency, court, administrative body, or in any forum, on condition that payment in full is made pursuant to the terms of this Settlement Agreement.

The Settlement Agreement also states that the Union “has the full power and authority to enter into this Settlement Agreement on behalf of IATSE Employees and bind them in accordance with the terms hereof.” By this plain language, the Appellants, who were IATSE Employees, were bound by its terms. Appellants contend, however, that the Settlement Agreement is unenforceable because they never signed it or agreed to it—instead, the Settlement Agreement was signed by Union representatives. However, Appellants do not dispute that they received full payment for their claims pursuant the terms of the Settlement Agreement. Nor do Appellants dispute that they cashed the Settlement Agreement payment checks they received. The Appellants were members of the Union and, under the CBA, Spring Break Louisiana recognized “the Union as exclusive representative of the employees in the bargaining unit.” Considering that Appellants, who were members of the Union, received and accepted full payment for their FLSA claims under the Settlement Agreement, the fact that Appellants did not themselves personally sign the Settlement Agreement does not render it unenforceable. See N.L.R.B. v. Allis–Chalmers Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 175, 180, 87 S.Ct. 2001, 18 L.Ed.2d 1123 (1967) (“The employee may disagree with many of the union decisions but is bound by them.”).

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the settlement agreement was not binding and enforceable, because generally individuals may not privately settle FLSA claims. In response the defendants argued that that a private compromise of claims under the FLSA is permissible where there exists a bona fide dispute as to liability (and as to the amount of appropriate damages). After a discussion of the relevant Fifth Circuit precedent, the court agreed with the Defendants and held the settlement agreement at issue to be enforceable.

Significantly the court reasoned:

[H]ere, there is a bona fide dispute between Appellants and Spring Break Louisiana over the number of hours for which they are owed their set rate of pay. In fact, the Union representative conducted an investigation into the dispute and received conflicting information from various sources, ultimately concluding that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they claimed they had worked in their grievance.  Approving of this rationale, we hold that the payment offered to and accepted by Appellants, pursuant to the Settlement Agreement, is an enforceable resolution of those FLSA claims predicated on a bona fide dispute about time worked and not as a compromise of guaranteed FLSA substantive rights themselves. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 714, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (“Our decision … has not necessitated a determination of what limitation, if any, Section 16(b) of the [FLSA] places on the validity of agreements between an employer and employee to settle claims arising under the Act if the settlement is made as the result of a bona fide dispute between the two parties, in consideration of a bona fide compromise and settlement.”); see also D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114–15, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946) (“Nor do we need to consider here the possibility of compromises in other situation which may arise, such as a dispute over the number of hours worked or the regular rate of employment.”); 29 U.S.C. § 253(a).

Apparently the court also believed that the settlement at issue here could arguably be said to be “without compromise” such that the third permissible basis for an enforceable private settlement was met:

Notably, in Thomas v. Louisiana, 534 F.2d 613 (5th Cir.1976), we held that a private settlement of FLSA claims was binding and enforceable where the settlement gave employees “everything to which they are entitled under the FLSA at the time the agreement is reached.” Id. at 615. We explained that, “[a]lthough no court ever approved this settlement agreement, the same reason for enforcing a court-approved agreement i.e., little danger of employees being disadvantaged by unequal bargaining power[,] applies here.” Id.  Here, Spring Break Louisiana and the Union agreed in the Settlement Agreement that the payments Appellants were paid pursuant to that agreement were the “amounts due and owing” for the disputed number of hours they claimed they had worked and not been paid for. The Settlement Agreement was a way to resolve a bona fide dispute as to the number of hours worked—not the rate at which Appellants would be paid for those hours—and though Appellants contend they are yet not satisfied, they received agreed-upon compensation for the disputed number of hours worked.

Lastly, the court distinguished a settlement privately negotiated by a union and its attorneys from a situation where a labor union purports to waive an employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, a longstanding no-no under well-established FLSA jurisprudence:

Finally, Appellants contend, citing Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981), that because the Supreme Court has held that a union cannot waive employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, they cannot have settled their FLSA claims in the Settlement Agreement, which was arrived at through the Union-facilitated grievance procedure laid out in the CBA. See Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“FLSA rights … are independent of the collective-bargaining process. They devolve on petitioners as individual workers, not as members of a collective organization. They are not waivable.”). Although the terms and conditions of Appellants’ employment with Spring Break Louisiana were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, Barrentine is distinguishable. In Barrentine, the plaintiffs’ grievances based on rights under the FLSA were submitted by the union to a joint grievance committee that rejected them without explanation, a final and binding decision pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. 450 U.S. at 731, 101 S.Ct. 1437. Here, Appellants accepted and cashed settlement payments—Appellants’ FLSA rights were adhered to and addressed through the Settlement Agreement, not waived or bargained away. The concerns the Court in Barrentine expressed, that FLSA substantive rights would be bargained away, see id. at 740, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“This Court’s decisions interpreting the FLSA have frequently emphasized the nonwaivable nature of an individual employee’s right to a minimum wage and to overtime pay under the Act. Thus, we have held that FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived because this would ‘nullify the purposes’ of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.”), are not implicated by the situation here where Appellants’ Union did not waive FLSA claims, but instead Appellants, with counsel, personally received and accepted compensation for the disputed hours. We reiterate that FLSA substantive rights may not be waived in the collective bargaining process, however, here, FLSA rights were not waived, but instead, validated through a settlement of a bona fide dispute, which Appellants accepted and were compensated for. Therefore, the district court did not err by finding an enforceable release resolving this wage dispute.

Given, the somewhat unique facts of this case, it remains to be seen whether the Fifth Circuit’s decision while trigger a change in longstanding FLSA jurisprudence regarding the enforceability of privately-negotiated settlements, or whether this case will remain an outlier, largely limited to its facts. For example, it is not clear whether the settlement would have been enforced absent the fact that plaintiffs were represented by both their union and attorneys in the negotiations, or if this was a “straight time” case where there was demonstrative evidence of the precise number of hours at issue.  Stay tuned, for what’s likely to be an influx of cases where defendant-employers seek to expand this case’s holding while plaintiff-employees seek to limit the holding to the facts at bar (which are not likely to be oft-repeated).

Click Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C. to read the entire Decision. For an excellent historical overview of more typical decisions regarding the enforceability of private settlements of FLSA claims click here to read an outline from the folks at Outten & Golden.

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2 Recent Decisions Hold That an Employer-Defendant Cannot Avoid Liquidated Damages By Relying on Involuntary Administrative Governmental Audits

As FLSA cases have proliferated in recent years, among the formally sleepy areas of jurisprudence that has seen a dramatic rise in litigation is the so-called “good faith” defense. Although in its earliest years the FLSA provided for mandatory liquidated damages, a subsequent amendment to the FLSA, through the Portal-to-Portal Act, now allows for a defendant to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages (in addition to the underlying unpaid wages damages) if it can demonstrate that it took affirmative steps to attempt compliance with the FLSA, but violated the FLSA nonetheless. Two recent cases reiterate that a defendant’s burden is not met solely by demonstrating that it had a subjective belief that it was complying.

McLean v. Garage Management Corp.

In the first case, the defendant sought to avoid liquidated damages by relying on a series of involuntary misinformed DOL audits, which it claimed it reasonably relied upon in establishing their belief that its illegal pay methodology, whereby it treated hourly employees as executive exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. While the DOL has in fact found the defendant’s classification to be proper, the court noted that the DOL’s finding was based on its examination of the employees’ duties alone, because the defendant had misrepresented to the DOL that the employees were paid on a salary basis, at the required rate under the applicable regulations in the initial audit. Subsequent audits simply compounded this initial incomplete investigation, based on the information the defendant provided to the DOL in the initial audit.

Significantly, the court rejected the defendants’ claimed reliance on the DOL audits for 3 separate reasons. First, it found that any informal conversations do not constitute “active steps” to ascertain the dictates of the law. Second, the court noted that the audits were involuntary and defendant had not requested same and thus, giving government investigators access to records and employees did not relieve defendant of its own obligation to determine what the labor laws require. Third, the court noted that defendant had not shown that any government investigator focused with care on its time and payroll records for the employees in question, and thus the DOL had not undertaken a review to see whether the defendant indeed paid a predetermined amount that did not vary, as required to meet the “salary basis” prong of the executive exemption. “Without such full disclosure, [the defendant] cannot reasonably rely on the existence of the investigations and their failure to find any inadequacies in the compensation system for [the employees].”

Finally, the court held that the defendant was not entitled to rely on the fact that it periodically consulted with outside counsel, because it had invoked its attorney-client privilege. The court explained that absent a waiver of the privilege, the defendant could not sustain a defense based on good faith reliance on the advice of counsel.

Click McLean v. Garage Management Corp. to read the entire Opinion and Order.

Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc.

In the second case- concerning an alleged misclassification of drivers under the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption- the defendant sought to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages, by relying on a prior involuntary Department of Transportation (DOT) audit/citations and the advise of counsel it received as part of the audit process. As in McLean above, the court rejected this evidence of “good faith” as insufficient to meet the defendant’s heavy burden.

The court noted:

Defendants maintain they have demonstrated both their subjective good faith and objectively reasonable belief that their failure to pay overtime wages to their drivers did not violate FLSA. To meet their burden, Defendants rely almost exclusively on their compliance with DOT rules and the DOT’s citation of “some” of their intrastate-only drivers. The DOT’s citation of “some” of Defendants’ intrastate-only drivers, however, does not provide a sufficiently reasonable basis for concluding all such drivers were under the DOT’s jurisdiction and, therefore, exempt from FLSA. The objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure is undermined by the fact that the determination as to whether the Department of Labor or the DOT has jurisdiction is resolved on a driver-by-driver basis, as the Court explained at length on summary judgment, and, in any event, DOT jurisdiction for a driver who only occasionally drives in interstate commerce lasts only 4 months from the last such trip. See Reich v. Am. Driver Serv., Inc., 33 F.3d 1153, 1155–56 (9th Cir.1994). Furthermore, exemptions to FLSA, such as the Motor Carrier Exemption relied on by Defendants, are to be construed narrowly and only apply to employees who “plainly and unmistakably” fall within their terms. See Solis v. Washington, 656 F.3d 1079, 1083 (9th Cir.2011). Thus, the Court concludes Defendants’ generalizations about entire classes of their drivers on the basis of DOT citations of some of its drivers are insufficient to establish the objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure to comply with FLSA. Similarly and in light of the lack of testimony in this regard, the fact that Defendants required both their interstate and intrastate drivers comply with DOT regulations neither establishes Defendant’s subjective belief nor its objective reasonableness.

Defendants also maintain their belief that their drivers were exempt from FLSA is reasonable in light of the fact that they hired counsel to assist with the November 2009 DOT compliance audit. Although there is not any direct evidence as to the purpose of counsel’s representation, the Court concludes it is fair to infer that counsel was hired to ensure Defendants’ compliance with DOT regulations rather than to ensure Defendants were compliant with FLSA. In any event, there is not any evidence on this record from which the Court can find that Defendants took “the steps necessary to ensure [its] practices complied with [FLSA].” Alvarez, 339 F .3d at 910 (“Mistaking ex post explanation and justification for the necessary affirmative ‘steps’ to ensure compliance, [the defendant] offers no evidence to show that it actively endeavored to ensure such compliance.”). Thus, the Court concludes on this record that Defendants did not satisfy their “difficult” burden to show their subjective good faith failure to comply with FLSA or the objective reasonableness of their actions, and, therefore, the Court concludes Plaintiff is entitled to liquidated damages in the amount equal to the unpaid overtime wages.

Click Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc. to read the entire Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Verdict.

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M.D.Tenn.: Where Employees Believed They Were Required to Sign WH-58 and/or Unaware of Private Lawsuit Regarding Same Issues, Waivers Null & Void

Woods v. RHA/Tennessee Group Homes, Inc.

This case was before the court on a variety of motions related to the plaintiffs’ request for conditional certification and for clarification as to the eligible participants in any such class.  The case arose from plaintiffs’ claims that defendants improperly automatically deducted 30 minutes for breaks that were not provided to them.  Of interest here, during the time the lawsuit was pending, the DOL was also investigating defendants regarding the same claims.  Shortly after the lawsuit was commenced, the DOL made findings and recommendations to the defendants, in which it recommended payments of backwages to certain employees that were also putative class members in the case.  As discussed here, the defendants then made such payments to the putative class members, but required that all recipients of backwage payments sign a WH-58 form (DOL waiver), which typically waives an employees claims covered by the waiver.  Subsequently, the plaintiffs sought to have the WH-58′s declared null & void and asserted that any waiver was not knowing and/or willful as would be required to enforce.  The court agreed and struck the waivers initially.  However, on reconsideration the court held that a further factual showing was necessary to determine whether the WH-58 waivers were effectual or not under the circumstances.

The court explained the following procedural/factual background relevant to the waiver issue:

“The six named plaintiffs filed this putative collective action on January 13, 2011. Coincidentally, on the same day, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) contacted the defendant and commenced an investigation regarding the Meal Break Deduction Policy. (Docket No. 80 at 25 (transcript of April 14, 2011 hearing).) The DOL was apparently following up on a complaint that it had received nearly a year earlier. (Id. at 32.) Several days later, on January 18, the defendant informed the DOL of the pending private lawsuit.

Nevertheless, the DOL proceeded with the investigation and, in early March 2011, the DOL and the defendant reached a settlement, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(c). Under the settlement, the defendant agreed to comply with the FLSA in the future and to pay a certain amount of back wages to employees who were subject to the Meal Break Deduction Policy. (See Docket No. 80 at 14.)

To distribute these payments, the defendant posted the following notice in a common area:

The following employees must come to the Administrative Building and see Michelle regarding payment for wages as agreed upon by the Stones River center and the Department of Labor on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 8:00 am–4:00 pm.

If you have questions, see Lisa or Kamilla

(Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 72; Docket No. 56, Ex. 1.)  The posting contained a list of over 60 employees (see Docket No. 56, Ex. 1), including several employees who had already opted into this lawsuit (see, e.g., Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 56), although the defendant claims that their inclusion was an oversight. In her declaration, Human Resources Director Kamilla Wright states that she was simply “instructed to post a list of employees for whom checks were available.” (Docket No. 55 ¶ 7.)

Wright was further instructed “that when an employee came to the office to pick up their check, [she] was to have them sign the receipt for payment of back wages and then give them their check.” (Id. ¶ 9.) The declaration of Lisa Izzi, the defendant’s administrator, states that Izzi received identical instructions. (Docket No. 56 ¶ 9.) Accordingly, at the meetings with employees, each employee was given a check and DOL Form WH–58, which was titled “Receipt for Payment of Back Wages, Employment Benefits, or Other Compensation.” (Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 13.) The form stated:

I, [employee name], have received payment of wages, employment benefits, or other compensation due to me from Stones River Center … for the period beginning with the workweek ending [date] through the workweek ending [date.] The amount of payment I received is shown below.

This payment of wages and other compensation was calculated or approved by the Wage and Hour Division and is based on the findings of a Wage and Hour investigation. This payment is required by the Act(s) indicated below in the marked box(es):

[X] Fair Labor Standards Act 1

(Id.) Further down, in the middle of the page, the form contained the following “footnote”:

FN1NOTICE TO EMPLOYEE UNDER THE FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT (FLSA)—Your acceptance of this payment of wages and other compensation due under the FLSA based on the findings of the Wage and Hour Division means that you have given up the right you have to bring suit on your own behalf for the payment of such unpaid minimum wages or unpaid overtime compensation for the period of time indicated above and an equal amount in liquidated damages, plus attorney’s fees and court costs under Section 16(b) of the FLSA. Generally, a 2–year statute of limitations applies to the recovery of back wages. Do not sign this receipt unless you have actually received this payment in the amount indicated above of the wages and other compensation due you.

(Id.) Below that was an area for the employee to sign and date the form.

It appears that Wright and Izzi did not, as a matter of course, inform the employees that accepting the money and signing the WH–58 form was optional. Nor did they inform the employees that a private lawsuit covering the same alleged violations was already pending.

On April 12 and 13, 2011, a number of employees accepted the payments and signed the WH–58 forms. On April 13, the plaintiffs’ counsel learned of this and filed a motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, seeking to prevent the defendant from communicating with opt-in plaintiffs and potential opt-in plaintiffs. (Docket No. 43.)

The court held a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion on April 14, 2011. At that hearing, the court expressed its displeasure with the defendant’s actions, which, the court surmised, were at least partly calculated to prevent potential class members from opting in to this litigation. The court stated that it would declare the WH–58 forms (and the attendant waiver of those employees’ right to pursue private claims) to be null and void; thus, those employees would be free to opt in to this lawsuit.”

On reconsideration, the court reconsidered its prior Order on the issue.  While re-affirming that non-willful waivers would be deemed null & void, the court explained that the issue would be one for the finder of fact at trial.  After a survey of the relevant case law, the court explained:

“To constitute a waiver, the employee’s choice to waive his or her right to file private claims—that is, the employee’s agreement to accept a settlement payment—must be informed and meaningful. In Dent, the Ninth Circuit explicitly equated “valid waiver” with “meaningful agreement.” Dent, 502 F.3d at 1146. Thus, the court stated that “an employee does not waive his right under section 16(c) to bring a section 16(b) action unless he or she agrees to do so after being fully informed of the consequences.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). In Walton, the Seventh Circuit likened a valid § 216(c) waiver to a typical settlement between private parties:

When private disputes are compromised, the people memorialize their compromise in an agreement. This agreement (the accord), followed by the payment (the satisfaction), bars further litigation. Payment of money is not enough to prevent litigation…. There must also be a release.  Walton, 786 F.2d at 306. The relevant inquiry is whether the plaintiffs “meant to settle their [FLSA] claims.” Id.

Taken together, Sneed, Walton, and Dent suggest that an employee’s agreement to accept payment and waive his or her FLSA claims is invalid if the employer procured that agreement by fraud or duress. As with the settlement of any other private dispute, fraud or duress renders any “agreement” by the employee illusory. See 17A Am.Jur.2d Contracts § 214 (“One who has been fraudulently induced to enter into a contract may rescind the contract and recover the benefits that he or she has conferred on the other party.”); id. § 218 (“ ‘Duress’ is the condition where one is induced by a wrongful act or threat of another to make a contract under circumstances which deprive one of the exercise of his or her free will. Freedom of will is essential to the validity of an agreement.” (footnote omitted)).  The court finds that employees do not waive their FLSA claims, pursuant to § 216(c), if their employer has affirmatively misstated material facts regarding the waiver, withheld material facts regarding the waiver, or unduly pressured the employees into signing the waiver.

This holding does conflict with Solis v. Hotels.com Texas, Inc ., No. 3:03–CV–0618–L, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17199 (N.D.Tex. Aug. 26, 2004), in which the district court rejected the contention that “an allegation of fraud could lead to the invalidity of a waiver under 216(c).” Id. at *6. That finding was mere dicta, however, and, regardless, this court is not bound by decisions from the Northern District of Texas.

Here, the defendant posted a sign with a list of employees’ names stating that those employees “must come to the Administrative Building and see Michelle regarding payment for wages as agreed upon by the Stones River center and the Department of Labor.” (Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 72 (emphasis added).) It appears that, when the employees met with the defendant’s human resources representatives, neither the representatives nor the Form WH–58 informed the employees that they could choose to not accept the payments.  On the evidence presented at the April 14 hearing and submitted thereafter, the court finds that reasonable employees could have believed that the defendant was requiring them to accept the payment.  Obviously, this calls into question the willingness of the employees’ waivers.

Additionally, it appears that the defendant never informed the employees that a collective action concerning the Meal Break Deduction Policy was already pending when the waivers were signed. The court finds that it was the defendant’s duty to do so. Section 216 exists to give employees a choice of how to remedy alleged violations of the act—by either accepting a settlement approved by the DOL or by pursing a private claim. An employer should not be allowed to short circuit that choice by foisting settlement payments on employees who are unaware that a collective action has already been filed. If employees are unaware of a pending collective action, they are not “fully informed of the consequences” of their waiver, Dent, 502 F.3d at 1146, because waiving the right to file a lawsuit in the future is materially different than waiving the right to join a lawsuit that is already pending. In the former situation, an employee who wishes to pursue a claim must undertake the potentially time-consuming and expensive process of finding and hiring an attorney; in the latter, all an employee must do is sign and return a Notice of Consent form.

Thus, the court finds that any employee of Stones River Center may void his or her § 216(c) waiver by showing either: (1) that he or she believed that the defendant was requiring him or her to accept the settlement payment and to sign the waiver; or (2) that he or she was unaware that a collective action regarding the Meal Break Deduction Policy was already pending when he or she signed the waiver. The court will vacate its April 14, 2011 Order, to the extent that the order declared all such waivers to be automatically null and void. Instead, under the above-described circumstances, the waivers are voidable at the election of the employee.  Because the validity of any particular employee’s waiver depends on questions of fact, the issue of validity as to each employee for whom this is an issue will be resolved at the summary judgment stage or at trial.”

Click Woods v. RHA/Tennessee Group Homes, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion on all the motions.

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M.D.Fla.: Applying Twombly, Defendant’s Assertion of Generalized Affirmative Defense of “Good Faith” Struck, Due to Insufficient Facts

Drzik v. Haskell Co.

This case was before the court on Plaintiff’s motion to strike several affirmative defenses pled by Defendant as factually insufficient under FRCP 8 and Twombly.  Significantly, the court struck Defendant’s two affirmative defenses asserting that liquidated damages were not due to Plaintiff because Defendant had acted in “good faith” in committing violations, if any, of the FLSA.  The case is significant, because the affirmative defenses struck are asserted in the majority of FLSA defendants’ answers, typically with identical language to that pled here.  Noting that such bare bones allegations do not satisfy the pleading requirements of Rule 8, the court struck the Defendant’s affirmative defense(s) of good faith, with leave to replead with additional facts.

Holding that the Defendant’s allegations of good faith were insufficient as pled, the court explained:

“[Defendant's] Third and Fifth Affirmative Defenses respectively claim that Plaintiff’s claims are barred because Haskell has acted in good faith, and because of the existence of exceptions, exclusions, or exemptions provided in the FLSA. (Doc. 6 at 6). These affirmative defenses correctly state that a “good faith” defense and exceptions exist under the FLSA. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 207, 260. However, the affirmative defenses, as drafted, are lacking in sufficient details and fail to provide the requisite notice of the theory of the defense. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (explaining the need for factual support to give defendant fair notice of claims, but equally applicable to defenses). The requirement to include factual support to provide fair notice of claims is also applicable to affirmative defenses. Therefore, if Haskell intends to pursue these defenses it will need to plead some factual basis to give the Plaintiff fair notice of its defense. Therefore, Plaintiff’s Motion is granted as to the Third and Fifth Affirmative Defenses and those defenses are stricken with leave to amend.”

As the trend of defendants filing more and more motions to dismiss based on Twombly continues, it will be interesting to see if we begin seeing an uptick in motions like this, which seek to apply the pleading standards equally to the other side of the “v.”

Click Drzik v. Haskell Co. to read the entire Order.

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