Category Archives: Affirmative Defenses

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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S.D.Ind.: Court Erred In Resolving MCA Exemption Issues on Motion for Conditional Certification; On Reconsideration Motion Granted

Thompson v. K.R. Drenth Trucking, Inc.

This case was before the court on plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration of the court’s order denying their motion for conditional certification of a collective action.  The case arose out of allegations that defendants violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by failing to pay a certain group of truck drivers (“plaintiffs”) overtime premiums.  Initially, the court denied Plaintiffs’ Motion.  In doing so, “the Court held that the Motor Carrier Act exemption applied to [the] named Plaintiffs… thus rendering them ineligible for overtime pay and unsuitable collective action representatives.”  In their motion for reconsideration, the plaintiffs asserted that the court had previously erred by inappropriately resolving the merits of the Motor Carrier Act exemption, with respect to the named-plaintiffs at the conditional certification stage.  The court agreed, and upon reconsideration granted conditional certification.

The court explained:

“In the February 11, 2011 Entry (Dkt.68), this Court acknowledged that the issue of whether Thompson and Hayden engaged in interstate commerce was “hotly contested.” Plaintiffs emphasized that both Thompson and Hayden were Non–Recyclable Drivers who regularly transported non-recyclable materials within the State of Indiana. Plaintiffs argued that since they never engaged in interstate commerce as part of their “regular” or “normal” duties, Thompson and Hayden are suitable collective action representatives. KRD counters that any of its drivers, including Thompson and Hayden, “could be called upon at any time to carry any load, whether intrastate or interstate,” meaning the MCA exemption applies. (Dkt. 71 at 4). And, indeed, Thompson and Hayden each crossed Indiana state lines on one occasion to transport KRD equipment to South Carolina.

In its prior entry, the Court found KRD’s argument persuasive, determining that the MCA exemption applied to Thompson and Hayden. In other words, even if Thompson and Hayden rarely crossed state lines (or, for that matter, hauled recyclable material destined for out-of-state purchasers), they could have been called upon to do so in their regular course of work. For this reason, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification.

Having now reviewed a more thorough body of case law, the Court finds that it erred by, in effect, making a merits determination at this early stage. As Plaintiffs emphasize, they have a “lenient” burden at this stage of the proceedings and, as such, courts do not reach the merits of Plaintiffs’ FLSA claims. Fravel v. County of Lake, 2008 WL 2704744, at *2 (N.D.Ind. July 7, 2008) (citations omitted). However, it is worth noting that even at this early stage, a court must also ensure that the proposed class representatives are adequate.”

Luckily for the plaintiffs here, the court recognized its initial error and corrected it almost immediately.  The court’s decision serves as a reminder that courts simply do not resolve the merits of an FLSA case at the conditional certification stage.

Click Thompson v. K.R. Drenth Trucking, Inc. to read the court’s Entry on Plaintiffs’ Motion to Reconsider.

 

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M.D.Fla.: Employer Not Entitled to Offset Unpaid Overtime Damages Based on Provision of Car, Car Insurance, Gasoline, or a Cell Phone It Provided

Vancamper v. Rental World, Inc.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment.  Among the issues of interest ruled upon, the court held that plaintiff’s pre-arranged shuttling of defendants’ clients to and from the airport to defendants’ rental office for pre-arranged rental of defendant’s cars and the cleaning of such cars, satisfied the individual coverage test of the FLSA.  As discussed here, the court also addressed defendants’ argument that it should be entitled to offset plaintiff’s minimum wage and overtime damages, if any, due to its provision of a car, car insurance, gasoline and cell phone to plaintiff, during his employment.  Holding that such offsets are impermissible under the FLSA, the court explained:

“The parties dispute whether Vancamper’s use of a car, car insurance, gasoline, and a cellular phone provided by Rental World offset the overtime compensation that Rental World owed Vancamper as permitted by 29 U.S.C. § 207(h)(2). (Doc. No. 27 at 14; Doc. No. 33 at 5–6.) The Defendants bear the burden of establishing a credit for overtime compensation under Section 207(h)(2). See Leonard, 614 F.Supp. at 1187 (noting that an employer bears the burden of establishing a credit under 29 U.S.C. § 203(m) against the overtime owed to an employee (citing Donovan, 676 F.2d at 473–76)).

Under Section 207(h)(2), the forms of compensation described in 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(5)-(7) are creditable toward overtime compensation. Those forms of compensation are as follows:

(5) extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid for certain hours worked by the employee in any day or workweek because such hours are hours worked in excess of eight in a day or in excess of the maximum workweek applicable to such employee under subsection (a) of this section or in excess of the employee’s normal working hours or regular working hours, as the case may be;

(6) extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid for work by the employee on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, or regular days of rest, or on the sixth or seventh day of the workweek, where such premium rate is not less than one and one-half times the rate established in good faith for like work performed in nonovertime hours on other days;

(7) extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid to the employee, in pursuance of an applicable employment contract or collective-bargaining agreement, for work outside of the hours established in good faith by the contract or agreement as the basic, normal, or regular workday (not exceeding eight hours) or workweek (not exceeding the maximum workweek applicable to such employee under subsection (a) of this section, where such premium rate is not less than one and one-half times the rate established in good faith by the contract or agreement for like work performed during such workday or workweek;

29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(5)-(7).

These provisions plainly contemplate a dollar-for-dollar credit against overtime pay for premium pay awarded on particular days and times. Wheeler v. Hampton Twp., 339 F.3d 238, 245 (3d Cir.2005). The parties do not cite, and the Court does not find, any authority that these provisions encompass use of a car, car insurance, gasoline, or a cellular phone provided by an employer. Moreover, because Vancamper’s uncontroverted time sheets show that he was never paid extra compensation for working during the periods described in Section 207(e)(5)-(7), (Doc. No. 27–5 at 1–102), Defendants are not entitled to any overtime credit under Section 207(h)(2).”

Click Vancamper v. Rental World, Inc. to read the entire order.

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D.Mass.: Offsets to Unpaid Overtime, Pursuant to § 207(h)(2) of FLSA, Attributable Only to Singular Workweeks in Which Both Premiums and Overtime Earned Simultaneously

Rudy v. City of Lowell

This case was before court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment, as to the methodology applicable to calculate plaintiff’s damages.  The interesting, but rarely raised issue: to the extent that the employer is entitled to an offset for certain premium compensation paid to the employee, to what extent can that offset reduce the unpaid overtime wage damages sought by the employee?  Holding that such offsets are only applicable in singular workweeks (i.e. they may only be taken in the week in which the payment giving rise to the offset occurred), the court explained: 

Section 207(h) (2) of the FLSA provides that extra compensation paid as described in paragraphs (5), (6), and (7) of subsection (e) of this section shall be creditable toward overtime compensation payable pursuant to this section.

29 U.S.C. § 207(h)(2). Only the “premium” portion of the contractual overtime rate (the extra one-half on top of the regular rate) may be used to offset the defendant’s statutory overtime liability. O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, 350 F.3d 279, 289 (1st Cir.2003) (“O’Brien I” ).

Here, the CBA allows employees to treat certain non-work days such as vacation, sick and personal days as hours actually worked for the purpose of determining overtime hours. The City also pays some workers time and one-half for working on holidays. The parties do not dispute that the extra compensation provided for in the plaintiffs’ CBA falls within the compensation described in subsection (5), (6) and (7) and can be used to offset defendant’s underpayment, pursuant to § 207(h)(2).

The parties do dispute, however, whether premium compensation earned in one week can be used to offset an underpayment in a different week. Plaintiffs argue that their damages for unpaid overtime should be calculated on a workweek basis and that any offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) may only be attributed to the singular workweeks in which the premiums and overtime were earned. In other words, an underpayment one week cannot be offset by a premium payment made in a different week. The defendant contends, to the contrary, that it is entitled to a “cumulative offset”, consisting of all premium payments, against any FLSA overtime it owes, regardless of when the premium payments were earned or made.

The FLSA does not provide an explicit answer to this difference of interpretation and the United States Circuit Courts have taken divergent positions. Some courts have held that § 207(h) offsets should be calculated on a workweek basis. Herman v. Fabri-Centers of Am., Inc., 308 F.3d 580, 585-93 (6th Cir.2002); Howard v. City of Springfield, 274 F.3d 1141, 1147-49 (7th Cir.2001); Roland Elec. Co. v. Black, 163 F.2d 417, 420 (4th Cir.1947); Conzo v. City of New York, 667 F.Supp.2d 279, 291 (S.D.N.Y.2009); Bell v. Iowa Turkey Growers Co-op., 407 F.Supp.2d 1051, 1063 (S.D.Iowa 2006); Nolan v. City of Chicago, 125 F.2d 324, 331 (N.D.Ill.2000). Other courts have allowed defendants to apply a cumulative offset. Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813, 826-28 (5th Cir.2003); Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d 1473, 1481 (11th Cir.1990).

The First Circuit has not directly addressed this issue but other sessions in this District have. In O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, United States District Judge Michael A. Ponsor addressed facts analogous to those at bar and held that the employer could apply a cumulative offset. 491 F.Supp.2d 170, 176 (D.Mass.2007) (“O’Brien II” ). The Court surmised that the First Circuit would hold accordingly given its holding in Lupien v. City of Marlborough. Id. at 175. In Lupien, the employer’s practice of compensating employees for overtime by use of compensatory time (“comp time”), instead of in cash, violated the FLSA. 387 F.3d 83 (1st Cir.2004). With respect to damages, the First Circuit held that the employer did not have to pay its employees for overtime hours for which the employee had used comp time, regardless of when the employee used the comp time. The Court reasoned that paying the employees for overtime hours for which they had used comp time would result in double payment for the same overtime hours. In Murphy v. Town of Natick, another case analogous to this one, United States District Judge Richard G. Stearns agreed with the holding in O’Brien II and also allowed defendants to apply a cumulative offset. 516 F.Supp.2d 153, 160-61 (D.Mass.2007).

Although the two cases in this District are directly analogous to this case, the Court disagrees with them with respect to their interpretation of the FLSA and of Lupien. A further analysis of the Lupien case, the purpose of the FLSA and its interpretation by the Department of Labor (“the DOL”) and the First Circuit’s language in O’Brien I all undermine the position adopted by the courts in O’Brien II and Murphy. Rather, they lead to the conclusion that § 207(h)(2) offsets should be calculated on a workweek basis for the following reasons:

1. This case is distinguishable from Lupien and other First Circuit case law indicates support for a workweek offset model. Lupien dealt with an application of § 207(o) (regulating the use of compensatory time), not § 207(h). In fact, § 207(h) is not referred to in that opinion. Furthermore, here, the employees were not given the option of taking comp time rather than overtime payments. Thus, there is no risk in our case, as there was in Lupien, that the plaintiffs will be compensated twice for the same hours. Thus, the Court concludes that the First Circuit’s decision in Lupien does not indicate how it would decide the question at bar.

More on point is the First Circuit’s discussion of § 207(h)(2) in O’Brien I, in which it stated that

The regulations specifically explain how to treat such mid-workweek contractual overtime payments under the Act: only the premium portion of the contractual overtime rate (that is, the amount in excess of the employee’s regular rate) is deemed “overtime” pay and may be offset against any statutory overtime liability in the same week. O’Brien I, 350 F.3d at 289 (citing 29 C.F.R. §§ 778.201(a), 202(a)) (emphasis added). Thus, although not resolving the offset issue in that decision, the First Circuit conveyed its inclination by specifying that offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) would apply “in the same week”.

2. The FLSA overtime requirement uses a single workweek as its basic unit of measurement. Scott v. City of New York, 592 F.Supp.2d 475, 484 (S.D.N.Y.2008). Section 207(a)(1) sets forth the basic overtime rule:

no employer shall employ any of his employees … for a workweek longer than forty hours unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of the hours above specified at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.

29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1).

The focus on the unitary workweek is prevalent throughout § 207 and the DOL’s interpretation of that section. For example, 29 C.F.R. § 778.103 directs employers to calculate overtime liability on a weekly basis. Further, 29 C.F.R. § 778.104 provides that “[t]he Act takes a single workweek as its standard” and an employer cannot average the number of hours an employee worked in two weeks in order to avoid paying overtime:

[I]f an employee works 30 hours one week and 50 hours the next, he must receive overtime compensation for the overtime hours worked beyond the applicable maximum in the second week, even though the average number of hours worked in the 2 weeks is 40.

It is clear from § 778.104 that cumulative offsets were not contemplated by the DOL. In addition, where the single workweek model is problematic, i.e. when applied to firefighters and law enforcement officers, the FLSA includes a very specific and limited exception. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(k).

With regard to the exact issue before the Court, 29 C.F.R. § 778.202(c) explains that credits pursuant to § 207(h) may be given for overtime due “in that workweek”. See Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148-49; Conzo, 667 F.Supp.2d at 290. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the DOL has also issued an opinion letter stating that surplus overtime premium payments, which may be credited against overtime1 pay pursuant to section 7(h) of FLSA, may not be carried forward or applied retroactively to satisfy an employer’s overtime pay obligation in future or past pay periods.

Letter from Herbert J. Cohen, Deputy Administrator, U.S. Dep’t of Labor, WH-526, 1985 WL 304329 (Dec. 23, 1985).

3. Overtime payments are intended to be paid as soon as is practicable. Although they are not entitled to deference by this Court, several of the DOL’s official interpretations of § 207 demonstrate the FLSA’s emphasis on ensuring that overtime payments are made soon after they are earned. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148. For instance, 29 C.F.R. § 778.106 provides that overtime payments need not be paid weekly but must be paid as soon 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. See also Nolan, 125 F.Supp.2d at 332 (discussing 29 C.F.R. § 778.106 and holding that offsets for overtime paid apply on a pay period basis).

The reason for requiring employers to calculate and make overtime payments as soon as practicable is obvious: employees are entitled to know how much they will be paid and to prompt payment of what they have earned. As poignantly stated by the Seventh Circuit in Howard v. City of Springfield, if § 207(h)(2) were to permit a cumulative offset, employers could withhold overtime earnings in order to offset them against potential “short” weeks in the future. 274 F.3d at 1148-49. Under such a model, an employee’s overtime payments could be put on hold indefinitely until the employer is either willing or compelled to pay. That outcome is not only illogical but also contradicts the FLSA’s focus on the workweek as a unit and its concern with prompt overtime payments.

In fact, this case uniquely illustrates why a workweek offset is appropriate: if the City had correctly calculated its overtime rate and applied the § 207(h)(2) offsets contemporaneously, it would not have been able to apply those offsets to obligations incurred one or two years later. See id. at 1148. The workweek method of calculating offsets most closely reproduces what the parties would be entitled to had there been no error in the City’s initial computation of its overtime liability. See Nolan, 125 F.Supp.2d at 333.

4. The purpose of the FLSA, to protect workers from “excessive work hours and substandard wages”, is best served by the workweek offset model. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148; see Herman, 308 F.3d at 585-93. This was clearly articulated in Scott v. City of New York, in which the DOL advocated for the workweek offset model. 592 F.Supp.2d at 484. The District Court in that case found that “both the structure of the Act and its legislative history lend credence to DoL’s interpretation.” Id. The Court explained how a cumulative offset undermines the protections afforded by the FLSA:

The [overtime] requirement protects workers from the imposition of excessive hours by placing an immediate cost on the employer. If employers were allowed to bank credit for contractual overtime against future obligations to pay statutory overtime, it would place workers in the employer’s debt[.] Id. In essence, it would require employees to work large blocks of overtime without premium compensation.

5. Finally, the arguments for applying a cumulative offset are unpersuasive. The City claims that a workweek offset will result in a windfall to the employees but that seems implausible given the fact that, if the City had been correctly calculating its overtime rate and applying the § 207(h)(2) offset at every pay period, the offset would have been applied only to the overtime liability in that pay period. Moreover, the circuit court cases cited by the City do not provide support for a cumulative offset. In Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d at 827, the Fifth Circuit held that § 207(h) was inapplicable, while in Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d at 1481, the Eleventh Circuit did not even explain why it allowed a cumulative offset.

In summary, the Court finds that the plaintiffs’ method of calculating damages is most compatible with both the language and purpose of the FLSA’s overtime requirements and the First Circuit’s understanding of those requirements. As such, the plaintiffs’ damages for unpaid overtime should be calculated on a workweek basis and any offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) should be attributed only to the singular workweeks in which both premiums and overtime were earned. The Court concludes that only the premium portions of the extra payments, i.e. the extra one-half of the regular rate, may be used to offset the City’s overtime liability. O’Brien II, 491 F.Supp.2d at 176.”

Click Rudy v. City of Lowell to read the entire order.

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S.D.Tex.: FLSA Does Not Impose A Duty On Employees To Mitigate Their Damages By Notifying Employers Of Their Failure To Pay Proper Overtime

Tran v. Thai

Notwithstanding the fact that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) imposes no duty on employees to mitigate their damages, a recent trend among attorneys for employers is to plead a so-called “Ellerth/Faragher” defense to claims brought under the FLSA, whereby the employer essentially argues that it’s the employee’s fault they didn’t get paid overtime, because they failed to complain about the employer’s failure to pay them appropriate wages.  An informal survey of Plaintiff’s attorneys by this author confirms that while defense lawyers are quick to plead such a defense, they are almost as quick in most cases to withdraw the defense- likely based on their understanding that it is frivolous- when pressed at the outset of FLSA litigation.  Here however, the defense was pled and the case proceeded to the summary judgment stage, giving the court a chance to address the unfounded affirmative defense.  Noting that such a defense was simply a defense of mitigation, which is not an appropriate defense to claims under the FLSA, the court granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the defense.

The court reasoned:

“The defendants argue that the plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages by failing “to take reasonable actions to notify Nails of America # 3 of any alleged unpaid overtime accounts” and because “Plaintiff worked at Bow & Mary-Nails of America # 5, LLC from April 2007 through August 2008 and failed to take reasonable actions and tell Defendants of any alleged unpaid overtime amounts at any point.” (Docket Entry No. 59, at 17). The defendants have not cited any authority imposing a duty on an FLSA plaintiff to notify an employer of alleged FLSA violations. Courts have found that as a matter of law “there is no requirement to mitigate overtime wages under the FLSA.” King v. ITT Educ. Servs., Inc., No. 3:09-cv-848, 2009 WL 3583881, at *3 (M.D.Fla. Oct.27, 2009); see also Gonzalez v. Spears Holdings, Inc., No. 09-60501-CV, 2009 WL 2391233, at *3 (S.D.Fla. July 31, 2009) (granting a motion to strike mitigation-of-damages affirmative defense because there is no duty to mitigate damages under the FLSA, nor a duty to provide notice as to any alleged unlawful pay practice); Lopez v. Autoserve LLC, No. 05 C 3554, 2005 WL 3116053, at *2 (N.D.Ill. Nov.17, 2005) (granting the plaintiff’s motion to strike mitigation-ofdamages affirmative defense because there is no duty to mitigate damages under the FLSA); Perez-Nunez v. North Broward Hosp. Dist., No. 008-61583-CIV, 2009 WL 723873, at *2 (S.D.Fla. Mar.13, 2009) (granting motion to strike the mitigation-of-damages affirmative defense and holding that a duty-to-mitigate-damages defense based on the plaintiff’s failure to timely disclose alleged violations to her employer so that the terms of her employment could be corrected failed as a matter of law under the FLSA).

Because there is no duty to mitigate overtime wages under the FLSA, this court grants the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment as to this affirmative defense.”

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