Category Archives: Collective Actions

S.D.N.Y.: Existence of Arbitration Agreements for Some (Not All) Employees in Putative Class, Irrelevant re “Similarly Situated” Inquiry at Stage I

Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. The case concerned allegations of impermissible tip credit, inadequate notice of same (under 203(m)), and other allegations of unpaid minimum wages. As further discussed here, defendants largely focused their attack on their twin contentions that the class proposed by plaintiff was not similarly situated to him and/or was too broad, because it contained English speakers (the plaintiff did not speak English) and employees and former employees who had signed arbitration agreements (the plaintiff did not). The court rejected both of these contentions, and reasoned that neither of these factors were appropriately considered at Stage I, the conditional certification stage.

Rejecting the defendant’s arguments in this regard, and holding that such issues were more properly reserved for Stage II or decertification analysis, the court reasoned:

The Court disagrees with defendants’ arguments. Case law imposes only a very limited burden on plaintiffs for purposes of proceeding as a conditional collective action. “[C]ourts have conditionally certified collective actions under the FLSA where plaintiffs, based on their firsthand observations, identify an approximate class of similarly situated individuals.” Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc ., 2012 WL 4369746, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 24, 2012). Here, Romero has done just that, stating in his declaration that he “personally observed … Defendants’ policy to pay below the statutory minimum wage rate to all tipped employees,” that he and other tipped employees were compensated “all at rates below the minimum wage,” that he has never seen a tipped employee “receive proper notice explaining what a tip credit is,” that he and other tipped employees had to spend more than 20% of their daily time in non-tipped related activities, that he observed defendants engaging in time-shaving, that he observed when employees were sent home without call-in pay if the restaurant was not busy, and that he “personally observed that all non-exempt employees received the same form of wage and hour notice.” Romero Decl. ¶¶ 2–9. The affidavit of a plaintiff attesting to the existence of similarly situated plaintiffs is sufficient for the purposes of a motion to approve a collective action. See Cheng Chung Liang v. J.C. Broadway Restaurant, Inc., 2013 WL 2284882, at *2–3 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2013) (“For the purposes of this motion, … plaintiffs’ evidence—in the form of [one employee's] affidavit—is sufficient to establish that … there may be class members with whom he is similarly situated.”). Thus, Romero has made a sufficient showing that he and potential plaintiffs “were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.” Hoffman, 982 F.Supp. at 261.

Defendants’ principal argument is that because other employees signed arbitration agreements, Romero is not similarly situated to these other employees. Def. Mem. at 6–14. Defendants assert that the claims here are “properly pursued solely in arbitration, on an individual basis, by all of Ruhlmann’s employees who signed such an agreement” and therefore that “Ruhlmann’s employees are dissimilar from Plaintiff Romero and must pursue any claims they may have in an arbitral forum rather than federal court.” Def. Mem. at 8–9. Romero challenges both the enforceability and the validity of these arbitration agreements. He argues that the agreements are not enforceable because they violate the fee-shifting provision of the FLSA. Reply at 6–7. Romero also argues that defendants caused several of these agreements to be signed by coercion, that it is highly likely that several employees did not actually sign arbitration agreements, and that the validity of the signatures on several agreements are questionable. Reply at 7–9; Pl. May 31 Letter at 2. Additionally, he asserts that the agreements are unenforceable because they limit the statute of limitations on employees’ claims to six months and because they were not provided to employees in their native language. Pl. Aug. 20 Letter at 2–3.

As already noted, the question on a motion to proceed as a collective action is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated “with respect to their allegations that the law has been violated.” Young, 229 F.R.D. at 54; accord Meyers, 624 F.3d at 555 (in conditional collective action approval, question is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated to the named plaintiffs “with respect to whether a FLSA violation has occurred”). The arbitration agreements do not create any differences between Romero and the proposed plaintiffs with respect to Romero’s claims that defendants have violated the FLSA. That is, the validity vel non of the agreements is unrelated to any claims of a violation of the FLSA. Under this reasoning, the existence of differences between potential plaintiffs as to the arbitrability of their claims should not act as a bar to the collective action analysis. Indeed, courts have consistently held that the existence of arbitration agreements is “irrelevant” to collective action approval “because it raises a merits-based determination.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., 2011 WL 5878045, at *4 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (citing cases); accord Hernandez, 2012 WL 4369746, at *5;Salomon v. Adderly Indus., Inc., 847 F.Supp.2d 561, 565 (S.D.N.Y.2012) (“The relevant issue here, however, is not whether Plaintiffs and [potential opt-in plaintiffs] were identical in all respects, but rather whether they were subjected to a common policy to deprive them of overtime pay ….”) (alteration in original) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

In support of its argument that the existence of arbitration agreements merits denial of collective action approval, defendants make arguments about the eventual enforceability of the arbitration agreements and rely on cases in which courts granted motions to dismiss and compel arbitration because of such agreements. See Def. Mem. at 6–7. Critically, defendants do not even address the cases holding that consideration of the validity of arbitration agreements is inappropriate in the context of a motion to approval an FLSA collective action. The situation here is thus akin to the situation in Raniere v. Citigroup Inc., 827 F.Supp.2d 294 (S.D .N.Y.2011), rev’d on other grounds, 2013 WL 4046278 (2d Cir.2013), in which the court remarked:

Defendants have failed to cite a single authority finding that due to the possibility that members of the collective [action] might be compelled to bring their claims in an arbitral forum, certification is not appropriate. Such arguments are best suited to the second certification stage, where, on a fuller record, the court will examine whether the plaintiffs and opt-ins are in fact similarly situated.

Id. at 324.

Defendants’ strongest argument is that “[i]t would be a waste of judicial and party resource to force defendants” to send notice to individuals ultimately bound to arbitrate claims. Def. June 4 Letter at 3. But the notice requirement is not unduly burdensome in this case and the defendants’ proposal essentially amounts to an invitation for the Court to adjudicate the validity of the arbitration agreements. But, as already noted, case law makes clear that this sort of merits-based determination should not take place at the first stage of the conditional collective action approval process. Plaintiff has raised at least colorable arguments to support the invalidity or unenforceability of the arbitration agreements, some of which are fact-intensive. Case law holds, however, that issues of fact surrounding arbitration agreements are properly resolved at the second stage of the two-step inquiry. D’Antuono, 2011 WL 5878045, at *5; accord Salomon, 847 F.Supp.2d at 565 (“[A] fact-intensive inquiry is inappropriate at the notice stage, as Plaintiffs are seeking only conditional certification.”) (citing cases); Ali v. Sugarland Petroleum, 2009 WL 5173508, at *4 (S.D.Tex. Dec. 22, 2009) (“The Court will make the determination [of whether to exclude those who signed arbitration agreement from the class] at the conclusion of discovery, when it may properly analyze the validity of the arbitration agreement.”). Defendants not only fail to distinguish these cases, they do not even proffer any argument as to why the reasoning of these cases is wrong.

Defendants have submitted evidence contradicting Romero’s claim that he is similarly situated to other employees with respect to other aspects of his claims, such as his understanding of the tip credit. See Collin Decl. ¶ 9. However, “the two-stage certification process exists to help develop the factual record, not put an end to an action on an incomplete one.” Griffith v. Fordham Fin. Mgmt., Inc., 2013 WL 2247791, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2013) (granting collective action approval where defendant had put forth “contravening evidence”) (emphasis omitted) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). For these reasons, Romero’s motion for conditional approval of a collective action is granted.

Click Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C. to read the court’s entire Opinion & Order.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arbitration, Collective Actions

S.D.Ohio: Stage I Scrutiny Applied to Motion for Conditional Certification, Filed Prior to Bulk of Discovery, Notwithstanding Discovery Thereafter

Engel v. Burlington Coat Factory Direct Corp.

In a scenario that seems to be playing out more and more throughout the country, given the prevalence of FLSA collective action filings, this court was faced with a decision regarding which type of scrutiny to apply to plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification of a collective action. Although the plaintiffs filed their motion only three (3) months into discovery, by the time the court was able to address the motion, discovery had concluded. While the plaintiffs maintained that the court should apply Stage I scrutiny, the defendants argued that Stage II scrutiny (or “final certification” scrutiny) should be applied, because discovery had been completed after plaintiffs filed their motion. The court reasoned that the lower Stage I scrutiny should be applied, based on the posture of the case when plaintiffs filed their Motion, not when the decision was rendered.

Discussing the issue, the court explained:

Plaintiffs and Defendants dispute whether this suit is in the first or second phase of inquiry. Defendants argue that this case is fully discovered, as the parties have produced more than 3,500 documents, served multiple sets of interrogatories and requests for production, and have taken six depositions. (Doc. 24, at 23). Plaintiffs filed their motion for conditional certification eight months after discovery opened, and five months before discovery closed on March 29, 2013. (Id.). Plaintiffs argue that because no discovery was permissible prior to the February 13, 2012 26(f) conference, and the parties agreed to postpone discovery pending mediation in July 2012, discovery had occurred less than three months before their motion for conditional certification was filed. (Doc. 26, at 8). Before Plaintiffs’ motion was filed in October, only three depositions had been taken. (Id.)

This Court finds that this suit is in the first phase of inquiry. Discovery closed on March 29, 2013, and Plaintiffs’ motion was filed in October 2012. Thus, discovery had not completed by the time Plaintiffs’ motion was filed. Moreover, as Plaintiffs correctly point out, only three out of eight total months of discovery took place before their motion was filed.

In ruling on Plaintiff’s motion, the Court’s analysis will employ the first phase of inquiry.

Click Engel v. Burlington Coat Factory Direct Corp. to read the entire Order & Opinion.

Leave a comment

Filed under Collective Actions

9th Cir.: Hybrid Actions Permissible; State Law Opt-out Class May Proceed In Same Case As FLSA Opt-in Collective

Busk v. Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc.

As more and more circuit courts come into conformity and hold that so-called hybrid actions—where employees seek to certify state law claims as opt-out class actions, along with seeking to certify opt-in FLSA collective actions—are permissible, each such decision becomes less notable on its own. However, because employers continue to argue that such hybrids raise so-called incompatible issues in circuits where the issue remains undecided, this recent case from the Ninth Circuit is an important one.

In this case, the plaintiff-employees brought a putative class action against their former employer, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Nevada labor laws. Citing the incompatibility of the state-law claims, the District Court granted the defendant-employer’s motion to dismiss same. The plaintiff-employees appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that, as a matter of first impression, a FLSA collective action and a state law class action could be brought in the same federal lawsuit.

Agreeing with the other circuit court’s to have already decided the issue, the Ninth Circuit reasoned:

Our sister circuits have correctly reasoned that FLSA’s plain text does not suggest that a district court must dismiss a state law claim that would be certified using an opt-out procedure. Its opt-in requirement extends only to “any such action”—that is, a FLSA claim. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b); Knepper, 675 F.3d at 259–60 (noting Section 216(b) “explicitly limits its scope to the provisions of the FLSA, and does not address state-law relief”); Ervin, 632 F.3d at 977 (“Nothing” about FLSA’s text “suggests that the FLSA is not amenable to state-law claims for related relief in the same federal proceeding.”). FLSA also expressly permits more protective state labor laws. See 29 U.S.C. § 218(a) (“No provision of this chapter … shall excuse noncompliance with any Federal or State law or municipal ordinance establishing a minimum wage higher than the minimum wage established under this chapter or a maximum work week lower than the maximum workweek established under this chapter….”). This savings clause provides further evidence that a federal lawsuit combining state and federal wage and hour claims is consistent with FLSA. See Ervin, 632 F.3d at 977;Shahriar, 659 F.3d at 247–48.

 Nor does the legislative history of Section 216(b) support the view of some district courts that allowing both actions to proceed simultaneously “would essentially nullify Congress’s intent in crafting Section 216(b) and eviscerate the purpose of Section 216(b)‘s opt-in requirement.” Otto v. Pocono Health Sys., 457 F.Supp.2d 522, 524 (M.D.Pa.2006), overruled by Knepper, 675 F.3d at 253–62. We agree with the Third Circuit that the “full legislative record casts doubt” on the contention that Section 216(b) was intended to eliminate opt-out class actions. Knepper, 675 F.3d at 260; see also Ervin, 632 F.3d at 977–78;Shahriar, 659 F.3d at 248. When Congress created Section 216(b)‘s opt-in requirement as part of the Portal–to–Portal Act of 1947, it was responding to concerns about third parties filing “representative” FLSA actions on behalf of disinterested employees. See Hoffman–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 173. Accordingly, it amended FLSA “for the purpose of limiting private FLSA plaintiffs to employees who asserted claims in their own right and freeing employers of the burden of representative actions.” See id.

This purpose does not evince an intent to eliminate opt-out class actions for state wage and hour claims brought in federal court. Even if it did, Congress has expressed a contrary intent in the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, which confers federal jurisdiction over class actions where certain diversity and amount-in-controversy requirements are met. See Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, Pub.L. No. 109–2, 119 Stat. 4. Because the Class Action Fairness Act provides that federal courts should exercise jurisdiction over certain class actions (including those alleging violations of state wage and hour laws), and these class actions are certified pursuant to Rule 23‘s opt-out procedure, we cannot conclude that Congress intended such claims be dismissed simply because they were brought in conjunction with FLSA claims.

While no longer groundbreaking, it is still significant that an issue once very much uncertain is further clarified by this decision.

Click Busk v. Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

Leave a comment

Filed under Class Certification, Collective Actions, Hybrid

U.S.S.C.: Arbitration Agreement “Silent” as to Class Actions Allows For Same

Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter

Although not an FLSA case, this case has far ranging effects throughout the litigation and arbitration worlds. The issue presented to the Court was whether an arbitrator exceeded his authority by rendering a clause construction of the parties’ arbitration agreement that permitted class arbitration, where the parties’ arbitration agreement was silent on its face as to the issue. The Court held that the arbitrator did not exceed his authority and, as the Third Circuit had prior, affirmed the District Court’s opinion upholding the arbitrator’s clause construction permitting class arbitration, because it was a well-reasoned opinion and the parties’ had explicitly asked the arbitrator to render a clause construction. In so doing, the Supreme Court distinguished this case from its prior case Stolt-Nielsen explaining that:

[ ] Oxford misreads Stolt-Nielsen: We overturned the arbitral decision there because it lacked any contractual basis for ordering class procedures, not because it lacked,in Oxford’s terminology, a “sufficient” one. The parties in Stolt-Nielsen had entered into an unusual stipulation that they had never reached an agreement on class arbitration. See 559 U. S., at 668–669, 673. In that circumstance, we noted, the panel’s decision was not—indeed, could not have been—”based on a determination regarding the parties’ intent.” Id.,at 673, n. 4; see id., at 676 (“Th[e] stipulation left no room for an inquiry regarding the parties’ intent”). Nor, we continued, did the panel attempt toascertain whether federal or state law established a “default rule” to take effect absent an agreement. Id., at 673. Instead, “the panel simply imposed its own conception of sound policy” when it ordered class proceedings. Id.,at 675. But “the task of an arbitrator,” we stated, “is to interpret and enforce a contract, not to make public policy.” Id.,at 672. In “impos[ing] its own policy choice,” the panel “thus exceeded its powers.” Id., at 677.

The contrast with this case is stark. In Stolt-Nielsen, the arbitrators did not construe the parties’ contract, and did not identify any agreement authorizing class proceedings. So in setting aside the arbitrators’ decision, we found not that they had misinterpreted the contract, but that they had abandoned their interpretive role. Here, the arbitrator did construe the contract (focusing, per usual, on its language), and did find an agreement to permit class arbitration. So to overturn his decision, we would have to rely on a finding that he misapprehended the parties’ intent. But §10(a)(4) bars that course: It permits courts to vacate an arbitral decision only when the arbitrator strayed from his delegated task of interpreting a contract, not when he performed that task poorly. Stolt-Nielsen and this case thus fall on opposite sides of the line that §10(a)(4) draws to delimit judicial review of arbitral decisions.

While the unanimous decision supports the idea that class arbitration is permissible where the parties’ agreement is silent on its face, as with its prior decisions on class arbitration issues, the decision also leaves many related issues unresolved.

Click Oxford Health Plans LLC v. Sutter to read the Court’s opinion and Justice Alito’s concurring opinion.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arbitration, Class Certification, Class Waivers, Collective Actions

D.Idaho: Collective Action Waiver Unenforceable Under Section 7, Because It Would Prevent Employees “from Asserting a Substantive Right Critical to National Labor Policy”

Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the plaintiffs operative (second amended) complaint. Of significance, joining several recent courts, the court considered the effect of the NLRA’s Section 7, as it relates to a purported waiver of employees’ rights to proceed under the FLSA’s collective action mechanism. Reasoning that a waiver of the right to proceed as a collective action basis, “bars [plaintiff] from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy,” the court held that same was unenforceable.

Discussing prior precedent and explaining that same failed to consider the argument that the NLRA forbids such a waiver the court explained:

Several Circuits have cited the dicta in Gilmer to uphold waivers of the FLSA’s collective action rights—these Circuits hold that the waiver affects only the employee’s procedural right to bring a collective action, not his substantive right to seek recovery under the FLSA for himself, and thus the waiver is valid. Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1378 (11th Cir.2005); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Industries, Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 298 (5th Cir.2004); Adkins v. Labor Ready, Inc., 303 F.3d 496, 503 (4th Cir.2002). The Ninth Circuit has reached the same result but in an unpublished decision that cannot be cited for any purpose.

These cases did not address, however, the issue of whether a waiver of FLSA collective action rights violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 7 of the NLRA vests in employees the right “to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. The right to engage in concerted action for “mutual aid or protection” includes employees’ efforts to “improve terms and conditions of employment or otherwise improve their lot as employees through channels outside the immediate employee-employer relationship.” Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 565–566, 98 S.Ct. 2505, 57 L.Ed.2d 428 (1978). Those “channels’ include lawsuits. See Brady v. National Football League, 644 F.3d 661, 673 (8th Cir.2011) (holding that “a lawsuit filed in good faith by a group of employees to achieve more favorable terms or conditions of employment is ‘concerted activity’ under 29 U.S.C. § 157“).

The National Labor Relations Board has recently held that an employee’s lawsuit seeking a collective action under the FLSA is “concerted action” protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. In re D.R. Horton, Inc., 2012 WL 36274 (N.L.R.B. Jan.3, 2012). Although some Section 7 rights can be waived by a union acting on behalf of employees, see Metro. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 460 U.S. 693, 707–08, 103 S.Ct. 1467, 75 L.Ed.2d 387 (1983), it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995). That is precisely what Brown alleges happened here.

Under Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984), the Court must defer to the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA if its interpretation is rational and consistent with the Act. Local Joint Executive Bd. of Las Vegas v. NLRB, 657 F.3d 865, 870 (9th Cir.2011). The Board’s interpretation in Horton of Section 7 of the NLRA is rational and consistent with the Act: A collective action seeking recovery of wages for off-the-clock work falls easily within the language of Section 7 protecting “concerted action” brought for the “mutual aid and protection” of the employees.

Holding that it had the power to invalidate the waiver, and doing so, the court reasoned:

Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement waives Brown’s Section 7 rights to bring an FLSA collective action. As discussed, an arbitration agreement may, by the terms of the FAA, be declared unenforceable “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” See 9 U.S.C. § 2. Do legal grounds exist to revoke an agreement to waive Section 7 rights?

Section 7 rights are protected “not for their own sake but as an instrument of the national labor policy.” Emporium Capwell Co. v. W. Addition Cmty. Org., 420 U.S. 50, 62, 95 S.Ct. 977, 43 L.Ed.2d 12 (1975). Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement does more than merely waive Brown’s right to a procedural remedy; it bars her from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy. A contract that violates public policy must not be enforced. See United Paperworkers Int’l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 42, 108 S.Ct. 364, 98 L.Ed.2d 286 (1987) (citing the “general doctrine, rooted in the common law, that a court may refuse to enforce contracts that violate law or public policy”). Moreover, it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995).

For these reasons, the Court finds that under the FAA, there are legal grounds to revoke the arbitration agreement’s waiver of Brown’s right to bring a collective action under the FLSA and a class action under the IWCA. Accordingly, the Court will deny Citicorp’s motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss Brown’s claims.

Given the lack of clarity on this issue (see, e.g., here), and the fact that courts continue to come down on opposite sides of it, this issue is likely to end up at the Supreme Court at some point in the relatively near future. However, this case was certainly a win for employees in the ongoing battle.  Stay tuned for further developments.

Click Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.

Leave a comment

Filed under Class Waivers, Collective Actions

N.D.Ala.: Arbitration Agreements Obtained From Current Employees After Putative Collective Commenced Might Be Unenforceable

Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc.

This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification as well as the plaintiffs’ motion for corrective action regarding meetings the defendant acknowledged having with putative class members after learning of the lawsuit. The court had previously denied the plaintiffs’ motion to strike declarations obtained from such putative class members, but deferred on the motion for corrective action. As discussed here, after the plaintiffs had commenced their putative collective action, but prior to the time they filed their motion for conditional certification, the defendant required putative class members to attend meetings with its management where it had putative class members sign blank declarations and a mandatory arbitration agreement. The court held that the documents may not be enforceable, and that class members who felt they signed same under duress would not be bound by the documents they previously signed.

Discussing the issue the court explained:

The court deferred ruling on the plaintiffs’ request for a corrective letter or court supervised notice that was embedded in the motion to strike. (Doc. 51, at 10–11). After the parties’ May 31, 2012 Status Conference and before the Plaintiffs’ deadline for filing their Motion for Conditional Certification and Notice, Citi Trends initiated company-wide in-person meetings between two corporate representatives and its SMs, who are potential collective class members in this case. At these meetings, with only a few exceptions, every SM completed a fillin-the-blank declaration about their job duties (doc. 40–7 and following) and signed an arbitration agreement that bound every SMs to arbitrate any claims he or she had against Citi Trends (doc. 47–6). The Human Resources Representative also presented every SM with a disclosure about this lawsuit and the effect of the arbitration agreement on his or her rights in the lawsuit. (Doc. 47–2).

As the court expressed in its memorandum opinion on the motion to strike, the individualized meetings that occurred between SMs and Citi Trends Human Resources Representatives are cause for concern. At these meetings, SMs waived their rights to bring any claims against Citi Trends in court, including participation in this litigation.

Especially when the employer-employee relationship is in play, the possibility of abuse is ripe in these type of unilateral communications. The Eleventh Circuit recognized the potential for coercion in such situations and held that the court had authority in Rule 23 class actions to invalidate opt-outs when they were procured through fraud, duress, or other improper conduct. Kleiner v. First Nat. Bank of Atl., 751 F.2d 1193, 1212 (11th Cir.1985). In cases such as this where Citi Trends has an obvious interest in diminishing the size of the potential class, a risk exists that these types of unsupervised communications will sabotage the employee’s independent decision-making regarding their involvement in the action. See id. at 1206. The court takes seriously its responsibility to see that an employer not engage in coercion or duress to decrease the size of a collective class and defeat the purpose of the collective action mechanism of the FLSA. Because of these concerns as more fully stated on the record, the court will GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART the Plaintiffs’ motion for court-supervised notice. Any potential plaintiffs who felt they signed the mandatory arbitration agreement under duress will still be allowed to opt-in to this collective action; the language of the notice will reflect that right.

Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order discussed here, and Memorandum Opinion to read the court’s prior Memorandum Opinion on the Motion to Strike.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arbitration, Collective Actions, Pre-Certification Communications

8th Cir.: NLRB’s Holding in D.R. Horton Does Not Preclude Enforcement of FLSA Class/Collective Action Waiver

Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc.

While district courts that have considered the issue since the NLRB handed down its decision in D.R. Horton last year have reached divergent opinions on its effect regarding the enforceability of class waivers, the first circuit to consider the issue has rejected D.R. Horton’s applicability in the FLSA context. By way of background, last year the NLRB held that the existence of a collective action waiver in an employment agreement constituted an unfair labor practice, because it improperly restricted the “concerted activity” of employees who are subject to same. Following the decision, courts have reached different conclusions as to whether the NLRB’s decision necessarily rendered such waivers unenforceable in the context of FLSA collective action waivers. In this case, the district court held that the parties arbitration agreement was unenforceable, because it contained such a waiver. However, on appeal, the Eight Circuit reversed, holding that the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton did not render the arbitration agreement at issue unenforceable.

Discussing this issue, the Eight Circuit opined that it was not obligated to defer to the National Labor Relations Board’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedent, under Chevron or any other principle:

Finally, in arguing that there is an inherent conflict between the FLSA and the FAA, Owen relies on the NLRB’s recent decision in D.R. Horton, which held a class waiver unenforceable in a similar FLSA challenge based on the NLRB’s conclusion that such a waiver conflicted with the rights protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. 2012 WL 36274, at *2. The NLRB stated that Section 7′s protections of employees’ right to pursue workplace grievances through concerted action includes the right to proceed as a class.   Id. However, D.R. Horton carries little persuasive authority in the circumstances presented here. First, the NLRB limited its holding to arbitration agreements barring all protected concerted action. Id. at *16. In contrast, the MAA does not preclude an employee from filing a complaint with an administrative agency such as the Department of Labor (which has jurisdiction over FLSA claims, see 29 U.S.C. § 204), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the NLRB, or any similar administrative body. Cf. Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 28, 111 S.Ct. 1647 (upholding an arbitration agreement that allowed Age Discrimination in Employment Act claimants to pursue their claims before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Further, nothing in the MAA precludes any of these agencies from investigating and, if necessary, filing suit on behalf of a class of employees. Second, even if D.R. Horton addressed the more limited type of class waiver present here, we still would owe no deference to its reasoning. Delock v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, –––F.Supp.2d ––––, ––––, No. 4:11–CV–520–DPM, 2012 WL 3150391 (E.D.Ark. Aug. 1, 2012), at *3 (“The Board’s construction of the [NLRA] ‘is entitled to considerable deference and must be upheld if it is reasonable and consistent with the policies of the Act,’ … the Board has no special competence or experience in interpreting the Federal Arbitration Act.” (quoting St. John’s Mercy Health Sys. v. NLRB, 436 F.3d 843, 846 (8th Cir.2006))). The NLRB also attempted to distinguish its conclusion from pro-arbitration Supreme Court decisions such as Concepcion.  D.R. Horton, 2012 WL 36274, at *16. This court, however, is “not obligated to defer to [the Board's] interpretation of Supreme Court precedent under Chevron or any other principle.” Delock, –––F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2012 WL 3150391, at *3 (quoting N.Y. N.Y. LLC v. NLRB, 313 F.3d 585, 590 (D.C.Cir.2002)). Additionally, although no court of appeals has addressed D.R. Horton, nearly all of the district courts to consider the decision have declined to follow it.

The court also opined that there is nothing inherently wrong with a collective action waiver in employment agreements.

Click Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

1 Comment

Filed under Arbitration, Class Waivers, Collective Actions

Recent Conditional Certification Decisions of Interest

Anyone who has ever moved for or opposed a motion for conditional certification (i.e. a “Stage 1″ motion) of a collective action is likely familiar with the common defense tactic whereby a defendant asserts that the named plaintiff and members of the putative class are not similarly situated. Typically a defendant argues that individualized issues pertaining to the claims of the named plaintiff(s) (and members within the putative class) render the case ill-suited for class/collective treatment. As discussed below, three recent decisions discuss three separate issues related to this analysis. In the first, a court held that a pro se plaintiff could not adequately serve the interests of the putative class and denied conditional certification. However, in the second and third cases discussed below, the courts rejected the defendants’ contentions that: (1) an undocumented (“illegal”) immigrant was ill-suited to serve as a representative plaintiff; and (2) issues regarding whether specific putative class members signed binding arbitration agreements relating to the issues raised by the named-plaintiff were not properly raised at stage 1.

Pro Se Plaintiff Inadequate Representative for Collective Action

Koch v. CHS Inc.

In the first case, the pro se plaintiff (apparently fairly savvy) moved for conditional certification. Denying the motion, the court held that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue their claims in a collective action for lack of adequacy of representation. Specifically, the court explained:

The issue of whether a pro se plaintiff can sue on behalf of other members in a collective action is one of adequacy of representation. Determining adequate representation is typically based on a two-part inquiry: “First, the named representatives must appear able to prosecute the action vigorously through qualified counsel, and second, the representatives must not have antagonistic or conflicting interests with the unnamed members of the class.” Lerwill v. Inflight Motion Pictures, Inc., 582 F.2d 507, 512 (9th Cir.1978). Courts have generally concluded that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue claims on behalf of others in a representative capacity. See Simon v. Hartford Life, Inc., 546 F.3d 661, 664 (9th Cir.2008); see also Johns v. County of San Diego, 114 F.3d 874, 876 (9th Cir.1997) (“While a non-attorney may appear pro se on his ow n behalf, he has no authority to appear as an attorney for others than himself.”); C.E. Pope Equity Trust v. United States, 818 F.2d 696, 697 (9th Cir.1987) (holding that a pro se litigant may not appear as an attorney for others). Here, because Koch is a pro se litigant, he cannot pursue claims on behalf of other CHS employees in a representative capacity.

The rule holds true for pro se plaintiffs seeking to bring collective action suits under the F LSA. Morgovsky v. AdBrite, Inc. ., No. C10–05143–SBA, 2012 WL 1595105 *4 (N.D.Cal. May 4, 2012) (denying pro se plaintiff’s motion to bring a collective action under the FLSA and dismissing collective action claims); Spivey v. Sprint/United Mgt. Co., No. 04–2285–JWL, 2004 WL 3048840 (D.Kan. Dec.30, 2004) (holding that a claim under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) cannot be brought by a pro se plaintiff).

Accordingly, the Court agrees with CHS that Koch, because he proceeds in the litigation pro se, cannot represent the class members on whose behalf he purports to bring suit. Therefore, proceeding with the litigation as a collective action is not permitted pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The motion will be denied.

Click Koch v. CHS Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.

Named-Plaintiff’s Immigration Status Has No Bearing on Similarly Situated Analysis

Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd.

In the second case of interest, arising from alleged tip pool violations at defendant’s restaurant, the defendant opposed conditional certification, in part, based on the fact that the named-plaintiff was allegedly an undocumented immigrant. The court rejected this notion, citing well-established authority that an FLSA plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant to a claim inasmuch thereunder, inasmuch as same seeks payment for work already performed. Discussing this issue the court reasoned:

Finally, in an apparent attempt to distinguish Plaintiff from other proposed collective action members, Defendants note his status as an illegal immigrant and involvement in other similar FLSA lawsuits. Neither of these issues, however, is likely to provide Defendants with a valid defense that is unique to Plaintiff. First, there are a number of cases finding that evidence of immigration status has no relevance in an FLSA action. See e.g. Reyes v. Snowcap Creamery, Inc., 2012 WL 4888476 at *2 (D.Colo. Oct.15, 2012) (recognizing that “weight of authority clearly holds that a plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant in an FLSA action” and citing supporting authority). It is also questionable whether Defendants will be able to introduce evidence of other lawsuits involving Plaintiff. See Van Deelen v. Johnson, 2008 WL 4683022 at *2 (D.Kan. Oct.22, 2008) (evidence of plaintiff’s prior lawsuits cannot be admitted for purpose of proving that plaintiff is litigious but may be admissible for other purposes).

Click Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd. to read the entire Order.

Whether Putative Class Members’ Claims Are Subject to Arbitration is an Issue Reserved for Stage 2

Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc.

In the final decision, the court had before it the Report and Recommendation of the magistrate judge recommending conditional certification. As it had in its opposition to the underlying motion, the defendant argued that members of the putative class who had previously signed agreements to arbitrate their FLSA claims, were not similarly situated to the plaintiff and the remainder of the putative class. As such, the defendant argued such putative class members should be excluded from receiving notice of their right to join the case by opting in. Rejecting this contention, the court held that the issue of whether (and who) may have signed arbitration agreements, is an issue reserved for Stage 2 (decertification) analysis, and is not properly addressed at the conditional certification stage:

Next, defendants argue that the proposed class should be limited to cashiers and those who had not signed arbitration agreements, excluding grocery packers and delivery workers, whom defendants never employed, and employees subject to arbitration agreements. However, these are issues of fact that should be determined during discovery rather than at this preliminary stage. See D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., No. 11–cv–33, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135402, at *12–13 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (holding that the enforceability of arbitration agreements should not be determined during conditional class certification); Lujan v. Cabana Mgmt., No. 10–cv–755, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9542, at *23–24, 2011 WL 317984 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2011) (quoting Realite v. Ark Rests. Corp., 7 F.Supp.2d 303, 307 (S.D.N.Y.1998)) (holding that defendants’ contention that its restaurants constituted separate entities raised a contested issue of fact, and was therefore not a basis for denying conditional class certification). Thus, Judge Bloom correctly found that the proposed class should not be limited as defendants propose.

Click Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc. to read the entire Order.

1 Comment

Filed under Arbitration, Class Certification, Collective Actions, Immigration Status

E.D.Mo.: Where Common Tip Pool Violations Alleged, Employees of Franchise Stores as Well as Those at Company-Owned Stores Similarly Situated at Stage 1

White v. 14051 Manchester, Inc.

This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification. As discussed here, the plaintiffs sought to facilitate class notice to employees who worked at the franchise locations of the franchisee who employed them, as well as those who worked for “Hotshots” franchisor or company-owned locations. In support of their motion, plaintiffs argued that all tipped employees at all Hotshots locations, regardless of the owner, were required to participate in illegal tip pools whereby they were required to tip out back-of-the-house employees not eligible to participate in a valid tip pool. Rejecting the defendants’ argument that the court should limit the putative class to those tipped employees employed by the franchisee who employed plaintiffs the court explained, that it would be inappropriate to resolve the merits issue regarding which entities employed each putative class member at Stage 1.

Discussing this issue the court opined:

The Supreme Court has noted that whether a relationship is covered by the FLSA turns on the economic realities of the working relationship rather than technical definitions relating to employment. Goldberg v. Whitaker House Coop., Inc., 366 U.S. 28, 33, 81 S.Ct. 933, 6 L.Ed.2d 100 (1961). The FLSA defines “employee” broadly to include “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1)(2006). In turn, “employ” is defined as “to suffer or permit to work” 29 U.S.C. § 203(g), and an “employer” is any person “acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). “Thus, based on the language of the statute, an employee is any individual who is permitted to work by one acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer.” Helmert v. Butterball, LLC, No. 4:08CV00342, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28964, at *6 (E.D.Ark. Mar. 5, 2010); see also Nicholson v. UTi Worldwide, Inc., No. 3:09–cv–722, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41886, at *3 (S.D.Ill. Apr. 18, 2011)(conditionally certifying class of “forklift operators employed” by defendant that included workers hired through temporary staffing agencies).

The Court finds that, for purposes of this Motion, Defendants “permitted or suffered to work” all Hotshots employees, even those at the franchise locations. Given the FLSA’s broad definition of the “employee” and its remedial purpose, Defendants’ franchise arrangement demonstrates sufficient “control” for conditional class certification. Moreover, the employment relationship for franchise employees is disputed by the Plaintiffs, and the Court cannot make credibility determinations at this juncture. See Arnold v. DirecTv, Inc., No. 4:10–CV–352–JAR, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140777, at *8 (E.D.Mo. Sept. 28, 2012)(“The Court will not make any credibility determinations or findings of fact with respect to contradictory evidence presented by the parties at this initial stage.”).

The Court also finds that the proper class definition is all Hotshots employees who shared in any tip pool. Employees who participated in the tip pool were allegedly victims of the same policy or plan and denied compensation as a result of the tip-pooling arrangement. While the Court acknowledges that distinctions exist among the Hotshot’s teams and locations, Plaintiffs’ affidavits provide enough evidence at this stage to demonstrate employees were similarly situated and subject to a common practice. McCauley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91375, at *12–13 (citing Busler v. Enersys Energy Products, Inc., No. 09–00159, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84500, at *9–10, 2009 WL 2998970 at *3 (W.D.Mo. Sep. 16, 2009)); see also Fast v. Applebee’s Intern., Inc., 243 F.R.D. 360, 363–64 (W.D.Mo.2007) (citations omitted) (“To be similarly situated, however, class members need not be identically situated. The ‘similarly situated’ threshold requires only a modest factual showing.”); Schleipfer v. Mitek Corp., No. 1:06CV109, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64042, at *9 (E.D.Mo. Aug. 29, 2007)(class members need not be identically situated). “[A]rguments concerning the individualized inquiries required and the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims are inappropriate at this stage of the proceeding and can be raised before the Court at the second, or decertification, stage.” Dominquez v. Minn. Beef Indus., No. 06–1002, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61298, at *10 (D.Minn. Aug. 21, 2007)(internal quotation omitted).

Click White v. 14051 Manchester, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

Leave a comment

Filed under Collective Actions, Employer

E.D.N.Y.: Named-Plaintiff’s Failure to File Consent to Join Not Fatal to Collective Action, Where Defendants Acknowledged Intent to Proceed as Collective Action in Answer and Plaintiff Filed Sworn Affidavit

Ahmed v. T.J. Maxx Corp.

This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion to conditionally authorize a collective action, pursuant to Section 216 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. As discussed here, the court held that the plaintiff had “commenced” his FLSA case for the purposes of serving as the representative plaintiff in a collective action, notwithstanding his initial failure to file a formal consent to join, as required by 216(b), by virtue of the defendant’s admissions regarding same in their answer and the fact that plaintiff filed an sworn (signed) affidavit in support of his motion.

Discussing the issue, the court explained:

Defendants maintain, as an initial matter, that Ahmed’s case cannot proceed as a collective action because Ahmed himself has not filed a consent form as required by section 216(b) of the FLSA. (Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Conditional Certification, hereinafter “Def. Mem. of Law in Opp’n”, at 19.) It is defendant’s position that the FLSA requires a plaintiff—even a named plaintiff—to opt-in to his or her own action in order to proceed as a collective action. (Id.)

Although the cases upon which defendants rely provide that all plaintiffs must affirmatively opt in to a suit in order to proceed as part of a collective action, see, e.g. Gonzalez v. El Acajutla Restaurant, Inc., No. 04 Civ. 1513, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19690, at *14–15 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2007), courts in this Circuit have held that the FLSA itself does not require such written consent in order for a plaintiff to file a motion for conditional certification, see, e.g. Aros v. United Rentals, Inc., 269 F.R.D. 176, 181 (D.Conn.2010) (“The court concludes that denying the Motion for Conditional Certification … would undermine the FLSA’s broad remedial purpose”). Moreover, “[t]he purpose of this consent requirement … is to put the Defendants on notice, which many courts have noted is somewhat redundant with regard to named plaintiffs,” particularly when the named plaintiff has submitted sworn affidavits to the court, participated in depositions, and otherwise taken necessary action to pursue his claims and demonstrate that he “intends to participate in the lawsuit.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., No. 11 Civ. 33, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49788, at *6–7, 10–11 (D.Conn. Apr. 9, 2012).

Given that defendants expressly acknowledged, in their answer, that Ahmed purports to bring this action “pursuant to FLSA, 20 U.S.C.s. 216(b), on behalf of ‘Assistant Mangers’ employed in T.J. Maxx stores” (see Answer at ¶ 8), it cannot be said that defendants lacked notice of Ahmed’s consent, nor can it be said that defendants were unaware of Ahmed’s intent to pursue his claims as part of a collective action, particularly as Ahmed has already participated in a deposition and has submitted an affidavit in support of the instant motion. Consequently, while the form of Ahmed’s consent may not have strictly adhered to the preferred standard in FLSA collective actions, the substance of Ahmed’s complaint and his conduct throughout the discovery process was sufficient to satisfy the purpose of the written consent requirement. Furthermore, since defendants first raised this issue, Ahmed has filed a formal written consent with the Court. At this point, Ahmed is in compliance with not only the spirit, but also the letter of the written consent requirement. Thus, this Court finds that defendants had sufficient notice of Ahmed’s intent to proceed with a collective action, and this Court will therefore consider Ahmed’s request for conditional certification as a collective action on its merits.

Click Ahmed v. T.J. Maxx Corp. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.

While this case is certainly helpful to practitioners in the situation where the named-plaintiff has not filed a consent to join, as a practical matter (especially in courts outside of the Second Circuit), the best practice is to file a consent to join on behalf of all plaintiffs and opt-in plaintiffs, including the named-plaintiffs, to avoid the necessity of even addressing this issue.  Further, it should be noted that even in this case, the named-plaintiff ultimately did file a consent to join, after the issue had been raised by the defendants in their opposition to his motion for conditional certification.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Within days of the Ahmed decision, another court- this one in the Eleventh Circuit- was faced with a similar issue.  In that case the plaintiff had actually styled his complaint as an individual claim, excluding language that he sought to proceed on a collective action basis.  Nonetheless, the court held that the defendants had adequate notice of plaintiff’s intent to proceed as a collective action, and ultimately granted plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification.  See  Hogan v. Allstate Beverage Co., Inc., 2012 WL 6027748, at *5 (M.D. Ala. Dec. 4, 2012).

Leave a comment

Filed under Collective Actions