Category Archives: Collective Actions

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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M.D.Tenn.: Defendants’ Request to Have Putative Class Opt Into Specific Claims, As Opposed to the Case as a Whole Rejected

Ware v. T-Mobile USA

This case was before the court following an order that conditionally certified the case as a collective action. The plaintiffs alleged that they performed uncompensated work prior to the commencement of their shifts and during their unpaid meal breaks. They also alleged that the defendant underpaid employees by failing to include certain required payments in the regular rate of pay when it calculated overtime. The plaintiffs claim that, by failing to compensate employees for pre-shift work and work performed during unpaid meal breaks and by miscalculating the regular rate of pay, the defendant violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). In the Memorandum Opinion in which it conditionally certified the case, the court also ordered the parties to confer and attempt to submit agreed-upon-notice and consent forms.  Whereas the plaintiffs proposed a relatively basic consent to join form, the defendant took the position that each opt-in plaintiff should be required to specifically opt-in to one or both of the specific claims alleged by the plaintiffs. Rejecting the defendant’s proposed approach and adopting that of the plaintiffs- whereby opt-ins could simply opt into the case as a whole- the court explained:

T–Mobile urges the court to adopt its proposed consent form. It asserts that the form merely attempts to obtain otherwise discoverable information from the opt-in plaintiffs concerning the specific claims they intend to assert. (Docket No. 108, at 2–3.) T–Mobile adds that gaining this information from the consent form will reduce the costs of written discovery. (Id. at 3.)

The plaintiffs raise numerous objections to T–Mobile’s proposed consent form. Chief among them is that the form is contrary to the plain language of the FLSA. (Docket No. 111, at 2.) The remaining objections raised by the plaintiffs include that T–Mobile: (1) is attempting to re-litigate the issue of conditional certification through the questions contained in its proposed consent form; (2) seeks information from opt-in plaintiffs lacking the benefit of counsel that is properly obtainable through discovery; and (3) urges the approval of a consent form that will confuse opt-in plaintiffs. (Docket No. 111, at 5–6, 8–13.) The plaintiffs thus request that the court adopt their proposed consent form, as they contend that it is clear, concise, and lacks any misleading information. (Docket No. 111, at 7–8.)

Having considered the parties’ contentions, the court finds that the text of the FLSA’s statutory provisions settles the instant dispute. The relevant provision provides, in pertinent part, that:

An action to recover the liability prescribed in either of the preceding sentences may be maintained against any employer … in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated. No employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). The plain language of this statutory text expressly provides that, in filing a written consent form, an opt-in plaintiff joins an action to redress his or employer’s statutory liability. Indeed, Section 216(b) lacks any requirement that opt-in plaintiffs consent to join specific claims within the broader action.

In Prickett v. Dekalb County, 349 F.3d 1294, 1297 (11th Cir.2003), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted the aforementioned statutory text in the same manner. The issue before the court in that case concerned whether opt-in plaintiffs were required to submit new consent forms after the named plaintiffs added a claim to the original complaint. Prickett, 349 F.3d at 1296. In concluding that the filing of new consent forms was not required, the Eleventh Circuit commenced its analysis by examining the text of 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Id. at 1296–97. It noted that the plain language of Section 216(b) “indicates that plaintiffs do not opt-in or consent to join an action as to specific claims, but as to the action as a whole.” Id. at 1297 (emphasis added). The Eleventh Circuit added that, by referring to opt-in plaintiffs as “party plaintiffs,” “Congress indicated that opt-in plaintiffs should have the same status in relation to the claims of the lawsuit as do the named plaintiffs.” Id. See also Fengler v. Crouse Health Sys., Inc., 634 F.Supp.2d 257, 262–63 (N.D.N.Y.2009) (citing Prickett for this proposition and vacating a Magistrate Judge’s decision to include a paragraph in the consent form that limited the opt-in plaintiffs’ claims to only one of two asserted in the complaint).

After rejecting the defendant’s attempt o distinguish Prickett and Fengler, the court reasoned:

In the instant case, T–Mobile’s proposed consent form compels opt-in plaintiffs to make a decision that the FLSA does not mandate, that is, it requires them to select the specific claims they wish to assert. T–Mobile can readily obtain information concerning such claims after the opt-in plaintiffs have joined this action by using any one of the discovery devices contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Indeed, in correspondence exchanged between the parties’ counsel prior to the filing of the proposed consent forms, counsel for T–Mobile acknowledged the availability of targeted interrogatories as a means of ascertaining the specific claims each opt-in plaintiff plans to assert in this lawsuit. (Docket No. 115, Ex. E.) In any event, because T–Mobile’s proposed consent form fails to comply with the FLSA’s express requirements, the court declines to approve it for delivery to members of the nationwide conditional class.

Click Ware v. T-Mobile USA to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

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C.D.Cal.: Motion for Corrective Action Granted Where Defendant Provided Insufficient Info to Putative Class Members When Obtaining Releases

Gonzalez v. Preferred Freezer Services LBF, LLC

This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion for corrective action, under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23, on grounds that the defendant had improperly contacted potential plaintiffs to this putative class action in efforts ‘to obtain releases from its employees concerning the claims pled by [Gonzalez] in this action.’ The plaintiff sought an order requiring the defendant to release the names and contact information of individuals from whom the defendant had attempted to extract releases. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion, applying Rule 23’s protections to an FLSA case.

The court described the relevant facts/procedural history as follows:

Gonzalez brought a collective action on behalf of himself and other of Preferred Freezer’s employees for unpaid overtime pay under California law and the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). (Mot.2.) In August 2012, Preferred Freezer unilaterally drafted a “Release Agreement” that it provided to its employees, who are potential plaintiffs to this putative class action. (Mot.6–7.) The Agreement explained that in exchange for a settlement payment “in full satisfaction of all claims that Employee has, had or could have had arising out of the lawsuit or in any way related thereto,” the employee waived any and all claims arising out of a “former employee['s]” wage-and-hour lawsuit or in any way related to the lawsuit. (Mot.7.) But the Release Agreement did not state when this unnamed lawsuit was filed, the name of the former employee, the names of the employee’s attorneys, the attorneys’ contact information, or the period of time covered by the release. (Id.)

The court explained that the plaintiff learned of the defendant’s actions that were the subject of the motion, when a putative class member who had been approached by the defendant contacted plaintiff’s counsel. After discussing the general concept that settlements are favored, the court explained how the manner in which the defendant obtained the general releases here was misleading:

The waiver Preferred Freezer tendered its employees was misleading in many ways. It did not include any information regarding this class action, except that a former employee had brought a lawsuit against Preferred Freezer. (Sinay Decl. Exs. A, B.) The waiver did not attach the Complaint, any information on when the case was filed, nor any information regarding the essence of the case. (Mot.7.) Preferred Freezer also did not include Gonzalez’s counsel’s contact information. (See Gamez Decl. Ex. 1.) Even when Preferred Freezer’s agents spoke to the potential plaintiffs, the agents never provided them with the name of the case. (Gamez Decl. ¶ 6.) Furthermore, Preferred Freezer’s counsel never contacted Gonzalez’s counsel to confer over possible communication to Preferred Freezer’s employees regarding the potential settlement. (Mot.6.) Thus, the waiver misleadingly failed to provide the potential plaintiffs with adequate notice of this case in order to make an informed decision regarding waiver of their rights.

While the facts surrounding the manner in which the defendant had obtained the releases were uncontested, the defendant argued that corrective action was inappropriate and that: (1) defendant’s first amendment right to communicate with the putative class should not be hindered; (2) putative class members of a 216(b) collective actions are not entitled to the same protections as those in a Rule 23 class action; (3) the DOL supervised the settlements at issue; and (4) they did provide enough information to the settling class members, so as to alleviate concerns that the releases were obtained based on misleading information.

Noting that the plaintiff was not seeking to invalidate the releases at this juncture, and was not seeking to stop the defendant from communicating with putative class members, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion as follows:

In response to Preferred Freezer’s misleading contact with putative class members in this action, Gonzalez asks that the Court orders Preferred Freezer to provide names, addresses, and telephone numbers for each and every person contacted by Preferred Freezer regarding the waiver. (Mot.25.) Gonzalez also requests that any communication to potential plaintiffs should include all the important information relating to Gonzalez’s case. (Mot.24.) For the reasons discussed above, the Court finds this request reasonable and therefore GRANTS Gonzalez’s motion.

Preferred Freezer is therefore ORDERED to provide Gonzalez with the contact information of all of those prospective plaintiffs in this case with whom Preferred Freezer has had contact regarding settlement. Furthermore, any communication that either party has with putative plaintiffs must include the following information: (1) the name of this case; (2) the case number; (3) a summary of the basis of Gonzalez’s claims; (4) the name of Gonzalez’s attorneys and their contact information; and (5) a statement concerning the effect of executing Preferred Freezer’s released documents will have on its employees’ ability to participate in this lawsuit.

Click Gonzalez v. Preferred Freezer Services LBF, LLC to read the entire Order Granting Plaintiff’s Motion for an Order for Corrective Action.

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Respondent-Employer Enjoined From Requiring Current Employee Putative Class Members From Waiving Right to Participate in Class/Collective Action, Once Putative Class/Collective Action Pending

Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp.

In this case, the claimant-employees had initially filed their case as a class/collective action in federal court. Pursuant to arbitration agreements that the plaintiffs had signed during their employment, the defendant successfully moved to compel the plaintiffs to pursue their claims in arbitration. Because the arbitration agreement at issue called for arbitration pursuant to the American Arbitration Association’s (AAA) rules governing arbitration, the plaintiffs successfully argued that a Rule 23 type opt-out mechanism rather than 216(b)’s opt-in governed as the appropriate class mechanism. Twelve (12) days after the arbitrator’s holding that an opt-out class procedure would govern, the defendant began requiring all current employees to sign a new arbitration clause, which if enforced, would have precluded the current employees from participating in the putative class action, yet to be certified. Arguing that the respondent-employer’s unilateral effort to defeat putative class members’ participation in the arbitration required thorough remedial measures, the claimant-employees moved for a protective order and temporary restraining order to:

(1) Enjoin any further dissemination of the letter to current employees with the class-waiver form; (2) Enjoin any effort by the respondent-employer or its counsel to chill participation in the case, including prohibiting any further unauthorized communication with any class members concerning joining the case, except as approved by the arbitrator; (3) Enjoin retaliation by [Waterstone] against any individual participating in the case; (4) Direct that [Waterstone] (in a form and manner supervised by the Arbitrator or on consent of claimants’ counsel) promptly notify all class members who received Exhibits A and B of the impropriety of [Waterstone's] acts and the invalidity of the waivers it solicited; (5) Sanction [Waterstone] with monetary relief for its improper behavior [ ] so that [Waterstone] does not achieve any of the benefit of chilling individuals from participating in this case; (6) Reserve the opportunity for individuals to join the case post-judgment, should they opt-out now, given their employer’s clear statement of its desire that they not join this case; (7) Award Claimant’s costs and attorneys’ fees for the time spent on the motion; [and] (8) Award such further relief in the future, as may become necessary to remedy the ill effects of [Waterstone's] improper behavior.

In opposition, the respondent-employer argued that the motion should be denied because: (1) the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction over the issue presented, because the parties had not agreed to arbitrate the issue of the permissibility of the subsequent class-waivers; (2) it was procedurally improper, because a class or collective action had yet to be certified; and (3) the employees had not demonstrated the requisite irreparable harm to warrant the relief sought.

Initially, the arbitrator rejected the respondent-employer’s jurisdictional argument:

It is true that a class has not yet been certified. Indeed, the clause-construction award that contemplates a class arbitration may itself be vacated by the District Court. However, even if the motion to certify a class should be denied, or if the Court should vacate the clause-construction award, the arbitration may continue as a collective proceeding (opt in) as a result of Judge Crabb’s direction that Herrington “must be allowed to join other employees to her case.” (D. Ct. Decn. at 18).

The arbitrator similarly rejected the argument that the relief sought was premature:

Whether a proceeding continues as a class procedure or a collective procedure, it must be protected from coercive or misleading communications that are designed to, or have the effect of, persuading or intimidating potential claimants to withhold their participations. The law realistically recognizes that such improper communications may be just as effective pre-certification as post-certification. Therefore, it is within the jurisdiction – indeed, it is the duty – of the judge or arbitrator before whom such a proceeding is pending to protect the integrity of the proceeding and to require that all information conveyed by the parties to potential class members about the proceeding be accurate, not coercive, and not misleading.

Waterstone’s argument that control over communications cannot arise until a class is certified is simply wrong. The power (jurisdiction) to control the parties’ communications to class members or putative class members can arise at least as early as when the initial pleading is filed. See, e.g. Hoffman-LaRoche at 487 (“[I]t lies within the discretion of a district court to begin its involvement early at the point of the initial notice.”).

The arbitrator added:

Waterstone’s contention that it has “has never consented to arbitrate its management decisions as to the nature and form of employment agreements with employees who are not parties to this case” (Jurisd. Memo at 1) assumes that this arbitration is about what kind of dispute resolution provision going forward Waterstone may provide in its form employment agreement. The assumption is false. Herrington brought this arbitration to recover past minimum wages and overtime compensation allegedly due to her and to her fellow employees. Jurisdiction over that claim was established with the filing of the demand for arbitration, and it is the duty of the arbitrator to preserve and protect the integrity of the proceedings with respect to that claim. The entire dispute that is subject to this arbitration is therefore to be resolved under the dispute resolution provisions of the pre-Amendment employment agreement that governs Herrington’s claims.

Instead, the arbitrator held that once the proceeding had commenced, the employer-respondent could not require the potential class members to waive their rights to participate in the case, as members of the class:

However, whatever may be the legality or enforceability of either Option A or Option B in future disputes that might arise between Waterstone and its mortgage-loan employees, those amendments can have no impact on this Herrington arbitration or on the employee class’s rights or choices in it. Once Herrington commenced her arbitration under the original arbitration clause in the employment agreement, Waterstone could not change the nature or course of this pending arbitration by requiring the putative claimants in this proceeding to agree to an entirely different dispute-resolution regime. This arbitration must, therefore, continue under the Agreement that governed when it was commenced, the Agreement that Waterstone, itself, argued successfully to the District Court requires Herrington’s dispute to be arbitrated.

Thus, the arbitrator granted the claimant-employees’ their requested relief.

Click Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp. to read the entire Decision and Order on Claimant’s Application for Protective Order, Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction.

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Filed under Arbitration, Class Waivers, Collective Actions, Pre-Certification Communications