Category Archives: Discovery

S.D.N.Y.: Where Defendant Asserted “Good Faith” Defense, It Waived Attorney Client Privilege, Despite Lack of “Reliance on Counsel” Defense

Scott v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion for a protective order under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) to prohibit plaintiffs from discovery of defendant’s attorney-client communications regarding the decision to classify certain employees as “executives” and thus exempt from overtime pay. As part of its affirmative defenses, the defendant invoked 29 U.S.C. § 259 to claim that it relied on administrative authority in classifying the plaintiffs and is thus free from liability (the “Eleventh Affirmative Defense”), and 29 U.S.C. § 260 for the proposition that it did not act willfully and thus should not be subjected to FLSA’s liquidated damages provision (the “Twelfth Affirmative Defense”). Specifically, the defendant claimed to have relied on state and federal regulations, “but not upon advice of counsel.” Rejecting the defendant’s contention that it preserved the attorney-client privilege notwithstanding its assertion of “good faith,” the court held that attorney-client communications regarding the exempt nature (or lack thereof) of the position at issue were discoverable. After a discussion of the “at-issue” waiver of the attorney-client privilege, in cases where a party places its knowledge (or lack thereof) and good faith at issue, and a discussion of the general principles behind the FLSA’s good faith defense, the court determined that the defendant in this FLSA case had waived the attorney-client privilege by placing its mental state at issue here by claiming a good faith defense:

Chipotle affirmatively invokes § 259 in its Eleventh Affirmative Defense [stating “Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 259 and other applicable law, Chipotle’s alleged failure to pay Plaintiffs or any putative class or collective member any of the wages on which Plaintiffs’ claims are based, if at all, was in conformity with and in reliance on an administrative regulation, order, ruling, approval, interpretation, administrative practice, and/or enforcement policy of the United States Department of Labor and any Department of Labor in any of the states in which Plaintiffs allege claims under state law, but not upon advice of counsel.”]. Though it does not specifically name § 260 in its Twelfth Affirmative Defense, Chipotle claims an affirmative defense to FLSA’s liquidated damages, which is necessarily governed by § 260, and therefore its Twelfth Affirmative Defense falls under that provision. See Northrop v. Hoffman of Simsbury, Inc., 134 F .3d 41, 45–46 (2d Cir.1997) (a party need not cite a specific statute in order to invoke it in a pleading).

Despite defendant’s attempt to plead around an “advice of counsel” defense, the court held that they could not, because it was clear that defendant did have the advice of counsel on the very issues for which it claimed good faith, regardless of whether they claimed reliance on same or not:

Yet despite the good faith requirements of both statutory defenses, Chipotle attempts to plead around them by avoiding mention of the advice of counsel, except to disclaim it in the Eleventh Affirmative Defense. Chipotle claims to have invoked only the portions of §§ 259–60 relating to reliance on administrative guidance, rather than any standard of good faith. See Def’s. Br. at 1–2 (“Chipotle does not assert a generalized ‘good faith’ defense … Chipotle set out its affirmative defense, as it is entitled to, in such a way as to remove its ‘state of mind’ from being at issue….”); Answer to Second Am. Compl. at 23. Such artful pleading cannot negate an element of a statutory defense, especially here, where it is evident that Chipotle did in fact have the advice of counsel on the very topic at issue. A defendant may not succeed on an affirmative defense by pleading only some of the necessary elements. As explained supra, Chipotle has invoked two affirmative defenses that require showings of good faith. Here, plaintiffs have shown that Chipotle did in fact have the advice of counsel regarding the classification of apprentices. And knowing whether Chipotle had been advised not to classify the apprentices as exempt is necessary to evaluate the validity of the Eleventh and Twelfth Affirmative Defenses. Thus, the advice of Chipotle’s counsel regarding that classification is plainly “at issue” within the meaning of Bilzerian. Because at-issue waiver is to be “decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis, and depends primarily on the specific context in which the privilege is asserted,” In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 219 F.3d at 183, the Court will examine the specific factual context of this case. Given the substantial similarities between the good faith defenses in §§ 259–60, this analysis will encompass both the Eleventh and Twelfth Affirmative Defenses. At the deposition of David Gottlieb, Chipotle’s corporate representative and Director of Compliance and Field People Support, the witness testified that Chipotle consulted with attorneys in making the classification decision. When asked about the existence of communications regarding the apprentice classification, Mr. Gottlieb admitted that “there were communications. They were in the context of communications and discussions with our lawyers.” Gottlieb Dep. 65:2–4. In fact, Mr. Gottlieb testified that he had “no recollection” of ever communicating with anyone at Chipotle regarding the apprentice classification other than in the presence of his attorneys. Id. at 65:11–15.F In addition, during Mr. Gottlieb’s deposition, Chipotle repeatedly objected on attorney-client grounds and instructed Mr. Gottlieb not to answer questions related to Chipotle’s decision to classify the apprentice position as exempt. For example, Chipotle asserted the attorney-client privilege and directed Mr. Gottlieb not to answer questions about whether Mr. Gottlieb participated in any evaluations regarding the exempt classification position. There are numerous other such examples from the transcript of Mr. Gottlieb’s deposition. See, e.g., Gottlieb Dep. 42:6–16 (refusing to answer question on the research behind the classification after being advised not to disclose any attorney-client communications); id. at 61:18–62:2 (same); id. at 87:14–88:1 (acknowledging counsel were consulted on decision to reclassify apprentices in California). In addition, Chipotle’s privilege log confirms that it received legal advice concerning the apprentice exemption decision. See Ex. D (Def’s Second Am. Privilege Log), No. 2 (February 18, 2011 email from outside counsel to Mr. Gottlieb on the subject of “Legal advice regarding Chipotle’s Apprentice Position.”) Finally, Chipotle’s discovery responses indicate reliance on advice of counsel. Chipotle asserted attorney-client privilege in response to plaintiffs’ document requests and interrogatories that sought information on the decision to classify apprentices as exempt. See, e.g., Ex. C (Def.’s Resps. Pls.’ Fourth Req. Produc. Docs.), No. 28 (asserting privilege in response to request for documents relied upon by Chipotle as basis for decision to classify apprentices as exempt), No. 31 (same for request for documents relied upon by Chipotle as basis for its good faith defenses), No. 32 (same for documents pertaining to or evidencing Chipotle’s decision to classify apprentices as nonexempt under FLSA, NYLL, and Missouri Labor Law) & No. 33 (same for documents related to Chipotle’s contention that apprentices are exempt under administrative or executive exemption).

In light of the clear record demonstrating defendant received legal advice on the very issue on which they claimed good faith, the court held that they could not shield communications with their attorneys about the issue from disclosure:

This evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that Chipotle did receive legal advice on the apprentice classification decision. And Chipotle does not dispute that it did. Instead, it argues that it is entitled to define its affirmative defense narrowly and in such a way as to remove its state of mind from being at issue. In this regard, Chipotle contends that this case is distinguishable from Wang v. The Hearst Corp., where the same legal question was presented, and the district court found an at-issue waiver of the attorney-client privilege. 12 Civ. 0793(HB), 2012 WL 6621717 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 2012). In Wang, a sophisticated corporate defendant asserted a § 260 defense to allegations of FLSA wage and hour violations, but invoked attorney-client privilege to block the plaintiff’s discovery of the defendant’s in-house counsel e-mails, claiming that its defense “would ‘not rely, directly or indirectly, on legal advice for its good-faith defense in this case’ and that it had offered to so stipulate.” Id. at *1 (internal citations omitted). A witness from the defendant’s human resources department, however, had indicated in a deposition that questions regarding the collection of school credit letters for unpaid interns (who were allegedly misclassified as such) would be better posed to the legal department. Id. at *2. The court soundly rejected the defendant’s attempt to plead around the requirements of § 260, which it found “amount[ed] to little more than semantics without any concrete examples provided by Defendants. On the other hand, [it found] it difficult to imagine that a good faith defense regarding the FLSA raised by a corporation as large and as sophisticated as Hearst would not involve the advice of its legal department.” Id. Chipotle attempts to distinguish Wang on two grounds: there, (1) the defendant’s affirmative defense explicitly invoked good faith, and (2) testimony was introduced that the legal department, not the human resources department, had responsibility for making the classification decisions at issue. These are not distinctions. As discussed above, Chipotle’s affirmative defenses carry a good faith component even if none is so stated. And Mr. Gottlieb, himself an attorney and responsible for Chipotle’s wage and hour determinations, testified that he was unaware of any communications regarding the apprentice determination that did not involve attorneys, and otherwise refused to answer relevant questions on attorney-client privilege grounds. All told, there is far more evidence here than in Wang that the defendant had, and perhaps ignored, the advice of counsel in classifying its employees as exempt. Given the circumstances in this particular case, “legal advice that [the defendant] received may well demonstrate the falsity of its claim of good faith belief,” Leviton, 2010 WL 4983183, at *3, putting Chipotle’s state of mind at issue. The plaintiffs are therefore “entitled to know if [the defendant] ignored counsel’s advice.” Arista Records, 2011 WL 1642434, at *3 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).

The court also rejected defendant’s public policy argument which it urged supported upholding the attorney-client privilege, even where a defendant impermissibly sought to use it simultaneously as a shield and a sword:

Chipotle contends that even if Second Circuit case law favors a waiver in this case, such waiver should be overcome by policy considerations. It claims that, should the Court find a waiver here, “every employer in every FLSA case will have to choose between revealing such communications or forfeiting statutory defenses. This is akin to imposing, as a matter of law, an expanded limitations period and 100% liquidated damages risk on every employer in every FLSA case.” Def’s. Reply at 6. Such concerns are misplaced and overstated. First, as stated by both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, liquidated damages are in fact the norm in FLSA cases. This is not a byproduct of a broad reading of the at-issue waiver doctrine. Rather, this is because, by act of the legislature, “the liquidated damage provision is not penal in its nature but constitutes compensation for the retention of a workman’s pay which might result in damages too obscure and difficult of proof for estimate other than by liquidated damages.” Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707 (1945) (citations omitted); see also Herman, 172 F.3d at 142; Reich, 121 F.3d at 71; Brock v. Wilamowsky, 833 F.2d 11, 19 (2d Cir.1987) ( “ ‘[d]ouble damages are the norm, single damages the exception ….‘ “ (quoting Walton v. United Consumers Club, Inc., 786 F.2d 303, 310 (7th Cir.1986))). It is for this very reason, protection of workers as directed by Congress, that defendants face a high bar to mounting a good faith defense to FLSA wage and hour claims. Second, defendants in such situations are not at all required to waive attorney-client privilege to defend against liability. For instance, defendants may assert defenses on bases other than good faith. See Crawford v. Coram Fire Dist., 12 Civ. 3850(DRH)(WDW), 2014 WL 1686203 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 29, 2014) (upholding denial of discovery of privileged communications where defendant had separate basis for defense that did not rely on good faith); Leviton, 2010 WL 4983183, at *5 (plaintiff did not waive privilege by filing claim where waiver would be useful but not essential to defendants’ defense). In the case at hand, Chipotle has pled a panoply of defenses aside from the two affirmative defenses at issue. If it does not wish to waive its privilege, it may seek leave to amend its answer under Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b) so that it can forego its good faith defenses and rely instead on its remaining 30 affirmative defenses. See Bilzerian, 926 F.2d at 1293–94 (defendant need not assert good faith defense, but if he does, he waives attorney-client privilege); Answer to Second Am. Compl. at 21–26 (listing Chipotle’s affirmative defenses). Finally, Chipotle claims that a finding of at-issue waiver will discourage companies from seeking advice from counsel. Chipotle predicts that companies will instead be “incentivized to make important decisions concerning critical issues such as employee pay on their own lest they be forced to reveal their confidential and privileged communications.” Def’s. Br. at 2. The Court sees things differently. To the extent Chipotle is found to be liable for overtime violations (a question that is far from answered), and to the extent Chipotle’s counsel advised it against the classification decision it wrongly made, the decision on this motion will only serve to encourage companies to receive competent legal advice and follow it.

Thus, the court held that the defendant had waived the attorney-client privilege by placing its mental state at issue and pleading a good faith defense. Click Scott v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. to read the entire Opinion & Order.

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S.D.N.Y.: Where Affirmative Defense of “Good Faith,” Asserted, Defendant’s State of Mind at Issue and Communications With Counsel Possibly Subject to Disclosure, Notwithstanding Lack of “Advice of Counsel” Defense

Xuedan Wang v. Hearst Corp.

In the vast majority of FLSA cases, the defendant asserts that its violations of the FLSA, if any, were committed in “good faith,” such that the court may, in its discretion deny the plaintiff otherwise mandatory liquidated damages. In many of these cases, it is hard to imagine that a large corporate defendant who is asserting the “good faith” defense, has not actually sought the advice of counsel as part of the process of determining whether the policies at issue comply with the FLSA. In the past, to the frustration of plaintiffs’ counsel everywhere, most courts have held that the attorney-client privilege protects such communications between the defendant and its counsel, unless the defendant specifically claims that it relied on the advice of counsel in substantiating its “good faith” defense. Recently, Judge Baer in the Southern District of New York recognized that this approach is patently absurd and ordered an FLSA defendant to produce such communications with counsel, notwithstanding its claim that it would not rely upon an advice of counsel defense.

Rejecting the defendant’s assertion that such communications were non-discoverable and protected by the attorney-client privilege, the court reasoned:

According to the Second Circuit, “[i]t is well settled that ‘[t]he burden of establishing the existence of an attorney-client privilege, in all of its elements, rests with the party asserting it,’ ” In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 219 F.3d 175, 182 (2d Cir.2000) (quoting United States v. Int’l Bhd. of Teamsters, 119 F.3d 210, 214 (2d Cir.1997)). In particular, the Second Circuit “has recognized that implied waiver may be found where the privilege holder ‘asserts a claim that in fairness requires examination of protected communications.’ ” In re Grand Jury, 219 F.3d at 182 (quoting United States v. Bilzerian, 926 F.2d 1285, 1292 (2d Cir.1991)) (emphasis added in the original). “The key to a finding of implied waiver … is some showing by the party arguing for a waiver that the opposing party relies on the privileged communication as a claim or defense or as an element of a claim or defense.”   In re County of Erie, 546 F.3d 222, 228 (2d Cir.2008).

Defendant contends that the attorney-client privilege applies because its good faith defense would not rely on “legal advice,” citing court cases from other circuits for the proposition that “[t]here are many ways to establish good faith under the FLSA that do not involve the advice of counsel.” Not so here. In Bilzerian, for instance, the Second Circuit squarely rejected the defendant’s argument that there was no waiver because “the testimony he sought to introduce regarding his good faith … would not have disclosed the content or even the existence of any privileged communications or asserted a reliance of counsel advice.” 926 F.2d at 1291. The Circuit reasoned that the waiver principle was nonetheless applicable because the defendant’s “testimony that he thought his actions were legal would have put his knowledge of the law and the basis of his understanding of what the law required in issue,” and that “[h]is conversations with counsel regarding the legality of his schemes would have been directly relevant in determining the extent of his knowledge and, as a result, his intent.” Id. at 1292. More recently, the Circuit has reaffirmed the position that “the assertion of a good-faith defense involves an inquiry into state of mind, which typically calls forth the possibility of implied waiver of the attorney-client privilege.” In re County of Erie, 546 F.3d at 228–29. See also MBIA Ins. Corp. v. Patriarch Partners VIII, LLC, No. 09 Civ. 3255, 2012 WL 2568972, at *7 (S.D.N.Y. July 3, 2012) (rejecting the contention that the waiver occurs only when a party asserts a claim or defense that he intends to prove by use of the privileged materials); Arista Records LLC v. Lime Group LLC, No. 06 Civ. 5936, 2011 WL 1642434, *3 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 20, 2011) (“Defendants’ assertion that Bilzerian does not apply because they may not be relying on advice of counsel for their good faith defense misreads the law.”)

Thus, Defendant’s good faith defense in this case undoubtedly raises the possibility of implied waiver, and the question before this Court is “[w]hether fairness requires disclosure” in the “specific context in which the privilege is asserted.” In re County of Erie, 546 F.3d at 229 (quoting In re Grand Jury, 219 F.3d at 183). Here, Plaintiffs have submitted, for the Court consideration, a deposition of Defendant’s human resources personnel indicating that the legal department, not the human resources department, would be able to answer why school credit letters were collected for unpaid interns. This is not exactly, as Plaintiffs represent in their letter, a statement that “the decision not to pay interns and to classify them as non-employees was made by Defendant’s legal department.” Nonetheless, in my view, Defendant’s assurance that it would “limit any good faith defense to one in which the state of mind was not formed on the basis of legal advice” amounts to little more than semantics without any concrete examples provided by Defendants. On the other hand, I find it difficult to imagine that a good faith defense regarding the FLSA raised by a corporation as large and as sophisticated as Hearst would not involve the advice of its legal department, and the section of the deposition provided to me confirms at least that much. The deposition, for instance, suggests that the human resources department may not itself be familiar with the reason why Defendant’s magazines require interns to submit school credit letters, which raises rather than diminishes the possibility of the legal department’s involvement.

Defendant’s argument that an order by this Court at this juncture in the litigation is premature is a valid argument but for the fact that discovery is over next month and later would hardly be better. The other concern is privilege. The emails to be produced are obviously the ones with respect to which the privilege is waived because they bear on Defendant’s state of mind, as discussed above. With respect to those emails, Defendant will produce a privilege log, and I will review the documents in camera, unless, of course, there are too many. In the latter case, I will appoint a special master at the expense of the parties. The material should all be produced by year’s end. Should this create a major problem, the parties should schedule a telephone conference this week.

Click Xuedan Wang v. Hearst Corp. to read the entire Opinion & Order.

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W.D.N.Y.: Defendant’s Attorneys’ Billing Records Relevant and Discoverable Where Defendant Put Reasonableness of Hours and Rates Charged by Employee’s Attorneys at Issue, By Opposing Plaintiffs’ Motion For Attorneys’ Fees

Mendez v. Radec Corp.

Following an order granting the parties’ joint motion for approval of settlement agreement, the plaintiff moved for award of attorneys’ fees and renewed his motion to reopen discovery to discover defense counsel’s billing records. Over defendant’s objection, the court granted plaintiff’s motion, reasoning that the billing records were relevant and discoverable, because the defendant had put the reasonableness of hours and rates charged by plaintiff’s counsel at issue, by opposing plaintiff’s motion for attorneys’ fees.

Initially the court noted that cases have come down on both sides of the issue, with some courts holding that defenses counsel’s billing records are discoverable, while others have held that they are not.

Discussing the applicable law generally, the court explained:

The general principle underlying these divergent results seems to be that whether such information is discoverable depends on the nature of the objections raised to the fee request. Where the opposing party challenges the reasonableness of the rate or hours charged by the moving party’s counsel, courts are more likely to find that evidence of the nonmoving party’s counsel’s fees are relevant and discoverable. See State of New York v. Microsoft Corp., No. 98–1233, 2003 WL 25152639, at *2 and n. 3 (D.D.C. May 12, 2003) (stating that “some of the cases explicitly note that ‘ [w]hether discovery is appropriate depends, in part, on the objections raised by the opponent to the fee petition going to the reasonableness of the fee petition’ “) (quoting Murray v. Stuckey’s Inc., 153 F.R.D. 151, 152–53 (N.D.Iowa 1993)) (collecting cases); see, e.g., Pollard, 2004 WL 784489, at *3 (stating that because “DuPont objected to the excessiveness of the fees requested in the fee petition for the preparation of the fee petition …, it appears that DuPont’s own counsel’s time spent in preparing a response to Pollard’s petition for fees would serve as a logical yardstick from which to determine the reasonableness of such time expended by the plaintiff’s counsel”).

Addressing and rejecting the defendant’s contentions that their billing records were not subject to discovery, the court reasoned:

In the case at bar, defendants have not only challenged the reasonableness of the fees sought by plaintiffs, they have also expressly referenced their own fees in support of their arguments. For example, in their memorandum of law, defendants cite the specific fees and costs sought, and hours claimed, by plaintiffs’ counsel, and contrast them with those of defense counsel, noting that “Plaintiffs seek almost 3 times as much compensation for prosecuting this action as Radec spent to defend.” Dkt. # 334 at 6. Later, in discussing plaintiffs’ counsel’s hourly rates, defendants state that “the rates charged to Radec in this case are instructive.” Id. at 12. Similarly, defendants state that over a certain period, “Radec was charged only the flat fee of $175,000,” whereas “Plaintiffs claim $764,915.00 in fees for the same period….” Id. at 19.

Thus, defense counsel themselves have put at issue the reasonableness of the hours and rates charged by plaintiffs’ attorneys, and have used their own hours and rates as yardsticks by which to assess the reasonableness of those sought by plaintiffs. I therefore find that defense counsel’s billing records are relevant and discoverable. Cf. Marks Constr. Co. v. Huntington Nat’l Bank, No. 1:05CV73, 2010 WL 1836785, at *7 (N.D.W.Va. May 5, 2010) (“absent an attempt [by defendants] to claim a comparison between what Defendants paid and the claims of Plaintiffs as the basis for challenging the reasonableness of Plaintiffs’ claimed fees, there is no relevance shown with respect to the issues of the amount and reasonableness of attorneys fees and costs claimed by Plaintiffs’ counsel that justifies the required production of the billing records of [defense counsel]”).

Defendants’s argument that their detailed billing records are not discoverable because their opposition to plaintiffs’ fee request only cited the total hours and rates charged to defendants by their attorneys, see Def. Mem. of Law (Dkt. # 344) at 3, misses the point. In arguing that the hours claimed by plaintiffs’ attorneys are unreasonable, defendants have focused on specific hours and entries in plaintiffs’ counsel’s billing records. Defendants have stated, for example, that plaintiffs’ request for $15,000 for time spent preparing affidavits in connection with a particular motion is excessive, that one of plaintiffs’ attorneys billed 1.5 hours for a hearing that only took a half hour, and that plaintiffs’ allocation of 1443.2 hours of work on preparing binders is “outrageous.” Dkt. # 334 at 17–18. It is precisely because defense counsel then cite only their total time spent on the case that renders it difficult to determine whether this is a fair comparison.

While the court recognized that there may be significant differences in the ways that plaintiffs’ counsel and defense counsel litigate a case, and that this could cause a disparity between the two sides’ respective hours and hourly rates, the court explained that any such a disparity would not necessarily mean that one side’s fees were necessarily unreasonable or excessive. Further, the court held that such considerations go to the weight to be assigned to defense counsel’s billing records rather than rendering them non-discoverable. Thus, the court granted plaintiff’s motion.

Click Mendez v. Radec Corp. to read the entire Decision and Order.

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N.D.Cal.: Defendant’s Motion to Compel Depositions of 3 Named Plaintiffs and 25 Opt-ins in Venue Where Case Pending Denied Due to Financial Concerns

Gee v. Suntrust Mortg., Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel the three named plaintiffs and twenty-five opt-in plaintiffs who live in twenty-five different cities across the country to appear for depositions in San Francisco or in three other cities of its choice.  The defendant argued that the deponents were required to appear in San Francisco, which is where the FLSA putative collective action was filed, because they have not established good cause for appearing elsewhere.  Prior to its motion, the defendant offered to take the depositions either in San Francisco or in three other cities it claims would be more convenient to the deponents.  The plaintiffs had offered to produce the deponents in 14 different cities, or alternatively suggested that the depositions be taken by video conference.  Plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that traveling to any of the cities selected by the defendant would be financially burdensome for them, and that requiring them to do so despite this burden would contradict the purpose of joining a collective action brought under the FLSA. Holding that the financial concerns expressed by the plaintiffs constituted good cause for excusing the deponents from traveling to the cities selected by the defendant for the depositions, the court denied the defendant’s motion.

Addressing the parties contentions, the court reasoned:

“One of the chief advantages of opting into a collective action, such as the one brought by Plaintiffs, is that it “lower[s] individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources.” Hoffmann–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 179, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). Here, this advantage would be significantly reduced or even eliminated if the proposed deponents are required to travel hundreds of miles for their depositions. See, e.g., Bransfield v. Source Broadband Services, LLC, 255 F.R.D. 447, 450 (W.D.Tenn.2008) (rejecting defendants’ argument that opt-in plaintiffs in FLSA collective action must be required to appear for depositions in the forum where action was filed because doing so “would cancel much of the benefit gained by joining in the collective action” and because “the forum was chosen for [the opt-in plaintiffs]”). The Court is not persuaded by Suntrust’s interpretation of the case law cited by Plaintiffs, but even when taking its interpretation at face value, this case meets the criteria for excusing the deponents from appearing in the cities selected by Suntrust, as Suntrust has made no showing that the issues to be covered in the depositions are sufficiently complex to require in-person depositions.

Likewise, Suntrust’s argument that conducting the depositions via videoconference would be detrimental to its ability to question and observe the deponents is unconvincing. Parties routinely conduct depositions via videoconference, and courts encourage the same, because doing so minimizes travel costs and “permits the jury to make credibility evaluations not available when a transcript is read by another.” Fanelli v. Centenary College, 211 F.R.D. 268, 270 (D.N.J.2002) (citations omitted); see also Guillen v. Bank of America Corp., No. 10–cv–05825, 2011 WL 3939690, at *1 (N.D.Cal. August 31, 2011) (“A desire to save money constitutes good cause to depose out-of-state witnesses via telephone or remote means”). Accordingly, Suntrust’s motion is denied.”

Click Gee v. Suntrust Mortg., Inc. to read the entire Order Denying Motion to Compel.

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E.D.N.Y.: Defendant Precluded From Offering Evidence of Plaintiffs’ Immigration Status at Trial

Solis v. Cindy’s Total Care, Inc.

This case, brought by the Secretary of Labor, was before the court on the Secretary’s Motion in Limine to exclude any reference to plaintiffs’ immigration status at trial, due to irrelevance.  The underlying case concerned nails techs who worked at defendant’s nail salon, presumably at least some of whom were undocumented workers.  The court agreed with the Secretary that such information was irrelevant to the issues at bar- namely whether defendant had failed to properly compensate plaintiffs for their previous overtime work.

Framing the issue, the court explained:

“At issue here is a motion in limine brought by the Secretary, seeking to preclude Cindy’s from introducing at trial evidence of the immigration status or national origin of any of Cindy’s employees and from questioning employee witnesses as to these subjects. In its answer, Cindy’s had identified the immigration status of its employees as an affirmative defense. Cindy’s stated that employees’ immigration status “is important for future wages” and that claims as to such wages therefore “are barred in this case .” At an October 13, 2011 pretrial conference, counsel for Cindy’s reiterated its intention to elicit evidence of the immigration status and national origin of one or more employees whose wages are at issue.”

 Granting plaintiffs’ motion, the court reasoned:

“In this case, an employee’s immigration status, or national origin, is clearly irrelevant to a claim for back pay for overtime wages under the FLSA. By its terms, the FLSA applies to “any individual” employed by an employer, as the term “employer” is defined by the Act. 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). The Act contains no exception or exclusion for persons who are not U.S. citizens or who are in this country illegally.

For this reason, the courts to consider this issue have uniformly held that any person, regardless of his or her immigration status, who is employed by an employer, may pursue an action under the Act for work actually performed. See, e.g., Corona v. Adriatic Italian Restaurant & Pizzeria, 2010 WL 675702, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Feb.23, 2010) (citing Patel v. Quality Inn South, 846 F.2d 700, 702 (11th Cir.1988), cert. denied, 489 U.S. 1011, 109 S.Ct. 1120, 103 L.Ed.2d 182 (1989)). Indeed, cases have held that employees’ immigration status or national origin is not even a suitable area for pretrial discovery. See, e . g., Liu v. Donna Karan Int’l, Inc., 207 F.Supp.2d 191, 192 (S.D.N.Y.2002) ( “plaintiff-workers’ immigration status in cases seeking unpaid wages brought under the FLSA” held “undiscoverable”); Renfigo v. Erevos Enter. Inc., 2007 WL 894376, *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar.20, 2008) (plaintiff’s “immigration status and authority to work is a collateral issue” and not discoverable).

In its answer, Cindy’s asserted that employees’ immigration status might be relevant in an action seeking to recover “future wages.” There is no occasion to address that issue here. The Secretary has stated clearly that that the monetary relief she seeks to obtain on behalf of Cindy’s employees in this case is exclusively retrospective, in the form of back wages owed to current or former employees as a result of Cindy’s alleged failure to pay them overtime wages for the overtime hours that they worked.

This is also not a case in which an employee’s immigration status may be relevant to impeachment. Where an employee witness had falsely attested to United States citizenship or had fabricated naturalization documents, evidence of the employee’s illegal immigration status might well be relevant to credibility. However, the Court would still have to determine whether the probative value of such evidence was substantially outweighed by the risk of unfair prejudice or confusion, see Fed.R.Evid. 403, including the potential chilling, in terrorem effect on undocumented alien employees who might be deterred from coming forward to report FLSA infractions or to testify at trial. See, e.g., Flores v. Amigon, 233 F.Supp.2d 462, 464–65 (E.D.N.Y.2002). Here, however, at the October 13, 2011 hearing, Cindy’s expressly disclaimed an intent to offer immigration status as evidence of impeachment. As a result, no such impeachment evidence will be permitted at trial.”

Click Solis v. Cindy’s Total Care, Inc. to read the entire Opinion and Order.

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D.Nev.: Defendant Compelled to Produce Time and Pay Records Maintained by Third-Party Payroll Company, Notwithstanding Objection That They Did Not “Possess” Same

Kiser v. Pride Communications, Inc.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion to compel the production of discovery related his wages and hours.  As discussed here, the defendants objected to such discovery.  Defendants’ primary objection was that it did not have actual possession of the discovery sought.  Rather, defendants maintained that they should not be responsible to produce the discovery, because it was in the possession of their third-party payroll vendor.  The court rejected defendants’ contention and ordered the production of the discovery.

Overruling defendants’ objection regarding physical custody of the discovery sought, the court explained:

“Defendants’ objection based on their assertion that they do not possess the requested documents or electronically kept data because “a third-party vendor … process[ed][the] payroll” is overruled. Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 34, documents sought in discovery motions must be within the “possession, custody, or control” of the party upon whom the request is served. However, the “phrase ‘possession, custody, or control’ is disjunctive and only one of the numerated requirements need be met.” Soto v. City of Concord, 162 F.R.D. 603, 619 (N.D.Cal.1995)(quoting Cumis Ins. Society, Inc. v. South–Coast Bank, 610 F.Supp. 193, 196 (N.D.Ind.1985). Therefore, “actual possession” is not required. Soto, 162 F.R.D. at 619. Rather, a “party may be ordered to produce a document in the possession of a non-party entity if that party has a legal right to obtain the document or has control over the entity who is in possession of the document.” Id (internal citation omitted).

Here, the fact that defendants do not actually possess the documents does not matter. As admitted to in their response (# 28–1 Exhibit B) and their opposition (# 29), the defendants requested and ordered the third-party payroll vendor, Southwest Payroll Service, Inc., to perform the acts of processing and maintaining the payroll and the accompanying records. Thus, it is “inconceivable” that the defendants lack the ability to request and obtain such records from Southwest Payroll Service, Inc. Id. at 620 (holding that when a third-party physician performed evaluations on officers at the request of the defendant, “it seems inconceivable that the [defendant] lacks the ability to obtain such evaluations upon demand .”). Therefore, the court finds that such records are in Pride’s control, and should be disclosed in response to the plaintiffs’ request. Id. at 619 (finding that the “term ‘control’ includes the legal right of the producing party to obtain documents from other sources on demand)(emphasis added)(internal citations omitted); See also Japan Halan Co. v. Great Lakes Chem. Corp., 155 F.R.D. 626, 627 (N.D.Ind.1993)(holding that close business relationships constituted control of documents held by a third-party.).

Accordingly, and for good cause shown,

IT IS ORDERED that plaintiffs Anthony Kiser et al’s Motion To Compel The Production Of Documents (# 28) is GRANTED.

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that defendants Pride Communications, Inc. et al shall produce the requested documents, in any and all available forms, on or before November 30, 2011.”

As more and more employers, small and large, continue to rely on third-party payroll vendors, this will likely be a decision with wide-felt impact in wage and hour circles.  Especially in cases involving so-called ESI (Electronically Stored Information)- where the employer transmits data to a payroll service like ADP or Paychex and retains little or none of the required records itself, this decision seems to say that anything the payroll company has, the defendant will be deemed to “have” as well.

Click Kiser v. Pride Communications, Inc. to read the entire Order.

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M.D.Ga.: DOL Properly Invoked the “Government Informer Privilege” Where Defendants Sought Identities of Witnesses Who Cooperated in Pre-Suit DOL Investigation

Solis v. New China Buffet No. 8, Inc.

This case was before the court on defendants’ motion to compel the DOL (“DOL” or “Plaintiff”) to provide complete answers to discovery requests.  Specifically, Defendants sought information relating to the DOL’s investigation (prior to the filing of the lawsuit) of this Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) case, particularly the identities of any employees that gave statements to the DOL, the contents of those statements, and the contents of the investigative file.  The DOL refused to provide that information based on the informer’s privilege.  The court upheld the DOL’s refusal based on the investigation privilege.  However, the court ordered the DOL to provide the full contact information for all witnesses disclosed by the DOL in their Rule 26 disclosures.

The court boiled Defendants’ arguments down as follows:

“Defendants mount two arguments against Plaintiff’s refusal to disclose the requested information and documents. First, they argue that Plaintiff has not properly invoked the informer’s privilege. Second, they argue that the informer’s privilege should not protect the information they are seeking.”

Rejecting the Defendants’ first contention, that the DOL had not properly invoked the privilege, the court explained:

“Plaintiff properly invoked the informer’s privilege in this case. In response to Defendants’ Motion to Compel, Plaintiff produced a declaration from Acting Wage and Hour Administrator Nancy J. Leppink .  In her declaration, Administrator Leppink stated that she had personally reviewed the relevant parts of the investigation file, including information withheld or redacted. [Doc. 34–1 ¶ 8]. She went on to the state that the Secretary of Labor objected to the production of the requested documents and identifying information because it was protected from disclosure pursuant to the informant’s privilege. [Id. ¶ 11]. She then “invoke[d] the informant’s privilege to protect from disclosure the identities, and any statements and other documents, or portions thereof, which could reveal the identifies, of persons who have provided information to the U.S. Department of Labor in the instant case.” [Id. ¶ 12].”

Turning to the applicability of the informer privilege to the case at bar, the court held that the discovery sought was properly the subject of the privilege.  Describing the nature and purpose of the informer privilege, the court explained:

“What courts have termed the “informer’s privilege is in reality the Government’s privilege to withhold from disclosure the identity of persons who furnish information of violations of law to officers charged with enforcement of that law.” Rovario v. United States, 353 U.S. 53, 59, 77 S.Ct. 623, 627, 1 L.Ed.2d 639 (1957). The privilege protects “employees with legitimate complaints, exercising their constitutional and statutory right to present their grievances to the government.” Brennan v. Engineered Prods. Inc., 506 F.2d 299, 302 (8th Cir.1974). “The purpose of the privilege is the furtherance and protection of the public interest in effective law enforcement.”   Rovario, 353 U.S. at 59, 77 S.Ct. at 627. The government may invoke the privilege “to conceal the names of employees who precipitated the suit by filing complaints with the Department of Labor.” Does I thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp. ., 214 F.3d 1058, 1072 (9th Cir.2000). The privilege “applies whether the [Department of Labor] solicited statements from an employee or the employee made a complaint to the [ Department of Labor].” Martin v. New York City Transit Auth., 148 F.R.D. 56, 63 (E.D.N.Y.1993) (citing Dole v. Local 1942, International Bhd. of Elec. Workers, AFL–CIO, 870 F.2d 368, 370–71 (7th Cir.1989)). The privilege applies to both current and former employees of a company whose workers have communicated with the Department of Labor. Hodgson v. Charles Martin Inspectors of Petroleum, Inc., 459 F.2d 303, 305–06 (5th Cir.1972).

The informer’s privilege is not absolute. Its scope is “limited by the underlying purpose of the privilege as balanced against the fundamental requirements of fairness and disclosure in the litigation process.” Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 305. If the “disclosure of the contents of a communication will not tend to reveal the identity of an informer, the contents are not privileged.” Rovario, 353 U.S. at 60, 77 S.Ct. at 627. Generally, in questions involving the privilege, “the interests to be balanced … are the public’s interest in efficient enforcement of the Act, the informer’s right to be protected against possible retaliation, and the defendant’s need to prepare for trial.” Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 305. The defendant’s need for certain information is generally less weighty during the discovery phase, as opposed to the pre-trial stage of the proceedings. See id. at 307, Brennan, 506 F.2d at 303.”

The court then held that the privilege was indeed applicable here.  In so doing, the court rejected Defendants’ argument that it would be inefficient to depose all 48 witnesses disclosed by the DOL, and questioned Defendants’ base assertion that they needed to know who participated investigation:

“The Defendants’ need to depose all forty-eight former employees listed in Appendix A, or even only those who provided statements, in order to adequately prepare a defense appears far from pressing. The relevance of the identity of informers in a FLSA case is often questionable. See Chao v. Westside Drywall, Inc., 254 F.R.D. 651, 660 (D.Or.2009) (noting that “the names of informers are [often] irrelevant to whether the employer properly paid its employees and otherwise complied with the Act’s requirements”). Defendants have failed to make any showing that this case is outside the normal situation wherein a defendant has access to information and its own witnesses regarding its wage and record keeping practices, and the identity of informers is largely irrelevant.  In any event, courts have generally found that the cost and inconvenience that Defendants seek to avoid does not tip the balance in favor of disclosure. See Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 307 (“[T]hat depositions would be expensive show that the statements would facilitate defendant’s investigation but such facilitation is not a requirement for fundamental fairness to the defendant.”); Brennan, 506 F.2d at 303 & n. 3 (noting that at the discovery stage defendant was entitled to know “the charges, dates, names of underpaid employees, and names of those persons known to the plaintiff who had information concerning the issues” and that defendant had the ability to depose nineteen workers listed as possessing such information).”

For these reasons, the court upheld the application of the informer privilege.  However, because the DOL had disclosed the names of the witnesses at issue, among the 48 witnesses on their Rule 26 disclosures, the court held Defendants were entitled to their contact information, notwithstanding the fact that the DOL did not have to identify whom of the 48 witnesses had given statements in the pre-suit investigation.

While this case is of limited usefulness to private practitioners, it does give an interesting analysis into a privilege that seems to be litigated more and more, with the DOL getting more active in litigating cases.

Click Solis v. New China Buffet No. 8, Inc. to read the entire Order on Defendants’ Motion to Compel.


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Filed under Department of Labor, Discovery