Category Archives: Pre-Certification Communications

11th Cir.: District Court Correctly Refused to Enforce Arbitration Agreement Obtained From Putative Class Members With Motion for Conditional Cert Pending

Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc.

Employers seem to getting increasingly aggressive with class waivers, arbitration agreements in the wake of recent high court rulings which are seemingly boundless. In the wake of these recent decisions, some employers—who previously did not include waivers or arbitration agreements in their employment agreements—are seeking to play catch up. Troublingly, we seem to be seeing more and more situations where employers, facing the prospect of class/collective actions based on their often willful violations of wage and hour laws are attempting to force arbitration agreements on their employees in an effort to blunt efforts by their employees to recover their rightful wages. However, most courts faced with such situations have invalidated these improperly obtained arbitration clauses, recognizing that employers are in a position to exert undue pressure on employees fearful for their jobs, and that such arbitration “agreements” are frequently anything but an agreement between two parties consenting to arbitration of their own will.

In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit was called upon to review one such decision by a district court (first discussed here) that held such a forced arbitration clause to be invalid, and affirmed the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to enforce arbitration under the agreements at issue.

Laying out the salient facts of the case, the court explained:

To support its order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration, the district court made the following findings of fact:

Citi Trends devised and implemented a new alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—after it was served with the complaint in this action on February 27, 2012, and after the district court set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. Weeks after the district court’s May 31, 2012 scheduling order, Citi Trends began to roll out its new ADR policy. The ADR policy included a mandatory agreement to arbitrate all disputes individually rather than collectively.

By June 30, 2012, Citi Trends sent its human resource representatives to meet with store managers to roll out the new ADR policy—but only to putative collective action members (i.e., store managers). Throughout the summer, Citi Trends’s human resource representatives met individually with all store managers across the country. Citi Trends had two employees in each ADR meeting: a human resources representative and a “witness.”

The human resources representative who met with the store managers advised Citi Trends in its employment decisions. Thus, the store managers reasonably believed the human resources representative had authority to make or influence employment decisions, including hiring and firing decisions.

Store managers were ordered to attend the ADR meetings by their supervisors. Citi Trends did not inform the store managers of the true purpose of the mandatory meetings. Instead of telling the store managers that the meetings concerned the company’s new ADR policy, Citi Trends told the store managers that the mandatory meetings concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook.

Typically, Citi Trends rolled out its new employee handbook in a group setting. The handbook was generally provided in printed form (i.e., not as a photocopy), and the employees were required to sign for the handbook. Here, however, Citi Trends did not follow any of its general procedures for rolling out the employee handbook. Instead, Citi Trends (1) held two-on-one private meetings with each store manager in a small, back room in Citi Trends retail stores—the same places where the store interrogated or investigated its employees, (2) discussed only the ADR policy and the fill-in-the-blank declarations related to the store managers’ job duties, (3) provided photocopied versions of the employee handbooks as the store managers left the meetings, and (4) did not require the store managers to sign for the photocopied employee handbook.FN6 The district court found that this rushed and atypical rollout of the employee handbook demonstrated that Citi Trends’s handbook rollout was “pretext for presenting the [arbitration] Agreement to the [store managers] to derail their participation in this lawsuit.”

When a store manager arrived at the back-room meetings, a human resources representative greeted the store manager. A second individual was also at each meeting; however, this person was not introduced to, or known by, the store managers.

At the meetings, Citi Trends’s human resources representative gave the store managers these documents: the arbitration agreement, a fill-in-the-blank declaration, and the store manager disclosure. The store managers were asked to sign each of these documents at the meeting.

Citi Trends informed the store managers that the arbitration agreement was a condition of continued employment. The store managers understood that they would be fired if they did not assent to the arbitration agreement or the new ADR policy. Thus, the store managers lacked meaningful choice in whether to sign the arbitration agreements or other documents. The district court found the setting of the back-room meetings to be a “highly coercive” and “interrogation-like.”

Opt-in plaintiffs testified that they signed the documents but felt intimidated by the human resources representative. They also felt pressured to sign the arbitration agreements to avoid losing their jobs. Even when specifically requested, Citi Trends did not give the store managers copies of the documents that the store managers signed.

The district court found that Citi Trends did not conceive or begin to institute its ADR policy until after the district court held a scheduling conference to determine when and how Billingsley must move for conditional certification. Citi Trends then rolled out its ADR policy in a “blitzkrieg fashion” and only required potential members of this collective action to agree to the ADR policy. The district court found that Citi Trend’s “ADR roll-out was a hurried reaction specifically targeted at curtailing this litigation.”

The district court found that the “purpose and effect” of the arbitration agreement was “to protect Citi Trends in this lawsuit.” The district court also found that the timing of the arbitration agreement’s rollout “was calculated to reduce or eliminate the number of collective action opt-in Plaintiffs in this case” and the rollout was “replete with deceit” and “designed to be[ ] intimidating and coercive.”

After a discussion of the FLSA, its remedial purpose and the broad discretion afforded to courts in managing collective actions, the Eleventh Circuit held that that the district court properly exercised its broad discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, because such a denial was in line with the court’s responsibilities to manage communications between the parties and putative class members. Specifically, the court reasoned:

Given the “broad authority” that the district court has to manage parties and counsel in an FLSA collective action, the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Citi Trends’s conduct in the summer of 2012 undermined the court’s authority to manage the collective action. Nor did the district abuse its discretion in determining that—to correct the effect of Citi Trends’s misconduct—it would allow putative collective action members to join the lawsuit notwithstanding their coerced signing of the arbitration agreements.

Whatever right Citi Trends may have had to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, the district court found that its effort in the summer of 2012 was confusing, misleading, coercive, and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its store managers to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this FLSA collective action. Since the arbitration agreements by their terms will directly affect this lawsuit, the district court had authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171, 110 S.Ct. at 486–87; see also Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (class action).

The district court simply did what other district courts routinely do: exercise discretion to correct the effects of pre-certification communications with potential FLSA collective action members after misleading, coercive, or improper communications are made. See, e.g., Balasanyan v. Nordstrom, Inc., No. 11–CV2609–JM–WMC, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2, 4 (S.D.Cal. Mar.8, 2012) (refusing to enforce individual arbitration agreement in an FLSA action because the defendant’s imposition of the agreement was an improper class communication); Williams v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 10–7181, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12 (E.D.Pa. July 13, 2011) (invalidating arbitration agreement imposed on the defendant’s employees during pre-certification stage of FLSA litigation and ordering corrective measures because the arbitration agreement was a “confusing and unfair communication” with the potential opt-in plaintiffs); Ojeda–Sanchez v. Bland Farms, 600 F.Supp.2d 1373, 1379–81 (S.D.Ga.2009) (granting a limited protective order in FLSA collective action where the defendants engaged in unsupervised, unsolicited, in-person interviews of the plaintiffs in an environment that encouraged speedy and uninformed decision-making); Longcrier v. HL–A Co., 595 F.Supp.2d 1218, 1229–30 (S.D.Ala.2008) (striking declarations obtained through the defendants’ abusive and misleading communications with prospective opt-in plaintiffs); Jones v. Casey’s Gen. Stores, 517 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1086, 1089 (S.D.Iowa 2007) (limiting the plaintiffs’ counsel from affirmatively soliciting potential opt-in plaintiffs to join the FLSA action and requiring counsel to modify their website to provide “only a factual, accurate, and balanced outline of the proceedings”); Maddox v. Knowledge Learning Corp., 499 F.Supp.2d 1338, 1342–44 (N.D.Ga.2007) (observing that district courts in § 216(b) actions rely on broad case management discretion by limiting misleading, pre-certification communications and exercising that discretion in the case before the court by ordering the plaintiffs to correct false, unbalanced, and misleading statements on their website); Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 299 F.Supp.2d 664, 667–70 (E.D.Tex.2003) (sanctioning the employer and enjoining the employer from communicating ex parte with potential class action members because the employer intentionally attempted to subvert the district court’s role in the FLSA collective action by unilaterally sending a misleading and coercive letter to potential plaintiffs that encouraged those persons not to join).

District courts’ corrective actions have included refusal to enforce arbitration agreements instituted through improper means and where the timing of the execution of those agreements was similar to the post-filing, pre-certification timing in this case. See, e.g., Balasanyan, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2; Williams, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12; see also In re Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litig., 361 F.Supp.2d at 252–54 (imposing similar corrective action in Rule 23 class action).

The district court did not abuse its discretion in correcting the effects of Citi Trends’s improper behavior in this case. The district court held an initial hearing, after which it denied Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration. The court then reconsidered its order, held an additional two-day evidentiary hearing, made specific and detailed findings of fact that were supported by the record, and took minimal action to correct the effects of Citi Trends’s conduct.

The district court limited its order temporally and substantively. The district court limited its order to those agreements signed under the coercive conditions used by Citi Trends in the summer of 2012. And, the district court limited its order to this particular FLSA action. The court specifically said that it was not ruling on the enforceability of the arbitration agreements as they relate to other cases or controversies. The district did not restrict Citi Trends from entering into new arbitration agreements with the store managers; nor did the court prevent store managers from electing to comply with the terms of the arbitration agreements that they signed in the summer of 2012.

The district court’s limited remedial action is not an abuse of its considerable discretion to manage this collective action. Accord Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (holding that a district court’s power to manage a class action included the power to prohibit a defendant from making “unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class”). That is especially true given the opt-in nature of FLSA collective actions. Because FLSA plaintiffs must opt-in, unsupervised, unilateral communications with those potential plaintiffs can sabotage the goal of the FLSA’s informed consent requirement by planting the slightest seed of doubt or worry through the one-sided, unrebutted presentation of “facts.” Because the damage from misstatements could well be irreparable, the district court must be able to exercise its discretion to attempt to correct the effects of such actions. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170, 110 S.Ct. at 486 (noting that court intervention in the collective action notice process may be necessary).

Because we affirm the district court’s decision to deny enforceability of the arbitration agreements in this case, we necessarily must affirm the district court’s order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration.

Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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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.

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

Woods v. RHA/Tennessee Group Homes, Inc.

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

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

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

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

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

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

If you have questions, see Lisa or Kamilla

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

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

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

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

[X] Fair Labor Standards Act 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Affirmative Defenses, Break Time, Collective Actions, Department of Labor, Pre-Certification Communications, Settlements

S.D.Ala.: Court Strikes 245 Declarations From Potential Class Members Obtained By Defendant Pre-Certification By Ruse

Longcrier v. HL-A Co., Inc.

Knowing that this lawsuit was pending and that it was styled as a 216(b) opt-in proceeding, Defendant called each of its hourly workers into a one-on-one meeting during work hours with its attorney(s), creating an inherently coercive and intimidating environment for interviews and execution of paperwork concerning pay practices, under the guise of conducting a “survey.”  Defendant’s attorneys asked general questions about pay practices and placed a largely form document in front of each employee to be signed.  “While that inherently coercive setting is not itself grounds for relief, Defendant’s misleading statements to these potential plaintiffs about the reasons for the interview and declaration process, and their suppression of the truth, were obviously designed to lull prospective plaintiffs into a false sense of security and to effectuate their complete cooperation with minimal resistance.”  Such manipulation of unrepresented parties to secure Declarations that HL-A now uses for the purpose of preventing the very people it misled from being able to litigate their FLSA rights herein is improper.

Therefore, the Court determined that the appropriate remedy was to strike the 245 declarations improperly obtained by Defendant, which would have made it difficult for the potential class members to pursue claims in the instant case.

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Filed under Pre-Certification Communications