Category Archives: Retaliation

W.D.Tex.: Emotional Distress and Punitive Damages Unavailable In FLSA Retaliation Claim

Douglas v. Mission Chevrolet

In addition to seeking unpaid overtime wages and liquidated damages under the FLSA, the Plaintiff alleged that he was entitled to emotional distress and/or punitive damages as a result of claimed retaliation in violation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).  Defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claim for retaliation, asserting that neither emotional distress damages nor punitive damages are available under the FLSA.  Construing comparable Fifth Circuit law pertaining to ADEA claims, the court agreed and dismissed the plaintiff’s retaliation claim.

The court addressed each type of damages separately:

“1. Emotional distress damages

The damages provision of the anti-retaliation section of the FLSA states, in relevant part,:

Any employer who violates the provisions of section 215(a)(3) of this title shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation employment, reinstatement, promotion, and the payment of wages lost and an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

Circuit courts that have addressed the issue have held that “legal or equitable relief” includes emotional distress damages. See Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 563-64 (6th Cir.2004) (emotional distress damages are recoverable under the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA); Broadus v. O.K. Indus., Inc., 238 F.3d 990, 992 (8th Cir.2001) (emotional distress damages are recoverable in Equal Pay Act retaliation case); Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1017 (9th Cir.1999) (reversing and remanding emotional distress award of $75,000 under anti-retaliation provision of FLSA for determination of appropriate amount of emotional distress damages); Avitia v. Metro. Club of Chi., Inc., 49 F.3d 1219, 1228-29 (7th Cir.1995) (citing Travis v. Gary Cmty. Mental Health Ctr., Inc., 921 F.2d 108, 111-12 (7th Cir.1990)) (emotional distress damages are recoverable under the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA). The Fifth Circuit has yet to address whether emotional distress damages are available in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim.

However, the Fifth Circuit has held that the remedies provisions of the FLSA and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) must be interpreted consistently. See Lubke v. City of Arlington, 455 F.3d 489, 499 (5th Cir.2006) (“Because the remedies available under the ADEA and the FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] both track the FLSA, cases interpreting remedies under the statutes should be consistent.”); see also Johnson v. Martin, 473 F.3d 220, 222 (5th Cir.2006) (applying ADEA precedent to the FLSA to determine whether wages earned after termination offset lost wage damages because “[t]he FLSA and ADEA have the same remedies provisions”).

The Fifth Circuit has addressed whether emotional distress damages are available under the ADEA, which has similar remedies provisions as the FLSA. See Dean v. Am. Sec. Ins. Co., 559 F.2d 1036 (5th Cir.1977). In Dean, the Fifth Circuit rejected the argument that the statutory language “legal or equitable relief” in the ADEA includes emotional distress damages. Id. at 1038. In so holding, the Fifth Circuit emphasized the notably absent phrase “general damages,” “punitive damages,” or any type of damages based on emotional distress from the ADEA’s damages provisions. Id. at 1038-39. In the FLSA damages provision cited above, the same phrases are absent.

Since the Fifth Circuit has expressed its desire for the FLSA’s remedies provision to be interpreted consistently with the ADEA’s remedies provision, and since emotional distress damages are not available in claims brought under the ADEA, see Dean, 559 F.2d at 1038, this Court must hold that emotional distress damages are also unavailable under the FLSA. It is for this reason that another judge on this Court has already reached the same conclusion in another case. See Rumbo v. Southwest Convenience Stores, LLC, No. EP-10-CA-184-FM (W.D.Tex. July 19, 2010) (order granting motion to dismiss) (employing similar reasoning in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for emotional distress damages and punitive damages in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim). Therefore, Plaintiff may not recover damages based on emotional distress in his anti-retaliation claim brought under the FLSA.

2. Punitive damages

Similarly, Defendant contends punitive damages are not available in an anti-retaliation claim based on the FLSA, Mot. 2, while Plaintiff claims punitive damages are recoverable. Resp. 3. Federal appellate courts that have considered the issue are split on whether a plaintiff can recover punitive damages in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim. Compare Travis, 921 F.2d at 111-12 (punitive damages are available in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim), with Snapp v. Unlimited Concepts, Inc., 208 F.3d 928, 933-35 (11th Cir.2000) (punitive damages are not available in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim). The Fifth Circuit, however, has yet to address whether punitive damages are available under an anti-retaliation claim brought pursuant to the FLSA.

Just as it held with respect to emotional distress damages, the Fifth Circuit in Dean held that punitive damages are unavailable under the ADEA. 559 F.2d at 1038. As discussed above, because the ADEA and FLSA must be interpreted consistently with respect to remedies, see Lubke, 455 F.3d at 499; Johnson, 473 F.3d at 222, this Court must hold that punitive damages are not recoverable in an anti-retaliation claim brought under the FLSA.”

Click Douglas v. Mission Chevrolet to read the entire opinion.

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11th Cir.: Res Judicata Did Not Bar Claims Of FLSA Retaliation; Such Claims Arose After The Original Pleading Was Filed In The Earlier Litigation, So Not Previously Litigated

Moore v. Sei Pak

This case was before the Eleventh Circuit on Plaintiffs’ appeal of summary judgment in favor of their employer (“Pak”), in their suit against Pak for retaliation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).  The Plaintiffs sued Pak for retaliation because Pak denied them positions as independent contractors after they initiated an earlier FLSA suit against Pak for unpaid overtime compensation.  The Plaintiffs filed the separate retaliation suit while the overtime compensation suit, which the parties ultimately settled, was still pending. The magistrate judge granted Pak’s summary judgment motion on res judicata grounds after it concluded that the Plaintiffs had raised their retaliation claim in the prior suit. On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that their prior FLSA overtime compensation lawsuit does not preclude their current retaliation suit, because the facts underlying the retaliation suit occurred subsequent to the filing of the original case.  The Eleventh Circuit agreed and reversed the lower court reasoning:

“We review de novo a district court’s order on a motion for summary judgment and construe the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party.   Van Voorhis v. Hillsborough Cnty. Bd. of Cnty. Comm’rs, 512 F.3d 1296, 1299 (11th Cir.2008). We also review de novo a district court’s application of res judicata. EEOC v. Pemco Aeroplex, Inc., 383 F.3d 1280, 1285 (11th Cir.2004). We apply federal law “because federal preclusion principles apply to prior federal decisions.” Id. (quotation marks omitted).

“Under res judicata … a final judgment on the merits bars the parties to a prior action from re-litigating a cause of action that was or could have been raised in that action.” In re Piper Aircraft Corp., 244 F.3d 1289, 1296 (11th Cir.2001). “Res judicata applies not only to the precise legal theory presented in the previous litigation, but to all legal theories and claims arising out of the same operative nucleus of fact.” Manning v. City of Auburn, 953 F.2d 1355, 1358-59 (11th Cir.1992) (quotation marks omitted).

[A] party seeking to invoke the doctrine must establish … four initial elements: (1) the prior decision must have been rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction; (2) there must have been a final judgment on the merits; (3) both cases must involve the same parties or their privies; and (4) both cases must involve the same causes of action.  In re Piper Aircraft Corp., 244 F.3d at 1296. If these requirements are met, the court must determine whether the new claim could have been raised in the prior suit. Id. The preclusion of claims that “could have been brought” in earlier litigation does not include claims that arose after the original complaint was filed in the prior action, unless the plaintiff actually asserted the claim in “supplemental pleadings or otherwise.Pleming v. Universal-Rundle Corp., 142 F.3d 1354, 1357 (11th Cir.1998).

We conclude that even if this case satisfies the res judicata elements, the Plaintiffs’ retaliation claim is one “which ar[o]se after the original pleading [wa]s filed in the earlier litigation” and is not barred unless Plaintiffs asserted the claim in the prior litigation. Id. at 1357. The Plaintiffs filed their overtime compensation suit against Pak on March 4, 2008. Construing the facts in the Plaintiffs’ favor, the retaliation claim did not arise until November 21, 2008, when Pak excluded Plaintiffs from an opportunity to apply for independent contractor positions. Therefore, the Plaintiffs’ retaliation claim arose eight months after they filed their original complaint.

The Plaintiffs could not have asserted the retaliation claim in their initial complaint in the overtime compensation suit and were free to decline to do so through supplemental pleadings. We observed in Manning “that Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 15(d), which governs supplemental pleadings, makes such a pleading optional and held that the doctrine of res judicata does not punish a plaintiff for exercising the option not to supplement the pleadings with an after-acquired claim.” Pleming, 142 F.3d at 1357 (citing Manning, 953 F.2d at 1360).

We also conclude that the Plaintiffs never asserted their retaliation claim in their overtime compensation suit “through supplemental pleadings or otherwise.” Pleming, 142 F.3d at 1357 (emphasis omitted). In the overtime compensation suit, the Plaintiffs’ only reference to retaliation occurred in the status report they filed with the court immediately before the case settled. In this report, the Plaintiffs indicated that mediation had failed, and asked the court to try the case “as soon as possible” based on several unresolved concerns, including Pak’s failure “to … offer Plaintiffs the opportunity to become subcontractors for Defendant, an opportunity previously not granted to Plaintiffs because Plaintiffs were named on a lawsuit against Defendant.” This Court has held that while “a litigant may ‘otherwise’ assert a claim, without filing a supplemental pleading … these other means must conform with the rules of procedure.” Pleming, 142 F.3d at 1358. We have identified specific examples of other means of asserting a claim that trigger res judicata, such as “an amendment pursuant to Rule 15(b) or the assertion of a claim through a pretrial order pursuant to Rule 16(e).” Id. Neither of these options was pursued here. Pak concedes that, in light of Pleming, the magistrate judge’s reliance on the status report as the basis for concluding that the Plaintiffs asserted a retaliation claim in the prior litigation “may have been incorrect.”

The Plaintiffs’ reference to Pak’s retaliation is similar to the references we have held insufficient to assert a claim before a district court. In Coon v. Georgia Pacific Corp., 829 F.2d 1563, 1568-71 (11th Cir.1987), we affirmed the district court’s refusal to consider the plaintiff’s claims of specific acts of discrimination, which she included in her briefs, discovery requests, and motions, but never added to her complaint. We explained that “[t]hese claims were not somehow ‘present’ within her complaint, despite her failure to allege them.” Id. at 1570. We also rejected the notion that the claims were before the district court because they were part of a “continuing violation.” Id.; see also Pleming, 142 F.3d at 1358 (collecting cases). We conclude that the Plaintiffs’ reference to retaliation in the status report was insufficient to put their retaliation claim properly before the district court pursuant to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

For these reasons, we hold that res judicata does not bar the Plaintiffs’ retaliation claim against Pak. We VACATE and REMAND this case to the district court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Click Moore v. Sei Pak to read the entire decision.

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E.D.Va.: Applicant For A Job May Not Assert An Action For FLSA Retaliation, Because Not A Covered “Employee” Of The Potential Employer

Dellinger v. Science Applications Intern. Corp.

This case was before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant.  Plaintiff alleged that Defendant violated the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) codified at 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), by refusing to hire her after they received notice that she had filed a separate FLSA action against a former employer.  Defendant moved to dismiss on the basis that Plaintiff was never an “employee” of Defendant, and the Court granted Defendant’s Motion on this basis.

The Court reasoned:

“In a statutory construction case, the beginning point must be the language of the statute, and when a statute speaks with clarity to an issue [,] judicial inquiry into the statute’s meaning, in all but the most extraordinary circumstance, is finished.” Ramey v. Director, office of Workers’ Compensation Program, 326 F.3d 474, 476 (4th Cir.2003)(citing Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co. ., 505 U.S. 469, 475, 112 S.Ct. 2589, 120 L.Ed.2d 379 (1992)). The statute at issue here, 29 U.S.C. § 215 states, in pertinent part:

(a) [I]t shall be unlawful for any person …

(3) to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter …

29 U.S.C. § 215 (emphasis added). Congress chose to define “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). For an individual to be “employed” by an “employer” they must be “suffer[ed] or permitt[ed] to work.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(g). Here, Plaintiff was never “permitted” to work for SAIC, in fact, her main allegation is that the offer of employment was withdrawn. (See Compl. ¶ 34.).

The two district courts that have addressed this issue have found that a job applicant should not be considered an “employee” for purposes of the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA. In Harper v. San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center, an applicant for a nursing position at defendant hospital was involved in an unrelated federal wage claim suit against several municipalities. Harper, 848 F.Supp. 911 (D.Colo.1994). The hospital hired several allegedly less qualified individuals over plaintiff Harper and Harper filed suit alleging FLSA retaliation. In reaching its decision the Court specifically relied on the plain language of the statute, noting that “where a statute names parties who come within its provisions, other unnamed parties are excluded.” Id. at 913-914 (D.Colo.1994) (citing Foxgord v. Hischemoeller, 820 F.2d 1030, 1035, cert. denied, 484 U.S. 986, 108 S.Ct. 503, 98 L.Ed.2d 502, (9th Cir.1987); See Contract Courier Services, Inc. v. Research and Special Programs Admin. of U.S. Depart. of Transp., 924 F.2d 112, 114 (7th Cir.1991)(holding “statutory words mean nothing unless they distinguish one situation from another; line-drawing is the business of language”). The Court in Harper held that § 215(a)(3) “specifically identifies those individuals who come within its provisions i.e. employees. Therefore, other unnamed parties such as non-employee job applicants are excluded from its protection.” Harper, 848 F.Supp. at 914.

In the similar case of Glover v. City of North Charleston, plaintiff was also the lead plaintiff in a separate FLSA wage and hour suit against the North Charleston (Fire Dept.) District. Glover, 42 F.Supp. 243 (D.S.C.1996). After Glover brought suit against the District, the District Fire Department was disbanded and the City of North Charleston Fire Department was formed; however, the City had discretion to determine which of the District Department’s employees would be hired. Id. at 245. In his suit against the City, Glover alleged a violation of § 215(a)(3) claiming the City’s decision not to hire Glover was retaliation for his earlier FLSA claims. In dismissing the case, the Glover court found that plaintiffs were job applicants and thus not yet “employees” within the meaning of the Act. Id. at 246.

In so doing, the Court drew a careful distinction between § 215‘s initial language holding that it “shall be unlawful for any person ” to commit certain acts (§ 215(a)), and more limited language of the provision at issue here, protecting “any employee ” from the person’s misconduct (§ 215(a)(3)). Id. at 245-246 (emphasis added). The court found that the statute’s application to “any person” did not bar suit against the “non-employer” City, however, the plain language of the statue restricting its protections to “any employee” did mean that a mere job “applicant” did not have standing to bring a § 215 action. Id. As the Glover court found, the first sentence of the statute applies to “any person,” if “Congress wanted to cover non-employees, it could have written § 215(a)(3) to prevent discrimination [or retaliation] against “any person” instead of “any employee.” Id. at 246-247. Based on the plain language of the statute, the courts that have considered the issue have found that § 215(a)(3) does not cover job applicants.

Plaintiff attempts to distinguish these cases as outliers and non-binding on this Court. As decisions from other Districts they are clearly not binding precedent, however, their reasoning is, contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, applicable here. Both opinions rest on the plain language of the statute and both were unwilling to read the term “employee” to mean an individual who was never employed the Defendant.

Defendant points to the leading Fourth case regarding the sufficiency of an anti-retaliation claim under FLSA, Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334 (4th Cir.2008.) In the Fourth Circuit, to assert a prima facie claim of retaliation under the FLSA a plaintiff must show: “that (1) he engaged in an activity protected by the FLSA; (2) he suffered adverse action by the employer subsequent to or contemporaneous with such protected activity; and (3) a causal connection exists between the employee’s activity and the employer’s adverse action.” Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334, 340 (4th Cir.2008) (citing Wolf v. Coca-Cola Co., 200 F.3d 1337, 1342-43 (11th Cir.2000); Conner v. Schnuck Mkts., Inc., 121 F.3d 1390, 1394 (10th Cir.1997)). Similarly, Defendant argues that as the Fourth Circuit standard requires a “casual connection” between the “employee’s activity” and the “employer’s” action, Plaintiff has no standing to bring suit as she was never an “employee.” (Mem. in Supp. Mot. to Dismiss at 4.) Without reading beyond the plain language of the statute, a job applicant cannot be considered an ‘employee.’ “

Although not highlighted here, the Court also rejected several alternative arguments put forth by Plaintiff, that the Court should look beyond the FLSA, to statutory definitions and construction of Title VII and the NLRA statutes.

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M.D.Fla.: Compensatory Damages Available To Plaintiff In FLSA Retaliation Claim

Vaccaro v. Custom Sounds, Inc.

This case was before the Court, following Defendant’s default.  The Court set the matter for an evidentiary hearing on the issue of damages to be awarded in the final default judgment.  Of significance the Court ruled that an employee terminated in retaliation for engaging in FLSA protected activity may recover non-economic or compensatory damages. 

Discussing the issue of compensatory damages the Court stated:

“In addition to lost wages as a result of retaliation, Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $10,000.00 for emotional distress associated with the retaliation. See Total Damages Calculation. The damages provision for retaliation claims does not speak directly to compensatory damages for emotional distress, but states that the employer “shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of [the anti-retaliation provision] …” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

At least two judges in the Middle District of Florida have come to apparently opposite conclusions regarding whether compensatory damages for emotional distress are available pursuant to section 216(b). The Court in Bolick v. Brevard County Sheriff’s Dept. held that “[p]unitive and emotional damages are not available under the FLSA” and granted partial summary judgment to a defendant on the issues of punitive and emotional damages. 937 F.Supp. 1560, 1566-67 (M.D.Fla.1996). Since then, in Bogacki, the Court was faced with the issue of whether the retaliation provision of the FLSA provides for compensatory damages as a result of emotional distress. 370 F.Supp.2d at 1201-02. The Bogacki Court referenced the Sixth Circuit’s recognition in Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 564 (6th Cir.2004) that the Seventh Circuit, the Eighth Circuit, and the Ninth Circuit “directly or indirectly have allowed emotional distress awards under the FLSA to stand.” Bogacki, 370 F.Supp.2d at 1203 (internal citations omitted). Ultimately, the Bogacki Court determined that “each [retaliation] case should stand or fall on its own merit” and denied without prejudice a defendant’s motion for summary judgment on mental anguish damages because “neither party ha[d] addressed the strength, weakness, or absence of any evidence of the Plaintiff’s alleged emotional distress …” Id. at 1205-06.

Here, the Court has previously found that Defendants admitted, by defaulting, that “Plaintiff suffered emotional distress as a result of his termination.” Order (Doc. No. 19) at 2. Notwithstanding this factual finding, the Court recognized that “allegations relating to the amount and character of damages are not admitted by virtue of default. Rather, the Court determines the amount and character of damages to be awarded.” Id. at 3 (internal citation omitted). In assessing the issue of damages available for a retaliation claim, it is not entirely clear whether the Eleventh Circuit would approve awarding compensatory damages for emotional distress; however, the Court’s analysis in Bogacki, combined with other circuits’ approval of such damages and the Eleventh Circuit’s handling of the issues presented in Olivas, leads the undersigned to believe that the Eleventh Circuit would conclude that compensatory damages for emotional distress can be awarded in FLSA cases. 

Plaintiff testified his employer fired him as a result of his inquiry regarding unpaid overtime. When Plaintiff attempted to pick up his last paycheck, Plaintiff was told to “take it out of [his employer's] a* *.” No other egregious actions were undertaken or words spoken by the employer.

During his unemployment, Plaintiff was engaged to be married, had a two-year-old daughter, and had to rely on his parents to support his family. Plaintiff stayed with his soonto-be father-in-law. Plaintiff’s “mother” helped him pay for necessaries, his cellular phone bill, and insurance. According to Plaintiff, these stressful events caused him to be upset and embarrassed. The events “took a toll” on his relationship with his fiancé. The undersigned credits Plaintiff’s testimony in this regard. However, considering Plaintiff’s testimony in the framework of other cases in which courts have considered appropriate amount of damages for emotional distress claims, the undersigned finds as a factual matter that based upon the harm suffered by Plaintiff, $5,000.00 is a fair and reasonable amount. See Perez v. Jasper Trading, Inc., No. 05 CV 1725(ILG)(VVP), 2007 WL 4441062, at *8 (E.D.N.Y. Dec. 17, 2007) (unpublished) (recognizing emotional distress awards involving facts similar to those in that case “usually range from $5,000 to $30,000”) (internal citations omitted).  Although it is undeniable that Plaintiff suffered some form of emotional distress (and indeed the Court has already so found), the facts of this relatively unremarkable FLSA case do not warrant an award of $10,000.00 for such distress.  Accordingly, the undersigned recommends awarding $5,000.00 in compensatory damages for emotional distress.”

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Supreme Court Agrees To Decide Whether A Verbal Complaint To An Employer Is Sufficient To Trigger FLSA Anti-Retaliation Protections

Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp.

The Supreme Court has granted certiorari to decide whether the question:

“Is an oral complaint of a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act protected conduct under the anti-retaliation provision, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3)?”

In a decision discussed here,  the 7th Circuit previously held that “any complaint” includes an employee’s internal complaint to his or her own company.  However, the Court also held that an employee who complains verbally, not in writing, has not engaged in statutorily protected activity, so he or she is not protected by the FLSA’s anti-retaliation provision.

Following the decision, the Plaintiff sought a rehearing en banc.  In the decision denying a rehearing en banc, three 7th Circuit judges dissented.  The dissenting judges noted that the 7th Circuit was the only Circuit to construe the definition of protected activity so narrowly.  Now the Supreme Court will decide whether they were right, or whether the remedial nature of the FLSA supports protection from retaliation for those who make verbal complaints, but not complaints in writing.

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M.D.Tenn.: Police Officers Who Allegedly Arrested Employees In Retaliation For Informal Unpaid Wage Complaints Are Properly Defendants In A 29 U.S.C. § 215(a) Case

Montano-Perez v. Durrett Cheese Sales, Inc.

Defendant, a local Police Department, sued for their alleged role in retaliating against Plaintiffs, in cooperation with Plaintiffs’ employer filed a Motion to Dismiss the FLSA Retaliation claims asserted against it.  For the reasons discussed below, the Court denied the Police Department’s motion.

The Court cited the following extensive facts as relevant to its inquiry:

“The plaintiffs are Latino immigrants who moved to the Manchester, Tennessee, area from impoverished regions of Mexico. The plaintiffs speak either Mixteco, an indigenous Mexican language, or Spanish as their primary language. Shanna Ramirez was a supervisor with Durrett Cheese during the relevant time period, and she recruited and hired members of the Mixteco community in Manchester to work in non-supervisory positions with Durrett Cheese. Mostly all of the non-supervisory positions in the Durrett Cheese factory were filled by Latino workers of Mexican descent. The plaintiffs were hired by Durrett Cheese at various points in the late 2006 to late 2007 time period. After being hired, the plaintiffs performed various jobs in the factory, including “in-line” jobs slicing, packaging, and processing cheese for sale. At the time of hire, the plaintiffs understood that Durrett Cheese would pay them on a weekly basis at an hourly rate between approximately $6.00 and $6.75 per hour.

The plaintiffs’ employment with Durrett Cheese was problematic. The plaintiffs’ direct supervisor, Ms. Ramirez, frequently made offensive and potentially humiliating comments to the plaintiffs about their race, national origin, intelligence, language, and customs, among other things. Durrett Cheese also frequently failed to timely pay the plaintiffs at the applicable federal minimum wage. These problems persisted before and after Durrett Cheese’s August 2007 bankruptcy filing.

Indeed, in many workweeks in August, September, and October 2007, Durrett Cheese grossly underpaid the plaintiffs. In some workweeks during this time period, the plaintiffs were not paid at all, and some plaintiffs worked for more than a month during this time period without being paid. The plaintiffs regularly requested their unpaid wages during this period, often approaching Ramirez in groups to inquire about their pay. Acting through Ramirez, Durrett Cheese either postponed pay days or simply refused to pay the plaintiffs for the work they had performed. Ramirez convinced the plaintiffs to continue working by telling them that they would not receive their back pay if they quit, and that they would receive more back pay if they worked at higher production levels.

The tension over pay and working conditions came to a head in October 2007. On Friday, October 19, 2007, the plaintiffs made repeated requests to Ramirez for several weeks of back pay. Ramirez informed the plaintiffs that they would not be paid until the following Monday. On hearing this news, the plaintiffs met to plan a collective action to protest the continued non-payment of wages.

The following Monday, October 22, 2007, during the usual mid-morning break, the plaintiffs assembled in the Durrett Cheese break room and again requested their overdue pay from Ramirez. The plaintiffs were told by Ramirez that no checks would be distributed until defendant Durrett arrived, and, until that time, the plaintiffs could either return to work or leave for good (and risk never receiving their back pay). The plaintiffs refused to return to work, stating that they would only do so when they received their wages. In response, Ramirez fired the plaintiffs and ordered them off company property. The plaintiffs informed Ramirez that they would not leave the break room until they received their wages.

As the plaintiffs continued to wait in the break room, Ramirez conferred with Ron Girts, another supervisor at Durrett Cheese, and defendant Durrett. Defendant Durrett ordered Girts and Ramirez to call the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department. Officer-defendants Jones, Partin, and Barker responded to the call and headed to the Durrett Cheese factory. When the officers arrived, Ramirez, Girts, and the plaintiffs informed the officers that management and the employees were engaged in a dispute over unpaid wages. The officers noted the nature of the dispute in their incident report.

The plaintiffs allege that, at this point, the officers with the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department and the supervisors employed by Durrett Cheese began working together to defeat the plaintiffs’ wage complaints. For instance, a supervisor, either Ramirez or Girts, informed the officers that the plaintiffs were undocumented immigrants and should, therefore, be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The officers were also provided with paperwork from Durrett Cheese to assist in reporting the plaintiffs.

The officers told the plaintiffs that, if they did not leave the Durrett Cheese premises, they would be arrested and taken to the Coffee County jail. After the plaintiffs expressed their intent to remain in the break room, the officers arrested the plaintiffs and transported them, via Sheriff’s Department van, to the Coffee County jail. The officers’ supervisors, defendants Freeman and Graves, were advised of the situation as it unfolded and approved of the arrests. During the arrests, the officers, along with Ramirez, laughed at the plaintiffs, referred to the plaintiffs’ race and national origin, and made statements about sending the plaintiffs “back to Mexico.” In total, the entire work stoppage incident lasted less than two hours, and, at all times, it was peaceful and entirely confined to the Durrett Cheese break room.

At the Coffee County jail, the plaintiffs were booked on charges of trespassing and were detained. Over the course of the day on October 22, the plaintiffs were separated from their families and kept in the dark about what would happen to them. The plaintiffs slept on mattresses in a crowded jail cell and were denied free access to restroom facilities. The next day, October 23, the Coffee County District Attorney dropped all charges against the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs allege that, while they were detained, defendants Graves and Freeman consulted with supervisors at Durrett Cheese as to how to proceed, in light of the ongoing labor dispute between Durrett Cheese and the plaintiffs. Durrett Cheese and defendant Graves agreed that, regardless of the charges being dropped, the plaintiffs would remain at the Coffee County jail and that the plaintiffs would be reported to ICE. Shortly after this conversation, defendant Freeman contacted ICE to report the plaintiffs as suspected undocumented immigrants. On October 24, agents from ICE arrived at the Coffee County jail, and, at the behest of the County Defendants, transported the plaintiffs to a detention center in Nashville, Tennessee, where the plaintiffs, very fearful of what would happen to them and their families, were interrogated for several hours before their attorney was able to secure their release.”

Finding the Plaintiffs’ 215 claim of FLSA Retaliation to be a viable one, at this stage in the litigation, the Court explained:

“As noted above, the plaintiffs allege that the County Defendants violated Section 215(a)(3) of the FLSA. In relevant part, that provision states: “it shall be unlawful for any person to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter.” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a) (3). The Sixth Circuit has consistently interpreted an informal complaint to management regarding working conditions to constitute a “filed complaint” under Section 215(a)(3). Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 562 (6th 2004); EEOC v. Romeo Community Schools, 976 F.2d 985, 989 (6th Cir.1992). While there does not appear to be a wealth of law on this subject from the Sixth Circuit, it appears clear that, given the broad language of this provision, entities other than an individual’s employer can violate the FLSA. See e.g. Centeno-Bernuy v. Perry, 302 F.Supp.2d 128, 135 (W.D.N.Y.2003); Meek v. United States, 136 F.2d 679, 679-80 (6th Cir.1943).

In asserting that the plaintiffs’ FLSA claim should be dismissed as to them, the County Defendants argue that the plaintiffs’ Complaint does not establish the prima facie case for retaliation under the FLSA, and, even if it did, the claim could not survive the well-known McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis that is typically applied in employment discrimination and retaliation suits, including claims brought under the FLSA. (Docket No. 46 at 4, citing Williams v. GM., 187 F.3d 553, 568 (6th Cir.1999)).

This is not a proper argument at this stage in the proceedings. In employment discrimination and retaliation suits, the plaintiff is not required, at the pleading stage, to demonstrate a prima facie case or to survive McDonnell Douglas burden shifting. See Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 508; EEOC v. FPM Group, Ltd., 2009 WL 3088808, *6 (E.D.Tenn. Sept.28, 2009). Rather, as discussed above, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s Complaint need only outline a “facially plausible” claim for relief.

The plaintiffs have met that burden here. Again, the language of the FLSA provision at issue is very broad, prohibiting “any person” from “discriminat [ing]” against “any employee,” because that employee has filed a covered workplace complaint. 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). Further, the County Defendants recognize that retaliatory reporting of an employee to immigration authorities could constitute “discrimination” under this provision. (Docket No. 46 at 6; see also Singh v. Jutla, 214 F.Supp.2d 1056, 1062 (N.D.Cal.2002) (denying motion to dismiss FLSA retaliation claims where allegations centered on an employer’s reporting of the employee to immigration authorities in retaliation for FLSA protected conduct); Dunlop v. Carriage Carpet Co., 548 F.2d 139, 147 (6th Cir.1977) (equating FLSA discrimination to “black listing” and other actions that prevent an employee from gaining future employment.)

Providing significant factual support, the plaintiffs have alleged that the County Defendants, working in concert with the Durrent Defendants, arrested the plaintiffs and then reported the plaintiffs to ICE because of the plaintiffs’ complaints about pay. While the County Defendants claim that the plaintiffs have only alleged a racial or ethnic animus as motivation for the defendants’ conduct here, that is simply not the case. (Docket No. 46 at 6.) The Complaint contains numerous allegations, backed by factual support, that the County Defendants reported the plaintiffs to ICE, at least in part, because the plaintiffs had made a complaint about pay.

The plaintiffs allege that, shortly after the officers arrived at the break room, they were advised that this was a dispute about pay. Then, “Ramirez and/or Girts supplied Defendants Jones, Partin, and Barker with paperwork to assist the Coffee County Defendants in reporting Plaintiffs to ICE.” (Docket No. 1 at 15.) There is no indication from the Complaint that Jones, Partin and Barker attempted to mediate or resolve the labor dispute; rather, it is clear from the Complaint that, throughout the entire process, the County Defendants simply imposed the will of the Durrett Defendants, which was to permanently remove the plaintiffs from the premises (and, perhaps, the country) because the plaintiffs had complained about pay. Indeed, the Complaint alleges that, after the charges were dropped, defendant Graves “consult[ed] with the Durrett Defendants and with full awareness that he was unlawfully intervening in a labor dispute, defendant Graves instructed defendant Freeman to call ICE to report Plaintiffs as suspected undocumented immigrants. Defendant Freeman did so on or about October 22 or October 23, 2007.” (Id. at 16.)

Clearly, accepting the plaintiffs’ allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs’ favor, the plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the County Defendants violated the FLSA. The plaintiffs allege, with specific factual support, that, in response to the plaintiffs’ complaint about pay, the County Defendants not only had the plaintiffs arrested but worked in concert with the Durrett Defendants to have the plaintiffs reported to ICE. As to this claim, the County Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, which is premised on the notion that the FLSA claim lacks factual support, will be denied.

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D.Minn.: Defendant’s Request To Distribute Post-Notice Memorandum To Opt-ins Denied; Risk That Opt-ins Would Be Discouraged From Exercising FLSA Rights Outweighs Defendant’s Interests

Ahle v. Veracity Research Co.

Following the Court’s Order granting Notice, Defendant sought to send out a memorandum to all putative class members reminding them that they may not divulge trade secrets (without outlining what those trade secrets were).  Plaintiff objected and Defendant’s filed a Motion to send the memorandum out.  Finding that the chilling effect outweighed the probative value, if any, of such memorandum, the Court denied Defendant’s Motion.

The Court initially described the procedural history up until the point of the Motion and the contents of the memorandum Defendant sought to distribute.

“Veracity is a private investigative firm that specializes in insurance defense investigations. The Plaintiffs are current or former employees of Veracity, who work, or worked, as private investigators, and who claim that Veracity has violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219 (“FLSA”), by failing to pay them for certain hours that they had allegedly worked. Veracity denies any violation of the FLSA, and filed Counterclaims against certain of the Plaintiffs, including claims that those Plaintiffs had misappropriated confidential information, and trade secrets. In an Order dated July 28, 2009, the District Court, the Honorable Ann D. Montgomery presiding, granted the Plaintiffs’ Motion to Dismiss Veracity’s claims, on jurisdictional grounds, that those Plaintiffs had misappropriated Veracity’s confidential information, and trade secrets. See, Memorandum Opinion and Order dated July 28, 2009, Docket No. 67.

Veracity now seeks leave of the Court to distribute the following memorandum to those of its employees who elect to opt-into this collective action:

We understand that you recently elected to become a party plaintiff in this wage and hour lawsuit. We respect your decision and assure you that you will not be retaliated against in any way by [Veracity] because of your involvement in this case.

However, we want to remind you that, like all [Veracity] employees, you have a duty not to share or disclose any of our trade secrets or other confidential information outside of the Company except as authorized by [Veracity]. This includes any company property, whether in tangible or electronic form. Although we have no desire to interfere with your participation in this lawsuit, it does not relieve you of your obligations as a [Veracity] employee, including to protect our trade secrets and other confidential information.

Please let me know if you have any questions concerning this Memorandum or our policies prohibiting the nondisclosure and nonmisappropriation of [Veracity's] confidential information and property, as reflected in our Employee Manual and your Agreement with [Veracity].

Before distributing the memorandum to opt-ins, counsel for Veracity requested permission to do so from counsel for the Plaintiffs, who objected to the distribution, and urged that Veracity seek Court approval.

Without the knowledge of its counsel, on August 6, 2009, Veracity sent a copy of the memorandum, authored by Veracity’s Chief Executive Officer, to a current employee who had opted into the lawsuit, and followed that transmission with a personal email to the employee which directed that he confirm that he received, understood, and would comply, with the terms of that memorandum. According to the Plaintiffs, Veracity sent the memorandum to that employee “within 20 minutes” of the employee’s election to opt-into the case. See, Plaintiffs’ Memorandum in Opposition, Docket No 93 (“Pl’s Memo.”), at p. 4 of 8; see also, Sokolowski Aff., supra at p. 4 of 6. After counsel for the Plaintiffs reiterated their opposition to the distribution of the memorandum, Veracity filed their Motion for Court approval to do so.”

Veracity contends that the memorandum is “neither threatening, coercive, nor misleading, and Plaintiffs fail to explain why they object to it,” see, Veracity’s Memorandum in Support, Docket No. 89 (“Veracity’s Memo.”), at p. 1 of 6, and believes that, as the employer of those opt-ins who are current employees, Veracity is doing no more than reminding those employees of their obligation to maintain the secrecy of Veracity’s confidential information, and trade secrets. Id. at p. 1-2 of 6 (“The memo, which [Veracity] believed to be appropriate and benign, was intended to remind employees of their obligation not to disclose trade secrets or other confidential information.”). Accordingly, Veracity requests an Order that permits “it to distribute the memorandum to any future opt-in plaintiffs who are current employees of [Veracity] at the time they opt in to the lawsuit.” Id.

Addressing the competing interests, the Court noted, ” ‘Because of the potential for abuse, a district court has both the duty and the broad authority to exercise control over a class action and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties.’ Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 100 (1981). “But this discretion is not unlimited, and indeed is bounded by the relevant provisions of the Federal Rules.” Id., citing Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156 (1974). “Before entry of such an order, there must be a clear record and specific findings that reflect a weighing of the need for a limitation and the potential interference with the rights of the parties.” Great Rivers Cooperative of Southeastern Iowa v. Farmland Industries, Inc., 59 F.3d 764, 766 (8th Cir.1995), citing Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, supra at 101.

‘In addition, such a weighing-identifying the potential abuses being addressed-should result in a carefully drawn order that limits speech as little as possible, consistent with the rights of the parties under the circumstances.’ Id., quoting Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, at 102. ‘Nevertheless, a limited restriction-such as precluding a defendant from soliciting class members to opt out of the litigation-will sometimes be justified.’ Id., quoting Manual for Complex Litigation, Second, at § 30.24 at p. 232, citing, in turn, Kleiner v. First Nat’l Bank of Atlanta, 751 F.3d 1193 (11th Cir.1985). While the foregoing authorities specifically address class action proceedings, the same principles have been extended to collective actions, such as this one. See, Hoffman-La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170-71 (1989). In Hoffman-La Roche, the Court specifically recognized that the benefits of the collective form of litigation “depend on employees receiving accurate and timely notice concerning the pendency of the collective action, so that they can make informed decisions about whether to participate.” Id. at 170.

We do not suggest that there is anything misleading in the contents of Veracity’s proposed memorandum. Rather, we have concern that the memorandum, which will only be sent to Veracity’s current employees who opt-into the collective action, will unnecessarily highlight Veracity’s close attention to that employee’s election to participate in this proceeding. Perhaps, in and of itself, such a highlighting could prove to be innocent, we find no logical nexus between joining this collective action, and any derivative motivation to impermissibly share Veracity’s confidential information, or trade secrets. Instead, we are left with the distinct impression that the transmission of the memorandum-only to opt-ins-is intended to not-so-subtly influence the opt-in, as to his choice to engage in this lawsuit, by assuring him or her that Veracity’s management will be more closely scrutinizing that employee’s demeanor and conduct, than other similarly-situated employees who have not joined the suit.

The opt-ins do no wrong in joining this collective action; they are simply exercising their rights under a statute that Congress enacted to assure that they were fairly compensated for the hours that they worked for Veracity, or for any other employer. If that joinder warrants a cautionary, that the opt-in should not seek to steal Veracity’s property, whether tangible or electronic, the connection escapes us. Nor are we able to clearly understand Veracity’s asserted business purpose for the advisory. While we certainly accept that Veracity is engaged in a sensitive business, and could be exposed to penalties if the information its investigators gather is improperly disclosed in such a way as to violate State or Federal statutes, or Veracity’s contracts with third-parties, we are unable to perceive why joining this lawsuit potentiates toward any such violations. Veracity, and the Plaintiffs, have entered a Protective Order that preserves the confidentiality of information that has been so labeled by one party or the other. Counsel for the Plaintiffs need not request, even if they were so unprofessionally motivated to do so, information from the opt-ins which is otherwise available from Veracity.

Nor is it clear what Veracity characterizes as confidential, or as a trade secret. Surely that characterization could not encompass evidence, if any there be, that Veracity’s policies and practices violate the provisions of the FLSA, and yet, that inference may not be fully understood by the opt-ins who are warned not to communicate some undefined information to persons outside of Veracity. The Confidentiality Agreements between Veracity, and its investigators, have not been presented for our review, but we have grave difficulty in conceiving why “information about other employees” could be considered confidential. See, Veracity’s Memo., supra at p. 5 of 6 (“[Veracity's] employees have access to confidential information and trade secrets, including clients lists and information about other employees.”). While the confidences of Veracity’s client lists would surely be proprietary, we are unable to fathom why that information would be a subject of inquiry, by the Plaintiffs’ counsel, in an FLSA action.

In our considered view, Veracity’s memorandum unfairly chills the opt-ins’ Sixth Amendment right of access to the Courts, as well as their entitlement to consult with legal counsel, concerning their FLSA claims, without fear of retribution arising from some notion that the information that they are disclosing will subject them to discipline, or other legal action, predicated upon a breach of a Confidentiality Agreement. Moreover, we are unable to perceive any reason for the opt-ins to be disclosing information that would compromise a confidence, or a trade secret. As we have noted, the issues raised in this action pertain to wages, and hours worked; they do not involve matters of confidence or trade secret, and Veracity has failed to explain why it should fear such disclosures, much less why it believes that counsel for the Plaintiffs would be interested in any such information.

Given these considerations, and the entirety of the Record that the parties have presented for our consideration, we find that Veracity should be allowed to exercise its free speech right to communicate with its employees on matters as significant as the preservation of confidential information, and trade secrets. In order to preserve that right, without trammeling upon the opt-in’s right of access to the Courts, any communication from Veracity, on this subject, should be transmitted to all of its employees, who signed a Confidentiality Agreement, and not just to the opt-ins. In this fashion, the rights of both sides are appropriately weighed and protected. While our ruling will require that the memorandum be modestly reworded, if Veracity truly has a concern that its employees, or some subclass of them, will improperly disclose its trade secrets, or confidential information, then a cautionary advisory to its workforce will further its interest in preserving the integrity of such information, without sacrificing the opt-ins’ rights under the FLSA. As we did at the Hearing, we suggest that the memorandum be generic in form and content, and not be connected to this litigation. If a suitable memorandum evades the parties, they may jointly contact this Court for assistance.”

Thus, the Court denied the Defendant’s Motion for an Order Approving the Distribution of a Memorandum to Opt-ins.

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