DOL Announces Final Rule Extending Minimum Wage and Overtime Pay to Home Health Workers

In an announcement that has long been awaited by workers advocates and those in the home health industry as well, today the United States Department of Labor (DOL) announced a final rule, to go into effect on January 1, 2015, which extends the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections to home health aides that perform typical CNA tasks in the homes of the aged and infirm.  In an email blast, the DOL reported:

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division announced a final rule today extending the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime protections to most of the nation’s direct care workers who provide essential home care assistance to elderly people and people with illnesses, injuries, or disabilities. This change, effective January 1, 2015, ensures that nearly two million workers – such as home health aides, personal care aides, and certified nursing assistants – will have the same basic protections already provided to most U.S. workers. It will help ensure that individuals and families who rely on the assistance of direct care workers have access to consistent and high quality care from a stable and increasingly professional workforce.

Among other things, the final rule overrules the 2007 holding of the Supreme Court in Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, and requires 3rd party employers such as staffing agencies to pay companions and home health workers overtime under the FLSA when they work in excess of 40 hours per week.

The New York Times provides a pretty good synopsis of the changes to the Companionship Exemption, provided by the final rule:

Under the new rule, any home care aides hired through home care companies or other third-party agencies cannot be exempt from minimum wage and overtime coverage. The exemptions for aides who mainly provide “companionship services” — defined as fellowship and protection for an elderly person or person with an illness, injury or disability who requires assistance — are limited to the individual, family or household using the services.

If an aide or companion provides “care” that exceeds 20 percent of the total hours she works each week, then the worker is to receive minimum wage and overtime protections.

The new rule defines care as assisting with the activities of daily living, like dressing, grooming, feeding or bathing, and assisting with “instrumental activities of daily living,” like meal preparation, driving, light housework, managing finances and assisting with the physical taking of medications.

The companionship exemption will not apply if the aide or companion provides medically related services that are typically performed by trained personnel, like nurses or certified nursing assistants.

Live-in domestic service workers who reside in the employer’s home and are employed by an individual, family or household are exempt from overtime pay, although they must be paid at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked.

Click Final Rule to read the published rule, or U.S. News and Report to read an article discussing the announcement.

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What Defines Commercial Motor Vehicles (CMVs) for Application of MCA Exemption Under Technical Corrections Act (TCA)? Courts Disagree

Two recent cases—one from the Eighth Circuit and one from a District court within the Ninth Circuit—continue to demonstrate that when it comes to application of the Motor Carrier Act’s exemption to the FLSA, for employees who drive commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) in interstate commerce, courts continue to be confused. Within days of the Eighth Circuit’s holding that it is the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) dictates whether a motor vehicle weighs 10,000 pounds or more, and thus reaches the threshold to be considered a CMV, a court in the District of Idaho held that the actual weight when loaded and not the GVWR dictates the weight for purposes of application of the MCA under the Technical Corrections Act (TCA). Both cases are discussed below.

8th Cir.: GVWR, Not Actual Weight, Is the Appropriate Criterion for Determining if the TCA Applies

McCall v. Disabled American Veterans

Initially, the Eighth Circuit discussed the historical background of the TCA, with respect to the MCA and SAFETEA-LU, the amendment that preceded the TCA:

Under the FLSA, “[e]mployees engaged in interstate commerce” are to be paid “one and one-half times” their regular salary rates for all work performed in excess of 40 hours per week. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). However, under the MCAE, the overtime-pay provision of § 207 does not apply to “any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service pursuant to the provisions of section 31502 of Title 49.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(1). “The Secretary of Transportation may prescribe … maximum hours of service of employees of … motor carrier[s] and … motor private carrier[s].” 49 U.S.C. § 31502(b)(1) and (2). As relevant here, “motor private carrier” is a person “transporting property by motor vehicle when … the property is being transported for sale, lease, rent, or bailment or to further a commercial enterprise .” 49 U.S.C. § 13102(15)(C).

In 2005, the SAFETEA–LU amended the definition of “motor private carrier” to mean “a person, other than a motor carrier, transporting property by commercial motor vehicle (as defined in section 31132).” 49 U.S.C. § 13102(15) (2005) (emphasis added). Section 31132 defines a “commercial motor vehicle” as one which “has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of at least 10,001 pounds, whichever is greater.” 49 U.S.C. § 31132(1). Therefore, following enactment of the SAFETEA–LU, the overtime-pay provision of § 207 began to apply to drivers of vehicles with a GVWR less than 10,001 pounds.

Reasoning that the TCA did not do away with SAFETEA-LU’s measure of 10,000 pounds by using the GVWR, the court explained:

In 2008, the TCA deleted the § 13102(15) reference to a “commercial motor vehicle (as defined in section 31132)” and inserted the more generic language “motor vehicle,” which is its current form. 49 U.S.C. § 13102(15) (2008). Section 306 of the TCA also extended FLSA overtime protections to “covered employees,” defined as individuals who are employed as motor private carriers, “who perform[ ] duties on motor vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.” (Emphasis added). Pub.L. 110–244, Title III, § 306, 122 Stat. 1572, 1621 (2008). In the Bulletin, the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division stated that it “will continue to use the gross vehicle weight rating2 (GVWR) or gross combined vehicle weight rating in the event that the vehicle is pulling a trailer” to determine if a vehicle is one “weighing 10,000 pounds” or less. Therefore, the overtime-pay provision of § 207 applies to vehicles with a GVWR of 10,000 pounds or less. We accord appropriate deference to this interpretation of the FLSA by the Secretary of Labor. See Donovan v. Bereuter’s, Inc., 704 F.2d 1034, 1036 (8th Cir.1983) ( “[T]he Secretary[ of Labor]‘s interpretations are entitled to considerable weight.”).

McCall argues that he was a covered employee with overtime rights under the FLSA because the trucks that he operated actually weighed less than 10,000 pounds despite having GVWRs greater than 10,000 pounds. Upon review, we agree with the district court that GVWR, not actual weight, is the appropriate criterion for determining if the TCA applies to place a driver’s wage regulation under the FSLA rather than the Transportation Secretary. McCall operated trucks with GVWRs in excess of 10,000 pounds. He is not entitled to overtime under the FSLA.

Click McCall v. Disabled American Veterans to read the entire Opinion.

D.Idaho: Actual Weight, Not GVWR Determinative of Whether Vehicle Qualifies as CMV Under TCA

Garcia v. Western Waste Services, Inc.

In the second case, a court within the District of Idaho examined the identical issue and reached the opposite conclusion. That is the Idaho court held that the same regulation relied upon by the Eighth Circuit was not entitled to deference, because the statute at issue, the TCA, unambiguously eliminated SAFETEA-LU’s prior definition of a CMV (utilizing the GVWR) for vehicles not pulling a trailer. As such, the Garcia court held that the actual weight of the vehicle and not the GVWR dictates whether a vehicle is a CMV within the jurisdiction of the Secretary of Transportation (and whether the MCA applies).

Framing the issue, the court explained:

Garcia asserts that he is a “covered employee” under the TCA small vehicle exception due to his work as a mechanic and/or driver. To qualify for overtime pay as a mechanic, Garcia must show that: (1) he was a mechanic for a DOT-regulated motor carrier, (2) his work affected, in part, the safety of vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less, and (3) that the vehicles were in transportation in interstate commerce. Pub.L. No. 110–244, § 306(c). It is undisputed that Garcia worked as a mechanic for Western Waste, and that Western Waste is a DOT-regulated motor carrier. It is also clear that Garcia’s work affected the safety of all of Western Waste’s vehicles, which all travel in interstate commerce. Molitor Aff., ¶¶ 13–16, Dkt. 33–4. The main questions at issue are whether any of Western Waste’s vehicles weigh 10,000 pounds or less, and whether Garcia’s work on any such vehicles is sufficient to qualify him for the TCA exception.

Reasoning that the actual weight of the vehicle and not the hypothetical GVWR governs whether a vehicle meets the definition of a CMV under the TCA, the court explained:

(1) Vehicle Weight

The issue is how do you weigh a truck? Garcia asserts that Western Waste’s fleet has a number of service vehicles that weigh less than 10,000 pounds. Western Waste has 5 service vehicles that are used to transport portable toilets, run errands, and do service on other trucks and equipment. When the parties weighed three of Western Waste’s service vehicles on June 13, 2012, the actual weight of each vehicle, without a trailer, was less than 10,000 pounds. Thorne Aff., Dkt. 37–2. However, Western Waste argues that actual weight is not the appropriate measure of vehicle weight under the TCA. Instead, the GVWR or GCWR should be used. Western Waste points out that all of its service vehicles are equipped to pull, and regularly pull, a 5,740 pound trailer. Additionally, Western Waste states that there are several other trailers of unknown weight that the service vehicles regularly pull. Accordingly, Western Waste argues that all of its service vehicles have GCWRs that exceed 10,000 pounds.

The TCA does not specify how vehicle weight is to be determined. As mentioned above, SAFETEA–LU specifically provided that the GVWR or GCWR was used to determine vehicle weight. 49 C.F.R. § 390.5. The TCA dropped any reference to GVWR or GCWR, and simply refers to “motor vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.” Thus, Congress appears to have abandoned the GVWR and GCWR standard for determining availability of the exemption.

After Congress passed the TCA, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued Field Assistance Bulletin No.2010–2 (“the Bulletin”) to explain its interpretation of the TCA. Specifically, the Bulletin announced that the Wage and Hour Division “will continue to use the [GVWR] or [GCWR] in the event that the vehicle is pulling a trailer” to determine vehicle weight. Id. This raises the question of whether the Bulletin’s interpretation of the TCA is entitled to deference.

After a discussion of the types of deference that a court owes to administrative regulations of that administrations own regulations, the court rejected DOL’s interpretation of the TCA, and held that the regulation at issue (defining the weight of a CMV) was unambiguous:

Under these standards, the Court concludes’ that the DOL’s interpretation of the TCA is not entitled to deference. It is not an attempt to interpret its own ambiguous regulation, and therefore is not entitled to deference under Auer. Additionally, it is not entitled to Chevron deference. When Congress enacted the TCA, it had the language of the SAFETEA–LU before it, and chose not to rely upon GVWR or GCWR to measure a vehicle’s weight for purposes of the TCA exception. In the Court’s view, the language in the TCA is not ambiguous. Therefore, the DOL’s interpretation, which is contrary to the plain language of the statute, is not warranted.

Moreover, the DOL Bulletin is not persuasive and runs afoul of the charge that the TCA exception be construed broadly. The DOL offers no explanation as to why it will continue to use GVWR or GCWR, despite the clear language of the statute not adopting that standard. Furthermore, using GVWR or GCWR narrows the number of employees covered by the TCA exception. Such a reading does not allow the Court to construe the TCA exception “to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with Congressional direction.” Klem, 208 F.3d at 1089. Therefore, in absence of any guidance from Congress and “a specific definition in the TCA, the ordinary meaning of ‘weight’ controls.” Glanville v. Dupar, Inc., CIV.A. H–08–2537, 2009 WL 3255292, *8 (S.D.Tex. Sept. 25, 2009).

Even under the ordinary meaning of weight, however, the weights of a truck and trailer which are commonly used together should be combined. Id. (holding that because the plaintiffs “operated vehicles, truck and trailer combined, with an actual weight of greater than 10,000 pounds,” the TCA was inapplicable). When Western Waste’s service vehicles are combined with the trailer, they exceed 10,000 pounds. However, there are unresolved factual questions as to whether all of the service trucks actually pull the trailer. Garcia contends that only one of the service trucks pulled the trailer during his employment. Garcia Decl., ¶ 4, Dkt. 37–1. Garcia’s allegations raise doubt as to whether all of the trucks should have a weight rating combined with the trailer. If vehicles # 25 and # 27 do not pull the trailer, as Garcia asserts, then they will have an actual weight and GVWR under 10,000 pounds. Thus disputed issues of fact remain.

Click Garcia v. Western Waste Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.

Although not discussed here, the courts also fell on opposite sides of the “mixed fleet” question. For anyone facing this issue—whether an employee who drives both CMVs and non-CMVs for his or her employer within the same week—you would be well-advised to read these opinions on that issue as well.

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D.Mass.: Where 10% of Business Comprised of Sales of Automobiles, Defendant Not “Primarily Engaged in the Business of Selling Such Vehicles”

Carroca v. All Star Enterprises and Collision Center Inc.

Although not often the subject of litigation, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 213(10)(a), certain employees of automobile dealerships are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. Specifically, that statute exempts from overtime:

any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements, if he is employed by a nonmanufacturing establishment primarily engaged in the business of selling such vehicles or implements to ultimate purchasers…

In this case, the court was called upon, in part, to decide whether defendant—90% of its business was the repair of automobiles, with the remaining 10% of the business comprised of the sale of automobiles—qualified as such an automobile dealership. The court held, as a matter of law, that such a business does not qualify for the exemption.

The court reasoned:

All Star admits that Carroca was employed as an auto body repairman. D. 19 ¶ 5; D. 23 ¶ 5. Assuming without deciding that an auto body repairman is a “salesman, partsman, or mechanic,” the next question, which the parties dispute, is whether Carroca was “employed by a nonmanufacturing establishment primarily engaged in the business of selling [automobiles, trucks, or farm implements] to ultimate purchasers.” The Department of Labor has issued 29 C.F.R. § 779.372, which defines what it means to be “primarily engaged” in said business. According to the regulation, “[a]s applied to the establishment, primarily engaged means that over half of the establishments [sic] annual dollar volume of sales made or business done must come from sales of the enumerated vehicles.” Id.; see Donovan v. Bereuter’s, Inc., 704 F.2d 1034, 1036–37 (8th Cir.1983) (construing “the legislative history as indicating that Congress intended the exemption to be narrowly applied and was not designed to exempt those dealers who engage in the retail sales of automobiles to a limited degree”).

Here, as All Star acknowledges, D. 22 at 2, All Star has the burden of proof with respect to the applicability of the exemption. Hines v. State Room Inc., 665 F.3d 235, 240 (1st Cir.2011). Here, All Star has not met that burden where All Star admits that only “approximately ten percent” of All Star’s business constitutes automobile sales. Pl. Stmt. of Facts, D. 19 ¶ 2; Def. Resp., D. 23 ¶ 2; see Def. Resp. to Interrog. ¶ 5 (stating that “vehicle sales constitute approximately 10% of the business of Allstar; approximately 90% of the business consists of vehicle repair”). Thus, All Star is incorrect that it falls within the FLSA overtime exemption under 29 U.S.C. § 213. Accordingly, the exemption does not apply to All Star and it is bound by the overtime provisions under 29 U.S.C. § 207.

Click Carroca v. All Star Enterprises and Collision Center Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.

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6th Cir.: Employment Contract That Purported to Shorten FLSA Statute of Limitations to 6 Months Invalid

Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc.

Employers continue to include language in employment contracts which purports to shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims. By law, the statute of limitations is 2 years on such claims if the employee is unable to show the employers violations are willful, and 3 years if the employee can make such a showing. Recently, the Sixth Circuit reviewed FedEx’s contract that purported to reduce that time to 6 months.  As discussed below, it struck down the employers’ attempts to shorten the statute of limitations. Reasoning that same was an impermissible waiver of rights under the FLSA, the court agreed that such a limitation was unenforceable. In so doing, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court, which had held that such an abridgement of FLSA rights was permissible.

Initially the court briefly reiterated longstanding black-letter law regarding the non-waivable nature of FLSA rights:

Shortly after the FLSA was enacted, the Supreme Court expressed concern that an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights under the Act. See Brooklyn Savs. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706–10, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945). Such waivers, according to the Court, would “nullify” the Act’s purpose of “achiev[ing] a uniform national policy of guaranteeing compensation for all work or employment engaged in by employees covered by the Act.” Jewell Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local No. 6167, United Mine Workers of Am., 325 U.S. 161, 167, 65 S.Ct. 1063, 89 L.Ed. 1534 (1945); see also O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707. The Court therefore held that employees may not, either prospectively or retrospectively, waive their FLSA rights to minimum wages, overtime, or liquidated damages. D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946); O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707; see also Runyan v. Nat’l Cash Register Corp., 787 F.2d 1039, 1041–42 (6th Cir.1986) (en banc).

The court then struck the contract clause at issue reasoning:

The issue here is whether Boaz’s employment agreement operates as a waiver of her rights under the FLSA. Boaz accrued a FLSA claim every time that FedEx issued her an allegedly illegal paycheck. See Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 187 (6th Cir.2008). She filed suit more than six months, but less than three years, after her last such paycheck—putting her outside the contractual limitations period, but within the statutory one.

An employment agreement “cannot be utilized to deprive employees of their statutory [FLSA] rights.” Jewell Ridge, 325 U.S. at 167 (quotation omitted). That is precisely the effect that Boaz’s agreement has here. Thus, as applied to Boaz’s claim under the FLSA, the six-month limitations period in her employment agreement is invalid.

In so doing, the court rejected FedEx’s reliance on what it deemed inapposite case law:

FedEx (along with its amicus, Quicken Loans) responds that courts have enforced agreements that shorten an employee’s limitations period for claims arising under statutes other than the FLSA—such as Title VII. And FedEx argues that the discrimination barred by Title VII (i.e., racial discrimination) is just as bad as the discrimination barred by the FLSA, and hence that, if an employee can shorten her Title VII limitations period, she should be able to shorten her FLSA limitations period too. But that argument is meritless for two reasons. First, employees can waive their claims under Title VII. See, e.g., Alexander v. Gardner–Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 52, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). Second—and relatedly—an employer that pays an employee less than minimum wage arguably gains a competitive advantage by doing so. See Citicorp Indus. Credit, Inc. v. Brock, 483 U.S. 27, 36, 107 S.Ct. 2694, 97 L.Ed.2d 23 (1987). An employer who refuses to hire African–Americans or some other racial group does not. The Court’s rationale for prohibiting waiver of FLSA claims is therefore not present for Title VII claims.

FedEx also relies on Floss v. Ryan’s Family Steak Houses, Inc., 211 F.3d 306 (6th Cir.2000). There, we held that an employee asserting an FLSA claim can waive her right to a judicial forum, and instead arbitrate the claim. Id. at 313, 316. From that holding FedEx extrapolates that employees can waive their “procedural” rights under the FLSA even if they cannot waive their “substantive” ones. But the FLSA caselaw does not recognize any such distinction. That is not surprising, given that the distinction between procedural and substantive rights is notoriously elusive. See Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman, 486 U.S. 717, 726, 108 S.Ct. 2117, 100 L.Ed.2d 743 (1988). More to the point, Floss itself said that an employee can waive his right to a judicial forum only if the alternative forum “allow[s] for the effective vindication of [the employee's] claim.” 211 F.3d at 313. The provision at issue here does the opposite.

The limitations provision in Boaz’s employment agreement operates as a waiver of her FLSA claim. As applied to that claim, therefore, the provision is invalid.

Click Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc. to read the entire Opinion. Click DOL Amicus Brief, to read the amicus brief submitted by the Department of Labor in support of the Plaintiff-Appellant.

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D.Nev.: Statute of Limitations Tolled for Employees Who Opted Into First-Filed Case Where Conditional Certification Was Denied (and Their Consents Were Dismissed)

Orduna v. Champion Drywall, Inc.

This case was before the court on multiple motions, including plaintiff’s motion for tolling the statute of limitations. As discussed here, the precise issue before the court was what effect, if any, a plaintiff’s consent to join—filed in a prior lawsuit where conditional certification was ultimately denied, and such consent was dismissed—has on such opt-in’s statute of limitations. Electing to treat the motion as one for equitable tolling, the court held that such circumstances amounted to “extraordinary circumstances” such that equitable tolling was warranted. However, the court tolling the statute of limitations only for such time that the consent to join was filed with the court in the prior case, prior to dismissal.

The court reasoned, in part:

Plaintiffs assert that because they filed their consents to sue in a timely manner in Champion I, the statute of limitations for those claims should be equitably tolled to the date on which each plaintiff filed his or her consent. Defendants argue that plaintiffs’ motion should be denied or, in the alternative, tolling should only apply from the date that each plaintiff filed his or her consent until the date of the court’s denial of certification in Champion I on March 27, 2012. The court agrees with defendants’ latter position…

Upon decertification of the collective [action], therefore, it is critical to preserve opt-in plaintiffs’ ability to timely file individual actions.” Sliger v. Prospect Mortgage, LLC, 2012 WL 6005711 (E.D.Cal. Nov.30, 2012).

The Ninth Circuit has recognized the doctrine of equitable tolling of an FLSA claim. Partlow v. Lewis Orphans’ Home, Inc., 645 F.2d 757, 760 (9th Cir.1981), abrogated on other grounds, Hoffman–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). Such tolling “applies when the plaintiff is prevented from asserting a claim by wrongful conduct on the part of the defendant, or when extraordinary circumstances beyond the plaintiff’s control made it impossible to file a claim on time.” Id. at 60. The doctrine of equitable tolling preserves a plaintiff’s claims when strict application of the statue of limitations would be inequitable. See United States v. Patterson, 211 F.3d 927, 930 (5th Cir.2000). Equitable tolling applies only in “rare and exceptional circumstances,” Teemac v. Henderson, 298 F.3d 452, 457 (5th Cir.2002), and should be applied sparingly. Steed v. Head, 219 F.3d 1298, 1300 (11th Cir.2000).

Applying this reasoning, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion.  However, it limited tolling to the period of time in during which the opt-ins’ consents had been filed in the prior case:

Here, plaintiffs have not shown that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled past the court’s denial of certification in Champion I. Plaintiffs claim that they did not know that the court would not grant the collective certification in that case, and that to preserve their rights, each plaintiff in a collective action would have to file individual actions at the same time they filed their consents to sue. The failure to predict the outcome of a motion for collective certification is experienced by each FLSA collective action litigant, and the possibility that diligence would be required in the filing of an individual claim if a collective action was denied or de-certified neither amounts to extraordinary circumstances nor a situation out of a plaintiff’s control.

Click Orduna v. Champion Drywall, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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

Engel v. Burlington Coat Factory Direct Corp.

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

Discussing the issue, the court explained:

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

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

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

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

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N.D.Ala.: Arbitration Agreements Obtained By Defendant in Required Meetings After Putative Collective Commenced Unenforceable

Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc.

This case was before the court following the court’s order prohibiting enforcement of arbitration agreements that the defendant obtained from opt-ins (prior to the time they opted in to the case). The court previously had ruled that such arbitration agreements were unenforceable, because of the manner in which they were obtained from current employees, following an evidentiary hearing regarding same. This case is particularly important because it addresses the common situation in which a defendant-employer, at least arguably, crosses the line from attempting to mount a defense to a potential collective/class action, and begins to improperly exercise its unequal power over its current employees/putative class members. Denying the defendant’s motion for reconsideration, the court expanded on the reasoning of its prior order.

As the court explained:

This Fair Labor Standards Act case presents the court with a dilemma: enforce arbitration agreements against Defendant Citi Trends Store Managers, who are potential opt-in Plaintiffs in this collective action that were obtained during the conditional certification stage of this case and gut the collective action mechanism Congress provided for the protection of employees or refuse to enforce the arbitration agreements and run afoul of the federal policy favoring their enforcement. Because of the particular events surrounding the roll-out of the arbitration agreement in this case, as specifically discussed below, the court finds it cannot approve employer conduct like that involved in this case specifically targeting only potential class members during a critical juncture in this case with the definite goal of undercutting the Congressional intent behind the collective action process. The court will DENY the Defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and preserve the viability of the collective action mechanism.

Summarizing the parties’ respective contentions, the court explained:

Defendant Citi Trends, Inc. argues that this court’s ruling at the January 2013 hearing that it could not seek to compel arbitration against those opt-in Plaintiffs who signed mandatory arbitration agreements was an error of law. The Plaintiffs argue that the court’s ruling was appropriate and necessary to correct Citi Trends’s wrongful action—intimidating its employees into waiving their rights to join this lawsuit by signing mandatory arbitration agreements. On April 19, 2013, the court granted the motion to reconsider its ruling and set an evidentiary hearing to hear evidence surrounding presentment of the arbitration agreements to determine if any coercion, duress, or intimidation occurred.

While the court had previously denied the plaintiff’s motion for protective order and/or to strike declarations obtained from current employees, that was not the end of its inquiry as to whether the arbitration agreements should be enforced. Rather, the court held an evidentiary hearing because the

high standard had not been met on the parties’ submission alone, and thus, the court decided it needed to hold a hearing to determine if any coercion, duress, intimidation, or other abusive conduct occurred at the time SMs were required to sign the Agreement. The question of enforcement of or invalidation of the Agreement invokes a different standard than did the motion to strike or to enter a protective order, which was the requested relief before the court previously.

The court summarized the evidence received at the hearing as follows:

At the evidentiary hearing on May 14 and 15, 2013, the court heard testimony from opt-in Plaintiffs Roilisa Prevo and Katina Alfred, former Citi Trends SMs; Ivy Council, Executive Vice President of Human Resources for Citi Trends; Rashad Luckett, Human Resources Coordinator for Citi Trends; Vanessa Davis, Director of Human Resources for Citi Trends; and LaKesha Wilkins, an “independent third party witness” hired by Citi Trends to sit in SM meetings with Ms. Davis. The court will briefly summarize that testimony here but will also reference it as needed in the discussion below.

Citi Trends devised and implemented its new ADR policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—shortly after it was served with the complaint on February 27, 2012 (doc. 6), and after the court on May 16, 2012, set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. (Doc. 17). On May 31, 2012, this court issued a Scheduling Order requiring the Plaintiffs to file their motion for conditional certification of the class on or before July 31, 2012 with briefing to be completed by September 10, 2012. (Doc. 18). Just a couple weeks after the Order, in mid-June, Citi Trends began the process of rolling out its new Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) plan, including the mandatory Agreement. Ms. Davis testified that as of mid-June she had virtually completed the new employee handbook she was working on, which did not include an ADR policy; she learned for the first time in mid-June that the updated handbook would include the new ADR policy. Citi Trends, under the direction of Ms. Council, sent Ms. Davis, Mr. Luckett, and other HR representatives to have two-on-one private meetings with SMs across the country as early as June 30, 2012 to roll out the new ADR policy. The HR representatives met with all SMs individually throughout the summer.

District Managers (“DMs”) told the SMs that they must attend the meetings that concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook. DMs were only asked to sign the Agreement if the HR Representatives happened to see them at the SM meetings, but Citi Trends distributed the Agreement to DMs, other corporate employees, and store associates at a later date.

When the SMs arrived at the meetings, they were greeted by an HR Representative and another individual, who Ms. Prevo claimed was never introduced to her and whom Ms. Alfred identified as another Citi Trends corporate employee. The HR Representatives gave the SMs four documents: the SM Disclosure, the Agreement, the SM Declaration, and a photocopied version of a new employee handbook. The two-on-one private meetings took place in small, back rooms in Citi Trends retail stores, the same places where interrogations or investigations of employees occurred. The HR Representatives who met with the SMs played an advisory role in the employment decisions of Citi Trends employees, and both Ms. Prevo and Ms. Alfred testified that they believed the HR representatives conducting the meetings had authority to make employment decisions about them, such as hiring and firing.

Ms. Alfred and Ms. Prevo testified that they signed the documents but came away from those meetings having felt intimidated by the HR Representatives and pressured to sign the Agreement or lose their jobs. The SMs were not given copies of the documents they signed at the meeting or at anytime afterward, even if they specifically requested copies.

After finding the agreements at issue to be both procedurally and substantively unconscionable, the court weighed the related public policy concerns as well:

The biggest public policy concern that the court has to consider about actions of Citi Trends, however, is the effect of the Defendant’s efforts on the purpose of an FLSA collective action. The court’s decision on this issue is bigger than this one case, and that concern is what has plagued the court about this situation from the first mention of the Agreement. The purposes of the FLSA and its collective action procedure factor into the court’s decision on this motion.

Congress passed the FLSA during the Great Depression to protect workers from overbearing practices of employers with greatly unequal bargaining power over them. See Roland Elec. Co. v. Walling, 326 U.S. 657, 668 n. 5 (1946) ( “The Bill was introduced May 24, 1937, [and] … accompanied by a Presidential message by Franklin D. Roosevelt …. ‘to protect the fundamental interests of free labor and a free people we propose that only goods which have been produced under conditions which meet the minimum standards of free labor shall be admitted to interstate commerce. Goods produced under conditions which do not meet rudimentary standards of decency should be contraband and ought not to be allowed to pollute the channels of interstate trade.’ “) (quoting 81 Cong. Rec. 4960, 4961). To further that purpose, § 216(b) of the FLSA authorizes an employee to file suit for and on behalf of himself and others similarly situated. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Those employees who wish to join the lawsuit must give written consent or opt-in to the lawsuit, but they only know that they can do so once court-approved notice has been sent to them. See id…

In this case, the court finds that such goals are defeated if the court approves actions taken by defendants, such as those taken by Citi Trends in this case, that are designed and used to prevent employees from vindicating their rights in an FLSA collective action. The court wishes to make clear that it is not addressing a pre-lawsuit or pre-employment arbitration agreement between an employer and employee that would preclude participation in a collective action. Instead, this ruling only addresses the Agreement in this case that was presented to the specifically-targeted potential class of employees in the specific manner that gave those potential opt-in Plaintiffs no meaningful choice or known opportunity to refuse to sign without the fear of termination in a setting that was ripe for and calculated to produce perceived intimidation or coercion and when its very purpose and effect was to preclude participation in this lawsuit.

For these reasons, the court finds that the Agreement at issue in this case reeks of both procedural and substantive unconscionability in the context in which it was presented and obtained. The Agreement cannot and will not be enforced against Ms. Prevo, Ms. Alfred, or Ms. Cunningham, and the court will DENY Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration against them. In making this decision, the court notes that it found the testimony presented by the Defendant, specifically that from Ms. Council and Ms. Davis, particularly enlightening. In addition to the language of the documents themselves, the court finds that the concurrent timing of the ADR roll-out and the Plaintiffs’ preparation of the motion for conditional certification and court approved notice, and the manner in which the Agreement was presented weigh in favor of invalidating the Agreement as it relates to the SMs who were presented the Agreement during its initial roll-out in the summer of 2012.

The court truly believes it would be a derogation of the court’s responsibility if it were to approve employer conduct like that in this case that specifically undercuts the Congressional intent behind creating the FLSA collective action process for aggrieved employees, and the court does not take such action lightly.

In light of this reasoning, the court denied the defendant’s motion for reconsideration and held that the arbitration agreements, obtained from current employees were unenforceable.

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

A review of the docket shows that the defendant has filed an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.  Thus, this issue will likely get further review.  Stay tuned for further developments….

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