Tag Archives: 216(b)

E.D.Cal.: Attorney’s Fees and Costs Recoverable Under 216(b) When Plaintiff Obtains Declaratory Relief

Pickett v. Beard

This case was before the court on the relatively novel issue of whether an FLSA plaintiff, who prevails in a case solely seeking a declaratory judgment or declaratory relief is entitled to attorneys fees and costs under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The court answered the question in the affirmative, reasoning that the broad remedial purpose of the FLSA dictated that such fees are recoverable.

Describing the somewhat unique procedural posture of the case, the court explained:

This case is brought as a collective action under 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), by Plaintiffs against Defendant Jeffrey Beard in his official capacity as the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. Plaintiffs complain about the calculation of wages by Beard and seek a declaration that Beard is violating the FLSA. Plaintiffs also seek attorneys’ fees under § 216(b). Beard has filed a counterclaim in which he seeks several declarations, the gist of which is that Plaintiffs are not entitled to attorneys’ fees under § 216(b) in this case. Plaintiffs have filed a motion to dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), and alternatively a Rule 12(f) motion to strike Beard’s counterclaim. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss will be granted.

Initially, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that defendant’s claim that attorneys fees was not recoverable on their declaratory judgment count, holding that the issue was one of pure law and thus ripe from the outset of the case.

After summarizing the parties’ respective positions, the court framed the issue before it as follows:

The issue of whether attorney’s fees may be awarded under § 216(b) when only declaratory judgment is sought or obtained appears to be relatively novel. The parties rely to one degree or another on the language of § 216(b), the policies behind § 216(b) and the FLSA in general, and a comparable 2013 district case.

The court then examined the applicable law, noting that it was aware of only two cases discussing the issue before it:

With respect to case law, there are actually two cases that bear on the issue. The first case is Barrows v. City of Chattanooga, 944 F.Supp.2d 596 (E.D.Tenn.2013), which has been cited by Plaintiffs. In Barrows, Fire Captain Barrows sued the City of Chattanooga under the FLSA regarding his employee classification and for past unpaid overtime. Following a bench trial, the district court held that the City had been improperly classifying Barrows as an FLSA-exempt employee and that a declaration that Barrows was a non-exempt FLSA employee was appropriate. See Barrows, 944 F.Supp.2d at 605. As for past unpaid overtime compensation, the district court held that Barrows had failed to meet his burden of proof in that his evidence was essentially too inconsistent and vague. See id. at 606. As a result, Barrows was awarded no monetary damages. See id. With respect to attorney’s fees, the district court held that Barrows could recover attorney’s fees, despite the lack of monetary relief, because Barrow was entitled to a declaratory judgment. See id. at 607. The court explained:

Section 216 of the FLSA provides, in relevant part, that the Court shall allow a prevailing employee to recover his reasonable attorney’s fees, as well as the costs of the action. Defendant has conceded that Plaintiff is entitled to attorney’s fees and costs in the event that he prevails in this action. Although the Court has found that Plaintiff is not entitled to damages for overtime compensation, Plaintiff has prevailed as to his claim for declaratory relief. Judgment for a plaintiff on a claim for declaratory relief will “usually” be satisfactory for finding that the plaintiff has prevailed in order to recover attorney’s fees. Because Plaintiff here has prevailed on his claim for declaratory relief on the merits, the Court finds that he is a prevailing party; accordingly, he is entitled to recovery of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of this action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

Id. at 607 (citations omitted).

The second case, which was cited by neither party, is Council 13, American Fed’n of State, Cnty. & Mun. Emples., AFL–CIO v. Casey, 156 Pa.Cmwlth. 92, 626 A.2d 683 (Pa.Commw.Ct.1993).3 In Council 13, employees of the State of Pennsylvania sought inter alia a declaration that the FLSA required Pennsylvania to pay wages and salaries that were coming due, despite an anticipated exhaustion of appropriated funds. See id. at 684. The court held that the employees were entitled to the declaration they sought, and that the FLSA required payment of wages. See id. at 686. With respect to attorney’s fees under § 216(b), the court found that attorney’s fees were not available. See id. After quoting the third and fifth sentences of § 216(b), the court explained:

Although that sentence, as quoted above, itself contains no mention of fault or violation, it rests in a context which plainly involves legal actions against employers in violation. The first sentence in the quoted passage states that it deals with an ‘action to recover the liability prescribed in either of the preceding sentences … against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court….’ The ‘preceding sentences’ expressly and exclusively refer to situations involving any “employer who violates” [FLSA § 206 or § 207]. However, this present action clearly is not an enforcement action under [§ 216(b) ] to cure and punish a violation, but is one mutually pursuing a declaratory judgment for guidance—no violation having yet occurred. Hence, the federal Act does not mandate imposition of attorney’s fees here….

Id. at 686–87 (emphasis in original).

In both Barrows and Counsel 13, declaratory relief was sought and obtained. In both Barrows and Counsel 13, attorney’s fees under § 216(b) were sought by the plaintiffs. However, only in Barrows, where an actual violation of the FLSA was found, were fees awarded. Because no violation of the FLSA was actually involved in Counsel 13, the court held that attorney’s fees were not appropriate. Together, Barrows and Counsel 13 indicate that an award of only declaratory relief may form the basis of attorney’s fee under § 216(b), but that attorney’s fees are only available when an actual violation of the FLSA is involved.

Turning to the public policy and legislative intent behind the FLSA’s fee provisions, the court reasoned that such policy and intent too supported a reading of the FLSA that permitted the recovery of attorneys fees and costs for a plaintiff who successfully recovered declaratory relief:

With respect to the policy and legislative intent behind § 216(b)‘s attorney’s fee provision, several circuits have made observations. The Fourth and Eleventh Circuits have indicated that Congress intended that a wronged employee “receive his full wages plus the penalty without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs.” Silva v. Miller, 307 Fed. Appx. 349, 351 (11th Cir.2009); Maddrix v. Dize, 153 F.2d 274, 275–76 (4th Cir.1946). Similarly, the Fifth Circuit has indicated that the legislative intent behind § 216(b)‘ s attorney’s fee provision is “to recompense wronged employees for the expenses incurred in redressing violations of the FLSA and obtaining wrongfully withheld back pay.” San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth. v. McLaughlin, 876 F.2d 441, 445 (5th Cir.1989). The Sixth Circuit, in reliance in part on Maddrix, has found that “the purpose of § 216(b) is to insure effective access to the judicial process by providing attorney fees for prevailing plaintiffs with wage and hour grievances; ‘obviously Congress intended that the wronged employee should receive his full wages … without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs.’ ” United Slate, Local 307 v. G & M Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., 732 F.2d 495, 501–02 (6th Cir.1984) (quoting Maddrix, 153 F.2d at 275–76). Finally, the D.C. Circuit has noted that through § 216(b), “Congress clearly hoped to provide an adequate economic incentive for private attorneys to take employment discrimination cases, and thereby to ensure that plaintiffs would be able to obtain competent legal representation for the prosecution of legitimate claims.” Laffey v. Northwest Airlines. Inc., 746 F.2d 4, 11 (D.C.Cir.1984). These cases reflect that the intent behind § 216(b) was to allow employees to obtain payment owed under the FLSA in court without the employee incurring legal fees and expenses, and to encourage attorneys to take FLSA cases.

While the court acknowledged that the defendant’s proposed reading of the plain language of the FLSA could support the defendant’s argument that the fees at issue were not recoverable, ultimately it rejected this view, citing the need to liberally construe the FLSA: 

The FLSA as a whole is to be interpreted liberally to the fullest extent of Congressional direction. See Probert, 651 F.3d at 1010. As indicated above, the intent behind the attorney’s fees provision is to ensure that employees obtain full payment owed under the FLSA without incurring legal fees. An interpretation of § 216(b) that would eliminate the availability of attorney’s fees to employees who seek to obtain or who only obtain declaratory relief, would partially frustrate the intent behind § 216(b). Although declaratory relief will not necessarily permit an employee to obtain past payments that were mandated by the FLSA, it could ensure that future payments do conform to the FLSA. That is, declaratory relief could aid an employee in obtaining his full future wages. For example, in a case like Barrows, no monetary relief was awarded despite obtaining declaratory relief.4 Nevertheless, by declaring that an employee is properly classified as a non-exempt FLSA employee, and not as an exempt FLSA employee, the declaratory relief will ensure that the employee begins to receive overtime pay in the future and in conformity with the FLSA.5 As another example, in this case, the dispute is whether Beard is currently calculating overtime correctly. A declaration that the overtime calculations are incorrectly being made will help Plaintiffs to obtain the full future FLSA wages and overtime that would be due to them under a proper calculation. In cases where monetary damages are unavailable or very tenuous, but a violation of the FLSA appears to be occurring, the availability of attorney’s fees provides an incentive to correct the FLSA violation. Without the availability of attorney’s fees, the expense to employees bringing such lawsuits would be increased and the incentive for attorneys to take such cases would be diminished.

There is a broader interpretation of § 216(b) that is also reasonable. The fifth sentence is ultimately tethered to actions under the first and second sentences involving violations of § 206, § 207, and § 215(a)(3). In actions that seek to remedy violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), the fifth sentence requires courts to award attorney’s fees in addition “to any judgment obtained by the plaintiff.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). There is no express limit as to the type or amount of judgment that must be obtained before attorney’s fees are available, rather, so long as “any judgment” is obtained by the plaintiff, attorney’s fees are to be awarded. Declaratory relief has been awarded in this district in an FLSA case against a State, the Third Circuit has held that declaratory relief in an FLSA case is available against a State, and the District of Tennessee has awarded declaratory relief in an FLSA case even in the absence of monetary damages. See Balgowan v. New Jersey, 115 F.3d 214, 217–18 (3d Cir.1997); Barrows, 944 F.Supp.2d at 605;Biggs v. Wilson, 828 F.Supp. 774, 779–80 (E.D.Cal.1991), aff d 1 F.3d 1537 (9th Cir.1993). If a declaratory judgment may be issued in an FLSA case, then it is unclear why a declaratory judgment would not be included under § 216(b)‘s “any judgment” language. As long the lawsuit/action is one that seeks to correct/remedy violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), obtaining a declaratory judgment would constitute “any judgment” and could serve as the basis for attorney’s fees under § 216(b).6 Such an interpretation would permit attorney’s fees not only when unpaid wages for past violations of § 206 or § 207 are obtained, but also for declarations that would essentially end ongoing violations of § 206 or § 207. Declarations that find and/or remedy ongoing violations of § 206 or § 207 would help to ensure that an employee obtains the full wages and overtime that are due him in the future. Correcting violations of § 206 or § 207 and obtaining full wages due are both consistent with congressional intent.

As such, the court concluded that fees and costs are available to an FLSA plaintiff who prevails solely on a claim for declaratory relief:

The Court does not find Beard’s interpretation to be unreasonable. However, as discussed above, there is a broader interpretation of § 216(b) that appears consistent with Congressional intent. Further, the very limited case law that deals with § 216(b) attorney’s fees provision in the context of declaratory relief indicates that attorney’s fees may be awarded. Considering the arguments made by the parties, the limited case law, and the Ninth Circuit’s admonition for a liberal interpretation of the FLSA, the Court concludes that, in cases that seek to correct violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), attorney’s fees under § 216(b) are available when only declaratory relief is sought or obtained, so long as an actual violation of the FLSA by the employer is involved. In this case, Plaintiffs allege ongoing violations of § 207, and seek declarations relating to the proper calculation of overtime under § 207. This case is therefore one that seeks to correct an actual and ongoing violation of § 207. Accordingly, if Plaintiffs prevail and obtain declaratory relief, they will be entitled to attorney’s fees.

The declaratory relief requested by Beard is a pure issue of law, and no further facts need be developed before resolving that issue. The declaratory relief requested by Beard is contrary to the Court’s conclusion. Because attorney’s fees are available under § 216(b) in this case, it is appropriate to dismiss Beard’s request for declaratory relief.

Click Pickett v. Beard to read the entire Order on Plaintiffs’ Motion to Dismiss and Alternatively Motion to Strike.

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9th Cir.: Hybrid Actions Permissible; State Law Opt-out Class May Proceed In Same Case As FLSA Opt-in Collective

Busk v. Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc.

As more and more circuit courts come into conformity and hold that so-called hybrid actions—where employees seek to certify state law claims as opt-out class actions, along with seeking to certify opt-in FLSA collective actions—are permissible, each such decision becomes less notable on its own. However, because employers continue to argue that such hybrids raise so-called incompatible issues in circuits where the issue remains undecided, this recent case from the Ninth Circuit is an important one.

In this case, the plaintiff-employees brought a putative class action against their former employer, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Nevada labor laws. Citing the incompatibility of the state-law claims, the District Court granted the defendant-employer’s motion to dismiss same. The plaintiff-employees appealed and the Ninth Circuit reversed and remanded, holding that, as a matter of first impression, a FLSA collective action and a state law class action could be brought in the same federal lawsuit.

Agreeing with the other circuit court’s to have already decided the issue, the Ninth Circuit reasoned:

Our sister circuits have correctly reasoned that FLSA’s plain text does not suggest that a district court must dismiss a state law claim that would be certified using an opt-out procedure. Its opt-in requirement extends only to “any such action”—that is, a FLSA claim. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b); Knepper, 675 F.3d at 259–60 (noting Section 216(b) “explicitly limits its scope to the provisions of the FLSA, and does not address state-law relief”); Ervin, 632 F.3d at 977 (“Nothing” about FLSA’s text “suggests that the FLSA is not amenable to state-law claims for related relief in the same federal proceeding.”). FLSA also expressly permits more protective state labor laws. See 29 U.S.C. § 218(a) (“No provision of this chapter … shall excuse noncompliance with any Federal or State law or municipal ordinance establishing a minimum wage higher than the minimum wage established under this chapter or a maximum work week lower than the maximum workweek established under this chapter….”). This savings clause provides further evidence that a federal lawsuit combining state and federal wage and hour claims is consistent with FLSA. See Ervin, 632 F.3d at 977;Shahriar, 659 F.3d at 247–48.

 Nor does the legislative history of Section 216(b) support the view of some district courts that allowing both actions to proceed simultaneously “would essentially nullify Congress’s intent in crafting Section 216(b) and eviscerate the purpose of Section 216(b)‘s opt-in requirement.” Otto v. Pocono Health Sys., 457 F.Supp.2d 522, 524 (M.D.Pa.2006), overruled by Knepper, 675 F.3d at 253–62. We agree with the Third Circuit that the “full legislative record casts doubt” on the contention that Section 216(b) was intended to eliminate opt-out class actions. Knepper, 675 F.3d at 260; see also Ervin, 632 F.3d at 977–78;Shahriar, 659 F.3d at 248. When Congress created Section 216(b)‘s opt-in requirement as part of the Portal–to–Portal Act of 1947, it was responding to concerns about third parties filing “representative” FLSA actions on behalf of disinterested employees. See Hoffman–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 173. Accordingly, it amended FLSA “for the purpose of limiting private FLSA plaintiffs to employees who asserted claims in their own right and freeing employers of the burden of representative actions.” See id.

This purpose does not evince an intent to eliminate opt-out class actions for state wage and hour claims brought in federal court. Even if it did, Congress has expressed a contrary intent in the Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, which confers federal jurisdiction over class actions where certain diversity and amount-in-controversy requirements are met. See Class Action Fairness Act of 2005, Pub.L. No. 109–2, 119 Stat. 4. Because the Class Action Fairness Act provides that federal courts should exercise jurisdiction over certain class actions (including those alleging violations of state wage and hour laws), and these class actions are certified pursuant to Rule 23‘s opt-out procedure, we cannot conclude that Congress intended such claims be dismissed simply because they were brought in conjunction with FLSA claims.

While no longer groundbreaking, it is still significant that an issue once very much uncertain is further clarified by this decision.

Click Busk v. Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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8th Cir.: NLRB’s Holding in D.R. Horton Does Not Preclude Enforcement of FLSA Class/Collective Action Waiver

Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc.

While district courts that have considered the issue since the NLRB handed down its decision in D.R. Horton last year have reached divergent opinions on its effect regarding the enforceability of class waivers, the first circuit to consider the issue has rejected D.R. Horton’s applicability in the FLSA context. By way of background, last year the NLRB held that the existence of a collective action waiver in an employment agreement constituted an unfair labor practice, because it improperly restricted the “concerted activity” of employees who are subject to same. Following the decision, courts have reached different conclusions as to whether the NLRB’s decision necessarily rendered such waivers unenforceable in the context of FLSA collective action waivers. In this case, the district court held that the parties arbitration agreement was unenforceable, because it contained such a waiver. However, on appeal, the Eight Circuit reversed, holding that the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton did not render the arbitration agreement at issue unenforceable.

Discussing this issue, the Eight Circuit opined that it was not obligated to defer to the National Labor Relations Board’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedent, under Chevron or any other principle:

Finally, in arguing that there is an inherent conflict between the FLSA and the FAA, Owen relies on the NLRB’s recent decision in D.R. Horton, which held a class waiver unenforceable in a similar FLSA challenge based on the NLRB’s conclusion that such a waiver conflicted with the rights protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. 2012 WL 36274, at *2. The NLRB stated that Section 7’s protections of employees’ right to pursue workplace grievances through concerted action includes the right to proceed as a class.   Id. However, D.R. Horton carries little persuasive authority in the circumstances presented here. First, the NLRB limited its holding to arbitration agreements barring all protected concerted action. Id. at *16. In contrast, the MAA does not preclude an employee from filing a complaint with an administrative agency such as the Department of Labor (which has jurisdiction over FLSA claims, see 29 U.S.C. § 204), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the NLRB, or any similar administrative body. Cf. Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 28, 111 S.Ct. 1647 (upholding an arbitration agreement that allowed Age Discrimination in Employment Act claimants to pursue their claims before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Further, nothing in the MAA precludes any of these agencies from investigating and, if necessary, filing suit on behalf of a class of employees. Second, even if D.R. Horton addressed the more limited type of class waiver present here, we still would owe no deference to its reasoning. Delock v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, –––F.Supp.2d ––––, ––––, No. 4:11–CV–520–DPM, 2012 WL 3150391 (E.D.Ark. Aug. 1, 2012), at *3 (“The Board’s construction of the [NLRA] ‘is entitled to considerable deference and must be upheld if it is reasonable and consistent with the policies of the Act,’ … the Board has no special competence or experience in interpreting the Federal Arbitration Act.” (quoting St. John’s Mercy Health Sys. v. NLRB, 436 F.3d 843, 846 (8th Cir.2006))). The NLRB also attempted to distinguish its conclusion from pro-arbitration Supreme Court decisions such as Concepcion.  D.R. Horton, 2012 WL 36274, at *16. This court, however, is “not obligated to defer to [the Board’s] interpretation of Supreme Court precedent under Chevron or any other principle.” Delock, –––F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2012 WL 3150391, at *3 (quoting N.Y. N.Y. LLC v. NLRB, 313 F.3d 585, 590 (D.C.Cir.2002)). Additionally, although no court of appeals has addressed D.R. Horton, nearly all of the district courts to consider the decision have declined to follow it.

The court also opined that there is nothing inherently wrong with a collective action waiver in employment agreements.

Click Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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E.D.N.Y.: Named-Plaintiff’s Failure to File Consent to Join Not Fatal to Collective Action, Where Defendants Acknowledged Intent to Proceed as Collective Action in Answer and Plaintiff Filed Sworn Affidavit

Ahmed v. T.J. Maxx Corp.

This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion to conditionally authorize a collective action, pursuant to Section 216 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. As discussed here, the court held that the plaintiff had “commenced” his FLSA case for the purposes of serving as the representative plaintiff in a collective action, notwithstanding his initial failure to file a formal consent to join, as required by 216(b), by virtue of the defendant’s admissions regarding same in their answer and the fact that plaintiff filed an sworn (signed) affidavit in support of his motion.

Discussing the issue, the court explained:

Defendants maintain, as an initial matter, that Ahmed’s case cannot proceed as a collective action because Ahmed himself has not filed a consent form as required by section 216(b) of the FLSA. (Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Conditional Certification, hereinafter “Def. Mem. of Law in Opp’n”, at 19.) It is defendant’s position that the FLSA requires a plaintiff—even a named plaintiff—to opt-in to his or her own action in order to proceed as a collective action. (Id.)

Although the cases upon which defendants rely provide that all plaintiffs must affirmatively opt in to a suit in order to proceed as part of a collective action, see, e.g. Gonzalez v. El Acajutla Restaurant, Inc., No. 04 Civ. 1513, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19690, at *14–15 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2007), courts in this Circuit have held that the FLSA itself does not require such written consent in order for a plaintiff to file a motion for conditional certification, see, e.g. Aros v. United Rentals, Inc., 269 F.R.D. 176, 181 (D.Conn.2010) (“The court concludes that denying the Motion for Conditional Certification … would undermine the FLSA’s broad remedial purpose”). Moreover, “[t]he purpose of this consent requirement … is to put the Defendants on notice, which many courts have noted is somewhat redundant with regard to named plaintiffs,” particularly when the named plaintiff has submitted sworn affidavits to the court, participated in depositions, and otherwise taken necessary action to pursue his claims and demonstrate that he “intends to participate in the lawsuit.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., No. 11 Civ. 33, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49788, at *6–7, 10–11 (D.Conn. Apr. 9, 2012).

Given that defendants expressly acknowledged, in their answer, that Ahmed purports to bring this action “pursuant to FLSA, 20 U.S.C.s. 216(b), on behalf of ‘Assistant Mangers’ employed in T.J. Maxx stores” (see Answer at ¶ 8), it cannot be said that defendants lacked notice of Ahmed’s consent, nor can it be said that defendants were unaware of Ahmed’s intent to pursue his claims as part of a collective action, particularly as Ahmed has already participated in a deposition and has submitted an affidavit in support of the instant motion. Consequently, while the form of Ahmed’s consent may not have strictly adhered to the preferred standard in FLSA collective actions, the substance of Ahmed’s complaint and his conduct throughout the discovery process was sufficient to satisfy the purpose of the written consent requirement. Furthermore, since defendants first raised this issue, Ahmed has filed a formal written consent with the Court. At this point, Ahmed is in compliance with not only the spirit, but also the letter of the written consent requirement. Thus, this Court finds that defendants had sufficient notice of Ahmed’s intent to proceed with a collective action, and this Court will therefore consider Ahmed’s request for conditional certification as a collective action on its merits.

Click Ahmed v. T.J. Maxx Corp. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.

While this case is certainly helpful to practitioners in the situation where the named-plaintiff has not filed a consent to join, as a practical matter (especially in courts outside of the Second Circuit), the best practice is to file a consent to join on behalf of all plaintiffs and opt-in plaintiffs, including the named-plaintiffs, to avoid the necessity of even addressing this issue.  Further, it should be noted that even in this case, the named-plaintiff ultimately did file a consent to join, after the issue had been raised by the defendants in their opposition to his motion for conditional certification.

EDITOR’S NOTE:  Within days of the Ahmed decision, another court- this one in the Eleventh Circuit- was faced with a similar issue.  In that case the plaintiff had actually styled his complaint as an individual claim, excluding language that he sought to proceed on a collective action basis.  Nonetheless, the court held that the defendants had adequate notice of plaintiff’s intent to proceed as a collective action, and ultimately granted plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification.  See  Hogan v. Allstate Beverage Co., Inc., 2012 WL 6027748, at *5 (M.D. Ala. Dec. 4, 2012).

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

Ware v. T-Mobile USA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gonzalez v. Preferred Freezer Services LBF, LLC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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D.Colo.: Statute of Limitations Tolled During Time Motion for Conditional Certification Pending

Stransky v. HealthONE of Denver, Inc.

This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ Motion to Toll the Statute of Limitations, which was filed simultaneously with the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification of the case as a collective action. In granting the plaintiffs motion (in part) and tolling the statute of limitations as of the date on which the plaintiffs sought conditional certification, the court looked to the both the procedural realities of the opt-in provisions of 216(b) and the remedial purpose behind the FLSA. Significantly, the court noted that there would be no prejudice to the defendant in granting such tolling while the potential plaintiffs would be significantly prejudiced by the continued expiration of their respective statutes of limitations if the tolling were not granted.

After discussing cases from around the country that have granted equitable tolling under similar circumstances, largely based upon the amount of time that it took for the court to rule upon a plaintiff’s pending motion for conditional certification, because same is in the interests of justice, the court honed in on the policy supporting such decisions:

In the case of a collective FLSA action, a least one district court in the Tenth Circuit has explained that the unique circumstances of a collective action “is not only significant but justifies tolling the limitations period [ ] for the FLSA putative class until the court authorizes the provision of notice to putative class members or issues an order denying the provision of notice.” In re Bank of America Wage and Hour Emp’t Litig., No. 10–MDL–2138, 2010 WL 4180530 (D.Kan. Oct.20, 2010). In making that equitable tolling determination, the court in In re Bank of America utilized a flexible standard, where a court considers five factors in determining whether to equitably toll a statute of limitations: (1) lack of notice of the filing requirement; (2) lack of constructive knowledge of the filing requirement; (3) diligence in pursuing one’s rights; (4) absence of prejudice to the defendant; and (5) the plaintiff’s reasonableness in remaining ignorant of the particular legal requirement. Id. (citing Graham–Humphreys, 209 F.3d at 561).

Plaintiffs argue that the statue of limitations should be equitably tolled here in the interest of justice in order to protect the Opt-in Plaintiffs’ diminishing claims. The Court agrees. Although early notice to Opt-in Plaintiffs in a collective action such as this is favored, such notice was not possible here as Defendant is in sole possession of the names and last known physical addresses of all potential Opt-in Plaintiffs. As such, allowing Opt-in Plaintiffs’ claims to diminish or expire due to circumstances beyond their direct control would be particularly unjust. The Tenth Circuit has also recognized the possible need for equitable tolling under such conditions. See Gray v. Phillips Petroleum Co., 858 F.2d 610, 616 (10th Cir.1988) (tolling statute of limitations where plaintiffs were lulled into inaction and defendant did not show that any “significant prejudice” would result from allowing plaintiffs to proceed; defendant was “fully apprised” of the plaintiffs’ claims). Moreover, Defendant will not be prejudiced by such equitable tolling. See Baden–Winterwood, 484 F.Supp.2d at 828–29 (defendant not prejudiced because it “had full knowledge that the named Plaintiff brought the suit as a collective action on the date of the filing” and “was fully aware of its scope of potential liability.”). Indeed, Defendant fails to claim it would be prejudiced in any manner, let alone prejudiced unduly, were this Court to toll the applicable limitations period. Thus, having considered the particular facts of this case, the Court finds that the interests of justice are best served by tolling the statute of limitations for the Opt-in Plaintiffs in this case.

However, while the court granted the plaintiffs motion, it declined to toll the statute of limitations back to the date of the filing of the original complaint. Instead, the court held the appropriate date to begin tolling was the date on which the plaintiffs filed their motion for conditional certification.

Click Stransky v. HealthONE of Denver, Inc. to read the entire Corrected Order Granting in Part Plaintiffs’ Motion to Toll the Statute of Limitations.

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Filed under Collective Actions, Equitable Tolling