Tag Archives: Collective Action

S.D.N.Y.: Existence of Arbitration Agreements for Some (Not All) Employees in Putative Class, Irrelevant re “Similarly Situated” Inquiry at Stage I

Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. The case concerned allegations of impermissible tip credit, inadequate notice of same (under 203(m)), and other allegations of unpaid minimum wages. As further discussed here, defendants largely focused their attack on their twin contentions that the class proposed by plaintiff was not similarly situated to him and/or was too broad, because it contained English speakers (the plaintiff did not speak English) and employees and former employees who had signed arbitration agreements (the plaintiff did not). The court rejected both of these contentions, and reasoned that neither of these factors were appropriately considered at Stage I, the conditional certification stage.

Rejecting the defendant’s arguments in this regard, and holding that such issues were more properly reserved for Stage II or decertification analysis, the court reasoned:

The Court disagrees with defendants’ arguments. Case law imposes only a very limited burden on plaintiffs for purposes of proceeding as a conditional collective action. “[C]ourts have conditionally certified collective actions under the FLSA where plaintiffs, based on their firsthand observations, identify an approximate class of similarly situated individuals.” Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc ., 2012 WL 4369746, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 24, 2012). Here, Romero has done just that, stating in his declaration that he “personally observed … Defendants’ policy to pay below the statutory minimum wage rate to all tipped employees,” that he and other tipped employees were compensated “all at rates below the minimum wage,” that he has never seen a tipped employee “receive proper notice explaining what a tip credit is,” that he and other tipped employees had to spend more than 20% of their daily time in non-tipped related activities, that he observed defendants engaging in time-shaving, that he observed when employees were sent home without call-in pay if the restaurant was not busy, and that he “personally observed that all non-exempt employees received the same form of wage and hour notice.” Romero Decl. ¶¶ 2–9. The affidavit of a plaintiff attesting to the existence of similarly situated plaintiffs is sufficient for the purposes of a motion to approve a collective action. See Cheng Chung Liang v. J.C. Broadway Restaurant, Inc., 2013 WL 2284882, at *2–3 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2013) (“For the purposes of this motion, … plaintiffs’ evidence—in the form of [one employee's] affidavit—is sufficient to establish that … there may be class members with whom he is similarly situated.”). Thus, Romero has made a sufficient showing that he and potential plaintiffs “were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.” Hoffman, 982 F.Supp. at 261.

Defendants’ principal argument is that because other employees signed arbitration agreements, Romero is not similarly situated to these other employees. Def. Mem. at 6–14. Defendants assert that the claims here are “properly pursued solely in arbitration, on an individual basis, by all of Ruhlmann’s employees who signed such an agreement” and therefore that “Ruhlmann’s employees are dissimilar from Plaintiff Romero and must pursue any claims they may have in an arbitral forum rather than federal court.” Def. Mem. at 8–9. Romero challenges both the enforceability and the validity of these arbitration agreements. He argues that the agreements are not enforceable because they violate the fee-shifting provision of the FLSA. Reply at 6–7. Romero also argues that defendants caused several of these agreements to be signed by coercion, that it is highly likely that several employees did not actually sign arbitration agreements, and that the validity of the signatures on several agreements are questionable. Reply at 7–9; Pl. May 31 Letter at 2. Additionally, he asserts that the agreements are unenforceable because they limit the statute of limitations on employees’ claims to six months and because they were not provided to employees in their native language. Pl. Aug. 20 Letter at 2–3.

As already noted, the question on a motion to proceed as a collective action is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated “with respect to their allegations that the law has been violated.” Young, 229 F.R.D. at 54; accord Meyers, 624 F.3d at 555 (in conditional collective action approval, question is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated to the named plaintiffs “with respect to whether a FLSA violation has occurred”). The arbitration agreements do not create any differences between Romero and the proposed plaintiffs with respect to Romero’s claims that defendants have violated the FLSA. That is, the validity vel non of the agreements is unrelated to any claims of a violation of the FLSA. Under this reasoning, the existence of differences between potential plaintiffs as to the arbitrability of their claims should not act as a bar to the collective action analysis. Indeed, courts have consistently held that the existence of arbitration agreements is “irrelevant” to collective action approval “because it raises a merits-based determination.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., 2011 WL 5878045, at *4 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (citing cases); accord Hernandez, 2012 WL 4369746, at *5;Salomon v. Adderly Indus., Inc., 847 F.Supp.2d 561, 565 (S.D.N.Y.2012) (“The relevant issue here, however, is not whether Plaintiffs and [potential opt-in plaintiffs] were identical in all respects, but rather whether they were subjected to a common policy to deprive them of overtime pay ….”) (alteration in original) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

In support of its argument that the existence of arbitration agreements merits denial of collective action approval, defendants make arguments about the eventual enforceability of the arbitration agreements and rely on cases in which courts granted motions to dismiss and compel arbitration because of such agreements. See Def. Mem. at 6–7. Critically, defendants do not even address the cases holding that consideration of the validity of arbitration agreements is inappropriate in the context of a motion to approval an FLSA collective action. The situation here is thus akin to the situation in Raniere v. Citigroup Inc., 827 F.Supp.2d 294 (S.D .N.Y.2011), rev’d on other grounds, 2013 WL 4046278 (2d Cir.2013), in which the court remarked:

Defendants have failed to cite a single authority finding that due to the possibility that members of the collective [action] might be compelled to bring their claims in an arbitral forum, certification is not appropriate. Such arguments are best suited to the second certification stage, where, on a fuller record, the court will examine whether the plaintiffs and opt-ins are in fact similarly situated.

Id. at 324.

Defendants’ strongest argument is that “[i]t would be a waste of judicial and party resource to force defendants” to send notice to individuals ultimately bound to arbitrate claims. Def. June 4 Letter at 3. But the notice requirement is not unduly burdensome in this case and the defendants’ proposal essentially amounts to an invitation for the Court to adjudicate the validity of the arbitration agreements. But, as already noted, case law makes clear that this sort of merits-based determination should not take place at the first stage of the conditional collective action approval process. Plaintiff has raised at least colorable arguments to support the invalidity or unenforceability of the arbitration agreements, some of which are fact-intensive. Case law holds, however, that issues of fact surrounding arbitration agreements are properly resolved at the second stage of the two-step inquiry. D’Antuono, 2011 WL 5878045, at *5; accord Salomon, 847 F.Supp.2d at 565 (“[A] fact-intensive inquiry is inappropriate at the notice stage, as Plaintiffs are seeking only conditional certification.”) (citing cases); Ali v. Sugarland Petroleum, 2009 WL 5173508, at *4 (S.D.Tex. Dec. 22, 2009) (“The Court will make the determination [of whether to exclude those who signed arbitration agreement from the class] at the conclusion of discovery, when it may properly analyze the validity of the arbitration agreement.”). Defendants not only fail to distinguish these cases, they do not even proffer any argument as to why the reasoning of these cases is wrong.

Defendants have submitted evidence contradicting Romero’s claim that he is similarly situated to other employees with respect to other aspects of his claims, such as his understanding of the tip credit. See Collin Decl. ¶ 9. However, “the two-stage certification process exists to help develop the factual record, not put an end to an action on an incomplete one.” Griffith v. Fordham Fin. Mgmt., Inc., 2013 WL 2247791, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2013) (granting collective action approval where defendant had put forth “contravening evidence”) (emphasis omitted) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). For these reasons, Romero’s motion for conditional approval of a collective action is granted.

Click Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C. to read the court’s entire Opinion & Order.

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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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U.S.S.C.: Where Named Plaintiff Acknowledged That Unaccepted OJ Mooted Her Claim, Collective Action Mooted and May Not Proceed

Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk

What effect, if any, does an unaccepted “full relief” offer of judgment have on the ability of a named plaintiff to continue with his or her putative collective action claims under the FLSA? This was the question FLSA practitioners had eagerly awaited the answer of from the Supreme Court, ever since the Court accepted certiorti of the Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. However, in a decision of almost no real world value, the Court elected to dodge this question and instead answer its own hypothetical question/issue, so limited in scope, that Justice Kagan (in her dissent) points out, it has absolutely no value in practical application. For this reason, at least one practitioner surveyed regarding the opinion stated, “I don’t care about this decision at all.  Really pretty meaningless.”  In order to understand why such a seemingly important opinion actually means so little we must examine exactly what the Court decided and on what facts it made its decision.

As stated by the Court, its actual holding was that:

a collective action brought by single employee on behalf of herself and all similarly situated employees for employer’s alleged violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was no longer justiciable when, as conceded by plaintiff-employee, her individual claim became moot as result of offer of judgment by employer in amount sufficient to make her whole.

Describing the relevant facts the Court explained:

In 2009, respondent, who was formerly employed by petitioners as a registered nurse at Pennypack Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, filed a complaint on behalf of herself and “all other persons similarly situated.” App. 115–116. Respondent alleged that petitioners violated the FLSA by automatically deducting 30 minutes of time worked per shift for meal breaks for certain employees, even when the employees performed compensable work during those breaks. Respondent, who remained the sole plaintiff throughout these proceedings, sought statutory damages for the alleged violations.

When petitioners answered the complaint, they simultaneously served upon respondent an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. The offer included $7,500 for alleged unpaid wages, in addition to “such reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses … as the Court may determine.” Id., at 77. Petitioners stipulated that if respondent did not accept the offer within 10 days after service, the offer would be deemed withdrawn.

After respondent failed to respond in the allotted time period, petitioners filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Petitioners argued that because they offered respondent complete relief on her individual damages claim, she no longer possessed a personal stake in the outcome of the suit, rendering the action moot. Respondent objected, arguing that petitioners were inappropriately attempting to “pick off” the named plaintiff before the collective-action process could unfold. Id., at 91.

The District Court found that it was undisputed that no other individuals had joined respondent’s suit and that the Rule 68 offer of judgment fully satisfied her individual claim. It concluded that petitioners’ Rule 68 offer of judgment mooted respondent’s suit, which it dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Although discussed in detail by Justice Kagan in her dissent, the Court’s majority opinion, penned by Justice Thomas ignored the fact that the plaintiff actually received no money, no judgment and no settlement as a result of the unaccepted offer of judgment. Nonetheless, the Court reasoned, because the plaintiff had ostensibly stipulated at the district court that her claim was mooted by the unaccepted offer of judgment, and she had failed to cross-appeal to the Supreme Court (a decision which was entirely in her favor), the Court refused to entertain the plaintiff’s argument that the unaccepted OJ could not have mooted the case in the first place. Instead, charging ahead, under the false pretense that the unaccepted OJ had in fact mooted the plaintiff’s individual claim, the Court went on to hold that under such (imagined) circumstances, a defendant could “pick off” an FLSA collective action, where the plaintiff has not sought conditional certification of a collective action at the time he or she receives an offer of judgment that he or she acknowledges moots his or her individual claim.

While the Court’s majority went to great length to distinguish the collective action mechanism of 216(b) from the Rule 23 class action mechanism on which the reasoning of Circuit Courts have relied in reaching the opposite conclusion, the Court failed to acknowledge it was deciding an issue that was really not even before it, and in practicality unlikely to ever appear before any court ever again.

In a stinging must-read dissent Justice Kagan pointed this out and ridiculed the conservative majority for essentially wasting everyone’s time with a meaningless opinion. The Court ultimately failed to answer the real issue of interest- what effect does an unaccepted “full relief” offer of judgment have on the ability of a named-plaintiff to pursue a collective action.  As Justice Kagan noted, the text of Rule 68 dictates it should have no effect at all.  Pointing out that the plaintiff had actually received no recovery in the case, because the offer of judgment at issue was not accepted, Kagan went reasoned, the majority’s opinion had virtually no application outside of the contrived facts on which it was based. Kagan began:

The Court today resolves an imaginary question, based on a mistake the courts below made about this case and others like it. The issue here, the majority tells us, is whether a ” ‘ collective action’ ” brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., “is justiciable when the lone plaintiff’s individual claim becomes moot.” Ante, at ––––. Embedded within that question is a crucial premise: that the individual claim has become moot, as the lower courts held and the majority assumes without deciding. But what if that premise is bogus? What if the plaintiff’s individual claim here never became moot? And what if, in addition, no similar claim for damages will ever become moot? In that event, the majority’s decision—founded as it is on an unfounded assumption—would have no real-world meaning or application. The decision would turn out to be the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen to a proposed collective FLSA action when something that in fact never happens to an individual FLSA claim is errantly thought to have done so. That is the case here, for reasons I’ll describe. Feel free to relegate the majority’s decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: The situation it addresses should never again arise.

Although this was a case watched most by FLSA practitioners for obvious reasons, it is a case which further highlights the absurd pro-big business mentality employed by today’s conservative majority on the court. In fact, as an aside Kagan took another parting shot at the similarly limited opinion just issued by the court in the Comcast case. (In footnote 2 to her dissent, she notes, “[f]or similarly questionable deployment of this Court’s adjudicatory authority, see Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. ––––, ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 1437, ––– L.Ed.2d –––– (2013) (joint opinion of GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ.) (observing in dissent that “[t]he Court’s ruling is good for this day and case only”).”).

In sum, this decision will leave practitioners scratching their heads. It is unclear what, if any, actual effect it will have on future cases. For this reason, one has to wonder- why did the Court take up the case in the first place.  It would seem that absent a stipulation by a plaintiff that his or her case is mooted by a Rule 68 offer of judgment (which in fact is an impossibility) or an acceptance of such an offer of judgment, a defendant still may not moot a putative collective action with an offer of judgment.

Click Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk to read the Court’s entire opinion and Justice Kagan’s dissent.

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U.S.S.C. Grants Cert to Decide Whether a Defendant-Employer Can Moot a Putative Collective Action By “Picking Off” the Named Plaintiff

Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk

As reported by law360 and the ScotusBlog, today the Supreme Court announced that it had granted Certiori to a Defendant-employer who sought to moot a putative collective action by offering “full relief” to the named-Plaintiff before she could file a motion seeking conditional certification of her claims as a collective action.

Initially, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims noting that:

 [Plaintiff] does not contend that other individuals have joined her collective action. Thus, this case, like each of the district court cases cited by Defendants, which concluded that a Rule 68 offer of judgment mooted the underlying FLSA collective action, involves a single named plaintiff. In addition, Symczyk does not contest Defendants’ assertion that the 68 offer of judgment fully satisfied her claims….

However, the Third Circuit reversed reasoning, in part:

When Rule 68 morphs into a tool for the strategic curtailment of representative actions, it facilitates an outcome antithetical to the purposes behind § 216(b). Symczyk’s claim-like that of the plaintiff in Weiss—was “acutely susceptible to mootness” while the action was in its early stages and the court had yet to determine whether to facilitate notice to prospective plaintiffs. See Weiss, 385 F.3d at 347 (internal quotation marks omitted). When the certification process has yet to unfold, application of the relation back doctrine prevents defendants from using Rule 68 to “undercut the viability” of either’ type of representative action. See id. at 344.

In sum, we believe the relation back doctrine helps ensure the use of Rule 68 does not prevent a collective action from playing out according to the directives of § 216(b) and the procedures authorized by the Supreme Court in Hoffmann–La Roche and further refined by courts applying this statute. Depriving the parties and the court of a reasonable opportunity to deliberate on the merits of collective action “conditional certification” frustrates the objectives served by § 216(b). Cf. Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 921 (explaining “there must be some time for a[n FLSA] plaintiff to move to certify a collective action before a defendant can moot the claim through an offer of judgment”). Absent undue delay, when an FLSA plaintiff moves for “certification” of a collective action, the appropriate course—particularly when a defendant makes a Rule 68 offer to the plaintiff that would have the possible effect of mooting the claim for collective relief asserted under § 216(b)—is for the district court to relate the motion back to the filing of the initial complaint.

Now the Supreme Court will apparently be weighing in on the issue.  

Of note, the plaintiff was a single plaintiff and had not sought conditional certification of a collective action at the time the defendant sought to moot the claim.  We will see how much, if at all, these facts play into the Court’s decision to come. 

Click ScotusBlog to read the briefs and Overtime Law Blog, to read our initial post regarding the 3rd Circuit’s Opinion.

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3d Cir.: Hybrids Are Permissible; Rule 23, FLSA Claims Not Incompatible

Knepper v. Rite Aid Corp.

In one of the most anticipated wage and hour decisions pending at the circuit court level, the Third Circuit held yesterday that Rule 23 state law wage and hour class actions (opt-out) are not inherently incompatible with FLSA collective action (opt-in).  Likely ending one of the longest running and hotly contested issues in wage and hour litigation the Third Circuit “join[ed] the Second, Seventh, Ninth and D.C. circuits in ruling that this purported ‘inherent incompatibility’ does not defeat otherwise available federal jurisdiction.”

At the court below the plaintiffs had asserted a hybrid cause of action– claims under both the FLSA’s collective action mechanism and multiple states’ wage and hour laws (Rule 23 class actions).  Unlike some so-called hybrids though, here the Court’s jurisdiction over the Rule 23 state law claims was based on the original jurisdiction of CAFA, rather than the supplemental jurisdiction of 1367.  While the court below had held that the Rule 23 claims could not be brought together with the FLSA collective action claims, based on “inherent incompatibility” the Third Circuit disagreed and reversed.

Framing the issue, the court explained:

“This case involves a putative conflict between an opt-out Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(3) damages class action based on state statutory wage and overtime laws that parallel the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and a separately filed opt-in collective action under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) of the FLSA. Both suits allege violations arising from the same conduct or occurrence by the same defendant. At issue is whether federal jurisdiction over the Rule 23 class action based solely on diversity under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), 28 U .S.C. § 1332(d), is inherently incompatible with jurisdiction over the FLSA action, and whether the FLSA preempts state laws that parallel its protections. “

Although there had been many prior trial level decisions from the courts within the Third Circuit holding that so-called hybrids were “inherently incompatible,” the panel noted that “The concept of inherent incompatibility has not fared well at the appellate level. Four courts of appeals have rejected its application to dual-filed FLSA and class actions.”

Looking first to the text of the FLSA, the court agreed with the Seventh Circuit “that that the plain text of § 216(b) provides no support for the concept of inherent incompatibility.”  The court then explained that a look at legislative history was unnecessary in light of the unambiguous nature of the FLSA’s text in this regard.  Nonetheless, looking at the legislative history, the court concluded, “we disagree that certifying an opt-out class based on state employment law contravenes the congressional purpose behind the Portal–to–Portal Act.”

Perhaps most significantly, the court revisited its decision in De Asencio and noted that it was “distinguishable, as the Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits have all concluded. Ervin, 632 F.3d at 981 (“De Asencio represents only a fact-specific application of well-established rules, not a rigid rule about the use of supplemental jurisdiction in cases combining an FLSA count with a state-law class action.”); Wang, 623 F.3d at 761; Lindsay, 448 F.3d at 425 n. 11. Unlike the state law claims at issue in De Asencio, there is no suggestion that the claims under the MWHL and the OMFWSA are novel or complex; Rite Aid’s principal objection is that these state claims are too similar to federal claims with which the federal courts are well familiar. Nor does this case present an instance of supplemental jurisdiction, where there is statutory authority to decline jurisdiction in the factual circumstances of De Asencio.  Here, independent jurisdiction exists over plaintiffs’ claims under CAFA, which provides no statutory basis for declining jurisdiction in this instance. For these reasons, we do not believe De Asencio supports dismissal.”

The court concluded:

“In sum, we disagree with the conclusion that jurisdiction over an opt-out class action based on state-law claims that parallel the FLSA is inherently incompatible with the FLSA’s opt-in procedure. Nothing in the plain text of § 216(b) addresses the procedure for state-law claims, nor, in our view, does the provision’s legislative history establish a clear congressional intent to bar opt-out actions based on state law. We join the Second, Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits in ruling that this purported “inherent incompatibility” does not defeat otherwise available federal jurisdiction.”

The court also rejected the contention that the FLSA somehow preempts more beneficial state wage and hour laws.

Click Knepper v. Rite Aid Corp. to read the entire Opinion of the Court.  Click here to read the Secretary of Labor’s amicus brief in support of the plaintiff-appellant and here to read the amicus brief submitted on behalf of several employee rights’ organizations, including the National Employment Law Association (NELA).

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D.Minn.: Where Agreement Silent As to Collective Action, Case May Proceed on Collective Basis in Arbitration

Mork v. Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc.

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration on an individual basis.  While, the parties were in agreement that the case should be remanded to arbitration, the salient issue before the court was whether the arbitration agreement- silent on the issue of collective/class proceedings- allowed for collective treatment of the case.  The court held that the parties had agreed to collective treatment of claims by the agreement’s silence.  Thus, the case was remanded to arbitration, but to be treated as a collective action.

Initially the court held that, based on the absence of clear authority one way or another from the Supreme Court, the court had the authority to decide whether the case could proceed on a collective basis.  Having made this decision, it proceeded into its analysis.

Discussing the standard it would apply, the court explained:

“The scope of an arbitration agreement is determined with reference to the agreement of the parties as evidenced by the terms of “the arbitration agreement itself or [based on] some background principle of contract law that would affect its interpretation.” See AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1750 (2011). The Court must “give effect to the contractual rights and expectations of the parties.” Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1774 (citation omitted); see Mitsubishi Motors Corp. v. Soler Chrysler–Plymouth, Inc., 473 U.S. 614, 626 (1985) (“as with any other contract, the parties’ intentions control”). Imposition of a particular type of arbitration cannot be based solely “on policy judgments.” Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. at 1750. Like any contract dispute, however, ambiguities in the agreement must be construed against the drafter. See, e.g., Advantage Consulting Group, Ltd. v. ADT Sec. Sys., Inc., 306 F.3d 582, 588 (8th Cir.2002).

In facing the question of whether to compel collective versus individual arbitration, the Court must therefore determine what the parties agreed to in the Arbitration Clause. A mere agreement to arbitrate, without more, does not imply agreement to collective arbitration. Cf. Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1775. This approach is consistent with Eighth Circuit precedent in the context of class arbitrations, Dominium Austin Partners, L.L.C. v. Emerson, 248 F.3d 720, 728–29 (8th Cir.2001), and consolidation of individual arbitrations, Baesler v. Cont’l Grain Co., 900 F.2d 1193, 1195 (8th Cir.1990). In Emerson and Baesler, the Eighth Circuit held that an arbitration agreement must provide for the type of arbitration which is sought to be compelled by the Court.

Loram urges a restrictive reading of Baesler, Emerson, and Stolt–Nielsen which would require explicit reference to, and acceptance of, collective arbitration in order for Mork’s claim to proceed on a collective basis. Those cases do not stand for such a strict standard. In Stolt–Nielsen, the Supreme Court’s statement that an intention to authorize class arbitration cannot be “infer[red] solely from the fact of the parties’ agreement to arbitrate,” Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1775 (emphasis added), indicates that such an intention may be inferred and need not be explicitly stated.  The majority in Stolt–Nielsen therefore “[did] not insist on express consent to class arbitration.” Id. at 1783 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting). Accordingly, “Stolt–Nielsen does not foreclose the possibility that parties may reach an ‘implicit’—rather than express—‘agreement to authorize class-action arbitration.’ “ Jock v. Sterling Jewelers Inc., 646 F.3d 113, 123 (2d Cir.2011); see Jones v. St. Paul Cos ., Inc., 495 F.3d 888, 893 (8th Cir.2007) (“[F]ederal courts are bound by the Supreme Court’s considered dicta almost as firmly as by the Court’s outright holdings, particularly when … [the dicta] is of recent vintage and not enfeebled by any [later] statement.”) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

In sum, the question before the Court is not whether the Arbitration Clause used the precise words “collective arbitration.” Rather, the Court must determine whether the Arbitration Clause evinces sufficient indicia of agreement between the parties that a claim within its scope may proceed on a collective basis. In doing so, the Court must keep in mind that Loram drafted the language of the Arbitration Clause and, therefore, that ambiguities must be construed against it. Advantage Consulting, 306 F.3d at 588.

The Court notes that the test from Stolt–Nielsen stated here may be more stringent that the appropriate test for contracts of adhesion. See Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1783 (Ginsburg, J., dissenting) (“[T]he Court apparently spares from its affirmative-authorization requirement contracts of adhesion presented on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.”). Because the Court concludes that the Arbitration Clause does affirmatively authorize collective arbitration, there is no need to address whether the CAA was a contract of adhesion and therefore subject to a less stringent standard. The Court notes, however, that the parties here, unlike those in Stolt–Nielsen, are not both “sophisticated business entities” with comparable bargaining power, see id. at 1775, and the CAA appears to have been a “take-it-or-leave-it” boilerplate contract.”

The court then applied its standard and held that the silence of the parties on the collective issue demonstrated the indicia that the parties agreed to collective arbitration:

“While the parties distinguish between “express” and “implied” agreement to collective arbitration, as discussed above, the relevant question is whether there exists sufficient indicia that the parties agreed to undertake collective arbitration in the event of an employment dispute. While the Arbitration Clause does not refer explicitly to collective claims, the Court concludes that it does authorize such claims to proceed before an arbitrator.

To begin, the Arbitration Clause applies to “claims or disputes of any nature arising out of or relating to the employment relationship” and “statutory claims … arising out of or resulting from [Mork's] employment with Loram.” (CAA ¶ 8 (emphasis added).) Mork’s claim that he and similarly situated coworkers were deprived of overtime pay is undisputedly related to “the employment relationship” and his FLSA claim is “statutory.” An action arising from FLSA violations “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.29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). Thus, Mork has a statutory right to bring a FLSA claim on behalf of himself and similarly situated Field Application Technicians, and such a claim arises out of his employment relationship with Loram.

Loram contends that Mork’s ability to bring a claim on behalf of similarly situated employees is foreclosed because the Arbitration Clause’s references to potential arbitral parties include only Loram and Mork. For example, the Arbitration Clause provides that the arbitrator will have “exclusive authority to resolve any dispute or claim relating to, arising out of, or resulting from my employment with Loram” and the “statutory claims” covered by the Arbitration Clause are those “arising out of or resulting from my employment with Loram or the formation or the termination of my employment with Loram.” (CAA ¶ 8 (emphasis added).) These statements, Loram argues, show that the Arbitration Clause does not authorize collective arbitrations.

The Court is not persuaded that the Arbitration Clause’s particular reference to disputes between Mork and Loram must be read to preclude a collective claim. Mork’s FLSA claim is no less a claim “arising out of [his] employment with Loram” because it implicates similarly situated employees. The FLSA claim remains “his.” Viewed in even the most charitable light, Loram’s argument only creates some amount of ambiguity in the Arbitration Clause—ambiguity that must be resolved in Mork’s favor. Advantage Consulting, 306 F.3d at 588.

The conclusion that the Arbitration Clause permits collective arbitration is also supported by the contrast between its broad delegation of “any claims and disputes” to arbitration and its exclusion of only “claims or disputes [arising out of the CAA], or the breach, termination or invalidity thereof.” (CAA ¶ 8.) By negative implication, collective arbitration—a type of arbitration not expressly excluded—can be presumed to be covered by the wide ranging terms of the Arbitration Clause, particularly in light of the factors already discussed.

The Court further notes that the Arbitration Clause provides that arbitration be conducted in accordance with model rules provided by the American Arbitration Association (“AAA”) “in force at the time of the claim or dispute” and that the AAA “shall administer any such arbitration.” (CAA ¶ 8.) The AAA’s “Policy on Class Arbitrations” states that the AAA will “administer demands for class arbitration … if (1) the underlying agreement specifies that disputes arising out of the parties’ agreement shall be resolved by arbitration in accordance with any of the Association’s rules, and (2) the agreement is silent with respect to class claims, consolidation or joinder of claims.” See American Arbitration Association, Policy on Class Arbitrations, July 14, 2005, available at http://www.adr.org/sp.asp?id=25967. Even as interpreted by Loram, the Arbitration Clause in this case satisfies both criteria.

While this AAA policy was promulgated after the execution of the Arbitration Clause, the parties here agreed to be bound by the AAA rules in force “at the time of the claim or dispute.” (CAA ¶ 8.) The parties thus intended to be bound by future iterations of those rules. Loram’s decision to follow and abide by AAA rules therefore lends further support to the Court’s conclusion that the Arbitration Clause authorizes collective arbitration.

It is important to note that Mork has not moved the Court to consolidate otherwise independent actions into a single proceeding as was the case in Baesler, 900 F.3d at 1194–95. Rather, Mork seeks to proceed with a single, statutorily prescribed collective claim. Consolidation is a method by which a Court may efficiently resolve otherwise legally independent claims which happen to share a common question of law or fact. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a). A FLSA collective action, in contrast, is a mechanism in which one claim can vindicate the rights of many. If Mork were seeking consolidated treatment of independent claims brought by employees, the Court would hesitate in considering those claims as “arising out of or resulting from [Mork's] employment with Loram.” (See CAA ¶ 8.)

The Court also notes that some of the concerns raised by the Supreme Court about class arbitration are not present in the sort of collective arbitration sought by Mork. For one, a FLSA collective action is unlike a class action under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because similarly situated employees must always “opt-in” to a FLSA action. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Worries about an arbitrator “adjudicat[ing] the rights of absent parties” without affording them the full panoply of protections provided in court are therefore greatly diminished. See Stolt–Nielsen, 130 S.Ct. at 1776.

Finally, while fully cognizant that policy judgments may not be dispositive in this legal analysis, see Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. at 1750, the Court would be remiss if it did not briefly address the consequences of adopting a rule that an arbitration agreement cannot allow for collective or class arbitration except where the agreement explicitly uses and ratifies those precise terms. Such a rule would lead to great uncertainty, calling into question the countless arbitration agreements that have been executed in the shadow of a less stringent rule. Moreover, the adoption of such a rule would likely prevent the vindication of workers’ basic rights under the FLSA. See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547, 553–54 (S.D.N.Y.2011).”

Click Mork v. Loram Maintenance of Way, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum of Law and Order.

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S.D.Ohio: 21 Late Opt-ins May Be Properly Added Despite Lack of Good Cause Showing

Heaps v. Safelite Solutions, LLC

This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to strike the consents of opt-in plaintiffs filed after the court-imposed deadline (45 days from mailing of notice), and plaintiff’s cross-motion for order allowing late opt–ins.  Citing judicial economy and the remedial principles underlying the FLSA, the court denied the defendant’s motion to strike and granted plaintiff’s cross-motion, allowing the opt-in plaintiffs to remain in the case.  Significantly, the court granted plaintiff’s motion without requiring a showing of good cause as to why the opt-ins filed their consents up to 2 months beyond the deadline imposed by the court.

Permitting the late opt-ins to remain in the case, the court reasoned:

“The FLSA provides the procedure for potential plaintiffs to opt-in to a collective action but does not specify when the potential plaintiff must opt-in. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 216(b), 255, 256. Consequently, deadlines to opt-in are established by the trial court. The FLSA also does not “provide a standard under which a court should consider whether to include opt-in plaintiffs whose consent forms are filed after the court-imposed deadline has passed.” Ruggles v. Wellpoint, Inc., 687 F.Supp.2d 30, 37 (N.D.N.Y.2009).

Although the caselaw on this issue is wide-ranging, courts have generally decided the question by balancing various combinations of the following factors: (1) whether ‘good cause’ exists for the late submissions; (2) prejudice to the defendant; (3) how long after the deadline passed the consent forms were filed; (4) judicial economy; and (5) the remedial purposes of the FLSA.  Id. (citing Ayers v. SGS Control Servs., Inc., 2007 WL 3171342, at *4–5 (S.D.N.Y. Oct.9, 2007) (requiring that late opt-in plaintiffs show good cause for their untimely consent filings), Robinson–Smith v. Gov’t Empl. Ins. Co., 424 F.Supp.2d 117, 123–24 (D.D.C.2006) (considering the potential prejudice to the defendant and the purposes of the FLSA), Raper v. State of Iowa, 165 F.R.D. 89, 92 (S.D.Iowa 1996) (considering potential prejudice to the defendant and judicial economy), Monroe v. United Air Lines, Inc., 94 F.R.D. 304, 305 (N.D.Ill.1982) (considering how long after the deadline the consent forms were filed); but see Reyes v. Texas Ezpawn, L.P., 459 F.Supp.2d 546, 566–67 (S.D.Tex.2006) (dismissing plaintiffs who filed consent forms after the opt-in period without any discussion of the above factors)).

Balancing all of the above factors, the Court finds that the 21 opt-in plaintiffs may be properly added despite their failure to submit consent notices prior to the Court’s deadline. Although Plaintiffs have offered no good cause for their failure to timely file these consent forms, all of the other factors weigh in their favor. See id. (permitting late consent opt-in plaintiffs to join collective class even though the plaintiffs offered no good cause for their failure to timely file, but all other factors weighed in their favor); In Re Wells Fargo Home Mortgage Overtime Pay Litigation, No. MDL 06–01770 MHP, 2008 WL 4712769 at *2 (N.D.Cal. Oct.23, 2008) (rejecting a “rigid application of a ‘good cause’ standard” because it “does not fully respond to the various factors with which the court must concern itself” such as judicial economy and prejudice to the defendant) (citing Raper, 165 F.R.D. at 89).

Given that over 200 persons have consented to opt-in, the inclusion of these 21 plaintiffs, approximately 10% increase in the size of the potential class, will not overly burden or prejudice Defendants. See Abubakar v. Co. of Solano, No. Civ. S–06–2268, 2008 WL 550117 at *2 (E.D.Cal. Feb.27, 2008) (holding a 15% increase in liability, 23 plaintiffs added to a class of 155, was not prejudicial). Also, all of these consent notices were filed with the Court within a few months after the deadline and the majority of them within one month, not presenting any unfair surprise or requiring that Defendants take any additional steps to defend this action. See Raper, 165 F.R.D. at 92 (finding no prejudice to the defendant by allowance of the addition of plaintiffs even after liability had been determined). Thus, Defendant has not been prejudiced by a significant delay and the addition of these opt-in plaintiffs should not hamper the discovery process already underway.

In terms of judicial economy, were the Court to deny the admission of these plaintiffs, they would still be able to file separate claims for relief against Defendant, who would still face the prospect of defending against their individual FLSA claims. See Ruggles, 687 F.Supp.2d at 37 (citing 29 U.S.C. § 256(b)). Indeed, Plaintiffs suggest that they would file separate actions and then request consolidation with the instant action. (ECF No. 85 at 6) (the untimely plaintiffs “only option will be to file identical, individual claims with the Court” and this Court would be permitted to consolidate those individual lawsuits under Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a) “because the cases will all ‘involve a common question of law or fact’ ”). “Obviously, there is little economy in spawning identical FLSA lawsuits that themselves might be properly joined with this lawsuit in the future.” Ruggles, 687 F.Supp.2d at 38 (citing Abubakar, 2008 WL 550117 at *2) (noting the futility in requiring late opt-in plaintiffs to file separately given the foreseeability of a consolidation order pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(a)).

Finally, this Court agrees with other courts’ holdings that with respect to the FLSA, “[a] generous reading, in favor of those whom congress intended to benefit from the law, is also appropriate when considering issues of time limits and deadlines.” Kelley v. Alamo, 964 F.2d 747, 750 (8th Cir.1992) (citation omitted); see also Ruggles, 687 F.Supp.2d at 38 (agreeing with a generous reading of the FLSA in favor of those whom congress intended to benefit from the statute in late opt-in circumstance); In re Wells Fargo Home Mortg. Overtime Pay Litigation, 2008 WL 4712769 at *2 (same); Schaefer–LaRose v. Eli Lilly & Co., No. 1:07–cv–1133–SEB–TAB, 2008 WL 5384340, at *2 (S.D.Ind. Dec.17, 2008) (same).”

Click Heaps v. Safelite Solutions, LLC to read the entire Opinion and Order.

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