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D.D.C.: Laborers on Governmental Job, Who Have Exhausted Their Administrative Remedy, May Bring Case Under Davis-Bacon Act Against Bond of General Contractor; 2 Year SOL Applies

Castro v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland

It has long been the law that generally employees lack the right to bring a private cause of action under the Davis Bacon Act (DBA). Rather, the sole avenue under which aggrieved employees, on governmental jobs, can seek repayment of their improperly withheld wages under the DBA is through a proceeding brought by the Department of Labor. However, the Department of Labor rarely brings such proceedings and thus, workers on governmental projects are often left without a remedy where they have been the victims of wage theft. This case sheds some light on another avenue that such employees can use to attempt to recover their wages however. In this case, after exhausting their administrative remedies (i.e. filing with the DOL and being told the DOL could not pursue their claims) the plaintiffs—employees of a sub-contractor on a job for the District of Columbia—sued on the bond of general contractor to seek payment of their wages. Denying the defendant-bond company’s motion to dismiss, the court explained that this was a valid cause of action.

Discussing the relevant facts and procedural history, the court explained:

Plaintiffs were employed by S & J Acoustics, a second-tier subcontractor (or subsubcontractor) retained to complete ceiling installation on the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory, a building owned by the District of Columbia. See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 2, 5. Pursuant to the DBA, 40 U.S.C. § 3141, et seq., and the DCLMA, D.C.Code § 2–201.01, et seq., the project’s prime contractor, Whiting–Turner Contracting Co., provided a payment bond to the District of Columbia as an assurance that project laborers would receive payment at Department of Labormandated hourly rates. See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 3, 8. In bringing this action against Defendants (1) Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland and (2) Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America, who insured Whiting–Turner’s bond as co-sureties, see id., ¶ 3, Plaintiffs allege that they were not paid for their contributions to the project in accordance with these designated wage rates. See id., ¶¶ 16–18, 21. As background, the DCLMA requires contractors on governmentfunded projects to secure payment bonds to protect the interests of suppliers of materials and subcontractors, and the DBA establishes prevailing wage rates for workers who contribute to government-funded construction projects.

Prior to initiating this action, Plaintiffs filed an administrative complaint with DOL, requesting that payments to the project’s prime contractor be withheld until an investigation could be completed and Plaintiffs compensated for the alleged back wages. See id., ¶¶ 23–25. As the project had since wound up and all payments had been released to Whiting–Turner, the DOL investigator closed the case without making any findings on Plaintiffs’ eligibility for relief under the DBA. See id., ¶¶ 24–25. After Plaintiffs brought suit and Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss, the Court sua sponte raised the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction, questioning whether Plaintiffs had sufficiently exhausted their administrative remedies with DOL. See Order to Show Cause at 2–3. Out of deference to DOL’s plenary role in making DBA back-wage determinations, the Court issued a temporary stay in the proceedings and ordered Plaintiffs to return to DOL and request that conclusive findings be made. See ECF No. 16 (Order) at 4. Plaintiffs did so, but without success. DOL refused to take further action on the ground that the government had already made all payments to the prime contractor and had no further funds to withhold. See Joint Status Report, ¶¶ 6–7 & Exh. A. Satisfied that Plaintiffs had made all efforts to exhaust remedies with DOL, the Court concluded that it did have subjectmatter jurisdiction under the DBA and could consequently address the substance of their claims and Defendants’ pending Motion to Dismiss. See Castro v. Fid. & Deposit Co. of Maryland, No. 13–818, 2014 WL 495464 (D.D.C. Feb. 7, 2014).

Under these circumstances, the defendant argued that the plaintiffs lacked any remedy. The court summarized the defendants contentions as follows:

Defendants first argue that Plaintiffs cannot invoke the DCLMA to sue on Whiting Turner’s payment bond because eligibility under the statute is restricted to those suppliers of labor and materials that have been retained either by the prime contractor or by an immediate subcontractor. See Mot. to Dismiss at 9; Reply at 1–2. Since Plaintiffs were hired by a second- tier subcontractor, Defendants suggest that they fall outside of the scope of the statute. See Supp. to Mot. to Dismiss at 3.

Defendants further maintain that Plaintiffs also have no remedy under the DBA. They premise this argument on the text of DBA § 3144(a)(2), which provides that “laborers and mechanics have the same right [of] action … as is conferred by law on persons furnishing labor or materials.” See Reply at 4. The use of the phrase “same right,” according to Defendants, demonstrates that § 3144(a)(2) does not actually grant aggrieved workers an independent cause of action, but merely references the applicable bond statute – in this case, DCLMA § 2–201.02. See Mot. to Dismiss at 9; Reply at 1 (“Plaintiffs do not have separate cause [sic ] of action against the Defendants in this case under the DBA….”). Alternatively, even if § 3144(a)(2) does create a freestanding cause of action, Defendants reason that the result should be the same because “the rights, if any, that were conferred [by § 3144(a)(2) ] were limited by the express terms of the bond statute.” Reply at 7. The DBA, by this logic, merely duplicates the DCLMA, mirroring its procedural requirements and limitations on eligibility.

Addressing the defendants’ contentions, the court first analyzed the scope and requirements of the DCLMA, acknowledging that plaintiffs lacked standing thereunder, because like the federal Miller Act, it applies only to prime contractor and immediate subcontractors. That did not end the court’s inquiry however. It then turned to an examination of § 3144(a)(2) of the DBA to determine whether it provides an independent remedy with its own terms and conditions. Holding that the DBA, under these circumstances, provided the plaintiffs with a remedy the court explained:

The game is not over, however, because the DBA protects precisely those “ordinary laborers” that the Miller Act appears to exclude. The DBA applies to any construction contracts for public works and public projects that exceed $2,000 in value and to which either the Federal Government or the District of Columbia is a party. See 40 U.S.C. § 3142(a). It obliges contractors on such projects to pay workers in accordance with prevailing wage rates, established by the Secretary of Labor. See id. In the event that contractors do not comply with prevailing wage rates, a worker may seek redress through the mechanism set out in DBA § 3144(a)(2). Promulgated in 1935 – just six days after the federal Miller Act was updated to reflect its current language – § 3144(a)(2) is broadly worded, granting a right of action to “all the laborers and mechanics who have not been paid the wages required” pursuant to the DBA. In contrast to the Miller Act and DCLMA, which condition their protections on a requisite level of contractual proximity to the prime contractor, DBA eligibility appears to hinge upon a laborer’s presence at the job site. Section 3144(a)(2) stipulates that each “contractor or subcontractor” involved in a “contract” governed by the DBA “shall pay all mechanics and laborers employed directly on the site of the work, unconditionally and at least once a week … regardless of any contractual relationship which may be alleged to exist between the contractor or subcontractor and the laborers and mechanics.” § 3142(c)(1) (emphasis added).

Although the DBA does not separately delineate the terms “contract,” “contractor,” “subcontractor,” or “laborer,” these terms are defined in corresponding regulations promulgated by the Secretary of Labor. See 29 C.F.R. § 5.2. The term “contract” comprises “any prime contract which is subject … to the labor standards provisions of [the DBA] and any subcontract of any tier thereunder, let under the prime contract.” § 5.2(h) (emphasis added). This definition, unlike that in the DCLMA, is not limited by a particular degree of separation from the prime contractor. The regulations, in fact, expressly disavow any requirement that a worker demonstrate a particular contractual relationship, instead providing that “[e]very person performing the duties of a laborer or mechanic in the construction … of a public building or public work … is employed regardless of any contractual relationship alleged to exist between the contractor and such person.” § 5.2(o). The regulatory definition of “laborer” is governed by function, not by contractual formality, and extends to “at least those workers whose duties are manual or physical in nature.” § 5.2(m).

Even in the unlikely event that a court were to find the text of the DBA ambiguous, it would still be bound to apply DOL’s regulatory definitions in making its decision. “Because the Secretary of Labor has interpreted the Act,” courts must defer to the Secretary’s judgment provided that these “interpretations are reasonable.” AKM LLC v. Sec’y of Labor, 675 F.3d 752, 754 (D.C.Cir.2012) (citing Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, 467 U.S. 837, 843 (1984)). In this case, the regulatory interpretations are more than merely reasonable – they are grounded in the most basic common sense. Because a prime contractor should have ample notice of laborers working at its project site, it can institute sufficient controls to ensure that they are accounted for and paid for their contributions, regardless of any particular contractual arrangement. In contrast to the situation with suppliers, who may come and go without any physical connection to a job site, there is far less risk that laborers will be completely “[un]known to the prime contractor,” U.S. ex rel. E & H Steel Corp., 509 F.3d at 187, and thereby expose it to unforeseen liability.

The court then explained that where, as here, workers had exhausted their administrative remedy (i.e. filed with the DOL), they were entitled to bring a private cause of action under the DBA:

Clearly titled as a “[r]ight of action,” DBA § 3144(a)(2) provides that, if the Secretary of Labor’s withholdings under the terms of a contract are “insufficient to reimburse all the laborers and mechanics who have not been paid the wages required[,] … the laborers and mechanics have the same right to bring a civil action and intervene against the contractor and the contractor’s sureties as is conferred by law on persons furnishing labor or materials.” (Emphasis added). Two points are notable here. First, the express title of § 3144(a)(2) indicates that Congress believed that it was creating a new and fully functional right of action, and not merely a superficial reference to remedies already available under the bond statutes. While many battles have been waged over whether or not an aggrieved worker can claim an implied right of action under the DBA and thereby circumvent the administrative-exhaustion requirements of § 3144(a), see, e.g., Univers. Research Ass’n v. Coutu, 450 U.S. 754, 780 (1981), courts have long recognized that § 3144(a)(2) furnishes an express cause of action once remedies have been exhausted. See, e.g., U.S. ex rel. Bradbury v. TLT Const. Corp., 138 F.Supp.2d 237, 241 (D.R.I.2001).

Second, the formulation “all the laborers … who have not been paid” sets an expansive scope of application that is not obviously restricted by what follows. If Congress had intended to limit the scope of eligibility to sue on a bond to the narrow class of workers who might qualify under the terms of the Miller Act, it stands to reason that the legislature would have said so in clear and unambiguous terms or, more plausibly, would have completely omitted § 3144(a)(2) from the DBA. If Defendants are correct, § 3144(a)(2) would be mere surplusage, offering nothing of value over and above the remedies already available via the Miller Act and DCLMA. The Court cannot ignore the ” ‘cardinal principle of statutory construction’ that ‘a statute ought, upon the whole, to be so construed that, if it can be prevented, no clause, sentence, or word shall be superfluous, void, or insignificant.’ ” TRW Inc. v. Andrews, 534 U.S. 19, 31 (2001) (quoting Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167, 174 (2001)).

Perhaps even more troubling, Defendants’ assessment of § 3144(a)(2) would create two arbitrary classes of workers – first, those who satisfy the technical qualifications imposed by the terms of the Miller Act and DCLMA, and second, all otherwise DBA-eligible workers. If the Court were to endorse Defendants’ highly restrictive interpretation, it might encourage prime contractors to insulate themselves behind several layers of subcontracts and thus opt out of the obligation to pay DBA-mandated wages, particularly as a project draws to a close and the government is no longer able to withhold funds. It should be obvious, accordingly, that all laborers present on the worksite of a DBA-eligible project should stand to benefit from the Act’s protections, regardless of contractual formalities. The Court thus concludes that § 3144(a)(2) of the DBA creates an independent cause of action that grants the ability to collect on a prime contractor’s bond to all eligible on-site workers, regardless of who hired them.

Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff’s were limited by a one year statute of limitations, and held that a two year statute of limitations was applicable to the claims, pursuant to the Portal-to-Portal Act.

Click Castro v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland to read the entire Memorandum Opinion of the court.

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Filed under Davis Bacon Act, Department of Labor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Coverage, Department of Labor, Minimum Wage

Courts Support DOL Positions re: Tip-Credit Regs and Classification of Mortgage Loan Officers

More so than any recent Department of Labor in memory, the DOL’s positions have come under attack by several major industries largely under the battle cry that they amount to unfair or “over” regulation. Although the Supreme Court recently handed the pharmaceutical industry a major victory in its industry-wide litigation regarding the outside sales exemption’s application to its so-called pharmaceutical reps or PSRs, the DOL and workers come out on the winning end in 2 district-level cases, both challenging recent DOL pronouncements of its policies. In the first, the DOL’s recent amendment to the rules governing when an employer may take the tip-credit with respect to tipped employees came under fire. In the second, the Mortgage Bankers Association challenged the DOL’s recent Administrative Interpretation 2010–1 in which the DOL took the position that Mortgage Loan Officers (MLOs) performing typical MLO duties were non-exempt.

National Restaurant Ass’n v. Solis

In the first case, the National Restaurant Association, Counsel of State Restaurant Associations, Inc., and National Federation of Independent Businesses sued the Secretary of Labor, Hilda L. Solis, in her official capacity as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor; Nancy Leppink, in her official capacity as Acting Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor; and the U.S. Department of Labor (“the Department” or “DOL”).

The rule at issue, 29 C.F.R. § 531.59(b), which went into effect on May 5, 2011, provided:

Pursuant to section 3(m), an employer is not eligible to take the tip credit unless it has informed its tipped employees in advance of the employer’s use of the tip credit of the provisions of section 3(m) of the Act, i.e.: The amount of the cash wage that is to be paid to the tipped employee by the employer; the additional amount by which the wages of the tipped employee are increased on account of the tip credit claimed by the employer, which amount may not exceed the value of the tips actually received by the employee; that all tips received by the tipped employee must be retained by the employee except for a valid tip pooling arrangement limited to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips; and that the tip credit shall not apply to any employee who has not been informed of these requirements in this section.

In its challenge to the regulation, the restaurant tradegroup-Plaintiffs alleged that the DOL violated the Administrative Procedure Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. §§ 611, 702 (2006), when DOL promulgated a new regulation, 29 C.F.R. § 531.59(b) (2011), concerning an employer’s obligation to inform tipped employees of the “tip credit” requirements of the Federal Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201219 (2006). The parties filed cross-motions seeking judgment in their respective favor. The court held that because the agency complied with the APA notice requirements when it conducted this rulemaking exercise, and the public was fully and specifically informed of the subject matter under consideration, the DOL was within its rulemaking powers when it promulgated the new tip-credit notice rules.

Click National Restaurant Ass’n v. Solis to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. Solis

In the second case, the Mortgage Bankers Association, a trade group for mortgage bankers challenged the DOL’s issuance, in 2010, of Administrative Interpretation, the 2010 AI, which expressly withdrew a DOL’s 2006 Opinion Letter, regarding the exempt status of typical Mortgage Loan Officers (“MLOs”). Whereas, previously the DOL had taken the position that MLOs, performing typical duties of MLO positions met the requirements for application of the administrative exemption, the 2010 Administrative Interpretation took the opposite view- that typical MLOs are non-exempt.

Discussing the AI, the court explained:

The 2010 AI relies on a District of Minnesota decision, Casas v. Conseco Finance Corp., No. Civ.00–1512, 2002 WL 507059 (D.Minn. March 31, 2002) in addition to several other cases, as support for its position that mortgage loan officers are non-exempt employees. Id. at 105. In Casas, loan originators asserted they were entitled to overtime compensation from the defendants under the FLSA, requiring the court to decide whether the plaintiffs were exempt from FLSA overtime pay provisions. The court found that because “Conseco’s primary business purpose [was] to design, create and sell home lending products,” the mortgage loan officers’ primary duty was to sell those lending products on a day-to-day basis, not ” ‘the running of [the] business [itself]‘ or determining its overall course or policies.” Casas, 2002 WL 507059, at *9 (citation omitted) (alterations in original). Relying on the ruling in Casas, the 2010 AI reasons that “because Conseco’s loan officers’ duties were ‘selling loans directly to individual customers, one loan at a time,’ ” the administrative exemption did not apply to them. A.R. at 105 (Administrator’s Interpretation No.2010–01) (internal citation omitted). The 2010 AI further notes that the 2004 amended regulations examined the difference between mortgage loan officers who spend the majority of their time selling mortgage products to consumers, like the Casas plaintiffs, as compared to those who “promot[e] the employer’s financial products generally, decid[e] on an advertising budget and techniques, run[ ] an office, hir[e] staff and set[ ] their pay, service [ ] existing customers …, and advis[e] customers.” Id. at 105 (citing 69 Fed.Reg. at 22145–46). The 2010 AI concluded that in order for mortgage loan officers to be properly classified as exempt employees, their primary duties must be administrative in nature. Id. at 105.

Relying on the facts that a significant portion of mortgage loan officers’ compensation is composed of commissions from sales, that their job performance is evaluated based on their sales volume, and that much of the non-sales work performed by the officers is completed in furtherance of their sales duties, the 2010 AI concluded “that a mortgage loan officer’s primary duty is making sales.” Id. at 106–07. And because their primary duty is making sales, the 2010 AI further concludes that “mortgage loan officers perform the production[, not the administrative,] work of their employers.” Id. at 107.

After concluding that the work of mortgage loan officers is not related to the general business operation of their employers, the 2010 AI considered another factor that could provide the basis for finding that mortgage loan officers are subject to the administrative exemption. Id. at 108. The AI states that “[t]he administrative exemption can also apply if the employee’s primary duty is directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer’s customers.Id. In making this assessment, the 2010 AI notes that “it is necessary to focus on the identity of the customer.” Id. The 2010 AI finds that “work for an employer’s customers does not qualify for the administrative exemption where the customers are individuals seeking advice for their personal needs, such as people seeking mortgages for their homes.” Id. However, it recognizes that a mortgage loan officer “might qualify under the administrative exemption” if the customer that the officer is working with “is a business seeking advice about, for example, a mortgage to purchase land for a new manufacturing plant, to buy a building for office space, or to acquire a warehouse for storage of finished goods.” Id. Nevertheless, the 2010 AI concludes that the typical mortgage loan officers’ “primary duty is making sales for the employer [to homeowners], and because homeowners do not have management or general business operations, a typical mortgage loan officer’s primary duty is not related to the management or general business operations of the employer’s customers.” Id. at 109.

Finally, the 2010 AI took exception with the 2006 Opinion Letter’s apparent assumption “that the example provided in 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) creates an alternative standard for the administrative exemption for employees in the financial services industry.” Id. Rather, the 2010 AI states that 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) merely illustrates an example of an employee who might otherwise qualify for the exemption based on “the requirements set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” Id. Thus, the 2010 AI clarifies that “the administrative exemption is only applicable to employees that meet the requirements set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” Id. In providing this clarification, the 2010 AI states, “[t]he fact example at 29 C.F.R. § 541.203(b) is not an alternative test, and its guidance cannot result in it ‘swallowing’ the requirements of 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.” FN4
Id.

In summation, the DOL through the issuance of the 2010 AI explicitly withdrew the 2006 Opinion Letter “[b]ecause of its misleading assumption and selective and narrow analysis[.]” Id. Before taking this action, the DOL did not utilize the APA’s notice and comment process. Compl. ¶¶ 32–33.

The Mortgage Bankers Association relied on two different theories in seeking that the court strike down the AI at issue. First, relying on Paralyzed Veterans, 117 F.3d at 586, the plaintiff argues that once an agency issues an authoritative interpretation of its own regulation, it must utilize the notice and comment process if it desires to modify that interpretation. Second, the Mortgage Bankers Association argued that the 2010 AI does not comport with the 2004 regulations and is therefore “arbitrary, capricious, an abused of discretion, and otherwise not in accordance with law.”

With regard to the first argument, the rejected it, noting that ” seven courts of appeals have held that the notice and comment provisions found in section 553 of the APA do not apply to interpretative rules.” Further, the court held that the case did not fit within the limited recognized exceptions to that general rule. Similarly, the court held that the DOL’s interpretation of its own 2004 white collar regulations was not inconsistent and therefore not arbitrary and capricious. Thus, the court granted the DOL summary judgment, in part, and denied the Mortgage Bankers Association’s similar motion, and upheld the AI.

Click Mortgage Bankers Ass’n v. Solis to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.

 

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Filed under Department of Labor, Exemptions, Tips

M.D.Ga.: DOL Properly Invoked the “Government Informer Privilege” Where Defendants Sought Identities of Witnesses Who Cooperated in Pre-Suit DOL Investigation

Solis v. New China Buffet No. 8, Inc.

This case was before the court on defendants’ motion to compel the DOL (“DOL” or “Plaintiff”) to provide complete answers to discovery requests.  Specifically, Defendants sought information relating to the DOL’s investigation (prior to the filing of the lawsuit) of this Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) case, particularly the identities of any employees that gave statements to the DOL, the contents of those statements, and the contents of the investigative file.  The DOL refused to provide that information based on the informer’s privilege.  The court upheld the DOL’s refusal based on the investigation privilege.  However, the court ordered the DOL to provide the full contact information for all witnesses disclosed by the DOL in their Rule 26 disclosures.

The court boiled Defendants’ arguments down as follows:

“Defendants mount two arguments against Plaintiff’s refusal to disclose the requested information and documents. First, they argue that Plaintiff has not properly invoked the informer’s privilege. Second, they argue that the informer’s privilege should not protect the information they are seeking.”

Rejecting the Defendants’ first contention, that the DOL had not properly invoked the privilege, the court explained:

“Plaintiff properly invoked the informer’s privilege in this case. In response to Defendants’ Motion to Compel, Plaintiff produced a declaration from Acting Wage and Hour Administrator Nancy J. Leppink .  In her declaration, Administrator Leppink stated that she had personally reviewed the relevant parts of the investigation file, including information withheld or redacted. [Doc. 34–1 ¶ 8]. She went on to the state that the Secretary of Labor objected to the production of the requested documents and identifying information because it was protected from disclosure pursuant to the informant’s privilege. [Id. ¶ 11]. She then “invoke[d] the informant’s privilege to protect from disclosure the identities, and any statements and other documents, or portions thereof, which could reveal the identifies, of persons who have provided information to the U.S. Department of Labor in the instant case.” [Id. ¶ 12].”

Turning to the applicability of the informer privilege to the case at bar, the court held that the discovery sought was properly the subject of the privilege.  Describing the nature and purpose of the informer privilege, the court explained:

“What courts have termed the “informer’s privilege is in reality the Government’s privilege to withhold from disclosure the identity of persons who furnish information of violations of law to officers charged with enforcement of that law.” Rovario v. United States, 353 U.S. 53, 59, 77 S.Ct. 623, 627, 1 L.Ed.2d 639 (1957). The privilege protects “employees with legitimate complaints, exercising their constitutional and statutory right to present their grievances to the government.” Brennan v. Engineered Prods. Inc., 506 F.2d 299, 302 (8th Cir.1974). “The purpose of the privilege is the furtherance and protection of the public interest in effective law enforcement.”   Rovario, 353 U.S. at 59, 77 S.Ct. at 627. The government may invoke the privilege “to conceal the names of employees who precipitated the suit by filing complaints with the Department of Labor.” Does I thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp. ., 214 F.3d 1058, 1072 (9th Cir.2000). The privilege “applies whether the [Department of Labor] solicited statements from an employee or the employee made a complaint to the [ Department of Labor].” Martin v. New York City Transit Auth., 148 F.R.D. 56, 63 (E.D.N.Y.1993) (citing Dole v. Local 1942, International Bhd. of Elec. Workers, AFL–CIO, 870 F.2d 368, 370–71 (7th Cir.1989)). The privilege applies to both current and former employees of a company whose workers have communicated with the Department of Labor. Hodgson v. Charles Martin Inspectors of Petroleum, Inc., 459 F.2d 303, 305–06 (5th Cir.1972).

The informer’s privilege is not absolute. Its scope is “limited by the underlying purpose of the privilege as balanced against the fundamental requirements of fairness and disclosure in the litigation process.” Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 305. If the “disclosure of the contents of a communication will not tend to reveal the identity of an informer, the contents are not privileged.” Rovario, 353 U.S. at 60, 77 S.Ct. at 627. Generally, in questions involving the privilege, “the interests to be balanced … are the public’s interest in efficient enforcement of the Act, the informer’s right to be protected against possible retaliation, and the defendant’s need to prepare for trial.” Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 305. The defendant’s need for certain information is generally less weighty during the discovery phase, as opposed to the pre-trial stage of the proceedings. See id. at 307, Brennan, 506 F.2d at 303.”

The court then held that the privilege was indeed applicable here.  In so doing, the court rejected Defendants’ argument that it would be inefficient to depose all 48 witnesses disclosed by the DOL, and questioned Defendants’ base assertion that they needed to know who participated investigation:

“The Defendants’ need to depose all forty-eight former employees listed in Appendix A, or even only those who provided statements, in order to adequately prepare a defense appears far from pressing. The relevance of the identity of informers in a FLSA case is often questionable. See Chao v. Westside Drywall, Inc., 254 F.R.D. 651, 660 (D.Or.2009) (noting that “the names of informers are [often] irrelevant to whether the employer properly paid its employees and otherwise complied with the Act’s requirements”). Defendants have failed to make any showing that this case is outside the normal situation wherein a defendant has access to information and its own witnesses regarding its wage and record keeping practices, and the identity of informers is largely irrelevant.  In any event, courts have generally found that the cost and inconvenience that Defendants seek to avoid does not tip the balance in favor of disclosure. See Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 307 (“[T]hat depositions would be expensive show that the statements would facilitate defendant’s investigation but such facilitation is not a requirement for fundamental fairness to the defendant.”); Brennan, 506 F.2d at 303 & n. 3 (noting that at the discovery stage defendant was entitled to know “the charges, dates, names of underpaid employees, and names of those persons known to the plaintiff who had information concerning the issues” and that defendant had the ability to depose nineteen workers listed as possessing such information).”

For these reasons, the court upheld the application of the informer privilege.  However, because the DOL had disclosed the names of the witnesses at issue, among the 48 witnesses on their Rule 26 disclosures, the court held Defendants were entitled to their contact information, notwithstanding the fact that the DOL did not have to identify whom of the 48 witnesses had given statements in the pre-suit investigation.

While this case is of limited usefulness to private practitioners, it does give an interesting analysis into a privilege that seems to be litigated more and more, with the DOL getting more active in litigating cases.

Click Solis v. New China Buffet No. 8, Inc. to read the entire Order on Defendants’ Motion to Compel.

 

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Filed under Department of Labor, Discovery

DOL Debars Seattle-Based Federal Contractor for Violating Minimum Wage, Overtime and Record-Keeping Laws

The U.S. Department of Labor has debarred HWA Inc., President John Wood and Vice President Barbara Wood from future government contracts for three years, due to significant and repeated violations of the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act and the Contract Work Hours and Safety Standards Act. Seattle-based HWA provided security services as a contractor to various federal facilities, government offices and public works projects in the states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Missouri and New York.

“The Labor Department will not allow federal contractors to misuse public funds and exploit hardworking laborers by denying their rightful wages,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis. “Debarring violators such as HWA from future contracts ensures a level playing field, so that honest companies are not placed at a competitive disadvantage for playing by the rules, and paying their workers full and fair prevailing wages.”

According to a DOL press release:

“Most recently, in 2009, the company defaulted on seven federal contracts and failed to meet its payroll obligations, resulting in nearly $1 million in unpaid wages for 206 employees. The division ordered an emergency withholding of funds on several of the company’s federal contracts and secured the full payment of these wages. All SCA contracts held by the HWA were terminated shortly thereafter.”

The Service Contract Act (SCA) contract clauses, present in all Federal contracts, require contractors and subcontractors performing services under prime contracts in excess of $2,500 to pay service employees in various classes no less than the wage rates and fringe benefits found prevailing in the locality, or the rates contained in a predecessor contractor’s collective bargaining agreement, including prospective increases. The Labor Department issues SCA wage determinations for contracting agencies to incorporate into covered contracts, along with the required contract clauses. The fringe benefit requirements — usually vacation and holidays, known as “health and welfare” benefits — are separate and in addition to the hourly monetary wage requirement under the SCA. In addition, employers with prime contracts in excess of $100,000 under the CWHSSA must pay workers at least one and one-half times their regular rates of pay for all hours worked over 40 in a week.

Although violations of the primary federal wage and hour law, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), may be pursued by aggrieved employees in private lawsuits, alleged violations of the McNamara-O’Hara Service Contract Act and the Contract Work Hours and Safety Standards Act, may only be pursued by the DOL.  Largely due to the fact that under the prior republican leadership, the employer-friendly DOL pursued very few of these cases, such violations are commonplace on Federal worksites, despite the various laws prohibiting them.  Hopefully, as the current DOL pursues these cases more frequently, workers will once again be assured of the protections of the laws that are on the books.

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Filed under Department of Labor, Wage and Hour News, Wage Theft

DOL Publishes New FLSA Rules, Rejecting Pro-Employer Changes to Fluctuating Workweek and Comp Time, Clarifying Tip Credit Rules

On April 5, the Department of Labor (DOL) published its updates to its interpretative regulations regarding the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in the Federal Register.  to go into effect 30 days later.  The Updating Regulations, revise out of date CFR regulations. Specifically, these revisions conform the regulations to FLSA amendments passed in 1974, 1977, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, and 2007, and Portal Act amendments passed in 1996.

As noted by several commentators, the final regulations are noteworthy for what was not included as much as for what was.  Below is a brief description of the most significant changes and those changes originally proposed, that were not adopted:

Fluctuating Workweek Under 29 C.F.R. §778.114

The proposed regulations issued by DOL in 2008 under the Bush administration (73 Fed. Reg. 43654) would have amended regulations on the “fluctuating workweek” method of calculating overtime pay for nonexempt employees who have agreed to received pay in the form of fixed weekly payments rather than in the form of an hourly wage.  The proposed regulations would have amended 29 C.F.R. §778.114 to permit payments of non-overtime bonuses and incentives (such as shift differentials) “without invalidating the guaranteed salary criterion required for the half-time overtime pay computation.”  The DOL left out this proposed change from the final rules however, saying it had “concluded that unless such payments are overtime premiums, they are incompatible with the fluctuating workweek method of computing overtime.”  Explaining the decision not to amend the FWW reg, the DOL noted that “several commenters … noted that the proposal would permit employers to reduce employees’ fixed weekly salaries and shift the bulk of the employees’ wages to bonus and premium pay” contra to the FLSA’s intent.  The DOL’s decision to decline the proposed amendment is consistent with virtually all case law on this issue, as discussed here and here.

Tipped Employees

The DOL has also decided to revise the proposed regulations’ interpretation of Congress’ 1974 amendment, section 3(m) of the FLSA, to require advance notice to tipped employees of information about the tip credit the employer is permitted to take based on its employees’ tips.  The final rule combines existing regulatory provisions to assure such employees are notified of the employer’s use of the tip credit, and how the employer calculates it.  This regulation too is consistent with case law on the subject, requiring advanced notice of the tip credit.

Compensatory Time

The final rules also do not include a proposed change that would have allowed public-sector employers to grant employees compensatory time requested “within a reasonable period” of the request, instead of on the specific dates requested. Instead, the final rule will leave the regulations unchanged, “consistent with [DOL’s] longstanding position that employees are entitled to use compensatory time on the date requested absent undue disruption to the agency.”

The new CFR regulations go into effect on May 5, 2011.

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Filed under CompTime, Department of Labor, Fluctuating Workweek, Tips

DOL Issues Proposed Rulemaking Revising Wage Calculations For H-2B Workers

According to a DOL press release just issued:

A proposed rule that seeks to improve the H-2B temporary nonagricultural worker program and better protect American workers has just been promulgated. “The proposed rule, to be published in the Federal Register tomorrow, addresses the calculations used to set wage rates for H-2B workers.

The H-2B program allows the entry of foreign workers into the U.S. when qualified American workers are not available and when the employment of foreign workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed American workers. The H-2B program is limited by law to a program cap of 66,000 visas per year…

The previous administration promulgated H-2B regulations and did not seek comment in the rulemaking process on the data used to set wage rates. Since the 2008 final rule took effect, however, the department has grown increasingly concerned that the current calculation method does not adequately reflect the appropriate wages necessary to ensure American workers are not adversely affected by the employment of H-2B workers. On Aug. 30, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania ruled that the regulations issued by the department in 2008 had violated the Administrative Procedure Act. The court ordered the department to promulgate new rules that are in compliance with the APA concerning the calculation of the prevailing wage rate in the H-2B program no later than 120 days from the date of the order. Today’s announcement begins the process of complying with the order and with achieving the department’s goal of fully protecting the job opportunities and wages of American workers. The department anticipates a future rulemaking that will address other aspects of the H-2B program.

The proposed regulation would require employers to pay H-2B and American workers recruited in connection with an H-2B job application a wage that meets or exceeds the highest of: the prevailing wage, the federal minimum wage, the state minimum wage or the local minimum wage.

Under the proposed rule, the prevailing wage would be based on the highest of the following:

  • Wages established under an agreed-upon collective bargaining agreement.
  • A wage rate established under the Davis-Bacon Act or the Service Contract Act for that occupation in the area of intended employment.
  • The arithmetic mean wage rate established by the Occupational Employment Statistics wage survey for
    that occupation in the area of intended employment.

The proposed rule eliminates the use of private wage surveys, as well as the current four-tier wage structure that differentiates wage rates by the theoretical level of experience, education and supervision required to perform the job, a system that is not relevant to the unskilled positions generally involved in the H-2B program.

Interested persons are invited to submit comments on this proposed rule via the federal e-rulemaking portal at http://www.regulations.gov.”

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203(o) Does Not Extend To PPE Worn By Employees That Is Required By Law, The Employer Or Due To The Nature Of The Job; Changing Clothes May Be Principal Activity, Starting Continuous Workday, Says DOL

Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2010-2

Today, the DOL issued its second Administrative Interpretation of 2010.  The subject of this interpretation was the oft-litigated issue of the definition of “clothes” under 29 U.S.C. 203(0), which has been the subject of countless so-called “donning and doffing” cases. 

Significantly the DOL concluded that:

(1)  “Based on its statutory language and legislative history, it is the Administrator’s interpretation that the § 203(o) exemption does not extend to protective equipment worn by employees that is required by law, by the employer, or due to the nature of the job. This interpretation reaffirms the interpretations set out in the 1997, 1998 and 2001 opinion letters and is consistent with the “plain meaning” analysis of the Ninth Circuit in Alvarez. Those portions of the 2002 opinion letter that address the phrase “changing clothes” and the 2007 opinion letter in its entirety, which are inconsistent with this interpretation, should no longer be relied upon.”

and

(2) “Consistent with the weight of authority, it is the Administrator’s interpretation that clothes changing covered by § 203(o) may be a principal activity. Where that is the case, subsequent activities, including walking and waiting, are compensable. The Administrator issues this interpretation to assist employees and employers in all industries to better understand the scope of the § 203(o) exemption.”

To read the entire Administrator’s Interpretation, click here.

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Filed under Department of Labor, Donning and Doffing

Mortgage Loan Officers Do Not Typically Qualify For The Administrative Exemption, Says DOL

Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2010-1

The Wage and Hour Division, under the current Administration, has issued its first Administrative Interpretation Letter.  The introductory text of the Letter is below:

“Based on the Wage and Hour Division’s significant enforcement experience in the application of the administrative exemption, a careful analysis of the applicable statutory and regulatory provisions and a thorough review of the case law that has continued to develop on the exemption, the Administrator is issuing this interpretation to provide needed guidance on this important and frequently litigated area of the law.  Based on the following analysis it is the Administrator’s interpretation that employees who perform the typical job duties of a mortgage loan officer, as described below, do not qualify as bona fide administrative employees exempt under section 13(a)(1) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1).

Typical Job Duties of Mortgage Loan Officers

The financial services industry assigns a variety of job titles to employees who perform the typical job duties of a mortgage loan officer.  Those job titles include mortgage loan representative, mortgage loan consultant, and mortgage loan originator.  For purposes of this interpretation the job title of mortgage loan officer will be used.  However, as the regulations make clear, a job title does not determine whether an employee is exempt. The employee’s actual job duties and compensation determine whether the employee is exempt or nonexempt.  29 C.F.R. § 541.2.

Facts found during Wage and Hour Division investigations and the facts set out in the case law establish that the following are typical mortgage loan officer job duties: Mortgage loan officers receive internal leads and contact potential customers or receive contacts from customers generated by direct mail or other marketing activity.  Mortgage loan officers collect required financial information from customers they contact or who contact them, including  information about income, employment history, assets, investments, home ownership, debts, credit history, prior bankruptcies, judgments, and liens.  They also run credit reports.  Mortgage loan officers enter the collected financial information into a computer program that identifies which loan products may be offered to customers based on the financial information provided.  They then assess the loan products identified and discuss with the customers the terms and conditions of particular loans, trying to match the customers’ needs with one of the company’s loan products. Mortgage loan officers also compile customer documents for forwarding to an underwriter or loan processor, and may finalize documents for closings.  See, e.g., Yanni v. Red Brick Mortgage, 2008 WL 4619772, at *1 (S.D. Ohio 2008); Pontius v. Delta Financial Corp., 2007 WL 1496692, at *2 (W.D. Pa. 2007); Geer v. Challenge Financial Investors Corp., 2007 WL 2010957 (D. Kan. 2007), at *2; Chao v. First National Lending Corp., 516 F. Supp. 2d 895, 904 (N.D. Ohio 2006), aff’d, 249 Fed.App. 441 (6th Cir. 2007); Epps v. Oak Street Mortgage LLC, 2006 WL 1460273, at *4 (M.D. Fla. 2006); Rogers v. Savings First Mortgage, LLC, 362 F. Supp. 2d 624, 627 (D. Md. 2005); Casas v. Conseco Finance Corp., 2002 WL 507059, at *1 (D. Minn. 2002).”

To read the entire Letter click here.

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Filed under Department of Labor, Exemptions, Wage and Hour News

11th Cir.: Receipt And Signing WH-58 Form And Cashing Of The Employer’s Check Is Sufficient To Effect A Waiver Of Right To Sue Under FLSA

Blackwell v. United Drywall Supply

Plaintiffs were employed by Defendants.  In September 2007, they sued Defendants pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  Plaintiffs alleged that, from 2002 forward, Defendants intentionally violated the Act by failing to pay them properly for overtime.  Plaintiffs further alleged that, in 2007, “as a result of an investigation by the United States Department of Labor involving allegations of the improper payment of overtime compensation to its laborer employees, [United Drywall] made payments to various employees for past due overtime compensation.”  Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants retaliated against Williams for his complaints to the Department of Labor regarding overtime violations.  And, Plaintiffs alleged that the payments made as part of the Department of Labor supervised settlement were “far lower than what the employees were legally due.”  They sought allegedly unpaid overtime compensation for three years before the filing of the complaint and attorney’s fees and expenses pursuant to § 216 of the Act.  The Court below granted Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment holding that Plaintiffs’ signing of the DOL WH-58 form and cashing of settlement checks was a valid waiver of their FLSA rights.  On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Framing the issue before it, the Court explained, “Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things: (1) that Plaintiffs had waived their right to sue under the Act when they cashed checks from United Drywall pursuant to the 2007 settlement between the parties supervised by the Department of Labor, and (2) that Plaintiffs are exempt employees under the Motor Carrier Exemption in the Act (“the Exemption”) and therefore are not entitled to back pay pursuant to the Act. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that there were genuine issues of fact regarding whether they had knowingly waived their rights to sue and whether the Exemption applied.  After considering arguments and evidence from both sides, the district court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The court held that, because Plaintiffs had received Department of Labor form WH-58 (which contained a statement that if Plaintiffs accepted the back wages provided in conjunction with the form, they would give up their rights to bring suit under the Act) and because Plaintiffs had cashed the checks provided in conjunction with the WH-58 forms, Plaintiffs had waived their rights to sue Defendants for the payments they sought under the Act.  The court entered judgment for Defendants.  Plaintiffs appeal the judgment.”

Addressing and denying Plaintiffs’ appeal, the Court reasoned, “Plaintiffs argue that the district court erred in finding waiver because Plaintiffs did not knowingly and intentionally waive their rights to sue. They argue that the WH-58 form provided to them by the Department of Labor is ambiguous and did not put them on notice that, by cashing the checks, they would waive their rights to sue for additional back pay. Defendants argue that the district court correctly found waiver and that the judgment can be supported on the additional ground that the Exemption applies to bar Plaintiffs’ claims. In their reply brief, Plaintiffs respond that affirmance of the judgment based on the Exemption would not be proper because the Exemption is not applicable to Defendants’ business as a matter of law or, in the alternative, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding the application of the Exemption.

We affirm the judgment. We find no error in the district court’s holding “that receipt of a WH-58 form and cashing of the employer’s check is sufficient to effect a waiver of the right to sue under the FLSA.”  There is no dispute that Plaintiffs received WH-58 forms in connection with the checks written by United Drywall and given to Plaintiffs by the Department of Labor as part of the supervised settlement between United Drywall and its employees. Those forms are receipts for payment of “unpaid wages, employment benefits, or other compensation due … for the period up to and including 05/20/2007 … under … The Fair Labor Standards Act….” They contain this language:

NOTICE TO EMPLOYEE UNDER THE FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT-Your acceptance of back wages due under the Fair Labor Standards Act means that you have given up any right you may have to bring suit for back wages under Section 16(b) of that Act.     ( Id.)

The WH-58 forms then proceed to describe the types of recovery and statutes of limitations under § 16(b) of the Act. We agree with the district court that these forms unambiguously informed Plaintiffs that, if they cashed the checks provided with the forms, they would be waiving their rights to sue for back pay. And, there is no dispute that Plaintiffs cashed the checks. Therefore, the district court correctly determined that ‘both Plaintiffs have waived their right to sue.  Affirming the judgment on waiver grounds, we do not address the parties’ arguments regarding application of the Exemption.’ “

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Filed under Affirmative Defenses, Department of Labor, Settlements