With the uptick in FLSA case filings in recent years, a previously rarely litigated issue- whether certain types of workers are volunteers or “employees” subject to FLSA coverage- has increasingly come under judicial scrutiny. And, while case law has long interpreted the FLSA in a liberal manner, with the stated purpose of erring on the side of coverage for workers, two recent cases demonstrate that definition is not without its limits. In the first case, the domestic partner/girlfriend of a Domino’s Pizza store manager helped the manager with his management duties, in the hopes that eventually such efforts would lead to the partner’s advancement within the company. In the second case, an alumni for a public high school served as a mentor to students following his graduation from school. As discussed below, in both cases, the courts employed the “economic reality” test, and held that the workers were volunteers as opposed to employees.
Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc.
In the first case, the plaintiff- apparently the girlfriend of the general manager of a Domino’s franchise store- assisted her boyfriend in his duties as the general manager. After the boyfriend’s employment with the defendant ceased, the plaintiff sought renumeration for all of the work she had previously performed on behalf of defendants, while he boyfriend had been employed. Interestingly, it appears from the style of the case that the defendants- who denied that the plaintiff was ever their employee- sought to bring a claim for indemnification/contribution against the boyfriend by impleading him as a third-party defendant. Looking at the totality of the circumstances, the court concluded that she was a volunteer and not an employee under the FLSA. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Elucidating the relevant facts, the court explained that at some point in 2007, the plaintiff (Emanuel) told her boyfriend that she wanted to work at the store he managed on behalf of the defendants. Apparently, the plaintiff wanted to help with her boyfriend’s effort to become a Domino’s Pizza franchise owner.In response the boyfriend said he’d have to speak to the defendants about Emanuel working at the Elmhurst store. Thereafter, the boyfriend conveyed to Emanuel that defendants “believed your talents can be better utilized somewhere else.” Nonetheless, sometime later, the boyfriend (Shafer) communicated to Emanuel that she could begin working at the Elmhurst store. Significantly, the plaintiff acknowledged that she could not have worked in the store pursuant to the defendants anti-nepotism policy and that defendants would have told her to “get the hell out of my store,” had they known she was performing work in the store.
It was undisputed that neither the defendants, nor plaintiff’s boyfriend or anyone for that matter, ever promised plaintiff any compensation for the work she performed.
Ultimately, the plaintiff’s boyfriend and defendants got into a dispute regarding their agreement about his [plaintiff's boyfriend's] compensation, and as a result both plaintiff and her boyfriend ceased working for defendants. Subsequently, she filed the lawsuit, seeking compensation for the approximately 3 years of work she performed on behalf of defendants (and her boyfriend).
Laying out the elements of the “economic reality” test, the court explained:
Courts look to the totality of the circumstances when determining whether an individual is an “employee” under the FLSA and examine the “economic reality” of the working relationship. See, e.g., Vanskike v. Peters, 974 F.2d 806, 808 (7th Cir.1992). Courts have considered a variety of factors when examining the “economic reality” of a purported employment relationship, though none are dispositive or controlling. Secretary of Lab. v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1534 (7th Cir.1987). Six commonly applied factors are: (1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer’s control as to the manner in which the work is to be performed; (2) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending upon his managerial skill; (3) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of workers; (4) whether the service rendered requires a special skill; (5) the degree of permanency and duration of the working relationship; and (6) the extent to which the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business. Id. at 1534–35.
Rejecting the plaintiff’s contention that she was defendants’ “employee,” the court reasoned:
“Here, plaintiff Emanuel advances an absurd position. Emanuel argues that defendant Lindeman’s repeated statement that he would not pay her to work at the Elmhurst store was not a refusal to hire her as an employee, but an offer for her to work for free. Since Emanuel claims to have worked at the Elmhurst store without compensation and without [defendants] forcibly ejecting her from the store or otherwise preventing her from working, it is her position that an employment relationship impliedly exists.” However, noting the no one ever promised plaintiff compensation and that her work likely violated one or more of defendants corporate policies, the court held it was unreasonable for plaintiff to believe she was actually their employee, rather than a volunteer. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Click Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.
Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ.
In the second case, the plaintiff, Brown, graduated from the New School for Arts and Sciences, a high school that shared space with Banana Kelly. After graduation, Brown maintained ties with Banana Kelly and occasionally came in to visit former teachers. In October 2007, when Plaintiff expressed an interest in mentoring students, the school offered Plaintiff the opportunity to do so at Banana Kelly. Neither Brown nor the school raised the issue of compensation at this time, and neither discussed Brown’s employee status. No one interviewed Brown about his background or qualifications. Thereafter, the plaintiff went to Banana Kelly and continued at the school for more than three years, finally leaving in December 23, 2010, apparently because he was being investigated for inappropriate conduct related to his comments to a freshman student. During his time at the school, with minor exceptions, the plaintiff reported five days a week throughout the academic year, working 7-8 hours per day on a regular basis.
Citing the fact that the plaintiff never submitted to the normal, legal requirements for employment by the Department of Education: application, interview, background check, job classification, and assignment, the court rejected plaintiff’s assertion that he was an employee, because he expected compensation for his services. Although it was undisputed that the defendant told plaintiff that there was not enough money in the budget to pay him, according to the plaintiff, defendant promised that he would attempt to search the budget for the funding.
Again, looking at the “economic realities” and the totality of the facts of the situation, the court held that plaintiff was a volunteer and not an employee, subject to FLSA coverage. Thus, the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
The court gave the following overview of the analysis applicable to the issue:
Whether one is a volunteer is to be determined “in a common-sense manner, which takes into account the totality of the circumstances surrounding the relationship between the individual providing services and the entity for which the services are provided.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428;City of Elmendorf, 388 F.3d at 528; Todaro, 40 F.Supp.2d at 230. Accordingly, courts should review “the objective facts surrounding the services performed to determine whether the totality of the circumstances establish volunteer status, or whether, instead, the facts and circumstances, objectively viewed, are rationally indicative of employee status.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428. The court then examined 2 factors to determine whether the plaintiff was an employee or a volunteer. First, the court considered whether Brown performed the tasks at Banana Kelly for “civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons,” pursuant to 553.101(a).
Looking at this factor, the court reasoned:
One is a volunteer, if motivated by an altruistic sense of civic duty, see Krause, 969 F.Supp. at 276, as opposed to the expectation of compensation, see Rodriguez, 866 F.Supp. at 1019. When the situation is one of mixed motives, “the regulatory definition does not require that the individual be exclusively, or even predominantly, motivated by ‘civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons. Rather, what is required is that the individual must be motivated by civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons, at least in part.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429 (citing Todaro, 40 F.Supp. at 230); see also Benshoff v. City of Virginia Beach, 9 F.Supp.2d 610, 623 (E.D.Va.1998) (finding that firefighters were volunteers when motivated primarily, but not exclusively, by civic, charitable and humanitarian concerns). Here, Brown accepted Jerome’s offer to mentor, in part, because he wanted “[s]omeone … to stand up, and make a change, and show the kids that we do care.” (Welikson Dec. Ex. C, Brown Dep. at 35:21–22.) He felt that the school needed the change because in his experience as a student, “nobody cared” (id. 35:14–17). This motivation remained unchanged as Brown started performing non-mentorship tasks. Brown testified that he helped with lunch duty, dismissals and escorting students despite his displeasure with being asked because he wanted to be a “team player” and that he “want[ed] to help and [he] care[d].” (38:14–39:5.) He felt obligated because he did not want to “let[ ] the school down.” (id. at 150:20–22.) These statements show a continued civic and charitable intent to improve the environment at Banana Kelly. At the same time, Brown testified that he worked because he believed (“hoped”) that money was forthcoming. (Okoronkwo Dec. Ex. 13 Brown Dep. 231:18–19). Accepting Brown’s acknowledgements, the Court turns to whether, in this mixed motive case, Brown acted at least in part, by the proper humanitarian concerns. See Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429. Plaintiff’s testimony shows that his actions at Banana Kelly, had their source, at least in part, in his concern for what would become of students if he did not show up, and was thus properly motivated.
Next the court looked at whether there was a “promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(a). Noting that plaintiff was not compensated, was not offered “under-the-table” compensation, and was not promised compensation, the court concluded that the plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of compensation. Looking at all the circumstances the court concluded that:
There is ample evidence that Brown knew and understood, despite his hopes to the contrary, that he would not be compensated. Brown admitted that he understood that he would not get paid for mentoring. No one led Plaintiff to believe that he would get paid for non-mentoring tasks. Laub testified that he had conversations with Plaintiff in which he relayed to Brown that he was volunteer and intern. Banana Kelly gave him certificates of appreciation that acknowledged his services as an intern and volunteer which Brown accepted without objection. While labels used by the parties do not control the outcome (P. Opp. at 11), the parties’ understanding of their arrangement is a relevant factor in the totality-of-circumstances analysis. See Rodriguez v. Township, 866 F.Supp. 1012, 1020 (S.D.Tex.1994) (declining to hold that the plaintiff was a volunteer in part because both parties understood their relationship as an employment, rather than volunteer, relationship).
Taking all of the circumstances into consideration, the court concluded that the plaintiff was a volunteer.
Click Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ. to read the entire Opinion and Order.