Tag Archives: Fifth Circuit

5th Cir.: Where Employees Were Represented in Grievance Process By Their Union and Its Attorneys, Private Settlement of a Bona Fide Dispute Enforceable

Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C.

Following the entry of summary judgment on behalf of the defendants, the plaintiffs appealed. As discussed here, plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s holding that the private settlement reached between their union and one of their alleged employers was binding and enforceable. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that absent: (1) court approval, (2) DOL supervision, or (3) a showing that they had been paid their wages in full without compromise, the settlement previously reached was not binding and/or enforceable. Affirming the decision below, the Fifth Circuit held that the settlement agreement was binding and enforceable notwithstanding the lack of court or DOL supervision, because it was a resolution of a bona fide dispute. While it is not entirely clear, it appears that the Fifth Circuit reasoned that the agreement, at least arguably could be said to be “without compromise,” thus making it binding and enforceable.

The case concerned grips and other movie production employees who worked on the set of a movie. Laying out the relevant procedural/factual background, the Fifth Circuit explained:

The plaintiffs “filed a grievance against Spring Break Louisiana alleging that they had not been paid wages for work they performed. The Union sent a representative to investigate the merits of the claims. After his investigation, the representative concluded that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they alleged they had worked. The Union and Spring Break Louisiana entered into a Settlement Agreement pertaining to the disputed hours allegedly worked by Appellants.”

Discussing the issue of whether the private settlement here was binding and enforceable the Fifth Circuit reasoned:

The district court concluded that the plain language of the Settlement Agreement “is binding upon the [Appellants] in their individual capacities and prohibits those individuals from pursuing future legal action against Spring Break Louisiana after receiving their settlement payments.” We agree. The Settlement Agreement, in relevant part, states:

The Union on its own behalf and on behalf of the IATSE Employees agrees and acknowledges that the Union has not and will not file any complaints, charges or other proceedings against Producer, its successors, licenses and/or assignees, with any agency, court, administrative body, or in any forum, on condition that payment in full is made pursuant to the terms of this Settlement Agreement.

The Settlement Agreement also states that the Union “has the full power and authority to enter into this Settlement Agreement on behalf of IATSE Employees and bind them in accordance with the terms hereof.” By this plain language, the Appellants, who were IATSE Employees, were bound by its terms. Appellants contend, however, that the Settlement Agreement is unenforceable because they never signed it or agreed to it—instead, the Settlement Agreement was signed by Union representatives. However, Appellants do not dispute that they received full payment for their claims pursuant the terms of the Settlement Agreement. Nor do Appellants dispute that they cashed the Settlement Agreement payment checks they received. The Appellants were members of the Union and, under the CBA, Spring Break Louisiana recognized “the Union as exclusive representative of the employees in the bargaining unit.” Considering that Appellants, who were members of the Union, received and accepted full payment for their FLSA claims under the Settlement Agreement, the fact that Appellants did not themselves personally sign the Settlement Agreement does not render it unenforceable. See N.L.R.B. v. Allis–Chalmers Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 175, 180, 87 S.Ct. 2001, 18 L.Ed.2d 1123 (1967) (“The employee may disagree with many of the union decisions but is bound by them.”).

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the settlement agreement was not binding and enforceable, because generally individuals may not privately settle FLSA claims. In response the defendants argued that that a private compromise of claims under the FLSA is permissible where there exists a bona fide dispute as to liability (and as to the amount of appropriate damages). After a discussion of the relevant Fifth Circuit precedent, the court agreed with the Defendants and held the settlement agreement at issue to be enforceable.

Significantly the court reasoned:

[H]ere, there is a bona fide dispute between Appellants and Spring Break Louisiana over the number of hours for which they are owed their set rate of pay. In fact, the Union representative conducted an investigation into the dispute and received conflicting information from various sources, ultimately concluding that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they claimed they had worked in their grievance.  Approving of this rationale, we hold that the payment offered to and accepted by Appellants, pursuant to the Settlement Agreement, is an enforceable resolution of those FLSA claims predicated on a bona fide dispute about time worked and not as a compromise of guaranteed FLSA substantive rights themselves. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 714, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (“Our decision … has not necessitated a determination of what limitation, if any, Section 16(b) of the [FLSA] places on the validity of agreements between an employer and employee to settle claims arising under the Act if the settlement is made as the result of a bona fide dispute between the two parties, in consideration of a bona fide compromise and settlement.”); see also D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114–15, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946) (“Nor do we need to consider here the possibility of compromises in other situation which may arise, such as a dispute over the number of hours worked or the regular rate of employment.”); 29 U.S.C. § 253(a).

Apparently the court also believed that the settlement at issue here could arguably be said to be “without compromise” such that the third permissible basis for an enforceable private settlement was met:

Notably, in Thomas v. Louisiana, 534 F.2d 613 (5th Cir.1976), we held that a private settlement of FLSA claims was binding and enforceable where the settlement gave employees “everything to which they are entitled under the FLSA at the time the agreement is reached.” Id. at 615. We explained that, “[a]lthough no court ever approved this settlement agreement, the same reason for enforcing a court-approved agreement i.e., little danger of employees being disadvantaged by unequal bargaining power[,] applies here.” Id.  Here, Spring Break Louisiana and the Union agreed in the Settlement Agreement that the payments Appellants were paid pursuant to that agreement were the “amounts due and owing” for the disputed number of hours they claimed they had worked and not been paid for. The Settlement Agreement was a way to resolve a bona fide dispute as to the number of hours worked—not the rate at which Appellants would be paid for those hours—and though Appellants contend they are yet not satisfied, they received agreed-upon compensation for the disputed number of hours worked.

Lastly, the court distinguished a settlement privately negotiated by a union and its attorneys from a situation where a labor union purports to waive an employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, a longstanding no-no under well-established FLSA jurisprudence:

Finally, Appellants contend, citing Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981), that because the Supreme Court has held that a union cannot waive employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, they cannot have settled their FLSA claims in the Settlement Agreement, which was arrived at through the Union-facilitated grievance procedure laid out in the CBA. See Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“FLSA rights … are independent of the collective-bargaining process. They devolve on petitioners as individual workers, not as members of a collective organization. They are not waivable.”). Although the terms and conditions of Appellants’ employment with Spring Break Louisiana were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, Barrentine is distinguishable. In Barrentine, the plaintiffs’ grievances based on rights under the FLSA were submitted by the union to a joint grievance committee that rejected them without explanation, a final and binding decision pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. 450 U.S. at 731, 101 S.Ct. 1437. Here, Appellants accepted and cashed settlement payments—Appellants’ FLSA rights were adhered to and addressed through the Settlement Agreement, not waived or bargained away. The concerns the Court in Barrentine expressed, that FLSA substantive rights would be bargained away, see id. at 740, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“This Court’s decisions interpreting the FLSA have frequently emphasized the nonwaivable nature of an individual employee’s right to a minimum wage and to overtime pay under the Act. Thus, we have held that FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived because this would ‘nullify the purposes’ of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.”), are not implicated by the situation here where Appellants’ Union did not waive FLSA claims, but instead Appellants, with counsel, personally received and accepted compensation for the disputed hours. We reiterate that FLSA substantive rights may not be waived in the collective bargaining process, however, here, FLSA rights were not waived, but instead, validated through a settlement of a bona fide dispute, which Appellants accepted and were compensated for. Therefore, the district court did not err by finding an enforceable release resolving this wage dispute.

Given, the somewhat unique facts of this case, it remains to be seen whether the Fifth Circuit’s decision while trigger a change in longstanding FLSA jurisprudence regarding the enforceability of privately-negotiated settlements, or whether this case will remain an outlier, largely limited to its facts. For example, it is not clear whether the settlement would have been enforced absent the fact that plaintiffs were represented by both their union and attorneys in the negotiations, or if this was a “straight time” case where there was demonstrative evidence of the precise number of hours at issue.  Stay tuned, for what’s likely to be an influx of cases where defendant-employers seek to expand this case’s holding while plaintiff-employees seek to limit the holding to the facts at bar (which are not likely to be oft-repeated).

Click Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C. to read the entire Decision. For an excellent historical overview of more typical decisions regarding the enforceability of private settlements of FLSA claims click here to read an outline from the folks at Outten & Golden.

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5th Cir.: Member of LLC Lacked Sufficient Day-to-Day Involvement In Operation of Nightclub to be “Employer” Under FLSA

Gray v. Powers

This case was before the Fifth Circuit on Plaintiff’s appeal of an Order granting an individual defendant summary judgment, having held that there were insufficient facts to render the individual defendant to be an “employer” subject to FLSA liability.  Affirming the decision below, the Fifth Circuit held that the individual defendant- who was not involved in the day-to-day operations of the defendant nightclub as a member of the LLC that owned same- lacked sufficient involvement to be an “employer.”

According to the court it was undisputed that- after participating in the initial construction of the nightclub- the individual defendant in question (“Powers”) had little day-to-day involvement in the club’s operations:

“After completion of the construction, Powers was not involved in the day-to-day operation of the Pasha Lounge. Powers only visited the club on five or six occasions during the seventeen months the club was open for business. He denies that he supervised any employee, defined employee job duties, controlled work schedules, or maintained employment records. During his rare trips to the lounge, the bartenders would tell him how much they made in tips. Powers was, however, a signatory on PEG’s checking account, along with Kathleen and the club’s general manager, and he occasionally signed several pages of pre-printed checks.

Other members, Kathleen in particular, were much more involved in the operation of the club. Kathleen kept the books, was a signatory on the accounts, received nightly numbers, and served as the point of contact for the general manager. The members of PEG collectively made significant business decisions such as hiring John W. Ritchey, Jr. as the first general manager. Ritchey’s job duties included hiring and firing staff, handling promotions, setting operation hours, and supervising day-to-day operations. In Ritchey’s words, he was “in charge of pretty much everything that went on at the club.” Ritchey was later removed by the members of PEG because his salary was too expensive.

Appellant Gray was a bartender at Pasha Lounge from February to September 2007 and replaced Ritchey as general manager from March to September 2008. Gray asserts that while he was a bartender under Ritchey’s supervision, he and his fellow bartenders were not paid an hourly wage and were compensated solely by tips. Gray considered Ritchey to be his boss at that time because Ritchey hired him and defined his job duties. Though Gray asserts that Powers was another “supervisor,” Gray admitted in a deposition that Powers was not involved in the club’s day-to-day operations. Powers rarely visited the club, but on one visit he did tell Gray that he was doing a “great job.” Also, on two occasions Powers asked Gray to serve specific people while Powers was a patron at the club. Beyond these three instances, Gray could not remember any other occasion when Powers “directed” his work as a bartender. Gray contends, however, that Powers asked him to fill in as general manager after Ritchey was let go. Stephen disputes that fact because he allegedly enlisted Gray to fill in as general manager.”

After going through each element of the economic reality test, the court concluded that there was insufficient evidence that Powers was an “employer” under the FLSA:

“Applying the economic reality test to Powers, we reaffirm the district court’s conclusion that no reasonable jury could have found him to be an employer. The dominant theme in the case law is that those who have operating control over employees within companies may be individually liable for FLSA violations committed by the companies. An individual’s operational control can be shown through his power to hire and fire, ability to supervise, power to set wages, and maintenance of employment records. While each element need not be present in every case, finding employer status when none of the factors is present would make the test meaningless. We decline to adopt a rule that would potentially impose individual liability on all shareholders, members, and officers of entities that are employers under the FLSA based on their position rather than the economic reality of their involvement in the company. In this case, Powers was simply not sufficiently involved in the operation of the club to be an employer. The district court’s judgment is AFFIRMED.”

Click Gray v. Powers to read the entire decision.

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2 New Decisions Regarding Enforcement of Arbitration Agreements in Context of FLSA Claims Reach Opposite Results

Recent weeks have brought more opinions regarding the issue of whether specific arbitration agreements are enforceable.  However, as two recent opinions show, these decisions continue to be fact-specific in virtually all instances, and judge and/or state-law specific in others.  In the first case, Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc., relying on Texas state law, the Fifth Circuit affirmed a lower court’s decision holding that an arbitration agreement allowing the employer to unilaterally change the terms lacked the necessary consideration to render the agreement enforceable.  In a second case, LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc., a court within the Southern District of New York examined a different arbitration-related issue- the substantive unconscionability of a collective action waiver- concluding that compelling a potentially high value FLSA claim to arbitration on an individual basis does not conflict with the substantive law regarding the FLSA’s collective action provisions.  Significantly, the court’s conclusion in this regard appears to conflict with another recent holding discussed here, in which another court within the same district held that collective action waivers are unenforceable per se, because they prevent employees from vindicating their substantive statutory rights under the FLSA.

Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc.

Law360 aptly summarized this decision as follows:

“The Fifth Circuit on Wednesday allowed a proposed overtime class action against 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc. to go forward, finding an arbitration agreement at issue contained an ‘escape hatch’ for the fitness chain that made it unenforceable.

In a unanimous, published opinion, the appeals court upheld a Texas federal court’s ruling that the arbitration agreement in 24 Hour Fitness’ employee handbook was illusory because it allowed the company to retroactively modify or terminate the agreement.

Because 24 Hour Fitness reserved the right to unilaterally adjust the conditions of employment — including those which required employees to arbitrate claims on an individual basis — the appeals court found that the arbitration agreement was invalid from the outset.

‘If a 24 Hour Fitness employee sought to invoke arbitration with the company pursuant to the agreement, nothing would prevent 24 Hour Fitness from changing the agreement and making those changes applicable to that pending dispute if it determined that arbitration was no longer in its interest,’ the panel said.

Click Carey v. 24 Hour Fitness USA Inc. to read the entire Fifth Circuit Opinion.

 

LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc.

In LaVoice, the court held that an arbitration agreement, requiring individual arbitration was enforceable, despite plaintiff’s argument that such an scheme would deprive plaintiff of substantive statutory rights to proceed collectively under the FLSA.  Discussing the issue, the court reasoned:

“…LaVoice also argues that the arbitration agreements between him and UBS are unenforceable because they would preclude him from exercising his statutory rights. To support this position, LaVoice likens the class waivers in the instant case with those that were found unenforceable in the Amex line of cases. LaVoice also draws comparison between his circumstances and those of the plaintiff in Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547 (S.D.N.Y.2011).

The enforceability of a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement must be considered on a case-by-case basis “on its own merits, governed with a healthy regard for the fact that the FAA is a congressional declaration of a liberal federal policy favoring arbitration agreements.” Amex II, 634 F.3d at 199. Turning to the class waiver at issue and LaVoice’s specific circumstances, this Court finds that the “practical effect of enforcement of the waiver” in the instant case would not “preclude” LaVoice from exercising his rights under the statutes. Id. at 196. The Court comes to its finding that LaVoice’s statutory rights will not be precluded by enforcement of the class waiver after reviewing his submissions regarding: his estimated damages claim, his estimated attorneys’ fees, his estimated expert fees, his disinclination to pursue his claims individually, his counsel’s disinclination to pursue the claims individually, and his likelihood of success at arbitration.

Although LaVoice and Defendants contest the value of LaVoice’s overtime claim, in reaching its decision, the Court accepts the figure cited in LaVoice’s own opposition papers of overtime claims between $127,000 to $132,000. Aff. Jeffrey G. Smith in Supp. of Opp’n. to Mot. to Compel Arbitration at ¶ 5. Assuming this self-reported value of claims, the Court finds that LaVoice’s circumstances differ drastically on their face from those of the plaintiffs in either the Amex line of cases or Sutherland. Plaintiffs in those cases could each only claim de minimus damages of less than $6000.

With respect to the estimated attorneys’ fees, the Court finds that, unlike the arbitration agreement at issue in Sutherland, the arbitration agreements at issue in the instant case would permit LaVoice to recover an award of attorneys’ fees. Since the agreements authorize the arbitrator(s) to “award whatever remedies would be available to the parties in a court of law” and awards of attorneys’ fees are mandatory for the prevailing party under the FLSA, the agreements themselves crate no impediment to LaVoice’s recovery of fees. See Ex. 6 to Decl. of Matthew Levitan at 20; Ex. 10 to Decl. of Matthew Levitan at 3; and 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“The court in such action shall … allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.”) The instant case is therefore distinguishable from Sutherland and its consideration of attorneys’ fees in determining whether plaintiff’s claims were unarbitrable. See also Banus v. Citigroup Global Mkts., Inc., No. 09–7128, 2010 WL 1643780, at *10 n. 61 (S.D.N.Y. Apr.23, 2010) (enforcing class action waiver in arbitration agreement where plaintiff’s estimated recovery was $45,675.36 and attorney’s fees would be “at least $100,000.”)

The court also evaluated and rejected plaintiff’s claim that expert costs to be incurred would be prohibitive in an individual claim, whereas spreading the cost over a collective group would be more palatable and rejected same, in the context of plaintiff’s proffered argument that his counsel would be disinclined to pursue his claims on an individual basis by themselves.

The court concluded, “[i]n light of the foregoing, the Court finds that LaVoice has not met his “burden of showing the likelihood of incurring” such “prohibitively expensive” costs such that the class waiver provisions in the instant action would preclude him from bringing his claims against Defendants in an individual or collective capacity. Amex II, 634 F.3d at 197 (citing Randolph, 531 U.S. at 92.)”

Click LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order compelling the case to arbitration on an individual basis.

As more and more cases are decided following recent United States Supreme Court jurisprudence on arbitrability and class waiver issues, it’s becoming more and more clear that the results are very fact-specific to each case.  Hopefully, higher courts will begin to weigh in on some of the broader issues and give some clarity in the near future.

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5th Cir.: Weight of Pickup and Trailer Combined to Calculate Gross Vehicle Weight (Whether 10,001 LBs) Under MCA Exemption

Albanil v. Coast 2 Coast, Inc.

Following an award of summary judgment to the defendants in this case plaintiffs appealed.  Specifically, the court below determined that plaintiffs were exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions, pursuant to the so-called Motor Vehicle Act (MCA) exemption.  As discussed here, the plaintiffs disputed the methodology used to calculate the gross vehicle weight of the vehicles they drove for defendants and subsequently, whether same qualified as “commercial motor vehicles” under the motor carrier act.  Affirming the court below, the Fifth Circuit held that the weight of both the pickup truck hauling the trailer and the trailer itself must be considered together in calculating the gross vehicle weight.  Here, since the weight of the vehicle, when added to the trailer was over 10,000 pounds (and the nature of plaintiffs’ interstate driving was undisputed), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the holding below.

Discussing this issue the Fifth Circuit reasoned:

“The first issue on appeal is whether the Motor Carrier Act (“MCA”) exemption to the FLSA’s overtime requirements applies. Appellants challenge the district court’s conclusion that it does. This issue involves determining whether C2C operated “commercial motor vehicles” during the relevant time period. A “commercial motor vehicle” is defined by statute as a “self-propelled or towed vehicle used on the highways in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property, if the vehicle has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross vehicle weight of at least 10,001 pounds, whichever is greater” or meets certain other criteria not relevant here. The parties dispute whether the weight of the pickup truck and the trailer may be combined to reach the 10,001 pound threshold, as stated in a Department of Transportation regulation, or whether the use of the disjunctive “or” in the statutory definition requires them to be considered separately. We hold that the district court correctly combined the weights of the pickup and trailer to conclude that the MCA exemption applies, and that summary judgment was appropriate on Plaintiffs’ overtime claims.”

Also addressed in the opinion, but not discussed here at length, the Fifth Circuit reversed the trial court’s sua sponte order granting defendants summary judgment on plaintiffs’ minimum wage allegation– an issue no party briefed in their papers.  The appellate court reasoned that such a sua sponte order denied plaintiffs the fair opportunity to address the issues.

Click Albanil v. Coast 2 Coast, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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5th Cir.: Severance Payment Not A Set-off To FLSA Damages for Unpaid Overtime

Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc.

Plaintiff sued her former employer, to recover unpaid overtime wages allegedly due under the Fair Labor StandardsAct (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.  The district court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction after finding that Plaintiff’s maximum potential recovery was less than the value of her severance package received from Defendant, which the district court determined should be set-off against anypotential damages awarded to Plaintiff.  Holding that such a set-off was improper, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The court reasoned:

“At issue is whether Pepsi can set-off the value of benefits it paid to Karen Martin under her severance agreement against Martin’s FLSA claim for overtime wages. The district court found that Pepsi was entitled to the set-off and, consequently, dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We review a court’s ruling on a FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss de novo. See Budget Prepay, Inc. v. AT&T Corp., 605 F.3d 273, 278 (5th Cir.2010) (citing Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir.2001)). When challenging a 12(b)(1) motion, the party asserting jurisdiction bears the burden of proof. Id.

Pepsi initially contends that our opinion in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), should be read broadly to allow set-offs in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Generally speaking, courts have been hesitant to permit an employer to file counterclaimsFN1 in FLSA suits for money the employer claims the employee owes it, or for damages the employee’s tortious conduct allegedly caused. See Brennan v. Heard, 491 F.2d 1, 4 (5th Cir.1974), rev’d on other grounds by McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 108 S.Ct. 1677, 100 L.Ed.2d 115 (1988); see also Donovan v. Pointon, 717 F.2d 1320, 1323 (10th Cir.1983) (“[T]he purpose of the present action is to bring Pointon into compliance with the Act by enforcing a public right. To permit him in such a proceeding to try his private claims, real or imagined, against his employees would delay and even subvert the whole process. Pointon is free to sue his employees in state court ….”).

In Heard, we said that set-offs and counterclaims are inappropriate in any case brought to enforce the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions. In that case, the Secretary of Labor sued an employer to enjoin it from withholding base and overtime wages from employees. Heard, 491 F.2d at 2. After finding a willful FLSA violation, the district court ordered the employer to pay its employees back wages, but permitted a set-off for the value of goods the employer had furnished to its employees. Id. This court reversed, stating that “[t]he federal courts were not designated by the FLSA to be either collection agents or arbitrators for an employee’s creditors.” Id. at 4. Noting that the only function of the federal judiciary under the FLSA “is to assure to the employees of a covered company a minimum level of wages,” we said that “[a]rguments and disputations over claims against those wages are foreign to the genesis, history, interpretation, and philosophy of the Act.” Id. And we observed that “[t]he only economic feud contemplated by the FLSA involves the employer’s obedience to minimum wage and overtime standards. To clutter [FLSA] proceedings with the minutiae of other employer-employee relationships would be antithetical to the purpose of the Act.” Id.; see also Pointon, 717 F.2d at 1323 (declining to address employer’s counterclaim for tortious sabotage in employee’s FLSA suit); Hodgson v. Lakewood Broad. Serv., 330 F.Supp. 670, 673 (D.Colo.1971) (declining to allow set-off or counterclaim against Secretary for employee’s breach of employment contract).

This language notwithstanding, in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), we allowed an employer to set-off certain wage overpayments against the employees’ overall damages award. Singer involved a class of municipal fire fighters whose hours varied among pay periods. The city’s method for calculating their regular rate of pay under the FLSA resulted in an underpayment of the fire fighters’ overtime pay during some pay periods. Id. at 817, 824-25. When calculating how much money the city owed the fire fighters in unpaid overtime wages, “the district court found that the City’s method of calculating overtime compensation resulted in small deficiencies … in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 120 hours,” but “the City’s method resulted in considerable overpayments ($126.20) in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 96 hours.” Id. at 826. Because of this incongruity, the district court allowed the employer to set-off overpayments in some work periods against shortfalls in others. Id. at 826. We viewed these overpayments as akin to pre-payments, not prohibited by the Code of Federal Regulations or the FLSA, and affirmed. Id. We reconciled our holdings in Singer and Heard by observing that “the offsets permitted by the district court [in Heard] caused the final awards of many of the defendants’ workers to drop below the statutory minimum.” Id. at 828 n. 9 (quoting Heard, 491 F.2d at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). Meanwhile, in Singer, “no party contend[ed] that the offset might cause the fire fighters’ wages to fall below the statutory minimum wage.” 324 F.3d at 828 n. 9.

Relying on this distinction, Pepsi contends that Singer should be read to limit Heard, to stand for the proposition that set-offs are appropriate in FLSA cases so long as they do not cause an employee’s wages to fall below the statutory minimum. Pepsi has cited, as did the district court, several lower court decisions from outside this circuit that have given Singer such a broad construction. See, e.g. Hanson v. ABC Liquors, Inc., No. 3:09-cv-966, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108954, at *7-8 (M.D.Fla. Nov. 9, 2009) (collecting cases); see also Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 n.3. These cases, however, predate our opinion in Gagnon v. United Technisource, Inc., 607 F.3d 1036 (5th Cir.2010), where we clarified that Heard’s longstanding prohibition of set-offs in FLSA cases is the rule in this circuit and Singer an exception.

In Gagnon, the district court found an FLSA overtime violation and awarded damages to the plaintiff. 607 F.3d at 1040. The defendant-employer counterclaimed and sought a set-off in the amount equal to the damages caused by the plaintiff’s breach of contract (i.e., his failure to notify the employer of his new address, as he was contractually obligated to do). Id. The district court did not address the employer’s counterclaims, and this court gave them short shrift likewise, holding that “our precedent suggests that such claims should not be addressed in an FLSA action.” 607 F.3d at 1042 (citing Heard, 491 F.2d at 4).

We specifically addressed the employer’s set-off claim in Gagnon, despite its semblance to the contract counterclaim, to clarify a reasonable uncertainty over Singer’s reach. See 607 F.3d at 1043 (“we nonetheless address the claim because we have previously held that offsets are permissible in FLSA actions”). Gagnon distinguished the set-off allowed in Singer as one that “simply acknowledged that the City had already paid the bulk of its overtime obligations.” Id. (citing Singer, 324 F.3d at 828) (emphasis in original). Gagnon (the employee), by contrast, was not paid “any additional sums that could be characterized as advanced or inappropriate amounts subject to an offset against the overtime owed to him,” id., and thus, a set-off was inappropriate.

In Gagnon, we rejected the employer’s argument, which Pepsi renews here, that Singer stands for the proposition that set-offs are allowed in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Although that reading of Singer may have been plausible at one time, Gagnon clarified that it was the unique character of the set-offs in Singer-that they represented overtime obligations already fulfilled-that allowed for a narrow exception to the bright-line rule spelled out in Heard. We continue to look with disfavor on set-offs unless the money being set-off can be considered wages that the employer pre-paid to the plaintiff-employee.

Pepsi contends, alternatively, that the benefits paid to Martin are similar to the fire fighters’ wages set-off in Singer because, in both cases, the employer paid some extra money or benefits to the employee to which the employee was not otherwise entitled. And in the opinion granting Pepsi’s motion to dismiss, the district court cited several lower court decisions that have allowed employers to plead set-offs as an affirmative defense in FLSA wage cases “where the employer paid the employee funds to which the employee was not entitled.” (Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 & n.3.) This misconstrues the reciprocal nature of the benefits bargained for in Martin’s severance agreement. Although Martin had no legal entitlement to the benefits included in her severance package, these benefits were not gratuitous. Pepsi paid these benefits in return for Martin’s release of claims. That Martin later sued Pepsi on state law claims simply means that Martin did not keep her end of the agreement. Pepsi’s damages flow from a breach of contract. Pepsi is not entitled to set-off those damages here because unlike Singer, the money and benefits Pepsi paid to Martin were not wage payments, advance or otherwise; they were not related to her labors at all.

Because we find that the district court erred in setting-off the value of Martin’s severance package against her potential recovery at trial, we VACATE the district court’s dismissal of Martin’s FLSA claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and REMAND the case for further proceedings.”

Click Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc. to read the entire decision.

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W.D.Tex.: Emotional Distress and Punitive Damages Unavailable In FLSA Retaliation Claim

Douglas v. Mission Chevrolet

In addition to seeking unpaid overtime wages and liquidated damages under the FLSA, the Plaintiff alleged that he was entitled to emotional distress and/or punitive damages as a result of claimed retaliation in violation of the anti-retaliation provisions of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3).  Defendant moved to dismiss plaintiff’s claim for retaliation, asserting that neither emotional distress damages nor punitive damages are available under the FLSA.  Construing comparable Fifth Circuit law pertaining to ADEA claims, the court agreed and dismissed the plaintiff’s retaliation claim.

The court addressed each type of damages separately:

“1. Emotional distress damages

The damages provision of the anti-retaliation section of the FLSA states, in relevant part,:

Any employer who violates the provisions of section 215(a)(3) of this title shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purposes of section 215(a)(3) of this title, including without limitation employment, reinstatement, promotion, and the payment of wages lost and an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

Circuit courts that have addressed the issue have held that “legal or equitable relief” includes emotional distress damages. See Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 563-64 (6th Cir.2004) (emotional distress damages are recoverable under the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA); Broadus v. O.K. Indus., Inc., 238 F.3d 990, 992 (8th Cir.2001) (emotional distress damages are recoverable in Equal Pay Act retaliation case); Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1017 (9th Cir.1999) (reversing and remanding emotional distress award of $75,000 under anti-retaliation provision of FLSA for determination of appropriate amount of emotional distress damages); Avitia v. Metro. Club of Chi., Inc., 49 F.3d 1219, 1228-29 (7th Cir.1995) (citing Travis v. Gary Cmty. Mental Health Ctr., Inc., 921 F.2d 108, 111-12 (7th Cir.1990)) (emotional distress damages are recoverable under the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA). The Fifth Circuit has yet to address whether emotional distress damages are available in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim.

However, the Fifth Circuit has held that the remedies provisions of the FLSA and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) must be interpreted consistently. See Lubke v. City of Arlington, 455 F.3d 489, 499 (5th Cir.2006) (“Because the remedies available under the ADEA and the FMLA [Family and Medical Leave Act] both track the FLSA, cases interpreting remedies under the statutes should be consistent.”); see also Johnson v. Martin, 473 F.3d 220, 222 (5th Cir.2006) (applying ADEA precedent to the FLSA to determine whether wages earned after termination offset lost wage damages because “[t]he FLSA and ADEA have the same remedies provisions”).

The Fifth Circuit has addressed whether emotional distress damages are available under the ADEA, which has similar remedies provisions as the FLSA. See Dean v. Am. Sec. Ins. Co., 559 F.2d 1036 (5th Cir.1977). In Dean, the Fifth Circuit rejected the argument that the statutory language “legal or equitable relief” in the ADEA includes emotional distress damages. Id. at 1038. In so holding, the Fifth Circuit emphasized the notably absent phrase “general damages,” “punitive damages,” or any type of damages based on emotional distress from the ADEA’s damages provisions. Id. at 1038-39. In the FLSA damages provision cited above, the same phrases are absent.

Since the Fifth Circuit has expressed its desire for the FLSA’s remedies provision to be interpreted consistently with the ADEA’s remedies provision, and since emotional distress damages are not available in claims brought under the ADEA, see Dean, 559 F.2d at 1038, this Court must hold that emotional distress damages are also unavailable under the FLSA. It is for this reason that another judge on this Court has already reached the same conclusion in another case. See Rumbo v. Southwest Convenience Stores, LLC, No. EP-10-CA-184-FM (W.D.Tex. July 19, 2010) (order granting motion to dismiss) (employing similar reasoning in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s claims for emotional distress damages and punitive damages in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim). Therefore, Plaintiff may not recover damages based on emotional distress in his anti-retaliation claim brought under the FLSA.

2. Punitive damages

Similarly, Defendant contends punitive damages are not available in an anti-retaliation claim based on the FLSA, Mot. 2, while Plaintiff claims punitive damages are recoverable. Resp. 3. Federal appellate courts that have considered the issue are split on whether a plaintiff can recover punitive damages in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim. Compare Travis, 921 F.2d at 111-12 (punitive damages are available in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim), with Snapp v. Unlimited Concepts, Inc., 208 F.3d 928, 933-35 (11th Cir.2000) (punitive damages are not available in an FLSA anti-retaliation claim). The Fifth Circuit, however, has yet to address whether punitive damages are available under an anti-retaliation claim brought pursuant to the FLSA.

Just as it held with respect to emotional distress damages, the Fifth Circuit in Dean held that punitive damages are unavailable under the ADEA. 559 F.2d at 1038. As discussed above, because the ADEA and FLSA must be interpreted consistently with respect to remedies, see Lubke, 455 F.3d at 499; Johnson, 473 F.3d at 222, this Court must hold that punitive damages are not recoverable in an anti-retaliation claim brought under the FLSA.”

Click Douglas v. Mission Chevrolet to read the entire opinion.

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5th Cir.: As Plaintiffs’ Joint Employer, Staff Leasing Company Qualified As “Motor Carrier” Subject To MCA Exemption From FLSA’s Overtime Pay Requirements, Because “Actual” Employer Was A “Motor Carrier”

Songer v. Dillon Resources, Inc.

This case was before the Fifth Circuit on Plaintiffs’ appeal of an Order granting Defendant, a staff leasing company, summary judgment finding that they were entitled to assert the MCA exemption, because the company they leased Plaintiffs to was a motor carrier entitled to assert the exemption.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the decision, essentially holding that the staff leasing company Defendant was entitled to assert the exemption of the actual employer. 

Plaintiffs did not dispute that Sunset Ennis and Sunset Logistics (the “actual” employers), two trucking companies, were motor carriers subject to the Secretary’s power. Instead, they argued that Dillon, a staff leasing agency, was not a motor carrier within the meaning of the MCA. Defendants assert that because the Sunset companies are motor carriers and the Sunset companies are joint employers with Dillon, Dillon is also a motor carrier within the meaning of the MCA.

Reasoning that the the staff leasing company was entitled to assert the Motor Carrier Exemption, if the “actual” employer was entitled to assert same, the Fifth Circuit stated:

“While Fifth Circuit precedent is limited on this issue, other courts have held that a staff leasing company who provides employees for a motor carrier and operates as a joint employer with the carrier meets the requirements of 29 C.F.R. § 782.2(a)(1). See, e.g., Moore v. Universal Coordinators, Inc., 423 F.2d 96, 99-100 (3d Cir.1970) (holding that truck drivers were employees of both noncarrier truck driver leasing company and private motor carrier and therefore MCA exemption extended to leasing company). The Moore court analyzed the MCA and the FLSA, and determined that Congress intended to regulate employees of carriers in the interest of safety. Id. at 99. Therefore, the Secretary’s power had to extend to leased drivers and to the leasing company that employed them. Id. at 99-100.

In a more recent case, the district court cited Congressional safety concerns as the rationale for extending the exemption:

The [MCA] exemption, as explained in Moore, safeguards the Secretary['s] authority to regulate the qualifications and maximum hours of employees whose work affects the “safety of operation” of a motor carrier…. Refusing to extend the [MCA] exemption to the staffing agency defendants would therefore facilitate what Congress sought to prohibit-circumvention of the Secretary’s regulatory authority.  Tidd v. Adecco USA, Inc., No. 07-11214-GAO, 2010 WL 996769, at *2 (D.Mass. Mar.16, 2010) (citing Moore, 423 F.2d at 98-99).

Applying Moore and Tidd, the evidence supports a finding that Dillon, as joint employer with Sunset Logistics and Sunset Ennis, is a carrier subject to the Secretary’s jurisdiction. Dillon is a staff leasing company who provides drivers to Sunset Logistics and Sunset Ennis to fulfill interstate work orders from clients for compensation. Our review of the record reflects the following evidence: Dillon hires and trains the drivers and is responsible for their payroll, the Sunset companies are responsible for control of the drivers’ day-to-day operations, and Dillon is reimbursed for wages and benefits paid to the drivers and receives a fee when the drivers are assigned. These facts are similar to Tidd, in which the staffing agency defendants were held as joint employers to FedEx, a motor carrier, and, therefore, subject to the Secretary’s jurisdiction. See Tidd, 2010 WL 996769, at *2-3. Accordingly, we hold that the first requirement for jurisdiction under the MCA-i.e., that Plaintiffs work for carriers engaged in interstate commerce-is met. See Barefoot, 1994 WL 57686, at *2.”

To read the entire opinion, click here.

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5th Cir.: Hourly “Per Diem” Allowances Were Part Of Plaintiff’s Regular Rate Of Pay, Because It Appeared “Per Diem” Label Was Simply A Scheme To Avoid Paying Overtime

Gagnon v. United Technisource Inc.

This case was before the Fifth Circuit on the Defendants’ appeal from the district court’s judgment awarding Plaintiff backpay, liquidated damages, and attorney’s fees and costs under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 20119, against Defendants.

The Court cited the following facts, as relevant to its inquiry on appeal:

“Gagnon is a skilled craftsman with many years experience in prepping and painting the exterior and interior of aircrafts. When Gagnon began working for UTI, he executed a contract in which UTI agreed to pay Gagnon $5.50 per hour for “straight time” and $20.00 per hour for overtime.   Although the record indicates differing hourly wage rates for aircraft painters in the area and at the time in which Gagnon was working, none are remotely close to the $5.50 per hour that the UTI/AIS contracts established as Gagnon’s “straight time” wage. In addition to his straight time wage, UTI also agreed to pay Gagnon $12.50 for every hour he worked each week up to forty hours per week or a maximum of $500.00. The contract referred to this additional hourly pay as “per diem.”

About a year after he began working for UTI/AIS, Gagnon received a memo that notified him of a “raise in all pay.” The memo noted that “[w]e are pleased to announce that our client [Wing Aviation] has authorized a $1.00 per hour raise in all pay starting this pay check.” To effectuate the raise, however, Gagnon was not given an increase in his “straight time” pay rate of $5.50 per hour. Rather, he received a $1.00 raise in his hourly per diem for all hours worked under forty each week and a $1.00 increase in his overtime rate. The record does not indicate that this increase in hourly per diem was based on any reasonably approximated increase in Gagnon’s expenses.”

 Ultimately, the trial court found in Plaintiff’s favor, and awarded him his full damages claimed and liquidated damages.  The Defendants appealed, asserting that the court below erred in including Plaintiff’s “per diem” pay in calculating his regular rate of pay and resulting overtime rates.  Affirming the court below, the Fifth Circuit explained:

“UTI/AIS argue that their payment scheme does not violate the FLSA because the FLSA only requires employers to pay overtime at a rate of time and a half, and UTI/AIS paid Gagnon overtime at a rate more than three times his base pay. UTI/AIS also argue that Gagnon’s per diem reasonably approximated his reimbursable expenses and should therefore be excluded from the determination of Gagnon’s regular rate for the purposes of overtime pay. According to UTI/AIS, “[i]t cannot be argued … [that] the per diem was a ploy to avoid paying Gagnon overtime compensation.” We disagree.

The FLSA requires that non-exempt employees who work more than forty hours in a work week must be paid one and one-half times their “regular rate” of pay. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). The FLSA broadly defines “regular rate” as the hourly rate actually paid the employee for “all remuneration for employment.” 29 U.S.C. § 207(e); see also Walling v. Helmerich & Payne, Inc., 323 U.S. 37, 42 (1944). “The regular rate by its very nature must reflect all payments which the parties have agreed shall be received regularly during the workweek, exclusive of overtime payments.” Bay Ridge Operating Co. v. Aaron, 334 U.S. 446, 461 (1948). The “regular rate” becomes a mathematical computation once the parties have decided on the amount of wages and the mode of payment, which is unaffected by any designation to the contrary in the wage contract. Id. The “regular rate” is not an arbitrary labelit is an actual fact. Id.

Here, UTI/AIS have tried to avoid paying Gagnon a higher “regular rate” by artificially designating a portion of Gagnon’s wages as “straight time” and a portion as “per diem.” Although per diem can be excluded from an employee’s regular rate, 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2); see also 29 C.F.R. § 778.217(b), the “ ‘regular rate’ of pay … cannot be left to a declaration by the parties as to what is to be treated as the regular rate for an employee; it must be drawn from what happens under the employment contract.” 29 C.F.R. § 778.108 (citing Bay Ridge Operating Co., 334 U.S. at 465). The Department of Labor has recognized that when, as here, the amount of per diem varies with the amount of hours worked, the per diem payments are part of the regular rate in their entirety.

Furthermore, we are suspicious of UTI/AIS’s claims that Gagnon’s employment contracts were not a scheme to avoid paying overtime. It is difficult to believe that a skilled craftsman would accept a wage so close to the minimum wage when the prevailing wage for similarly skilled craftsmen was approximately three times the minimum wage. We are similarly troubled by the fact that the combined “straight time” and “per diem” hourly rates approximately match the prevailing wage for aircraft painters. Further, it is suspect that a “raise in all pay” was effectuated by increasing the hourly “per diem” rate rather than the “straight time” rate. Finally, we can conceive of no reason why a legitimate per diem would vary by the hour and be capped at the forty-hour mark, which not-so-coincidentally corresponds to the point at which regular wages stop and the overtime rate applies.

We find this case analogous to other cases in which employers have sought to artificially lower an employee’s regular rate by mischaracterizing a portion of it as a bonus or where employees were paid low “straight rates” for the first hour or two worked-usually set around minimum wage-after which they earned one and one half times the straight rate, and were consequently paid no premium for their actual overtime work. See Walling v. Youngerman-Reynolds Hardwood Co., 325 U.S. 419, 425 (1945); see also 29 C.F.R. § 778.502.

We hold that Gagnon’s hourly per diem allowances of $12.50 and $13.50 were part of his hourly “remuneration for employment” and must be considered in his regular rate for the purpose of determining overtime pay due under the FLSA.   Helmerich & Payne, 323 U.S. at 42. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s determination that UTI/AIS violated the FLSA by not including Gagnon’s per diem in their calculation of his regular rate.”

Not discussed here, the Court also rejected Defendants’ claim that it was entitled to prevail on its counterclaims, based on the same facts.  To read the entire decision click here.

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5th Cir.: Cable Installers Are Employees, Not Independent Contractors; Summary Judgment For Employer Reversed

Cromwell v. Driftwood Elec. Contractors, Inc.

The trial court in this case previously granted the Defendant-employer summary judgment finding that the Plaintiff-employee-cable installers were independent contractors and not employees.  The 5th Circuit reversed on appeal, finding that although it’s a close call, Plaintiffs were employees, thus entitled to the protections of the FLSA.

The Court cited the following facts as relevant to its inquiry:

“[Plaintiffs] provided cable splicing services for Driftwood for approximately eleven months, and were required to work twelve-hour days, thirteen days on and one day off. They were paid a fixed hourly wage for their work. BellSouth was Driftwood’s customer on the restoration project. AT & T appears to have had nothing to do with the facts of this case. Cromwell and Bankston reported to BellSouth’s location every morning to receive their assignments, unless they had not completed their jobs from the prior workday, in which case they were permitted to check in by phone. Cromwell and Bankston were given prints describing the type of work that needed to be performed for each assignment and were instructed by BellSouth supervisors to follow certain general specifications. Driftwood and BellSouth representatives checked on the progress of work, but did not train Cromwell and Benson or control the details of how they performed their assigned jobs.

Cromwell and Bankston provided their own trucks, testing equipment, connection equipment, insulation equipment, and hand tools, totaling over $50,000 for Cromwell and approximately $16,000 for Bankston, while BellSouth supplied materials such as closures and cables. Cromwell and Bankston were responsible for their own vehicle liability insurance and employment taxes, but Driftwood provided workers’ compensation insurance and liability insurance for Cromwell and Bankston’s work.”

Applying the relevant law, the Court stated, “[t]o determine if a worker qualifies as an employee under the FLSA, we focus on whether, as a matter of economic reality, the worker is economically dependent upon the alleged employer or is instead in business for himself. Hopkins v. Cornerstone Am., 545 F.3d 338, 343 (5th Cir.2008). To aid in that inquiry, we consider five non-exhaustive factors: (1) the degree of control exercised by the alleged employer; (2) the extent of the relative investments of the worker and the alleged employer; (3) the degree to which the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss is determined by the alleged employer; (4) the skill and initiative required in performing the job; and (5) the permanency of the relationship. Id. No single factor is determinative. Id. The ultimate conclusion that an individual is an employee within the meaning of the FLSA is a legal, and not a factual, determination. Brock v. Mr. W Fireworks, Inc., 814 F.2d 1042, 1045 (5th Cir.1987); see also Beliz v. W.H. McLeod & Sons Packing Co., 765 F.2d 1317, 1327 & n. 24 (5th Cir.1985) (citing and reconciling cases). Therefore, “we review the determination that [plaintiffs] were not employees as we review any determination of law,” which is de novo. Donovan v. American Airlines, Inc., 686 F.2d 267, 270 n. 4 (5th Cir.1982). Because there are no disputes of material fact, we also conclude that the district court was correct to resolve the matter on summary judgment.

The defendants-appellees argue that the facts of this case are similar to those in Carrell v. Sunland Const., Inc., in which we held that a group of welders were independent contractors under the FLSA. 998 F.2d 330 (5th Cir.1993). In Carrell, we noted that several facts weighed in favor of employee status, including that the defendant dictated the welders’ schedule, paid them a fixed hourly rate, and assigned them to specific work crews. Id. at 334. However, we held that the welders were independent contractors because the welders’ relationship with the defendant was on a project-by-project basis; the welders worked from job to job and from company to company; the average number of weeks that each welder worked for the defendant each year was relatively low, ranging from three to sixteen weeks; the welders worked while aware that the defendant classified them as independent contractors, and many of them classified themselves as self-employed; the welders were highly skilled; the defendant had no control over the methods or details of the welding work; the welders performed only welding services; the welders supplied their own welding equipment; and the welders’ investments in their welding machines, trucks, and tools averaged $15,000 per welder. Id.

In Carrell, we distinguished our prior decision in Robicheaux v. Radcliff Material, Inc., 697 F.2d 662 (5th Cir.1983), in which we held that a group of welders were employees under the FLSA, on the grounds that the welders in Robicheaux worked a substantial period of time exclusively with the defendant in that case, ranging from ten months to three years; the welding in Robicheaux required only “moderate” skill; the defendant in Robicheaux told the welders how long a welding assignment should take; the welders in Robicheaux spent only fifty percent of their time welding, and the remaining time cleaning and performing semi-skilled mechanical work; and the defendant in Robicheaux provided the welders with “steady reliable work over a substantial period of time.” Carrell, 998 F.2d at 334 (citing Robicheaux, 697 F.2d at 667). The welders in Robicheaux had signed a contract with the defendant in that case describing themselves as independent contractors; furnished their own welding equipment, in which they had invested from five to seven thousand dollars each; provided their own insurance and workers’ compensation coverage; invoiced the defendant on their own business letterheads, filed federal income tax returns on IRS forms as self-employed individuals, and received a higher hourly wage than did other welders employed by the defendant who did not furnish their own equipment and who were considered by the company to be employees. Robicheaux, 697 F.2d at 665.

The facts of this case lie somewhere between those of Carrell and Robicheaux. Similar to the facts in Carrell, the plaintiffs in this suit are highly skilled and perform only services requiring the use of those skills, the defendants here did not control the details of how the plaintiffs performed their assigned jobs, and the plaintiffs provided their own trucks, equipment, and tools, in which they had invested substantial sums. However, there are some significant dissimilarities between the facts in the instant case and the facts in Carrell, such that the facts of this case are not as readily distinguishable from those in Robicheaux. The plaintiffs in this case worked full-time exclusively for the defendants for approximately eleven months, within the time range that the Robicheaux welders had worked for the defendant in that case. The plaintiffs in this case did not have the same temporary, project-by-project, on-again-off-again relationship with their purported employers as the plaintiffs in Carrell did with their purported employer. The defendants-appellees argue that Cromwell and Bankston’s work-restoring damaged telecommunications lines along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina-was by nature temporary, but “courts must make allowances for those operational characteristics that are unique or intrinsic to the particular business or industry, and to the workers they employ.”   Brock v. Mr. W Fireworks, Inc., 814 F.2d 1042, 1054 (5th Cir.1987) (“[W]hen an industry is seasonal, the proper test for determining permanency of the relationship is not whether the alleged employees returned from season to season, but whether the alleged employees worked for the entire operative period of a particular season.”). Thus, the temporary nature of the emergency restoration work does not weigh against employee status.

It is common in FLSA cases that “there are facts pointing in both directions” regarding the issue of employee status, see Herman v. Express Sixty-Minutes Delivery Serv., Inc., 161 F.3d 299, 305 (1998) (quoting Carrell, 998 F.2d at 334), but the facts in this case truly appear to be nearly in equipoise. However, on balance, we believe that, as a matter of economic reality, Cromwell and Bankston were economically dependant upon Driftwood and BellSouth, and were not in business for themselves. The facts of this case simply appear closer to those in Robicheaux than in Carrell. The most significant difference between the facts in those cases, in terms of the economic reality of whether the plaintiffs were economically dependant upon the alleged employer, was that the Robicheaux welders worked on a steady and reliable basis over a substantial period of time exclusively with the defendant, ranging from ten months to three years, whereas the Carrell welders had a project-by-project, on-again-off-again relationship with the defendant, with the average number of weeks that each welder worked for the defendant each year being relatively low, ranging from three to sixteen weeks. Similar to the Robicheaux welders, Cromwell and Bankston worked on a steady and reliable basis over a substantial period of time-approximately eleven months-exclusively for their purported employers. The permanency and extent of this relationship, coupled with Driftwood and BellSouth’s complete control over Cromwell and Bankston’s schedule and pay, had the effect of severely limiting any opportunity for profit or loss by Cromwell and Bankston. Although it does not appear that Cromwell and Bankston were actually prohibited from taking other jobs while working for Driftwood and BellSouth, as a practical matter the work schedule establish by Driftwood and BellSouth precluded significant extra work. Also, the fact that Driftwood and BellSouth provided Cromwell and Bankston with their work assignments limited the need for Cromwell and Bankston to demonstrate initiative in performing their jobs. See Carrell, 998 F.2d at 333 (“As for the initiative required, a Welder’s success depended on his ability to find consistent work by moving from job to job and from company to company. But once on a job, a Welder’s initiative was limited to decisions regarding his welding equipment and the details of his welding work.”). Although there are facts that clearly weigh in favor of independent contractor status, notably that Cromwell and Bankston controlled the details of how they performed their work, were not closely supervised, invested a relatively substantial amount in their trucks, equipment, and tools, and used a high level of skill in performing their work, these facts are not sufficient to establish, as a matter of economic reality, that Cromwell and Bankston were in business for themselves during the relevant time period. The judgment of the district court is VACATED, and this case is REMANDED to the district court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

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5th Cir.: FLSA Does Not Require Employer To Reimburse H-2B Visa Workers’ Recruitment, Transportation or Visa Expenses, Absent Showing of “Kick-Back” To Recruiter

CASTELLANOS-CONTRERAS v. DECATUR HOTELS LLC

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina required New Orleans hotelier Decatur Hotels, L.L.C. (“Decatur”) to look to foreign sources of labor. A group of these employees (collectively, the “guest workers”), who held H-2B visas while working for Decatur, contend that Decatur violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by paying them less than minimum wage, free and clear, when Decatur refused to reimburse them for recruitment, transportation, and visa expenses that they incurred before relocating to the United States to work for Decatur.

Decatur filed a motion to dismiss and/or for summary judgment, and the guest workers filed a cross-motion for summary judgment. The district court denied Decatur’s motion, granted the guest workers’ motion in part, and certified its order for interlocutory appeal. A motions panel of this court authorized Decatur to file an interlocutory appeal. In this interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), Decatur raised three issues of first impression for this court: whether, under the FLSA, an employer must reimburse guest workers for (1) recruitment expenses, (2) transportation expenses, or (3) visa expenses, which the guest workers incurred before relocating to the employer’s location. The 5th Circuit held that the FLSA does not require an employer to reimburse any of these expenses, and reversed the district court’s order, and rendered judgment in favor of Decatur. The Court discussed each of the three reimbursement claims (recruitment costs, transportation and visa expenses) and found that none created a FLSA obligation on behalf of the employer.

“The guest workers contend that they are entitled to reimbursement because, under 29 U.S.C. § 203(m), the expenses they incurred are de facto deductions from cash wages received for their first week of work, leaving a balance owed them by Decatur. In other words, they liken these expenses (in an inverse way) to employer-furnished “facilities,” such as room and board, which the employer may deduct from an employee’s wages; only here, the guest workers contend that Decatur must reimburse them for expenses that they incurred before their first workweek began.

Section 203(m) defines wages as cash or “the reasonable cost … to the employer of furnishing [the] employee with board, lodging, or other facilities, if such board, lodging, or other facilities are customarily furnished by such employer to his employees.” (Emphasis added.) The provision’s plain language thus permits employers flexibility in the method of paying employees. This section of the FLSA, contrary to the guest workers’ suggestion, does not impose liability upon employers for expenses that employees incur. See Donovan v. Miller Props., Inc., 711 F.2d 49, 50 (5th Cir.1983) (per curiam) (“[S]ection 3(m) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 203(m), … allows an employer to credit toward its obligation to pay the minimum wage ‘the reasonable cost … of furnishing [an] employee with board, lodging, or other facilities’ ….”) (emphasis added). Section 203(m) provides no ground for Decatur to have violated the FLSA by refusing to reimburse the guest workers for recruitment, transportation, and visa expenses that they incurred.

We thus turn to the argument that Decatur’s failure to pay these pre-employment expenses encumbered the guest workers’ wages, so that Decatur did not pay the wages “finally and unconditionally or ‘free and clear’ “:

Whether in cash or in facilities, “wages” cannot be considered to have been paid by the employer and received by the employee unless they are paid finally and unconditionally or “free and clear.” The wage requirements of the Act will not be met where the employee “kicks-back” directly or indirectly to the employer or to another person for the employer’s benefit the whole or part of the wage delivered to the employee. This is true whether the “kick-back” is made in cash or in other than cash. For example, if it is a requirement of the employer that the employee must provide tools of the trade which will be used in or are specifically required for the performance of the employer’s particular work, there would be a violation of the Act in any workweek when the cost of such tools purchased by the employee cuts into the minimum or overtime wages required to be paid him under the Act.
29 C.F.R. § 531.35.

The above-quoted regulation does not define when an employee-incurred expense constitutes a kick-back. Our precedents, however, clarify that an employer-imposed condition of employment is a kick-back if it “tend[s] to shift part of the employer’s business expense to the employees.” Mayhue’s Super Liquor Stores, Inc. v. Hodgson, 464 F.2d 1196, 1199 (5th Cir.1972).

We now consider whether, under 29 C.F.R. § 531.35, the guest workers are entitled to reimbursement of their recruitment, transportation, or visa expenses.

We begin with the visa expenses. Although § 531.35 does not specifically address employers’ obligation to reimburse guest workers for these expenses, other regulations clarify that employee-paid expenses to obtain H-2B visas more properly belong to the guest worker than to the employer. See
22 C.F.R. §§ 40.1( l )(1) (requiring nonimmigrant visa applicants, such as the guest workers here, to submit processing fees when they apply for visas). The expense of applying to become a sponsoring employer of H-2B employees, by contrast, more properly belongs to the employer. See
8 C.F.R. §§ 103.7(a), 103.7(b)(1), 214.2(h)(2)(i)(A) (requiring, collectively, that a U.S. employer submit certain forms and filing fees to become an H-2B visa sponsor). These regulations, which assign H-2B visa processing fees to visa applicants and H-2B sponsorship-application fees to employers, show that requiring the guest workers to bear the visa expenses at issue did not tend to shift part of Decatur’s business expense to the guest workers. We hold that Decatur has no FLSA responsibility to reimburse the guest workers for the visa expenses that the employees incurred.

We next consider the transportation expenses. For many years, the Department of Labor interpreted the FLSA and its implementing regulations as requiring employers to bear guest workers’ inbound transportation expenses. See Wage & Hour Div. Op. Ltr., 1990 DOLWH LEXIS 1, at *3 (June 27, 1990) (“Under the FLSA, it has always been the position of the Department of Labor that no deduction, that cuts into the minium wage, may be made for transportation of workers from the point of hire and return to that point…. [S]uch transportation costs [are] primarily for the benefit of the employer.”). The agency, however, has called this interpretation into question. See Labor Certification Process and Enforcement for Temporary Employment in Occupations Other Than Agriculture or Registered Nursing in the United States (H-2B Workers), and Other Technical Changes, 73 Fed.Reg. 78020, 78041 (Dec. 19, 2008) (“[T]he cost[ ] of relocation to the site of the job opportunity generally is not an ‘incident’ of an H-2B worker’s employment within the meaning of 29 CFR 531.32, and is not primarily for the benefit of the H-2B employer.”); Withdrawal of Interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act Concerning Relocation Expenses Incurred by H-2A and H-2B Workers, 74 Fed.Reg. 13261, 13262 (Mar. 26, 2009) (“DOL believes that this issue warrants further review. Consequently … DOL withdraws the [December 19, 2008,] FLSA interpretation … for further consideration and the interpretation may not be relied upon as a statement of agency policy ….” (footnote omitted)); see also De Luna-Guerrero v. N.C. Grower’s Ass’n, 338 F.Supp.2d 649, 659 (E.D.N.C.2004) (“[T]he issue [of an employer's liability for transportation expenses] has been under review by the DOL…. DOL’s policy regarding de facto deductions [of transportation expenses] is anything but clear.”); Rivera v. Brickman Group, Ltd., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1167, at *37-39 (E.D.Pa. Jan. 7, 2008) (“The DeLuna-Guerrero court refused to rely on the opinion letters because it believed the Department of Labor’s position to be too unclear. I agree, and in so doing, I note that the Department of Labor’s position is not merely unclear, but untenable. * * * Given the apparent (and now more than thirteen-year-old) incoherence at the Department of Labor with regard to this issue, I am not persuaded that I should accord the older opinion letters any significant weight [under Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), or Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134 (1944) ].”).

We agree with the Rivera court that Auer deference to the DOL’s older interpretation seems inappropriate. Furthermore, inasmuch as the DOL never fully explained why it adopted that interpretation in the first place, we agree with the Eleventh Circuit that Skidmore deference seems inappropriate. See Arriaga v. Fla. Pac. Farms, 305 F.3d 1228, 1239 (11th Cir.2002) ( “Because of this lack of explanation, it is impossible to weigh the ‘validity of its reasoning’ or the ‘thoroughness [ ] in its consideration.’ ” (quoting Skidmore, 323 U.S. at 140) (alteration in original)). Relying on case law that defers to the interpretation similarly seems inappropriate, and thus we can accord no weight to the guest workers’ cited authorities such as Marshall v. Glassboro Service Ass’n, 1979 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9053, at *6 (D.N.J. Oct. 19, 1979); and Torreblanca v. Naas Foods, Inc., 1980 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 13893, at *13 (N.D.Ind. Feb. 25, 1980).

As is the case with visa expenses, the regulation addressing employer kick-backs does not specify whether an H-2B guest worker’s inbound transportation expenses belong more properly to the employer or to the guest worker. Other statutory and regulatory provisions may guide this determination.

Two provisions have some relevance. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, an H-2B guest worker’s outbound transportation expenses sometimes belong to the employer. See 8 U.S.C. § 1184(c)(5)(A).FN4 Under U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service regulations, an H-2A agricultural guest worker’s inbound transportation expenses sometimes belong to the employer. See 20 C.F.R. § 655.102(b)(5)(i). No provision, however, requires an employer to bear an H-2B guest worker’s inbound transportation expenses. We find silence in this context indicative that Congress most likely did not intend for the employer to bear H-2B guest workers’ inbound transportation expenses.FN5

The guest workers do cite two cases which, without relying on the DOL’s now-unclear FLSA interpretation, hold that employers must bear guest workers’ inbound transportation expenses. See Arriaga, 305 F.3d at 1244 (11th Cir.2002); Rivera, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1167, at *42-44. Arriaga involves H-2A guest workers. It holds that employers must bear guest workers’ inbound transportation expenses because the expenses are “incident of and necessary to” the guest workers’ employment. See 305 F.3d at 1241-44. We find Arriaga distinguishable insofar as its analysis derives from the case’s H-2A, as opposed to H-2B, origins. Arriaga also is distinguishable because its “incident of and necessary to” standard originates from 29 C.F.R. § 531.32 instead of § 531.35. Section 531.32 implements 29 U.S.C. § 203(m); and, as we have said, our Donovan precedent from 1983 informs us that, under Fifth Circuit law, § 203(m) imposes no obligation on employers to bear employee-incurred expenses. We will not follow Arriaga.

Rivera essentially does follow Arriaga, albeit in the H-2B context. Rivera quotes 29 C.F.R. § 531.35 at length, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1167, at *36-37, but ultimately decides the issue of transportation expenses under 29 U.S.C. § 203(m): “point-of-hire transportation is primarily for the employer’s benefit, both because it is dissimilar to lodging and board, and because the expense arises out of Brickman’s decision actively to recruit workers in foreign countries.” Id. at *43. We do not necessarily agree with Rivera that Arriaga ‘s reasoning extends so readily from H-2A guest workers to H-2B guest workers. In any event, Donovan forecloses us from following Rivera ‘ s § 203(m)-based analysis. Just as we will not follow Arriaga, we will not follow Rivera.

On the authorities before us, we hold that the FLSA does not obligate Decatur to reimburse its guest workers for their inbound transportation expenses.FN6

Finally, we consider whether the FLSA obligates Decatur to reimburse its guest workers for the expenses that they incurred with foreign recruitment companies. The FLSA’s provisions do not require reimbursement of these employee-incurred expenses. See
29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. Neither do the FLSA’s implementing regulations-unless the expenses were “kick-backs” to Decatur. See 29 C.F.R. § 531.35.

We hold that the recruitment expenses were not kick-backs within the meaning of § 531.35. The expenses differed in all fundamental characteristics from the expenses that our court has labeled kick-backs. See Mayhue’s Super Liquor Stores, Inc. v. Hodgson, 464 F.2d 1196, 1199 (5th Cir.1972) (deduction from cashiers’ wages to pay for every shortage in employer cash-register accounts, regardless of the reason for the shortage); Brennan v. Veterans Cleaning Serv., Inc., 482 F.2d 1362, 1370 (5th Cir.1973) (employee’s wage deduction in favor of employer to recover the cost of a wrecked company truck). The expenses were not treated as an employer obligation by custom or practice of Decatur’s industry. In sum, there is no basis in custom, practice, or law to include the recruitment expenses as part of Decatur’s business expense.

Our attention, however, has been brought to two relatively new regulations that for the first time address unscrupulous practices in recruiting workers to participate in the H-2B visa program. Effective January 18, 2009, the Department of Labor requires an employer seeking H-2B labor certification to attest that “[t]he employer has contractually forbidden any foreign labor contractor or recruiter whom the employer engages in international recruitment of H-2B workers to seek or receive payments from prospective employees, except as provided for in DHS regulations at 8 CFR 214.2(h)(5)(xi)(A).” 20 C.F.R. § 655.22(g)(2). Also effective January 18, 2009, the Department of Homeland Security forbids an employer, employer’s agent, recruiter, or similar employment service from collecting any “job placement fee or other compensation (either direct or indirect)” from a foreign worker as a condition of an H-2B job offer or as a condition of H-2B employment. 8 C.F.R. § 214.2(h)(6)(i)(B).FN7 These regulations ultimately may influence whether H-2B employers will reimburse the recruitment expenses of future guest workers, but they do not affect Decatur’s obligations here. See, e.g., Sierra Med. Ctr. v. Sullivan, 902 F.2d 388, 392 (5th Cir.1997) (“Generally, courts will not apply regulations retroactively unless their language so requires.”); 20 C.F.R. § 655.5 (indicating, by creating a transition period for implementing the Department of Labor’s January 2009 changes to 20 C.F.R. part 655, that the changes do not apply retroactively); 73 Fed.Reg. 78103, 78127-30 (Dec. 19, 2008) (giving no indication that the Department of Labor’s January 2009 changes to 8 C.F.R. part 214 apply retroactively). Furthermore, because the regulations for the first time forbid an H-2B employer from permitting guest workers to bear such recruitment expenses, they strongly suggest that the guest workers’ recruitment expenses incurred long before the regulations became effective were not part of Decatur’s business expense.

Finally, our conclusion is not disturbed by the one case that the guest workers cite holding recruitment expenses can be part of an employer’s business expense. See Rivera, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1167, at *47-*50. The employer there, Brickman, required guest workers to hire a particular recruitment company, which charged them fees. See id. at *48-*49. Because the employer required the guest workers to use the recruitment company, the court concluded “that fees associated with Brickman-designated workers’ representatives [we]re costs ‘primarily for the benefit of the employer,’ and that Brickman, therefore, was not allowed to pass those costs along [to the guest workers] to the extent that doing so reduced their wages below the FLSA minimum.” Id. at *50.

Assuming the correctness and continued validity of that case’s reasoning, the case is distinguishable. Here, there is no evidence that Decatur even knew about the foreign recruitment companies, much less that the companies charged a fee to the guest workers as a condition of receiving an offer of employment. Decatur paid Pickering $300 per job position filled, which itself was in the nature of an employer-paid recruitment fee. Although the record does show that the guest workers knew of no other way to obtain employment with Decatur, the record also shows that Decatur did not require, or approve, any guest worker to pay any sum to anyone as a condition of an H-2B job offer or as a condition of H-2B employment.

For all of the foregoing reasons, we hold that the FLSA does not obligate Decatur to reimburse the guest workers for their recruitment expenses.

In sum, we hold that Decatur incurred no FLSA liability to reimburse its guest workers for the recruitment fees, transportation costs, or visa fees that they incurred to work in the United States. We REVERSE the summary judgment, RENDER judgment in favor of Decatur, and REMAND for entry of same.”

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