Tag Archives: Kickbacks

D.Colo.: Pizza Hut Delivery Drivers’ Minimum Wage Claims, Premised on Claim That Defendants Failed to Reasonably Estimate Vehicle-Related Expenses for Reimbursement Can Proceed; Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Denied

Darrow v. WKRP Management, LLC

This matter was before the Court on the defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiff’s second amended complaint.  Plaintiff, a Pizza Hut delivery driver, alleged that defendants, Pizza Hut franchisees, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the Colorado Minimum Wage of Workers Act (“CMWWA”) by failing to reasonably approximate his automotive expenses for reimbursement purposes, and thereby, failing to pay him minimum wage.

Significantly, defendants paid plaintiff and opt-in plaintiffs at or near the Colorado minimum wage from 2007 to 2009.  According to the court, on average, the plaintiff and opt-in plaintiffs delivered two to three orders per hour and drove five miles per delivery.  Plaintiff alleged that defendants required their delivery drivers to ‘maintain and pay for safe, legally-operable, and insured automobiles when delivering WKRP’s pizza and other food items.’  Defendants reimbursed Plaintiff between $0.75 and $1.00 per delivery for the vehicle expenses incurred by plaintiff to make deliveries. Plaintiff alleged that it was defendants’ policy and practice to unreasonably estimate employees’ automotive expenses for reimbursement purposes, which caused Plaintiff and other similarly situated individuals to be paid less than the federal minimum wage and the Colorado minimum wage from 2007 to 2009 in violation of the FLSA and the CMWWA.

Rejecting defendants’ argument that plaintiff failed to state a claim for unpaid minimum wages under these facts, the court looked to the section 7(e)(2), which states that an employee’s regular rate does not include travel or other expenses incurred in furtherance of the employer’s interest:

“The FLSA provides a definition for “wages,” but does not address an employer’s reimbursement of expenses. However, “[Department of Labor] regulations are entitled to judicial deference, and are the primary source of guidance for determining the scope and extent of exemptions to the FLSA,” including expense reimbursement. Spadling v. City of Tulsa, 95 F.3d 1492, 1495 (10th Cir.1996). Therefore, the Court will look to the Department of Labor regulations to determine whether, under the FLSA, an employee may claim that his wages are reduced below the minimum wage when he is under-reimbursed for vehicle-related expenses. Under 29 C.F.R. § 531.35, “the wage requirements of the [FLSA] 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.” A kickback occurs when the cost of tools that are specifically required for the performance of the employee’s particular work “cuts into the minimum or overtime wages required to be paid him under the Act.” Id. Section 531.35 specifically incorporates § 531.32(c), which in turn incorporates § 778.217, which states:

Where an employee incurs expenses on his employer’s behalf or where he is required to expend sums solely by reason of action taken for the convenience of his employer, section 7(e)(2) [which provides that employee’s regular rate does not include travel or other expenses incurred in furtherance of the employer’s interest] is applicable to reimbursement for such expenses. Payments made by the employer to cover such expenses are not included in the employee’s regular rate (if the amount of the reimbursement reasonably approximates the expenses incurred). Such payment is not compensation for services rendered by the employees during any hours worked in the workweek.  29 C.F.R. § 778.217(a). In Wass v. NPC International, Inc. (Wass I), 688 F.Supp.2d 1282, 1285–86 (D.Kan.2010), the court concluded that these regulations “permit an employer to approximate reasonably the amount of an employee’s vehicle expenses without affecting the amount of the employee’s wages for purposes of the federal minimum wage law.” However, if the employer makes an unreasonable approximation, the employee can claim that his wage rate was reduced because of expenses that were not sufficiently reimbursed. Id. at 1287.

Plaintiff alleges that his under-reimbursed vehicle expenses constituted a kickback to Defendants because Defendants failed to reasonably approximate Plaintiff’s vehicle-related expenses and Plaintiff was specifically required to use and maintain a vehicle to benefit Defendants’ business. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants’ unreasonable approximation of Plaintiff’s vehicle-related expenses led to Plaintiff’s wage being reduced below the minimum wage.

Defendants argue that Plaintiff cannot use an estimated mileage rate as a substitute for actual vehicle-related expenses. Without pleading his actual expenses, Defendants contend that Plaintiff is unable to prove (1) that Defendants’ reimbursement rate was an unreasonable approximation, and (2) that Defendants paid him below the minimum wage as a result of the under-reimbursement. Plaintiff responds that he does not have to produce his actual automotive expenses in order to state a claim under the Iqbal and Twombly standard because he can raise the plausible inference that Defendants’ approximation of his vehicle-related expenses was unreasonable without knowing his actual expenses. For the following reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiff’s Amended Complaint meets the pleading standard under Iqbal and Twombly.”

After a recitation of the applicable law, the court held that plaintiff had sufficiently pled his estimated costs of running his vehicle, using a variety of facts, including the reimbursement rate paid by defendants versus the IRS’ mileage reimbursement rate.  Further, when taken together with plaintiff’s hourly wages, he had sufficiently pled that defendants failed to pay him at least the federal and/or Colorado minimum wage(s).  Therefore, the court denied defendants’ motion in its entirety.

Click Darrow v. WKRP Management, LLC to read the entire Order.

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9th Cir.: Repayment Provision In CBA That Required Repayment Of Training Costs Did Not Constitute Impermissible “Kick-Back”

Gordon v. City of Oakland

In this case, a former employee brought a putative class action, alleging that the Defendant violated the minimum wage provisions of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and related state laws, by requiring her to reimburse it for part of her training costs due to voluntarily leaving city’s employment before completing five years of service.  Holding that such repayment was not an impermissible kick-back, the lower court dismissed.  The Ninth Circuit agreed and affirmed.

The Court laid out the following pertinent procedural/factual background:

“The facts here are taken from Gordon’s Proposed First Amended Complaint and the attachments thereto. Since the late 1990s, the City and the collective bargaining unit for City police officers, the Oakland Police Officers’ Association, have entered into successive collective bargaining agreements. These agreements provide that officers who voluntarily separate from the City’s employment prior to completing five years of service must repay a pro rata share of their police academy training costs. The agreement at issue here states that the cost of the training is $8,000, and it establishes the following repayment schedule:

Length of Service % of Repayment Due
Separation prior to 1 year 100% repayment of the $8,000.
Separation after 1 year but before completing the second year 80% repayment of the $8,000.
Separation after 2 years but before completing the third year 60% repayment of the $8,000.
Separation after 3 years but before completing the fourth year 40% repayment of the $8,000.
Separation after 4 years but before completing the fifth year 20% repayment of the $8,000.
Separation after 5 years 0% repayment

Gordon was a successful applicant for the position of Police Officer Trainee. She was advised that she was required to sign the “Conditional Offer of Position as a Police Officer Trainee” (“Conditional Offer”) to complete the hiring process. The Conditional Offer restated the training repayment schedule established in the collective bargaining agreement but it did not include a statement that the City would withhold an officer’s paycheck in satisfaction of any repayment owed. Gordon accepted and signed the Conditional Offer and became a police officer trainee employed by the City. The City directed her to attend its police academy, and she successfully completed her training in June 2006. She then became a police officer for the City.

On January 25, 2008, before completing her second year of service, Gordon resigned. At that time, she was earning $37.8025 per hour. In her final two weeks of work, Gordon was compensated for sixty hours. Her regular hourly pay, combined with an educational incentive in the amount of $117.33, resulted in Gordon earning $2,385.48 in gross pay for her final two workweeks. Gordon received a final paycheck reflecting this amount.

On the same day as her resignation, the City’s Fiscal Services Division notified Gordon that the City was entitled to recover $6,400 (eighty percent of $8,000) in training costs as set forth in the Conditional Offer Gordon signed. This notification stated that the City had withheld, in partial satisfaction of these claims, the paychecks for Gordon’s accrued unused vacation ($1,295.57) and compensatory time off ($654.77). Thus, the City’s total remaining demand was $4,449.66.FN2 This unpaid demand increased to $5,268.03 in March 2008 with the addition of a “collection fee.”

Gordon, on behalf of herself and others similarly situated, filed this action in district court seeking damages and declaratory relief under the FLSA, 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and various California state laws. The district court granted the City’s motion to dismiss Gordon’s complaint for failure to state a claim and gave Gordon fourteen days within which to file a motion for leave to file an amended complaint.

Following the court’s dismissal, Gordon paid the City the $5,268.03 it claimed was due and moved for leave to file her Proposed First Amended Complaint. The new complaint eliminated all but the FLSA claims and included that she paid the City $5,268.03 for “training reimbursement” and “collection costs.” The district court concluded that the proposed amended complaint still did not demonstrate that Gordon was paid less than the federal minimum wage during any workweek, and it denied her leave to file her minimum wage claim in the amended complaint. The district court did, however, grant Gordon leave to amend to assert a claim for violation of the overtime wage requirements under 29 U.S.C. § 207(o). Gordon subsequently dismissed with prejudice all overtime wage claims under 29 U.S.C. § 207(o) and entered into a Stipulation for Judgment of Dismissal for the purpose of facilitating this appeal.”

Holding that the repayment scheme laid out in the CBA was not a prohibited kick-back, the Court reasoned:

“The issue in this case is whether the Conditional Offer’s training reimbursement agreement, which required Gordon to repay $6,400 at the time of her resignation, caused her to receive less than the federal minimum wage during her final workweek. Gordon contends that there is no legal difference between deducting a sum from an employee’s check and directly demanding the employee surrender a sum after being paid. She maintains that after subtracting the costs she paid to the City for the training program, she was actually paid a negative sum for her last week of work. The district court, however, concluded that because the City issued Gordon a paycheck exceeding the minimum wage amount, the City’s reimbursement demand did not violate the FLSA’s minimum wage provision. We affirm.

The FLSA requires all covered employers to pay their employees at least the federal minimum hourly wage every workweek. 29 U.S.C. § 206. As a “public agency,” the City is a covered employer under the FLSA and must comply with the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements. 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). Additionally, employees cannot waive the protections of the FLSA, Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945), nor may labor organizations negotiate provisions that waive employees’ statutory rights under the FLSA. Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 740-41, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981). Consequently, neither the Conditional Offer nor the collective bargaining agreement limit Gordon’s right to receive at least minimum wage.

The United States Department of Labor has adopted regulations outlining employers’ FLSA obligations. One such regulation is 29 C.F.R. § 535.31, which provides in pertinent part:

Whether in cash or other 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.

Because Gordon did not allege she was paid below the federal minimum wage for any given week, the only way Gordon has stated a cognizable claim is if her payment to the City for a portion of her training costs is a “kick-back” payment as described in section 535.31.

While this court has not previously addressed this issue, we find persuasive the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning in Heder v. City of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, 295 F.3d 777 (7th Cir.2002). Heder was decided in the context of a similar reimbursement scheme for city firefighters. The City of Two Rivers funded its firefighters’ mandatory paramedic training but required a firefighter to reimburse the city for the costs of training if the firefighter left the city’s employment before completing three years of service. Id. The Seventh Circuit upheld the reimbursement agreement, comparing it to a loan; the cost of the training was a loan the city made to its firefighters, repayment of which was forgiven after three years. Id. at 781-82. If, however, a firefighter left before three years of service, the loan became due. Id. As long as the city paid departing firefighters at least the statutory minimum wage, it could collect the training costs as an ordinary creditor. See id. at 779.

The Seventh Circuit’s analysis is applicable here. The $5,268.03 payment Gordon made to the City is repayment of a voluntarily accepted loan, not a kick-back. Instead of requiring applicants to independently obtain their police training prior to beginning employment, which the City could do by only hiring individuals already possessing a POST certification,FN5 the City elected to essentially loan police officer trainees like Gordon the cost of their police academy training. The Conditional Offer Gordon signed explained that the City would forgive her repayment obligation at the specified rate and that she would owe nothing after five years of service. Gordon, however, chose not to serve the five years necessary to secure complete forgiveness. Despite the debt Gordon owed following her resignation, the City satisfied the FLSA’s requirements by paying Gordon at least minimum wage for her final week of work. The City was therefore free to seek repayment of Gordon’s training debt as an ordinary creditor.

Because Gordon’s repayment of her training costs is not a kick-back under section 531.35, the training reimbursement agreement does not violate the FLSA since she was paid at least minimum wage for her final workweek. Accordingly, we affirm the district court’s partial denial of Gordon’s Motion for Leave to File her Proposed First Amended Complaint.”

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5th Cir.: FLSA Does Not Require Employers to Reimburse H-2B Visa’d Guest Worker Expenses

Castellanos-Contreras v. Decatur Hotels, LLC

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Defendant, a hotelier in New Orleans, sought the services of foreign national H-2B guest workers to staff its hotel in a variety of positions.  Each worker hired a recruitment company to locate H-2B job opportunities on his or her behalf, to guide him or her through the H-2B visa application process, and to arrange transportation to the United States.  Each recruitment company charged between $1,700 and $2,000 for its services.  In addition to this fee, each recruitment company required workers to pay their own visa-application fees as well as all transportation expenses necessary to relocate to the United States.  Altogether, each guest worker paid between approximately $3,000 and approximately $5,000 in recruitment, transportation, and visa expenses before relocating to the United States.

When the guest workers arrived in New Orleans, Defendant conducted a week-long orientation session, for which it paid the workers; and the guest workers began to work. Defendant paid the guest workers whom it hired through one company, $6.09 per hour, the guest workers whom it hired through a second recruiting company, $6.02 per hour, and the guest workers whom it hired through a third recruiting company $7.79 per hour.  Defendant did not reimburse the guest workers for their recruitment, transportation, or visa expenses, all of which they incurred before relocating to the United States.

The Court held, relying in part on a 2008 DOL Interpretative Letter, that, under the FLSA, an employer is not required to 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.  In reaching their decision the Court recognized its disagreement with another Court, which had previously found such expenses to be reimbursable, due to the fact that they were employer business expenses, and not for the benefit of the guest workers.  See Rivera v. Brickman Group, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 1167, at *47-*50 (E.D.Pa. Jan. 7, 2008).

Further, the Court, likely recognizing the injustice that would result from its ruling, discussed the fact that its ruling will likely have little future impact, because, 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).

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