Tag Archives: Overtime Pay

S.D.Ohio: Compensation System Based on Number and Type of Cases Managed, Did Not Qualify as “Fee Basis,” For Purpose of Applying Learned Professional Exemption

Cook v. Carestar, Inc.

This case was before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment regarding the application (or lack thereof) of the learned professional exemption to plaintiffs, nurse case managers. As discussed here, the court held that the case managers were non-exempt as a matter of law, because the defendants’ compensation plan was neither a salary nor a fee basis plan. As such, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion in part (regarding their non-exempt status) and denied the defendants’ motion.

The court outlined the relevant undisputed facts regarding the plaintiffs compensation plan as follows:

The facts of Carestar’s compensation system for case managers are not in dispute. Each case manager is assigned a number of consumers or cases that he or she is responsible for managing. Each case is assigned one of three acuity levels depending upon the “needs/situation” of that particular case. The acuity levels have an associated point value ranging from 1.66 to 2.00 to 3.33. A case manager’s total caseload is determined by totaling the point value of his or her assigned cases.

Upon hiring, a case manager is given a dollar value for each point in his or her caseload. This amount is determined based upon the individual case manager’s educational level, credentials (i.e., RN/LSW/LISW) and experience. The Case Manager’s compensation per pay period is determined by adding up the total number of points in his or her caseload and multiplying that by the dollar value of the points. (See Case Manager Compensation Review, Doc. 34–7.)

The compensation system pays case managers an amount for each case managed, regardless of the time expended in performing such management duties. As Plaintiffs point out, Carestar’s compensation system guidelines nowhere discuss the amount of time expected to be worked by case managers in performing their duties.

Based on their compensation plan, the court held that the plaintiffs were neither paid on a salary or fee basis. Discussing the issue, the court explained:

To qualify for the “learned professional” exemption, Plaintiffs must first be “[c]ompensated on a salary or fee basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week….” 29 C.F.R. § 541.300(a)(1) (emphasis added).5 Defendants concede that Case Managers are not compensated on a “salary basis,” but rather assert that they are compensated on a “fee basis.” The DOL regulation on “fee basis” compensation, explains:

An employee will be considered to be paid on a “fee basis” within the meaning of these regulations if the employee is paid an agreed sum for a single job regardless of the time required for its completion. These payments resemble piecework payments with the important distinction that generally a “fee” is paid for the kind of job that is unique rather than for a series of jobs repeated an indefinite number of times and for which payment on an identical basis is made over and over again. Payments based on the number of hours or days worked and not on the accomplishment of a given single task are not considered payments on a fee basis.

29 C.F.R. 541.605(a).

Defendants rely on Fazekas v. Cleveland Clinic Foundation Health Care Ventures, Inc., 204 F.3d 673 (6th Cir.2000), to argue that Carestar case managers are compensated on a “fee basis.” In Fazekas, the Sixth Circuit considered whether certain home health nurses were paid on a fee basis for the purposes of the FLSA’s “professional” exemption. See id. at 675–79. The Fazekas plaintiffs were compensated on a per-visit basis, regardless of the time spent on each home health visit. Although the nurses performed multiple tasks within a single visit, including case management and care coordination tasks, and even expended some time outside consumers’ homes on “attendant transportation and administrative duties,” all such tasks were “connected with the actual visits themselves.” Id. at 675. Thus, while the nurses often provided ongoing treatments and implemented ongoing care plans over the course of multiple visits, such services were divisible in to discrete components (i.e., the individual visit), and compensated as such. Accordingly, the disputed matter in Fazekas was not whether the nurses were compensated for performing a “single job,” but rather whether each job was “unique” and, therefore, unlike “piecework payments.” Id. at 676. Analogizing a home health nurse to “a singer, who may, after all, perform the same song or set of songs over and over again during a series of performances, or … an illustrator, who may similarly repeat the same drawings or set of drawings as necessary,” id. at 679, the Court determined that each home health visit was indeed unique. Because this was consistent with the controlling DOL opinion on the matter, see id. at 676–678, the Court concluded that home health nurses paid on a per-visit basis were professionals compensated on a fee basis and therefore FLSA-exempt.

Here, in contrast, throughout a two-week pay period, case managers perform multiple individual tasks in connection with a particular consumer, which cannot be linked back to a single discrete job like a visit, a performance, or a project. Indeed, the pay-period does not correlate with a discrete set of tasks or goals. (Case Mgmt. Practice Guidelines, Doc. 29–11, 2–4; Bowman Aff., Doc. 33–1, ¶ 5 (“The points system used to compensate me was not based on my completion of any single task. Rather, this compensation system required I provide consumers with a series of services which were repeated an indefinite number of times per year based on the consumer’s particular needs.”); Cook Aff., Doc. 33–2, ¶ 5 (same); Gildow Aff. Doc. 33–3, ¶ 5(same); Kurtz Aff., Doc. 33–4, ¶ 5 (same); Potelicki Aff., Doc. 33–5, ¶ 5 (same); Steele Aff., Doc. 33–6, ¶ 5(same)). Rather, Carestar’s Case Management Practice Guidelines identifies numerous ongoing duties, such as periodic reevaluations and a number of required contacts with the consumer during the first and subsequent six month periods. (Case Mgmt. Practice Guidelines, Doc. 29–11; see also Job Description, Doc. 29–5 (“The Case Manager is responsible for on-going case management services to the consumer, including … the on-going monitoring of consumer outcomes, health, safety, eligibility and costs.”)).6 Thus, unlike a nurse’s home health visits, a singer’s performances, or an illustrator’s drawings, the on-going work done by case managers in connection with a case cannot be reduced a series of two-week-long “single job[s].” Therefore, the only basis for delineating and distinguishing case managers’ unit of compensation is the duration of the pay period. As DOL regulations make plain, however, “[p]ayments based on the number of hours or days worked and not on the accomplishment of a given single task are not considered payments on a fee basis.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.605(a). Carestar’s case manager compensation system thus fails to meet the DOL’s definition of a “fee basis” of payment as a matter of law.

Because Case Managers are not compensated on a “salary or fee” basis, they cannot satisfy the requirements for a “professional” exemption under the FLSA. See 29 C.F.R. § 541.300(a)(1). Accordingly, this alone is sufficient to grant Plaintiffs’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment with respect to Carestar’s misclassification of its Case Managers as “exempt” employees.

The court went on to discuss the duties element of the learned professional exemption, but declined to resolve issues of fact at the summary judgment stage, and noted that resolution of the issue was not necessary in light of the defendants’ inability to meet the salary or fee basis prong of the exemption.

Click Cook v. Carestar, Inc. to read the entire Opinion & Order.

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10th Cir.: Employee Who Performed Work Afterhours for Employer Through His Separate Company Held to be Independent Contractor for Afterhours Work

Barlow v. C.R. England, Inc.

Following an order granting the defendant summary judgment, the plaintiff appealed. As discussed here, the issue before the Tenth Circuit regarding the plaintiff’s FLSA claim, was whether he was properly deemed to be an independent contractor for janitorial work her performed for his employer afterhours, while the same employer deemed him to be an employee for security work he performed during the day. In a decision lacking much by way of reasoning, the Tenth Circuit affirmed the decision of the court below and held that the defendant’s dual classification for the two different types of duties performed was valid.

The Tenth Circuit laid out the pertinent facts as follows:

In February 2005, Barlow began working as a part-time security guard at a Denver maintenance yard operated by England, a large trucking company. Barlow patrolled England’s grounds for about thirty hours a week, from 6:30 P.M. to 5:00 or 6:00 A.M. Friday through Sunday nights. Most of the yard was fenced in, accessible through an automatic overhead gate. Barlow also performed maintenance and ground work to try to reach 40 hours of work per week.

After Barlow had been at England for about a year and a half, he asked the facility’s site manager, John Smith, for extra work. Smith, who had initially hired Barlow, was not satisfied with England’s janitorial contractor at that time, so he asked England’s personnel department about having Barlow take over. Smith was told he could not allow Barlow to work any more hours because the company would have to pay overtime.

To get around this, Smith suggested Barlow create a company England could contract with. Barlow formed E & W Janitorial & Maintenance Services, LLC. Beginning in February 2007, Barlow cleaned for England on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, pursuant to an oral agreement with Smith. On a few occasions, his girlfriend, a co-owner of E & W, filled in. England provided his cleaning supplies, but did not require Barlow clean in any particular order. England, the only company for which E & W worked, paid $400 a month for E & W’s services.

Without much reasoning regarding this portion of the plaintiff’s claim, the court held:

We also agree with the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment against Barlow regarding his FLSA claims. Barlow argues that he performed his janitorial work as an employee under the FLSA, and that he was therefore entitled to overtime pay. But applying the “economic realities” test of employee status, we conclude that Barlow was not a statutory employee for purposes of the FLSA.

The “economic realities” test seeks to look past technical, common-law concepts of the master and servant relationship to determine whether, as a matter of economic reality, a worker is dependent on a given employer. Baker v. Flint Engineering & Const . Co., 137 F.3d 1436, 1440 (10th Cir.1998). “The focal point in deciding whether an individual is an employee is whether the individual is economically dependent on the business to which he renders service, or is, as a matter of economic fact, in business for himself.” Doty v. Elias, 733 F.2d 720, 722–23 (10th Cir.1984) (emphasis added) (citations omitted). “In applying the economic reality test, courts generally look at (1) the degree of control exerted by the alleged employer over the worker; (2) the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss; (3) the worker’s investment in the business; (4) the permanence of the working relationship; (5) the degree of skill required to perform the work; and (6) the extent to which the work is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.” Baker, 137 F.3d at 1440. It also “includes inquiries into whether the alleged employer has the power to hire and fire employees, supervises and controls employee work schedules or conditions of employment, determines the rate and method of payment, and maintains employment records.” Id. “None of the factors alone is dispositive; instead, the court must employ a totality-of-the-circumstances approach.” Id.

Some factors favor Barlow, while other factors favor C.R. England, but, ultimately, we agree with the district court that Barlow was an independent contractor. Barlow and his partner created a licensed, limited liability company in order to provide janitorial services. Cf. Rutherford Food Corp. v. McComb, 331 U .S. 722, 730 (1947) (classifying as employees speciality group of production line workers in part because “[t]he group had no business organization that could or did shift as a unit from one slaughter-house to another”). Barlow kept records for the company, opened a separate bank account, and filed a corporate tax return. The district court also noted Barlow had the “freedom to decide how to accomplish” his tasks, even if the company reviewed the ultimate work product. 816 F.Supp.2d at 1107. Indeed, little in the case indicates the relationship between Barlow and C.R. England materially differed from one the company would have with any other cleaning service except for the fact Barlow also happened to otherwise be an employee. This suggests Barlow was in business for himself as a janitor, and we therefore affirm the district court’s decision to grant summary judgment.

Click Barlow v. C.R. England, Inc. to read the entire decision.

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M.D.Fla.: Opt-in Plaintiffs Who Filed Consents to Join Have Same Legal Status As Named Plaintiff Under FLSA

Norena-Giraldo v. Inglese Worldwide Corporation

In this case the court was faced with the issue of what exactly the legal status Opt-in Plaintiffs are, with respect to the named-Plaintiff, in a case that has not been certified as a collective action.  Initially, the court had denied Plaintiff’s Motion for a Final Default Judgment as to Opt-in Plaintiffs, while entering same as to the named-Plaintiff only.  However, the court invited reconsideration of the issue of the Opt-in Plaintiffs’ status.  Upon reconsideration, the court agreed that the Opt-in Plaintiffs shared the same legal status under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) as the named Plaintiff and thus, amended its prior order and entered judgment (as to liability) on behalf of the Opt-in Plaintiffs as well.

Noting that the issue was not so much whether the Opt-ins were party Plaintiffs, but rather what “sum certain” such Opt-in Plaintiffs were entitled to, the court, upon reconsideration set the case for a hearing to determine the amounts of same, recognizing that such Opt-in Plaintiffs essentially stood in the same shoes as the named-Plaintiff.

Click Norena-Giraldo v. Inglese Worldwide Corporation, to read the entire opinion.

 

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D.Kan.: FLSA Plaintiffs’ Motion to Compel Entry Into Defendant’s Facility To Conduct A Time & Motion Study Related To “Walk Time” Claims Granted

McDonald v. Kellogg Co.

In this Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) wage and hour case, plaintiffs, current and former hourly production employees at defendant’s bakery facility, claimed that defendant violated the overtime provisions of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., by, among other things, failing to compensate them for time spent walking to and from workstations.  Following a ruling on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment– which in part held that plaintiffs’ time spent walking to their workstations was compensable– plaintiffs’ moved to compel defendant to allow entry into its facility for the purpose of conducting a time and motion study related to plaintiffs’ walk time.

Describing the plaintiffs’ proposed study the court explained:

“Plaintiffs have served a request, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 34, seeking access to defendant’s bakery facility for their expert, Dr. Kenneth S. Mericle, to gather data on the time employees spend walking to and from their workstations (see doc. 195). Dr. Mericle proposes to use Radio Frequency Identification technology (“RFID”) to gather this data.  To conduct an RFID study, Dr. Mericle would first place electronic readers at the employees’ locker rooms and at the time clocks outside their workstations. Next, Dr. Mericle would issue credit-card-sized cards to employees to carry with them during the study. When the cards pass in the proximity of the readers, a time stamp in the reader would record the time that the employee passed through the area. Thus, the readers would record the time that card-carrying employees leave the locker room and the time that they arrive at the workstations (and vice versa). In addition, Dr. Mericle would place small sensors at various locations in the factory, such as bathrooms, to register detours in the employees’ paths to and from their workstations. Plaintiffs suggest that only Dr. Mericle and, perhaps, one other individual would need to be on-site during the study to ensure that there are no problems with the RFID equipment.

Plaintiffs request that Dr. Mericle enter defendant’s facility on two occasions. On the first entry, Dr. Mericle would simply observe plant conditions and employee habits in order to plan placement locations for the RFID readers and sensors. On the second entry, Dr. Mericle would set up the readers and sensors, and issue cards to the employees. Plaintiffs propose that the study then be conducted over a period of several days.

Defendant objects to the RFID study as overreaching discovery. Defendant asserts that nothing in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires it to alter its factory by attaching readers and sensors to its property, or to mandate that its employees carry reader cards. According to defendant, the proposed RFID study is overly broad and burdensome.”

Granting plaintiffs’ motion, the court reasoned:

“In objecting to plaintiffs’ proposed RFID study, defendant broadly asserts that “[c]onducting such a study during working hours will consume considerable time at [defendant's] expense, will interfere with operations, potentially jeopardize the safety of individuals conducting the study, and expose [defendant's] proprietary production processes to disclosure to third parties.”  Defendant suggests that plaintiffs can estimate employee walking time much more simply by measuring the distances between employee locker rooms and workstations, and then using expert information concerning reasonable walk times.

The court rejects defendant’s objections and grants plaintiffs’ motion to compel. Pursuant to Rules 34(a)(2) and 26(b)(1), the court clearly has the authority to order access to defendant’s facility for the purpose of conducting the RFID study and gathering relevant walk-time data. While there may be, as defendant suggests, alternate means to gather data regarding employee walking time, such is not the test for determining whether the discovery requested should be compelled. Defendant is not at liberty to dictate how plaintiffs should gather information to support their case.  Rather, the rules permit plaintiffs to enter defendant’s property for the purpose of gathering relevant information unless defendant makes a “particularized showing” that the discovery plaintiffs propose would create an undue burden or danger. Defendant has made no attempt to meet this burden-defendant has not submitted an affidavit discussing the burdens or dangers that would accompany the proposed RFID study, nor has defendant even “provide[d] a detailed explanation as to the nature and extent of the claimed burden.”  Although during the hearing defense counsel requested an opportunity to supplement the record in this regard, the undersigned denied defendant’s tardy request for a second bite at the apple.

Considering the record as it stands, the court finds that defendant has offered no support for its conclusory assertion that the proposed RFID study would consume a considerable amount of defendant’s time and would interfere with defendant’s operations. As plaintiffs explained at the hearing, the readers and sensors can be placed unobtrusively and without having to make permanent modifications to defendant’s property. They will record no data other than the time that the cards pass in their vicinity. Indeed, this proposed methodology appears to be less intrusive than other methods of conducting time and motion studies (e.g., videotaping employees or having experts follow employees as they walk the designated paths). With regard to defendant’s concern that its proprietary information is at risk, the Stipulated Protective Order already entered in this case (doc. 56) is sufficient to protect defendant’s trade secrets.

Nor has defendant demonstrated or explained what legitimate safety concerns would be faced by persons conducting the study. Nonetheless, the court will permit defendant to conduct safety-training, limited to one hour, as a prerequisite for access to the facility. In addition, as discussed below, defendant’s safety manager may accompany Dr. Mericle while he is in the facility.

Finally, as to defendant’s complaint that its employees should not be required to carry the small reader cards, the court agrees that no employee should be compelled to carry the card against his or her will. However, as noted by plaintiffs, the vast majority of hourly production workers whose walk time the RFID study would measure are opt-in plaintiffs in this case. The court finds it likely that these employees will voluntarily carry the card. The court permits plaintiffs’ counsel and expert to supply cards to employees who voluntarily consent to carry them during the study.”

Click McDonald v. Kellogg Co. to read the entire order.

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M.D.Tenn.: FLSA Defendant’s Counterclaim Seeking Declaratory Judgment That Plaintiff Was Exempt Dismissed, Because It Mirrored Plaintiff’s Claim

Richmond v. Centurion Exteriors, Inc.

This case was before the court on Plaintiff’s motion to dismiss the Defendant’s counterclaim, which sought a declaratory judgment that Plaintiff was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions.  Because the Plaintiff had made an identical claim for declaratory judgment that the Defendant had misclassified him as exempt, the court dismissed the counterclaim.

Discussing the duplicative counterclaim, the court reasoned:

“In his complaint, Richmond alleged four legal claims, including a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) based upon Defendants’ alleged failure to pay Richmond, a nonexempt employee, wages and overtime for all hours worked before his employment was terminated. (Docket No. 1, Complaint ¶¶ 21, 35-40 (Count I).) Among various forms of relief, Richmond requested a declaratory judgment that the practices he complains about are unlawful. (Id. at 9.) In the answer, Defendants denied the FLSA allegations and raised as an affirmative defense that the FLSA does not apply because Richmond was an “outside salesman” pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 213 and thus, an exempt employee who was not covered by the FLSA. In addition, Defendants filed a counterclaim seeking a declaratory judgment that Richmond was an exempt employee. (Docket No. 9, Answer at 6-7, 10-11.)

Richmond now seeks dismissal of the counterclaim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) on the ground that the counterclaim is a mirror image of his own claim and Defendants do not allege factual or legal issues different from those raised in the complaint. Defendants emphasize that they carry the burden to prove that Richmond was an exempt employee, and that their counterclaim could have been brought as a separate declaratory judgment action. Additionally, they believe their declaratory judgment request is proper because a ruling could impact the way Centurion classifies current and future employees under the FLSA or a ruling may have ramifications on enforcement actions of the federal government with respect to Richmond’s claim. Defendants also want to assure their ability to obtain a declaratory judgment that Richmond was an exempt employee even if Richmond decides to dismiss his lawsuit voluntarily.

The Sixth Circuit apparently has not addressed this issue outside the patent context. In Dominion Elec. Mfg. Co. v. Edwin Wiegand Co., 126 F.2d 172, 173-74 (6th Cir.1942), the court held that a counterclaim in a patent infringement suit should not have been dismissed prior to trial, but in so holding the court recognized the unique situation often presented in patent cases where defendants seek declaratory judgments on issues beyond the scope of the complaint. In other types of cases, district courts “have disagreed on the proper treatment of so-called ‘mirror-image’ counterclaims.” Erickson v. Brock & Scott, PLLC, 2009 WL 4884424 at *3 (W.D.Tenn. Dec.8, 2009). Some district courts have dismissed counterclaims because they are redundant to the complaint, while other courts have not. Id. (and cases cited therein).

A district court in Ohio found that these “cases are not necessarily at odds.” Pettrey v. Enterprise Title Agency, Inc., 2006 WL 3342633 at * 3 (N.D.Ohio Nov.17, 2006). Relying on 6 Wright, Miller & Kane, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE 2D § 1406, the Pettrey court determined the focus should be on whether the counterclaim serves any useful purpose. Id. If it cannot be determined early in the litigation if the counterclaim is identical to the complaint, “ ‘the safer course for the court to follow is to deny a request to dismiss a counterclaim for declaratory relief unless there is no doubt that it will be rendered moot by the adjudication of the main action.’ ” Id. (quoting 6 Wright, Miller & Kane, FEDERAL PRACTICE & PROCEDURE 2D § 1406). On the other hand, the court should dismiss a redundant counterclaim when it is clear that there is complete identity of factual and legal issues between the complaint and the counterclaim. Id. (citing Aldens, Inc. v. Packel, 524 F.2d 38, 51-52 (3d Cir.1975)). In Pettrey the district court “harbor[ed] no doubt whatsoever that Defendants’ declaratory judgment counterclaims will be rendered moot by the adjudication of Plaintiffs’ claims [,]” and dismissed the counterclaims, distinguishing the case from the patent infringement context in Dominion. Id.

Applying a similar analysis here, the Court concludes that Defendants’ counterclaim raises factual and legal issues identical to those stated in the complaint, and the counterclaim will be rendered moot upon adjudication of the complaint. See id.; Aldens, Inc., 524 F.2d at 51-52; Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians v. State of Minnesota, 152 F.R.D. 580, 582 (D.Minn.1993); Resolution Trust Corp. v. Ryan, 801 F.Supp. 1545, 1556 (S.D.Miss.1992). Defendants secured their opportunity to litigate whether Richmond was an exempt employee by raising that issue as an affirmative defense, on which they carry the burden of proof. See Franklin v. Kellogg Co., — F.3d —-, 2010 WL 3396843 at *4 (6th Cir.2010); Baden-Winterwood v. Life Time Fitness, Inc., 566 F.3d 618, 626 (6th Cir.2009). Even if Richmond decides to dismiss his case voluntarily, Defendants have not identified any case or controversy that would remain for adjudication so that Defendants would have standing to proceed and the Court would possess jurisdiction to render a proper decision, and not an advisory opinion. See Fieger v. Michigan Supreme Court, 553 F.3d 955, 961 (6th Cir.2009) (holding Article III and Declaratory Judgment Act allow district court to enter declaratory relief only in case of actual controversy where plaintiff has standing).

Accordingly, Richmond’s Motion To Dismiss Counterclaim (Docket No. 11) is hereby GRANTED and Defendants’ counterclaim is hereby DISMISSED for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6).”

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S.D.N.Y.: Court Refuses To Allow “Settlement” That Grossly Undervalued FLSA Claims To Serve As Basis For Summary Judgment

Latacela v. Cohen

This case involved an action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., for unpaid minimum wages and unpaid overtime wages.  The case was before the court on defendants motion for summary judgment and for judicial approval of a settlement allegedly reached by the parties.  The plaintiff opposed the defendants’ motion on the basis that he had withdrawn support for the settlement because the sum certain agreed to by the parties was based on faulty calculations by the plaintiff.  Plaintiff asserted that he had mistakenly calculated that he was owed $1,415.82 in unpaid minimum wages, rather than $14,170.  This miscalculation also affected the amount the plaintiff claimed in liquidated damages, since employees are entitled to liquidated damages (in addition to back wages) equal to the amount of unpaid wages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

Denying the defendants’ motion, the court reasoned:

” ‘There are only two ways in which back wage claims arising under the FLSA can be settled or compromised by employees. First, under [29 U.S.C. § 216(c) ], the Secretary of Labor is authorized to supervise payment to employees of unpaid wages owed to them. Second [sic] when employees bring a private action for back wages under the FLSA, and present to the district court a proposed settlement, the district court may enter a stipulated judgment after scrutinizing the settlement for fairness.’ Manning v. New York Univ., 2001 WL 963982 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 22, 2001). Even assuming that the agreement defendant presses the Court to approve remains valid, the Court is not satisfied that it is fair. Under the agreement, the plaintiff would receive approximately $28,000 less than the amount he claims he is owed not for strategic reasons, but rather because plaintiff’s counsel made an arithmetical error. Cf. Elliot v. Allstate Investigations, Inc., 2008 WL 728648, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 19, 2008) (approving settlement of less than half the amount plaintiff claims he was owed under the FLSA when the plaintiff could not support his claims through documentary evidence and the defendant could not pay more than the amount agreed to).

Accordingly, defendant’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED.”

Click Latacela v. Cohen to read the entire opinion.

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S.D.Tex.: Upon Reconsideration, Pharmaceutical Reps Nonexempt; Court Elects To Adopt Second Circuit’s Reasoning

Harris v. Auxilium Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

This case was before the court on Plaintiff’s Motion for Reconsideration of the court’s prior decision granting Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment.  The court had previously held that the Plaintiff’s, pharmaceutical representatives were exempt from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) under both the administrative and outside sales exemptions.  Plaintiff sought reconsideration in light of the United States Secretary of Labor’s amicus curiae brief filed in In re Novartis Wage and Hour Litigation.   Granting the Plaintiff’s Motion, the court reversed itself, finding that the Second Circuit’s recent opinion was more persuasive than the contrary jurisprudence.

Discussing the exemption issues, the court reasoned:

“In its previous order, this Court determined that Harris could not bring a FLSA claim because her position as a Medical Sales Consultant (“MSC”), or pharmaceutical representative, took her out of FLSA’s purview. This Court found that the MSC position was exempt from FLSA under the “administrative” and “outside sales” exemptions.

Shortly after this Court’s order came out, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) filed an amicus curiae brief in a case then pending before the Second Circuit, In re Novartis Wage & Hour Litigation, 611 F.3d 141 (2010). In Novartis, The DOL argued that, under its regulations, pharmaceutical representatives “do not meet the requirements for either the outside sales or administrative exemption.” (Br. for the Secretary of Labor as Amicus Curiae in Supp. of Pls.-Appellants, Doc. No. 106-2, at 5.) Regarding the outside sales exemption, the DOL noted that, “[b]ecause the [pharmaceutical representatives] do not sell any drugs or obtain any orders for drugs, and can at most obtain from the physicians a non-binding commitment to prescribe NPC’s drugs to their patients when appropriate, [they] do not meet the regulation’s plain and unmistakable requirement that their primary duty must be ‘making sales.’ “ (Id. at 10.) Under the administrative exemption, the DOL noted that, although pharmaceutical representatives work independently, that “does not suffice to qualify for the administrative exemption; [the representatives] do not perform any primary duties that are largely comparable to those found in 29 C.F.R. § 541.202(b), such as formulating or implementing management policies, utilizing authority to deviate from established policies, providing expert advice, or planning business objectives.” (Doc. No. 106-2, at 21.)

While this motion for reconsideration was pending at this Court, the Second Circuit concluded that under the DOL’s regulations, pharmaceutical representatives are not outside salesmen or administrative employees for the purposes of FLSA’s overtime pay requirements. Novartis, 611 F.3d at 149. The Novartis court determined that the DOL’s interpretations were “entitled to ‘controlling’ deference,” id., under the Supreme Court’s decision in Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997).

After a review of the applicable authority, this Court adopts the reasoning of the Second Circuit and holds that Plaintiffs are not outside salesmen or administrative employees under FLSA. This Court recognizes that district courts are split on the issue, and that some courts have specifically rejected the DOL’s reasoning as set forth in its Novartis amicus brief. See, e.g., Christopher v. SmithKlein Beecham Corp., 2010 WL 396300, at *1-2 (D.Ariz. Feb. 1, 2010). In this Court’s opinion, however, the Novartis court sets forth a persuasive and reasoned analysis for its deference to the DOL’s interpretation of its regulations. As the Novartis court pointed out, the DOL’s interpretations “do far more than merely parrot the language of the FLSA,” and are therefore “entitled to ‘controlling’ deference unless those interpretations are ‘plainly erroneous or inconsistent with the regulation.’ “ 611 F.3d at 153 (quoting Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 461 (1997)). This Court further agrees that no such error or inconsistency exists. Id.

Auxilium points this Court to two opinions in the Third Circuit that came to the opposite conclusion on this question: Smith v. Johnson & Johnson, 593 F.3d 280 (3d Cir.2010), and Baum v. AstraZeneca LP, 372 F. App’x 246 (3d Cir.2010). Neither of these cases, however, considers the impact of the DOL’s amicus brief on their decisions. Therefore, they do not provide a reasoned counterweight to the Second Circuit’s analysis.”

EDITOR’S NOTE:  There continues to be a split of authority with respect to whether pharmaceutical representatives are exempt or nonexempt under the FLSA.  Within the last week, another court, analyzing the very same issue–whether reconsideration (of an order granting defendant summary judgment) in light of the Novartis ruling and the DOL’s amicus brief(s) was warranted–another court held that the decision was not due to be reconsidered and allowed its prior decision to stand.  Schaefer-Larose v. Eli Lilly and Co., 2010 WL 3892464, at *1 (S.D. Ind. Sept. 29, 2010).

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D.Mass.: Personal Day Buy-Back, Yearly Sick Day Incentive Pay, Yearly Sick Leave Buy-Back Pay And Sick Leave Buy-Back Upon Separation Must Be Included In Officers’ “Regular Rate” Under The FLSA

Lemieux v. City of Holyoke

This case was before the Court on several cross-motions regarding a variety of issues arising from the application of various principles of the FLSA.  As discussed here, the Court determined that several types of incentive and “buy-back” pay necessarily had to be included in the plaintiffs’ “regular rate” of pay (and resulting overtime rates).

Discussing the issue of whether such pay need be included in the plaintiff-employees regular rate of pay under the FLSA, the Court held:

“Because the FLSA requires overtime compensation to be paid at “a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which [an employee] is employed,” 29 U.S.C. § 207(a), “[c]alculation of the correct ‘regular rate’ is the linchpin of the FLSA overtime requirement.” O’Brien, 350 F.3d at 294. Under the terms of the CBA, Holyoke firefighters, in certain circumstances, are entitled to receive augments to their base salary. At issue is whether the FLSA requires Defendants to include eight of these contractual remunerations-yearly personal day buy-back; yearly sick day incentive pay; yearly sick leave buy-back pay; sick leave buy-back upon retirement, resignation, or death; vacation buy-back upon retirement; yearly holiday pay; detail pay; and Student Awareness of Fire Education (“SAFE”) pay-in Plaintiffs’ “regular rate” for the purpose of calculating overtime compensation. Plaintiffs argue that the statute requires this; Defendants argue that it does not.

The FLSA defines “regular rate” to include “all remuneration for employment paid to, or on behalf of, the employee” unless it falls under one of the eight expressly provided exclusions listed in paragraphs (1) through (8) of subsection (e) of the FLSA. 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(1)-(8). This “list of exceptions is exhaustive, the exceptions are to be interpreted narrowly against the employer, and the employer bears the burden of showing that an exception applies.” O’Brien, 350 F.3d at 294 (citations omitted).

For the reasons that follow, the court holds that Defendants are obligated to include yearly personal day buy-back, yearly sick day incentive pay, yearly sick leave buy-back pay, and sick leave buy-back upon retirement, resignation, or death in the officers’ “regular rate” under the FLSA.

a. Buy-Back Provisions.

The CBA entitles Holyoke firefighters, subject to certain conditions, to sell back to the city sick leave time, vacation time, personal time, and holiday time that they have accrued but not used. Plaintiffs argue that the city is required to include the value of these “buy-backs” in the “regular rate” because they are renumeration not falling under any of the exceptions listed in 207(e)(1)-(8). Defendants contend that none of these buy-backs are paid as compensation for Holyoke firefighters’ hours of employment, and that they are all, therefore, excludable under section 207(e)(2).

Section 207(e)(2) provides that “payments made for occasional periods when no work is performed due to vacation, holiday, illness, … or other similar cause; … [or] other similar payments to an employee which are not made as compensation for his hours of employment” are excludable from the “regular rate.” 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2). It is plain that the value of the accrued time in dispute, if utilized by the firefighters for its intended purpose, would be excluded under 207(e)(2). The question before the court is whether a lump sum payment, keyed to time accrued for the causes listed in section 207(e)(2), although paid later under a buy-back program, is also excludable under that section.

i. Holiday and vacation time buy-back.

As to payments for accrued holiday and vacation time, the law is clear that these payments are excludable under section 207(e)(2) regardless of whether they are paid contemporaneously for days missed or are deferred and paid in a lump sum. Department of Labor Regulations explicitly provide that the 207(e)(2) exclusion applies even when an employee foregoes a day off but still receives the pay. 29 C.F.R. § 778.219(a). Accordingly, holiday and vacation buy-back payments are excluded under section 207(e)(2) and need not be included in the regular rate under the FLSA.

ii. Personal time buy-back.

Similarly, buy-back payments for personal time are excludable from the regular rate under the FLSA. Personal time, like holiday and vacation time, is paid idle time which, subject to scheduling restrictions, may be used by firefighters at their discretion as a matter of right. Therefore, personal time buy-back payments are excludable under section 207(e)(2). 29 C.F.R. § 778.219(a).

However, one wrinkle remains. Under the terms of the CBA, unused personal time is cashed in at one hundred and ten percent (110%) of that year’s rate. (CBA ¶ 33.0(D)). It appears that this ten percent premium represents an incentive bonus for employees who forego taking personal days. Because the express terms of CBA make this ten percent bonus non-discretionary, see id. (“[t]he payout shall occur in January of the following year”), it must be included in the “regular rate” under the FLSA. 29 U.S.C. § 7(e)(3)(a); 29 C.F.R. 778.211(c). See also Walling v. Harnischfeger Corp., 325 U.S. 427, 431 (U.S.1945) (noting that employees “who receive incentive bonuses in addition to their guaranteed base pay clearly receive a greater regular rate than the minimum base rate”).

iii. Sick leave buy-back.

The slightly more difficult question concerns whether remuneration in the form of buy-back payments for unused sick leave time is includable in the “regular rate” under the FLSA. Article 11 of the CBA provides Holyoke firefighters with three opportunities to sell accrued but unused sick leave time back to the city. Unlike vacation and holiday time, the Department of Labor regulations do not address whether section 207(e)(2) excludes the value of deferred sick leave time from the FLSA’s regular rate. See 29 C.F.R. § 778.219(a) (discussing only vacation and holiday pay).

In a closely analogous case, however, the Eighth Circuit has held that “sick leave buy-back monies constitute remuneration for employment” because “in contrast to § 207(e)(2) payments, [they] are awarded to employees for coming to work consistently, not for work that was never performed.” Acton v. City of Columbia, 436 F.3d 969, 977 (8th Cir.2006). In so holding, the Acton court reasoned that “the primary effect of the buy-back program is to encourage firefighters to come to work regularly over a significant period of their employment tenure” and concluded that the buy-back payments awarded to employees for not using accrued sick leave were akin to non-discretionary bonuses that compensated them for fulfilling their general attendance duties. Id. at 979.

This interpretation has not been adopted by all courts. The Sixth Circuit, in a case cited by Defendants, has come to the opposite conclusion, holding simply that “awards for nonuse of sick leave are similar to payments made when no work is performed due to illness, which may be excluded from the regular rate [under 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2) ].” Featsent v. City of Youngstown, 70 F.3d 900, 905 (6th Cir.1995). The First Circuit, for its part, has yet to weigh in on the issue.

Having considered all of the available authority, the court finds the reasoning of Acton persuasive. Here, as in Acton, firefighters must have worked for a period of time sufficient to accumulate a certain amount of leave in order to qualify for buy-back pay. Moreover, by its own terms, the CBA refers to its various sick leave buy-back provisions as “incentive days” and “sick leave buy back bonuses.” These facts militate toward the conclusion that sick leave buy-back payments provided for in the CBA are more akin to non-discretionary incentive bonuses includable under 29 C.F.R. 778.211(c) than remuneration for work that was never performed and therefore excludable under 207(e)(2). See 29 C.F.R. 778.211 (expressly including “[a]ttendance bonuses” in the regular rate of pay). It is also pertinent that this position has been adopted by the Department of Labor in a 2009 wage and hour opinion letter, 2009 DOLWH LEXIS 23 (DOLWH 2009). Finally, the court finds this position to be the most consistent with the First Circuit’s gloss on section 207(e), that its “exceptions are to be interpreted narrowly against the employer….” O’Brien, 350 F.3d at 294.

For these reasons, the court finds that sick leave buy-back pay is remuneration that must be included in the calculation of the FLSA regular rate of pay.

b. Off Duty/Detail pay.

In addition to their regular duties, some Plaintiffs perform additional outside work-referred to as “details” or “off-duty work”-that is assigned to them on a voluntary basis when they are not regularly scheduled to be on duty. The FLSA is clear that “special detail” compensation for hours worked on behalf of “separate and independent” employers is excludable from the calculation of FLSA overtime. 29 U.S.C. § 207(p). Department of Labor regulations specify that the hours worked for another entity will be exempt under § 207(p)(1)‘s special detail work exemption so long as (1) the special detail assignment is undertaken and performed solely at the employee’s option, and (2) the two employers are “in fact separate and independent.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.227(b). See also Nolan v. City of Chicago, 125 F.Supp.2d 324, 336 (N.D.Ill.2000).

Plaintiffs do not dispute that a Holyoke firefighter’s decision to perform off-duty detail work is purely voluntary. Their sole contention is that the outside vendors for whom they perform duty work are not, in fact, separate and independent because: (1) when firefighters perform duty work, they receive payment via their regular payroll check; (2) the amount of pay received by firefighters for detail work is non-negotiable (except by the Union during collective bargaining); (3) firefighters do not receive insurance benefits or retirement benefits, or worker’s compensation from the third-party vendors; and (4) firefighters are required to wear their uniforms while working detail or off duty.

Each of these assertions, however, is contrary to the applicable Department of Labor regulations which provide:

The primary employer may facilitate the employment or affect the conditions of employment of such employees. For example, a police department may maintain a roster of officers who wish to perform such work. The department may also select the officers for special details from a list of those wishing to participate, negotiate their pay, and retain a fee for administrative expenses. The department may require that the separate and independent employer pay the fee for such services directly to the department, and establish procedures for the officers to receive their pay for the special details through the agency’s payroll system. Finally, the department may require that the officers observe their normal standards of conduct during such details and take disciplinary action against those who fail to do so.  29 C.F.R. § 553.227(d) (emphasis added).

Accordingly, the FLSA does not require that Plaintiffs’ “detail” work be included in the calculation of the regular rate of pay.

c. Student Awareness of Fire Education (“SAFE”) Pay.

Some Holyoke firefighters receive pay for fire prevention and education duties performed under the grant-funded Student Awareness of Fire Education (“SAFE”) program. SAFE work performed while a firefighter is on regularly scheduled duty is compensated at the standard contractual rate of pay, while SAFE work performed outside of a firefighter’s regular duty cycle is compensated as overtime at one and one half times the contractual rate of pay. (Dkt. No. 157, Ex. D, LaFond Dep. 37: 8-18.

Here, to the degree that SAFE payments represent additional remuneration at all (i.e., to the degree that they are not already included in Plaintiffs’ regular pay), they are excludable from the regular rate under sections 207(e)(5) and (7) of the FLSA. Each of these provisions permits employers to exclude properly compensated overtime payments from the “regular rate” of pay under the FLSA. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(5) (excluding “extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid for certain hours … in excess of the employee’s normal working hours or regular working hours”); 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(7) (excluding time and a half compensation “for work outside of the hours established in good faith by the contract or agreement as the basic, normal, or regular workday”). See also 29 C.F.R. 778.202. Because, as the record demonstrates, SAFE work performed outside of a firefighter’s regular duty cycle is already compensated as overtime, the FLSA does not require that Defendants include such time in the calculation of the FLSA’s regular rate of pay.”

Although the Court addressed issues that rarely come up in the context of FLSA litigation, its reliance on the general principle that any type of compensation not specifically excluded from calculating an employee’s regular rate under the FLSA must necessarily be included is instructive to employers who use any type of incentive or bonus pay.

Click Lemieux v. City of Holyoke to read the entire opinion.

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9th Cir.: Reporters For Newspaper Properly Deemed Nonexempt; Creative Professional Exemption Not Applicable, Because The Reporters’ Work Does Not Require Sophisticated Analysis

Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc.

Following a verdict/decision in the plaintiffs favor, the defendant appealed to the Ninth Circuit based on a variety of issues, both substantive and procedural.  As discussed here, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower Court’s holding that the plaintiffs, reporters for a local Chinese-language newspaper were nonexempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and California Wage and Hour Law.

Reasoning that the plaintiff-reporters were not subject to the so-called “creative professional” exemption, the Court reasoned:

“CDN argues that the district court erred in holding on summary judgment that CDN’s reporters were non-exempt employees entitled to overtime. Specifically, CDN argues that its reporters were subject to the “creative professional exemption” and were therefore exempt employees not subject to FLSA and state-law overtime pay and break requirements. We review the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. Bamonte v. City of Mesa, 598 F.3d 1217, 1220 (9th Cir.2010).

Federal law exempts employers from paying overtime to “any employee employed in a bona fide … professional capacity.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To qualify as an exempt professional under federal law, an employee must be compensated “at a rate of not less than $455 per week,” and his or her “primary duty” must be the performance of exempt work. 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.300, 541.700. “[A]n employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.302(a). The exemption is construed narrowly against the employer who seeks to assert it. Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, 420 F.3d 981, 988 (9th Cir.2005). California wage and hour law largely tracks federal law. See Industrial Welfare Commission Order 4-2001 § 1(A)(3)(b) (defining professional to include “an employee who is primarily engaged in the performance of … [w]ork that is original and creative in character in a recognized field of artistic endeavor … and the result of which depends primarily on the invention, imagination, or talent of the employee”); see also id. § 1(A)(3)(e) (directing that the exemption is “intended to be construed in accordance with … [inter alia, 29 C.F.R. § 541.302 ] as [it] existed as of the date of this wage order”).

As applied to journalists, the federal Department of Labor construed the “creative professional exemption” in a 2004 regulation:

Journalists may satisfy the duties requirements for the creative professional exemption if their primary duty is work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent, as opposed to work which depends primarily on intelligence, diligence and accuracy. Employees of newspapers, magazines, television and other media are not exempt creative professionals if they only collect, organize and record information that is routine or already public, or if they do not contribute a unique interpretation or analysis to a news product. Thus, for example, newspaper reporters who merely rewrite press releases or who write standard recounts of public information by gathering facts on routine community events are not exempt creative professionals. Reporters also do not qualify as exempt creative professionals if their work product is subject to substantial control by the employer. However, journalists may qualify as exempt creative professionals if their primary duty is performing on the air in radio, television or other electronic media; conducting investigative interviews; analyzing or interpreting public events; writing editorials, opinion columns or other commentary; or acting as a narrator or commentator.  29 C.F.R. § 541.302(d) (2004). Unlike the “interpretation” it replaced, the 2004 regulation was promulgated pursuant to notice and comment rulemaking and therefore has the force of law. See 69 Fed.Reg. 22122, 22157-58 (Apr. 23, 2004). In promulgating the new regulation, the Department of Labor explained that “[t]he majority of journalists, who simply collect and organize information that is already public, or do not contribute a unique or creative interpretation or analysis to a news product, are not likely to be exempt.” Id. at 22158. Although we have not decided a case applying the creative professional exemption to journalists, other courts have explored the circumstances under which print journalists qualify for the exemption. In Reich v. Gateway Press, Inc., 13 F.3d 685 (3d Cir.1994), the Third Circuit concluded that none of the reporters at a chain of nineteen local weeklies was exempt. The newspapers largely contained “information about the day-to-day events of their respective local communities … overlooked by the Pittsburgh metropolitan daily press.” Id. at 688. The reporters primarily generated articles and features using what they knew about the local community, spent 50-60% of their time accumulating facts, and mostly filed recast press releases or information taken from public records. They wrote a feature article or editorial about once per month. Id. at 689. The court held that they were among the majority of reporters who were non-exempt. Id. at 699-700. It noted that the work was not “the type of fact gathering that demands the skill or expertise of an investigative journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer or Washington Post, or a bureau chief for the New York Times.Id. at 700.

In Reich v. Newspapers of New England, Inc., 44 F.3d 1060 (1st Cir.1995), the First Circuit similarly held that reporters and other employees employed by a small community newspaper were not exempt professionals. The day-to-day duties of the reporters involved “general assignment work” covering hearings, criminal and policy activity, and legislative proceedings and business events. Employees were not “asked to editorialize about or interpret the events they covered.” Id. at 1075. They, too, were therefore among the majority of reporters who were not exempt, even though their work occasionally demonstrated creativity, invention, imagination, or talent. Id.

By comparison, in Sherwood v. Washington Post, 871 F.Supp. 1471, 1482 (D.D.C.1994), the district court held that a Washington Post reporter whose “job required him to originate his own story ideas, maintain a wide network of sources, write engaging, imaginative prose, and produce stories containing thoughtful analysis of complex issues” was exempt. As a high-level investigative journalist who had held multiple positions of prominence at one of the nation’s top newspapers, the reporter was the sort of elite journalist whom the creative professional exemption was intended to cover.

The parties in this case submitted extensive evidence on summary judgment. Reporters stated in their depositions that they wrote between two and four articles per day, and that they very seldom did investigative reporting. The reporters proposed articles, but the editors gave considerate direction and frequently assigned the topics. One reporter explained that with having to write so much, “you didn’t have enough time to-really analyze anything.” Some time was spent rewriting press releases. There were no senior reporters or others with distinctive titles, and each of the reporters performed essentially the same tasks.

Editors’ declarations submitted by CDN, on the other hand, stated that articles “include background, analysis and perspective on events and news,” that CDN employs some of the most talented reporters in the Chinese newspaper industry, and that the reporters have extensive control over their time, pace of work, and ideas for articles to write. They stated that reporters must cultivate sources, sift through significant amounts of information, and analyze complicated issues. Several editors stated that they approved more than 90% of the topics suggested by reporters. Reporters’ salaries ranged from $2,060 to $3,700 per month.

Although the evidence submitted revealed disputes over how to characterize CDN’s journalists, we agree with the district court that, even when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to CDN, the reporters do not satisfy the criteria for the creative professional exemption. CDN’s Monterey Park (Los Angeles) operation, with twelve to fifteen reporters and a local circulation of 30,000, is not quite as small or unsophisticated as the community newspapers described in the Newspapers of New England and Gateway Press cases. But CDN is much closer to the community newspapers described in those cases than to the New York Times or Washington Post. As the district court explored in detail, the materials submitted on summary judgment make clear that CDN’s articles do not have the sophistication of the national-level papers at which one might expect to find the small minority of journalists who are exempt. Moreover, the intense pace at which CDN’s reporters work precludes them from engaging in sophisticated analysis. CDN’s reporters’ primary duties do not involve “conducting investigative interviews; analyzing or interpreting public events; [or] writing editorial[s], opinion columns or other commentary,” 29 C.F.R. § 541 .302(d), even if they engage in these activities some of the time. Indeed, many CDN articles may be characterized as “standard recounts of public information [created] by gathering facts on routine community events,” id., as opposed to the product of in-depth analysis. Characterizing CDN journalists as exempt would therefore be inconsistent with the Department of Labor’s intent that “the majority of journalists … are not likely to be exempt,” 69 Fed.Reg. at 22158, and with the requirement that FLSA exemptions be construed narrowly.

The evidence before the district court did not create a genuine issue of material fact as to the reporters’ status. We therefore affirm the district court’s determination on summary judgment that CDN’s reporters were non-exempt employees who were entitled to the protections of the FLSA and California law.”

Not discussed here, the Court also held that the certification of both a collective action of the FLSA claims and a class action of the California state law claims was within the court’s discretion, as was the lower court’s decision to invalidate many opt-out forms received in response to the initial class action notice, in response to what it believed was coercion from the defendant employer.

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M.D.Ala.: Wal-Mart Assistant Store Managers (ASMs) May Be Entitled To Overtime Pay; Wal-Mart’s Motion for Summary Judgment Denied

Davis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.

This case was before the Court on Wal-Mart’s motion for summary judgment.  Wal-Mart asserted that the Plaintiffs, two (2) former Assistant Store Managers (“ASMs”) were exempt from the overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Citing issues of fact raised by the Plaintiffs, the Court denied Wal-Mart’s motion.

After noting that the court was due to accept the facts in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs (as the non-moving party), the court recited the following facts pertinent to the motion:

“The facts of this case concern the job duties of the Plaintiffs. Plaintiff Nancy Davis was employed at the Wal-Mart in Opelika, Alabama as a salaried assistant manager from June of 2006 until September 2009. Davis states that during her employment she performed such tasks as stocking, acting as cashier, sweeping, mopping, cleaning, unloading trucks, bringing in shopping carts, and doing price checks. Plaintiff Shirley Toliver was employed with the Wal-Mart store in Opelika from August 2001 to May 20, 2009. She also states that she performed tasks such as stocking, running the cash register, sweeping, mopping, cleaning, loading trucks, pulling pallets, bringing in shopping carts and performing price checks. The Plaintiffs have testified in their depositions that these tasks comprised 80-90 % of their work duties. Wal-Mart has presented documentary and deposition evidence that Davis and Toliver also engaged in managerial tasks, including delegation of duties, interviewing and hiring applicants, coaching associates, evaluating associates, and terminating associates.”

The Court held that, on these facts, the Plaintiffs could not be said, as a matter of law, to fall under the FLSA’s executive exemption or administrative exemption.  After outlining the elements of the executive exemption, the Court reasoned:

“In a case relied upon by Davis and Toliver, the Eleventh Circuit has engaged in a lengthy analysis of the primary duty requirement in the context of store managers of Family Dollar Stores, a retail establishment. See Morgan v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 551 F.3d 1233 (11th Cir.2008).  In Morgan, the plaintiffs were store managers who spent 80 to 90 % of their time performing manual labor tasks such as stocking shelves, running cash registers, unloading trucks, and cleaning. Id. at 1270. They were also assigned tasks such as completing paper work and making bank deposits, but those tasks were strictly prescribed. In evaluating the claim that the executive exemption did not apply to these managers, the court emphasized that at the executive exemption to FLSA overtime pay is to be narrowly construed because the Supreme Court has directed that the exemption be applied only to plaintiffs who fall “clearly and unmistakably within the terms and spirit of the exemption.” Id. at 1269 (citation omitted). The court further noted that the inquiry is fact-intensive, and if there is evidence “on both sides of the question,” the facts should be determined by a jury. Id. The factor of time spent on manual, nonexempt work, however, did not establish that the plaintiffs were nonexempt. Id. Instead, the court found that the jury’s determination that the managers were nonexempt was supported not just by the amount of time spent performing nonexempt work, but also by evidence that non-managerial tasks were of “equal or greater importance to the store’s functioning and success.” Id. The court found significant that the employer described manual labor performed on delivery day as an “essential function” of the position. Id. The court also concluded that the evidence of little time spent in discretionary matters, little freedom from direct supervision, and the difference between managerial and other wages supported the jury’s finding of non-exempt work as the primary duty. Id. at 1270-71. As Wal-Mart points out, the court distinguished other courts’ opinions on the basis that in Morgan the manual labor was not performed concurrently with managerial duties. Id. at 1272-73.

Davis and Toliver contend that here, as in Morgan, all four of the primary duty factors weigh in their favor in this case. With respect to managerial duties, Davis and Toliver contend that they spent the vast majority of their time performing non-managerial tasks, and that the managerial tasks they performed were relatively less important than their non-managerial duties. The court begins with the factor of the amount of time spent performing management duties.

1. Time Spent Performing Management Duties

Davis and Toliver have testified that 80-90 % of their time was spent performing nonmanagerial tasks. Davis Dep. at page 125: 19-126: 4. Davis stated that she would run the cash register for 15 or 20 minutes at a time all day long, three out of five days a week, on day and night shifts, and that she found herself doing sweeping and cleaning, particularly on the third shift. Id. at page 128: 18-129:16. Toliver testified that she performed the same tasks testified to by Davis, adding that sometimes she would be a cashier for three hours at a time. Toliver Dep. at pages 95: 16-96: 4, 17-11-19.

While Wal-Mart characterizes this testimony as self-serving, the court must accept the Plaintiffs’ testimony that they performed the sort of tasks described 80-90 % of the time. Those tasks testified to are not considered managerial duties.

Managerial duties are defined by the C.F.R. to include interviewing, selecting and training employees, directing the work of employees, maintaining sales records, appraising employees’ productivity and efficiency, handling employee complaints and grievances, disciplining employees, planning work, determining techniques to be used, apportioning work, determining merchandise to be bought and sold, controlling distribution of merchandise, providing for safety and security of employees or property, planning and controlling the budget, and implementing and monitoring legal compliance measures. 29 C.F.R. § 541.102. Clearly the tasks which Davis and Toliver have identified as comprising 80-90 % of their working time do not fall within these examples of managerial tasks. The C.F.R. also states, however, that

Occasional, infrequently recurring tasks that cannot practicably be performed by nonexempt employees, but are the means for an exempt employee to properly carry out exempt functions and responsibilities, are considered exempt work. The following factors should be considered in determining whether such work is exempt work: Whether the same work is performed by any of the exempt employee’s subordinates; practicability of delegating the work to a nonexempt employee; whether the exempt employee performs the task frequently or occasionally; and existence of an industry practice for the exempt employee to perform the task.  29 C.F.R. § 541.707.

The Plaintiffs argue that the extent to which they performed nonmanagerial tasks meant that the tasks cannot be considered to be exempt work. Davis and Toliver state that their time spent doing the managerial duties of performance evaluation was minimal, averaging 10 to 15 minutes. Toliver Dep. at page 98: 8-16. Davis described her duties as running the register, pulling pallets, unloading trucks, working freight by pulling it off a truck and putting it on the shelf, zoning by fronting merchandise, and cleaning. Davis Dep. at 156: 3-10. Given the testimony of the extent of their nonmanagerial duties, the court concludes that a reasonable jury could conclude that the tasks which, according to the Plaintiffs’ testimony, comprised 80-90 % of their work, were more than occasional, infrequently recurring tasks and, therefore, were nonexempt tasks.

Wal-Mart argues that the Plaintiffs’ choice to perform nonexempt tasks, rather than to delegate those tasks, because they were ultimately responsible for those tasks, does not make them nonexempt. Wal-Mart points to the C.F.R. and argues that concurrent performance of exempt and nonexempt work does not disqualify an employee from the executive exemption. See 29 C.F.R. § 106(a). That C.F.R. section states, however, that if exempt and nonexempt work occurs concurrently, the exemption can still apply, if the requirements for the exemption are otherwise met. Id. The C.F.R. offers as an example an assistant manager who supervises employees and serves customers at the same time, without losing the executive exemption. § 541.106(b). The C.F.R. draws a distinction between persons who make the decision of when to perform nonexempt duties and those directed to perform exempt work. § 541.106(a).

The Eleventh Circuit relied on such a distinction in Morgan. The court distinguished cases from other courts which had given less weight to plaintiffs’ estimates of time performed on nonexempt tasks because those plaintiffs concurrently performed exempt tasks. Morgan, 551 F.3d at 1272. The court explained that the amount of manual labor performed by the managers in Morgan overwhelmed their capacity to perform managerial duties concurrently during store hours. Morgan, 551 F.3d at 1272. The court further explained that management duties could not be performed concurrently because, for example, “a store manager unloading a truck and stocking the storeroom was not concurrently supervising the cashier out front.” Id. at 1273. The court noted that many of the tasks were performed before and after the store closed.   Id. at 1272. The court concluded that the jury “may well have given more weight to the Plaintiffs’ evidence that they spent 80 to 90 % of their time solely on nonexempt work.” Id.

Davis stated in her deposition that she would receive managerial notes from the store manager which would tell her tasks that needed to be accomplished during a shift. Id. at page 126:15-127:14. She explained that “[w]e were told what to do, either find somebody to do it or do it yourself.” Id. at page 126: 15-16. Davis explained that she was assigned duties by the store manager or co-manager in the shift notes that told her what they wanted done. Id. at 150:8-22. If there were minimal associates working, she had to perform the manual labor tasks herself. Id. at page 150: 17-151:17. Davis gave as an example that if two or three trucks came in carrying freight during the third shift, she would have to go to that department. Id. at 151:10-17. She further explained that she would get in trouble for not getting the tasks done. Id. at 151:21-22. Davis testified that she performed sweeping, mopping, and cleaning duties “mostly on third shift” because there were not “enough associates to get everything done that needed to be done.” Id. at 129: 8-16. She also stated that she has been told to scrape dirt from under shelves with a scraper on third shift. Id. at 156:18-157. Davis also testified that she would stay on past the end of her shift on some occasions so that she averaged 54 to 65 hours per week. Id. at page 110: 13-19.

According to the Plaintiffs’ evidence, they were not responsible for the scheduling of associates. The scheduling of employees was conducted by co-Manager Ken King. King explained in his deposition that he set the schedules based on a budget he was provided by corporate headquarters, which came down through the regional and district manager. King Dep. at page 12. Although King also stated that assistant managers also set schedules, in her deposition, Toliver disputed that she made schedules, and stated that the co-manager made the schedules. Toliver Dep. at page 20: 8-12, 21-3.

While Wal-Mart has contended that the Plaintiffs chose to perform nonmanagerial tasks instead of delegating those tasks, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-movants, the Plaintiffs were directed to perform tasks even in the face of inadequate staffing levels. Furthermore, the nonexempt tasks performed by Davis and Toliver in this case were similar to those in Morgan, such as unloading of freight, which would not allow for the supervision of associates in other sections of the store. The court concludes, therefore, that Wal-Mart has not conclusively shown that the nonexempt tasks were performed concurrently with exempt tasks, for purposes of its affirmative defense. Here, as in Morgan, the court concludes that there is sufficient evidence to support the Plaintiffs’ estimate that 80 % to 90 % of their work was nonexempt work.

The C.F.R. states that the amount of time spent on managerial tasks “can be a useful guide in determining whether exempt work is the primary duty of an employee,” but it is not the sole test. § 541.700(b). A person who spends more than 50 percent of her time performing exempt work generally will satisfy the primary duty requirement, but “employees who do not spend more than 50 percent of their time performing exempt duties may nonetheless meet the primary duty requirement if the other factors support such a conclusion.” Id.

Given the Plaintiffs’ evidence, the factor of the amount of time spent on nonexempt tasks, while not dispositive, weighs against a finding of exempt work as the primary duty in this case. See Morgan, 551 F.3d at 1270.

2. Relative Importance of Managerial Duties

The next primary duty factor to be examined is the relative importance of managerial duties as compared to other duties. 29 C.F .R. § 541.700(a).

Wal-Mart has submitted multiple records evidencing managerial tasks, such as coaching for improvement of hourly associates, performance evaluations, and job offers. Wal-Mart states that Davis and Toliver managed recognized departments during the day shift, and were “in charge” of the store on night shifts. Wal-Mart further states that these duties were important, as they were evaluated in the Plaintiffs’ performance evaluations.

Davis and Toliver do not dispute that they coached associate employees, evaluated performance of associates, checked the status of inventory, and monitored store conditions. See Doc. # 20 at page 15. As noted above, however, they state their time spent doing managerial duties, for example, employee evaluation, was minimal, consisting of 10 to 15 minutes, and that these duties were secondary to their primary duties of waiting on customers, stocking shelves, cleaning, merchandising, unloading delivery trucks, and bringing in shopping carts. As further evidence of the relative importance of the nonmanagerial tasks, the Plaintiffs point out that in the job description’s listing of physical activities necessary to perform essential job functions an assistant manager is required to move, lift, carry, and place merchandise and supplies weighing up to 25 pounds without assistance, and to grasp, turn, and manipulate objects of varying size and weight, requiring fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. As described extensively above, there is evidence that Davis and Toliver were required to perform manual tasks also performed by associates, and that the budget-based schedule, which left the store understaffed at times, required them to perform manual labor tasks.

In Morgan, the court concluded that nonmanagerial duties were more important because the essential job functions as listed by the employer required that the managers do the same work as stock clerks and cashiers, and that a large amount of manual labor by managers was a key to the business model, given the limited payroll and large amount of labor that had to be performed. Morgan, 551 F.2d at 1270.

Viewing the evidence presented in a light most favorable to the nonmovant, the court concludes that here, as in Morgan, there is enough evidence for a jury to find not only that nonmanagerial tasks consumed 80-90 % of Davis and Toliver’s time, but also that the nonmanagerial work was relatively more important than managerial work.

3. Relative freedom from Direct Supervision

As to the analytical factor of relative freedom from direct supervision, Davis and Toliver argue that not only were they governed by policies put in place by Wal-Mart at its corporate headquarters, but also policies created, implemented, and enforced by the store manager or co-manager who were present in the store daily. For instance, Toliver states in her deposition that there was a time during which assistant managers set the schedules, but during the relevant time period, the co-manager set schedules. Toliver Dep. at page 20: 4-12. She also explained that she thought it should be within her discretion to decide whom to interview for an position which was open, but that she was told whom to choose at times. Id. at page 78: 3-12. She testified that the rate of starting pay was dictated by policy and that she was not allowed to give raises. Id. at 107:10-23.

Davis testified that when the store manager and co-manager were present in the store, they were supervising the assistant supervisors and were supervising the hourly associates. Davis Dep. at page 148: 9-17. With respect to the placement of merchandise, Davis testified that the home office, store manager, or co-manager directed where to place merchandise, and that placement was dictated by planograms. Id. at page 152:12-153:4. Even on the third shift, when Wal-Mart insists the Plaintiffs were “in charge” of the store, as set out above, upper management gave instructions of what was to be done, down to tasks such as scraping dirt from beneath shelves.

In Morgan, the Eleventh Circuit found that the factor of freedom from supervision weighed in favor of a finding of the primary duty being nonexempt work, because managers above the level of the store managers were responsible for enforcing detailed store operating policies, closely reviewed inventory, closely monitored the payroll, controlled employee hourly rates and pay raises, routinely sent to-do lists and emails with instructions to the managers, closely supervised displays, and closely supervised store operations.   Morgan, 551 F.3d at 1271. When viewed in a light most favorable to the non-movants, many of the same considerations present in Morgan, such as instructions from upper management as to tasks to perform, and pay rates and budget-controlled staffing by upper management, are present in this case as well. Therefore, the court concludes that this factor also weighs in Davis and Toliver’s favor.

4. Relative wages

As to the fourth primary duty factor, the relationship between employee’s salary and wages paid to other employees for the kind of nonexempt work performed by the employee, although Davis and Toliver have argued, correctly, that the court should account for the extra hours they worked in comparing salaries and wages, the court has not been pointed to evidence of the amount of hourly wages paid for the same nonexempt work duties. Therefore, the court cannot conclude that this factor weighs in favor of the Plaintiffs in this case.

Considering together the evidence of the relative importance of the management duties as compared with other types of duties, the amount of time spent performing management duties, the employee’s relative freedom from direct supervision, and the lack of evidence of relative wages, along with the fact that there is evidence that the Plaintiffs performed several types of managerial duties, it appears to the court there is a close question as to whether Davis and Toliver had primarily nonexempt duties. While the Morgan case is helpful in applying the analytical factors and considerations set forth in the C.F.R., the Morgan decision is also distinguishable to the extent that the evidence of managerial responsibilities of the plaintiffs in that case was somewhat limited. Bearing in mind that Wal-Mart has the burden of proof on its affirmative defense, and viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-movants, however, the court concludes that there is sufficient evidence to create a question of fact as to whether the Plaintiffs’ primary duties were managerial. Having concluded that there are questions of fact which preclude judgment in Wal-Mart’s favor on the exemption requirement of primary duty, the court need not address the remaining requirements for application of the executive exemption.”

The Court then went on to hold that Plaintiffs may not be administratrively exempt either.  While, this case was limited to the facts of the two (2) ASM Plaintiffs here, this will be an interesting one to watch.

Cliok here Davis v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to read the entire opinion.

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