Tag Archives: Overtime

S.D.Fla.: Contractor Engaged in Heavy-Duty Cleaning of Airplanes Not Air-Carrier Exempt Under Railway Labor Act (RLA)

Roca v Alphatech Aviation Services, Inc.

In this case, an employee sued his employer, a company that provided heavy-duty cleaning of airplanes, alleging failure to pay overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The case was before the court on the defendant cleaning company’s motion for summary judgment. Specifically, the defendant asserted that it was entitled to the air-carrier exemption under the Railway Labor Act (RLA), because its work involved cleaning airplanes pursuant to contracts with air carriers covered that were covered by the exemption. The court disagreed and denied the defendant’s motion.

Describing the facts relevant to its inquiry, the court explained:

Alphatech specializes in heavy-duty cleaning of airplanes operated by commercial and freight airlines. In addition to cleaning airplane interiors and exteriors, Alphatech personnel replace components, perform light maintenance, preventive maintenance, and carry out related servicing of the aircraft. D.E. 22–1. As explained by Plaintiff, Alphatech employees “leave the plane clean; all the bathrooms, the galleys, everything, seats, carpeting[,] …. leave like the shell of the plane.” D.E. 25–1, at 13:13–16. In other words, cleaning is performed when an aircraft’s cabin is completely disassembled. D.E. 24–1, at 24:25. This work is primarily performed at the Miami International Airport complex, in a facility owned by AAR Aircraft Services (“AAR”), though Alphatech’s administrative work is performed out of its own office space adjacent to the airport. D.E. 22–1, at 35:3–6.

Alphatech does work for various air carriers, maintaining a separate contractual relationship with each. See D.E. 26–4. The work performed for each air carrier is executed in accordance with that air carrier’s maintenance manual. D.E. 24–1, at 9:12–14. Each air carrier specifies the manner in which it desires for its planes to be cleaned. Id. at 17:17–18. Alphatech employees sometimes work on the same exact model plane for two different air carriers and nevertheless perform their assignments differently, in accordance with each air carrier’s manual for that air craft. Id. at 17:19–22. The air carriers separately contract with AAR to inspect and certify the work that Alphatech performs. Id. at 15:10–13, 16:15–19. AAR “professors” are also responsible for administering the air carrier-specific training that Alphatech personnel must receive before servicing an aircraft. The air carrier representatives “walk [through the plane], they turn around, and they leave.” D.E. 15:9–10. Defendant Brullo testified that he could not remember the names of any air carrier supervisors because they change all the time, coming and going with the particular aircrafts that Alphatech personnel service. D.E. 23–1, at 29:19–22.

Giving an overview of the air-carrier exemption, and concluding that the defendant could not satisfy its burden to demonstrate the applicability of same, the court stated:

The question presented by this Motion is whether Plaintiff is an “employee of a carrier by air” for purposes of the FLSA’s air carrier exemption. Under the FLSA, employers are required to pay their employees at overtime rates for work in excess of 40 hours per week. See
29 U.S.C. § 207. However, certain classes of employers are exempt from this overtime requirement. Thus, the air carrier exemption removes from coverage “any employee of a carrier by air subject to the provisions of Title II of the Railway Labor Act.” Id. § 213(b)(3). Title II of the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”), in turn, covers “every common carrier by air …, and every air pilot or other person who performs any work as an employee or subordinate official of such carrier or carriers, subject to its or their continuing authority to supervise and direct the manner of rendition of his service.” 45 U.S.C. § 181.

Defendants have failed to show that Plaintiff is exempt from overtime coverage. The application of an exemption under the FLSA is an affirmative defense on which the employer has the burden of proof. Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188, 196–97, 94 S.Ct. 2223, 41 L.Ed.2d 1 (1974). The Eleventh Circuit has found that Title II of the RLA “is certainly unambiguous” in scope, Valdivieso v. Atlas Air, 305 F.3d 1283, 1287 (11th Cir.2002), yet Defendants urge the Court to find that Plaintiff qualifies as an air-carrier employee under a two-pronged conjunctive test promulgated by the National Mediation Board (“NMB”)2 in cases where the employer does not itself fly aircraft. Plaintiff no more satisfies this two-part test than she does the plain text of the subject exemption. Under the NMB’s two-pronged conjunctive test, an employee is covered by the air-carrier exemption if: (1) the nature of the work is that traditionally performed by employees of air carriers (the “function” test); and (2) the employer is directly or indirectly owned or controlled by or under common control with an air carrier (the “control” test). Verrett v. The Sabre Grp., 70 F.Supp.2d 1277, 1281 (N.D.Okla.1999). Both prongs must be satisfied in order for the RLA exemption to apply. Here, neither prong is satisfied.

Discussing each prong in more detail, and finding that defendant here could satisfy neither prong, the court reasoned:

1. Function Test

Defendants have not shown that the work performed by Alphatech employees is of the sort traditionally performed by air-carrier employees. Indeed, Defendants’ own witnesses have severely undercut their position. Mr. Pichardo testified that the air carriers hire outside contractors to perform the sort of heavy-duty cleaning work performed by Alphatech. When Alphatech works on an aircraft, it does so for an extended period of time, rather than between scheduled flights. In fact, Alphatech’s witnesses repeatedly clarified at deposition that the company’s work is not at all akin to the rapid cabin cleanup performed by air carrier personnel between flights. Indeed, Defendants have not presented any evidence tending to show that the work performed by Alphatech is ever performed by air-carrier employees, let alone that it is “traditionally” performed by those workers.

The RLA’s definition of a “carrier” sheds additional light on what should be considered work traditionally performed by carrier employees. Under the RLA, the term “carrier” includes actual carriers as well as “any company … which operates any equipment or facilities or performs any service (other than trucking service) in connection with the transportation, receipt, delivery, elevation, transfer in transit, refrigeration or icing, storage, and handling of property transported.” 45 U.S.C. § 151. The focus, then, tends to be on companies performing the auxiliary functions of loading, unloading, and shipping to and from carriers’ depots and terminals for the ultimate transportation of whatever is being carried in interstate commerce.

What Defendants have presented in their defense are NMB decisions purporting to hold that aircraft cleaning is a function traditionally performed by air-carrier employees. The Court finds these non-precedential decisions to be distinguishable and otherwise unpersuasive.3 Defendants also rely on Moyano v. Professional Contractors Services, Inc., No. 1:07–cv–22411 (S.D.Fla. Mar. 7, 2008), a case involving mechanic contractors. Moyano offers little analysis under either prong, but does rely on the NMB’s analysis in In re Empire Auto Center, Inc., 33 NMB 3, 2005 WL 3089356 (Oct. 13, 2005). In that case, the employees also worked for an independent contractor and performed their tasks according to maintenance manuals provided by the air-carrier clients. 2005 WL 3089356, at *6. However, Empire’s chief financial officer testified that Empire employees performed maintenance work identical to maintenance work performed by aircraft employees employed by commercial air carriers. Alphatech’s owner, by contrast, acknowledges that the work performed by Alphatech is traditionally contracted out by the air carriers. Moreover, the nature of the work at issue in Empire does not at all appear to be similar to the work Plaintiff performed while at Alphatech. Empire’s employees all fell into one of four categories: exhibit air frame and power plant mechanic; non-destructive test technician; aircraft sheet metal technician; and aircraft avionics and electrical mechanic. Id. at 10. These maintenance and repair operations are similar to the work at issue in Moyano, but not similar to the work performed by Plaintiff. The Court finds that Defendants have failed to show that Plaintiff satisfies the function prong of the NMB test.

2. Control Test

Defendants’ argument that Alphatech’s air carrier clients indirectly control the company’s operations would convert most independent contractors into “carriers” for purposes of the RLA, so long as their clients are air carriers. But entering into a contractual relationship, while perhaps necessary, is certainly not sufficient to satisfy the control test. Courts find that carriers control a contractor’s employees “[w]here the carrier controls the details of the day-to-day process by which the contractor provides services—for example, the number of employees assigned to particular tasks, the employees’ attire, the length of their shifts, and the methods they use in their work.” Cunningham v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., No. 06–3530, 15 Wage & Hour Cas.2d (BNA) 1891, 2010 WL 1223084, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Mar.31, 2010) (citing In re Ogden Aviation Serv., 23 NBM 98, 104 (Feb. 5, 1996)). Defendants insist that the air carriers have ultimate control over Alphatech employees because they have an absolute say over the means by which their aircrafts are cleaned, and because individual Alphatech employees must be approved to work on each given aircraft. But Defendants’ deposition testimony establishes that the air carriers have absolutely no control over what Alphatech pays its employees, when and how they are promoted or given pay raises, which shifts they work, how many hours they work per shift, or how many employees are scheduled to work on an aircraft at once.

Meticulous work instructions and prior approval of an independent contractors’ employees will not convert those employees into a carrier’s employees for RLA purposes. See Dobbs Houses, Inc. v. N .L.R.B., 443 F.2d 1066, 1070 (6th Cir.1971). In Dobbs Houses, the court found that while an airline caterer was “engaged in a business which requires it to please some very meticulous and demanding customers, that fact alone does not establish their ‘control directly or indirectly’ of it or its employees.” Id. at 1072. In so finding, the Sixth Circuit distinguished the case of a catering company employed by a rail carrier under circumstances more indicative of “control.” It found that control was exercised in that case because: the catering company could not do any work for any other client except by the carrier’s explicit permission; the carrier reimbursed the caterer for the total cost of its workers’ wages; the carrier had the explicit right to discharge the caterer’s employees; and the catering employees were directly subject to the carrier’s supervision. Id. at 1071. None of those factors were present in the Dobbs Houses case, and none are present here.

Thus, the court held that the defendant was not an exempt air-carrier and denied the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Subsequently, the plaintiff moved for partial summary judgment regarding the same issue, and the court granted the motion for virtually identical reasons as stated here.

Click Roca v. Alphatech Aviation Services, Inc. to read the entire Opinion and Order on [Defendant's Motion for] Summary Judgment. Click Roca v. Alphatech Aviation Services, Inc. to read the Order on [Plaintiff's Motion for Partial] Summary Judgment.

Leave a comment

Filed under Exemptions

DOL to Issue Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to Amend the Companionship and Live-In Worker Regulations

The DOL announced yesterday that it would be issuing proposed amended rules regarding companionship and live-in workers’ eligibility for overtime under the FLSA.  A preview of the announcement from the DOL’s website explains:

“While Congress expanded protections to “domestic service” workers in 1974, these Amendments also created a limited exemption from both the minimum wage and overtime pay requirements of the Act for casual babysitters and companions for the aged and infirm, and created an exemption from the overtime pay requirement only for live-in domestic workers.

Although the regulations governing exemptions have been substantially unchanged since they were promulgated in 1975, the in-home care industry has undergone a dramatic transformation. There has been a growing demand for long-term in-home care, and as a result the in-home care services industry has grown substantially. However, the earnings of in-home care employees remain among the lowest in the service industry, impeding efforts to improve both jobs and care. Moreover, the workers that are employed by in-home care staffing agencies are not the workers that Congress envisioned when it enacted the companionship exemption (i.e., neighbors performing elder sitting), but instead are professional caregivers entitled to FLSA protections. In view of these changes, the Department believes it is appropriate to reconsider whether the scope of the regulations are now too broad and not in harmony with Congressional intent.

Proposed Changes to the Companionship and Live-In Worker Regulations

On December 15, 2011 the Department announced that it will publish a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to revise the companionship and live-in worker regulations for two important purposes:

  • To more clearly define the tasks that may be performed by an exempt companion
  • To limit the companionship exemption to companions employed only by the family or household using the services. Third party employers, such as in-home care staffing agencies, could not claim the exemption, even if the employee is jointly employed by the third party and the family or household.

Although the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has reviewed and approved the attached Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), the document has not yet been published in the Federal Register. The NPRM that appears in the Federal Register will specify the dates of the public comment period and may contain minor formatting differences in accordance with Office of the Federal Register publication requirements. The OMB-approved version is being provided as a convenience to the public and this website will be updated with the Federal Register’s published version when it becomes available.”

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

Click Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to read more.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Department of Labor, Exemptions

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

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

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

According to a DOL press release:

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

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

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

4 Comments

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

S.D.N.Y.: Class Action Waiver Unenforceable in FLSA Case, Because Cost of Individual Litigation vs. Potential Recovery Prohibitive

Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP

This case was before the court on Defendant’s motion to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration on an individual (rather than class/collective) basis.  There was no dispute as to whether the Plaintiff had executed the arbitration agreement, containing the class waiver, however the court held that the class waiver was unenforceable, after a lengthy discussion of Second Circuit law and the impact of the recent United States Supreme Court case, Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010).

The court reasoned:

“Because the Amex decision retains its persuasive force, the Court applies the test adopted in Amex to determine the enforceability of the class waiver provision here at issue. In the totality of the circumstances, the Court finds that the class waiver provision is invalid because it prevents Sutherland from vindicating her statutory rights.

1. Cost to Individual Plaintiff Versus Potential Recovery

The record supports Sutherland’s argument that her maximum potential recovery would be too meager to justify the expenses required for the individual prosecution of her claim. Sutherland alleges “an actual overtime loss of approximately $1,867.02, with potentially liquidated damages of an equal amount under the FLSA.” (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 8; see also Sutherland Deck. ¶ 4.) If her only option were to prosecute her claim on an individual basis, Sutherland would be required to pay expenses that would dwarf her potential recovery. 

Sutherland’s uncontested submission estimates that her attorney’s fees during arbitration will exceed $160,000, and that costs will exceed $6,000. (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 20, 24.) Sutherland will utilize expert assistance in support of her claims.(Id. ¶ 22.) Her expert, a professor of accountancy, has submitted an affidavit stating that his fees may exceed $33,500, and that he requires a retainer payment of $25,000. (Carmichael Decl. ¶ 5.) In sum, Sutherland would be required to spend approximately $200,000 in order to recover double her overtime loss of approximately $1,867 .02. Only a “lunatic or a fanatic” would undertake such an endeavor. Carnegie v. Household Intern., Inc., 376 F.3d 656, 661 (7th Cir.2004). Indeed, rather than prosecuting her low-value, high-cost claim on an individual basis, Sutherland “would give up any rights” she might have to recover overtime payments allegedly owed to her. (Sutherland Decl.¶ 2.)

Pursuant to the E & Y Agreement, Sutherland is responsible for the Court Equivalent Fee, or a fee specified by the arbitration provider, whichever is less; arbitration fees and costs are to be shared equally between the parties. (Reece Decl. Exh. D¶ IV.P.) Sutherland has submitted an uncontested affidavit stating that arbitration fees would amount to $24,000, and that the applicable Court Equivalent Fee is $350. (Folkenflik Decl.¶ 24.) E & Y’s offer to pay such costs, which the Court has factored into Sutherland’s expenses as detailed above, thus lessens her burden by $12,350. Although this amount is not insignificant, it is hardly enough to allow Sutherland to bring her claims on an individual basis: she would still be required to spend approximately $200,000 on attorney’s fees and costs, as well as expert fees, in order to recover double her overtime loss of approximately $1,867.02.

E & Y’s attempt to distinguish the cost-recovery differential in Amex from the differential present here is unavailing. The “median plaintiff” in Amex would have recovered damages of $1,751, and the expert’s services would have cost at least several hundred thousand dollars. Amex, 554 F.3d at 317. According to E & Y, a “median plaintiff” in the instant matter could recover “substantially more,” and expert fees here amount to “a small fraction” of those at issue in Amex. (Def. Reply at 6-7.) The Amex decision did not, however, set a cost-to-recovery ratio below which claims are deemed “prosecutable.” The court instead embraced a functional approach, which “depends upon a showing that the size of the recovery received by any individual plaintiff will be too small to justify the expenditure of bringing an individual action.” Amex, 554 F.3d at 320. Sutherland has satisfied her burden on that score.

E & Y also cites to authorities in which the cost-recovery differential was held not to preclude the prosecution of claims on an individual basis. Such decisions are either inapposite or unpersuasive. In Pomposi v. GameStop, Inc., for instance, a class waiver was enforced where the amount in controversy was $11,000, and plaintiff’s total fees and costs ranged from $46,000 to $62,000.09 Civ. 0340, 2010 WL 147196, at *7 (D.Conn. Jan. 11, 2010). The court in Pomposi did not, however, meaningfully discuss plaintiff’s ability to retain counsel notwithstanding the differential between potential costs and recovery. E & Y cites Ornelas v. Sonic-Denver T, Inc., No. 06 Civ. 253, 2007 WL 274738 (D.Colo. Jan. 29, 2007), as standing for the proposition that “compelling arbitration would not preclude plaintiff from pursuing his claims where damages were at least $3500.” (Def. Mem. at 12.) But the plaintiff in Ornelas was allegedly entitled to (i) a trebling of the approximately $3500 in actual damages, and (ii) unspecified punitive damages and interest. Id. at *6. Moreover, the plaintiff in Ornelas apparently would not incur any expert witness fees. Id. at *7. Finally, E & Y offers Anglin v. Tower Loan of Miss., Inc., 635 F.Supp.2d 523 (S.D.Miss.2009) as precedent for “compelling arbitration where damages, attorney’s fees and punitive damages would result in [a] recovery of over $5,000.” (Def. Reply at 12.) The nub of Anglin, however, was that the plaintiff “made no effort” to demonstrate the prohibitive costs of individual arbitration. Anglin, 635 F.Supp.2d at 529. By contrast, Sutherland has “substantial[ly] demonstrat[ed]” that an inability to prosecute her claims on a class basis “would be tantamount to an inability to assert [her] claims at all.” Amex, 554 F.3d at 302-03 n.1.

2. Ability to Obtain Legal Representation

Even if Sutherland were willing to incur approximately $200,000 to recover a few thousand dollars, she would be unable to retain an attorney to prosecute her individual claim. This is due largely to the E & Y Agreement’s obstacles to reimbursement of fees and expenses. Whether attorney’s fees and expenses incurred during arbitration are compensable is subject to the discretion of the arbitrators. (Reece Decl. Exh. D ¶ IV.P.3.) The amount of such reimbursement is also left to the arbitrators’ discretion. (See id. (arbitrators may award attorney’s fees, “in whole or part, in accordance with applicable law or in the interest of justice”); 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (providing for the reimbursement of “reasonable” attorney’s fees).)

In light of the foregoing, Sutherland cannot reasonably be expected to retain an attorney to pursue her individual claim, and E & Y has not submitted an affidavit stating otherwise. Sutherland cannot afford to advance the fees and costs in order to hire an attorney on an hourly basis: she has remained unemployed since her termination from E & Y in December 2009; she has no savings, and owes $35,000 in student loans. (Sutherland Decl. ¶ 5.) Counsel for Sutherland will not prosecute her individual claim without charge, and will not advance the required costs where the E & Y Agreement’s fee-shifting provisions present little possibility of being made whole. (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 25.) As the uncontested affidavit of Sutherland’s counsel reflects, Sutherland would find no attorney willing to represent her under the circumstances. (Id. ¶ 27.) Cf. Kristian, 446 F.3d at 60 (“[I]t would not make economic sense for an individual to retain an attorney to handle one of these cases on an hourly basis and it is hard to see how any lawyer could advise a client to do so.”) (internal quotations omitted).

Sutherland’s only option in pursuing her individual claim is thus to retain an attorney on a contingent fee basis. But just as no rational person would expend hundreds of thousands of dollars to recover a few thousand dollars in damages, “no attorney (regardless of competence) would ever take such a case on a contingent fee basis .” Caban v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., 606 F.Supp.2d 1361, 1371 (S.D.Fla.2009); see also Folkenflik Decl.¶ 27. Cf. Kristian, 446 F.3d at 59 (“[I]t would not make economic sense for an attorney to agree to represent any of the plaintiffs in these cases in exchange for 33 1/3% or even a greater percentage of the individual’s recovery.”) (internal quotations omitted). E & Y has submitted no evidence that an attorney would expend approximately $200,000 in time and costs in return for a mere chance to earn potentially one-third of Sutherland’s less than $4,000 recovery.

If Sutherland could aggregate her claim with the claims of others similarly situated, however, she would have no difficulty in obtaining legal representation. (See Folkenflik Decl.¶ 25; see also Pl. Reply at 3.) This is because class proceedings “achieve economies of time, effort, and expense….” Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 616 (1997) (internal quotations omitted).

3. The Practical Effect of Waiver

Enforcement of the class waiver provision in this case would effectively ban all proceedings by Sutherland against E & Y. She will be unable to pursue her claims, even if they are meritorious. As a result, E & Y would enjoy de facto immunity from liability for alleged violations of the labor laws. The legislative purposes in enacting such laws-including, for example, combating “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living” FLSA § 2(a), 29 U.S.C. § 202(a), and assuring workers “additional pay to compensate them for the burden of a workweek beyond” 40 hours per week, In re Novartis Wage and Hour Litig. Litig. 611 F.3d 141, 150 (2d Cir.2010)-would go unfulfilled. “Corporations should not be permitted to use class action waivers as a means to exculpate themselves from liability for small-value claims.” Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1224 (11th Cir.2007).

4. Summary

Having examined the totality of the facts and circumstances, the Court finds that the class waiver provision here at issue is unenforceable because it prevents Sutherland from vindicating her statutory rights. See Amex, 554 F.3d at 302-03 n.1.

V. Future Proceedings

Although the class waiver provision is unenforceable, the Court cannot order E & Y to submit to class arbitration. After the offending provision is severed from the E & Y Agreement, (see Reece Decl. Exh. D ¶ V.F.), the Agreement is rendered silent as to whether class arbitration is permissible. In accordance with Stolt-Nielsen, class arbitration may not be imposed on parties whose arbitration agreements are silent on the permissibility of class proceedings. 130 S.Ct. at 1764, 1775. See also Fensterstock v. Educ. Fin. Partners, 611 F.3d 124, 140 (2d Cir.2010). The Court must accordingly deny E & Y’s motion to compel arbitration.”

It will be interesting to see whether courts in other circuits will follow this well-reasoned opinion.  This is an area of FLSA jurisprudence where there is a wide divergence of opinions.  The Eleventh Circuit for example has long-held that FLSA Collective Action rights can be waived by agreement.

Click Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP to read the entire opinion.

Leave a comment

Filed under Arbitration, Class Certification, Class Waivers

S.D.Tex.: Defendant Who Prevailed at Trial Following OJ, Not Entitled to Award of Attorney’s Fees Under FLSA

Tran v. Thai

While not a novel concept, this case demonstrates a commonly misunderstood concept in FLSA jurisprudence, an FLSA defendant who prevails at trial, following the tender of an offer of judgment (OJ), is not entitled to an award of its attorneys fees.

In this case the defendant had served an OJ on the plaintiff in the amount of $500.00, which the plaintiff did not accept.  The case then proceeded to trial and resulted in a defense verdict.  Following the defense verdict, the defendant moved for an award of its fees and costs, citing Rule 68, the OJ statute.  Denying the defendant’s motion, the court explained that OJ’s do not shift attorney’s fees in FLSA cases, because: (1) OJ’s only shift fees where a plaintiff prevails at trial, but for less than the amount of the OJ; and (2) the FLSA does not permit fee shifting to a defendant.

Reasoning that an award of the defendant’s attorney’s fees was impermissible here, the court explained:

“There are two flaws in the defendants’ request for the fees they incurred after the plaintiff failed to accept the $500 offer. First, Rule 68 “applies only to offers made by the defendant and only to judgments obtained by the plaintiff. It therefore is simply inapplicable to this case because it was the defendant that obtained the judgment.” Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. August, 450 U.S. 346, 352, 101 S.Ct. 1146, 67 L.Ed.2d 287 (1981); MRO Communications, Inc. v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., 197 F.3d 1276, 1280 (9th Cir.1999); see also CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT, et al., 12 FED. PRAC. & PROC. CIV. § 3006 (2d ed.) (“[Rule 68] is entirely inapplicable … if the defendant, rather than the plaintiff, obtain judgment.”). In Delta Airlines, Justice Powell, concurring in the result noted that the Court’s holding implies that “a defendant may obtain costs under Rule 68 against a plaintiff who prevails in part but not against a plaintiff who loses entirely.” 450 U.S. at 362 (Powell, J., concurring) (emphasis in original). In other words, if the jury in this case had awarded Nguyen $300 against the defendants, they could seek attorney fees under Rule 68(d). But because the jury awarded nothing, and judgment is entered in favor of the defendants, there is no basis to award attorney’s fees. See Farley v. Country Coach, Inc., No. 05-71623, 2008 WL 795788, at *1 (E.D.Mich. Mar.26, 2008); Drewery v. Mervyns Dept. Store, No. C 07-5017 RJB, 2008 WL 222627, at *1-2 (W.D.Wash. Jan.25, 2008).

In support of their argument that Rule 68 is relevant to an award of costs in this case, the defendants have cited Haworth v. Nevada, 56 F.3d 1048 (9th Cir.1995). In that case, however, the plaintiffs prevailed on one of their claims. The Ninth Circuit held that the defendant was entitled to costs under Rule 68 because the defendant’s offer of judgment exceeded the final judgment obtained by the plaintiffs. Id. at 1052. In this case, the defendants prevailed and the plaintiff lost entirely. Rule 68 is not applicable.

The second flaw is that the FLSA does not appear to be in the category of statutes on which Rule 68 operates to include fees. The Supreme Court considered the applicability of Rule 68 to statutory fee-shifting provisions in Marek v. Chesny, 473 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 3012, 87 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985). The Court upheld the application of Rule 68 to the fee-shifting provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court reasoned that in an action under § 1983, “all costs properly awardable in an action are to be considered within the scope of Rule 68 ‘costs.’ Thus, absent congressional expressions to the contrary, where the underlying statute defines ‘costs’ to include attorney’s fees, we are satisfied such fees are to be included as costs for purposes of Rule 68.”   Id. at 9, 105 S.Ct. at 3016. Because § 1983 defined costs to include attorney’s fees, Rule 68 applied to bar recovery for any attorney’s fees incurred after a Rule 68 offer was made when the plaintiff recovered less by judgment than the settlement offer. Id. The FLSA is different. The FLSA defines attorney’s fees separately from costs. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Unlike attorney’s fees in a § 1983 action, attorney’s fees in an FLSA action are not automatically shifted by Rule 68. Accord Fegley v. Higgins, 19 F.3d 1126, 1135 (6th Cir.1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 875, 115 S.Ct. 203, 130 L.Ed.2d 134 (1994); Cox v. Brookshire Grocery Co., 919 F.2d 354, 358 (5th Cir.1990) (dicta); Haworth v. State of Nev., 56 F.3d 1048, 1051 (9th Cir.1995).

The motion for judgment is denied to the extent it seeks to include $22,057.90 in attorney’s fees after the offer of judgment.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Offer of Judgment

U.S.S.C.: Court Denies Certiorari to Novartis and Schering on Appeals of Decisions Finding Pharma Reps Non-Exempt Under the FLSA

Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. v. Lopes, Simona M. and Schering Corporation v. Kuzinski, Eugene, et al.

In a case with far sweeping ramifications for the pharmaceutical industry and its employees, following the Second Circuit’s decision that found pharmaceutical representatives (pharma reps) to be non-exempt and therefore, entitled to overtime, the Supreme Court has denied Plaintiff’s Petition for Cert, and therefore the issue remains largely unresolved.  In a decision discussed here, the Second Circuit had previously held that the pharma reps were non-exempt, notwithstanding the pharmaceutical companies’ arguments that they were outside sales and/or administrative exempt.  However, the Third Circuit, on facts it acknowledged were limited to the case before it, recently reached the opposite conclusion, holding Johnson & Johnson pharma reps to be exempt under the administrative exemption.  Most recently, the Ninth Circuit held that, notwithstanding the fact that pharma reps cannot and do not consummate sales, their promotional activities are close enough to render them exempt under the outside sales exemption.

The Department of Labor had submitted an Amicus Brief in support of the employees in both the Second and Ninth Circuit cases.  While the Second Circuit relied on the DOL’s Brief in large part, reaching its conclusion that the pharma reps are non-exempt, the Ninth Circuit rejected the arguments in the Brief.

It will be interesting to see if the large pharmaceutical companies, most of whom are in the midst of FLSA collective actions and/or state wage and hour class actions, will reclassify their pharma reps based on the Novartis decision.  The stakes are huge, and the risk- if they chose not to- could be an imposition of liquidated damages, in addition to unpaid wage awards in any case(s) the employees win.

1 Comment

Filed under Exemptions

10th Cir.: FLSA Defendant Who Simultaneously Relied Upon and Rejected Advice of Counsel Committed Willful Violation of FLSA; 3 Year SOL Applied

Mumby v. Pure Energy Services (USA), Inc.

Following an award of summary judgment to the plaintiffs, which held that defendant’s violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was willful, for both liquidated damages and statute of limitations purposes, the defendant appealed.  The crux of defendant’s argument on appeal was that, due to partial reliance on attorney advice, it was entitled to reject portions of the attorney’s advice that were not relevant to its inquiry of the attorney, without a finding that its FLSA violations were willful.  The lower court disagreed and granted plaintiffs summary judgment, holding that a three (3), rather than two (2) year statute of limitations was applicable, due to defendant’s willful violation of the FLSA.  The Tenth Circuit agreed and affirmed.

Explaining the issue the Tenth Circuit stated: “[t]he thrust of Pure Energy’s argument is that it should be allowed to both rely on and disregard advice of counsel in order to avoid a three-year statute of limitations and liquidated damages.”

Laying out the general law regarding attorney consults as a defense to willfulness in cases brought under the FLSA, the court stated:

“Although consultation with an attorney may help prove that an employer lacked willfulness, such a consultation is, by itself, insufficient to require a finding in favor of the employer. The court’s operative inquiry focuses on the employer’s diligence in the face of a statutory obligation, not on the employer’s mere knowledge of relevant law. See McGlaughlin, 486 U.S. at 134-35; see also Trans World Airlines, Inc. v. Thurston, 469 U.S. 111, 129-30 (1985) (airline did not recklessly disregard the Age Discrimination in Employment Act where it sought legal advice, negotiated with union representatives, and then finally implemented a new retirement policy). We have also stated the inverse in our unpublished decisions: that failure to consult with a lawyer is equally insufficient to prove recklessness. See Fowler v. Incor, 279 F. App’x 590, 602 (10th Cir.2008). These principles are consistent with similar “advice-of-counsel” rules in other contexts. See, e.g., United States v. Wenger, 427 F.3d 840, 853 (10th Cir.2005) (in the securities fraud context, “[g]ood faith reliance on counsel … is merely one factor a jury may consider when determining whether a defendant acted willfully”); Takecare Corp. v. Takecare of Oklahoma, Inc., 889 F.2d 955, 957 (10th Cir.1989) (in a trademark infringement action, absent a showing of other factors, “counsel’s advice alone will not shield the actor from the consequences of his act”) (internal quotation marks omitted).”

Rejecting the defendant’s argument, the court explained:

“In 2005, after one year of U.S. operations, Pure Energy began transferring management of its U.S. operations from Canada to the United States. When it transferred payroll functions to its new domestic management team, it hired a new manager, Cindy Rucker, to run payroll operations in compliance with U.S. labor standards. At the time of her hiring, Ms. Rucker was aware of the FLSA, but she was unfamiliar with day rates. When she expressed concerns about the company’s compensation policy, Pure Energy’s management referred Ms. Rucker to a Colorado attorney, Paul Hurcomb.

In January 2006, after speaking with Ms. Rucker and reviewing some of Pure Energy’s employment offer letters, Mr. Hurcomb advised Ms. Rucker that Pure Energy’s day rate policy complied with the FLSA so long as the company itemized regular and overtime rates and did not have its field employees work more than twelve hours per day. Mr. Hurcomb also discussed with Ms. Rucker that any weekly hours over forty had to be paid as overtime, regardless of the day rate. Mr. Hurcomb did not perform any legal research regarding day rates or the FLSA. Although he essentially stated the forty-hour overtime requirement correctly, his other advice was incorrect.

After receiving Mr. Hurcomb’s advice, Ms. Rucker confirmed with management that Pure Energy was paying its employees correctly so long as it broke down the day rate into regular and overtime hourly rates and did not exceed twelve-hour shifts. However, until it changed its compensation policies in late 2007 to finally comply with the FLSA, Pure Energy continued to underpay its field employees for overtime. Field employees also continued to occasionally work more than twelve hours per day without additional compensation, in violation of Mr. Hurcomb’s advice…

In sum, Mr. Hurcomb and Ms. Rucker discussed day rates, but they also discussed the weekly overtime requirement for employees working more than forty hours per week. Mr. Hurcomb further advised-and Ms. Rucker communicated to her counterparts within the company-that employees must not work more than twelve hours per day. Yet, Pure Energy made no real changes to its compensation policy, nor did it investigate whether its employees were working shifts longer than twelve hours. Indeed, without tracking the number of hours worked by each field employee, it was virtually impossible for Pure Energy to determine whether it was complying with Mr. Hurcomb’s advice, let alone the requirements imposed under the FLSA. It is of no consequence that Mr. Hurcomb’s advice proved incorrect. Pure Energy did not rely in good faith on its counsel’s advice, and thus cannot raise an advice-of-counsel defense.

Pure Energy argues that its purpose in seeking Mr. Hurcomb’s advice was to determine the legality of its day rate policy, and with respect to this narrow issue it acted in good faith on Mr. Hurcomb’s advice. However, an employer may not selectively listen to and then, in good faith, rely upon only one of many issues discussed simply because it sought discrete legal advice on one potential FLSA violation and viewed all other advice as irrelevant to its original, limited inquiry.

In this case, it does not matter if Ms. Rucker’s intent was only to narrowly inquire about Pure Energy’s compliance with the FLSA’s day rate requirements and not to inquire about the FLSA’s weekly overtime requirement. The discussion between Mr. Hurcomb and Ms. Rucker essentially put Pure Energy on notice that it must pay weekly overtime for each hour over forty.

Pure Energy failed to compensate Plaintiffs for weekly overtime despite being put on notice. It applied its compensation policy in reckless disregard of FLSA requirements, and is therefore subject to the three-year statute of limitations for damages.”

2 Comments

Filed under Liquidated Damages, Willfulness