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M.D.Tenn.: Police Officers Who Allegedly Arrested Employees In Retaliation For Informal Unpaid Wage Complaints Are Properly Defendants In A 29 U.S.C. § 215(a) Case

Montano-Perez v. Durrett Cheese Sales, Inc.

Defendant, a local Police Department, sued for their alleged role in retaliating against Plaintiffs, in cooperation with Plaintiffs’ employer filed a Motion to Dismiss the FLSA Retaliation claims asserted against it.  For the reasons discussed below, the Court denied the Police Department’s motion.

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

“The plaintiffs are Latino immigrants who moved to the Manchester, Tennessee, area from impoverished regions of Mexico. The plaintiffs speak either Mixteco, an indigenous Mexican language, or Spanish as their primary language. Shanna Ramirez was a supervisor with Durrett Cheese during the relevant time period, and she recruited and hired members of the Mixteco community in Manchester to work in non-supervisory positions with Durrett Cheese. Mostly all of the non-supervisory positions in the Durrett Cheese factory were filled by Latino workers of Mexican descent. The plaintiffs were hired by Durrett Cheese at various points in the late 2006 to late 2007 time period. After being hired, the plaintiffs performed various jobs in the factory, including “in-line” jobs slicing, packaging, and processing cheese for sale. At the time of hire, the plaintiffs understood that Durrett Cheese would pay them on a weekly basis at an hourly rate between approximately $6.00 and $6.75 per hour.

The plaintiffs’ employment with Durrett Cheese was problematic. The plaintiffs’ direct supervisor, Ms. Ramirez, frequently made offensive and potentially humiliating comments to the plaintiffs about their race, national origin, intelligence, language, and customs, among other things. Durrett Cheese also frequently failed to timely pay the plaintiffs at the applicable federal minimum wage. These problems persisted before and after Durrett Cheese’s August 2007 bankruptcy filing.

Indeed, in many workweeks in August, September, and October 2007, Durrett Cheese grossly underpaid the plaintiffs. In some workweeks during this time period, the plaintiffs were not paid at all, and some plaintiffs worked for more than a month during this time period without being paid. The plaintiffs regularly requested their unpaid wages during this period, often approaching Ramirez in groups to inquire about their pay. Acting through Ramirez, Durrett Cheese either postponed pay days or simply refused to pay the plaintiffs for the work they had performed. Ramirez convinced the plaintiffs to continue working by telling them that they would not receive their back pay if they quit, and that they would receive more back pay if they worked at higher production levels.

The tension over pay and working conditions came to a head in October 2007. On Friday, October 19, 2007, the plaintiffs made repeated requests to Ramirez for several weeks of back pay. Ramirez informed the plaintiffs that they would not be paid until the following Monday. On hearing this news, the plaintiffs met to plan a collective action to protest the continued non-payment of wages.

The following Monday, October 22, 2007, during the usual mid-morning break, the plaintiffs assembled in the Durrett Cheese break room and again requested their overdue pay from Ramirez. The plaintiffs were told by Ramirez that no checks would be distributed until defendant Durrett arrived, and, until that time, the plaintiffs could either return to work or leave for good (and risk never receiving their back pay). The plaintiffs refused to return to work, stating that they would only do so when they received their wages. In response, Ramirez fired the plaintiffs and ordered them off company property. The plaintiffs informed Ramirez that they would not leave the break room until they received their wages.

As the plaintiffs continued to wait in the break room, Ramirez conferred with Ron Girts, another supervisor at Durrett Cheese, and defendant Durrett. Defendant Durrett ordered Girts and Ramirez to call the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department. Officer-defendants Jones, Partin, and Barker responded to the call and headed to the Durrett Cheese factory. When the officers arrived, Ramirez, Girts, and the plaintiffs informed the officers that management and the employees were engaged in a dispute over unpaid wages. The officers noted the nature of the dispute in their incident report.

The plaintiffs allege that, at this point, the officers with the Coffee County Sheriff’s Department and the supervisors employed by Durrett Cheese began working together to defeat the plaintiffs’ wage complaints. For instance, a supervisor, either Ramirez or Girts, informed the officers that the plaintiffs were undocumented immigrants and should, therefore, be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The officers were also provided with paperwork from Durrett Cheese to assist in reporting the plaintiffs.

The officers told the plaintiffs that, if they did not leave the Durrett Cheese premises, they would be arrested and taken to the Coffee County jail. After the plaintiffs expressed their intent to remain in the break room, the officers arrested the plaintiffs and transported them, via Sheriff’s Department van, to the Coffee County jail. The officers’ supervisors, defendants Freeman and Graves, were advised of the situation as it unfolded and approved of the arrests. During the arrests, the officers, along with Ramirez, laughed at the plaintiffs, referred to the plaintiffs’ race and national origin, and made statements about sending the plaintiffs “back to Mexico.” In total, the entire work stoppage incident lasted less than two hours, and, at all times, it was peaceful and entirely confined to the Durrett Cheese break room.

At the Coffee County jail, the plaintiffs were booked on charges of trespassing and were detained. Over the course of the day on October 22, the plaintiffs were separated from their families and kept in the dark about what would happen to them. The plaintiffs slept on mattresses in a crowded jail cell and were denied free access to restroom facilities. The next day, October 23, the Coffee County District Attorney dropped all charges against the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs allege that, while they were detained, defendants Graves and Freeman consulted with supervisors at Durrett Cheese as to how to proceed, in light of the ongoing labor dispute between Durrett Cheese and the plaintiffs. Durrett Cheese and defendant Graves agreed that, regardless of the charges being dropped, the plaintiffs would remain at the Coffee County jail and that the plaintiffs would be reported to ICE. Shortly after this conversation, defendant Freeman contacted ICE to report the plaintiffs as suspected undocumented immigrants. On October 24, agents from ICE arrived at the Coffee County jail, and, at the behest of the County Defendants, transported the plaintiffs to a detention center in Nashville, Tennessee, where the plaintiffs, very fearful of what would happen to them and their families, were interrogated for several hours before their attorney was able to secure their release.”

Finding the Plaintiffs’ 215 claim of FLSA Retaliation to be a viable one, at this stage in the litigation, the Court explained:

“As noted above, the plaintiffs allege that the County Defendants violated Section 215(a)(3) of the FLSA. In relevant part, that provision states: “it shall be unlawful for any person to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter.” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a) (3). The Sixth Circuit has consistently interpreted an informal complaint to management regarding working conditions to constitute a “filed complaint” under Section 215(a)(3). Moore v. Freeman, 355 F.3d 558, 562 (6th 2004); EEOC v. Romeo Community Schools, 976 F.2d 985, 989 (6th Cir.1992). While there does not appear to be a wealth of law on this subject from the Sixth Circuit, it appears clear that, given the broad language of this provision, entities other than an individual’s employer can violate the FLSA. See e.g. Centeno-Bernuy v. Perry, 302 F.Supp.2d 128, 135 (W.D.N.Y.2003); Meek v. United States, 136 F.2d 679, 679-80 (6th Cir.1943).

In asserting that the plaintiffs’ FLSA claim should be dismissed as to them, the County Defendants argue that the plaintiffs’ Complaint does not establish the prima facie case for retaliation under the FLSA, and, even if it did, the claim could not survive the well-known McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting analysis that is typically applied in employment discrimination and retaliation suits, including claims brought under the FLSA. (Docket No. 46 at 4, citing Williams v. GM., 187 F.3d 553, 568 (6th Cir.1999)).

This is not a proper argument at this stage in the proceedings. In employment discrimination and retaliation suits, the plaintiff is not required, at the pleading stage, to demonstrate a prima facie case or to survive McDonnell Douglas burden shifting. See Swierkiewicz, 534 U.S. at 508; EEOC v. FPM Group, Ltd., 2009 WL 3088808, *6 (E.D.Tenn. Sept.28, 2009). Rather, as discussed above, in order to survive a motion to dismiss, the plaintiff’s Complaint need only outline a “facially plausible” claim for relief.

The plaintiffs have met that burden here. Again, the language of the FLSA provision at issue is very broad, prohibiting “any person” from “discriminat [ing]” against “any employee,” because that employee has filed a covered workplace complaint. 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). Further, the County Defendants recognize that retaliatory reporting of an employee to immigration authorities could constitute “discrimination” under this provision. (Docket No. 46 at 6; see also Singh v. Jutla, 214 F.Supp.2d 1056, 1062 (N.D.Cal.2002) (denying motion to dismiss FLSA retaliation claims where allegations centered on an employer’s reporting of the employee to immigration authorities in retaliation for FLSA protected conduct); Dunlop v. Carriage Carpet Co., 548 F.2d 139, 147 (6th Cir.1977) (equating FLSA discrimination to “black listing” and other actions that prevent an employee from gaining future employment.)

Providing significant factual support, the plaintiffs have alleged that the County Defendants, working in concert with the Durrent Defendants, arrested the plaintiffs and then reported the plaintiffs to ICE because of the plaintiffs’ complaints about pay. While the County Defendants claim that the plaintiffs have only alleged a racial or ethnic animus as motivation for the defendants’ conduct here, that is simply not the case. (Docket No. 46 at 6.) The Complaint contains numerous allegations, backed by factual support, that the County Defendants reported the plaintiffs to ICE, at least in part, because the plaintiffs had made a complaint about pay.

The plaintiffs allege that, shortly after the officers arrived at the break room, they were advised that this was a dispute about pay. Then, “Ramirez and/or Girts supplied Defendants Jones, Partin, and Barker with paperwork to assist the Coffee County Defendants in reporting Plaintiffs to ICE.” (Docket No. 1 at 15.) There is no indication from the Complaint that Jones, Partin and Barker attempted to mediate or resolve the labor dispute; rather, it is clear from the Complaint that, throughout the entire process, the County Defendants simply imposed the will of the Durrett Defendants, which was to permanently remove the plaintiffs from the premises (and, perhaps, the country) because the plaintiffs had complained about pay. Indeed, the Complaint alleges that, after the charges were dropped, defendant Graves “consult[ed] with the Durrett Defendants and with full awareness that he was unlawfully intervening in a labor dispute, defendant Graves instructed defendant Freeman to call ICE to report Plaintiffs as suspected undocumented immigrants. Defendant Freeman did so on or about October 22 or October 23, 2007.” (Id. at 16.)

Clearly, accepting the plaintiffs’ allegations as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiffs’ favor, the plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the County Defendants violated the FLSA. The plaintiffs allege, with specific factual support, that, in response to the plaintiffs’ complaint about pay, the County Defendants not only had the plaintiffs arrested but worked in concert with the Durrett Defendants to have the plaintiffs reported to ICE. As to this claim, the County Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, which is premised on the notion that the FLSA claim lacks factual support, will be denied.

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