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M.D.Fla.: Approval of Settlement Agreement Rejected, Where “Pervasive” General Release Makes Evaluation For Fairness “Elusive”

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Moreno v. Regions Bank

As reported here several months ago, Judge Steven Merryday, in the Middle District of Florida rejected FLSA settlement agreements containing confidentiality provisions, as well as those containing non-disparagement agreements, in a set of well-reasoned opinions, discussing their conflict with the remedial purposes behind the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Continuing his critique of what, for better or worse had largely become common practice in the resolution of FLSA cases, he has rejected a recent Motion for Approval, because the Settlement Agreement contained a “pervasive” general release of all claims known and unknown, without the exchange of any value for same, thus making an evaluation of the agreement for fairness “elusive” in his words.

The settlement agreement contained the following general release:

“In exchange for the Consideration, as set forth in Paragraph 2 . . ., Plaintiff for himself, attorneys, heirs, executors, administrators, successors and assigns hereby waives and releases, knowingly and willingly, Defendant, its heirs, executors, administrators, legal representatives, parent corporations, predecessor companies, insurers, past, present and future divisions, subsidiaries, affiliates and related companies and their successors and assigns and all past, present and future directors, officers, employees and agents of these entities, personally and as directors, officers, employees and agents, (“Released Parties”) from any and all claims of any nature whatsoever Plaintiff has arising out of his employment with Defendant, known or unknown, including but not limited to, any claims Plaintiff may have under federal, state or local employment, labor, or anti-discrimination laws, statutes and case and law and specifically claims including, but not limited to, any claims or allegations contained in or relating to the Lawsuit, arising under the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act, The Older Worker Benefit Protections Act, the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964, as amended, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Employment Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (“ERISA”), the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Labor-Management Relations Act, the Equal Pay Act and the Worker Adjustment Restraining and Notification Act, the Florida Civil Rights Act, the Florida AIDS Act, the Florida Equal Pay Law, the Florida Wage Discrimination Law, the Florida Law Prohibiting Discrimination on the Basis of Sickle Cell Trait, the Florida Constitution, Florida common law and any and all other applicable state, federal, county or local ordinances, statutes or regulations, including claims for attorneys’ fees.  Furthermore, if any charge of discrimination is brought on Plaintiff’s behalf, Plaintiff dismisses any claim to any benefits as a result of such charge.  Plaintiff agrees that he will not apply for any positions with any of the Released Parties at any rime.  Plaintiff has been fully compensated for his claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Plaintiff also represents and certifies that he has received full payment for all hours worked while employed by Defendant, including overtime hours, bonuses and vacation pay, and has received all benefits and leaves available or requested under the Family Medical Leave Act.  Finally, Plaintiff has not suffered any workplace injuries while working for Defendant.”

Holding that such a “pervasive” general release in an FLSA compromise is, as a matter of law, unfair to the Plaintiff-employee, the Court reasoned:

“In the typical settled case, the parties (especially the defendant) design for a complete disengagement from each other, and a comprehensive settlement coupled with a general release usually accomplishes the intended effect. The district judge often remains unaware of the terms of the compromise, and the post-settlement dismissal of the action implies neither approval nor disapproval of any aspect of the parties’ settlement agreement. In these cases, the reciprocal, general release remains an accepted and common litigation practice. Although this disengagement almost uniformly accompanies the settlement of the typical civil action, settlement of an FLSA action requires judicial approval. A pervasive release in an FLSA settlement introduces a troubling imponderable into the calculus of fairness and full compensation.

In nearly every case, the pervasive release confers no benefit on the employer because the employee has no other claim. In the typical case, the release is valueless—the employer receives nothing of monetary value, and the employee relinquishes nothing of monetary value. The general release is usually an instrument to ensure peace of mind to the employer’s otherwise worried mind. In the occasional case, however, an unknown claim accrues to the employee. For example, suppose an employee of a widget factory sues the employer for unpaid wages, the parties settle for $500.00, and the employee agrees to a pervasive release. Years later, the employee discovers that a chemical used to manufacture widgets has caused serious injury. In this instance, the employee’s release of the unknown claim (if effective) both confers an undeserved and disproportionate benefit on the employer and effects an unanticipated, devastating, and unfair deprivation on the employee. The release absolves the employer of an ominous contingent liability in exchange for $500.00 (which, in any event, the employer unconditionally owed to the employee).

An employee who executes a broad release effectively gambles, exchanging unknown rights for a few hundred or a few thousand dollars to which he is otherwise unconditionally entitled. In effect, the employer requests a pervasive release in order to transfer to the employee the risk of extinguishing an unknown claim. In the language of Hydradry, a pervasive release is a “side deal”4 in which the employer extracts a gratuitous (although usually valueless) release of all claims in exchange for money unconditionally owed to the employee. (If an employee signs a pervasive release as part of a “side deal” and later discovers a valuable but released claim, the employee perhaps looks for compensation from the attorney who advise the employee to grant the release.) Although inconsequential in the typical civil case (for which settlement requires no judicial review), an employer is not entitled to use an FLSA claim (a matter arising from the employer’s failing to comply with the FLSA) to leverage a release from liability unconnected to the FLSA.

Lynn’s Food’s imposition of the duty to scrutinize an FLSA compromise necessarily implies the court’s duty to scrutinize the claims and the defenses presented by the pleadings. An employee seeking to vindicate his FLSA rights often desperately needs his wages, and both the employee and the employer want promptly to resolve the matter. In a claim for unpaid wages, each party estimates the number of hours worked and the plaintiff’s wage (i.e., establishes a range of recovery), and the court evaluates the relative strength of the parties’ legal argument asserted in the particular case. However, in an FLSA action, neither party typically attempts to value the claims not asserted by the pleadings but within the scope of a pervasive release—that is, those “known and unknown,” or “past, present, and future,” or “statutory or common law,” or other claims included among the boiler plate, but encompassing, terms unfailingly folded into the typical general release.6 Absent some knowledge of the value of the released claims, the fairness of the compromise remains indeterminate. See, e.g., Alba Conte & Herbert B. Newberg, Newberg on Class Actions § 12:15, at 313 (4th ed. 2002) (“Of course, in order independently and objectively to evaluate the adequacy of the entire settlement . . ., the court must possess sufficient evidence or information to weigh the strengths and weaknesses of the additional . . . claims.”).

In sum, a pervasive release in an FLSA settlement confers an uncompensated, unevaluated, and unfair benefit on the employer. In the typical case, no unknown claim accrues to the employee and the pervasive release effects no change to the legal relationship of the parties. In other words, in the typical case, the pervasive release is superfluous and can be stricken without objection from either the employee or the employer. In the occasional case, an unknown claim accrues to the employee and the employer receives a release from a contingent liability in exchange for a modest payment of wages unconditionally owed to the employee. The employer who obtains a pervasive release receives either nothing (if no claim accrues) or a windfall at the expense of the unlucky employee. In either instance, the employee bears the risk of loss, and the employer always wins—a result that is inequitable and unfair in the
circumstance. The employer’s attempt to “play with house money” fails judicial scrutiny.

Lynn’s Food requires more than a “rubber stamp” of an FLSA compromise; the district court must assure the “fairness” of the proposed compromise. Although the parties’ desire for complete “disengagement” is understandable, a pervasive release in settlement of an FLSA action is both unfair and incapable of valuation. A compromise of an FLSA claim that contains a pervasive release of unknown claims fails judicial scrutiny.”

Click here to read the entire Moreno v Regions Bank opinion.


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