S.D.Cal.: Although Arbitration Agreement With Class Waiver Enforceable, Confidentiality Provision Stricken as Unconscionable Because Overbroad
Grabowski v. Robinson
This case was before the court on defendant’s motion to compel arbitration on an individual (rather than class) basis. Although the court noted that plaintiffs were required to sign the arbitration agreement contained in their compensation agreements, under threat of forfeiture of commissions, the court held that did not make the agreement unenforceable as entered into under duress. The court also, in large part, dismissed other arguments regarding the substantive and procedural unconscionability of the agreement. However, as discussed here, the court held that the confidentiality provision which barred any discussion of the litigation without the other party’s consent to be far too broad.
Discussing the confidentiality provision the court stated:
“Plaintiff contends: ‘[T]he Defendant’s rules impose confidentiality which unfairly favors Defendant. While arbitration normally is not open to the public, the Defendant’s rules go much further. Defendant’s rules require that the record of the proceedings be confidential under threat of a sanction order by the arbitrator.’
The Employment Dispute Mediation/Arbitration Procedure contains a provision entitled, “Confidentiality,” which states:
All aspects of the arbitration, including without limitation, the record of the proceeding, are confidential and shall not be open to the public, except (a) to the extent both Parties agree otherwise in writing, (b) as may be appropriate in any subsequent proceedings by the Parties, or (c) as may otherwise be appropriate in response to a governmental agency or legal process, provided that the Party upon whom such process is served shall give immediate notice of such process to the other Party and afford the other Party an appropriate opportunity to object to such process.
At the request of a Party or upon his or her initiative, the Arbitrator shall issue protective orders appropriate to the circumstances and shall enforce the confidentiality of the arbitration as set forth in this article.
In Davis, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit stated that, under California law, “[c]onfidentiality by itself is not substantively unconscionable,” but the employer’s “confidentiality clause … is written too broadly” and “unconscionably favors [the employer],” when the clause at issue “would prevent an employee from contacting other employees to assist in litigating (or arbitrating) an employee’s case.” Davis, 485 F.3d at 1078–79 (“The clause precludes even mention to anyone ‘not directly involved in the mediation or arbitration’ of ‘the content of the pleadings, papers, orders, hearings, trials, or awards in the arbitration’ or even ‘the existence of a controversy and the fact that there is a mediation or an arbitration proceeding.’ ”). In this case, the confidentiality provision in the Employment Dispute Mediation/Arbitration Procedure is broader than what the court in Davis indicated would be conscionable. Cf. id. at 1079 (noting that “[t]he parties to any particular arbitration, especially in an employment dispute, can always agree to limit availability of sensitive employee information (e.g., social security numbers or other personal identifier information) or other issue-specific matters, if necessary”).
The Court finds that the confidentiality provision in the arbitration agreement is substantively unconscionable under California law.”
While courts- seemingly bound by a recent slew of employer/arbitration-friendly decisions from the Supreme Court- continue to compel arbitration and enforce class and collective action provisions contained in arbitration agreements, this decision seems somewhat in line with the remedial nature of the FLSA and related state wage and hour laws. One way employees and their counsel can try to even the playing field might be to seek court-approved notice of pending litigation, notwithstanding the inability to proceed as a class/collective action. Notifying other employees of existing litigation (and their rights to be paid in accordance with wage and hour laws) would certainly be in line with the remedial purposes of the FLSA and related state wage and hour laws. In any event, the court’s holding that an employer cannot hide its alleged violations for other employees certainly seems to be a step in the right direction.
Click Grabowski v. Robinson to read the entire Opinion.
E.D.Pa.: Dukes Does Not Affect Court’s Analysis On 216(b) Conditional Cert Motion; Defendant’s Motion to Reconsider Denied
Spellman v. American Eagle Exp., Inc.
In one of the first decisions, post-Dukes, to clarify what affect the Supreme Court’s recent decision will have on conditional certification of FLSA cases, the answer appears to be not much.
In Dukes, the Supreme Court held that the trial court had inappropriately certified a class of over a million women employed by Wal-mart, based on claims of gender bias. The Supreme Court reasoned that the plaintiffs had not met their burden to demonstrate the requisite commonality required by FRCP 23. In the wake of Dukes, there was much speculation as to whether courts would extend the reasoning in Dukes to cases seeking conditional certification of collective actions under 216(b) of the FLSA. In one of the first decisions rendered on this issue, the answer appears to be a resounding no.
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion seeking reconsideration of the court’s prior order conditionally certifying a class of drivers employed by defendant. Plaintiffs alleged that defendant, a trucking company, improperly misclassified all of its drivers as independent contractors, when they were really employees. Holding that plaintiffs had met their lenient burden of proof as so-called stage one, the court conditionally certified a nationwide class of drivers, all of whom had been classified as independent contractors. Following the Duke’s decision, the defendant sought reconsideration of the order conditionally certifying the class. Denying the motion, the court explained that the differences between FRCP 23, the class action provision under which Dukes was decided and 216(b), the opt-in provision for FLSA collective actions render Dukes inapplicable in the context of an FLSA collective action. As such, the court denied defendant’s motion.
The court reasoned:
“The instant case is a collective action brought pursuant to the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Unlike Rule 23 class actions. the FLSA requires collective action members to affirmatively opt in to the case. See § 216(b). To determine whether the proposed group of plaintiffs is “similarly situated,” and therefore qualified to proceed as a conditional collective action, a district court applies a two-step test. See Smith v. Sovereign Bancorp, Inc., No. 03–2420, 2003 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 21010 (E.D.Pa. Nov. 13, 2003). In the first step, which is assessed early in the litigation process, the plaintiff at most must make only a “modest factual showing” that the similarly situated requirement is satisfied. See Bosley v. Chubb Corp., No. 04–4598, 2005 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10974, at *7–9 (E.D.Pa. Jun. 3, 2005). The Plaintiffs have made this modest factual showing, and this Court’s analysis is not affected by Dukes. The second step of the collective action certification process will be conducted at the close of class-related discovery, at which time this Court will conduct “a specific factual analysis of each employee’s claim to ensure that each proposed plaintiff is an appropriate party.” Harris v. Healthcare Servs. Grp., Inc., No. 06–2903, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 55221, at *2 (E.D.Pa. Jul. 31, 2007). At this second stage, AEX may argue that Dukes‘s analysis of what constitutes a “common question” is persuasive to this Court’s analysis of whether an FLSA collective action should be certified. In the interim, AEX’s motion for reconsideration is denied.”
Click Spellman v. American Eagle Exp., Inc. to read the entire Order.
N.D.Ga.: Exotic Dancers Are Employees Not Independent Contractors; Entitled to Minimum Wages and Overtime
Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc.
This case was before the court on numerous motions. As discussed here, the judge granted plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and denied defendants’ cross motion, holding that plaintiffs’- exotic dancers or strippers- were defendants’ employees, not independent contractors. As such, plaintiffs were entitled to minimum wages and overtime pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Significantly, none of the plaintiffs were paid any direct wages by the club in which they worked. Instead, they paid defendants for the right to perform in their club. The plaintiffs’ each were required to sign independent contractor agreements as a prerequisite to beginning work for the defendants. Further, the defendants claimed that the dancers were independent contractors because they were paid directly by customers and did not receive paychecks. They also claimed that the club did not profit from the dancers and that the dancers did not necessarily drive the club’s business. However, based on evidence that the defendants set the prices for tableside dances and how much of their gross receipts dancers were required to turn over in the form of “house fees” and disc jockey fees, as well as the fact that the defendants set specific schedules for the dancers, created rules of conduct (subject to discipline), check-in and check-out procedures and otherwise controlled the method and manner in which plaintiffs worked, the court held that the defendants were plaintiffs’ employers under the FLSA.
Although not a groundbreaking decision, it is significant because the majority of strip clubs around the country continue to disregard court decisions that have held that most strippers, employed under circumstances similar to those in the case, are actually employees.
Click Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc. to read the entire Order.
M.D.Fla.: Defendant Does Not Moot FLSA Case By Tender of Unpaid Wages/Liquidated Damages, Absent Payment of Reasonable Attorneys Fees and Costs
Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises
Following the recent 11th Circuit decision Dionne v. Floormasters, the blogosphere has been abuzz with articles positing that the decision gave employers the green light to engage in wholesale wage theft and take a wait and see approach with regard to paying employees their wages. Several management-side attorneys have even gone as far as to suggest that a thieving employer could tender payment of wages/liquidated damages alone on the courthouse steps on the eve of a jury verdict and simply avoid paying mandatory fees and costs under 216(b). Not so, holds Judge James D. Whittemore, in the first case on the issue post-Dionne.
In Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises, the defendants-employers attempted just this strategy. After Klinger filed a lawsuit seeking the payment of her unpaid wages and liquidated damages, her former employers tendered what it deemed “full payment” of her unpaid wages and liquidated damages. However, it denied liability and refused to pay reasonable attorneys fees and costs. Instead, it filed a Motion to Dismiss, asserting that the case was now moot. The Court rejected the defendants’ contention that the case was moot absent payment of attorneys fees and costs and denied defendants’ motion.
Significantly, the Court noted:
“Defendants’ mere tender of payment does not provide Plaintiff with all the relief she seeks and would be entitled to as a prevailing party in this action, to wit: an enforceable judgment, attorney’s fees, and costs. Allowing Defendants to avoid responsibility for Plaintiff’s attorneys fees merely by tendering full payment after litigation has commenced would run counter to the FLSA’s goal of fully compensating the wronged employee. See Silva v. Miller, 307 Fed. App’x 349, 351 (11th Cir. 2009)(“FLSA requires judicial review of the reasonableness of counsel’s legal fees to assure… that counsel is compensated adquately…”. Further, Defendants’ tender effectively circumvents the requirements of Rule 68(a), Fed.R.Civ.P.”
As such, the Court denied the defendants’ motion.
Click Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises to read the entire Order.
DISCLAIMER: It is not this author’s assertion that the defendants in this particular case engaged in willful wage theft. Absent further research into the facts giving rise to the underlying claim, the author makes no representations whatsoever as to the specific facts of this case. Instead, this post is a commentary on the procedural history of the case once filed.
W.D.Mo.: Court Has Subject Matter Jurisdiction Over Claims That Could Be Brought By Members of Putative Class, But Could Not Be Brought By Named Plaintiffs
Nobles v. State Farm Mut. Auto Ins. Co.
This case concered off-the-clock claims that were brought as a so-called hybrid case, so named because the claims asserted were a hybrid of several state wage and hour laws, as well as under the FLSA. As discussed here, the plaintiffs, employees of one State Farm entity (State Farm Fire) sued both their employer, and another State Farm entity (State Farm Mutual), alleging identical wage and hour violations were committed by both against similarly situated employees. By Motion to Dismiss, State Farm Mutual challenged the named-plaintiffs’ standing to assert claims against it, asserting that the named plaintiffs lacked standing to do so, because it was not their employer. The court rejected these arguments, in granting plaintiffs’ motions for conditional and class certification.
Addressing this issue the court explained:
“In its pending Motion to Dismiss, State Farm Mutual contends that because Plaintiffs lack standing to assert joint employer status, the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, and therefore that claim should be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1). Alternatively, State Farm Mutual contends that Plaintiffs have failed to state a claim for joint employer status and therefore it should be dismissed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).
State Farm Mutual argues that “[o]nly State Farm Fire employees could possibly have standing to assert joint employment claims under Plaintiffs’ … theory, and there are no such plaintiffs in this case.” [Doc. # 111, at 13]. Neither Nobles nor Atchison are employees of State Farm Fire. However, standing issues “must be assessed with reference to the class as a whole, not simply with reference to the individual named plaintiffs.” Payton v. County of Kane, 308 F.3d 673, 680 (7th Cir.2002). Here, unnamed class members of the certified classes and collective include State Farm Fire employees who would have standing to bring claims under State Farm Mutual’s status as a joint employer with State Farm Fire. Thus, the Plaintiffs in this litigation have standing to assert joint employment status for members of the class.
Two recently decided cases in this district, Gilmor v. Preferred Credit Corp., No. 10–0189–CV–W–ODS, 2011 WL 111238 (W.D. Mo. Jan 13, 2011), and Wong v. Bann–Cor Mortgage, No. 10–1038–CV–W–FJG, 2011 WL 2314198 (W.D. Mo. June 9, 2011), also concluded that the court had subject matter jurisdiction over claims that could be brought by members of the certified class, but could not have been brought by any of the named plaintiffs. However, as a practical matter, it may be prudent to have a specific named Plaintiff whose named employer is State Farm Fire. See Gilmor, 2011 WL 111238, at *7. Therefore, Plaintiffs shall file an appropriate motion to designate such an employee prior to the close of discovery on the merits.”
Addressing (and rejecting) the defendants’ contention that plaintiffs had failed to sufficiently plead joint employment, the court reasoned:
“To determine whether an individual or entity is an employer, courts analyze the economic reality of the relationship between the parties.” Loyd v. Ace Logistics, LLC, No. 08–CV–00188–W–HFS, 2008 WL 5211022, at *3 (citation omitted). Although the Eighth Circuit has not yet stated a test to determine joint employer status, four factors are typically examined by courts to make this determination. They are: “whether the alleged employer: (1) had the power to hire and fire the plaintiff; (2) supervised and controlled plaintiff’s work schedules or conditions of employment; (3) determined the rate and method of payment; and (4) maintained plaintiff’s employment records.” Id. at * 3 (citing Schubert v. BethesdaHealth Grp., Inc., 319 F.Supp.2d 963, 971 (E.D.Mo.2004)).
State Farm Mutual asserts that Plaintiffs have failed to allege the elements of joint employer status or single enterprise status. This argument rests on the contention that because all of the named plaintiffs in the litigation are not employees of State Farm Fire, none of their allegations concern State Farm Mutual’s power to hire or fire any plaintiff who is an employee of State Farm Fire. [Doc. # 111, at 7].
The Court finds that this argument is a re-characterization of State Farm Mutual’s standing argument. As previously stated, Plaintiffs in this case include the certified classes. See Gilmor, 2011 WL 111238, at *6 (citing Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393, 399 (1975)). Plaintiffs in this case include State Farm Fire employees who were subject to State Farm Mutual’s policies; and the Second Amended Complaint alleges that State Farm Mutual had the power to hire or fire them.
Second, State Farm Mutual asserts that even if the Court finds that Plaintiffs have alleged the elements of joint employment status, Plaintiffs’ factual allegations are “broad, unsupported statements” that do not provide the required factual support for Plaintiffs’ joint employment claim. [Doc. # 111, at 9]. The Court disagrees with State Farm Mutual’s characterization of Plaintiffs’ allegations. The Plaintiffs allege in their Second Amended Complaint that (1) the human resources department in State Farm Mutual retains the power to promote, retain, and discipline State Farm Fire employees, (2) State Farm Fire employees’ work and compensation are subject to State Farm Mutual’s written pay and timekeeping policy, and (3) State Farm Mutual’s and State Farm Fire’s timekeeping records are housed together, which the Court liberally construes to imply that State Farm Mutual maintains State Farm Fire’s timekeeping records.
For these reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a joint employer claim.”
Click Nobles v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Company to read the entire Order.
3d Cir.: Defendant May Not “Pick Off” a Putative Collective Action by Tendering Full Relief to Named-Plaintiff at Outset
Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp.
In an issue that has now been addressed by several circuits in recent years, the Third Circuit was presented with the question of whether a defendant-employer in an FLSA case may “pick off” a putative collective action (prior to conditional certification), where it tenders full relief to the named-Plaintiff. Consistent with other circuits to have taken up this issue, the Third Circuit held that a defendant may not do so and that such an offer of judgment (OJ) does not moot a putative collective action. As such, the court reversed the decision below, dismissing the case on mootness grounds.
In dismissing the case initially, the trial court below reasoned, “[Plaintiff] does not contend that other individuals have joined her collective action. Thus, this case, like each of the district court cases cited by Defendants, which concluded that a Rule 68 offer of judgment mooted the underlying FLSA collective action, involves a single named plaintiff. In addition, Symczyk does not contest Defendants’ assertion that the 68 offer of judgment fully satisfied her claims….”
After discussing the application of full tender relief offers in the Rule 23 context, the court concluded that the same reasoning precludes picking off the named-plaintiff in a representative action brought pursuant to 216(b). Instead, the court held that a motion for conditional certification in an FLSA case made within a reasonable time “relates back” to the time of the filing of the Complaint and thus such a representative action may proceed, notwithstanding to purportedly “full tender” offer to the named-plaintiff. The court explained:
“Although the opt-in mechanism transforms the manner in which a named plaintiff acquires a personal stake in representing the interests of others, it does not present a compelling justification for limiting the relation back doctrine to the Rule 23 setting. The considerations that caution against allowing a defendant’s use of Rule 68 to impede the advancement of a representative action are equally weighty in either context. Rule 23 permits plaintiffs “to pool claims which would be uneconomical to litigate individually.” Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 809, 105 S.Ct. 2965, 86 L.Ed.2d 628 (1985). Similarly, § 216(b) affords plaintiffs “the advantage of lower individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources.” Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170. Rule 23 promotes “efficiency and economy of litigation.” Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 349, 103 S.Ct. 2392, 76 L.Ed.2d 628 (1983). Similarly, “Congress’ purpose in authorizing § 216(b) class actions was to avoid multiple lawsuits where numerous employees have allegedly been harmed by a claimed violation or violations of the FLSA by a particular employer.” Prickett v. DeKalb Cnty., 349 F.3d 1294, 1297 (11th Cir.2003).
When Rule 68 morphs into a tool for the strategic curtailment of representative actions, it facilitates an outcome antithetical to the purposes behind § 216(b). Symczyk’s claim-like that of the plaintiff in Weiss—was “acutely susceptible to mootness” while the action was in its early stages and the court had yet to determine whether to facilitate notice to prospective plaintiffs. See Weiss, 385 F.3d at 347 (internal quotation marks omitted). When the certification process has yet to unfold, application of the relation back doctrine prevents defendants from using Rule 68 to “undercut the viability” of either’ type of representative action. See id. at 344.
Additionally, the relation back doctrine helps safeguard against the erosion of FLSA claims by operation of the Act’s statute of limitations. To qualify for relief under the FLSA, a party plaintiff must “commence” his cause of action before the statute of limitations applying to his individual claim has lapsed. Sperling v. Hoffmann–La Roche, Inc., 24 F.3d 463, 469 (3d Cir.1994). For a named plaintiff, the action commences on the date the complaint is filed. 29 U.S.C. § 256(a). For an opt-in plaintiff, however, the action commences only upon filing of a written consent. Id. § 256(b). This represents a departure from Rule 23, in which the filing of a complaint tolls the statute of limitations “as to all asserted members of the class” even if the putative class member is not cognizant of the suit’s existence. See Crown, Cork & Seal Co. 462 U.S. at 350 (internal quotation marks omitted). Protracted disputes over the propriety of dismissal in light of Rule 68 offers may deprive potential opt-ins whose claims are in jeopardy of expiring of the opportunity to toll the limitations period—and preserve their entitlements to recovery—by filing consents within the prescribed window.
In sum, we believe the relation back doctrine helps ensure the use of Rule 68 does not prevent a collective action from playing out according to the directives of § 216(b) and the procedures authorized by the Supreme Court in Hoffmann–La Roche and further refined by courts applying this statute. Depriving the parties and the court of a reasonable opportunity to deliberate on the merits of collective action “conditional certification” frustrates the objectives served by § 216(b). Cf. Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 921 (explaining “there must be some time for a[n FLSA] plaintiff to move to certify a collective action before a defendant can moot the claim through an offer of judgment”). Absent undue delay, when an FLSA plaintiff moves for “certification” of a collective action, the appropriate course—particularly when a defendant makes a Rule 68 offer to the plaintiff that would have the possible effect of mooting the claim for collective relief asserted under § 216(b)—is for the district court to relate the motion back to the filing of the initial complaint.
Upon remand, should Symczyk move for “conditional certification,” the court’ shall consider whether such motion was made without undue delay, and, if it so finds, shall relate the motion back to December 4, 2009the date on which Symczyk filed her initial complaint. If (1) Symczyk may yet timely seek “conditional certification” of her collective action, (2) the court permits the case to move forward as a collective action (by virtue of Symczyk’s satisfaction of the “modest factual showing” standard), and (3) at least one other similarly situated employee opts in, then defendants’ Rule 68 offer of judgment would no longer fully satisfy the claims of everyone in the collective action, and the proffered rationale behind dismissing the complaint on jurisdictional grounds would no longer be applicable. If, however, the court finds Symczyk’s motion to certify would be untimely, or otherwise denies the motion on its merits, then defendants’ Rule 68 offer to Symczyk—in full satisfaction of her individual claim—would moot the action.
For the foregoing reasons, we will reverse the judgment of the District Court and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Thus, while ultimately the OJ might have the effect of mooting the case, it could not do so prior to a reasonable opportunity to plaintiff of seeking conditional certification of same.
Click Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. to read the entire decision.