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Home » Affirmative Defenses » 9th Cir.: Finding of Willfulness Affirmed Where Defendant Involved in Prior Related Litigation; Offsets Applied on a Workweek-By-Workweek Basis

9th Cir.: Finding of Willfulness Affirmed Where Defendant Involved in Prior Related Litigation; Offsets Applied on a Workweek-By-Workweek Basis

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Andrew Frisch

Haro v. City of Los Angeles

This case was on appeal by the Defendant, City of Los Angeles, following an order granting the plaintiffs summary judgment on their claims. Specifically, city fire department dispatchers and aeromedical technicians brought action challenging city employer’s classification of them as employees “engaged in fire protection,” for purpose of standard overtime exemption under Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). As discussed here, in addition to finding—as a matter of law—that the defendant has misclassified the employees at issue as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions, the court below also held that such misclassification was willful and that any offsets claimed were limited in application to the weeks in which the monies paid for the alleged offsets were paid to plaintiffs.

Addressing the facts relevant to the willfulness issue, the Ninth Circuit explained:

In 1985, the Supreme Court held that FLSA overtime requirements apply to governmental functions. Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth., 469 U.S. 528, 531, 105 S.Ct. 1005, 83 L.Ed.2d 1016 (1985). That same year, the City sent the Department of Labor a letter with twenty questions regarding application of the FLSA to City employees, including Fire Department paramedics. The City did not inquire as to dispatchers or aeromedical technicians.

In 1997, in Acrich v. City of Los Angeles, single-function paramedics (those paramedics not also trained as firefighters) sued the City, asserting they were improperly classified under § 207(k). In 1999, the City again contacted the Department of Labor regarding whether single-function paramedics were “fire protection” employees under the FLSA. The City settled Acrich in 2000, after which it began paying single-function paramedics the standard overtime rate of time and a half for hours worked over forty in a workweek.

In 1999, in Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, dual-trained paramedics (those trained as both paramedics and firefighters) and Quality Improvement Analysts sued the City, asserting that they too had been improperly classified under § 207(k). After a bench trial, the district court held that the City had improperly classified these employees. The district court also ruled that the City had not acted reasonably or in good faith, and awarded liquidated damages equal to the plaintiffs’ back pay. The City appealed as to the paramedics, but not as to the Quality Improvement Analysts. This court affirmed the district court’s ruling in August 2005. See Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, 420 F.3d 981 (9th Cir.2005) (Pregerson, J.), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1176, 126 S.Ct. 1344, 164 L.Ed.2d 58 (2006).

Citing these facts, and the fact that the defendant itself never considered the plaintiffs to be exempt until they attempted to raise an exemption defense in the course of the litigation of the case, the Ninth Circuit held that the court below had properly deemed the defendant’s FLSA violations to be willful:

The City’s conduct in this case was willful, thus entitling Plaintiffs to a three-year statute of limitations. The City has extensively litigated the meaning of § 207(k). In 2002, the district court in Cleveland ruled that the City was in violation of § 207(k) as to dual-trained paramedics and those who held desk job positions as Quality Improvement Analysts. The City did not appeal as to the Quality Improvement Analysts, and lost on appeal as to the paramedics. Yet at no time thereafter did the City take any steps to obtain an opinion letter from the Department of Labor regarding Plaintiffs’ positions, although it had done so as to other employees. Ignoring these red flags and failing to make an effort to examine the positions at issue in this case show willfulness.

Also, the City itself appears not to have viewed dispatchers as “engaged in fire protection” until this case was underway. When this lawsuit began, the City had assigned dispatchers to the Bureau of Support Services, which included the Supply and Maintenance Division, Fire Facilities Division, and Operations Control Division. The Fire Department’s Manual of Operations states that the primary objectives of the Bureau of Support Services include “the dispatching of resources and equipment to the scene of emergencies; operation of the Department’s … Dispatch Center … and the development, maintenance and repair of Fire Department Facilities.” Three months before the parties entered into their mutual stipulation of facts, however, the City reassigned the dispatchers to the Bureau of Emergency Services, which, according to the Manual of Operations, includes “[a]ll personnel normally engaged in fire fighting …” The timing of this reassignment provides further evidence that the City’s behavior was willful.

Thus, we affirm the district court’s finding that the City’s conduct was willful and justifies a third year of withheld overtime pay.

The Ninth Circuit then went on to discuss the proper methodology for calculating damages, where a defendant claims an offset for monies already paid to the employees and claims same as partial payment for overtime wages, an issue of first impression in the Ninth Circuit and one in which the Circuits are in conflict. Framing the issue, the Court explained:

The district court issued an order selecting Plaintiffs’ calculation method. The district court first noted that circuits are split over whether a workweek-by-workweek method must be used, and the Ninth Circuit has not yet addressed the issue. While the Sixth and Seventh Circuits have ruled that a week-by-week offset must be used, the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits have held that offsets may be applied cumulatively over longer periods of time. The district court was persuaded by the reasoning of the Sixth and Seventh Circuits.

Holding that the FLSA mandates a workweek-by-workweek application of any applicable offsets, the Court explained:

There is still, however, a split of authority over how to calculate offsets, and the Ninth Circuit has not yet decided the matter. The reasoning from circuits supporting a week-by-week offset is persuasive. In Howard v. City of Springfield, 274 F.3d 1141 (7th Cir.2001), the Seventh Circuit disagreed with the defendant that offsetting on a workweek basis would create an undeserved windfall. Id. at 1148. The court noted that

if the City were able to use premium payments [in a cumulative fashion], the City would be the recipient of the windfall, and in fact would be placed in a substantially better position than if it had complied with the overtime requirements of the FLSA all along…. It is contrary to the language and the purpose of the statute. Id.

Likewise, in Herman v. Fabri–Centers of America, Inc., 308 F.3d 580 (6th Cir.2002), the Sixth Circuit extensively reviewed the FLSA’s plain language, caselaw, and § 207(h)‘s legislative history to find in favor of a workweek restriction. Id. at 586–90.

Both the Seventh Circuit in Howard and the Sixth Circuit in Herman note that the Department of Labor’s regulations implementing the FLSA support prompt payment of overtime, suggesting that overtime payments should be credited within the same workweek in which they were paid:

The general rule is that overtime compensation earned in a particular workweek must be paid on the regular pay day for the period in which such workweek ends. When the correct amount of overtime compensation cannot be determined until some time after the regular pay period, however, the requirements of the Act will be satisfied if the employer pays the excess overtime compensation as soon after the regular pay period as is practicable. Payment may not be delayed for a period longer than is reasonably necessary for the employer to compute and arrange for payment of the amount due and in no event may payment be delayed beyond the next payday after such computation can be made. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 778.106); Herman, 308 F.3d at 589.

The City cites alternative, yet unpersuasive, caselaw supporting a cumulative approach. In Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d 1473 (11th Cir.1990), the Eleventh Circuit held that previously-paid overtime can be cumulatively offset against the damages calculated. Yet the court summarily decided the issue, citing no supporting authority. Id. at 1481.

Likewise, in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s cumulative offset calculation. Yet that case is inapposite, as the court explicitly stated that ” § 207(h) does not apply in this case,” and that ” § 207(h), and the cases interpreting it, are inapplicable.” Id. at 827.

We thus affirm the district court’s decision that previously-paid overtime should be offset using a week-by-week calculation.

Click Haro v. City of Los Angeles to read the entire Opinion.

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