Home » Affirmative Defenses (Page 2)
Category Archives: Affirmative Defenses
S.D.N.Y.: De Minimis Exception Applies Only in Cases Where There is a “Practical Administrative Difficulty in Recording Time”
Chavez v. Panda Jive, Inc.
Anyone who handles more than a handful of FLSA cases no doubt knows that defendants often raise an affirmative defense regarding the de minimis nature of the work. Typically the defense asserted claims that even if the defendants failed to properly pay the plaintiff for all time due and owing under the FLSA, such time was de minimis, so no damages are due and owing. And, while most of the decisions discussing the issue focus on the amount of time that is (or is not) de minimis as a matter of law, a recent case sheds light on the narrow circumstances where the defense is even available to an employer. And, as it turns out, the defense is likely applicable far less than you might have thought, only in circumstances where there is a “practical administrative difficulty in recording [the employee’s] time,” as discussed briefly in this case.
In this case, the plaintiff’s time records clearly showed overtime hours worked, however the defendant paid him only straight time for his overtime hours, and not time and a half. As the court’s opinion indicates, initially the defendant had raised an exemption defense, however because the plaintiff was admittedly paid by the hour, the defendant ultimately conceded that the plaintiff was generally entitled to overtime (which he was not paid) when he worked over 40 hours in a work week. However, the defendant asserted that because such time was “de minimis” it was not recoverable under the FLSA. Rejecting defendant’s contention, the court explained:
The de minimis exception applies, however, only in cases where there is a “practical administrative difficulty of recording additional time,” such as an employee’s commuting time. Singh v. City of New York, 524 F.3d 361, 371 (2d Cir.2008) (Sotomayor, J.); Reich v. N.Y. Transit Auth., 45 F.3d 646, 652 (2d Cir.1995). This is not such a case: defendants concede that they paid Chavez only straight time for hours for which their own records explicitly show he was owed time and a half. See, e.g., Reply Memorandum of Law in Support of Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment dated May 4, 2012 at 4–5; Tr. at 5–6. Accordingly, the Court grants summary judgment to plaintiff on the issue of liability against defendant Panda Jive for overtime hours Chavez worked prior to moving back to Penelope’s kitchen in December 2009.
Click Chavez v. Panda Jive, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Order.
5th Cir.: Where Employees Were Represented in Grievance Process By Their Union and Its Attorneys, Private Settlement of a Bona Fide Dispute Enforceable
Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C.
Following the entry of summary judgment on behalf of the defendants, the plaintiffs appealed. As discussed here, plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s holding that the private settlement reached between their union and one of their alleged employers was binding and enforceable. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that absent: (1) court approval, (2) DOL supervision, or (3) a showing that they had been paid their wages in full without compromise, the settlement previously reached was not binding and/or enforceable. Affirming the decision below, the Fifth Circuit held that the settlement agreement was binding and enforceable notwithstanding the lack of court or DOL supervision, because it was a resolution of a bona fide dispute. While it is not entirely clear, it appears that the Fifth Circuit reasoned that the agreement, at least arguably could be said to be “without compromise,” thus making it binding and enforceable.
The case concerned grips and other movie production employees who worked on the set of a movie. Laying out the relevant procedural/factual background, the Fifth Circuit explained:
The plaintiffs “filed a grievance against Spring Break Louisiana alleging that they had not been paid wages for work they performed. The Union sent a representative to investigate the merits of the claims. After his investigation, the representative concluded that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they alleged they had worked. The Union and Spring Break Louisiana entered into a Settlement Agreement pertaining to the disputed hours allegedly worked by Appellants.”
Discussing the issue of whether the private settlement here was binding and enforceable the Fifth Circuit reasoned:
The district court concluded that the plain language of the Settlement Agreement “is binding upon the [Appellants] in their individual capacities and prohibits those individuals from pursuing future legal action against Spring Break Louisiana after receiving their settlement payments.” We agree. The Settlement Agreement, in relevant part, states:
The Union on its own behalf and on behalf of the IATSE Employees agrees and acknowledges that the Union has not and will not file any complaints, charges or other proceedings against Producer, its successors, licenses and/or assignees, with any agency, court, administrative body, or in any forum, on condition that payment in full is made pursuant to the terms of this Settlement Agreement.
The Settlement Agreement also states that the Union “has the full power and authority to enter into this Settlement Agreement on behalf of IATSE Employees and bind them in accordance with the terms hereof.” By this plain language, the Appellants, who were IATSE Employees, were bound by its terms. Appellants contend, however, that the Settlement Agreement is unenforceable because they never signed it or agreed to it—instead, the Settlement Agreement was signed by Union representatives. However, Appellants do not dispute that they received full payment for their claims pursuant the terms of the Settlement Agreement. Nor do Appellants dispute that they cashed the Settlement Agreement payment checks they received. The Appellants were members of the Union and, under the CBA, Spring Break Louisiana recognized “the Union as exclusive representative of the employees in the bargaining unit.” Considering that Appellants, who were members of the Union, received and accepted full payment for their FLSA claims under the Settlement Agreement, the fact that Appellants did not themselves personally sign the Settlement Agreement does not render it unenforceable. See N.L.R.B. v. Allis–Chalmers Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 175, 180, 87 S.Ct. 2001, 18 L.Ed.2d 1123 (1967) (“The employee may disagree with many of the union decisions but is bound by them.”).
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the settlement agreement was not binding and enforceable, because generally individuals may not privately settle FLSA claims. In response the defendants argued that that a private compromise of claims under the FLSA is permissible where there exists a bona fide dispute as to liability (and as to the amount of appropriate damages). After a discussion of the relevant Fifth Circuit precedent, the court agreed with the Defendants and held the settlement agreement at issue to be enforceable.
Significantly the court reasoned:
[H]ere, there is a bona fide dispute between Appellants and Spring Break Louisiana over the number of hours for which they are owed their set rate of pay. In fact, the Union representative conducted an investigation into the dispute and received conflicting information from various sources, ultimately concluding that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they claimed they had worked in their grievance. Approving of this rationale, we hold that the payment offered to and accepted by Appellants, pursuant to the Settlement Agreement, is an enforceable resolution of those FLSA claims predicated on a bona fide dispute about time worked and not as a compromise of guaranteed FLSA substantive rights themselves. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 714, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (“Our decision … has not necessitated a determination of what limitation, if any, Section 16(b) of the [FLSA] places on the validity of agreements between an employer and employee to settle claims arising under the Act if the settlement is made as the result of a bona fide dispute between the two parties, in consideration of a bona fide compromise and settlement.”); see also D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114–15, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946) (“Nor do we need to consider here the possibility of compromises in other situation which may arise, such as a dispute over the number of hours worked or the regular rate of employment.”); 29 U.S.C. § 253(a).
Apparently the court also believed that the settlement at issue here could arguably be said to be “without compromise” such that the third permissible basis for an enforceable private settlement was met:
Notably, in Thomas v. Louisiana, 534 F.2d 613 (5th Cir.1976), we held that a private settlement of FLSA claims was binding and enforceable where the settlement gave employees “everything to which they are entitled under the FLSA at the time the agreement is reached.” Id. at 615. We explained that, “[a]lthough no court ever approved this settlement agreement, the same reason for enforcing a court-approved agreement i.e., little danger of employees being disadvantaged by unequal bargaining power[,] applies here.” Id. Here, Spring Break Louisiana and the Union agreed in the Settlement Agreement that the payments Appellants were paid pursuant to that agreement were the “amounts due and owing” for the disputed number of hours they claimed they had worked and not been paid for. The Settlement Agreement was a way to resolve a bona fide dispute as to the number of hours worked—not the rate at which Appellants would be paid for those hours—and though Appellants contend they are yet not satisfied, they received agreed-upon compensation for the disputed number of hours worked.
Lastly, the court distinguished a settlement privately negotiated by a union and its attorneys from a situation where a labor union purports to waive an employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, a longstanding no-no under well-established FLSA jurisprudence:
Finally, Appellants contend, citing Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981), that because the Supreme Court has held that a union cannot waive employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, they cannot have settled their FLSA claims in the Settlement Agreement, which was arrived at through the Union-facilitated grievance procedure laid out in the CBA. See Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“FLSA rights … are independent of the collective-bargaining process. They devolve on petitioners as individual workers, not as members of a collective organization. They are not waivable.”). Although the terms and conditions of Appellants’ employment with Spring Break Louisiana were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, Barrentine is distinguishable. In Barrentine, the plaintiffs’ grievances based on rights under the FLSA were submitted by the union to a joint grievance committee that rejected them without explanation, a final and binding decision pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. 450 U.S. at 731, 101 S.Ct. 1437. Here, Appellants accepted and cashed settlement payments—Appellants’ FLSA rights were adhered to and addressed through the Settlement Agreement, not waived or bargained away. The concerns the Court in Barrentine expressed, that FLSA substantive rights would be bargained away, see id. at 740, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“This Court’s decisions interpreting the FLSA have frequently emphasized the nonwaivable nature of an individual employee’s right to a minimum wage and to overtime pay under the Act. Thus, we have held that FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived because this would ‘nullify the purposes’ of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.”), are not implicated by the situation here where Appellants’ Union did not waive FLSA claims, but instead Appellants, with counsel, personally received and accepted compensation for the disputed hours. We reiterate that FLSA substantive rights may not be waived in the collective bargaining process, however, here, FLSA rights were not waived, but instead, validated through a settlement of a bona fide dispute, which Appellants accepted and were compensated for. Therefore, the district court did not err by finding an enforceable release resolving this wage dispute.
Given, the somewhat unique facts of this case, it remains to be seen whether the Fifth Circuit’s decision while trigger a change in longstanding FLSA jurisprudence regarding the enforceability of privately-negotiated settlements, or whether this case will remain an outlier, largely limited to its facts. For example, it is not clear whether the settlement would have been enforced absent the fact that plaintiffs were represented by both their union and attorneys in the negotiations, or if this was a “straight time” case where there was demonstrative evidence of the precise number of hours at issue. Stay tuned, for what’s likely to be an influx of cases where defendant-employers seek to expand this case’s holding while plaintiff-employees seek to limit the holding to the facts at bar (which are not likely to be oft-repeated).
Click Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C. to read the entire Decision. For an excellent historical overview of more typical decisions regarding the enforceability of private settlements of FLSA claims click here to read an outline from the folks at Outten & Golden.
2 Recent Decisions Hold That an Employer-Defendant Cannot Avoid Liquidated Damages By Relying on Involuntary Administrative Governmental Audits
As FLSA cases have proliferated in recent years, among the formally sleepy areas of jurisprudence that has seen a dramatic rise in litigation is the so-called “good faith” defense. Although in its earliest years the FLSA provided for mandatory liquidated damages, a subsequent amendment to the FLSA, through the Portal-to-Portal Act, now allows for a defendant to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages (in addition to the underlying unpaid wages damages) if it can demonstrate that it took affirmative steps to attempt compliance with the FLSA, but violated the FLSA nonetheless. Two recent cases reiterate that a defendant’s burden is not met solely by demonstrating that it had a subjective belief that it was complying.
McLean v. Garage Management Corp.
In the first case, the defendant sought to avoid liquidated damages by relying on a series of involuntary misinformed DOL audits, which it claimed it reasonably relied upon in establishing their belief that its illegal pay methodology, whereby it treated hourly employees as executive exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. While the DOL has in fact found the defendant’s classification to be proper, the court noted that the DOL’s finding was based on its examination of the employees’ duties alone, because the defendant had misrepresented to the DOL that the employees were paid on a salary basis, at the required rate under the applicable regulations in the initial audit. Subsequent audits simply compounded this initial incomplete investigation, based on the information the defendant provided to the DOL in the initial audit.
Significantly, the court rejected the defendants’ claimed reliance on the DOL audits for 3 separate reasons. First, it found that any informal conversations do not constitute “active steps” to ascertain the dictates of the law. Second, the court noted that the audits were involuntary and defendant had not requested same and thus, giving government investigators access to records and employees did not relieve defendant of its own obligation to determine what the labor laws require. Third, the court noted that defendant had not shown that any government investigator focused with care on its time and payroll records for the employees in question, and thus the DOL had not undertaken a review to see whether the defendant indeed paid a predetermined amount that did not vary, as required to meet the “salary basis” prong of the executive exemption. “Without such full disclosure, [the defendant] cannot reasonably rely on the existence of the investigations and their failure to find any inadequacies in the compensation system for [the employees].”
Finally, the court held that the defendant was not entitled to rely on the fact that it periodically consulted with outside counsel, because it had invoked its attorney-client privilege. The court explained that absent a waiver of the privilege, the defendant could not sustain a defense based on good faith reliance on the advice of counsel.
Click McLean v. Garage Management Corp. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc.
In the second case- concerning an alleged misclassification of drivers under the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption- the defendant sought to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages, by relying on a prior involuntary Department of Transportation (DOT) audit/citations and the advise of counsel it received as part of the audit process. As in McLean above, the court rejected this evidence of “good faith” as insufficient to meet the defendant’s heavy burden.
The court noted:
Defendants maintain they have demonstrated both their subjective good faith and objectively reasonable belief that their failure to pay overtime wages to their drivers did not violate FLSA. To meet their burden, Defendants rely almost exclusively on their compliance with DOT rules and the DOT’s citation of “some” of their intrastate-only drivers. The DOT’s citation of “some” of Defendants’ intrastate-only drivers, however, does not provide a sufficiently reasonable basis for concluding all such drivers were under the DOT’s jurisdiction and, therefore, exempt from FLSA. The objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure is undermined by the fact that the determination as to whether the Department of Labor or the DOT has jurisdiction is resolved on a driver-by-driver basis, as the Court explained at length on summary judgment, and, in any event, DOT jurisdiction for a driver who only occasionally drives in interstate commerce lasts only 4 months from the last such trip. See Reich v. Am. Driver Serv., Inc., 33 F.3d 1153, 1155–56 (9th Cir.1994). Furthermore, exemptions to FLSA, such as the Motor Carrier Exemption relied on by Defendants, are to be construed narrowly and only apply to employees who “plainly and unmistakably” fall within their terms. See Solis v. Washington, 656 F.3d 1079, 1083 (9th Cir.2011). Thus, the Court concludes Defendants’ generalizations about entire classes of their drivers on the basis of DOT citations of some of its drivers are insufficient to establish the objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure to comply with FLSA. Similarly and in light of the lack of testimony in this regard, the fact that Defendants required both their interstate and intrastate drivers comply with DOT regulations neither establishes Defendant’s subjective belief nor its objective reasonableness.
Defendants also maintain their belief that their drivers were exempt from FLSA is reasonable in light of the fact that they hired counsel to assist with the November 2009 DOT compliance audit. Although there is not any direct evidence as to the purpose of counsel’s representation, the Court concludes it is fair to infer that counsel was hired to ensure Defendants’ compliance with DOT regulations rather than to ensure Defendants were compliant with FLSA. In any event, there is not any evidence on this record from which the Court can find that Defendants took “the steps necessary to ensure [its] practices complied with [FLSA].” Alvarez, 339 F .3d at 910 (“Mistaking ex post explanation and justification for the necessary affirmative ‘steps’ to ensure compliance, [the defendant] offers no evidence to show that it actively endeavored to ensure such compliance.”). Thus, the Court concludes on this record that Defendants did not satisfy their “difficult” burden to show their subjective good faith failure to comply with FLSA or the objective reasonableness of their actions, and, therefore, the Court concludes Plaintiff is entitled to liquidated damages in the amount equal to the unpaid overtime wages.
Click Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc. to read the entire Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Verdict.
M.D.Tenn.: Where Employees Believed They Were Required to Sign WH-58 and/or Unaware of Private Lawsuit Regarding Same Issues, Waivers Null & Void
Woods v. RHA/Tennessee Group Homes, Inc.
This case was before the court on a variety of motions related to the plaintiffs’ request for conditional certification and for clarification as to the eligible participants in any such class. The case arose from plaintiffs’ claims that defendants improperly automatically deducted 30 minutes for breaks that were not provided to them. Of interest here, during the time the lawsuit was pending, the DOL was also investigating defendants regarding the same claims. Shortly after the lawsuit was commenced, the DOL made findings and recommendations to the defendants, in which it recommended payments of backwages to certain employees that were also putative class members in the case. As discussed here, the defendants then made such payments to the putative class members, but required that all recipients of backwage payments sign a WH-58 form (DOL waiver), which typically waives an employees claims covered by the waiver. Subsequently, the plaintiffs sought to have the WH-58’s declared null & void and asserted that any waiver was not knowing and/or willful as would be required to enforce. The court agreed and struck the waivers initially. However, on reconsideration the court held that a further factual showing was necessary to determine whether the WH-58 waivers were effectual or not under the circumstances.
The court explained the following procedural/factual background relevant to the waiver issue:
“The six named plaintiffs filed this putative collective action on January 13, 2011. Coincidentally, on the same day, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) contacted the defendant and commenced an investigation regarding the Meal Break Deduction Policy. (Docket No. 80 at 25 (transcript of April 14, 2011 hearing).) The DOL was apparently following up on a complaint that it had received nearly a year earlier. (Id. at 32.) Several days later, on January 18, the defendant informed the DOL of the pending private lawsuit.
Nevertheless, the DOL proceeded with the investigation and, in early March 2011, the DOL and the defendant reached a settlement, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(c). Under the settlement, the defendant agreed to comply with the FLSA in the future and to pay a certain amount of back wages to employees who were subject to the Meal Break Deduction Policy. (See Docket No. 80 at 14.)
To distribute these payments, the defendant posted the following notice in a common area:
The following employees must come to the Administrative Building and see Michelle regarding payment for wages as agreed upon by the Stones River center and the Department of Labor on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 8:00 am–4:00 pm.
If you have questions, see Lisa or Kamilla
(Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 72; Docket No. 56, Ex. 1.) The posting contained a list of over 60 employees (see Docket No. 56, Ex. 1), including several employees who had already opted into this lawsuit (see, e.g., Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 56), although the defendant claims that their inclusion was an oversight. In her declaration, Human Resources Director Kamilla Wright states that she was simply “instructed to post a list of employees for whom checks were available.” (Docket No. 55 ¶ 7.)
Wright was further instructed “that when an employee came to the office to pick up their check, [she] was to have them sign the receipt for payment of back wages and then give them their check.” (Id. ¶ 9.) The declaration of Lisa Izzi, the defendant’s administrator, states that Izzi received identical instructions. (Docket No. 56 ¶ 9.) Accordingly, at the meetings with employees, each employee was given a check and DOL Form WH–58, which was titled “Receipt for Payment of Back Wages, Employment Benefits, or Other Compensation.” (Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 13.) The form stated:
I, [employee name], have received payment of wages, employment benefits, or other compensation due to me from Stones River Center … for the period beginning with the workweek ending [date] through the workweek ending [date.] The amount of payment I received is shown below.
This payment of wages and other compensation was calculated or approved by the Wage and Hour Division and is based on the findings of a Wage and Hour investigation. This payment is required by the Act(s) indicated below in the marked box(es):
[X] Fair Labor Standards Act 1 …
(Id.) Further down, in the middle of the page, the form contained the following “footnote”:
FN1NOTICE TO EMPLOYEE UNDER THE FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT (FLSA)—Your acceptance of this payment of wages and other compensation due under the FLSA based on the findings of the Wage and Hour Division means that you have given up the right you have to bring suit on your own behalf for the payment of such unpaid minimum wages or unpaid overtime compensation for the period of time indicated above and an equal amount in liquidated damages, plus attorney’s fees and court costs under Section 16(b) of the FLSA. Generally, a 2–year statute of limitations applies to the recovery of back wages. Do not sign this receipt unless you have actually received this payment in the amount indicated above of the wages and other compensation due you.
(Id.) Below that was an area for the employee to sign and date the form.
It appears that Wright and Izzi did not, as a matter of course, inform the employees that accepting the money and signing the WH–58 form was optional. Nor did they inform the employees that a private lawsuit covering the same alleged violations was already pending.
On April 12 and 13, 2011, a number of employees accepted the payments and signed the WH–58 forms. On April 13, the plaintiffs’ counsel learned of this and filed a motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, seeking to prevent the defendant from communicating with opt-in plaintiffs and potential opt-in plaintiffs. (Docket No. 43.)
The court held a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion on April 14, 2011. At that hearing, the court expressed its displeasure with the defendant’s actions, which, the court surmised, were at least partly calculated to prevent potential class members from opting in to this litigation. The court stated that it would declare the WH–58 forms (and the attendant waiver of those employees’ right to pursue private claims) to be null and void; thus, those employees would be free to opt in to this lawsuit.”
On reconsideration, the court reconsidered its prior Order on the issue. While re-affirming that non-willful waivers would be deemed null & void, the court explained that the issue would be one for the finder of fact at trial. After a survey of the relevant case law, the court explained:
“To constitute a waiver, the employee’s choice to waive his or her right to file private claims—that is, the employee’s agreement to accept a settlement payment—must be informed and meaningful. In Dent, the Ninth Circuit explicitly equated “valid waiver” with “meaningful agreement.” Dent, 502 F.3d at 1146. Thus, the court stated that “an employee does not waive his right under section 16(c) to bring a section 16(b) action unless he or she agrees to do so after being fully informed of the consequences.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). In Walton, the Seventh Circuit likened a valid § 216(c) waiver to a typical settlement between private parties:
When private disputes are compromised, the people memorialize their compromise in an agreement. This agreement (the accord), followed by the payment (the satisfaction), bars further litigation. Payment of money is not enough to prevent litigation…. There must also be a release. Walton, 786 F.2d at 306. The relevant inquiry is whether the plaintiffs “meant to settle their [FLSA] claims.” Id.
Taken together, Sneed, Walton, and Dent suggest that an employee’s agreement to accept payment and waive his or her FLSA claims is invalid if the employer procured that agreement by fraud or duress. As with the settlement of any other private dispute, fraud or duress renders any “agreement” by the employee illusory. See 17A Am.Jur.2d Contracts § 214 (“One who has been fraudulently induced to enter into a contract may rescind the contract and recover the benefits that he or she has conferred on the other party.”); id. § 218 (“ ‘Duress’ is the condition where one is induced by a wrongful act or threat of another to make a contract under circumstances which deprive one of the exercise of his or her free will. Freedom of will is essential to the validity of an agreement.” (footnote omitted)). The court finds that employees do not waive their FLSA claims, pursuant to § 216(c), if their employer has affirmatively misstated material facts regarding the waiver, withheld material facts regarding the waiver, or unduly pressured the employees into signing the waiver.
This holding does conflict with Solis v. Hotels.com Texas, Inc ., No. 3:03–CV–0618–L, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17199 (N.D.Tex. Aug. 26, 2004), in which the district court rejected the contention that “an allegation of fraud could lead to the invalidity of a waiver under 216(c).” Id. at *6. That finding was mere dicta, however, and, regardless, this court is not bound by decisions from the Northern District of Texas.
Here, the defendant posted a sign with a list of employees’ names stating that those employees “must come to the Administrative Building and see Michelle regarding payment for wages as agreed upon by the Stones River center and the Department of Labor.” (Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 72 (emphasis added).) It appears that, when the employees met with the defendant’s human resources representatives, neither the representatives nor the Form WH–58 informed the employees that they could choose to not accept the payments. On the evidence presented at the April 14 hearing and submitted thereafter, the court finds that reasonable employees could have believed that the defendant was requiring them to accept the payment. Obviously, this calls into question the willingness of the employees’ waivers.
Additionally, it appears that the defendant never informed the employees that a collective action concerning the Meal Break Deduction Policy was already pending when the waivers were signed. The court finds that it was the defendant’s duty to do so. Section 216 exists to give employees a choice of how to remedy alleged violations of the act—by either accepting a settlement approved by the DOL or by pursing a private claim. An employer should not be allowed to short circuit that choice by foisting settlement payments on employees who are unaware that a collective action has already been filed. If employees are unaware of a pending collective action, they are not “fully informed of the consequences” of their waiver, Dent, 502 F.3d at 1146, because waiving the right to file a lawsuit in the future is materially different than waiving the right to join a lawsuit that is already pending. In the former situation, an employee who wishes to pursue a claim must undertake the potentially time-consuming and expensive process of finding and hiring an attorney; in the latter, all an employee must do is sign and return a Notice of Consent form.
Thus, the court finds that any employee of Stones River Center may void his or her § 216(c) waiver by showing either: (1) that he or she believed that the defendant was requiring him or her to accept the settlement payment and to sign the waiver; or (2) that he or she was unaware that a collective action regarding the Meal Break Deduction Policy was already pending when he or she signed the waiver. The court will vacate its April 14, 2011 Order, to the extent that the order declared all such waivers to be automatically null and void. Instead, under the above-described circumstances, the waivers are voidable at the election of the employee. Because the validity of any particular employee’s waiver depends on questions of fact, the issue of validity as to each employee for whom this is an issue will be resolved at the summary judgment stage or at trial.”
Click Woods v. RHA/Tennessee Group Homes, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion on all the motions.
M.D.Fla.: Applying Twombly, Defendant’s Assertion of Generalized Affirmative Defense of “Good Faith” Struck, Due to Insufficient Facts
Drzik v. Haskell Co.
This case was before the court on Plaintiff’s motion to strike several affirmative defenses pled by Defendant as factually insufficient under FRCP 8 and Twombly. Significantly, the court struck Defendant’s two affirmative defenses asserting that liquidated damages were not due to Plaintiff because Defendant had acted in “good faith” in committing violations, if any, of the FLSA. The case is significant, because the affirmative defenses struck are asserted in the majority of FLSA defendants’ answers, typically with identical language to that pled here. Noting that such bare bones allegations do not satisfy the pleading requirements of Rule 8, the court struck the Defendant’s affirmative defense(s) of good faith, with leave to replead with additional facts.
Holding that the Defendant’s allegations of good faith were insufficient as pled, the court explained:
“[Defendant’s] Third and Fifth Affirmative Defenses respectively claim that Plaintiff’s claims are barred because Haskell has acted in good faith, and because of the existence of exceptions, exclusions, or exemptions provided in the FLSA. (Doc. 6 at 6). These affirmative defenses correctly state that a “good faith” defense and exceptions exist under the FLSA. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 207, 260. However, the affirmative defenses, as drafted, are lacking in sufficient details and fail to provide the requisite notice of the theory of the defense. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556 (explaining the need for factual support to give defendant fair notice of claims, but equally applicable to defenses). The requirement to include factual support to provide fair notice of claims is also applicable to affirmative defenses. Therefore, if Haskell intends to pursue these defenses it will need to plead some factual basis to give the Plaintiff fair notice of its defense. Therefore, Plaintiff’s Motion is granted as to the Third and Fifth Affirmative Defenses and those defenses are stricken with leave to amend.”
As the trend of defendants filing more and more motions to dismiss based on Twombly continues, it will be interesting to see if we begin seeing an uptick in motions like this, which seek to apply the pleading standards equally to the other side of the “v.”
Click Drzik v. Haskell Co. to read the entire Order.
S.D.Ind.: Court Erred In Resolving MCA Exemption Issues on Motion for Conditional Certification; On Reconsideration Motion Granted
Thompson v. K.R. Drenth Trucking, Inc.
This case was before the court on plaintiffs’ motion for reconsideration of the court’s order denying their motion for conditional certification of a collective action. The case arose out of allegations that defendants violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by failing to pay a certain group of truck drivers (“plaintiffs”) overtime premiums. Initially, the court denied Plaintiffs’ Motion. In doing so, “the Court held that the Motor Carrier Act exemption applied to [the] named Plaintiffs… thus rendering them ineligible for overtime pay and unsuitable collective action representatives.” In their motion for reconsideration, the plaintiffs asserted that the court had previously erred by inappropriately resolving the merits of the Motor Carrier Act exemption, with respect to the named-plaintiffs at the conditional certification stage. The court agreed, and upon reconsideration granted conditional certification.
The court explained:
“In the February 11, 2011 Entry (Dkt.68), this Court acknowledged that the issue of whether Thompson and Hayden engaged in interstate commerce was “hotly contested.” Plaintiffs emphasized that both Thompson and Hayden were Non–Recyclable Drivers who regularly transported non-recyclable materials within the State of Indiana. Plaintiffs argued that since they never engaged in interstate commerce as part of their “regular” or “normal” duties, Thompson and Hayden are suitable collective action representatives. KRD counters that any of its drivers, including Thompson and Hayden, “could be called upon at any time to carry any load, whether intrastate or interstate,” meaning the MCA exemption applies. (Dkt. 71 at 4). And, indeed, Thompson and Hayden each crossed Indiana state lines on one occasion to transport KRD equipment to South Carolina.
In its prior entry, the Court found KRD’s argument persuasive, determining that the MCA exemption applied to Thompson and Hayden. In other words, even if Thompson and Hayden rarely crossed state lines (or, for that matter, hauled recyclable material destined for out-of-state purchasers), they could have been called upon to do so in their regular course of work. For this reason, the Court denied Plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification.
Having now reviewed a more thorough body of case law, the Court finds that it erred by, in effect, making a merits determination at this early stage. As Plaintiffs emphasize, they have a “lenient” burden at this stage of the proceedings and, as such, courts do not reach the merits of Plaintiffs’ FLSA claims. Fravel v. County of Lake, 2008 WL 2704744, at *2 (N.D.Ind. July 7, 2008) (citations omitted). However, it is worth noting that even at this early stage, a court must also ensure that the proposed class representatives are adequate.”
Luckily for the plaintiffs here, the court recognized its initial error and corrected it almost immediately. The court’s decision serves as a reminder that courts simply do not resolve the merits of an FLSA case at the conditional certification stage.
Click Thompson v. K.R. Drenth Trucking, Inc. to read the court’s Entry on Plaintiffs’ Motion to Reconsider.
M.D.Fla.: Employer Not Entitled to Offset Unpaid Overtime Damages Based on Provision of Car, Car Insurance, Gasoline, or a Cell Phone It Provided
Vancamper v. Rental World, Inc.
This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment. Among the issues of interest ruled upon, the court held that plaintiff’s pre-arranged shuttling of defendants’ clients to and from the airport to defendants’ rental office for pre-arranged rental of defendant’s cars and the cleaning of such cars, satisfied the individual coverage test of the FLSA. As discussed here, the court also addressed defendants’ argument that it should be entitled to offset plaintiff’s minimum wage and overtime damages, if any, due to its provision of a car, car insurance, gasoline and cell phone to plaintiff, during his employment. Holding that such offsets are impermissible under the FLSA, the court explained:
“The parties dispute whether Vancamper’s use of a car, car insurance, gasoline, and a cellular phone provided by Rental World offset the overtime compensation that Rental World owed Vancamper as permitted by 29 U.S.C. § 207(h)(2). (Doc. No. 27 at 14; Doc. No. 33 at 5–6.) The Defendants bear the burden of establishing a credit for overtime compensation under Section 207(h)(2). See Leonard, 614 F.Supp. at 1187 (noting that an employer bears the burden of establishing a credit under 29 U.S.C. § 203(m) against the overtime owed to an employee (citing Donovan, 676 F.2d at 473–76)).
(5) extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid for certain hours worked by the employee in any day or workweek because such hours are hours worked in excess of eight in a day or in excess of the maximum workweek applicable to such employee under subsection (a) of this section or in excess of the employee’s normal working hours or regular working hours, as the case may be;
(6) extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid for work by the employee on Saturdays, Sundays, holidays, or regular days of rest, or on the sixth or seventh day of the workweek, where such premium rate is not less than one and one-half times the rate established in good faith for like work performed in nonovertime hours on other days;
(7) extra compensation provided by a premium rate paid to the employee, in pursuance of an applicable employment contract or collective-bargaining agreement, for work outside of the hours established in good faith by the contract or agreement as the basic, normal, or regular workday (not exceeding eight hours) or workweek (not exceeding the maximum workweek applicable to such employee under subsection (a) of this section, where such premium rate is not less than one and one-half times the rate established in good faith by the contract or agreement for like work performed during such workday or workweek;
These provisions plainly contemplate a dollar-for-dollar credit against overtime pay for premium pay awarded on particular days and times. Wheeler v. Hampton Twp., 339 F.3d 238, 245 (3d Cir.2005). The parties do not cite, and the Court does not find, any authority that these provisions encompass use of a car, car insurance, gasoline, or a cellular phone provided by an employer. Moreover, because Vancamper’s uncontroverted time sheets show that he was never paid extra compensation for working during the periods described in Section 207(e)(5)-(7), (Doc. No. 27–5 at 1–102), Defendants are not entitled to any overtime credit under Section 207(h)(2).”
Click Vancamper v. Rental World, Inc. to read the entire order.
D.Mass.: Offsets to Unpaid Overtime, Pursuant to § 207(h)(2) of FLSA, Attributable Only to Singular Workweeks in Which Both Premiums and Overtime Earned Simultaneously
Rudy v. City of Lowell
This case was before court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment, as to the methodology applicable to calculate plaintiff’s damages. The interesting, but rarely raised issue: to the extent that the employer is entitled to an offset for certain premium compensation paid to the employee, to what extent can that offset reduce the unpaid overtime wage damages sought by the employee? Holding that such offsets are only applicable in singular workweeks (i.e. they may only be taken in the week in which the payment giving rise to the offset occurred), the court explained:
“Section 207(h) (2) of the FLSA provides that extra compensation paid as described in paragraphs (5), (6), and (7) of subsection (e) of this section shall be creditable toward overtime compensation payable pursuant to this section.
29 U.S.C. § 207(h)(2). Only the “premium” portion of the contractual overtime rate (the extra one-half on top of the regular rate) may be used to offset the defendant’s statutory overtime liability. O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, 350 F.3d 279, 289 (1st Cir.2003) (“O’Brien I” ).
Here, the CBA allows employees to treat certain non-work days such as vacation, sick and personal days as hours actually worked for the purpose of determining overtime hours. The City also pays some workers time and one-half for working on holidays. The parties do not dispute that the extra compensation provided for in the plaintiffs’ CBA falls within the compensation described in subsection (5), (6) and (7) and can be used to offset defendant’s underpayment, pursuant to § 207(h)(2).
The parties do dispute, however, whether premium compensation earned in one week can be used to offset an underpayment in a different week. Plaintiffs argue that their damages for unpaid overtime should be calculated on a workweek basis and that any offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) may only be attributed to the singular workweeks in which the premiums and overtime were earned. In other words, an underpayment one week cannot be offset by a premium payment made in a different week. The defendant contends, to the contrary, that it is entitled to a “cumulative offset”, consisting of all premium payments, against any FLSA overtime it owes, regardless of when the premium payments were earned or made.
The FLSA does not provide an explicit answer to this difference of interpretation and the United States Circuit Courts have taken divergent positions. Some courts have held that § 207(h) offsets should be calculated on a workweek basis. Herman v. Fabri-Centers of Am., Inc., 308 F.3d 580, 585-93 (6th Cir.2002); Howard v. City of Springfield, 274 F.3d 1141, 1147-49 (7th Cir.2001); Roland Elec. Co. v. Black, 163 F.2d 417, 420 (4th Cir.1947); Conzo v. City of New York, 667 F.Supp.2d 279, 291 (S.D.N.Y.2009); Bell v. Iowa Turkey Growers Co-op., 407 F.Supp.2d 1051, 1063 (S.D.Iowa 2006); Nolan v. City of Chicago, 125 F.2d 324, 331 (N.D.Ill.2000). Other courts have allowed defendants to apply a cumulative offset. Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813, 826-28 (5th Cir.2003); Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d 1473, 1481 (11th Cir.1990).
The First Circuit has not directly addressed this issue but other sessions in this District have. In O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, United States District Judge Michael A. Ponsor addressed facts analogous to those at bar and held that the employer could apply a cumulative offset. 491 F.Supp.2d 170, 176 (D.Mass.2007) (“O’Brien II” ). The Court surmised that the First Circuit would hold accordingly given its holding in Lupien v. City of Marlborough. Id. at 175. In Lupien, the employer’s practice of compensating employees for overtime by use of compensatory time (“comp time”), instead of in cash, violated the FLSA. 387 F.3d 83 (1st Cir.2004). With respect to damages, the First Circuit held that the employer did not have to pay its employees for overtime hours for which the employee had used comp time, regardless of when the employee used the comp time. The Court reasoned that paying the employees for overtime hours for which they had used comp time would result in double payment for the same overtime hours. In Murphy v. Town of Natick, another case analogous to this one, United States District Judge Richard G. Stearns agreed with the holding in O’Brien II and also allowed defendants to apply a cumulative offset. 516 F.Supp.2d 153, 160-61 (D.Mass.2007).
Although the two cases in this District are directly analogous to this case, the Court disagrees with them with respect to their interpretation of the FLSA and of Lupien. A further analysis of the Lupien case, the purpose of the FLSA and its interpretation by the Department of Labor (“the DOL”) and the First Circuit’s language in O’Brien I all undermine the position adopted by the courts in O’Brien II and Murphy. Rather, they lead to the conclusion that § 207(h)(2) offsets should be calculated on a workweek basis for the following reasons:
1. This case is distinguishable from Lupien and other First Circuit case law indicates support for a workweek offset model. Lupien dealt with an application of § 207(o) (regulating the use of compensatory time), not § 207(h). In fact, § 207(h) is not referred to in that opinion. Furthermore, here, the employees were not given the option of taking comp time rather than overtime payments. Thus, there is no risk in our case, as there was in Lupien, that the plaintiffs will be compensated twice for the same hours. Thus, the Court concludes that the First Circuit’s decision in Lupien does not indicate how it would decide the question at bar.
More on point is the First Circuit’s discussion of § 207(h)(2) in O’Brien I, in which it stated that
The regulations specifically explain how to treat such mid-workweek contractual overtime payments under the Act: only the premium portion of the contractual overtime rate (that is, the amount in excess of the employee’s regular rate) is deemed “overtime” pay and may be offset against any statutory overtime liability in the same week. O’Brien I, 350 F.3d at 289 (citing 29 C.F.R. §§ 778.201(a), 202(a)) (emphasis added). Thus, although not resolving the offset issue in that decision, the First Circuit conveyed its inclination by specifying that offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) would apply “in the same week”.
2. The FLSA overtime requirement uses a single workweek as its basic unit of measurement. Scott v. City of New York, 592 F.Supp.2d 475, 484 (S.D.N.Y.2008). Section 207(a)(1) sets forth the basic overtime rule:
no employer shall employ any of his employees … for a workweek longer than forty hours unless such employee receives compensation for his employment in excess of the hours above specified at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.
The focus on the unitary workweek is prevalent throughout § 207 and the DOL’s interpretation of that section. For example, 29 C.F.R. § 778.103 directs employers to calculate overtime liability on a weekly basis. Further, 29 C.F.R. § 778.104 provides that “[t]he Act takes a single workweek as its standard” and an employer cannot average the number of hours an employee worked in two weeks in order to avoid paying overtime:
[I]f an employee works 30 hours one week and 50 hours the next, he must receive overtime compensation for the overtime hours worked beyond the applicable maximum in the second week, even though the average number of hours worked in the 2 weeks is 40.
It is clear from § 778.104 that cumulative offsets were not contemplated by the DOL. In addition, where the single workweek model is problematic, i.e. when applied to firefighters and law enforcement officers, the FLSA includes a very specific and limited exception. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(k).
With regard to the exact issue before the Court, 29 C.F.R. § 778.202(c) explains that credits pursuant to § 207(h) may be given for overtime due “in that workweek”. See Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148-49; Conzo, 667 F.Supp.2d at 290. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the DOL has also issued an opinion letter stating that surplus overtime premium payments, which may be credited against overtime1 pay pursuant to section 7(h) of FLSA, may not be carried forward or applied retroactively to satisfy an employer’s overtime pay obligation in future or past pay periods.
Letter from Herbert J. Cohen, Deputy Administrator, U.S. Dep’t of Labor, WH-526, 1985 WL 304329 (Dec. 23, 1985).
3. Overtime payments are intended to be paid as soon as is practicable. Although they are not entitled to deference by this Court, several of the DOL’s official interpretations of § 207 demonstrate the FLSA’s emphasis on ensuring that overtime payments are made soon after they are earned. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148. For instance, 29 C.F.R. § 778.106 provides that overtime payments need not be paid weekly but must be paid as soon 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. See also Nolan, 125 F.Supp.2d at 332 (discussing 29 C.F.R. § 778.106 and holding that offsets for overtime paid apply on a pay period basis).
The reason for requiring employers to calculate and make overtime payments as soon as practicable is obvious: employees are entitled to know how much they will be paid and to prompt payment of what they have earned. As poignantly stated by the Seventh Circuit in Howard v. City of Springfield, if § 207(h)(2) were to permit a cumulative offset, employers could withhold overtime earnings in order to offset them against potential “short” weeks in the future. 274 F.3d at 1148-49. Under such a model, an employee’s overtime payments could be put on hold indefinitely until the employer is either willing or compelled to pay. That outcome is not only illogical but also contradicts the FLSA’s focus on the workweek as a unit and its concern with prompt overtime payments.
In fact, this case uniquely illustrates why a workweek offset is appropriate: if the City had correctly calculated its overtime rate and applied the § 207(h)(2) offsets contemporaneously, it would not have been able to apply those offsets to obligations incurred one or two years later. See id. at 1148. The workweek method of calculating offsets most closely reproduces what the parties would be entitled to had there been no error in the City’s initial computation of its overtime liability. See Nolan, 125 F.Supp.2d at 333.
4. The purpose of the FLSA, to protect workers from “excessive work hours and substandard wages”, is best served by the workweek offset model. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148; see Herman, 308 F.3d at 585-93. This was clearly articulated in Scott v. City of New York, in which the DOL advocated for the workweek offset model. 592 F.Supp.2d at 484. The District Court in that case found that “both the structure of the Act and its legislative history lend credence to DoL’s interpretation.” Id. The Court explained how a cumulative offset undermines the protections afforded by the FLSA:
The [overtime] requirement protects workers from the imposition of excessive hours by placing an immediate cost on the employer. If employers were allowed to bank credit for contractual overtime against future obligations to pay statutory overtime, it would place workers in the employer’s debt[.] Id. In essence, it would require employees to work large blocks of overtime without premium compensation.
5. Finally, the arguments for applying a cumulative offset are unpersuasive. The City claims that a workweek offset will result in a windfall to the employees but that seems implausible given the fact that, if the City had been correctly calculating its overtime rate and applying the § 207(h)(2) offset at every pay period, the offset would have been applied only to the overtime liability in that pay period. Moreover, the circuit court cases cited by the City do not provide support for a cumulative offset. In Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d at 827, the Fifth Circuit held that § 207(h) was inapplicable, while in Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d at 1481, the Eleventh Circuit did not even explain why it allowed a cumulative offset.
In summary, the Court finds that the plaintiffs’ method of calculating damages is most compatible with both the language and purpose of the FLSA’s overtime requirements and the First Circuit’s understanding of those requirements. As such, the plaintiffs’ damages for unpaid overtime should be calculated on a workweek basis and any offsets pursuant to § 207(h)(2) should be attributed only to the singular workweeks in which both premiums and overtime were earned. The Court concludes that only the premium portions of the extra payments, i.e. the extra one-half of the regular rate, may be used to offset the City’s overtime liability. O’Brien II, 491 F.Supp.2d at 176.”
Click Rudy v. City of Lowell to read the entire order.
S.D.Tex.: FLSA Does Not Impose A Duty On Employees To Mitigate Their Damages By Notifying Employers Of Their Failure To Pay Proper Overtime
Tran v. Thai
Notwithstanding the fact that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) imposes no duty on employees to mitigate their damages, a recent trend among attorneys for employers is to plead a so-called “Ellerth/Faragher” defense to claims brought under the FLSA, whereby the employer essentially argues that it’s the employee’s fault they didn’t get paid overtime, because they failed to complain about the employer’s failure to pay them appropriate wages. An informal survey of Plaintiff’s attorneys by this author confirms that while defense lawyers are quick to plead such a defense, they are almost as quick in most cases to withdraw the defense- likely based on their understanding that it is frivolous- when pressed at the outset of FLSA litigation. Here however, the defense was pled and the case proceeded to the summary judgment stage, giving the court a chance to address the unfounded affirmative defense. Noting that such a defense was simply a defense of mitigation, which is not an appropriate defense to claims under the FLSA, the court granted Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the defense.
The court reasoned:
“The defendants argue that the plaintiff failed to mitigate his damages by failing “to take reasonable actions to notify Nails of America # 3 of any alleged unpaid overtime accounts” and because “Plaintiff worked at Bow & Mary-Nails of America # 5, LLC from April 2007 through August 2008 and failed to take reasonable actions and tell Defendants of any alleged unpaid overtime amounts at any point.” (Docket Entry No. 59, at 17). The defendants have not cited any authority imposing a duty on an FLSA plaintiff to notify an employer of alleged FLSA violations. Courts have found that as a matter of law “there is no requirement to mitigate overtime wages under the FLSA.” King v. ITT Educ. Servs., Inc., No. 3:09-cv-848, 2009 WL 3583881, at *3 (M.D.Fla. Oct.27, 2009); see also Gonzalez v. Spears Holdings, Inc., No. 09-60501-CV, 2009 WL 2391233, at *3 (S.D.Fla. July 31, 2009) (granting a motion to strike mitigation-of-damages affirmative defense because there is no duty to mitigate damages under the FLSA, nor a duty to provide notice as to any alleged unlawful pay practice); Lopez v. Autoserve LLC, No. 05 C 3554, 2005 WL 3116053, at *2 (N.D.Ill. Nov.17, 2005) (granting the plaintiff’s motion to strike mitigation-ofdamages affirmative defense because there is no duty to mitigate damages under the FLSA); Perez-Nunez v. North Broward Hosp. Dist., No. 008-61583-CIV, 2009 WL 723873, at *2 (S.D.Fla. Mar.13, 2009) (granting motion to strike the mitigation-of-damages affirmative defense and holding that a duty-to-mitigate-damages defense based on the plaintiff’s failure to timely disclose alleged violations to her employer so that the terms of her employment could be corrected failed as a matter of law under the FLSA).
Because there is no duty to mitigate overtime wages under the FLSA, this court grants the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment as to this affirmative defense.”
Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc.
Plaintiff sued her former employer, to recover unpaid overtime wages allegedly due under the Fair Labor StandardsAct (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. The district court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction after finding that Plaintiff’s maximum potential recovery was less than the value of her severance package received from Defendant, which the district court determined should be set-off against anypotential damages awarded to Plaintiff. Holding that such a set-off was improper, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The court reasoned:
“At issue is whether Pepsi can set-off the value of benefits it paid to Karen Martin under her severance agreement against Martin’s FLSA claim for overtime wages. The district court found that Pepsi was entitled to the set-off and, consequently, dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We review a court’s ruling on a FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss de novo. See Budget Prepay, Inc. v. AT&T Corp., 605 F.3d 273, 278 (5th Cir.2010) (citing Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir.2001)). When challenging a 12(b)(1) motion, the party asserting jurisdiction bears the burden of proof. Id.
Pepsi initially contends that our opinion in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), should be read broadly to allow set-offs in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Generally speaking, courts have been hesitant to permit an employer to file counterclaimsFN1 in FLSA suits for money the employer claims the employee owes it, or for damages the employee’s tortious conduct allegedly caused. See Brennan v. Heard, 491 F.2d 1, 4 (5th Cir.1974), rev’d on other grounds by McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 108 S.Ct. 1677, 100 L.Ed.2d 115 (1988); see also Donovan v. Pointon, 717 F.2d 1320, 1323 (10th Cir.1983) (“[T]he purpose of the present action is to bring Pointon into compliance with the Act by enforcing a public right. To permit him in such a proceeding to try his private claims, real or imagined, against his employees would delay and even subvert the whole process. Pointon is free to sue his employees in state court ….”).
In Heard, we said that set-offs and counterclaims are inappropriate in any case brought to enforce the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions. In that case, the Secretary of Labor sued an employer to enjoin it from withholding base and overtime wages from employees. Heard, 491 F.2d at 2. After finding a willful FLSA violation, the district court ordered the employer to pay its employees back wages, but permitted a set-off for the value of goods the employer had furnished to its employees. Id. This court reversed, stating that “[t]he federal courts were not designated by the FLSA to be either collection agents or arbitrators for an employee’s creditors.” Id. at 4. Noting that the only function of the federal judiciary under the FLSA “is to assure to the employees of a covered company a minimum level of wages,” we said that “[a]rguments and disputations over claims against those wages are foreign to the genesis, history, interpretation, and philosophy of the Act.” Id. And we observed that “[t]he only economic feud contemplated by the FLSA involves the employer’s obedience to minimum wage and overtime standards. To clutter [FLSA] proceedings with the minutiae of other employer-employee relationships would be antithetical to the purpose of the Act.” Id.; see also Pointon, 717 F.2d at 1323 (declining to address employer’s counterclaim for tortious sabotage in employee’s FLSA suit); Hodgson v. Lakewood Broad. Serv., 330 F.Supp. 670, 673 (D.Colo.1971) (declining to allow set-off or counterclaim against Secretary for employee’s breach of employment contract).
This language notwithstanding, in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), we allowed an employer to set-off certain wage overpayments against the employees’ overall damages award. Singer involved a class of municipal fire fighters whose hours varied among pay periods. The city’s method for calculating their regular rate of pay under the FLSA resulted in an underpayment of the fire fighters’ overtime pay during some pay periods. Id. at 817, 824-25. When calculating how much money the city owed the fire fighters in unpaid overtime wages, “the district court found that the City’s method of calculating overtime compensation resulted in small deficiencies … in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 120 hours,” but “the City’s method resulted in considerable overpayments ($126.20) in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 96 hours.” Id. at 826. Because of this incongruity, the district court allowed the employer to set-off overpayments in some work periods against shortfalls in others. Id. at 826. We viewed these overpayments as akin to pre-payments, not prohibited by the Code of Federal Regulations or the FLSA, and affirmed. Id. We reconciled our holdings in Singer and Heard by observing that “the offsets permitted by the district court [in Heard] caused the final awards of many of the defendants’ workers to drop below the statutory minimum.” Id. at 828 n. 9 (quoting Heard, 491 F.2d at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). Meanwhile, in Singer, “no party contend[ed] that the offset might cause the fire fighters’ wages to fall below the statutory minimum wage.” 324 F.3d at 828 n. 9.
Relying on this distinction, Pepsi contends that Singer should be read to limit Heard, to stand for the proposition that set-offs are appropriate in FLSA cases so long as they do not cause an employee’s wages to fall below the statutory minimum. Pepsi has cited, as did the district court, several lower court decisions from outside this circuit that have given Singer such a broad construction. See, e.g. Hanson v. ABC Liquors, Inc., No. 3:09-cv-966, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108954, at *7-8 (M.D.Fla. Nov. 9, 2009) (collecting cases); see also Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 n.3. These cases, however, predate our opinion in Gagnon v. United Technisource, Inc., 607 F.3d 1036 (5th Cir.2010), where we clarified that Heard’s longstanding prohibition of set-offs in FLSA cases is the rule in this circuit and Singer an exception.
In Gagnon, the district court found an FLSA overtime violation and awarded damages to the plaintiff. 607 F.3d at 1040. The defendant-employer counterclaimed and sought a set-off in the amount equal to the damages caused by the plaintiff’s breach of contract (i.e., his failure to notify the employer of his new address, as he was contractually obligated to do). Id. The district court did not address the employer’s counterclaims, and this court gave them short shrift likewise, holding that “our precedent suggests that such claims should not be addressed in an FLSA action.” 607 F.3d at 1042 (citing Heard, 491 F.2d at 4).
We specifically addressed the employer’s set-off claim in Gagnon, despite its semblance to the contract counterclaim, to clarify a reasonable uncertainty over Singer’s reach. See 607 F.3d at 1043 (“we nonetheless address the claim because we have previously held that offsets are permissible in FLSA actions”). Gagnon distinguished the set-off allowed in Singer as one that “simply acknowledged that the City had already paid the bulk of its overtime obligations.” Id. (citing Singer, 324 F.3d at 828) (emphasis in original). Gagnon (the employee), by contrast, was not paid “any additional sums that could be characterized as advanced or inappropriate amounts subject to an offset against the overtime owed to him,” id., and thus, a set-off was inappropriate.
In Gagnon, we rejected the employer’s argument, which Pepsi renews here, that Singer stands for the proposition that set-offs are allowed in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Although that reading of Singer may have been plausible at one time, Gagnon clarified that it was the unique character of the set-offs in Singer-that they represented overtime obligations already fulfilled-that allowed for a narrow exception to the bright-line rule spelled out in Heard. We continue to look with disfavor on set-offs unless the money being set-off can be considered wages that the employer pre-paid to the plaintiff-employee.
Pepsi contends, alternatively, that the benefits paid to Martin are similar to the fire fighters’ wages set-off in Singer because, in both cases, the employer paid some extra money or benefits to the employee to which the employee was not otherwise entitled. And in the opinion granting Pepsi’s motion to dismiss, the district court cited several lower court decisions that have allowed employers to plead set-offs as an affirmative defense in FLSA wage cases “where the employer paid the employee funds to which the employee was not entitled.” (Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 & n.3.) This misconstrues the reciprocal nature of the benefits bargained for in Martin’s severance agreement. Although Martin had no legal entitlement to the benefits included in her severance package, these benefits were not gratuitous. Pepsi paid these benefits in return for Martin’s release of claims. That Martin later sued Pepsi on state law claims simply means that Martin did not keep her end of the agreement. Pepsi’s damages flow from a breach of contract. Pepsi is not entitled to set-off those damages here because unlike Singer, the money and benefits Pepsi paid to Martin were not wage payments, advance or otherwise; they were not related to her labors at all.
Because we find that the district court erred in setting-off the value of Martin’s severance package against her potential recovery at trial, we VACATE the district court’s dismissal of Martin’s FLSA claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and REMAND the case for further proceedings.”
Click Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc. to read the entire decision.