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D.Idaho: Collective Action Waiver Unenforceable Under Section 7, Because It Would Prevent Employees “from Asserting a Substantive Right Critical to National Labor Policy”
Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc.
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and dismiss the plaintiffs operative (second amended) complaint. Of significance, joining several recent courts, the court considered the effect of the NLRA’s Section 7, as it relates to a purported waiver of employees’ rights to proceed under the FLSA’s collective action mechanism. Reasoning that a waiver of the right to proceed as a collective action basis, “bars [plaintiff] from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy,” the court held that same was unenforceable.
Discussing prior precedent and explaining that same failed to consider the argument that the NLRA forbids such a waiver the court explained:
Several Circuits have cited the dicta in Gilmer to uphold waivers of the FLSA’s collective action rights—these Circuits hold that the waiver affects only the employee’s procedural right to bring a collective action, not his substantive right to seek recovery under the FLSA for himself, and thus the waiver is valid. Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1378 (11th Cir.2005); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Industries, Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 298 (5th Cir.2004); Adkins v. Labor Ready, Inc., 303 F.3d 496, 503 (4th Cir.2002). The Ninth Circuit has reached the same result but in an unpublished decision that cannot be cited for any purpose.
These cases did not address, however, the issue of whether a waiver of FLSA collective action rights violates the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Section 7 of the NLRA vests in employees the right “to engage in … concerted activities for the purpose of … mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. The right to engage in concerted action for “mutual aid or protection” includes employees’ efforts to “improve terms and conditions of employment or otherwise improve their lot as employees through channels outside the immediate employee-employer relationship.” Eastex, Inc. v. NLRB, 437 U.S. 556, 565–566, 98 S.Ct. 2505, 57 L.Ed.2d 428 (1978). Those “channels’ include lawsuits. See Brady v. National Football League, 644 F.3d 661, 673 (8th Cir.2011) (holding that “a lawsuit filed in good faith by a group of employees to achieve more favorable terms or conditions of employment is ‘concerted activity’ under 29 U.S.C. § 157“).
The National Labor Relations Board has recently held that an employee’s lawsuit seeking a collective action under the FLSA is “concerted action” protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. In re D.R. Horton, Inc., 2012 WL 36274 (N.L.R.B. Jan.3, 2012). Although some Section 7 rights can be waived by a union acting on behalf of employees, see Metro. Edison Co. v. NLRB, 460 U.S. 693, 707–08, 103 S.Ct. 1467, 75 L.Ed.2d 387 (1983), it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995). That is precisely what Brown alleges happened here.
Under Chevron USA, Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 104 S.Ct. 2778, 81 L.Ed.2d 694 (1984), the Court must defer to the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA if its interpretation is rational and consistent with the Act. Local Joint Executive Bd. of Las Vegas v. NLRB, 657 F.3d 865, 870 (9th Cir.2011). The Board’s interpretation in Horton of Section 7 of the NLRA is rational and consistent with the Act: A collective action seeking recovery of wages for off-the-clock work falls easily within the language of Section 7 protecting “concerted action” brought for the “mutual aid and protection” of the employees.
Holding that it had the power to invalidate the waiver, and doing so, the court reasoned:
Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement waives Brown’s Section 7 rights to bring an FLSA collective action. As discussed, an arbitration agreement may, by the terms of the FAA, be declared unenforceable “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” See 9 U.S.C. § 2. Do legal grounds exist to revoke an agreement to waive Section 7 rights?
Section 7 rights are protected “not for their own sake but as an instrument of the national labor policy.” Emporium Capwell Co. v. W. Addition Cmty. Org., 420 U.S. 50, 62, 95 S.Ct. 977, 43 L.Ed.2d 12 (1975). Thus, Citicorp’s arbitration agreement does more than merely waive Brown’s right to a procedural remedy; it bars her from asserting a substantive right that is critical to national labor policy. A contract that violates public policy must not be enforced. See United Paperworkers Int’l Union v. Misco, Inc., 484 U.S. 29, 42, 108 S.Ct. 364, 98 L.Ed.2d 286 (1987) (citing the “general doctrine, rooted in the common law, that a court may refuse to enforce contracts that violate law or public policy”). Moreover, it is unlawful for the employer to condition employment on the waiver of employees’ Section 7 rights. Retlaw Broadcasting Co. v. NLRB, 53 F.3d 1002 (9th Cir.1995).
For these reasons, the Court finds that under the FAA, there are legal grounds to revoke the arbitration agreement’s waiver of Brown’s right to bring a collective action under the FLSA and a class action under the IWCA. Accordingly, the Court will deny Citicorp’s motion to compel arbitration and to dismiss Brown’s claims.
Given the lack of clarity on this issue (see, e.g., here), and the fact that courts continue to come down on opposite sides of it, this issue is likely to end up at the Supreme Court at some point in the relatively near future. However, this case was certainly a win for employees in the ongoing battle. Stay tuned for further developments.
Click Brown v. Citicorp Credit Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.
N.D.Ala.: Arbitration Agreements Obtained From Current Employees After Putative Collective Commenced Might Be Unenforceable
Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc.
This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification as well as the plaintiffs’ motion for corrective action regarding meetings the defendant acknowledged having with putative class members after learning of the lawsuit. The court had previously denied the plaintiffs’ motion to strike declarations obtained from such putative class members, but deferred on the motion for corrective action. As discussed here, after the plaintiffs had commenced their putative collective action, but prior to the time they filed their motion for conditional certification, the defendant required putative class members to attend meetings with its management where it had putative class members sign blank declarations and a mandatory arbitration agreement. The court held that the documents may not be enforceable, and that class members who felt they signed same under duress would not be bound by the documents they previously signed.
Discussing the issue the court explained:
The court deferred ruling on the plaintiffs’ request for a corrective letter or court supervised notice that was embedded in the motion to strike. (Doc. 51, at 10–11). After the parties’ May 31, 2012 Status Conference and before the Plaintiffs’ deadline for filing their Motion for Conditional Certification and Notice, Citi Trends initiated company-wide in-person meetings between two corporate representatives and its SMs, who are potential collective class members in this case. At these meetings, with only a few exceptions, every SM completed a fillin-the-blank declaration about their job duties (doc. 40–7 and following) and signed an arbitration agreement that bound every SMs to arbitrate any claims he or she had against Citi Trends (doc. 47–6). The Human Resources Representative also presented every SM with a disclosure about this lawsuit and the effect of the arbitration agreement on his or her rights in the lawsuit. (Doc. 47–2).
As the court expressed in its memorandum opinion on the motion to strike, the individualized meetings that occurred between SMs and Citi Trends Human Resources Representatives are cause for concern. At these meetings, SMs waived their rights to bring any claims against Citi Trends in court, including participation in this litigation.
Especially when the employer-employee relationship is in play, the possibility of abuse is ripe in these type of unilateral communications. The Eleventh Circuit recognized the potential for coercion in such situations and held that the court had authority in Rule 23 class actions to invalidate opt-outs when they were procured through fraud, duress, or other improper conduct. Kleiner v. First Nat. Bank of Atl., 751 F.2d 1193, 1212 (11th Cir.1985). In cases such as this where Citi Trends has an obvious interest in diminishing the size of the potential class, a risk exists that these types of unsupervised communications will sabotage the employee’s independent decision-making regarding their involvement in the action. See id. at 1206. The court takes seriously its responsibility to see that an employer not engage in coercion or duress to decrease the size of a collective class and defeat the purpose of the collective action mechanism of the FLSA. Because of these concerns as more fully stated on the record, the court will GRANT IN PART AND DENY IN PART the Plaintiffs’ motion for court-supervised notice. Any potential plaintiffs who felt they signed the mandatory arbitration agreement under duress will still be allowed to opt-in to this collective action; the language of the notice will reflect that right.
8th Cir.: NLRB’s Holding in D.R. Horton Does Not Preclude Enforcement of FLSA Class/Collective Action Waiver
Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc.
While district courts that have considered the issue since the NLRB handed down its decision in D.R. Horton last year have reached divergent opinions on its effect regarding the enforceability of class waivers, the first circuit to consider the issue has rejected D.R. Horton’s applicability in the FLSA context. By way of background, last year the NLRB held that the existence of a collective action waiver in an employment agreement constituted an unfair labor practice, because it improperly restricted the “concerted activity” of employees who are subject to same. Following the decision, courts have reached different conclusions as to whether the NLRB’s decision necessarily rendered such waivers unenforceable in the context of FLSA collective action waivers. In this case, the district court held that the parties arbitration agreement was unenforceable, because it contained such a waiver. However, on appeal, the Eight Circuit reversed, holding that the NLRB’s decision in D.R. Horton did not render the arbitration agreement at issue unenforceable.
Discussing this issue, the Eight Circuit opined that it was not obligated to defer to the National Labor Relations Board’s interpretation of Supreme Court precedent, under Chevron or any other principle:
Finally, in arguing that there is an inherent conflict between the FLSA and the FAA, Owen relies on the NLRB’s recent decision in D.R. Horton, which held a class waiver unenforceable in a similar FLSA challenge based on the NLRB’s conclusion that such a waiver conflicted with the rights protected by Section 7 of the NLRA. 2012 WL 36274, at *2. The NLRB stated that Section 7’s protections of employees’ right to pursue workplace grievances through concerted action includes the right to proceed as a class. Id. However, D.R. Horton carries little persuasive authority in the circumstances presented here. First, the NLRB limited its holding to arbitration agreements barring all protected concerted action. Id. at *16. In contrast, the MAA does not preclude an employee from filing a complaint with an administrative agency such as the Department of Labor (which has jurisdiction over FLSA claims, see 29 U.S.C. § 204), the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the NLRB, or any similar administrative body. Cf. Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 28, 111 S.Ct. 1647 (upholding an arbitration agreement that allowed Age Discrimination in Employment Act claimants to pursue their claims before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). Further, nothing in the MAA precludes any of these agencies from investigating and, if necessary, filing suit on behalf of a class of employees. Second, even if D.R. Horton addressed the more limited type of class waiver present here, we still would owe no deference to its reasoning. Delock v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, –––F.Supp.2d ––––, ––––, No. 4:11–CV–520–DPM, 2012 WL 3150391 (E.D.Ark. Aug. 1, 2012), at *3 (“The Board’s construction of the [NLRA] ‘is entitled to considerable deference and must be upheld if it is reasonable and consistent with the policies of the Act,’ … the Board has no special competence or experience in interpreting the Federal Arbitration Act.” (quoting St. John’s Mercy Health Sys. v. NLRB, 436 F.3d 843, 846 (8th Cir.2006))). The NLRB also attempted to distinguish its conclusion from pro-arbitration Supreme Court decisions such as Concepcion. D.R. Horton, 2012 WL 36274, at *16. This court, however, is “not obligated to defer to [the Board’s] interpretation of Supreme Court precedent under Chevron or any other principle.” Delock, –––F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2012 WL 3150391, at *3 (quoting N.Y. N.Y. LLC v. NLRB, 313 F.3d 585, 590 (D.C.Cir.2002)). Additionally, although no court of appeals has addressed D.R. Horton, nearly all of the district courts to consider the decision have declined to follow it.
The court also opined that there is nothing inherently wrong with a collective action waiver in employment agreements.
Click Owen v. Bristol Care, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
Anyone who has ever moved for or opposed a motion for conditional certification (i.e. a “Stage 1” motion) of a collective action is likely familiar with the common defense tactic whereby a defendant asserts that the named plaintiff and members of the putative class are not similarly situated. Typically a defendant argues that individualized issues pertaining to the claims of the named plaintiff(s) (and members within the putative class) render the case ill-suited for class/collective treatment. As discussed below, three recent decisions discuss three separate issues related to this analysis. In the first, a court held that a pro se plaintiff could not adequately serve the interests of the putative class and denied conditional certification. However, in the second and third cases discussed below, the courts rejected the defendants’ contentions that: (1) an undocumented (“illegal”) immigrant was ill-suited to serve as a representative plaintiff; and (2) issues regarding whether specific putative class members signed binding arbitration agreements relating to the issues raised by the named-plaintiff were not properly raised at stage 1.
Pro Se Plaintiff Inadequate Representative for Collective Action
Koch v. CHS Inc.
In the first case, the pro se plaintiff (apparently fairly savvy) moved for conditional certification. Denying the motion, the court held that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue their claims in a collective action for lack of adequacy of representation. Specifically, the court explained:
The issue of whether a pro se plaintiff can sue on behalf of other members in a collective action is one of adequacy of representation. Determining adequate representation is typically based on a two-part inquiry: “First, the named representatives must appear able to prosecute the action vigorously through qualified counsel, and second, the representatives must not have antagonistic or conflicting interests with the unnamed members of the class.” Lerwill v. Inflight Motion Pictures, Inc., 582 F.2d 507, 512 (9th Cir.1978). Courts have generally concluded that a pro se plaintiff cannot pursue claims on behalf of others in a representative capacity. See Simon v. Hartford Life, Inc., 546 F.3d 661, 664 (9th Cir.2008); see also Johns v. County of San Diego, 114 F.3d 874, 876 (9th Cir.1997) (“While a non-attorney may appear pro se on his ow n behalf, he has no authority to appear as an attorney for others than himself.”); C.E. Pope Equity Trust v. United States, 818 F.2d 696, 697 (9th Cir.1987) (holding that a pro se litigant may not appear as an attorney for others). Here, because Koch is a pro se litigant, he cannot pursue claims on behalf of other CHS employees in a representative capacity.
The rule holds true for pro se plaintiffs seeking to bring collective action suits under the F LSA. Morgovsky v. AdBrite, Inc. ., No. C10–05143–SBA, 2012 WL 1595105 *4 (N.D.Cal. May 4, 2012) (denying pro se plaintiff’s motion to bring a collective action under the FLSA and dismissing collective action claims); Spivey v. Sprint/United Mgt. Co., No. 04–2285–JWL, 2004 WL 3048840 (D.Kan. Dec.30, 2004) (holding that a claim under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) cannot be brought by a pro se plaintiff).
Accordingly, the Court agrees with CHS that Koch, because he proceeds in the litigation pro se, cannot represent the class members on whose behalf he purports to bring suit. Therefore, proceeding with the litigation as a collective action is not permitted pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The motion will be denied.
Click Koch v. CHS Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.
Named-Plaintiff’s Immigration Status Has No Bearing on Similarly Situated Analysis
Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd.
In the second case of interest, arising from alleged tip pool violations at defendant’s restaurant, the defendant opposed conditional certification, in part, based on the fact that the named-plaintiff was allegedly an undocumented immigrant. The court rejected this notion, citing well-established authority that an FLSA plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant to a claim inasmuch thereunder, inasmuch as same seeks payment for work already performed. Discussing this issue the court reasoned:
Finally, in an apparent attempt to distinguish Plaintiff from other proposed collective action members, Defendants note his status as an illegal immigrant and involvement in other similar FLSA lawsuits. Neither of these issues, however, is likely to provide Defendants with a valid defense that is unique to Plaintiff. First, there are a number of cases finding that evidence of immigration status has no relevance in an FLSA action. See e.g. Reyes v. Snowcap Creamery, Inc., 2012 WL 4888476 at *2 (D.Colo. Oct.15, 2012) (recognizing that “weight of authority clearly holds that a plaintiff’s immigration status is irrelevant in an FLSA action” and citing supporting authority). It is also questionable whether Defendants will be able to introduce evidence of other lawsuits involving Plaintiff. See Van Deelen v. Johnson, 2008 WL 4683022 at *2 (D.Kan. Oct.22, 2008) (evidence of plaintiff’s prior lawsuits cannot be admitted for purpose of proving that plaintiff is litigious but may be admissible for other purposes).
Click Torres v. Cache Cache, Ltd. to read the entire Order.
Whether Putative Class Members’ Claims Are Subject to Arbitration is an Issue Reserved for Stage 2
Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc.
In the final decision, the court had before it the Report and Recommendation of the magistrate judge recommending conditional certification. As it had in its opposition to the underlying motion, the defendant argued that members of the putative class who had previously signed agreements to arbitrate their FLSA claims, were not similarly situated to the plaintiff and the remainder of the putative class. As such, the defendant argued such putative class members should be excluded from receiving notice of their right to join the case by opting in. Rejecting this contention, the court held that the issue of whether (and who) may have signed arbitration agreements, is an issue reserved for Stage 2 (decertification) analysis, and is not properly addressed at the conditional certification stage:
Next, defendants argue that the proposed class should be limited to cashiers and those who had not signed arbitration agreements, excluding grocery packers and delivery workers, whom defendants never employed, and employees subject to arbitration agreements. However, these are issues of fact that should be determined during discovery rather than at this preliminary stage. See D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., No. 11–cv–33, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 135402, at *12–13 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (holding that the enforceability of arbitration agreements should not be determined during conditional class certification); Lujan v. Cabana Mgmt., No. 10–cv–755, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9542, at *23–24, 2011 WL 317984 (E.D.N.Y. Feb. 1, 2011) (quoting Realite v. Ark Rests. Corp., 7 F.Supp.2d 303, 307 (S.D.N.Y.1998)) (holding that defendants’ contention that its restaurants constituted separate entities raised a contested issue of fact, and was therefore not a basis for denying conditional class certification). Thus, Judge Bloom correctly found that the proposed class should not be limited as defendants propose.
Click Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc. to read the entire Order.
E.D.Mo.: Where Common Tip Pool Violations Alleged, Employees of Franchise Stores as Well as Those at Company-Owned Stores Similarly Situated at Stage 1
White v. 14051 Manchester, Inc.
This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification. As discussed here, the plaintiffs sought to facilitate class notice to employees who worked at the franchise locations of the franchisee who employed them, as well as those who worked for “Hotshots” franchisor or company-owned locations. In support of their motion, plaintiffs argued that all tipped employees at all Hotshots locations, regardless of the owner, were required to participate in illegal tip pools whereby they were required to tip out back-of-the-house employees not eligible to participate in a valid tip pool. Rejecting the defendants’ argument that the court should limit the putative class to those tipped employees employed by the franchisee who employed plaintiffs the court explained, that it would be inappropriate to resolve the merits issue regarding which entities employed each putative class member at Stage 1.
Discussing this issue the court opined:
The Supreme Court has noted that whether a relationship is covered by the FLSA turns on the economic realities of the working relationship rather than technical definitions relating to employment. Goldberg v. Whitaker House Coop., Inc., 366 U.S. 28, 33, 81 S.Ct. 933, 6 L.Ed.2d 100 (1961). The FLSA defines “employee” broadly to include “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1)(2006). In turn, “employ” is defined as “to suffer or permit to work” 29 U.S.C. § 203(g), and an “employer” is any person “acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(d). “Thus, based on the language of the statute, an employee is any individual who is permitted to work by one acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer.” Helmert v. Butterball, LLC, No. 4:08CV00342, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28964, at *6 (E.D.Ark. Mar. 5, 2010); see also Nicholson v. UTi Worldwide, Inc., No. 3:09–cv–722, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 41886, at *3 (S.D.Ill. Apr. 18, 2011)(conditionally certifying class of “forklift operators employed” by defendant that included workers hired through temporary staffing agencies).
The Court finds that, for purposes of this Motion, Defendants “permitted or suffered to work” all Hotshots employees, even those at the franchise locations. Given the FLSA’s broad definition of the “employee” and its remedial purpose, Defendants’ franchise arrangement demonstrates sufficient “control” for conditional class certification. Moreover, the employment relationship for franchise employees is disputed by the Plaintiffs, and the Court cannot make credibility determinations at this juncture. See Arnold v. DirecTv, Inc., No. 4:10–CV–352–JAR, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 140777, at *8 (E.D.Mo. Sept. 28, 2012)(“The Court will not make any credibility determinations or findings of fact with respect to contradictory evidence presented by the parties at this initial stage.”).
The Court also finds that the proper class definition is all Hotshots employees who shared in any tip pool. Employees who participated in the tip pool were allegedly victims of the same policy or plan and denied compensation as a result of the tip-pooling arrangement. While the Court acknowledges that distinctions exist among the Hotshot’s teams and locations, Plaintiffs’ affidavits provide enough evidence at this stage to demonstrate employees were similarly situated and subject to a common practice. McCauley, 2010 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 91375, at *12–13 (citing Busler v. Enersys Energy Products, Inc., No. 09–00159, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 84500, at *9–10, 2009 WL 2998970 at *3 (W.D.Mo. Sep. 16, 2009)); see also Fast v. Applebee’s Intern., Inc., 243 F.R.D. 360, 363–64 (W.D.Mo.2007) (citations omitted) (“To be similarly situated, however, class members need not be identically situated. The ‘similarly situated’ threshold requires only a modest factual showing.”); Schleipfer v. Mitek Corp., No. 1:06CV109, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 64042, at *9 (E.D.Mo. Aug. 29, 2007)(class members need not be identically situated). “[A]rguments concerning the individualized inquiries required and the merits of Plaintiffs’ claims are inappropriate at this stage of the proceeding and can be raised before the Court at the second, or decertification, stage.” Dominquez v. Minn. Beef Indus., No. 06–1002, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 61298, at *10 (D.Minn. Aug. 21, 2007)(internal quotation omitted).
Click White v. 14051 Manchester, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.
C.D.Cal.: Motion for Corrective Action Granted Where Defendant Provided Insufficient Info to Putative Class Members When Obtaining Releases
Gonzalez v. Preferred Freezer Services LBF, LLC
This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion for corrective action, under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23, on grounds that the defendant had improperly contacted potential plaintiffs to this putative class action in efforts ‘to obtain releases from its employees concerning the claims pled by [Gonzalez] in this action.’ The plaintiff sought an order requiring the defendant to release the names and contact information of individuals from whom the defendant had attempted to extract releases. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion, applying Rule 23’s protections to an FLSA case.
The court described the relevant facts/procedural history as follows:
Gonzalez brought a collective action on behalf of himself and other of Preferred Freezer’s employees for unpaid overtime pay under California law and the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). (Mot.2.) In August 2012, Preferred Freezer unilaterally drafted a “Release Agreement” that it provided to its employees, who are potential plaintiffs to this putative class action. (Mot.6–7.) The Agreement explained that in exchange for a settlement payment “in full satisfaction of all claims that Employee has, had or could have had arising out of the lawsuit or in any way related thereto,” the employee waived any and all claims arising out of a “former employee[‘s]” wage-and-hour lawsuit or in any way related to the lawsuit. (Mot.7.) But the Release Agreement did not state when this unnamed lawsuit was filed, the name of the former employee, the names of the employee’s attorneys, the attorneys’ contact information, or the period of time covered by the release. (Id.)
The court explained that the plaintiff learned of the defendant’s actions that were the subject of the motion, when a putative class member who had been approached by the defendant contacted plaintiff’s counsel. After discussing the general concept that settlements are favored, the court explained how the manner in which the defendant obtained the general releases here was misleading:
The waiver Preferred Freezer tendered its employees was misleading in many ways. It did not include any information regarding this class action, except that a former employee had brought a lawsuit against Preferred Freezer. (Sinay Decl. Exs. A, B.) The waiver did not attach the Complaint, any information on when the case was filed, nor any information regarding the essence of the case. (Mot.7.) Preferred Freezer also did not include Gonzalez’s counsel’s contact information. (See Gamez Decl. Ex. 1.) Even when Preferred Freezer’s agents spoke to the potential plaintiffs, the agents never provided them with the name of the case. (Gamez Decl. ¶ 6.) Furthermore, Preferred Freezer’s counsel never contacted Gonzalez’s counsel to confer over possible communication to Preferred Freezer’s employees regarding the potential settlement. (Mot.6.) Thus, the waiver misleadingly failed to provide the potential plaintiffs with adequate notice of this case in order to make an informed decision regarding waiver of their rights.
While the facts surrounding the manner in which the defendant had obtained the releases were uncontested, the defendant argued that corrective action was inappropriate and that: (1) defendant’s first amendment right to communicate with the putative class should not be hindered; (2) putative class members of a 216(b) collective actions are not entitled to the same protections as those in a Rule 23 class action; (3) the DOL supervised the settlements at issue; and (4) they did provide enough information to the settling class members, so as to alleviate concerns that the releases were obtained based on misleading information.
Noting that the plaintiff was not seeking to invalidate the releases at this juncture, and was not seeking to stop the defendant from communicating with putative class members, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion as follows:
In response to Preferred Freezer’s misleading contact with putative class members in this action, Gonzalez asks that the Court orders Preferred Freezer to provide names, addresses, and telephone numbers for each and every person contacted by Preferred Freezer regarding the waiver. (Mot.25.) Gonzalez also requests that any communication to potential plaintiffs should include all the important information relating to Gonzalez’s case. (Mot.24.) For the reasons discussed above, the Court finds this request reasonable and therefore GRANTS Gonzalez’s motion.
Preferred Freezer is therefore ORDERED to provide Gonzalez with the contact information of all of those prospective plaintiffs in this case with whom Preferred Freezer has had contact regarding settlement. Furthermore, any communication that either party has with putative plaintiffs must include the following information: (1) the name of this case; (2) the case number; (3) a summary of the basis of Gonzalez’s claims; (4) the name of Gonzalez’s attorneys and their contact information; and (5) a statement concerning the effect of executing Preferred Freezer’s released documents will have on its employees’ ability to participate in this lawsuit.
Click Gonzalez v. Preferred Freezer Services LBF, LLC to read the entire Order Granting Plaintiff’s Motion for an Order for Corrective Action.
Respondent-Employer Enjoined From Requiring Current Employee Putative Class Members From Waiving Right to Participate in Class/Collective Action, Once Putative Class/Collective Action Pending
Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp.
In this case, the claimant-employees had initially filed their case as a class/collective action in federal court. Pursuant to arbitration agreements that the plaintiffs had signed during their employment, the defendant successfully moved to compel the plaintiffs to pursue their claims in arbitration. Because the arbitration agreement at issue called for arbitration pursuant to the American Arbitration Association’s (AAA) rules governing arbitration, the plaintiffs successfully argued that a Rule 23 type opt-out mechanism rather than 216(b)’s opt-in governed as the appropriate class mechanism. Twelve (12) days after the arbitrator’s holding that an opt-out class procedure would govern, the defendant began requiring all current employees to sign a new arbitration clause, which if enforced, would have precluded the current employees from participating in the putative class action, yet to be certified. Arguing that the respondent-employer’s unilateral effort to defeat putative class members’ participation in the arbitration required thorough remedial measures, the claimant-employees moved for a protective order and temporary restraining order to:
(1) Enjoin any further dissemination of the letter to current employees with the class-waiver form; (2) Enjoin any effort by the respondent-employer or its counsel to chill participation in the case, including prohibiting any further unauthorized communication with any class members concerning joining the case, except as approved by the arbitrator; (3) Enjoin retaliation by [Waterstone] against any individual participating in the case; (4) Direct that [Waterstone] (in a form and manner supervised by the Arbitrator or on consent of claimants’ counsel) promptly notify all class members who received Exhibits A and B of the impropriety of [Waterstone’s] acts and the invalidity of the waivers it solicited; (5) Sanction [Waterstone] with monetary relief for its improper behavior [ ] so that [Waterstone] does not achieve any of the benefit of chilling individuals from participating in this case; (6) Reserve the opportunity for individuals to join the case post-judgment, should they opt-out now, given their employer’s clear statement of its desire that they not join this case; (7) Award Claimant’s costs and attorneys’ fees for the time spent on the motion; [and] (8) Award such further relief in the future, as may become necessary to remedy the ill effects of [Waterstone’s] improper behavior.
In opposition, the respondent-employer argued that the motion should be denied because: (1) the arbitrator lacked jurisdiction over the issue presented, because the parties had not agreed to arbitrate the issue of the permissibility of the subsequent class-waivers; (2) it was procedurally improper, because a class or collective action had yet to be certified; and (3) the employees had not demonstrated the requisite irreparable harm to warrant the relief sought.
Initially, the arbitrator rejected the respondent-employer’s jurisdictional argument:
It is true that a class has not yet been certified. Indeed, the clause-construction award that contemplates a class arbitration may itself be vacated by the District Court. However, even if the motion to certify a class should be denied, or if the Court should vacate the clause-construction award, the arbitration may continue as a collective proceeding (opt in) as a result of Judge Crabb’s direction that Herrington “must be allowed to join other employees to her case.” (D. Ct. Decn. at 18).
The arbitrator similarly rejected the argument that the relief sought was premature:
Whether a proceeding continues as a class procedure or a collective procedure, it must be protected from coercive or misleading communications that are designed to, or have the effect of, persuading or intimidating potential claimants to withhold their participations. The law realistically recognizes that such improper communications may be just as effective pre-certification as post-certification. Therefore, it is within the jurisdiction – indeed, it is the duty – of the judge or arbitrator before whom such a proceeding is pending to protect the integrity of the proceeding and to require that all information conveyed by the parties to potential class members about the proceeding be accurate, not coercive, and not misleading.
Waterstone’s argument that control over communications cannot arise until a class is certified is simply wrong. The power (jurisdiction) to control the parties’ communications to class members or putative class members can arise at least as early as when the initial pleading is filed. See, e.g. Hoffman-LaRoche at 487 (“[I]t lies within the discretion of a district court to begin its involvement early at the point of the initial notice.”).
The arbitrator added:
Waterstone’s contention that it has “has never consented to arbitrate its management decisions as to the nature and form of employment agreements with employees who are not parties to this case” (Jurisd. Memo at 1) assumes that this arbitration is about what kind of dispute resolution provision going forward Waterstone may provide in its form employment agreement. The assumption is false. Herrington brought this arbitration to recover past minimum wages and overtime compensation allegedly due to her and to her fellow employees. Jurisdiction over that claim was established with the filing of the demand for arbitration, and it is the duty of the arbitrator to preserve and protect the integrity of the proceedings with respect to that claim. The entire dispute that is subject to this arbitration is therefore to be resolved under the dispute resolution provisions of the pre-Amendment employment agreement that governs Herrington’s claims.
Instead, the arbitrator held that once the proceeding had commenced, the employer-respondent could not require the potential class members to waive their rights to participate in the case, as members of the class:
However, whatever may be the legality or enforceability of either Option A or Option B in future disputes that might arise between Waterstone and its mortgage-loan employees, those amendments can have no impact on this Herrington arbitration or on the employee class’s rights or choices in it. Once Herrington commenced her arbitration under the original arbitration clause in the employment agreement, Waterstone could not change the nature or course of this pending arbitration by requiring the putative claimants in this proceeding to agree to an entirely different dispute-resolution regime. This arbitration must, therefore, continue under the Agreement that governed when it was commenced, the Agreement that Waterstone, itself, argued successfully to the District Court requires Herrington’s dispute to be arbitrated.
Thus, the arbitrator granted the claimant-employees’ their requested relief.
Click Herrington v. Waterstone Mortgage Corp. to read the entire Decision and Order on Claimant’s Application for Protective Order, Temporary Restraining Order and Preliminary Injunction.
With the Supreme Court set to weigh in on the issue next term, decisions continue to widely diverge on the issue of whether on employer may moot a collective action by paying damages to a plaintiff-employee or plaintiff-employees after they have filed suit seeking their wages pursuant to the FLSA. Recent weeks have brought more confusion to the issue. As discussed below, the Eleventh Circuit held in a non-FLSA claim that absent an actual judgment full tender of money damages alone is insufficient to render a case moot. Within days however, a different court sitting within the Ninth Circuit held that an employer properly mooted an entire collective action when it made payments to the entire class in amounts all parties agreed represented all money damages for a 2 year statute of limitations period, plus liquidated damages. In yet another decision a court within the Third Circuit held that an employer could not moot a collective action by tendering class damages calculated at a “half-time” rate, because an issue of fact existed as to whether that was the appropriate methodology for calculating such damages.
Zinni v. ER Solutions, Inc.
These three consolidated cases were before the Eleventh Circuit on the plaintiff-employee’s appeal of an order granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In each of the consolidated cases, at the court below the defendant had tendered the full monetary damages available to the plaintiff, but had not served an offer of judgment (OJ) or offered a stipulated judgment to the plaintiff. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim on mootness grounds. Summarizing the issue before the court, the Eleventh Circuit explained:
This consolidated appeal presents the issue of whether a settlement offer for the full amount of statutory damages requested under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., moots a claim brought pursuant to the FDCPA. Appellants Anthony W. Zinni, Blanche Dellapietro, and Naomi Desty appeal the district court’s dismissal of their complaints for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In each case, an Appellee sent an e-mail offering to settle an Appellant’s FDCPA case for $1,001—an amount exceeding by $1 the maximum statutory damages available for an individual plaintiff under the FDCPA. Appellees also offered attorneys’ fees and costs in each case, but did not specify the amount of fees and costs to be paid. Appellants did not accept the settlement offers. The district court subsequently granted Appellees’ motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), holding that the offers left Appellants with “no remaining stake” in the litigation. The district court then dismissed Appellants’ complaints with prejudice. We conclude the settlement offers did not divest the district court of subject matter jurisdiction.
After distinguishing a settlement from an accepted offer of judgment and discussing case law pertaining to each distinct situation, the Eleventh Circuit held that absent an actual judgment a mere offer of settlement cannot moot a claim:
The district court erred in finding Appellees’ settlement offers rendered moot Appellants’ FDCPA claims because the settlement offers did not offer full relief. See id. Each of the Appellants requested that the district court enter judgment in his or her favor and against an Appellee as part of the prayer for relief in the complaint. Appellees’ settlement offers, however, did not offer to have judgment entered against them. Because the settlement offers were not for the full relief requested, a live controversy remained over the issue of a judgment, and the cases were not moot. See Friends of Everglades, 570 F.3d at 1216.
Although the case concerned claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) the reasoning of the court is equally applicable to cases under the FLSA. In fact to a large extent the court relied on FLSA jurisprudence in reaching its decision. At least within the Eleventh Circuit, this case seems to put to bed the short-lived argument fueled by the same court’s decision less than two years ago in the Dionne opinions.
Click Zinni v. ER Solutions, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
Orozco v. Borenstein
Amazingly, before the ink could even dry on the Zinni opinion, 2 days later, a court in the District of Arizona was faced with a virtually identical issue. However, unlike the Eleventh Circuit (and like the Order reversed in Zinni) the court ruled that an FLSA defendant could moot an entire class’ claims simply by tendering the maximum money damages due. Thus, the Orozco court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss on mootness grounds, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, following a tender.
Describing the issue before it, the court explained:
Plaintiff brings this putative class action pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., the Arizona Wage Act, A.R.S. § 23–350, et seq., and the Arizona Minimum Wage Act, A.R.S. § 23–363, et seq. Plaintiff worked as an oven operator in the bagel baking operations of defendant Bada Bing Baking, LLC, doing business as Chompie’s Wholesale Bakery (defendants collectively referred to as the “Bakery”). Plaintiff contends that the Bakery violated the FLSA, as well as Arizona’s wage statutes, by failing to pay plaintiff and other similarly situated employees the required federal and state minimum wages for covered nonexempt employees. Plaintiff contends that, although the employees are paid slightly more than the minimum wage required by federal and state law, 29 U.S.C. § 206(a), A.R.S. § 23–363(A), the Bakery has implemented a policy of deducting certain work-related expenses from the employee’s paychecks, leaving their net pay below minimum wage. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the Bakery deducts $12.50 per paycheck for uniform laundering, $10.00 for initial and lost electronic keys, $5.00 for initial and lost time cards, and $24.00 for “food handlers” health cards from Maricopa County.
After this lawsuit was filed, the Bakery reimbursed 51 current and former “minimum wage” employees for the uniform-related fees incurred in the 2 years preceding the filing of this lawsuit, along with liquidated damages as prescribed by 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Bakery contends that because it has tendered full payment for all claimed violations, there is no remaining live case or controversy, rendering this case moot.
For reasons known only to the plaintiff and his attorney, the plaintiff did not raise any issue regarding the defendant’s failure to allow the entry of judgment on the claims. Instead, the plaintiff contended that he had not been fully compensated for his claims because (1) he sought damages for a third year due to the Defendant’s “willful” FLSA violations, and (2) he was not reimbursed for certain other items. However, due to insufficiencies it cited in the plaintiff’s pleadings and his declaration submitted in opposition to the defendant’s motion, the court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the case.
Of note, the court declined to resolve the issue of whether the plaintiff was entitled to attorneys fees as the prevailing party, instead reserving on the issue until plaintiff had filed a motion for attorneys fees pursuant to the District of Arizona’s local rules.
Click Orozco v. Borenstein to read the entire Order.
Seymour v. PPG Industries, Inc.
In the final case discussed, the defendant actually did tender an offer of judgment, pursuant to FRCP 68, however it was arguably insufficient and thus, the defendant’s motion to dismiss was denied on that basis.
Interestingly, the parties in this salary misclassification collective action case had stipulated to the number of hours each of the plaintiffs had worked during the periods relevant to the claims. However, the parties disagreed as to how the plaintiffs’ damages were due to be calculated. As in many such cases, the defendant argued that the damages were to be calculated using the FWW or half-time methodology, while the plaintiffs asserted time and a half damages were due. Because the issue of how to calculate damages- and ultimately the amount of same- remained unresolved, the court held that the defendant’s offer of judgment could not be said to definitively by “full relief.” Thus, the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was dismissed on this grounds.
Click Seymour v. PPG Industries, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.
So what’s the takeaway here? While it remains clear that a defendant cannot moot a claim where the damages themselves are in dispute, plaintiffs faced with offers that they believe provide full monetary relief, would be wise to demand a judgment as well if the goal is to avoid a dismissal on mootness grounds so that a settlement offer alone cannot moot their claim. Another extra step is to seek a declaratory judgment in the actual complaint.