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N.D.Cal.: Broad General Release of All Claims in the Context of FLSA Claim Rejected By Another Court
McKeen-Chaplin v. Franklin American Mortg. Co.
While not a groundbreaking decision, this case serves as a reminder of how much the FLSA settlement approval process can vary from court to court and judge to judge. While many courts have broadened the circumstances under which parties may resolve an FLSA claim (e.g. those within the Fifth Circit), others continue to carefully track the remedial purposes of the FLSA, in recognition that the statute seeks to protect the rights of employees, who typically lack any real bargaining power with regard to their employers (or former employers). As highlighted here, the court joined a growing number of courts from around the country to reject a general release contained within a settlement agreement regarding FLSA (and other wage and hour claims), when the employer provides no additional compensation for such release.
Discussing this issue, the court reasoned:
The Court also has concerns with the scope of the general release provision contained in the settlement agreements signed by Plaintiffs, which provides that each Plaintiff “fully” and “completely” releases Defendant and others from “any and all claims … whether known or unknown, arising from, relating to, or in any way connected with [Plaintiff’s] employment with or termination of employment from [Defendant]….” Schug Decl., Exh. A ¶ 3. Courts have found that overly broad release provisions, which release a Defendant from all claims to settle their wage claims, including claims that are unrelated to the claims asserted in the complaint, are improper in FLSA and class action settlements. See Moreno v. Regions Bank, 729 F.Supp.2d 1346, 1347, 1350–1352 (M.D.Fla.2010) (FLSA settlement); Hogan v. Allstate Beverage Co., Inc., 821 F.Supp.2d 1274, 1284 (M.D.Ala.2011) (same); Gambrell v. Weber Carpet, Inc., 2012 WL 5306273, at *2, 5 (D.Kan.2012) (same); see also Bond. v. Ferguson Enterprises, Inc., 2011 WL 284962, at *7 (E.D.Cal.2011) (finding release overbroad in class action where release did not track the extent and breadth of Plaintiffs’ allegations and released unrelated claims of any kind or nature up to the date of the agreement); Kakani v. Oracle Corp., 2007 WL 1793774, at *2–3 (N.D.Cal.2007) (rejecting a settlement in part because of the “draconian scope” of the proposed release, which, among other things, released and forever discharged the defendant from any and all claims that were asserted or could have been asserted in the complaint whether known or unknown).
The Court finds that the parties have failed to demonstrate that it would be fair and reasonable for the Court to enforce the broad general release provision contained in the settlement agreements. The provision does not track the breadth of the allegations in this action and releases unrelated claims, whether known or unknown, that the Plaintiffs may have against Defendant. See Collins v. Cargill Meat Solutions Corp., 274 F.R.D. 294, 303 (E.D.Cal.2011) (finding release proper and not overly broad because the “released claims appropriately track the breadth of Plaintiffs’ allegations in the action and the settlement does not release unrelated claims that class members may have against defendants”); Vasquez v. Coast Valley Roofing, Inc., 670 F.Supp.2d 1114, 1126 (E.D.Cal.2009) (finding release proper because the “released claims appropriately track the breadth of Plaintiffs’ allegations in the action and the settlement does not release unrelated claims that class members may have against defendants.”). The parties have not explained why the release of “any and all claims … whether known or unknown, arising from, relating to, or in any way connected with [Plaintiff’s] employment with or termination of employment from [Defendant]” is fair and reasonable. There has been no showing that Plaintiffs have been independently compensated for the broad release of claims unrelated to any dispute regarding FLSA coverage or wages due, including, among others, claims for discrimination under Title VII, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and “outrageous conduct.” See Moreno, 729 F.Supp.2d at 1351 (“[A]n employer is not entitled to use an FLSA claim (a matter arising from the employer’s failing to comply with the FLSA) to leverage a release from liability unconnected to the FLSA.”). Nor has there been a showing that the Plaintiffs have a full understanding of what they are releasing in exchange for a settlement payment. There is no evidence that Plaintiffs have being fully informed of the consequences of the release provision.
Click McKeen-Chaplin v. Franklin American Mortg. Co. to read the entire Order.
9th Cir.: Reporters For Newspaper Properly Deemed Nonexempt; Creative Professional Exemption Not Applicable, Because The Reporters’ Work Does Not Require Sophisticated Analysis
Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc.
Following a verdict/decision in the plaintiffs favor, the defendant appealed to the Ninth Circuit based on a variety of issues, both substantive and procedural. As discussed here, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the lower Court’s holding that the plaintiffs, reporters for a local Chinese-language newspaper were nonexempt under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and California Wage and Hour Law.
Reasoning that the plaintiff-reporters were not subject to the so-called “creative professional” exemption, the Court reasoned:
“CDN argues that the district court erred in holding on summary judgment that CDN’s reporters were non-exempt employees entitled to overtime. Specifically, CDN argues that its reporters were subject to the “creative professional exemption” and were therefore exempt employees not subject to FLSA and state-law overtime pay and break requirements. We review the district court’s grant of summary judgment de novo. Bamonte v. City of Mesa, 598 F.3d 1217, 1220 (9th Cir.2010).
Federal law exempts employers from paying overtime to “any employee employed in a bona fide … professional capacity.” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To qualify as an exempt professional under federal law, an employee must be compensated “at a rate of not less than $455 per week,” and his or her “primary duty” must be the performance of exempt work. 29 C.F.R. §§ 541.300, 541.700. “[A]n employee’s primary duty must be the performance of work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent in a recognized field of artistic or creative endeavor as opposed to routine mental, manual, mechanical or physical work.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.302(a). The exemption is construed narrowly against the employer who seeks to assert it. Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, 420 F.3d 981, 988 (9th Cir.2005). California wage and hour law largely tracks federal law. See Industrial Welfare Commission Order 4-2001 § 1(A)(3)(b) (defining professional to include “an employee who is primarily engaged in the performance of … [w]ork that is original and creative in character in a recognized field of artistic endeavor … and the result of which depends primarily on the invention, imagination, or talent of the employee”); see also id. § 1(A)(3)(e) (directing that the exemption is “intended to be construed in accordance with … [inter alia, 29 C.F.R. § 541.302 ] as [it] existed as of the date of this wage order”).
As applied to journalists, the federal Department of Labor construed the “creative professional exemption” in a 2004 regulation:
Journalists may satisfy the duties requirements for the creative professional exemption if their primary duty is work requiring invention, imagination, originality or talent, as opposed to work which depends primarily on intelligence, diligence and accuracy. Employees of newspapers, magazines, television and other media are not exempt creative professionals if they only collect, organize and record information that is routine or already public, or if they do not contribute a unique interpretation or analysis to a news product. Thus, for example, newspaper reporters who merely rewrite press releases or who write standard recounts of public information by gathering facts on routine community events are not exempt creative professionals. Reporters also do not qualify as exempt creative professionals if their work product is subject to substantial control by the employer. However, journalists may qualify as exempt creative professionals if their primary duty is performing on the air in radio, television or other electronic media; conducting investigative interviews; analyzing or interpreting public events; writing editorials, opinion columns or other commentary; or acting as a narrator or commentator. 29 C.F.R. § 541.302(d) (2004). Unlike the “interpretation” it replaced, the 2004 regulation was promulgated pursuant to notice and comment rulemaking and therefore has the force of law. See 69 Fed.Reg. 22122, 22157-58 (Apr. 23, 2004). In promulgating the new regulation, the Department of Labor explained that “[t]he majority of journalists, who simply collect and organize information that is already public, or do not contribute a unique or creative interpretation or analysis to a news product, are not likely to be exempt.” Id. at 22158. Although we have not decided a case applying the creative professional exemption to journalists, other courts have explored the circumstances under which print journalists qualify for the exemption. In Reich v. Gateway Press, Inc., 13 F.3d 685 (3d Cir.1994), the Third Circuit concluded that none of the reporters at a chain of nineteen local weeklies was exempt. The newspapers largely contained “information about the day-to-day events of their respective local communities … overlooked by the Pittsburgh metropolitan daily press.” Id. at 688. The reporters primarily generated articles and features using what they knew about the local community, spent 50-60% of their time accumulating facts, and mostly filed recast press releases or information taken from public records. They wrote a feature article or editorial about once per month. Id. at 689. The court held that they were among the majority of reporters who were non-exempt. Id. at 699-700. It noted that the work was not “the type of fact gathering that demands the skill or expertise of an investigative journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer or Washington Post, or a bureau chief for the New York Times.” Id. at 700.
In Reich v. Newspapers of New England, Inc., 44 F.3d 1060 (1st Cir.1995), the First Circuit similarly held that reporters and other employees employed by a small community newspaper were not exempt professionals. The day-to-day duties of the reporters involved “general assignment work” covering hearings, criminal and policy activity, and legislative proceedings and business events. Employees were not “asked to editorialize about or interpret the events they covered.” Id. at 1075. They, too, were therefore among the majority of reporters who were not exempt, even though their work occasionally demonstrated creativity, invention, imagination, or talent. Id.
By comparison, in Sherwood v. Washington Post, 871 F.Supp. 1471, 1482 (D.D.C.1994), the district court held that a Washington Post reporter whose “job required him to originate his own story ideas, maintain a wide network of sources, write engaging, imaginative prose, and produce stories containing thoughtful analysis of complex issues” was exempt. As a high-level investigative journalist who had held multiple positions of prominence at one of the nation’s top newspapers, the reporter was the sort of elite journalist whom the creative professional exemption was intended to cover.
The parties in this case submitted extensive evidence on summary judgment. Reporters stated in their depositions that they wrote between two and four articles per day, and that they very seldom did investigative reporting. The reporters proposed articles, but the editors gave considerate direction and frequently assigned the topics. One reporter explained that with having to write so much, “you didn’t have enough time to-really analyze anything.” Some time was spent rewriting press releases. There were no senior reporters or others with distinctive titles, and each of the reporters performed essentially the same tasks.
Editors’ declarations submitted by CDN, on the other hand, stated that articles “include background, analysis and perspective on events and news,” that CDN employs some of the most talented reporters in the Chinese newspaper industry, and that the reporters have extensive control over their time, pace of work, and ideas for articles to write. They stated that reporters must cultivate sources, sift through significant amounts of information, and analyze complicated issues. Several editors stated that they approved more than 90% of the topics suggested by reporters. Reporters’ salaries ranged from $2,060 to $3,700 per month.
Although the evidence submitted revealed disputes over how to characterize CDN’s journalists, we agree with the district court that, even when viewing the facts in the light most favorable to CDN, the reporters do not satisfy the criteria for the creative professional exemption. CDN’s Monterey Park (Los Angeles) operation, with twelve to fifteen reporters and a local circulation of 30,000, is not quite as small or unsophisticated as the community newspapers described in the Newspapers of New England and Gateway Press cases. But CDN is much closer to the community newspapers described in those cases than to the New York Times or Washington Post. As the district court explored in detail, the materials submitted on summary judgment make clear that CDN’s articles do not have the sophistication of the national-level papers at which one might expect to find the small minority of journalists who are exempt. Moreover, the intense pace at which CDN’s reporters work precludes them from engaging in sophisticated analysis. CDN’s reporters’ primary duties do not involve “conducting investigative interviews; analyzing or interpreting public events; [or] writing editorial[s], opinion columns or other commentary,” 29 C.F.R. § 541 .302(d), even if they engage in these activities some of the time. Indeed, many CDN articles may be characterized as “standard recounts of public information [created] by gathering facts on routine community events,” id., as opposed to the product of in-depth analysis. Characterizing CDN journalists as exempt would therefore be inconsistent with the Department of Labor’s intent that “the majority of journalists … are not likely to be exempt,” 69 Fed.Reg. at 22158, and with the requirement that FLSA exemptions be construed narrowly.
The evidence before the district court did not create a genuine issue of material fact as to the reporters’ status. We therefore affirm the district court’s determination on summary judgment that CDN’s reporters were non-exempt employees who were entitled to the protections of the FLSA and California law.”
Not discussed here, the Court also held that the certification of both a collective action of the FLSA claims and a class action of the California state law claims was within the court’s discretion, as was the lower court’s decision to invalidate many opt-out forms received in response to the initial class action notice, in response to what it believed was coercion from the defendant employer.
To read the entire decision, click here.
Wal-Mart Settles Wage And Hour Lawsuit For Up To $86 Million, Reuters Reports
Reuters is reporting that Wal-Mart has agreed to pay up to $86 Million to settle a class-action lawsuit accusing it of failing to pay vacation, overtime and other wages to thousands of former workers in California.
According to Reuters, “[a]bout 232,000 people will share in the settlement, which was disclosed on Tuesday in a federal court filing.
It requires a minimum payout of $43 million, and “far exceeds other recent settlements” involving Wal-Mart, the filing shows. The accord requires court approval.”
To read the entire story click here.
Lowe’s To Pay $29.5 Million To Settle Overtime Lawsuit, Central Valley Business Times Reports
The Central Valley Business Times is reporting that Lowe’s has settled an overtime class action accusing the home improvement retailer of forcing thousands of employees to work “off the clock.”
“Home improvement retailer Lowe’s Companies Inc. (NYSE: LOW) has agreed to pay $29.5 million to settle a class action lawsuit that argued it had required “thousands” of hourly workers to toil “off the clock.”
Two former Lowe’s employees alleged that they and thousands of other hourly Lowe’s workers were required to work before and after their normal shifts but were not paid for the extra work…
Earlier, Lowe’s denied all of the claims raised in the lawsuit. The company, contacted Wednesday for comment, said it could not comment directly on the settlement but a spokeswoman said the company believes it is in compliance with all laws and regulations.
The settlement was approved Tuesday by the Los Angeles Superior Court, shortly before the case was to finally go to trial.”
To read the entire story go the the Central Valley Business Times’ website.
$100-Million Barista Tip Verdict Against Starbucks Overturned On Appeal
Today’s L.A. Times is reporting that, “a California appeals court reversed a ruling that had ordered the coffee giant to pay more than $100 million in restitution for allowing shift supervisors to share baristas’ tips.
The class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of more than 100,000 current and former baristas in 2004 by former barista Jou Chau, who complained that shift supervisors were illegally getting a cut of employee tips.
San Diego County Superior Court Judge Patricia Cowett ruled in favor of the baristas last year after a bench trial and awarded $86 million in restitution plus about $20 million in interest. Starbucks called the decision ‘fundamentally unfair and beyond all common sense and reason.'”
To read the full story go to the Los Angeles Times Website.
Costco Accused Of Wage Law Violations
The New York Times is reporting that Costco Wholesale, the warehouse club, has been sued by a California worker alleging false imprisonment because, she says, employees are locked in stores against their will for 15 minutes after they are off duty.
The complaint, which seeks to represent several hundred Costco workers in California, asks for $50 million in back pay plus damages from 2005 until the present.
To read the full story, go to the New York Times website.