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S.D.N.Y.: Class Action Waiver Unenforceable in FLSA Case, Because Cost of Individual Litigation vs. Potential Recovery Prohibitive
Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP
This case was before the court on Defendant’s motion to stay the proceedings and compel arbitration on an individual (rather than class/collective) basis. There was no dispute as to whether the Plaintiff had executed the arbitration agreement, containing the class waiver, however the court held that the class waiver was unenforceable, after a lengthy discussion of Second Circuit law and the impact of the recent United States Supreme Court case, Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., 130 S.Ct. 1758 (2010).
The court reasoned:
“Because the Amex decision retains its persuasive force, the Court applies the test adopted in Amex to determine the enforceability of the class waiver provision here at issue. In the totality of the circumstances, the Court finds that the class waiver provision is invalid because it prevents Sutherland from vindicating her statutory rights.
1. Cost to Individual Plaintiff Versus Potential Recovery
The record supports Sutherland’s argument that her maximum potential recovery would be too meager to justify the expenses required for the individual prosecution of her claim. Sutherland alleges “an actual overtime loss of approximately $1,867.02, with potentially liquidated damages of an equal amount under the FLSA.” (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 8; see also Sutherland Deck. ¶ 4.) If her only option were to prosecute her claim on an individual basis, Sutherland would be required to pay expenses that would dwarf her potential recovery.
Sutherland’s uncontested submission estimates that her attorney’s fees during arbitration will exceed $160,000, and that costs will exceed $6,000. (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 20, 24.) Sutherland will utilize expert assistance in support of her claims.(Id. ¶ 22.) Her expert, a professor of accountancy, has submitted an affidavit stating that his fees may exceed $33,500, and that he requires a retainer payment of $25,000. (Carmichael Decl. ¶ 5.) In sum, Sutherland would be required to spend approximately $200,000 in order to recover double her overtime loss of approximately $1,867 .02. Only a “lunatic or a fanatic” would undertake such an endeavor. Carnegie v. Household Intern., Inc., 376 F.3d 656, 661 (7th Cir.2004). Indeed, rather than prosecuting her low-value, high-cost claim on an individual basis, Sutherland “would give up any rights” she might have to recover overtime payments allegedly owed to her. (Sutherland Decl.¶ 2.)
Pursuant to the E & Y Agreement, Sutherland is responsible for the Court Equivalent Fee, or a fee specified by the arbitration provider, whichever is less; arbitration fees and costs are to be shared equally between the parties. (Reece Decl. Exh. D¶ IV.P.) Sutherland has submitted an uncontested affidavit stating that arbitration fees would amount to $24,000, and that the applicable Court Equivalent Fee is $350. (Folkenflik Decl.¶ 24.) E & Y’s offer to pay such costs, which the Court has factored into Sutherland’s expenses as detailed above, thus lessens her burden by $12,350. Although this amount is not insignificant, it is hardly enough to allow Sutherland to bring her claims on an individual basis: she would still be required to spend approximately $200,000 on attorney’s fees and costs, as well as expert fees, in order to recover double her overtime loss of approximately $1,867.02.
E & Y’s attempt to distinguish the cost-recovery differential in Amex from the differential present here is unavailing. The “median plaintiff” in Amex would have recovered damages of $1,751, and the expert’s services would have cost at least several hundred thousand dollars. Amex, 554 F.3d at 317. According to E & Y, a “median plaintiff” in the instant matter could recover “substantially more,” and expert fees here amount to “a small fraction” of those at issue in Amex. (Def. Reply at 6-7.) The Amex decision did not, however, set a cost-to-recovery ratio below which claims are deemed “prosecutable.” The court instead embraced a functional approach, which “depends upon a showing that the size of the recovery received by any individual plaintiff will be too small to justify the expenditure of bringing an individual action.” Amex, 554 F.3d at 320. Sutherland has satisfied her burden on that score.
E & Y also cites to authorities in which the cost-recovery differential was held not to preclude the prosecution of claims on an individual basis. Such decisions are either inapposite or unpersuasive. In Pomposi v. GameStop, Inc., for instance, a class waiver was enforced where the amount in controversy was $11,000, and plaintiff’s total fees and costs ranged from $46,000 to $62,000.09 Civ. 0340, 2010 WL 147196, at *7 (D.Conn. Jan. 11, 2010). The court in Pomposi did not, however, meaningfully discuss plaintiff’s ability to retain counsel notwithstanding the differential between potential costs and recovery. E & Y cites Ornelas v. Sonic-Denver T, Inc., No. 06 Civ. 253, 2007 WL 274738 (D.Colo. Jan. 29, 2007), as standing for the proposition that “compelling arbitration would not preclude plaintiff from pursuing his claims where damages were at least $3500.” (Def. Mem. at 12.) But the plaintiff in Ornelas was allegedly entitled to (i) a trebling of the approximately $3500 in actual damages, and (ii) unspecified punitive damages and interest. Id. at *6. Moreover, the plaintiff in Ornelas apparently would not incur any expert witness fees. Id. at *7. Finally, E & Y offers Anglin v. Tower Loan of Miss., Inc., 635 F.Supp.2d 523 (S.D.Miss.2009) as precedent for “compelling arbitration where damages, attorney’s fees and punitive damages would result in [a] recovery of over $5,000.” (Def. Reply at 12.) The nub of Anglin, however, was that the plaintiff “made no effort” to demonstrate the prohibitive costs of individual arbitration. Anglin, 635 F.Supp.2d at 529. By contrast, Sutherland has “substantial[ly] demonstrat[ed]” that an inability to prosecute her claims on a class basis “would be tantamount to an inability to assert [her] claims at all.” Amex, 554 F.3d at 302-03 n.1.
2. Ability to Obtain Legal Representation
Even if Sutherland were willing to incur approximately $200,000 to recover a few thousand dollars, she would be unable to retain an attorney to prosecute her individual claim. This is due largely to the E & Y Agreement’s obstacles to reimbursement of fees and expenses. Whether attorney’s fees and expenses incurred during arbitration are compensable is subject to the discretion of the arbitrators. (Reece Decl. Exh. D ¶ IV.P.3.) The amount of such reimbursement is also left to the arbitrators’ discretion. (See id. (arbitrators may award attorney’s fees, “in whole or part, in accordance with applicable law or in the interest of justice”); 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (providing for the reimbursement of “reasonable” attorney’s fees).)
In light of the foregoing, Sutherland cannot reasonably be expected to retain an attorney to pursue her individual claim, and E & Y has not submitted an affidavit stating otherwise. Sutherland cannot afford to advance the fees and costs in order to hire an attorney on an hourly basis: she has remained unemployed since her termination from E & Y in December 2009; she has no savings, and owes $35,000 in student loans. (Sutherland Decl. ¶ 5.) Counsel for Sutherland will not prosecute her individual claim without charge, and will not advance the required costs where the E & Y Agreement’s fee-shifting provisions present little possibility of being made whole. (Folkenflik Decl. ¶ 25.) As the uncontested affidavit of Sutherland’s counsel reflects, Sutherland would find no attorney willing to represent her under the circumstances. (Id. ¶ 27.) Cf. Kristian, 446 F.3d at 60 (“[I]t would not make economic sense for an individual to retain an attorney to handle one of these cases on an hourly basis and it is hard to see how any lawyer could advise a client to do so.”) (internal quotations omitted).
Sutherland’s only option in pursuing her individual claim is thus to retain an attorney on a contingent fee basis. But just as no rational person would expend hundreds of thousands of dollars to recover a few thousand dollars in damages, “no attorney (regardless of competence) would ever take such a case on a contingent fee basis .” Caban v. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., 606 F.Supp.2d 1361, 1371 (S.D.Fla.2009); see also Folkenflik Decl.¶ 27. Cf. Kristian, 446 F.3d at 59 (“[I]t would not make economic sense for an attorney to agree to represent any of the plaintiffs in these cases in exchange for 33 1/3% or even a greater percentage of the individual’s recovery.”) (internal quotations omitted). E & Y has submitted no evidence that an attorney would expend approximately $200,000 in time and costs in return for a mere chance to earn potentially one-third of Sutherland’s less than $4,000 recovery.
If Sutherland could aggregate her claim with the claims of others similarly situated, however, she would have no difficulty in obtaining legal representation. (See Folkenflik Decl.¶ 25; see also Pl. Reply at 3.) This is because class proceedings “achieve economies of time, effort, and expense….” Amchem Prods., Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 616 (1997) (internal quotations omitted).
3. The Practical Effect of Waiver
Enforcement of the class waiver provision in this case would effectively ban all proceedings by Sutherland against E & Y. She will be unable to pursue her claims, even if they are meritorious. As a result, E & Y would enjoy de facto immunity from liability for alleged violations of the labor laws. The legislative purposes in enacting such laws-including, for example, combating “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living” FLSA § 2(a), 29 U.S.C. § 202(a), and assuring workers “additional pay to compensate them for the burden of a workweek beyond” 40 hours per week, In re Novartis Wage and Hour Litig. Litig. 611 F.3d 141, 150 (2d Cir.2010)-would go unfulfilled. “Corporations should not be permitted to use class action waivers as a means to exculpate themselves from liability for small-value claims.” Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1224 (11th Cir.2007).
Having examined the totality of the facts and circumstances, the Court finds that the class waiver provision here at issue is unenforceable because it prevents Sutherland from vindicating her statutory rights. See Amex, 554 F.3d at 302-03 n.1.
V. Future Proceedings
Although the class waiver provision is unenforceable, the Court cannot order E & Y to submit to class arbitration. After the offending provision is severed from the E & Y Agreement, (see Reece Decl. Exh. D ¶ V.F.), the Agreement is rendered silent as to whether class arbitration is permissible. In accordance with Stolt-Nielsen, class arbitration may not be imposed on parties whose arbitration agreements are silent on the permissibility of class proceedings. 130 S.Ct. at 1764, 1775. See also Fensterstock v. Educ. Fin. Partners, 611 F.3d 124, 140 (2d Cir.2010). The Court must accordingly deny E & Y’s motion to compel arbitration.”
It will be interesting to see whether courts in other circuits will follow this well-reasoned opinion. This is an area of FLSA jurisprudence where there is a wide divergence of opinions. The Eleventh Circuit for example has long-held that FLSA Collective Action rights can be waived by agreement.
Click Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP to read the entire opinion.