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M.D.Fla.: Plaintiffs Entitled to Irrebuttable Presumption That Their Damage Calculations Are Correct Where Defendant Spoliated Payroll Records
This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions. Specifically, plaintiffs sought sanctions as a result of the defendant-employers intentional destruction of the relevant payroll records pertaining to plaintiffs’ employment. While the court denied plaintiffs’ motion to the extent that it sought a default judgment, the court ordered that—to the extent plaintiffs prevailed on liability at trial—their calculation based on payroll records available from a third-party would be deemed irrebuttably correct, subject to the court’s approval.
The court provided the following history of the defendants’ egregious discovery misconduct:
This case arises under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA“), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants mischaracterized their licensed practical nurse and registered nurse employees as independent contractors. (Compl., Doc. 1, at 3). On December 3, 2015, this Court entered a scheduling order directing the parties to exchange all documents germane to this case by January 15, 2016. (FLSA Scheduling Order, Doc. 29, ¶ 1). Defendants failed to timely comply with the disclosure of documents and, as a result, an Order to Show Cause why sanctions should not be imposed was issued. (Feb. 25, 2016 Order, Doc. 32, at 1-2). After a hearing on the matter, this Court found that sanctions were warranted against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel for their failure to comply with the Court’s order, but held the sanctions in abeyance so long as Defendants produced all relevant documents in their possession, custody, or control by March 21, 2016. (Mar. 7, 2016 Order, Doc. 37, ¶¶ 1-3).
On March 11, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions against Defendants. (Mot. for Sanctions, Doc. 38). Therein, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants willfully destroyed, or negligently allowed to be destroyed, payroll records prior to May 2015, despite an ongoing investigation by the Department of Labor (“Department”). (Id. at 12-13). Additionally, Plaintiff asserted that since May 2015, an administrative employee had been deleting payroll records on a weekly basis by writing [*3] over them at the end of each work week. (Id. at 15-16). Defendants acknowledged that an employee was writing over the payroll week-to-week but claimed that the records prior to May 2015 were destroyed by a disgruntled former employee, Karen Reyes. (Id. at 7). On September 22, 2016, this Court entered an order denying the motion for sanctions because there was a factual dispute regarding whether Reyes deleted the payroll records and because Plaintiff had not yet determined what, if any, prejudice Plaintiff had suffered. (Sept. 22, 2016 Order, Doc. 55, at 6-7, 9). Nevertheless, the Court was troubled by Defendants’ actions and ordered Defendants to “immediately halt the destruction of any Current Payroll Records” and produce all payroll records to Plaintiff on a bi-weekly basis. (Id. at 10). Now, Plaintiff again seeks sanctions against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b), 28 U.S.C. § 1927, and this Court’s inherent authority.
Following a discussion of the relevant standards for sanctions under Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 37, the court determined that the appropriate “punishment to fit the crime” in this case was to order that plaintiffs’ damages calculations would be subject to an irrebuttable presumption of correctness. Specifically, the court explained that plaintiffs could not show the extreme prejudice to warrant a default judgment, because they were apparently ultimately able to obtain the payroll records at issue from defendants third-party payroll company, notwithstanding defendants’ destruction of the copies in defendants’ possession.
Thus, the court held:
Plaintiff represented at the evidentiary hearing that he was able to obtain a sampling of nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. From these paychecks, which contain the hours worked by the nurses and their pay rate, Plaintiff claims he will be able to accurately calculate back wages. Therefore, as a sanction the Court will order the production of the nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. In addition, the Court will allow Plaintiff to recalculate potential back wages based on these paychecks. If Plaintiff prevails as to liability at trial, this calculation will be irrebuttably presumed to be correct, subject to Court approval.
This is definitely a case for all wage and hour practitioners to hold on to, because the circumstances of this case are unfortunately far from unique.
Click Sec’y of Labor v. Caring First, Inc. to read the entire Opinion of the court.
D.Ariz.: Where Construction Inspector Was Salaried Misclassified, Damages to Calculated Using Default Time and a Half Methodology, Not FWW
Blotzer v. L-3 Communications Corp.
This case was before the court on the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment. Both plaintiff and defendant contended that they were entitled to judgment as a matter of law regarding the exempt status of plaintiff, a construction inspector. The parties further disputed whether the fluctuating workweek methodology or the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology was applicable to calculate plaintiff’s damages, assuming he had been misclassified. After finding plaintiff to be non-exempt, the court held that plaintiff’s damages had to be calculated using the FLSA’s default methodology, because: (1) it is contrary to the rationale of the FLSA to apply the FWW method in misclassification cases; (2) application of the FWW in misclassification cases runs counter to the intent of the FLSA; and (3) even if the FWW method were applied, the defendant had failed to prove the elements of the FWW method were present in the case.
The court explained:
The FWW method set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 is not intended to apply retroactively in a misclassification case. See Urnikis–Negro, 616 F.3d at 666 (stating that 29 C.F.R. § 778.114 is not a remedial measure that specifies how damages are to be calculated when a court finds that an employer has breached its statutory obligations). It was drafted by the Department of Labor as “forward-looking” and only describes how employers and employees should structure an agreement for future compensation. Id. at 677. Moreover, because the regulation was adopted without formal rule-making, it is entitled to less deference. See Hasan v. GPM Investments, LLC, 2012 WL 3725693, *2 (D.Conn.2012) (citing Christensen v. Harris Co., 529 U.S. 576, 120 S.Ct. 1655, 146 L.Ed.2d 621 (2000)). The Court concludes that the FWW should not be applied in the present case because: (1) it is contrary to the rationale of the FLSA to apply the FWW method in misclassification cases; (2) application of the FWW in misclassification cases runs counter to the intent of the FLSA; and (3) even if the FWW method were applied, Defendant has failed to prove the elements of the FWW method are present in this case.
Application of the FWW method in a misclassification case is contrary to FLSA’s rationale. The FWW method requires proof of a “clear mutual understanding” that: (1) the fixed salary is compensation for the hours worked each work week, whatever their number; and (2) overtime pay will be provided contemporaneously such that it fluctuates depending on hours worked per week. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 778.114(a) & (c). In a misclassification case, at least one of the parties initiated employment with the belief that the employee was exempt from the FLSA, paid on a salary basis, and therefore not entitled to overtime. When an employee is erroneously classified as exempt and illegally being deprived of overtime pay, neither the fourth nor fifth legal prerequisites for use of the FWW method is satisfied. The parties do not have a “clear, mutual understanding” that a fixed salary will be paid for “fluctuating hours, apart from overtime premiums” because the parties have not contemplated overtime pay. In addition, because the employees were erroneously classified as exempt, overtime compensation was not provided contemporaneously. See Russell v. Wells Fargo and Co., 672 F.Supp.2d 1008 (N.D.Cal.2009); Hasan, 2012 WL 3725693 at * 4 (collecting cases which hold that, in a misclassification case, the parties never agreed to an essential term of a fluctuating work week arrangement, ie. that overtime would be paid at different rates depending on the number of hours worked per week). As the court stated in Ransom v. M. Patel Enters., Inc., 825 F.Supp.2d 799, 810 n. 11 (W.D.Tex.2011):
The significance of the employee’s lack of knowledge of nonexempt status cannot be overstated. The fundamental assumption underpinning the FWW is that it is fair to use it to calculate overtime pay because the employee consented to the payment scheme. But in the context of an FLSA misclassification suit when consent is inferred from the employee’s conduct, that conduct will always, by definition, have been based on the false assumption that he was not entitled to overtime compensation. The job will have been advertised as a salaried position. The employee, if he raised the issue, will have been told that the salary is all he will receive, regardless of how many hours he works. That is the very nature of a salaried, exempt position. When it turns out that the employer is wrong, and it is learned that the FLSA required the employer to pay the employee an overtime premium, the notion that the employees conduct before he knew this is evidence that the employee somehow consented to a calculation method for the overtime pay that no one even knew was due, is perverse. If the FWW requires consent in some fashion, the employee’s actions before he knew he was due overtime pay just cannot logically be the basis of that consent.
Furthermore, 29 C.F.R. § 778.114(c) provides that the FWW method cannot be used “where all the facts indicate that an employee is being paid for his overtime hours at a rate no greater than that which he receives for non-overtime hours.” In a misclassification case, because employees have not been paid overtime premiums, they are compensated for those hours worked more than forty at a rate not greater than the regular rate. Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014. Thus, attempting to retroactively apply the FWW method to a miscalculation case is akin to “the old ‘square peg in a round hole’ problem [because it requires] apply[ing] § 778.114 to a situation it was not intended to address.” EZPawn, 633 F.Supp.2d at 402.
“In making its decision here, the Court is ‘mindful of the directive that the [FLSA] is to be liberally construed to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with Congressional direction.’ ” Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014 (citing Klem, 208 F.3d at 1089). Application of the FWW in a misclassification case gives rise to a “perverse incentive” for employers, because the employee’s hourly “regular rate” decreases with each additional hour worked. In fact, the difference between the FWW method and the traditional time-anda-half method can result in an employee being paid seventy-one percent less for overtime over a given year, and under the FWW method, the effective overtime hourly rate of an employee working sixty-one hours or more is less than the non-overtime hourly rate of an employee who worked no more than forty hours per week. See Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1012;
see also Hasan, 2012 WL 3725693 at *2 (calculating the pay difference for a misclassified employer under both methods). This result is contrary to the FLSA’s purpose: encouraging employers to spread employment among more workers, rather than employing fewer workers who are then required to work longer hours. See Robertson v. Alaska Juneau Gold Min. Co. ., 157 F.2d 876, 879 (9th Cir.1946)
The court further explained that even if it had reached the opposite conclusion of law (i.e. that the FWW could be applicable in some misclassification cases), the facts of the case would still preclude its application here:
Finally, even if the Court concluded that the FWW method does apply in some miscalculation cases, it would not apply in the present case because Defendant has failed to demonstrate a “fluctuating” work week or a “clear mutual understanding” of straight pay and a contemporaneous overtime arrangement as required by the regulation. The FWW was intended to apply to “fluctuating” work schedules, ie. schedules in which an employee endures long hours some weeks but enjoys the benefit of short hours in other weeks, all at the same rate of pay. See Hasan, 2012 WL 3725693 at *4. In the present case, it is undisputed that Plaintiffs consistently worked more than 40 hours per week. Thus, Plaintiffs’ “variance, between weeks with a moderate amount of overtime hours, and weeks where a majority of hours worked exceeded the 40 hour threshold, is not the same as the up and down fluctuation contemplated by the DOL and by the Court in Missel.” Id. In addition, by its plain terms, the FWW method applies only when the employee clearly understands that he will receive straight-time pay for all hours worked and extra compensation of at least half his regular rate of pay, in addition to the fixed salary, for overtime hours during the weeks when he works overtime. Hunter v. Sprint Corp., 453 F.Supp.2d 44, 59 (D.D.C.2006); Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1013–14. No such clear, mutual understanding is present in this case. Defendant contends that Plaintiffs agreed to work for a set salary regardless of whether they worked “35 hours or 55 hours.” (Doc. 74, pg.13.) Defendant misquotes Plaintiffs’ testimony regarding the number of hours they anticipated working. Although Defendant describes the Plaintiffs’ testimony regarding their salary as their “sole source of income regardless of whether they worked 35 or 55 hours,” neither Plaintiff testified to any expectation of ever working less than 40 hours. (Doc. 71, pg. 10; Doc. 71–1, pgs. 35 & 52.) The undisputed evidence is that Plaintiffs expected to work 50 hours a week. Furthermore, even if Defendant could prove that Plaintiffs and Defendant had a clear, mutual understanding that Plaintiffs would work 50 hours a week without overtime pay, such an arrangement amounts to an agreement “not to receive their FLSA entitlement to overtime pay. This would be illegal. Employees cannot agree to waive their right to overtime pay.” Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014. The parties’ lack of “mutual understanding” regarding Plaintiffs’ salary is further supported by the fact that Plaintiffs, upon realizing that they were being required to work far more than 50 hours per week, complained about their hours and were eventually paid some overtime.
In sum, the Court agrees with its sister district court in Northern California which held that “If Defendants’ position were adopted, an employer, after being held liable for FLSA violations, would be able unilaterally to choose to pay employees their unpaid overtime premium under the more employer-friendly of the two calculation methods. Given the remedial purpose of the FLSA, it would be incongruous to allow employees, who have been illegally deprived of overtime pay, to be shortchanged further by an employer who opts for the discount accommodation intended for a different situation.” Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1014. Accordingly, the Court concludes that the FWW method to damages calculation is not applicable in the instant case.
Click Blotzer v. L-3 Communications Corp. to read the entire Order.
Hasan v. GPM Investments, LLC
Yet another court has weighed in on the FWW (“half-time”) versus time and a half issue in so-called “salary misclassification” cases, and this time it’s a victory for employees. This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion in limine regarding the methodology for calculating damages, in the event the plaintiffs prevailed on their misclassification claims at trial. Addressing all of the arguments typically proffered by plaintiff-employees and defendant-employers, the court held that the fluctuating work week methodology was inapplicable because the defendant failed to meet several of the prerequisites for its use. Thus, the court held that any damages had to be calculated using the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology.
After a lengthy discussion of the Missel case, a history of the FWW and recent salary misclassification decisions, the court discussed why the FWW could not apply to a salary misclassification case. Framing the issue, the court explained:
Plaintiffs contend that the fluctuating work week method of compensation is never appropriate in a case where an employer has misclassified an employee as exempt from the FLSA’s protections. They argue that misclassification cases only present one issue—how to reconstruct what the rate of pay would have been absent a violation. Defendants counter that in a misclassification case “a fixed salary is always meant to compensate for all hours worked,” and under Missel, a fluctuating work week calculation “provides the precise remedy.” Def. Opp. at 12. In other words, a misclassification case does not require that the court recreate a rate, but, instead, that it convert a unusual payment method into an hourly rate. Plaintiffs have the better argument and one need look no further than the DOL’s guidance to understand why.
Initially, the court noted that where an employer has classified an employee as exempt, logically there is never a mutual understanding that overtime will be paid at varying rates, because the parties agreement is that there will be no overtime at all.
When an employer misclassifies an employee, the resultant employment contract will never fulfill any of the requirements of section 778.114. First, parties who believe that an employee merits no overtime payment cannot simultaneously believe that any overtime will be paid at varying rates. Put another way, in a misclassification case, the parties never agreed to an essential term of a fluctuating work week arrangement—that overtime would be paid at different rates depending on the number of hours worked per week. See Perkins v. Southern New England Telephone Co., 2011 WL 4460248 at *3 (D.Conn. Sept. 27, 2011), Russell, 672 F.Supp.2d at 1013–14,Rainey v. Am. Forest & Paper Assoc., 26 F.2d 82, 100–02 (D.D.C.1998). To assume otherwise converts every salaried position into a position compensated at a fluctuating rate.
Next, the court noted the lack of contemporaneous overtime payment at the time the work in question was performed, pursuant to the parties agreement that there would be no overtime:
Second, misclassified employees will never have received any kind of bonus or premium for overtime. Indeed, parties will have explicitly agreed, as they did in this case, that employees will not earn extra money for long hours. See Def. Opp. Ex. A Job Description (listing the position as explicitly “exempt” from overtime compensation). At best, an employer could argue that the flat salary had an overtime bump embedded within it, that it was high enough so that employees remained well compensated for the hardship of working more than 40 hours per week. But this argument fails for two reasons: First, such an agreement would be illegal. An employee would have to waive her statutory right to extra compensation for overtime. Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 740 (1981) (noting that “FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract” because this would “nullify the purposes of the statute”). Second, Missel explicitly rejected such an argument. The court reasoned that the contract at issue did not comply with the FLSA because “it [did not include a] provision for additional pay in the event the hours worked required minimum compensation greater than the fixed wage.” Missel, 316 U.S. at 581.
Further, here the court noted that while the plaintiffs’ hours fluctuated, the never worked fewer than 40 hours. Thus, the court concluded this was not a situation where short weeks were balanced against longer weeks and the plaintiffs were nonetheless receiving the type of steady income envisioned by the FWW as the supposed benefit for employees:
In this case, GPM also fails to meet a third criterion enunciated in the DOL’s guidance—that an employee’s hours actually fluctuate. After it lays out the requirements for a contract for a fluctuating rate, the rule warns that “typically, such salaries are paid to employees who do not customarily work a regular schedule of hours” and are “in amounts agreed on by the parties as adequate straight-time compensation for long work weeks as well as short ones .” 29 C.F.R. § 778.114(c). For a fluctuating work week arrangement to make sense to both parties, employees should offset their relative loss from a grueling work week far above forty hours with the benefit of full pay for weeks that clock-in at less than forty hours. Otherwise, employees have not bargained for anything but decreasing marginal pay as they work longer and longer hours at work. This is what the Court divined in Missel; a rate clerk would sometimes work long hours when shipments flooded in, and sometimes not at all when business dried up. Here, plaintiffs never had a short week; GPM’s job description stated that store managers were expected to work a minimum of 52 hours per week. See Def. Opp. Ex. A, Job Description. To the extent their hours fluctuated, it was because they sometimes worked almost 100 hours per week. See Plaintiff’s Motion in Limine, Ex. A, Timesheets. This variance, between weeks with a moderate amount of overtime hours, and weeks where a majority of hours worked exceeded the 40 hour threshold, is not the same as the up and down fluctuation contemplated by the DOL and by the Court in Missel.
In light of the defendant’s failure to meet any of the prerequisites for the use of the FWW, the court concluded that any damages due would be calculated using the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology. Thus, it granted the plaintiffs’ motion in limine.
Click Hasan v. GPM Investments, LLC to read the entire Ruling and Order on Motion in Limine to Preclude Use of the Fluctuating Work Week.
USSC: Plaintiff’s Petition for Certiorari Denied Regarding Calculation of Damages for “Salaried Misclassified” Workers
Urnikis-Negro v. American Family Property
In a case where the United States Supreme Court could have decided the oft-raised issue of how to calculate an employee’s damages, following a finding that they were “salaried misclassified,” the Supreme Court has denied Plaintiff’s Petition for Cert, and therefore the issue remains largely unresolved. In a decision discussed here, the Seventh Circuit held that the proper calculation of damages in such a situation was the the “fluctuating workweek” methodology, rather than time and a half. The Fourth Circuit held that only “half-time” damages are due when an employee is salaried misclassified recently too. This decision was widely watched by Wage and Hour practitioners, because of the impact the calculation issue has on damages for such employees who are misclassified. Under the fluctuating workweek calculation, an employee who was salaried and misclassified receives less than one third the damages he or she would receive if the award were made at time and a half.
M.D.Fla.: In “Salary Misclassification” Case, Time And A Half Damages Due, Because FWW Calculation Would Result In Sub-Minimum Wages For Overtime Hours In Many Weeks
West v. Verizon Services Corp.
This case was before the court on the Defendants’ motions for summary judgment on a variety of issues. Defendants’ motions were denied. As discussed here, the case of interest, because the court weighed in on the hot-button issue of how to calculate damages for an employee who was “salaried misclassified” by his or her employer. Here, the court held that the damages for the plaintiff, if any, were to be calculated using the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology, largely because a calculation under the fluctuating workweek methodology (FWW) would result in sub-minimum wages for overtime hours in many weeks.
Pertinent to the issue discussed here, Plaintiffs pay was $400.00 per week in salary and, in some instances they could earn a $200.00 bonus in addition, if certain conditions were met. The testimony in the record also indicated that the Plaintiffs worked varying hours each week, sometimes working in excess of 60 hours per week.
Holding that Plaintiffs’ damages, if any, were due to be calculated at the FLSA’s default time and a half rate, the court reasoned:
“D. Rate of Overtime Compensation
As noted above, Defendants argue that West is not entitled to any overtime compensation. However, in the alternative to Defendants’ aforementioned arguments, Defendants submit that if West is entitled to overtime compensation, she is not entitled to overtime compensation at the rate of time and one-half for hours worked over 40. Rather, Defendants contend that, if West is entitled to overtime compensation, her damages should be calculated using the “half-time” method. West disagrees, and seeks time and one-half for all overtime hours worked.
The FLSA mandates overtime payment for non-exempt employees for hours worked over 40 in a workweek at a rate of one and one-half times the regular rate at which the employee is paid. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). As correctly noted by Defendants, “calculation of the ‘regular rate’ is thus the starting point for determining the amount of overtime an employee is owed.” (Doc. # 214 at 12).
In Overnight Motor Transportation Company v. Missel, 316 U.S. 572, 580, 62 S.Ct. 1216, 86 L.Ed. 1682 (1942), the Court held that the employee’s “regular rate” may be determined by dividing the number of hours actually worked by the weekly wage. Id. As a result, a non-exempt employee who receives a weekly salary for all hours worked (even hours over 40) has, by definition, already been paid his “regular rate” for all hours worked in the workweek. Using this method, a salaried employee is only owed half-time for any hours worked in excess of 40 per week.
There can be no doubt that under certain circumstances, overtime payment using the half-time approach is entirely appropriate. “Virtually every court that has considered the question has upheld the remedial use of half-time in failed exemption cases.” Torres v. Bacardi Global Brands Promotions, Inc., 482 F.Supp.2d 1379, 1381, n. 2 (S.D.Fla.2007) (internal citation omitted). However, West asserts that compensation for overtime using the half-time approach, rather than the time and one-half approach, is improper here because Defendants have not satisfied the requirements of the “Fluctuating Work Week” Regulation.
Under 29 C.F.R. § 778.114, the fluctuating workweek method of calculating compensation is used only if the following requirements are met: (1) the employee’s hours fluctuate from week to week; (2) the employee receives a fixed weekly salary which remains the same regardless of the number of hours worked during the week; (3) the fixed amount is sufficient to provide compensation at a regular rate not less than the legal minimum wage; (4) the employer and the employee have a clear and mutual understanding that the employer will pay the employee a fixed salary regardless of the number of hours worked; and (5) the employee receives a fifty percent overtime premium in addition to the fixed weekly salary for all hours worked in excess of 40 during the week. See also Davis v. Friendly Express, Inc., 61 Fed. App’x 671 (11th Cir.2003); O’Brien v. Town of Agawam, 350 F.3d 279, 288 (1st Cir.2003); Griffin v. Wake County, 142 F.3d 712, 716 (4th Cir.1998).
It is evident that the arrangement between West and Defendants does not comport with the fluctuating workweek requirements above. Most importantly, if West worked 72 hours a week, her hourly rate using the fluctuating workweek method would be $5.56, which is less than the applicable minimum wage during the time of her employment ($6.79). As calculated by West, “any week in which West worked at least 59 hours, her hourly rate would fall below the guaranteed minimum wage.” (Doc. # 224).
In addition, West testified that her hours did not fluctuate in that she worked 72 hours per week, every week. There can be no understanding that an employee’s salary is intended to compensate for fluctuating hours-the hallmark of a fluctuating work week case-when the worker understands her hours to be set at 72 hours per week. Furthermore, West’s salary was not “fixed” because she received various bonus payments and commissions.
On the present record, the Court declines to determine that West’s overtime compensation, if any, should be limited to half-time, rather than time and one-half. In the instance that a jury determines that West is entitled to overtime compensation, West’s rate of overtime compensation will be time and one-half.”
Click West v. Verizon Services Corp. to read the entire order.