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The U.S. Department of Labor announced today that it will reinstate the issuance of opinion letters, a practice that was widespread under some prior administrations, but which it elected to forego during the Obama administration. In an email announcement sent out today, the Department of Labor announced:
The U.S. Department of Labor will reinstate the issuance of opinion letters, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced today. The action allows the department’s Wage and Hour Division to use opinion letters as one of its methods for providing guidance to covered employers and employees.
An opinion letter is an official, written opinion by the Wage and Hour Division of how a particular law applies in specific circumstances presented by an employer, employee or other entity requesting the opinion. The letters were a division practice for more than 70 years until being stopped and replaced by general guidance in 2010.
“Reinstating opinion letters will benefit employees and employers as they provide a means by which both can develop a clearer understanding of the Fair Labor Standards Act and other statutes,” said Secretary Acosta. “The U.S. Department of Labor is committed to helping employers and employees clearly understand their labor responsibilities so employers can concentrate on doing what they do best: growing their businesses and creating jobs.”
The division has established a webpage where the public can see if existing agency guidance already addresses their questions or submit a request for an opinion letter. The webpage explains what to include in the request, where to submit the request, and where to review existing guidance. The division will exercise discretion in determining which requests for opinion letters will be responded to, and the appropriate form of guidance to be issued.
In the past, Republican administrations have often used the issuance of opinion letters to skirt the normal approval process for administrative regulation, which requires public comment. It remains to be seen, but this will likely be a boon for employers and another setback for employees under the Trump administration.
9th Cir.: Employers May NOT Retain Employee Tips Even Where They Do Not Take a Tip Credit; 2011 DOL Regulations Which Post-Dated Woody Woo Due Chevron Deference Because Existing Law Was Silent and Interpretation is Reasonable
In a case that will likely have very wide-reaching effects, this week the Ninth Circuit reversed 2 lower court decisions which has invalidated the Department of Labor’s 2011 tip credit regulations. Specifically, the lower courts had held, in accordance with the Ninth Circuit’s Woody Woo decision which pre-dated the regulations at issue, that the DOL lacked the authority to regulate employers who did not take a tip credit with respect to how they treated their employees’ tips. Holding that the 2011 regulations were due so-called Chevron deference, the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court had incorrectly relied on its own Woody Woo case because the statutory/regulatory silence that had existed when Woody Woo was decided had been properly filled by the 2011 regulations. As such, the Ninth Circuit held that the lower court was required to give the DOL regulation deference and as such, an employer may never retain any portion of its employees tips, regardless of whether it avails itself of the tip credit or not.
Framing the issue, the Ninth Circuit explained “[t]he precise question before this court is whether the DOL may regulate the tip pooling practices of employers who do not take a tip credit.” It further noted that while “[t]he restaurants and casinos [appellees] argue that we answered this question in Cumbie. We did not.”
The court then applied Chevron analysis to the DOL’s 2011 regulation at issue.
Holding that the regulation filled a statutory silence that existed at the time of the regulation, and thus met Step 1 of Chevron, the court reasoned:
as Christensen strongly suggests, there is a distinction between court decisions that interpret statutory commands and court decisions that interpret statutory silence. Moreover, Chevron itself distinguishes between statutes that directly address the precise question at issue and those for which the statute is “silent.” Chevron, 467 U.S. at 843. As such, if a court holds that a statute unambiguously protects or prohibits certain conduct, the court “leaves no room for agency discretion” under Brand X, 545 U.S. at 982. However, if a court holds that a statute does not prohibit conduct because it is silent, the court’s ruling leaves room for agency discretion under Christensen.
Cumbie falls precisely into the latter category of cases—cases grounded in statutory silence. When we decided Cumbie, the DOL had not yet promulgated the 2011 rule. Thus, there was no occasion to conduct a Chevron analysis in Cumbie because there was no agency interpretation to analyze. The Cumbie analysis was limited to the text of section 203(m). After a careful reading of section 203(m) in Cumbie, we found that “nothing in the text of the FLSA purports to restrict employee tip-pooling arrangements when no tip credit is taken” and therefore there was “no statutory impediment” to the practice. 596 F.3d at 583. Applying the reasoning in Christensen, we conclude that section 203(m)‘s clear silence as to employers who do not take a tip credit has left room for the DOL to promulgate the 2011 rule. Whereas the restaurants, casinos, and the district courts equate this silence concerning employers who do not take a tip credit to “repudiation” of future regulation of such employers, we decline to make that great leap without more persuasive evidence. See United States v. Home Concrete & Supply, LLC, 132 S. Ct 1836, 1843, 182 L. Ed. 2d 746 (2012) (“[A] statute’s silence or ambiguity as to a particular issue means that Congress has . . . likely delegat[ed] gap-filling power to the agency[.]”); Entergy Corp. v. Riverkeeper, Inc., 556 U.S. 208, 222, 129 S. Ct. 1498, 173 L. Ed. 2d 369 (2009) (“[S]ilence is meant to convey nothing more than a refusal to tie the agency’s hands . . . .”); S.J. Amoroso Constr. Co. v. United States, 981 F.2d 1073, 1075 (9th Cir. 1992) (“Without language in the statute so precluding [the agency’s challenged interpretation], it must be said that Congress has not spoken to the issue.”).
In sum, we conclude that step one of the Chevron analysis is satisfied because the FLSA is silent regarding the tip pooling practices of employers who do not take a tip credit. Our decision in Cumbie did not hold otherwise.
Proceeding to step 2 of Chevron analysis, the court held that the 2011 regulation was reasonable in light of the existing statutory framework of the FLSA and its legislative history. The court reasoned:
The DOL promulgated the 2011 rule after taking into consideration numerous comments and our holding in Cumbie. The AFL-CIO, National Employment Lawyers Association, and the Chamber of Commerce all commented that section 203(m) was either “confusing” or “misleading” with respect to the ownership of tips. 76 Fed. Reg. at 18840-41. The DOL also considered our reading of section 203(m) in Cumbie and concluded that, as written, 203(m) contained a “loophole” that allowed employers to exploit the FLSA tipping provisions. Id. at 18841. It was certainly reasonable to conclude that clarification by the DOL was needed. The DOL’s clarification—the 2011 rule—was a reasonable response to these comments and relevant case law.
The legislative history of the FLSA supports the DOL’s interpretation of section 203(m) of the FLSA. An “authoritative source for finding the Legislature’s intent lies in the Committee Reports on the bill, which represent the considered and collective understanding of those Congressmen [and women] involved in drafting and studying proposed legislation.” Garcia v. United States, 469 U.S. 70, 76, 105 S. Ct. 479, 83 L. Ed. 2d 472 (1984) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). On February 21, 1974, the Senate Committee published its views on the 1974 amendments to section 203(m). S. Rep. No. 93-690 (1974).
Rejecting the employer-appellees argument that the regulation was unreasonable, the court explained:
Employer-Appellees argue that the report reveals an intent contrary to the DOL’s interpretation because the report states that an “employer will lose the benefit of [the tip credit] exception if tipped employees are required to share their tips with employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips[.]” In other words, Appellees contend that Congress viewed the ability to take a tip credit as a benefit that came with conditions and should an employer fail to meet these conditions, such employer would be ineligible to reap the benefits of taking a tip credit. While this is a fair interpretation of the statute, it is a leap too far to conclude that Congress clearly intended to deprive the DOL the ability to later apply similar conditions on employers who do not take a tip credit.
The court also examined the Senate Committee’s report with regard to the enactment of 203(m), the statutory section to which the 2011 regulation was enacted to interpret and stated:
Moreover, the surrounding text in the Senate Committee report supports the DOL’s reading of section 203(m). The Committee reported that the 1974 amendment “modifies section 3(m) of the Fair Labor Standards Act by requiring . . . that all tips received be paid out to tipped employees.” S. Rep. No. 93-690, at 42. This language supports the DOL’s statutory construction that “[t]ips are the property of the employee whether or not the employer has taken a tip credit.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.52. In the same report, the Committee wrote that “tipped employee[s] should have stronger protection,” and reiterated that a “tip is . . . distinguished from payment of a charge . . . [and the customer] has the right to determine who shall be the recipient of the gratuity.” S. Rep. No. 93-690, at 42.
In 1977, the Committee again reported that “[t]ips are not wages, and under the 1974 amendments tips must be retained by the employees . . . and cannot be paid to the employer or otherwise used by the employer to offset his wage obligation, except to the extent permitted by section 3(m).” S. Rep. No. 95-440 at 368 (1977) (emphasis added). The use of the word “or” supports the DOL’s interpretation of the FLSA because it implies that the only acceptable use by an employer of employee tips is a tip credit.
Additionally, we find that the purpose of the FLSA does not support the view that Congress clearly intended to permanently allow employers that do not take a tip credit to do whatever they wish with their employees’ tips. The district courts’ reading that the FLSA provides “specific statutory protections” related only to “substandard wages and oppressive working hours” is too narrow. As previously noted, the FLSA is a broad and remedial act that Congress has frequently expanded and extended.
Considering the statements in the relevant legislative history and the purpose and structure of the FLSA, we find that the DOL’s interpretation is more closely aligned with Congressional intent, and at the very least, that the DOL’s interpretation is reasonable.
Finally, the court explained that it was not overruling Woody Woo, because Woody Woo had been decided prior to the enactment of the regulation at issue when there was regulatory silence on the issue, whereas this case was decided after the 2011 DOL regulations filled that silence.
This case is likely to have wide-ranging impacts throughout the country because previously district court’s have largely simply ignored the 2011 regulations like the lower court’s here, incorrectly relying on the Woody Woo case which pre-dated the regulation.
Click Oregon Rest. & Lodging Ass’n v. Perez to read the entire decision.
D.D.C.: Revised Regulations re Companionship Exemption Reinstated; DOL Acted Within Its Rulemaking Authority and the New Regulation Grounded in Reasonable Interpretation of the FLSA
This case was before the D.C. Circuit on the Department of Labor’s appeal of a lower court’s decision that held the DOL’s recent amendments to the companionship exemption regulations to be unenforceable. Specifically, in 2 separate decisions, the same lower court judge had invalidated the new regulations, both as they applied to third-party staffing companies and as they revised the definition of companionship duties within the scope of the exemption. The D.C. Circuit reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated the revised regulation, finding that the DOL acted within its rulemaking authority with regard to the revision pertaining to third-party staffing companies. The D.C. Circuit declined to reach the second issue regarding the definition of companionship services, because it held that the plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge same in light of the fact that the exemption was inapplicable to them under the regulation in the first instance.
Explaining the issue before it, the court stated:
The Fair Labor Standards Act’s protections include the guarantees of a minimum wage and overtime pay. The statute, though, has long exempted certain categories of “domestic service” workers (workers providing services in a household) from one or both of those protections. The exemptions include one for persons who provide “companionship services” and another for persons who live in the home where they work. This case concerns the scope of the exemptions for domestic-service workers providing either companionship services or live-in care for the elderly, ill, or disabled. In particular, are those exemptions from the Act’s protections limited to persons hired directly by home care recipients and their families? Or do they also encompass employees of third-party agencies who are assigned to provide care in a home?
Until recently, the Department of Labor interpreted the statutory exemptions for companionship services and live-in workers to include employees of third-party providers. The Department instituted that interpretation at a time when the provision of professional care primarily took place outside the home in institutions such as hospitals and nursing homes. Individuals who provided services within the home, on the other hand, largely played the role of an “elder sitter,” giving basic help with daily functions as an on-site attendant.
Since the time the Department initially adopted that approach, the provision of residential care has undergone a marked transformation. The growing demand for long-term home care services and the rising cost of traditional institutional care have fundamentally changed the nature of the home care industry. Individuals with significant care needs increasingly receive services in their homes rather than in institutional settings. And correspondingly, residential care increasingly is provided by professionals employed by third-party agencies rather than by workers hired directly by care recipients and their families.
In response to those developments, the Department recently adopted regulations reversing its position on whether the FLSA’s companionship-services and live-in worker exemptions should reach employees of third-party agencies who are assigned to provide care in a home. The new regulations remove those employees from the exemptions and bring them within the Act’s minimum-wage and overtime protections. The regulations thus give those employees the same FLSA protections afforded to their counterparts who provide largely the same services in an institutional setting.
The D.C. Circuit held that the DOL acted within its rulemaking authority when it issued the regulations at issue and that they were not arbitrary and capricious. For these reasons it held the regulations were proper and enforceable:
Appellees, three associations of home care agencies, challenged the Department’s extension of the FLSA’s minimum-wage and overtime provisions to employees of third-party agencies who provide companionship services and live-in care within a home. The district court invalidated the Department’s new regulations, concluding that they contravene the terms of the FLSA exemptions. We disagree. The Supreme Court’s decision in Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, 551 U.S. 158, 127 S.Ct. 2339, 168 L.Ed.2d 54 (2007), confirms that the Act vests the Department with discretion to apply (or not to apply) the companionship-services and live-in exemptions to employees of third-party agencies. The Department’s decision to extend the FLSA’s protections to those employees is grounded in a reasonable interpretation of the statute and is neither arbitrary nor capricious. We therefore reverse the district court and remand for the grant of summary judgment to the Department.
To read the entire decision click Home Care Association of America v. Weil.
President Obama Announces That Threshold Salary for FLSA’s White Collar Exemptions Will Rise From $23,660 ($455/week) to $50,400 ($969/week)
In an Op-Ed penned by President Obama on the website Huffington Post, the new proposed overtime rules from the administration officially began their roll-out. Most significantly, the new rules more than double the current salary threshold for exempt employees from $23,660 per year (or $455 per week) to $50,400 per yer (or $969 per week), and continue to increase automatically in years to come.
“In this country, a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay,” Obama wrote in an op-ed published Monday evening by the Huffington Post — an outreach to the president’s base on the left. “That’s at the heart of what it means to be middle class in America.”
The President continued:
Without Congress, I’m very hard-pressed to think of a policy change that would potentially reach more middle class earners than this one,” said Jared Bernstein, a former economic adviser to Vice President Joe Biden who’s now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
According to an article published last night on Politico.com:
The new threshold wouldn’t be indexed to overall price or wage increases, as many progressives had hoped. Instead, it would be linked permanently to the 40th percentile of income. That would set it at the level when the overtime rule was first created under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The timing reflects an administration increasingly feeling the clock ticking: it expects the overtime rule to be challenged in court, and will press to complete by 2016 the review process during which comments are submitted by the public and then considered by the Labor Department and the White House as it prepares the final rule. If all goes according to plan, the rule will go into effect before Obama leaves office.
The proposed rule comes after months of pitched internal debate, with Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Muñoz pushing to keep the threshold at the 40th percentile, and other members of the White House economic team, including Council of Economic Advisers chairman Jason Furman, trying to lower it to the 37th percentile.
Perez spent months conferring with business groups while his team wrote the rule. Obama made the decision to go forward in a meeting of his economic team several months ago, and originally the plan had been to roll out the rule last week. That was put on hold so that Obama could instead deliver the eulogy Friday at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral in Charleston, S.C.
For years the White House has faced the frustrating reality that despite consistently improving economic numbers, wages have been largely stagnant. Obama’s 2014 push to raise the minimum wage struck many middle class voters as not having much to do with them. But the overtime rule would affect workers whose salaries approach the median household income.
As explained by Politico:
The regulation would be the most sweeping policy undertaken by the president to assist the middle class, and the most ambitious intervention in the wage economy in at least a decade. Administration aides warn that it wouldn’t always lead to wages going up, though, because in many instances employers would cut back employee hours worked rather than pay the required time-and-a-half. Even so, they say, the additional hires needed to make up for that time could spur job growth, and give existing workers either more time with their families or more opportunities to work second jobs and put more money in their pockets.
This change was badly needed. The overtime threshold has been updated only once since 1975 and now covers a mere 8 percent of salaried workers, according to a recent analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. Raising the threshold to $50,440 would bring it roughly in line with the 1975 threshold, after inflation. Back then, that covered 62 percent of salaried workers. But because of subsequent changes in the economy’s structure, the Obama administration’s proposed rule would cover a smaller percentage — about 40 percent.
The current overtime rules contain a white collar exemption, which excludes “executive, administrative and professional” employees from receiving overtime pay. Advocates for changing the rule say the white collar exemption allows employers to avoid paying lower-wage workers overtime. The proposed rule contains no specific changes to this “duties test,” but instead solicits questions from the public about how best to alter it.
Click Huffington Post to read the President’s Op-Ed piece or Politico, to read Politico’s article. Of course, we will continue to update our readers as further details of the new regulations are rolled out.
5th Cir.: General Release Obtained By Defendant in Non-FLSA State Court Case Did Not Waive FLSA Claims
In this appeal, the Fifth Circuit was asked (by the defendant-appellee) to extend its holding in Martin v. Spring Break ′83 Productions, L.L.C., 688 F.3d 247 (5th Cir.2012). In Martin, the Fifth Circuit held that a private settlement reached over a bona fide dispute regarding Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claims was enforceable despite the general prohibition against the waiver of FLSA claims via private settlement. Applying Martin, the district court in the instant action enforced a generic, broad release against the plaintiffs’ subsequent FLSA claims, even though the release was obtained through the private settlement of a prior state court action that did not involve the FLSA or any claim of unpaid wages. Because it reasoned that it could not be assured under the facts at bar that the release at issue resulted from a bona fide dispute regarding overtime wages, the Fifth Circuit declined to extend Martin and reversed.
Laying out the relevant facts and procedural history, the court explained:
Plaintiffs–Appellants Ambre Bodle and Leslie Meech (collectively referred to as “the plaintiffs”) filed the instant FLSA action against their former employer TXL Mortgage Corporation (“TXL”) and its president William Dale Couch (collectively referred to as “the defendants”) on May 16, 2012. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants failed to compensate them for their overtime work as required by Section 207 of the FLSA. The defendants moved for summary judgment asserting res judicata as a basis for dismissal. The defendants also argued that the plaintiffs executed a valid and enforceable waiver in a prior state court action, which released all claims against the defendants arising from the parties’ employment relationship. The district court found the latter contention dispositive.
The defendants in the instant case filed the prior state court action against the plaintiffs on February 3, 2012. The defendants claimed that the plaintiffs, who had resigned from the company about a year prior, had begun to work for a direct competitor and had violated their noncompetition covenants with TXL by soliciting business and employees to leave TXL for the competitor. In connection with these allegations, the defendants asserted nine state law causes of action against the plaintiffs.3In response, the plaintiffs sought a declaration that the non-compete and non-solicitation of client provisions in the employment agreements were unenforceable.
On May 16, 2012, the parties filed with the state court a joint motion for entry of agreed final judgment pursuant to a settlement agreement. The state court granted the parties’ motion and entered an agreed final judgment on May 23, 2012. The private settlement agreement between the parties contained a release by the plaintiffs which stated the following:
In exchange for the consideration identified above, DEFENDANTS hereby fully and completely release and discharge TXL and its agents, representatives, attorneys, successors, and assigns from any and all actual or potential claims, demands, actions, causes of action, and liabilities of any kind or nature, whether known or unknown, including but not limited to all claims and causes of action that were or could have been asserted in the Lawsuit and all claims and causes of action related to or in any way arising from DEFENDANTS’ employment with TXL, whether based in tort, contract (express or implied), warranty, deceptive trade practices, or any federal, state or local law, statute, or regulation. This is meant to be, and shall be construed as, a broad release.
The district court in the instant action granted summary judgment to the defendants on the basis that the plain language of the release from the state court settlement was binding on the plaintiffs and therefore banned their subsequent FLSA claims. The plaintiffs now appeal the dismissal. The defendants contend that the dismissal was proper under the state court settlement release, and in the alternative, that res judicata bars the plaintiffs’ FLSA claims.
After discussing the well-settled authority which holds that generally—absent approval from the DOL or a court of adequate jurisdiction—private settlements of FLSA claims are not binding on employees, the court then examined its prior holding in the Martin case:
We considered this question in Martin v. Spring Break ′83 Productions, L.L.C., 688 F.3d 247 (5th Cir.2012). In Martin, we enforced a private settlement agreement that constituted a compromise over FLSA claims because the settlement resolved a bona fide dispute about the number of hours worked.Id. at 255. In reaching this conclusion, we adopted reasoning from Martinez v. Bohls Bearing Equipment Co., 361 F.Supp.2d 608 (W.D.Tex.2005).Martinez held that “parties may reach private compromises as to FLSA claims where there is a bona fide dispute as to the amount of hours worked or compensation due. A release of a party’s rights under the FLSA is enforceable under such circumstances.”Id. at 631…
In Martin, we approved, as an enforceable compromise of a bona fide dispute, a settlement between a union representative and a movie production company. 688 F.3d at 249. After an investigation, the union representative concluded it would be impossible to validate the number of hours claimed by the workers for unpaid wages. Id. The parties’ settlement of the union members’ complaints read as follows:
The Union on its own behalf and on behalf of the IATSE Employees agrees and acknowledges that the Union has not and will not file any complaints, charges, or other proceedings against Producer, its successors, licenses and/or assignees, with any agency, court, administrative body, or in any forum, on condition that payment in full is made pursuant to the terms of this Settlement Agreement.
Id. at 254. In reaching the conclusion that a bona fide dispute existed, we emphasized the union representative’s inability to “determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they claimed they had worked[.]”Id. at 255.
However, the Fifth Circuit held that meaningful facts distinguished this case from Martin and declined to extend Martin’s holding to these facts:
In the instant action, the settlement containing the release of future claims derived from a state court action centered upon a disputed non-compete agreement. Nevertheless, the district court concluded that the release validly barred the plaintiffs’ subsequent FLSA claims because the topic of unpaid wages for commissions and salary arose in the settlement negotiations. The district court found that at the time of the settlement discussions regarding the unpaid wages, the plaintiffs were aware of their claims for unpaid overtime because they had signed consent forms to join the instant lawsuit. However, the plaintiffs chose, at that time, to remain silent about their overtime claims. The district court concluded that the overall “bona fide dispute” as to wages (which focused on wages for commissions and salary), could have included the claims for overtime wages, but for the plaintiffs’ silence. And for that reason, the district court held that the plaintiffs are now barred from claiming that the compromise resulting from their bona fide dispute over wages did not encompass their claim for unpaid overtime.
The plaintiffs contend on appeal that the district court erred in extending Martin’s limited holding to the circumstances of this case. The plaintiffs point out that in Martin the settlement was reached in response to the filing of a FLSA lawsuit, as opposed to the state court action concerning a non-compete agreement that is present in this case. The plaintiffs further emphasize that in Martin, the parties specifically disputed the amounts due and the number of overtime hours claimed under the FLSA. The plaintiffs maintain that because they did not receive any FLSA compensation for unpaid overtime in the state court settlement, the rationale set out in Martin, does not apply to this case. The defendants argue that since the state court settlement resolved a bona fide dispute about hours worked and compensation due in a general sense, the release of a claim for unpaid overtime is valid, even if brought under the FLSA. The defendants state that if the plaintiffs wished to bring a subsequent FLSA claim, they should have carved that claim out of the settlement agreement.
The plaintiffs have the stronger argument on this issue. The general rule establishes that FLSA claims (for unpaid overtime, in this case) cannot be waived. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank, 324 U.S. at 706–08. Accordingly, many courts have held that, in the absence of supervision by the Department of Labor or scrutiny from a court, a settlement of an FLSA claim is prohibited. See, e.g., Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. U.S., 679 F.2d 1350, 1355 (11th Cir.1982) ( “Other than a section 216(c) payment supervised by the Department of Labor, there is only one context in which compromises of FLSA back wage or liquidated damage claims may be allowed: a stipulated judgment entered by a court which has determined that a settlement proposed by an employer and employees, in a suit brought by the employees under the FLSA, is a fair and reasonable resolution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions.”) (emphasis added); Taylor v. Progress Energy, Inc., 493 F.3d 454, 460 (4th Cir.2007), superseded by regulation on other grounds as stated in Whiting v. Johns Hopkins Hosp., 416 F. App’x 312 (4th Cir.2011) (“[U]nder the FLSA, a labor standards law, there is a judicial prohibition against the unsupervised waiver or settlement of claims.”).
Nevertheless, we have excepted, from this general rule, unsupervised settlements that are reached due to a bona fide FLSA dispute over hours worked or compensation owed. See Martin, 688 F.3d at 255. In doing so, we reasoned that such an exception would not undermine the purpose of the FLSA because the plaintiffs did not waive their claims through some sort of bargain but instead received compensation for the disputed hours. Id. at 257. The Martin exception does not apply to the instant case because not only did the prior state court action not involve the FLSA, the parties never discussed overtime compensation or the FLSA in their settlement negotiations. Therefore, there was no factual development of the number of unpaid overtime hours nor of compensation due for unpaid overtime. To deem the plaintiffs as having fairly bargained away unmentioned overtime pay based on a settlement that involves a compromise over wages due for commissions and salary would subvert the purpose of the FLSA: namely, in this case, the protection of the right to overtime pay. Under these circumstances where overtime pay was never specifically negotiated, there is no guarantee that the plaintiffs have been or will be compensated for the overtime wages they are allegedly due under the Act.
Thus, the court held as follows:
Accordingly, we hold that the absence of any mention or factual development of any claim of unpaid overtime compensation in the state court settlement negotiations precludes a finding that the release resulted from a bona fide dispute under Martin.The general prohibition against FLSA waivers applies in this case, and the state court settlement release cannot be enforced against the plaintiffs’ FLSA claims.
The court also rejected the Appellee’s alternative argument that the FLSA claims were barred by res judicata due to the plaintiff’s failure to raise them in the unrelated underlying state-law case.
Click Bodle v. TXL Mortg Corp. to read the entire Fifth Circuit Opinion.
DOL Announces It Will Not Enforce New Regulations Regarding FLSA Rights of Home Health Workers for First 6 Months of 2015
The Department of Labor’s (Department) October 1, 2013, Final Rule amending regulations regarding domestic service employment, which extends the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA) minimum wage and overtime protections to most home care workers will become effective on January 1, 2015. However, by an announcement dated October 6, 2014, the DOL advised that it will not be enforcing the regulations for the first 6 months that the regulations are in effect.
Critically important, while the DOL will not be bringing enforcement actions—as it is able to do under the FLSA—this announcement does not effect home health workers’ rights to bring private enforcement actions themselves through private lawsuits.
In a thoughtful commentary regarding the importance of the new regulation, issued on his blog on the day of the DOL’s recent announcement, former Deputy Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division, Seth Harris, has this to say:
Home health workers are the people who care for people with disabilities and seniors so that they may live in the community rather than in nursing homes or other institutions. Their work is essential. They allow each of us to rest assured that we will be able to live in dignity in our homes if age, happenstance, or genetics result in physical, mental, or developmental disabilities. Yet, these workers have not been protected by the federal minimum wage or the requirement that workers who work more than 40 hours in a week receive overtime pay for those additional hours. These requirements are found in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Home health workers have been excluded from the FLSA. On January 1, that exclusion ends. Home health workers will be entitled to at least the federal minimum wage and time-and-one-half for overtime worked beginning New Year’s Day.
While Harris went further to explain that he thought that the new regulations would likely lack teeth, in light of this delayed enforcement policy—given the relatively small sums of money individuals stand to lose from unscrupulous employers who ignore the new regulation—that may not turn out to be accurate. While many smaller home health agencies will likely feel free to skirt the new regulation, at least initially, most of the larger national home health agencies have already put the wheels in motion to make the necessary changes to comply with the new law about to go into effect. However, if you are a home health worker, who is still being denied your rightful minimum wages and/or overtime pay, after the new law goes into effect on January 1, 2015, you should contact a wage and hour lawyer to investigate whether you have a claim to recover your rightful wages.
D.D.C.: Laborers on Governmental Job, Who Have Exhausted Their Administrative Remedy, May Bring Case Under Davis-Bacon Act Against Bond of General Contractor; 2 Year SOL Applies
Castro v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland
It has long been the law that generally employees lack the right to bring a private cause of action under the Davis Bacon Act (DBA). Rather, the sole avenue under which aggrieved employees, on governmental jobs, can seek repayment of their improperly withheld wages under the DBA is through a proceeding brought by the Department of Labor. However, the Department of Labor rarely brings such proceedings and thus, workers on governmental projects are often left without a remedy where they have been the victims of wage theft. This case sheds some light on another avenue that such employees can use to attempt to recover their wages however. In this case, after exhausting their administrative remedies (i.e. filing with the DOL and being told the DOL could not pursue their claims) the plaintiffs—employees of a sub-contractor on a job for the District of Columbia—sued on the bond of general contractor to seek payment of their wages. Denying the defendant-bond company’s motion to dismiss, the court explained that this was a valid cause of action.
Discussing the relevant facts and procedural history, the court explained:
Plaintiffs were employed by S & J Acoustics, a second-tier subcontractor (or subsubcontractor) retained to complete ceiling installation on the Consolidated Forensic Laboratory, a building owned by the District of Columbia. See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 2, 5. Pursuant to the DBA, 40 U.S.C. § 3141, et seq., and the DCLMA, D.C.Code § 2–201.01, et seq., the project’s prime contractor, Whiting–Turner Contracting Co., provided a payment bond to the District of Columbia as an assurance that project laborers would receive payment at Department of Labormandated hourly rates. See Am. Compl., ¶¶ 3, 8. In bringing this action against Defendants (1) Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland and (2) Travelers Casualty and Surety Company of America, who insured Whiting–Turner’s bond as co-sureties, see id., ¶ 3, Plaintiffs allege that they were not paid for their contributions to the project in accordance with these designated wage rates. See id., ¶¶ 16–18, 21. As background, the DCLMA requires contractors on governmentfunded projects to secure payment bonds to protect the interests of suppliers of materials and subcontractors, and the DBA establishes prevailing wage rates for workers who contribute to government-funded construction projects.
Prior to initiating this action, Plaintiffs filed an administrative complaint with DOL, requesting that payments to the project’s prime contractor be withheld until an investigation could be completed and Plaintiffs compensated for the alleged back wages. See id., ¶¶ 23–25. As the project had since wound up and all payments had been released to Whiting–Turner, the DOL investigator closed the case without making any findings on Plaintiffs’ eligibility for relief under the DBA. See id., ¶¶ 24–25. After Plaintiffs brought suit and Defendants filed their Motion to Dismiss, the Court sua sponte raised the issue of subject-matter jurisdiction, questioning whether Plaintiffs had sufficiently exhausted their administrative remedies with DOL. See Order to Show Cause at 2–3. Out of deference to DOL’s plenary role in making DBA back-wage determinations, the Court issued a temporary stay in the proceedings and ordered Plaintiffs to return to DOL and request that conclusive findings be made. See ECF No. 16 (Order) at 4. Plaintiffs did so, but without success. DOL refused to take further action on the ground that the government had already made all payments to the prime contractor and had no further funds to withhold. See Joint Status Report, ¶¶ 6–7 & Exh. A. Satisfied that Plaintiffs had made all efforts to exhaust remedies with DOL, the Court concluded that it did have subjectmatter jurisdiction under the DBA and could consequently address the substance of their claims and Defendants’ pending Motion to Dismiss. See Castro v. Fid. & Deposit Co. of Maryland, No. 13–818, 2014 WL 495464 (D.D.C. Feb. 7, 2014).
Under these circumstances, the defendant argued that the plaintiffs lacked any remedy. The court summarized the defendants contentions as follows:
Defendants first argue that Plaintiffs cannot invoke the DCLMA to sue on Whiting Turner’s payment bond because eligibility under the statute is restricted to those suppliers of labor and materials that have been retained either by the prime contractor or by an immediate subcontractor. See Mot. to Dismiss at 9; Reply at 1–2. Since Plaintiffs were hired by a second- tier subcontractor, Defendants suggest that they fall outside of the scope of the statute. See Supp. to Mot. to Dismiss at 3.
Defendants further maintain that Plaintiffs also have no remedy under the DBA. They premise this argument on the text of DBA § 3144(a)(2), which provides that “laborers and mechanics have the same right [of] action … as is conferred by law on persons furnishing labor or materials.” See Reply at 4. The use of the phrase “same right,” according to Defendants, demonstrates that § 3144(a)(2) does not actually grant aggrieved workers an independent cause of action, but merely references the applicable bond statute – in this case, DCLMA § 2–201.02. See Mot. to Dismiss at 9; Reply at 1 (“Plaintiffs do not have separate cause [sic ] of action against the Defendants in this case under the DBA….”). Alternatively, even if § 3144(a)(2) does create a freestanding cause of action, Defendants reason that the result should be the same because “the rights, if any, that were conferred [by § 3144(a)(2) ] were limited by the express terms of the bond statute.” Reply at 7. The DBA, by this logic, merely duplicates the DCLMA, mirroring its procedural requirements and limitations on eligibility.
Addressing the defendants’ contentions, the court first analyzed the scope and requirements of the DCLMA, acknowledging that plaintiffs lacked standing thereunder, because like the federal Miller Act, it applies only to prime contractor and immediate subcontractors. That did not end the court’s inquiry however. It then turned to an examination of § 3144(a)(2) of the DBA to determine whether it provides an independent remedy with its own terms and conditions. Holding that the DBA, under these circumstances, provided the plaintiffs with a remedy the court explained:
The game is not over, however, because the DBA protects precisely those “ordinary laborers” that the Miller Act appears to exclude. The DBA applies to any construction contracts for public works and public projects that exceed $2,000 in value and to which either the Federal Government or the District of Columbia is a party. See 40 U.S.C. § 3142(a). It obliges contractors on such projects to pay workers in accordance with prevailing wage rates, established by the Secretary of Labor. See id. In the event that contractors do not comply with prevailing wage rates, a worker may seek redress through the mechanism set out in DBA § 3144(a)(2). Promulgated in 1935 – just six days after the federal Miller Act was updated to reflect its current language – § 3144(a)(2) is broadly worded, granting a right of action to “all the laborers and mechanics who have not been paid the wages required” pursuant to the DBA. In contrast to the Miller Act and DCLMA, which condition their protections on a requisite level of contractual proximity to the prime contractor, DBA eligibility appears to hinge upon a laborer’s presence at the job site. Section 3144(a)(2) stipulates that each “contractor or subcontractor” involved in a “contract” governed by the DBA “shall pay all mechanics and laborers employed directly on the site of the work, unconditionally and at least once a week … regardless of any contractual relationship which may be alleged to exist between the contractor or subcontractor and the laborers and mechanics.” § 3142(c)(1) (emphasis added).
Although the DBA does not separately delineate the terms “contract,” “contractor,” “subcontractor,” or “laborer,” these terms are defined in corresponding regulations promulgated by the Secretary of Labor. See 29 C.F.R. § 5.2. The term “contract” comprises “any prime contract which is subject … to the labor standards provisions of [the DBA] and any subcontract of any tier thereunder, let under the prime contract.” § 5.2(h) (emphasis added). This definition, unlike that in the DCLMA, is not limited by a particular degree of separation from the prime contractor. The regulations, in fact, expressly disavow any requirement that a worker demonstrate a particular contractual relationship, instead providing that “[e]very person performing the duties of a laborer or mechanic in the construction … of a public building or public work … is employed regardless of any contractual relationship alleged to exist between the contractor and such person.” § 5.2(o). The regulatory definition of “laborer” is governed by function, not by contractual formality, and extends to “at least those workers whose duties are manual or physical in nature.” § 5.2(m).
Even in the unlikely event that a court were to find the text of the DBA ambiguous, it would still be bound to apply DOL’s regulatory definitions in making its decision. “Because the Secretary of Labor has interpreted the Act,” courts must defer to the Secretary’s judgment provided that these “interpretations are reasonable.” AKM LLC v. Sec’y of Labor, 675 F.3d 752, 754 (D.C.Cir.2012) (citing Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, 467 U.S. 837, 843 (1984)). In this case, the regulatory interpretations are more than merely reasonable – they are grounded in the most basic common sense. Because a prime contractor should have ample notice of laborers working at its project site, it can institute sufficient controls to ensure that they are accounted for and paid for their contributions, regardless of any particular contractual arrangement. In contrast to the situation with suppliers, who may come and go without any physical connection to a job site, there is far less risk that laborers will be completely “[un]known to the prime contractor,” U.S. ex rel. E & H Steel Corp., 509 F.3d at 187, and thereby expose it to unforeseen liability.
The court then explained that where, as here, workers had exhausted their administrative remedy (i.e. filed with the DOL), they were entitled to bring a private cause of action under the DBA:
Clearly titled as a “[r]ight of action,” DBA § 3144(a)(2) provides that, if the Secretary of Labor’s withholdings under the terms of a contract are “insufficient to reimburse all the laborers and mechanics who have not been paid the wages required[,] … the laborers and mechanics have the same right to bring a civil action and intervene against the contractor and the contractor’s sureties as is conferred by law on persons furnishing labor or materials.” (Emphasis added). Two points are notable here. First, the express title of § 3144(a)(2) indicates that Congress believed that it was creating a new and fully functional right of action, and not merely a superficial reference to remedies already available under the bond statutes. While many battles have been waged over whether or not an aggrieved worker can claim an implied right of action under the DBA and thereby circumvent the administrative-exhaustion requirements of § 3144(a), see, e.g., Univers. Research Ass’n v. Coutu, 450 U.S. 754, 780 (1981), courts have long recognized that § 3144(a)(2) furnishes an express cause of action once remedies have been exhausted. See, e.g., U.S. ex rel. Bradbury v. TLT Const. Corp., 138 F.Supp.2d 237, 241 (D.R.I.2001).
Second, the formulation “all the laborers … who have not been paid” sets an expansive scope of application that is not obviously restricted by what follows. If Congress had intended to limit the scope of eligibility to sue on a bond to the narrow class of workers who might qualify under the terms of the Miller Act, it stands to reason that the legislature would have said so in clear and unambiguous terms or, more plausibly, would have completely omitted § 3144(a)(2) from the DBA. If Defendants are correct, § 3144(a)(2) would be mere surplusage, offering nothing of value over and above the remedies already available via the Miller Act and DCLMA. The Court cannot ignore the ” ‘cardinal principle of statutory construction’ that ‘a statute ought, upon the whole, to be so construed that, if it can be prevented, no clause, sentence, or word shall be superfluous, void, or insignificant.’ ” TRW Inc. v. Andrews, 534 U.S. 19, 31 (2001) (quoting Duncan v. Walker, 533 U.S. 167, 174 (2001)).
Perhaps even more troubling, Defendants’ assessment of § 3144(a)(2) would create two arbitrary classes of workers – first, those who satisfy the technical qualifications imposed by the terms of the Miller Act and DCLMA, and second, all otherwise DBA-eligible workers. If the Court were to endorse Defendants’ highly restrictive interpretation, it might encourage prime contractors to insulate themselves behind several layers of subcontracts and thus opt out of the obligation to pay DBA-mandated wages, particularly as a project draws to a close and the government is no longer able to withhold funds. It should be obvious, accordingly, that all laborers present on the worksite of a DBA-eligible project should stand to benefit from the Act’s protections, regardless of contractual formalities. The Court thus concludes that § 3144(a)(2) of the DBA creates an independent cause of action that grants the ability to collect on a prime contractor’s bond to all eligible on-site workers, regardless of who hired them.
Finally, the court rejected the defendant’s argument that the plaintiff’s were limited by a one year statute of limitations, and held that a two year statute of limitations was applicable to the claims, pursuant to the Portal-to-Portal Act.
Click Castro v. Fidelity and Deposit Company of Maryland to read the entire Memorandum Opinion of the court.
In an announcement that has long been awaited by workers advocates and those in the home health industry as well, today the United States Department of Labor (DOL) announced a final rule, to go into effect on January 1, 2015, which extends the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime protections to home health aides that perform typical CNA tasks in the homes of the aged and infirm. In an email blast, the DOL reported:
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division announced a final rule today extending the Fair Labor Standards Act’s minimum wage and overtime protections to most of the nation’s direct care workers who provide essential home care assistance to elderly people and people with illnesses, injuries, or disabilities. This change, effective January 1, 2015, ensures that nearly two million workers – such as home health aides, personal care aides, and certified nursing assistants – will have the same basic protections already provided to most U.S. workers. It will help ensure that individuals and families who rely on the assistance of direct care workers have access to consistent and high quality care from a stable and increasingly professional workforce.
Among other things, the final rule overrules the 2007 holding of the Supreme Court in Long Island Care at Home, Ltd. v. Coke, and requires 3rd party employers such as staffing agencies to pay companions and home health workers overtime under the FLSA when they work in excess of 40 hours per week.
The New York Times provides a pretty good synopsis of the changes to the Companionship Exemption, provided by the final rule:
Under the new rule, any home care aides hired through home care companies or other third-party agencies cannot be exempt from minimum wage and overtime coverage. The exemptions for aides who mainly provide “companionship services” — defined as fellowship and protection for an elderly person or person with an illness, injury or disability who requires assistance — are limited to the individual, family or household using the services.
If an aide or companion provides “care” that exceeds 20 percent of the total hours she works each week, then the worker is to receive minimum wage and overtime protections.
The new rule defines care as assisting with the activities of daily living, like dressing, grooming, feeding or bathing, and assisting with “instrumental activities of daily living,” like meal preparation, driving, light housework, managing finances and assisting with the physical taking of medications.
The companionship exemption will not apply if the aide or companion provides medically related services that are typically performed by trained personnel, like nurses or certified nursing assistants.
Live-in domestic service workers who reside in the employer’s home and are employed by an individual, family or household are exempt from overtime pay, although they must be paid at least the federal minimum wage for all hours worked.
M.D.Ga.: DOL Properly Invoked the “Government Informer Privilege” Where Defendants Sought Identities of Witnesses Who Cooperated in Pre-Suit DOL Investigation
Solis v. New China Buffet No. 8, Inc.
This case was before the court on defendants’ motion to compel the DOL (“DOL” or “Plaintiff”) to provide complete answers to discovery requests. Specifically, Defendants sought information relating to the DOL’s investigation (prior to the filing of the lawsuit) of this Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) case, particularly the identities of any employees that gave statements to the DOL, the contents of those statements, and the contents of the investigative file. The DOL refused to provide that information based on the informer’s privilege. The court upheld the DOL’s refusal based on the investigation privilege. However, the court ordered the DOL to provide the full contact information for all witnesses disclosed by the DOL in their Rule 26 disclosures.
The court boiled Defendants’ arguments down as follows:
“Defendants mount two arguments against Plaintiff’s refusal to disclose the requested information and documents. First, they argue that Plaintiff has not properly invoked the informer’s privilege. Second, they argue that the informer’s privilege should not protect the information they are seeking.”
Rejecting the Defendants’ first contention, that the DOL had not properly invoked the privilege, the court explained:
“Plaintiff properly invoked the informer’s privilege in this case. In response to Defendants’ Motion to Compel, Plaintiff produced a declaration from Acting Wage and Hour Administrator Nancy J. Leppink . In her declaration, Administrator Leppink stated that she had personally reviewed the relevant parts of the investigation file, including information withheld or redacted. [Doc. 34–1 ¶ 8]. She went on to the state that the Secretary of Labor objected to the production of the requested documents and identifying information because it was protected from disclosure pursuant to the informant’s privilege. [Id. ¶ 11]. She then “invoke[d] the informant’s privilege to protect from disclosure the identities, and any statements and other documents, or portions thereof, which could reveal the identifies, of persons who have provided information to the U.S. Department of Labor in the instant case.” [Id. ¶ 12].”
Turning to the applicability of the informer privilege to the case at bar, the court held that the discovery sought was properly the subject of the privilege. Describing the nature and purpose of the informer privilege, the court explained:
“What courts have termed the “informer’s privilege is in reality the Government’s privilege to withhold from disclosure the identity of persons who furnish information of violations of law to officers charged with enforcement of that law.” Rovario v. United States, 353 U.S. 53, 59, 77 S.Ct. 623, 627, 1 L.Ed.2d 639 (1957). The privilege protects “employees with legitimate complaints, exercising their constitutional and statutory right to present their grievances to the government.” Brennan v. Engineered Prods. Inc., 506 F.2d 299, 302 (8th Cir.1974). “The purpose of the privilege is the furtherance and protection of the public interest in effective law enforcement.” Rovario, 353 U.S. at 59, 77 S.Ct. at 627. The government may invoke the privilege “to conceal the names of employees who precipitated the suit by filing complaints with the Department of Labor.” Does I thru XXIII v. Advanced Textile Corp. ., 214 F.3d 1058, 1072 (9th Cir.2000). The privilege “applies whether the [Department of Labor] solicited statements from an employee or the employee made a complaint to the [ Department of Labor].” Martin v. New York City Transit Auth., 148 F.R.D. 56, 63 (E.D.N.Y.1993) (citing Dole v. Local 1942, International Bhd. of Elec. Workers, AFL–CIO, 870 F.2d 368, 370–71 (7th Cir.1989)). The privilege applies to both current and former employees of a company whose workers have communicated with the Department of Labor. Hodgson v. Charles Martin Inspectors of Petroleum, Inc., 459 F.2d 303, 305–06 (5th Cir.1972).
The informer’s privilege is not absolute. Its scope is “limited by the underlying purpose of the privilege as balanced against the fundamental requirements of fairness and disclosure in the litigation process.” Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 305. If the “disclosure of the contents of a communication will not tend to reveal the identity of an informer, the contents are not privileged.” Rovario, 353 U.S. at 60, 77 S.Ct. at 627. Generally, in questions involving the privilege, “the interests to be balanced … are the public’s interest in efficient enforcement of the Act, the informer’s right to be protected against possible retaliation, and the defendant’s need to prepare for trial.” Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 305. The defendant’s need for certain information is generally less weighty during the discovery phase, as opposed to the pre-trial stage of the proceedings. See id. at 307, Brennan, 506 F.2d at 303.”
The court then held that the privilege was indeed applicable here. In so doing, the court rejected Defendants’ argument that it would be inefficient to depose all 48 witnesses disclosed by the DOL, and questioned Defendants’ base assertion that they needed to know who participated investigation:
“The Defendants’ need to depose all forty-eight former employees listed in Appendix A, or even only those who provided statements, in order to adequately prepare a defense appears far from pressing. The relevance of the identity of informers in a FLSA case is often questionable. See Chao v. Westside Drywall, Inc., 254 F.R.D. 651, 660 (D.Or.2009) (noting that “the names of informers are [often] irrelevant to whether the employer properly paid its employees and otherwise complied with the Act’s requirements”). Defendants have failed to make any showing that this case is outside the normal situation wherein a defendant has access to information and its own witnesses regarding its wage and record keeping practices, and the identity of informers is largely irrelevant. In any event, courts have generally found that the cost and inconvenience that Defendants seek to avoid does not tip the balance in favor of disclosure. See Charles Martin, 459 F.2d at 307 (“[T]hat depositions would be expensive show that the statements would facilitate defendant’s investigation but such facilitation is not a requirement for fundamental fairness to the defendant.”); Brennan, 506 F.2d at 303 & n. 3 (noting that at the discovery stage defendant was entitled to know “the charges, dates, names of underpaid employees, and names of those persons known to the plaintiff who had information concerning the issues” and that defendant had the ability to depose nineteen workers listed as possessing such information).”
For these reasons, the court upheld the application of the informer privilege. However, because the DOL had disclosed the names of the witnesses at issue, among the 48 witnesses on their Rule 26 disclosures, the court held Defendants were entitled to their contact information, notwithstanding the fact that the DOL did not have to identify whom of the 48 witnesses had given statements in the pre-suit investigation.
While this case is of limited usefulness to private practitioners, it does give an interesting analysis into a privilege that seems to be litigated more and more, with the DOL getting more active in litigating cases.
Click Solis v. New China Buffet No. 8, Inc. to read the entire Order on Defendants’ Motion to Compel.