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2 Recent Decisions Hold That an Employer-Defendant Cannot Avoid Liquidated Damages By Relying on Involuntary Administrative Governmental Audits
As FLSA cases have proliferated in recent years, among the formally sleepy areas of jurisprudence that has seen a dramatic rise in litigation is the so-called “good faith” defense. Although in its earliest years the FLSA provided for mandatory liquidated damages, a subsequent amendment to the FLSA, through the Portal-to-Portal Act, now allows for a defendant to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages (in addition to the underlying unpaid wages damages) if it can demonstrate that it took affirmative steps to attempt compliance with the FLSA, but violated the FLSA nonetheless. Two recent cases reiterate that a defendant’s burden is not met solely by demonstrating that it had a subjective belief that it was complying.
McLean v. Garage Management Corp.
In the first case, the defendant sought to avoid liquidated damages by relying on a series of involuntary misinformed DOL audits, which it claimed it reasonably relied upon in establishing their belief that its illegal pay methodology, whereby it treated hourly employees as executive exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. While the DOL has in fact found the defendant’s classification to be proper, the court noted that the DOL’s finding was based on its examination of the employees’ duties alone, because the defendant had misrepresented to the DOL that the employees were paid on a salary basis, at the required rate under the applicable regulations in the initial audit. Subsequent audits simply compounded this initial incomplete investigation, based on the information the defendant provided to the DOL in the initial audit.
Significantly, the court rejected the defendants’ claimed reliance on the DOL audits for 3 separate reasons. First, it found that any informal conversations do not constitute “active steps” to ascertain the dictates of the law. Second, the court noted that the audits were involuntary and defendant had not requested same and thus, giving government investigators access to records and employees did not relieve defendant of its own obligation to determine what the labor laws require. Third, the court noted that defendant had not shown that any government investigator focused with care on its time and payroll records for the employees in question, and thus the DOL had not undertaken a review to see whether the defendant indeed paid a predetermined amount that did not vary, as required to meet the “salary basis” prong of the executive exemption. “Without such full disclosure, [the defendant] cannot reasonably rely on the existence of the investigations and their failure to find any inadequacies in the compensation system for [the employees].”
Finally, the court held that the defendant was not entitled to rely on the fact that it periodically consulted with outside counsel, because it had invoked its attorney-client privilege. The court explained that absent a waiver of the privilege, the defendant could not sustain a defense based on good faith reliance on the advice of counsel.
Click McLean v. Garage Management Corp. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc.
In the second case- concerning an alleged misclassification of drivers under the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption- the defendant sought to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages, by relying on a prior involuntary Department of Transportation (DOT) audit/citations and the advise of counsel it received as part of the audit process. As in McLean above, the court rejected this evidence of “good faith” as insufficient to meet the defendant’s heavy burden.
The court noted:
Defendants maintain they have demonstrated both their subjective good faith and objectively reasonable belief that their failure to pay overtime wages to their drivers did not violate FLSA. To meet their burden, Defendants rely almost exclusively on their compliance with DOT rules and the DOT’s citation of “some” of their intrastate-only drivers. The DOT’s citation of “some” of Defendants’ intrastate-only drivers, however, does not provide a sufficiently reasonable basis for concluding all such drivers were under the DOT’s jurisdiction and, therefore, exempt from FLSA. The objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure is undermined by the fact that the determination as to whether the Department of Labor or the DOT has jurisdiction is resolved on a driver-by-driver basis, as the Court explained at length on summary judgment, and, in any event, DOT jurisdiction for a driver who only occasionally drives in interstate commerce lasts only 4 months from the last such trip. See Reich v. Am. Driver Serv., Inc., 33 F.3d 1153, 1155–56 (9th Cir.1994). Furthermore, exemptions to FLSA, such as the Motor Carrier Exemption relied on by Defendants, are to be construed narrowly and only apply to employees who “plainly and unmistakably” fall within their terms. See Solis v. Washington, 656 F.3d 1079, 1083 (9th Cir.2011). Thus, the Court concludes Defendants’ generalizations about entire classes of their drivers on the basis of DOT citations of some of its drivers are insufficient to establish the objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure to comply with FLSA. Similarly and in light of the lack of testimony in this regard, the fact that Defendants required both their interstate and intrastate drivers comply with DOT regulations neither establishes Defendant’s subjective belief nor its objective reasonableness.
Defendants also maintain their belief that their drivers were exempt from FLSA is reasonable in light of the fact that they hired counsel to assist with the November 2009 DOT compliance audit. Although there is not any direct evidence as to the purpose of counsel’s representation, the Court concludes it is fair to infer that counsel was hired to ensure Defendants’ compliance with DOT regulations rather than to ensure Defendants were compliant with FLSA. In any event, there is not any evidence on this record from which the Court can find that Defendants took “the steps necessary to ensure [its] practices complied with [FLSA].” Alvarez, 339 F .3d at 910 (“Mistaking ex post explanation and justification for the necessary affirmative ‘steps’ to ensure compliance, [the defendant] offers no evidence to show that it actively endeavored to ensure such compliance.”). Thus, the Court concludes on this record that Defendants did not satisfy their “difficult” burden to show their subjective good faith failure to comply with FLSA or the objective reasonableness of their actions, and, therefore, the Court concludes Plaintiff is entitled to liquidated damages in the amount equal to the unpaid overtime wages.
Click Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc. to read the entire Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Verdict.
N.D.Tex.: Absent Proof Of Likelihood Of Interstate Trips, Plaintiff Truckdrivers Not Subject To Motor Carrier Act (MCA) Exemption; Summary Judgment Held In Abeyance
Songer v. Dillon Resources, Inc.
Here, the parties moved by cross Motions for Summary Judgment for a determination as to whether the Plaintiff-truckdrivers were subject to the so-called Motor Carrier Exemption of the FLSA, based on the nature of their duties driving for Defendant, an interstate motor carrier. The Court held the Motions in abeyance, questioning the quality of proof offered by the Defendant.
After acknowledging the parties agreed Defendant was a “motor carrier” the Court examined the necessary proof the Defendant was required to come forward with in order to meet its burden of proof on the exemption, and concluded Defendant had failed to do so, “[c]oncluding that plaintiffs, as truck drivers, are subject to the Motor Carrier Act exemption, however, does not end the court’s inquiry. The court is not persuaded that the exemption bears the unlimited scope and duration defendants have suggested. In support of their respective positions, the parties argue regarding the application and authority of a number of interpretive guides, including an Interpretive Bulletin of the Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, 46 Fed.Reg. 37902, 1981 WL 115508; the DOL Field Operations Handbook; and Opinion Letters of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division. All of these sources, while not controlling or entitled to deference, are “entitled to respect” to the extent they are persuasive or offer guidance. Christensen v. Harris County, 529 U.S. 576, 587-88 (2000); Skidmore v. Swift & Co., 323 U.S. 134, 140 (1944). All of these sources lead to the same conclusion: a driver is subject to the jurisdiction of the Secretary, and thus under the Motor Carrier Act exemption, for a “4-month period from the date of the proof” that he was, or could have been, called upon to engage in interstate commerce. 46 Fed.Reg. 37902, 37903.
Although the court concludes that plaintiffs, as drivers for at least one motor carrier, are subject to the Motor Carrier Act exemption to some extent, defendants have failed to adduce summary judgment evidence of the specific application of the exemption as to each plaintiff for these defendants. The summary judgment evidence submitted by defendants sets forth generally the dates of plaintiffs’ employment and states generally the number of interstate trips made by that plaintiff. However, defendants have adduced nothing as would show, as to each plaintiff, proof of when he or she was, or could have been, called upon to transport goods in interstate commerce such that the exemption clock began ticking as to that plaintiff.
Defendants submitted summary judgment evidence that purports to be bills of lading or similar types of work tickets showing that various plaintiffs transported goods across state lines or within Texas in the intrastate flow of interstate commerce. Insofar as the court can tell, none of these items show any of the defendants as the employer or trucking company of record. For example, many of the work tickets, under the heading “Carrier,” list “Sunset Transp” or, in some cases, “Sunset Trucking.” Neither of these entities is a party to this action, nor have defendants pointed the court to any summary judgment evidence explaining the relationship, if any, between them and either of those entities.
The court also has concerns about defendants’ summary judgment evidence generally. Defendants’ appendices as assembled do not correspond to either the tables of contents or to internal citations to exhibits within affidavits. By way of example, in volume I of the appendix, the affidavit of Edward Brady refers to exhibits A, B, C, etc., attached thereto. The exhibits themselves, however, are tabbed as number 1, 2, 3, etc., making it difficult for the court to identify exactly to which exhibit the affidavit refers. This pattern is repeated as to each affidavit with exhibits. Further, the affidavits contain many conclusory assertions and do not properly authenticate the documents attached thereto as exhibits. As the court would find it helpful for the parties to provide additional briefing and evidence on the limited issues set forth below, it is expected that any additional evidence submitted will be properly assembled and identified and internally consistent. Therefore,
The court ORDERS that plaintiffs’ partial motion for summary judgment, and defendants’ motion for summary judgment, be, and are hereby, held in abeyance pending further consideration by the court of the parties’ supplemental filings ordered below.”