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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.
S.D.Ind.: Tow Truck Driver Exempt Under Motor Carrier Act (MCA), Because Might Be Called To Perform Interstate Wrecking Services
Johnson v. Hix Wrecker Service, Inc.
The case was before the Court on several motions for summary judgment. The Court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, finding that the Plaintiff was exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions pursuant to the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption. This case contrasts the proof (and result) of a similar case discussed here yesterday.
The Court explained, “Defendant Hix Wrecker Service, Inc., (“HWS”) is an Indianapolis business that, as its name suggests, performs wrecker services; the remaining Defendants are individuals who manage and operate HWS. Plaintiff Bobby J. Johnson, Jr., worked for HWS for several months in 2006 as a tow truck driver. Johnson asserts several claims in his complaint. At issue in the instant motion is his claim that HWS violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., (“FLSA”), by failing to pay him overtime wages for occasions in which he worked more than forty hours in a given week. HWS argues that the FLSA overtime provisions were inapplicable to Johnson because the motor carrier exemption applied to him during his employment with HWS. The Court agrees.
The motor carrier exemption is found at 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(1) and provides that “any employee with respect to whom the Secretary of Transportation has power to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service pursuant to the provisions of section 31502 of Title 49” is exempt from the overtime provisions of the FLSA. Among other things, 49 U.S.C. § 31502 extends the Secretary of Transportation’s power to “employees of, and safety of operation and equipment of, a motor carrier” that transports property across state lines. “The Secretary has the power to set maximum hours for drivers if the company engages in more than de minimis interstate commerce, and that includes a company that holds itself out as an interstate company and solicits that business even though its prospect of obtaining much of that business is poor and some of its drivers never drive in interstate commerce.” Garcia v. Pace Suburban Bus Service, 955 F.Supp. 75, 77 (N.D.Ill.1996) (citing Morris v. McComb, 332 U.S. 422, 68 S.Ct. 131, 92 L.Ed. 44 (1947); Reich v. American Driver Service, Inc., 33 F.3d 1153 (9th Cir.1994); Marshall v. Aksland, 631 F.2d 600 (9th Cir.1980); Brennan v. Schwerman Trucking Co. of Virginia, Inc., 540 F.2d 1200 (4th Cir.1976)).”That does not mean, however, that the Secretary of Transportation has automatic jurisdiction over all drivers of an interstate carrier. Pursuant to a notice of interpretation, 46 Fed.Reg. 37,902, 37,903 (1981)… jurisdiction extends only to drivers who reasonably could be expected to make one of the carrier’s interstate runs, and that means more than a remote possibility.” Garcia, 955 F.Supp. at 77. Thus, as explained in the relevant Department of Labor regulation:
In a situation considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, approximately 4 percent of the total trips made by drivers employed by a common carrier by motor vehicle involved in the hauling of interstate freight. Since it appeared that employer, as a common carrier, was obligated to take such business, and that any driver might be called upon at any time to perform such work, which was indiscriminately distributed among the drivers, the Court considered that such trips were a natural, integral, and apparently inseparable part of the common carrier service performed by the employer and driver employees. Under these circumstances, the Court concluded that such work, which directly affected the safety of operation of the vehicles in interstate commerce, brought the entire classification of drivers employed by the carrier under the power of the Interstate Commerce Commission to establish qualifications and maximum hours of service, so that all were exempt even though the interstate driving on particular employees was sporadic and occasional, and in practice some drivers would not be called upon for long periods to perform any such work. ( Morris v. McComb, 332 U.S. 422, 68 S.Ct. 131, 92 L.Ed. 44)
29 C.F.R. § 782.2. In other words, it does not matter whether the driver in question actually has made an interstate run; as long as the driver is subject to being assigned to such a run at any time, the exemption applies to that driver.
HWS has the burden of demonstrating that the exemption applied to Johnson during the time it employed him. Klein v. Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, 990 F.2d 279, 283 (7th Cir.1993). To demonstrate the application of the exemption to Johnson, HWS has submitted evidence, in the form of the affidavit of Defendant Gail Neal, the corporate secretary of HWS, which establishes the following:
1. HWS has at all relevant times held a common-carrier certificate of authority from the Department of Transportation that permits it to transport property for hire in interstate commerce.
2. Since 1973, HWS has provided its customers with both intrastate and interstate wrecker services.
3. HWS routinely provides interstate wrecker services for several of its customers.
4. All HWS drivers are subject to being assigned to an out-of-state run, either as a driver or as a helper, as needed.
5. Johnson was subject to being assigned to an out-of-state run at all times during his employment with HWS.
Thus, HWS has submitted evidence sufficient to establish that the motor carrier exemption to the FLSA was applicable to Johnson during his employment with HWS.” Therefore the Court granted Defendant’s motion.