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6th Cir.: Employment Contract That Purported to Shorten FLSA Statute of Limitations to 6 Months Invalid
Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc.
Employers continue to include language in employment contracts which purports to shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims. By law, the statute of limitations is 2 years on such claims if the employee is unable to show the employers violations are willful, and 3 years if the employee can make such a showing. Recently, the Sixth Circuit reviewed FedEx’s contract that purported to reduce that time to 6 months. As discussed below, it struck down the employers’ attempts to shorten the statute of limitations. Reasoning that same was an impermissible waiver of rights under the FLSA, the court agreed that such a limitation was unenforceable. In so doing, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court, which had held that such an abridgement of FLSA rights was permissible.
Initially the court briefly reiterated longstanding black-letter law regarding the non-waivable nature of FLSA rights:
Shortly after the FLSA was enacted, the Supreme Court expressed concern that an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights under the Act. See Brooklyn Savs. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706–10, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945). Such waivers, according to the Court, would “nullify” the Act’s purpose of “achiev[ing] a uniform national policy of guaranteeing compensation for all work or employment engaged in by employees covered by the Act.” Jewell Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local No. 6167, United Mine Workers of Am., 325 U.S. 161, 167, 65 S.Ct. 1063, 89 L.Ed. 1534 (1945); see also O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707. The Court therefore held that employees may not, either prospectively or retrospectively, waive their FLSA rights to minimum wages, overtime, or liquidated damages. D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946); O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707; see also Runyan v. Nat’l Cash Register Corp., 787 F.2d 1039, 1041–42 (6th Cir.1986) (en banc).
The issue here is whether Boaz’s employment agreement operates as a waiver of her rights under the FLSA. Boaz accrued a FLSA claim every time that FedEx issued her an allegedly illegal paycheck. See Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 187 (6th Cir.2008). She filed suit more than six months, but less than three years, after her last such paycheck—putting her outside the contractual limitations period, but within the statutory one.
An employment agreement “cannot be utilized to deprive employees of their statutory [FLSA] rights.” Jewell Ridge, 325 U.S. at 167 (quotation omitted). That is precisely the effect that Boaz’s agreement has here. Thus, as applied to Boaz’s claim under the FLSA, the six-month limitations period in her employment agreement is invalid.
In so doing, the court rejected FedEx’s reliance on what it deemed inapposite case law:
FedEx (along with its amicus, Quicken Loans) responds that courts have enforced agreements that shorten an employee’s limitations period for claims arising under statutes other than the FLSA—such as Title VII. And FedEx argues that the discrimination barred by Title VII (i.e., racial discrimination) is just as bad as the discrimination barred by the FLSA, and hence that, if an employee can shorten her Title VII limitations period, she should be able to shorten her FLSA limitations period too. But that argument is meritless for two reasons. First, employees can waive their claims under Title VII. See, e.g., Alexander v. Gardner–Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 52, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). Second—and relatedly—an employer that pays an employee less than minimum wage arguably gains a competitive advantage by doing so. See Citicorp Indus. Credit, Inc. v. Brock, 483 U.S. 27, 36, 107 S.Ct. 2694, 97 L.Ed.2d 23 (1987). An employer who refuses to hire African–Americans or some other racial group does not. The Court’s rationale for prohibiting waiver of FLSA claims is therefore not present for Title VII claims.
FedEx also relies on Floss v. Ryan’s Family Steak Houses, Inc., 211 F.3d 306 (6th Cir.2000). There, we held that an employee asserting an FLSA claim can waive her right to a judicial forum, and instead arbitrate the claim. Id. at 313, 316. From that holding FedEx extrapolates that employees can waive their “procedural” rights under the FLSA even if they cannot waive their “substantive” ones. But the FLSA caselaw does not recognize any such distinction. That is not surprising, given that the distinction between procedural and substantive rights is notoriously elusive. See Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman, 486 U.S. 717, 726, 108 S.Ct. 2117, 100 L.Ed.2d 743 (1988). More to the point, Floss itself said that an employee can waive his right to a judicial forum only if the alternative forum “allow[s] for the effective vindication of [the employee’s] claim.” 211 F.3d at 313. The provision at issue here does the opposite.
Click Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc. to read the entire Opinion. Click DOL Amicus Brief, to read the amicus brief submitted by the Department of Labor in support of the Plaintiff-Appellant.
With the uptick in FLSA case filings in recent years, a previously rarely litigated issue- whether certain types of workers are volunteers or “employees” subject to FLSA coverage- has increasingly come under judicial scrutiny. And, while case law has long interpreted the FLSA in a liberal manner, with the stated purpose of erring on the side of coverage for workers, two recent cases demonstrate that definition is not without its limits. In the first case, the domestic partner/girlfriend of a Domino’s Pizza store manager helped the manager with his management duties, in the hopes that eventually such efforts would lead to the partner’s advancement within the company. In the second case, an alumni for a public high school served as a mentor to students following his graduation from school. As discussed below, in both cases, the courts employed the “economic reality” test, and held that the workers were volunteers as opposed to employees.
Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc.
In the first case, the plaintiff- apparently the girlfriend of the general manager of a Domino’s franchise store- assisted her boyfriend in his duties as the general manager. After the boyfriend’s employment with the defendant ceased, the plaintiff sought renumeration for all of the work she had previously performed on behalf of defendants, while he boyfriend had been employed. Interestingly, it appears from the style of the case that the defendants- who denied that the plaintiff was ever their employee- sought to bring a claim for indemnification/contribution against the boyfriend by impleading him as a third-party defendant. Looking at the totality of the circumstances, the court concluded that she was a volunteer and not an employee under the FLSA. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Elucidating the relevant facts, the court explained that at some point in 2007, the plaintiff (Emanuel) told her boyfriend that she wanted to work at the store he managed on behalf of the defendants. Apparently, the plaintiff wanted to help with her boyfriend’s effort to become a Domino’s Pizza franchise owner.In response the boyfriend said he’d have to speak to the defendants about Emanuel working at the Elmhurst store. Thereafter, the boyfriend conveyed to Emanuel that defendants “believed your talents can be better utilized somewhere else.” Nonetheless, sometime later, the boyfriend (Shafer) communicated to Emanuel that she could begin working at the Elmhurst store. Significantly, the plaintiff acknowledged that she could not have worked in the store pursuant to the defendants anti-nepotism policy and that defendants would have told her to “get the hell out of my store,” had they known she was performing work in the store.
It was undisputed that neither the defendants, nor plaintiff’s boyfriend or anyone for that matter, ever promised plaintiff any compensation for the work she performed.
Ultimately, the plaintiff’s boyfriend and defendants got into a dispute regarding their agreement about his [plaintiff’s boyfriend’s] compensation, and as a result both plaintiff and her boyfriend ceased working for defendants. Subsequently, she filed the lawsuit, seeking compensation for the approximately 3 years of work she performed on behalf of defendants (and her boyfriend).
Laying out the elements of the “economic reality” test, the court explained:
Courts look to the totality of the circumstances when determining whether an individual is an “employee” under the FLSA and examine the “economic reality” of the working relationship. See, e.g., Vanskike v. Peters, 974 F.2d 806, 808 (7th Cir.1992). Courts have considered a variety of factors when examining the “economic reality” of a purported employment relationship, though none are dispositive or controlling. Secretary of Lab. v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1534 (7th Cir.1987). Six commonly applied factors are: (1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer’s control as to the manner in which the work is to be performed; (2) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending upon his managerial skill; (3) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of workers; (4) whether the service rendered requires a special skill; (5) the degree of permanency and duration of the working relationship; and (6) the extent to which the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business. Id. at 1534–35.
Rejecting the plaintiff’s contention that she was defendants’ “employee,” the court reasoned:
“Here, plaintiff Emanuel advances an absurd position. Emanuel argues that defendant Lindeman’s repeated statement that he would not pay her to work at the Elmhurst store was not a refusal to hire her as an employee, but an offer for her to work for free. Since Emanuel claims to have worked at the Elmhurst store without compensation and without [defendants] forcibly ejecting her from the store or otherwise preventing her from working, it is her position that an employment relationship impliedly exists.” However, noting the no one ever promised plaintiff compensation and that her work likely violated one or more of defendants corporate policies, the court held it was unreasonable for plaintiff to believe she was actually their employee, rather than a volunteer. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Click Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.
Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ.
In the second case, the plaintiff, Brown, graduated from the New School for Arts and Sciences, a high school that shared space with Banana Kelly. After graduation, Brown maintained ties with Banana Kelly and occasionally came in to visit former teachers. In October 2007, when Plaintiff expressed an interest in mentoring students, the school offered Plaintiff the opportunity to do so at Banana Kelly. Neither Brown nor the school raised the issue of compensation at this time, and neither discussed Brown’s employee status. No one interviewed Brown about his background or qualifications. Thereafter, the plaintiff went to Banana Kelly and continued at the school for more than three years, finally leaving in December 23, 2010, apparently because he was being investigated for inappropriate conduct related to his comments to a freshman student. During his time at the school, with minor exceptions, the plaintiff reported five days a week throughout the academic year, working 7-8 hours per day on a regular basis.
Citing the fact that the plaintiff never submitted to the normal, legal requirements for employment by the Department of Education: application, interview, background check, job classification, and assignment, the court rejected plaintiff’s assertion that he was an employee, because he expected compensation for his services. Although it was undisputed that the defendant told plaintiff that there was not enough money in the budget to pay him, according to the plaintiff, defendant promised that he would attempt to search the budget for the funding.
Again, looking at the “economic realities” and the totality of the facts of the situation, the court held that plaintiff was a volunteer and not an employee, subject to FLSA coverage. Thus, the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
The court gave the following overview of the analysis applicable to the issue:
Whether one is a volunteer is to be determined “in a common-sense manner, which takes into account the totality of the circumstances surrounding the relationship between the individual providing services and the entity for which the services are provided.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428;City of Elmendorf, 388 F.3d at 528; Todaro, 40 F.Supp.2d at 230. Accordingly, courts should review “the objective facts surrounding the services performed to determine whether the totality of the circumstances establish volunteer status, or whether, instead, the facts and circumstances, objectively viewed, are rationally indicative of employee status.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428. The court then examined 2 factors to determine whether the plaintiff was an employee or a volunteer. First, the court considered whether Brown performed the tasks at Banana Kelly for “civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons,” pursuant to 553.101(a).
Looking at this factor, the court reasoned:
One is a volunteer, if motivated by an altruistic sense of civic duty, see Krause, 969 F.Supp. at 276, as opposed to the expectation of compensation, see Rodriguez, 866 F.Supp. at 1019. When the situation is one of mixed motives, “the regulatory definition does not require that the individual be exclusively, or even predominantly, motivated by ‘civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons. Rather, what is required is that the individual must be motivated by civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons, at least in part.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429 (citing Todaro, 40 F.Supp. at 230); see also Benshoff v. City of Virginia Beach, 9 F.Supp.2d 610, 623 (E.D.Va.1998) (finding that firefighters were volunteers when motivated primarily, but not exclusively, by civic, charitable and humanitarian concerns). Here, Brown accepted Jerome’s offer to mentor, in part, because he wanted “[s]omeone … to stand up, and make a change, and show the kids that we do care.” (Welikson Dec. Ex. C, Brown Dep. at 35:21–22.) He felt that the school needed the change because in his experience as a student, “nobody cared” (id. 35:14–17). This motivation remained unchanged as Brown started performing non-mentorship tasks. Brown testified that he helped with lunch duty, dismissals and escorting students despite his displeasure with being asked because he wanted to be a “team player” and that he “want[ed] to help and [he] care[d].” (38:14–39:5.) He felt obligated because he did not want to “let[ ] the school down.” (id. at 150:20–22.) These statements show a continued civic and charitable intent to improve the environment at Banana Kelly. At the same time, Brown testified that he worked because he believed (“hoped”) that money was forthcoming. (Okoronkwo Dec. Ex. 13 Brown Dep. 231:18–19). Accepting Brown’s acknowledgements, the Court turns to whether, in this mixed motive case, Brown acted at least in part, by the proper humanitarian concerns. See Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429. Plaintiff’s testimony shows that his actions at Banana Kelly, had their source, at least in part, in his concern for what would become of students if he did not show up, and was thus properly motivated.
Next the court looked at whether there was a “promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(a). Noting that plaintiff was not compensated, was not offered “under-the-table” compensation, and was not promised compensation, the court concluded that the plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of compensation. Looking at all the circumstances the court concluded that:
There is ample evidence that Brown knew and understood, despite his hopes to the contrary, that he would not be compensated. Brown admitted that he understood that he would not get paid for mentoring. No one led Plaintiff to believe that he would get paid for non-mentoring tasks. Laub testified that he had conversations with Plaintiff in which he relayed to Brown that he was volunteer and intern. Banana Kelly gave him certificates of appreciation that acknowledged his services as an intern and volunteer which Brown accepted without objection. While labels used by the parties do not control the outcome (P. Opp. at 11), the parties’ understanding of their arrangement is a relevant factor in the totality-of-circumstances analysis. See Rodriguez v. Township, 866 F.Supp. 1012, 1020 (S.D.Tex.1994) (declining to hold that the plaintiff was a volunteer in part because both parties understood their relationship as an employment, rather than volunteer, relationship).
Taking all of the circumstances into consideration, the court concluded that the plaintiff was a volunteer.
Click Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that a new law defining who is an employee (versue independent contractor) is being greated enthusiastically by Pennsylvania workers:
“Union laborers are claiming victory now that Gov. Ed Rendell has signed a law aimed at curtailing construction companies’ ability to skirt taxes — and cut its own costs and liability — by labeling its workers independent contractors.
By classifying their workers as “independent contractors” instead of employees, companies can avoid paying unemployment compensation and workers’ compensation taxes.
Avoiding those taxes, according to labor groups, reduces employer costs and allows such companies to underbid contracting companies that are following the letter of the law.
The new law — formerly House Bill 400 and now Act 72 — is called the Construction Workplace Misclassification Act. Contracting companies that violate the act could be subject to fines and criminal prosecution. There’s also an “acting in concert” provision, which would penalize anyone who knowingly hires a contractor that is in violation of the act.
“It really will start to separate responsible contractors from irresponsible contractors,” said Jason Fincke, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania, a labor management and contractor association group.
The point of the law isn’t to eliminate the use of independent contractors in the construction industry, he said.
“If there’s a service that you need that you don’t normally provide, you would get someone to do that for you,” Mr. Fincke said. “That’s a legitimate independent contractor.”
The law applies to the construction field only, to the regret of the Teamsters, who had hoped the law would be expanded to include truck drivers (and other kinds of workers) as well. The Teamsters have been fighting with Moon-based FedEx Ground, which classifies its drivers independent contractors. FedEx says its drivers are “small business owners” because they own their own equipment.”
To read the entire article go to Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Godoy v. Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York, Inc.
Plaintiffs, brought suit against Defendants Restaurant Opportunity Center of New York, Inc. (“ROC-NY”), 417 Restaurant LLC a/k/a ROC N.Y. Restaurant LLC d/b/a Colors, ROC-NY Worker Owner Restaurant, LLC a/k/a RWOR, Saru Jayaraman, and Grace Gilbert, as President of ROC-NY (“Defendants”), alleging breach of contract, fraud, and violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 28 U.S.C. § 216(b), and New York State Labor Law. Plaintiffs, former restaurant workers and members of Defendant not-for-profit corporation ROC-NY, alleged that Defendants broke their agreement with Plaintiffs that Plaintiffs would gain equity in and employment at the “worker-owned” restaurant they helped ROC-NY to create in exchange for the hundreds of hours that Plaintiffs contributed to that effort. Plaintiffs sought through this action damages and injunctive relief in the form of their promised shareholder status in and employment at the restaurant, now known as “Colors,” back pay for the work they performed on behalf of ROC-NY during the period of 2002-2005 and the wages they did not earn because they were not employed at the restaurant once it opened, and costs and attorneys’ fees in prosecuting this action. Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiffs’ First Amended Complaint in its entirety, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). In granting Defendants’ Motion, the Court discussed the unique situation under which the Plaintiffs worked for and with the co-op, applying the various economic reality tests to determine that they were not “employed” by Defendants, and therefore dismissing the Complaint.
Several Plaintiffs became members of Defendant ROC-NY in August 2002. Several months later, ROC-NY began seeking grants to launch what was described as a “cooperatively owned restaurant” which would be run by-workers displaced after the September 11 terrorist attacks, and a “Cooperative Committee” of ROC-NY was created to direct that effort. Several Plaintiffs were initial members of the Cooperative Committee. Other Plaintiffs joined ROC-NY and the Cooperative Committee in around 2003, and one Plaintiff joined in around 2004. All of the Plaintiffs joined the Cooperative Committee when they joined ROC-NY, and many served on the Committee’s Board of Directors at various times.
Significantly, the Court noted, “[ha]ving surveyed the various economic reality tests and factors applied by the courts, this Court finds lacking any standard applicable to the question presented by the particular facts of this case-that is, whether workers laboring for and together with a not-for-profit corporation to develop a business that they would co-own are employees of that corporation for purposes of the FLSA. Instead, the Court finds company with the Tenth Circuit in its decision in Wheeler v. Hurdman, 825 F.2d 257 (10th Cir.1987). In that case, the Circuit considered whether a general partner of an accounting firm was an “employee” of that firm for purposes of a FLSA action. After reviewing the traditional “economic reality” factors employed by the courts, the Court noted the “absence … of any coherent standard of ‘economic reality’ for supposed application to partners” in a business, and concluded that “the specific independent contractor/employee factors … are largely useless in a general partnership context.” Id. at 271-72. The Court explained that while “[t]he focal point in deciding whether an individual is an employee” under the “economic realities” jurisprudence, “is whether the individual is economically dependent on the business to which he renders service … or is, as a matter of economic fact, in business for himself,”
Consideration of the factors used by the Tenth Circuit in Wheeler to assess the economic reality presented by a partnership supports the absence of an employer-employee relationship in this instance. See Wheeler, 825 F.2d at 274-75. Like partners at a firm. Plaintiffs, as putative co-owners of the business they were working to create, “assume[d] the risks of loss and liabilities” of the venture, and had a real opportunity to share in its profits upon success. Plaintiffs’ hours of “sweat-equity” represented their “capital” contribution to the business, and one that “would earn [Plaintiffs] equity in the RWOR” as “sweat equity converted to cash equivalent in stock.” While Plaintiffs’ “right to share in management” once the restaurant opened is not specifically alleged in the Complaint, the Court notes that Plaintiffs were members of the Board of Directors of the Cooperative Committee tasked with the management of the restaurant’s planning and development phase. Taken together, the balance of these “economic realities” weighs against the existence of an employment relationship in this case. As Plaintiffs and Defendants were at all relevant times putative co-owners of the restaurant they were working to create, the Court finds that Plaintiffs were not, as a matter of economic reality, the employees of Defendants. As such. Plaintiffs have no claims under the FLSA, see Alamo, 471 U.S. at 296-97, and Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss these claims is GRANTED.”
This unfortunate result, seems unavoidable given the fact that the Plaintiffs were technically “owners” of the business for which they worked, and it is likely that the decision will have limited application in future cases.