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This case involved a former domestic servant who sued her former employers alleging claims for forced labor and involuntary servitude under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), willful violation of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and state law claims for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, and false imprisonment. After the court below dismissed the case on statute of limitations grounds, plaintiff appealed. As discussed here, the Fourth Circuit joined other courts who have similarly held, and held that where an employer fails to post the required FLSA Notice, the statute of limitations for an employees claims under the FLSA are tolled until he or she either obtains an attorney, or obtains actual knowledge of his or her rights.
Initially, the Fourth Circuit identified two circumstances under which equitable tolling may generally be applicable:
[E]quitable tolling is available when 1) “the plaintiffs were prevented from asserting their claims by some kind of wrongful conduct on the part of the defendant,” or 2) “extraordinary circumstances beyond plaintiffs’ control made it impossible to file the claims on time.” Harris, 209 F.3d at 330 (internal quotation marks omitted). Cruz asks us to evaluate this rule in light of Vance v. Whirlpool Corp., 716 F.2d 1010 (4th Cir.1983), in which this Court found that the district court properly held that the 180–day filing requirement of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) was tolled by reason of the plaintiff’s employer’s failure to post statutory notice of workers’ rights under the Act. Id. at 1013.
It makes good sense to extend our reasoning in Vance to the FLSA. The notice requirements in the ADEA and the FLSA are almost identical. Compare 29 C.F.R. § 1627.10 (requiring employers to “post and keep posted in conspicuous places … the notice pertaining to the applicability of the [ADEA]”), with id. § 516 .4 (requiring employers “post and keep posted a notice explaining the [FLSA] … in conspicuous places”). The purpose of these requirements is to ensure that those protected under the Acts are aware of and able to assert their rights. Although Vance tolled an administrative filing deadline rather than a statute of limitations, the FLSA lacks an equivalent administrative filing requirement; thus, the FLSA’s deadline to sue is, like the ADEA’s administrative filing deadline, the critical juncture at which a claimant’s rights are preserved or lost. Neither the ADEA nor the FLSA inflicts statutory penalties for failure to comply with the notice requirements. See Cortez v. Medina’s Landscaping, Inc., No. 00 C 6320, 2002 WL 31175471, at *5 (N.D.Ill. Sept.30, 2002) (extending an actual notice tolling rule similar to Vance from the ADEA to the FLSA). Therefore, absent a tolling rule, employers would have no incentive to post notice since they could hide the fact of their violations from employees until any relevant claims expired. For all of these reasons, this Court’s analysis in Vance applies with equal force to the notice requirement of the FLSA. Under Vance, tolling based on lack of notice continues until the claimant retains an attorney or obtains actual knowledge of her rights. 716 F.2d at 1013. The current factual record, which is limited to the amended complaint, does not identify when Cruz first retained a lawyer or learned of her rights under the FLSA. Therefore, the district court should allow discovery on remand to determine in the first instance whether Cruz’s FLSA claim was time-barred despite being equitably tolled.
Click Cruz v. Maypa to read the entire Opinion.
E.D.Pa.: Late Payment of Wages Constitutes Non-Payment of Wages, Subjecting Employer to Liquidated Damages Under FLSA
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to dismiss plaintiff’s complaint for failure to state a claim. The issue before the court was whether a defendant/employer who makes payment to its employee of his or her wages, but does so 1 week after such wages are due, is nonetheless liable for liquidated damages under the FLSA. Answering the question in the affirmative, the court held that late payment (in this case 1 week after the regular payday) constituted non-payment under the FLSA, and therefore liquidated damages were due under the FLSA notwithstanding the fact the employer had ultimately made payment of the wages due.
As a starting point for deciding the issue, the court examined the purpose of liquidated damages, as stated previously stated by the Third Circuit:
[t]hese liquidated damages … compensate employees for the losses they may have suffered by reason of not receiving their proper wages at the time they were due.” Id. at 1299 (emphasis added). Our Court of Appeals clearly contemplated that injury from lost wages under the FLSA is to be measured from the payday on which wages are ordinarily to be paid.
Explaining that the Third Circuit had not spoken on the issue subsequent to the 1991 case, Selker, that it quoted, the court turned to the case law from other circuits for guidance on the issue:
[t]he Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit cited the Selker decision favorably in Biggs v. Wilson, 1 F.3d 1537, 1542 (9th Cir.1993). There the court undertook a detailed analysis of whether late payment constitutes nonpayment under the FLSA. The issue in that case was whether the State of California, in paying its highway maintenance workers 14–15 days late as a result of a budget impasse, violated the FLSA. Drawing on the language of the statute, mandatory and persuasive authority from other federal courts including Selker, the opinion of the Department of Labor, and policy considerations, the court concluded that payment at a point after payday is tantamount to nonpayment under the FLSA. Id . at 1539–44. Invited by the state to craft a balancing test to distinguish late payment from nonpayment, the court found that any such line drawing would be unworkable under the statutory scheme and detrimental to employees seeking the statute’s protection. Id. at 1540.
The court also rejected the argument that this was an overly harsh result, especially because of the FLSA’s remedial purpose:
This may appear to be a harsh result, causing an otherwise diligent employer who misses payday by a day or two to be subject to liability under the statute. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that the FLSA is to be liberally construed to achieve its purpose. Mitchell v. Lublin, McGaughy & Assocs., 358 U.S. 207, 211, 79 S.Ct. 260, 3 L.Ed.2d 243 (1959). The law is there to protect those who are receiving a minimum wage and are living from paycheck to paycheck. A delay of a few days or a week in the remittance of wages may only be a minor inconvenience to some, but for those at the lower end of the economic scale, even a brief delay can have serious and immediate adverse consequences.
Thus, the court denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss.
Click Gordon v. Maxim Healthcare Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.
Editor’s Note: Within weeks of this decision, the Court of Federal Claims was called upon to rule upon the same issue and agreed with the Gordon court’s analysis and holding. In the context of government workers, whose paychecks were delayed approximately 2 weeks, by the government’s shutdown in the fall of 2013, the court held that late payment constitutes non-payment, such that the FLSA’s liquidated damages provisions were triggered. Click Martin v. United States to read the Opinion and Order in that case.
9th Cir.: Finding of Willfulness Affirmed Where Defendant Involved in Prior Related Litigation; Offsets Applied on a Workweek-By-Workweek Basis
This case was on appeal by the Defendant, City of Los Angeles, following an order granting the plaintiffs summary judgment on their claims. Specifically, city fire department dispatchers and aeromedical technicians brought action challenging city employer’s classification of them as employees “engaged in fire protection,” for purpose of standard overtime exemption under Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). As discussed here, in addition to finding—as a matter of law—that the defendant has misclassified the employees at issue as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions, the court below also held that such misclassification was willful and that any offsets claimed were limited in application to the weeks in which the monies paid for the alleged offsets were paid to plaintiffs.
Addressing the facts relevant to the willfulness issue, the Ninth Circuit explained:
In 1985, the Supreme Court held that FLSA overtime requirements apply to governmental functions. Garcia v. San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth., 469 U.S. 528, 531, 105 S.Ct. 1005, 83 L.Ed.2d 1016 (1985). That same year, the City sent the Department of Labor a letter with twenty questions regarding application of the FLSA to City employees, including Fire Department paramedics. The City did not inquire as to dispatchers or aeromedical technicians.
In 1997, in Acrich v. City of Los Angeles, single-function paramedics (those paramedics not also trained as firefighters) sued the City, asserting they were improperly classified under § 207(k). In 1999, the City again contacted the Department of Labor regarding whether single-function paramedics were “fire protection” employees under the FLSA. The City settled Acrich in 2000, after which it began paying single-function paramedics the standard overtime rate of time and a half for hours worked over forty in a workweek.
In 1999, in Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, dual-trained paramedics (those trained as both paramedics and firefighters) and Quality Improvement Analysts sued the City, asserting that they too had been improperly classified under § 207(k). After a bench trial, the district court held that the City had improperly classified these employees. The district court also ruled that the City had not acted reasonably or in good faith, and awarded liquidated damages equal to the plaintiffs’ back pay. The City appealed as to the paramedics, but not as to the Quality Improvement Analysts. This court affirmed the district court’s ruling in August 2005. See Cleveland v. City of Los Angeles, 420 F.3d 981 (9th Cir.2005) (Pregerson, J.), cert. denied, 546 U.S. 1176, 126 S.Ct. 1344, 164 L.Ed.2d 58 (2006).
Citing these facts, and the fact that the defendant itself never considered the plaintiffs to be exempt until they attempted to raise an exemption defense in the course of the litigation of the case, the Ninth Circuit held that the court below had properly deemed the defendant’s FLSA violations to be willful:
The City’s conduct in this case was willful, thus entitling Plaintiffs to a three-year statute of limitations. The City has extensively litigated the meaning of § 207(k). In 2002, the district court in Cleveland ruled that the City was in violation of § 207(k) as to dual-trained paramedics and those who held desk job positions as Quality Improvement Analysts. The City did not appeal as to the Quality Improvement Analysts, and lost on appeal as to the paramedics. Yet at no time thereafter did the City take any steps to obtain an opinion letter from the Department of Labor regarding Plaintiffs’ positions, although it had done so as to other employees. Ignoring these red flags and failing to make an effort to examine the positions at issue in this case show willfulness.
Also, the City itself appears not to have viewed dispatchers as “engaged in fire protection” until this case was underway. When this lawsuit began, the City had assigned dispatchers to the Bureau of Support Services, which included the Supply and Maintenance Division, Fire Facilities Division, and Operations Control Division. The Fire Department’s Manual of Operations states that the primary objectives of the Bureau of Support Services include “the dispatching of resources and equipment to the scene of emergencies; operation of the Department’s … Dispatch Center … and the development, maintenance and repair of Fire Department Facilities.” Three months before the parties entered into their mutual stipulation of facts, however, the City reassigned the dispatchers to the Bureau of Emergency Services, which, according to the Manual of Operations, includes “[a]ll personnel normally engaged in fire fighting …” The timing of this reassignment provides further evidence that the City’s behavior was willful.
Thus, we affirm the district court’s finding that the City’s conduct was willful and justifies a third year of withheld overtime pay.
The Ninth Circuit then went on to discuss the proper methodology for calculating damages, where a defendant claims an offset for monies already paid to the employees and claims same as partial payment for overtime wages, an issue of first impression in the Ninth Circuit and one in which the Circuits are in conflict. Framing the issue, the Court explained:
The district court issued an order selecting Plaintiffs’ calculation method. The district court first noted that circuits are split over whether a workweek-by-workweek method must be used, and the Ninth Circuit has not yet addressed the issue. While the Sixth and Seventh Circuits have ruled that a week-by-week offset must be used, the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits have held that offsets may be applied cumulatively over longer periods of time. The district court was persuaded by the reasoning of the Sixth and Seventh Circuits.
Holding that the FLSA mandates a workweek-by-workweek application of any applicable offsets, the Court explained:
There is still, however, a split of authority over how to calculate offsets, and the Ninth Circuit has not yet decided the matter. The reasoning from circuits supporting a week-by-week offset is persuasive. In Howard v. City of Springfield, 274 F.3d 1141 (7th Cir.2001), the Seventh Circuit disagreed with the defendant that offsetting on a workweek basis would create an undeserved windfall. Id. at 1148. The court noted that
if the City were able to use premium payments [in a cumulative fashion], the City would be the recipient of the windfall, and in fact would be placed in a substantially better position than if it had complied with the overtime requirements of the FLSA all along…. It is contrary to the language and the purpose of the statute. Id.
Likewise, in Herman v. Fabri–Centers of America, Inc., 308 F.3d 580 (6th Cir.2002), the Sixth Circuit extensively reviewed the FLSA’s plain language, caselaw, and § 207(h)‘s legislative history to find in favor of a workweek restriction. Id. at 586–90.
Both the Seventh Circuit in Howard and the Sixth Circuit in Herman note that the Department of Labor’s regulations implementing the FLSA support prompt payment of overtime, suggesting that overtime payments should be credited within the same workweek in which they were paid:
The general rule is that overtime compensation earned in a particular workweek must be paid on the regular pay day for the period in which such workweek ends. When the correct amount of overtime compensation cannot be determined until some time after the regular pay period, however, the requirements of the Act will be satisfied if the employer pays the excess overtime compensation as soon after the regular pay period as is practicable. Payment may not be delayed for a period longer than is reasonably necessary for the employer to compute and arrange for payment of the amount due and in no event may payment be delayed beyond the next payday after such computation can be made. Howard, 274 F.3d at 1148 (citing 29 C.F.R. § 778.106); Herman, 308 F.3d at 589.
The City cites alternative, yet unpersuasive, caselaw supporting a cumulative approach. In Kohlheim v. Glynn County, 915 F.2d 1473 (11th Cir.1990), the Eleventh Circuit held that previously-paid overtime can be cumulatively offset against the damages calculated. Yet the court summarily decided the issue, citing no supporting authority. Id. at 1481.
Likewise, in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), the Fifth Circuit affirmed the district court’s cumulative offset calculation. Yet that case is inapposite, as the court explicitly stated that ” § 207(h) does not apply in this case,” and that ” § 207(h), and the cases interpreting it, are inapplicable.” Id. at 827.
We thus affirm the district court’s decision that previously-paid overtime should be offset using a week-by-week calculation.
Click Haro v. City of Los Angeles to read the entire Opinion.
11th Cir.: District Court Correctly Refused to Enforce Arbitration Agreement Obtained From Putative Class Members With Motion for Conditional Cert Pending
Employers seem to getting increasingly aggressive with class waivers, arbitration agreements in the wake of recent high court rulings which are seemingly boundless. In the wake of these recent decisions, some employers—who previously did not include waivers or arbitration agreements in their employment agreements—are seeking to play catch up. Troublingly, we seem to be seeing more and more situations where employers, facing the prospect of class/collective actions based on their often willful violations of wage and hour laws are attempting to force arbitration agreements on their employees in an effort to blunt efforts by their employees to recover their rightful wages. However, most courts faced with such situations have invalidated these improperly obtained arbitration clauses, recognizing that employers are in a position to exert undue pressure on employees fearful for their jobs, and that such arbitration “agreements” are frequently anything but an agreement between two parties consenting to arbitration of their own will.
In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit was called upon to review one such decision by a district court (first discussed here) that held such a forced arbitration clause to be invalid, and affirmed the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to enforce arbitration under the agreements at issue.
Laying out the salient facts of the case, the court explained:
To support its order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration, the district court made the following findings of fact:
Citi Trends devised and implemented a new alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—after it was served with the complaint in this action on February 27, 2012, and after the district court set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. Weeks after the district court’s May 31, 2012 scheduling order, Citi Trends began to roll out its new ADR policy. The ADR policy included a mandatory agreement to arbitrate all disputes individually rather than collectively.
By June 30, 2012, Citi Trends sent its human resource representatives to meet with store managers to roll out the new ADR policy—but only to putative collective action members (i.e., store managers). Throughout the summer, Citi Trends’s human resource representatives met individually with all store managers across the country. Citi Trends had two employees in each ADR meeting: a human resources representative and a “witness.”
The human resources representative who met with the store managers advised Citi Trends in its employment decisions. Thus, the store managers reasonably believed the human resources representative had authority to make or influence employment decisions, including hiring and firing decisions.
Store managers were ordered to attend the ADR meetings by their supervisors. Citi Trends did not inform the store managers of the true purpose of the mandatory meetings. Instead of telling the store managers that the meetings concerned the company’s new ADR policy, Citi Trends told the store managers that the mandatory meetings concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook.
Typically, Citi Trends rolled out its new employee handbook in a group setting. The handbook was generally provided in printed form (i.e., not as a photocopy), and the employees were required to sign for the handbook. Here, however, Citi Trends did not follow any of its general procedures for rolling out the employee handbook. Instead, Citi Trends (1) held two-on-one private meetings with each store manager in a small, back room in Citi Trends retail stores—the same places where the store interrogated or investigated its employees, (2) discussed only the ADR policy and the fill-in-the-blank declarations related to the store managers’ job duties, (3) provided photocopied versions of the employee handbooks as the store managers left the meetings, and (4) did not require the store managers to sign for the photocopied employee handbook.FN6 The district court found that this rushed and atypical rollout of the employee handbook demonstrated that Citi Trends’s handbook rollout was “pretext for presenting the [arbitration] Agreement to the [store managers] to derail their participation in this lawsuit.”
When a store manager arrived at the back-room meetings, a human resources representative greeted the store manager. A second individual was also at each meeting; however, this person was not introduced to, or known by, the store managers.
At the meetings, Citi Trends’s human resources representative gave the store managers these documents: the arbitration agreement, a fill-in-the-blank declaration, and the store manager disclosure. The store managers were asked to sign each of these documents at the meeting.
Citi Trends informed the store managers that the arbitration agreement was a condition of continued employment. The store managers understood that they would be fired if they did not assent to the arbitration agreement or the new ADR policy. Thus, the store managers lacked meaningful choice in whether to sign the arbitration agreements or other documents. The district court found the setting of the back-room meetings to be a “highly coercive” and “interrogation-like.”
Opt-in plaintiffs testified that they signed the documents but felt intimidated by the human resources representative. They also felt pressured to sign the arbitration agreements to avoid losing their jobs. Even when specifically requested, Citi Trends did not give the store managers copies of the documents that the store managers signed.
The district court found that Citi Trends did not conceive or begin to institute its ADR policy until after the district court held a scheduling conference to determine when and how Billingsley must move for conditional certification. Citi Trends then rolled out its ADR policy in a “blitzkrieg fashion” and only required potential members of this collective action to agree to the ADR policy. The district court found that Citi Trend’s “ADR roll-out was a hurried reaction specifically targeted at curtailing this litigation.”
The district court found that the “purpose and effect” of the arbitration agreement was “to protect Citi Trends in this lawsuit.” The district court also found that the timing of the arbitration agreement’s rollout “was calculated to reduce or eliminate the number of collective action opt-in Plaintiffs in this case” and the rollout was “replete with deceit” and “designed to be[ ] intimidating and coercive.”
After a discussion of the FLSA, its remedial purpose and the broad discretion afforded to courts in managing collective actions, the Eleventh Circuit held that that the district court properly exercised its broad discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, because such a denial was in line with the court’s responsibilities to manage communications between the parties and putative class members. Specifically, the court reasoned:
Given the “broad authority” that the district court has to manage parties and counsel in an FLSA collective action, the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Citi Trends’s conduct in the summer of 2012 undermined the court’s authority to manage the collective action. Nor did the district abuse its discretion in determining that—to correct the effect of Citi Trends’s misconduct—it would allow putative collective action members to join the lawsuit notwithstanding their coerced signing of the arbitration agreements.
Whatever right Citi Trends may have had to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, the district court found that its effort in the summer of 2012 was confusing, misleading, coercive, and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its store managers to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this FLSA collective action. Since the arbitration agreements by their terms will directly affect this lawsuit, the district court had authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171, 110 S.Ct. at 486–87; see also Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (class action).
The district court simply did what other district courts routinely do: exercise discretion to correct the effects of pre-certification communications with potential FLSA collective action members after misleading, coercive, or improper communications are made. See, e.g., Balasanyan v. Nordstrom, Inc., No. 11–CV2609–JM–WMC, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2, 4 (S.D.Cal. Mar.8, 2012) (refusing to enforce individual arbitration agreement in an FLSA action because the defendant’s imposition of the agreement was an improper class communication); Williams v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 10–7181, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12 (E.D.Pa. July 13, 2011) (invalidating arbitration agreement imposed on the defendant’s employees during pre-certification stage of FLSA litigation and ordering corrective measures because the arbitration agreement was a “confusing and unfair communication” with the potential opt-in plaintiffs); Ojeda–Sanchez v. Bland Farms, 600 F.Supp.2d 1373, 1379–81 (S.D.Ga.2009) (granting a limited protective order in FLSA collective action where the defendants engaged in unsupervised, unsolicited, in-person interviews of the plaintiffs in an environment that encouraged speedy and uninformed decision-making); Longcrier v. HL–A Co., 595 F.Supp.2d 1218, 1229–30 (S.D.Ala.2008) (striking declarations obtained through the defendants’ abusive and misleading communications with prospective opt-in plaintiffs); Jones v. Casey’s Gen. Stores, 517 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1086, 1089 (S.D.Iowa 2007) (limiting the plaintiffs’ counsel from affirmatively soliciting potential opt-in plaintiffs to join the FLSA action and requiring counsel to modify their website to provide “only a factual, accurate, and balanced outline of the proceedings”); Maddox v. Knowledge Learning Corp., 499 F.Supp.2d 1338, 1342–44 (N.D.Ga.2007) (observing that district courts in § 216(b) actions rely on broad case management discretion by limiting misleading, pre-certification communications and exercising that discretion in the case before the court by ordering the plaintiffs to correct false, unbalanced, and misleading statements on their website); Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 299 F.Supp.2d 664, 667–70 (E.D.Tex.2003) (sanctioning the employer and enjoining the employer from communicating ex parte with potential class action members because the employer intentionally attempted to subvert the district court’s role in the FLSA collective action by unilaterally sending a misleading and coercive letter to potential plaintiffs that encouraged those persons not to join).
District courts’ corrective actions have included refusal to enforce arbitration agreements instituted through improper means and where the timing of the execution of those agreements was similar to the post-filing, pre-certification timing in this case. See, e.g., Balasanyan, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2; Williams, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12; see also In re Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litig., 361 F.Supp.2d at 252–54 (imposing similar corrective action in Rule 23 class action).
The district court did not abuse its discretion in correcting the effects of Citi Trends’s improper behavior in this case. The district court held an initial hearing, after which it denied Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration. The court then reconsidered its order, held an additional two-day evidentiary hearing, made specific and detailed findings of fact that were supported by the record, and took minimal action to correct the effects of Citi Trends’s conduct.
The district court limited its order temporally and substantively. The district court limited its order to those agreements signed under the coercive conditions used by Citi Trends in the summer of 2012. And, the district court limited its order to this particular FLSA action. The court specifically said that it was not ruling on the enforceability of the arbitration agreements as they relate to other cases or controversies. The district did not restrict Citi Trends from entering into new arbitration agreements with the store managers; nor did the court prevent store managers from electing to comply with the terms of the arbitration agreements that they signed in the summer of 2012.
The district court’s limited remedial action is not an abuse of its considerable discretion to manage this collective action. Accord Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (holding that a district court’s power to manage a class action included the power to prohibit a defendant from making “unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class”). That is especially true given the opt-in nature of FLSA collective actions. Because FLSA plaintiffs must opt-in, unsupervised, unilateral communications with those potential plaintiffs can sabotage the goal of the FLSA’s informed consent requirement by planting the slightest seed of doubt or worry through the one-sided, unrebutted presentation of “facts.” Because the damage from misstatements could well be irreparable, the district court must be able to exercise its discretion to attempt to correct the effects of such actions. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170, 110 S.Ct. at 486 (noting that court intervention in the collective action notice process may be necessary).
Because we affirm the district court’s decision to deny enforceability of the arbitration agreements in this case, we necessarily must affirm the district court’s order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration.
Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
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.
8th Cir.: Informal Input Regarding Personnel Decisions Does Not Satisfy Hire/Fire Prong of Executive Exemption
Madden v. Lumber One Home Center, Inc.
Following a jury verdict in favor of the defendant-employer below, the trial court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, holding that—as a matter of law—defendant had failed to satisfy its burden of proof regarding the executive exemption. Defendant appealed and the Eighth Circuit affirmed with respect to two of the plaintiffs, but reversed as to one. As discussed here, the Eighth Circuit’s analysis focused on the hire/fire prong of the executive exemption. Significantly, the court explained in detail what types of involvement in personnel decisions rise to the level required for application of the executive exemption.
Initially the court restated the applicable regulation:
We determine whether an employee meets the executive exemption by applying Department of Labor regulations. See Fife v. Bosley, 100 F.3d 87, 89 (8th Cir.1996). The Department of Labor defines an “executive” employee—that is, one exempt from FLSA requirements relating to overtime pay—as follows:
(a) The term ’employee employed in a bona fide executive capacity’ in section 13(a)(1) of the Act shall mean any employee:
(1) Compensated on a salary basis at a rate of not less than $455 per week (or $380 per week, if employed in American Samoa by employers other than the Federal Government), exclusive of board, lodging or other facilities;
(2) Whose primary duty is management of the enterprise in which the employee is employed or of a customarily recognized department or subdivision thereof;
(3) Who customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees; and
(4) Who has the authority to hire or fire other employees or whose suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other change of status of other employees are given particular weight.
The court then framed the issue before it:
At issue in this case is whether the plaintiffs’ job duties met the requirements of the fourth element. In other words, we must determine whether the jury was presented with evidence that reasonably would support an inference that the plaintiffs had the ability to hire and fire other employees, or that their hiring recommendations were given “particular weight.” The Department of Labor defines “particular weight” as follows:
To determine whether an employee’s suggestions and recommendations are given ‘particular weight,’ factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, whether it is part of the employee’s job duties to make such suggestions and recommendations; the frequency with which such suggestions and recommendations are made or requested; and the frequency with which the employee’s suggestions and recommendations are relied upon. Generally, an executive’s suggestions and recommendations must pertain to employees whom the executive customarily and regularly directs. It does not include an occasional suggestion with regard to the change in status of a co-worker. An employee’s suggestions and recommendations may still be deemed to have ‘particular weight’ even if a higher level manager’s recommendation has more importance and even if the employee does not have authority to make the ultimate decision as to the employee’s change in status. 29 C.F.R. § 541.105. The district court, in granting the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, found that Lumber One presented no evidence that the plaintiffs had the authority to make personnel decisions or that Morton gave their hiring recommendations particular weight.
Clarifying what type and amount of input into personnel decisions satisfies an employer’s burden regarding the executive exemption, the Eighth Circuit explained:
We first address what type and what amount of input into personnel decisions is sufficient to satisfy the fourth element of the FLSA’s executive exemption. Second, we look at the evidence in this case. We conclude that Lumber One failed to show that Madden and O’Bar met the executive exemption standard but that Lumber One did prove that Wortman was eligible for the executive exemption.
Courts previously addressing what is required by the fourth element of the FLSA executive exemption suggest that more than informal input, solicited from all employees, is needed to prove applicability of the executive exemption. See, e.g., Lovelady v. Allsup’s Convenience Stores, Inc., 304 F. App’x 301, 306 (5th Cir.2005) (per curiam) (unpublished) (affirming the district court’s decision that plaintiff-store managers met the fourth element because their hiring recommendations were almost always followed and they could fire employees without obtaining authorization from a higher manager); Grace v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 845 F.Supp.2d 653, 663 (W.D.N.C.2012) (finding fourth element satisfied because plaintiff, a store manager, selected applicants for interviews, conducted interviews, and recommended employees for promotions and demotions, and her recommendations were almost always followed by the district manager); Rainey v. McWane, Inc., 552 F.Supp.2d 626, 632 (E.D.Tex.2008) (finding fourth element satisfied because plaintiff, a production supervisor, completed weekly employee evaluations, recommended employee discipline, and recommended which temporary employees should be hired permanently); Goulas v. LaGreca, No. 12–898, 2013 WL 2477030, at *10 (E.D. La. June 7, 2013) (finding fourth element satisfied because the employer was grooming the plaintiff to eventually take over the company, and the employer terminated employees based on plaintiff’s recommendations). These cases provide useful guidance for understanding what is needed to satisfy the fourth element of the executive exemption. After looking at the different factors these courts used to find the fourth element satisfied, including the offering of personnel recommendations that were acted upon by managers, involvement in screening applicants for interviews, and participation in interviews, among others, it is apparent that many different employee duties and levels of involvement can work to satisfy this fourth element. When we look at the evidence regarding how Lumber One utilized Madden and O’Bar in this case, however, we find that it simply does not meet the standard. Cf. 5 C.F.R. 551.202(e) (“[T]he designation of an employee as FLSA exempt or nonexempt must ultimately rest on the duties actually performed by the employee.”).
Discussing the law in the context of this case, the Eighth Circuit explained:
The evidence presented at trial concerning the plaintiffs’ duties consisted solely of testimony from the plaintiffs, Morton, and office manager Amy Quimby. Morton testified that none of the plaintiffs hired or fired other employees. Therefore, in order to satisfy the fourth element, Lumber One needed to present evidence at trial that the plaintiffs were consulted about personnel decisions and that Morton gave each of their opinions particular weight regarding specific hiring decisions. Prior to hiring a new employee, Morton generally asked all of the Mayflower employees if they knew the applicant and could provide information about that person, and Lumber One believes this is sufficient to support the jury’s verdict.
At trial, Morton generically described how he elicited input from employees about applicants and how he used the information he received. For example, when asked if the plaintiffs were ever consulted during the screening process for new applicants, Morton responded: “[W]e would always ask all of our people if they knew someone before we hired them. When we would be interviewing them, we would ask for input from them because these guys were from the local area and we’d always ask if they knew the people or could recommend or knew anything at all about them.” Morton also said he took this information seriously, adding that “it was good information. We’re hiring blind here, so any input we could have or reference, it was used in making that determination.” Lumber One did not present any evidence that the plaintiffs were involved in, for instance, screening applicants, conducting interviews, checking references, or anything else related to its hiring process.
In determining that Lumber One’s practice of soliciting informal recommendations from all staff members is insufficient to meet the fourth element of the executive exemption, we find Rooney v. Town of Groton, 577 F.Supp.2d 513 (D.Mass.2008), instructive. In Rooney, the court held that a police lieutenant satisfied all of the requirements for designation as an exempt executive employee. Id. at 523–32. Concerning the fourth element, the court noted that the lieutenant was a member of an interview panel that ranked applicants, discussed the merits of applicants, and made hiring recommendations. Id. at 531. In addition, the police chief took the lieutenant’s opinion into consideration when determining which employees to promote. Id. While the lieutenant had no control over the ultimate hiring and personnel decisions, the court found that he was sufficiently involved in the hiring process to classify him as an exempt executive employee. Id.
Rooney specifically addresses Lumber One’s argument that Morton could have given the plaintiffs’ recommendations particular weight even though he asked all of his employees for input. In Rooney, the lieutenant characterized his recommendations to the police chief as the same type of recommendation an ordinary patrolman could provide to the chief, so he should not have been classified as an exempt employee. Rooney, 577 F.Supp.2d at 531. The court rejected his argument, finding that the lieutenant’s recommendations were given more weight than an ordinary patrolman. The court concluded that “the regulation does not state that Rooney must be the only officer in the department whose recommendations and suggestions are given particular weight, but rather that a ‘higher level manager’s recommendation [may have] more importance.’ ” Id. (citing 29 C.F.R. § 541.105).
In the present case, Morton testified that he solicited input from all employees. He did not testify that some employees’ input had more influence than others. Lumber One argues that requiring Morton to testify that he placed “particular weight” on each plaintiff’s input, as Lumber One claims the district court did in the order granting the plaintiffs’ motion for judgment as a matter of law, is unfair because it requires a lay person to use legal jargon in his testimony. We agree that Morton was not required to use the exact phrase “particular weight.” Morton could have used any number of words to convey that he gave the plaintiffs’ recommendations special consideration when making hiring decisions. The material point, however, is that in order to meet the fourth element of the executive exemption, Lumber One must present some proof that the purported executives’ input into personnel decisions was given particular weight. 29 C.F.R. § 541.105. For example, one way they could have done this is to show that the purported executives’ input had more influence than hourly employee’ input. This is especially true if that recommendation is the only evidence relied on for the exemption, which is what happened in this case.
Lumber One also argues that because the business was struggling financially in 2008 and did not hire many employees, the plaintiffs were simply unable to participate in personnel decisions because none were being made. In this regard, we note that the Office of Personnel Management’s regulation stating that FLSA exemptions are based on actual job functions, not intended responsibilities, is persuasive in this circumstance. See 5 C.F.R. § 551.202(e) (noting that FLSA exemptions are based on “duties actually performed by the employee”). The Rooney court acknowledged that the police department in that case was small and that its size should be a factor “taken into account when determining the frequency of recommendations made by the plaintiff. It is reasonable to assume that generally a smaller police department would have correspondingly fewer new hires, fires, and promotions.” 577 F.Supp.2d at 531. The same is true with Lumber One. Morton estimated that he hired between six and eight employees during the time the plaintiffs were employed at Lumber One. Morton testified that he generally asked all of the employees if they knew applicants, but there is no evidence that the plaintiffs had any sort of involvement in the hiring process like the lieutenant in Rooney. The plaintiffs did not participate in the interviews, did not review resumes, did not rank applicants, and did not make hiring recommendations outside of informal reference checks. Contra id. at 522 (“[Rooney] has acted as a member of an interview panel, ranked applicants on account of their suitability for the position, discussed the merits of applicants, made applicant recommendations to the Chief regarding the applicant’s suitability, discussed the potential promotion of a Patrolman to the rank of Sergeant, and discussed the assignment of an officer to an administrative position[.]”). And Morton asked all employees for informal reference checks, not just the plaintiffs. Morton asserts that he would have involved the plaintiffs more if he had hired more employees. This may be true, but it requires the jury to impermissibly speculate and to rely on intended rather than actual job functions. See Clark v. Long, 255 F.3d 555, 557 (8th Cir.2001) (“[When ruling on a motion for judgment as a matter of law, t]he nonmovant receives the benefit of all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the evidence, but those inferences may not be based solely on speculation.” (emphasis added)).
Having fleshed out the applicable law and the parties’ respective arguments, the court initially explained why two of the plaintiffs were properly held to be non-exempt:
Against this backdrop, we now turn to the evidence regarding each individual plaintiff. At trial, Morton could not recall Madden or O’Bar providing a single personnel recommendation. Morton stated that he could only recall the company’s “general policy there as to how we did that.” In response to the question, “Did any of the plaintiffs hire Lumber One employees?” Morton responded, “No, they didn’t. Well, Doug [Wortman] was involved in hiring some of the truck drivers.” When questioned if O’Bar ever provided a recommendation for an applicant, Morton responded, “Not that I recall.” Morton said he intended to include O’Bar in the hiring process, but because Lumber One was not hiring while she was employed, she never had the opportunity to participate. Later in the trial, counsel asked Morton if he could remember O’Bar recommending any applicant for hire. Morton responded, “Offhand today, I can’t tell you one, no.”
Morton similarly could not remember Madden being involved in any hiring decision. When asked about Madden, Morton again referenced only the general policy: “Once again, what we would do, anytime that we hired anybody, which we hired very, very few in this time period, and I don’t recall—you know, it depends on what time frame we’re talking about, but we would always ask all of our people if they knew someone before we hired them.” When asked again, “Is it your testimony that [Madden] did not recommend anybody for hiring?” Morton responded, “I do not remember, to be honest with you. I know that we consulted with him or asked him if he knew people.” Morton asserted that he “definitely remember[ed] asking Terry Madden if he knew people that we were interviewing,” but Morton could not provide additional information related to any recommendations Madden may have provided. When asked if Madden hired any employees, Morton replied, “No, ma’am, he did not hire any.”
Morton’s testimony is simply not enough to satisfy the fourth element of the FLSA’s executive exemption for Madden and O’Bar. To be sure, one of the jury’s main responsibilities is to make credibility determinations. However, here the jury was forced to speculate due to Morton’s lack of memory regarding specific recommendations and hiring decisions. Moreover, Morton’s admissions that Madden and O’Bar were not involved directly in hiring contradicts Lumber One’s contentions that the plaintiffs were actually Lumber One executive employees whose input was solicited and considered prior to making personnel decisions. Indeed, for a jury to reach that conclusion, a jury had to speculate that, if Morton were able to recall specifics from 2008 and 2009, he would be able to testify about Madden and O’Bar’s involvement in personnel decisions. This is not a credibility determination; this is speculation. See Wilson, 382 F.3d at 770 (“Judgment as a matter of law is appropriate only when the record contains no proof beyond speculation to support the verdict.”). While it should be rare that a judge elects to override a jury verdict, the district court was correct in this case to do so. See Hunt v. Neb. Pub. Power Dist., 282 F.3d 1021, 1029 (8th Cir.2002) (“We recogniz[e] that the law places a high standard on overturning a jury verdict … because of the danger that the jury’s rightful province will be invaded when judgment as a matter of law is misused.” (internal citation omitted)). Lumber One simply presented no evidence that would allow a jury to determine, without conjecture, that Lumber One satisfied the fourth element with respect to Madden and O’Bar.
The court went on to hold that, applying the same test, there had been sufficient evidence at trial for the jury to hold that the third plaintiff was an exempt executive:
In contrast, we conclude that Lumber One did present sufficient evidence to allow a jury to conclude that Wortman provided a recommendation for at least one employee and that Morton relied on that recommendation when deciding to hire the applicant. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s judgment as to Wortman and reinstate that portion of the jury verdict in favor of Lumber One.
Morton testified at trial that Wortman knew two applicants, truck drivers Fred Dempsey and Anthony Dixon, and that Morton appreciated Wortman’s input regarding both applicants’ qualifications. Morton testified that “we’re brand-new, so I asked everybody there for a reference on any new hire at this point to—and [Wortman] recommended these guys, said they were good folks, Fred [Dempsey] in particular. I think he and Fred had a—somewhat of a friendship maybe in the past.” Morton later asserted that if Wortman had provided a bad recommendation, Morton would not have hired Dempsey. Morton testified that “when we did do that little bit of hiring, we asked everyone. We tapped every resource we had…. [Wortman] would put his stamp of approval on, and I’ll use Fred Dempsey, for instance, you know, if he would have said, no, we don’t want him, he would not have been there.”
Morton’s testimony provided sufficient evidence that reasonably could lead a jury to believe that Wortman provided recommendations about Dempsey and that Morton gave particular weight to Wortman’s recommendation when deciding to hire Dempsey. See 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1); 29 C.F.R. § 541.100. In addition, Wortman testified that although he was not hired to supervise employees, Morton occasionally had him direct the truck drivers, which included Dempsey, regarding where to make deliveries. See
29 C.F.R. § 541.105 (generally requiring that an executive’s recommendations pertain to employees whom the executive directs). Because there is evidence regarding Wortman’s involvement in at least one personnel decision, we conclude that the district court erred by overturning the jury’s verdict finding that Wortman was an executive employee who was exempt from FLSA overtime pay requirements.
Taken together, this opinion is instructive regarding the type and amount of input an employee must have in order to meet the hire/fire prong of the executive exemption.
Click Madden v. Lumber One Home Center, Inc. to read the entire Decision.
E.D.Cal.: Attorney’s Fees and Costs Recoverable Under 216(b) When Plaintiff Obtains Declaratory Relief
This case was before the court on the relatively novel issue of whether an FLSA plaintiff, who prevails in a case solely seeking a declaratory judgment or declaratory relief is entitled to attorneys fees and costs under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The court answered the question in the affirmative, reasoning that the broad remedial purpose of the FLSA dictated that such fees are recoverable.
Describing the somewhat unique procedural posture of the case, the court explained:
This case is brought as a collective action under 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), by Plaintiffs against Defendant Jeffrey Beard in his official capacity as the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. Plaintiffs complain about the calculation of wages by Beard and seek a declaration that Beard is violating the FLSA. Plaintiffs also seek attorneys’ fees under § 216(b). Beard has filed a counterclaim in which he seeks several declarations, the gist of which is that Plaintiffs are not entitled to attorneys’ fees under § 216(b) in this case. Plaintiffs have filed a motion to dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), and alternatively a Rule 12(f) motion to strike Beard’s counterclaim. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss will be granted.
Initially, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that defendant’s claim that attorneys fees was not recoverable on their declaratory judgment count, holding that the issue was one of pure law and thus ripe from the outset of the case.
After summarizing the parties’ respective positions, the court framed the issue before it as follows:
The issue of whether attorney’s fees may be awarded under § 216(b) when only declaratory judgment is sought or obtained appears to be relatively novel. The parties rely to one degree or another on the language of § 216(b), the policies behind § 216(b) and the FLSA in general, and a comparable 2013 district case.
The court then examined the applicable law, noting that it was aware of only two cases discussing the issue before it:
With respect to case law, there are actually two cases that bear on the issue. The first case is Barrows v. City of Chattanooga, 944 F.Supp.2d 596 (E.D.Tenn.2013), which has been cited by Plaintiffs. In Barrows, Fire Captain Barrows sued the City of Chattanooga under the FLSA regarding his employee classification and for past unpaid overtime. Following a bench trial, the district court held that the City had been improperly classifying Barrows as an FLSA-exempt employee and that a declaration that Barrows was a non-exempt FLSA employee was appropriate. See Barrows, 944 F.Supp.2d at 605. As for past unpaid overtime compensation, the district court held that Barrows had failed to meet his burden of proof in that his evidence was essentially too inconsistent and vague. See id. at 606. As a result, Barrows was awarded no monetary damages. See id. With respect to attorney’s fees, the district court held that Barrows could recover attorney’s fees, despite the lack of monetary relief, because Barrow was entitled to a declaratory judgment. See id. at 607. The court explained:
Section 216 of the FLSA provides, in relevant part, that the Court shall allow a prevailing employee to recover his reasonable attorney’s fees, as well as the costs of the action. Defendant has conceded that Plaintiff is entitled to attorney’s fees and costs in the event that he prevails in this action. Although the Court has found that Plaintiff is not entitled to damages for overtime compensation, Plaintiff has prevailed as to his claim for declaratory relief. Judgment for a plaintiff on a claim for declaratory relief will “usually” be satisfactory for finding that the plaintiff has prevailed in order to recover attorney’s fees. Because Plaintiff here has prevailed on his claim for declaratory relief on the merits, the Court finds that he is a prevailing party; accordingly, he is entitled to recovery of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of this action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).
The second case, which was cited by neither party, is Council 13, American Fed’n of State, Cnty. & Mun. Emples., AFL–CIO v. Casey, 156 Pa.Cmwlth. 92, 626 A.2d 683 (Pa.Commw.Ct.1993).3 In Council 13, employees of the State of Pennsylvania sought inter alia a declaration that the FLSA required Pennsylvania to pay wages and salaries that were coming due, despite an anticipated exhaustion of appropriated funds. See id. at 684. The court held that the employees were entitled to the declaration they sought, and that the FLSA required payment of wages. See id. at 686. With respect to attorney’s fees under § 216(b), the court found that attorney’s fees were not available. See id. After quoting the third and fifth sentences of § 216(b), the court explained:
Although that sentence, as quoted above, itself contains no mention of fault or violation, it rests in a context which plainly involves legal actions against employers in violation. The first sentence in the quoted passage states that it deals with an ‘action to recover the liability prescribed in either of the preceding sentences … against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court….’ The ‘preceding sentences’ expressly and exclusively refer to situations involving any “employer who violates” [FLSA § 206 or § 207]. However, this present action clearly is not an enforcement action under [§ 216(b) ] to cure and punish a violation, but is one mutually pursuing a declaratory judgment for guidance—no violation having yet occurred. Hence, the federal Act does not mandate imposition of attorney’s fees here….
Id. at 686–87 (emphasis in original).
In both Barrows and Counsel 13, declaratory relief was sought and obtained. In both Barrows and Counsel 13, attorney’s fees under § 216(b) were sought by the plaintiffs. However, only in Barrows, where an actual violation of the FLSA was found, were fees awarded. Because no violation of the FLSA was actually involved in Counsel 13, the court held that attorney’s fees were not appropriate. Together, Barrows and Counsel 13 indicate that an award of only declaratory relief may form the basis of attorney’s fee under § 216(b), but that attorney’s fees are only available when an actual violation of the FLSA is involved.
Turning to the public policy and legislative intent behind the FLSA’s fee provisions, the court reasoned that such policy and intent too supported a reading of the FLSA that permitted the recovery of attorneys fees and costs for a plaintiff who successfully recovered declaratory relief:
With respect to the policy and legislative intent behind § 216(b)‘s attorney’s fee provision, several circuits have made observations. The Fourth and Eleventh Circuits have indicated that Congress intended that a wronged employee “receive his full wages plus the penalty without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs.” Silva v. Miller, 307 Fed. Appx. 349, 351 (11th Cir.2009); Maddrix v. Dize, 153 F.2d 274, 275–76 (4th Cir.1946). Similarly, the Fifth Circuit has indicated that the legislative intent behind § 216(b)‘ s attorney’s fee provision is “to recompense wronged employees for the expenses incurred in redressing violations of the FLSA and obtaining wrongfully withheld back pay.” San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth. v. McLaughlin, 876 F.2d 441, 445 (5th Cir.1989). The Sixth Circuit, in reliance in part on Maddrix, has found that “the purpose of § 216(b) is to insure effective access to the judicial process by providing attorney fees for prevailing plaintiffs with wage and hour grievances; ‘obviously Congress intended that the wronged employee should receive his full wages … without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs.’ ” United Slate, Local 307 v. G & M Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., 732 F.2d 495, 501–02 (6th Cir.1984) (quoting Maddrix, 153 F.2d at 275–76). Finally, the D.C. Circuit has noted that through § 216(b), “Congress clearly hoped to provide an adequate economic incentive for private attorneys to take employment discrimination cases, and thereby to ensure that plaintiffs would be able to obtain competent legal representation for the prosecution of legitimate claims.” Laffey v. Northwest Airlines. Inc., 746 F.2d 4, 11 (D.C.Cir.1984). These cases reflect that the intent behind § 216(b) was to allow employees to obtain payment owed under the FLSA in court without the employee incurring legal fees and expenses, and to encourage attorneys to take FLSA cases.
While the court acknowledged that the defendant’s proposed reading of the plain language of the FLSA could support the defendant’s argument that the fees at issue were not recoverable, ultimately it rejected this view, citing the need to liberally construe the FLSA:
The FLSA as a whole is to be interpreted liberally to the fullest extent of Congressional direction. See Probert, 651 F.3d at 1010. As indicated above, the intent behind the attorney’s fees provision is to ensure that employees obtain full payment owed under the FLSA without incurring legal fees. An interpretation of § 216(b) that would eliminate the availability of attorney’s fees to employees who seek to obtain or who only obtain declaratory relief, would partially frustrate the intent behind § 216(b). Although declaratory relief will not necessarily permit an employee to obtain past payments that were mandated by the FLSA, it could ensure that future payments do conform to the FLSA. That is, declaratory relief could aid an employee in obtaining his full future wages. For example, in a case like Barrows, no monetary relief was awarded despite obtaining declaratory relief.4 Nevertheless, by declaring that an employee is properly classified as a non-exempt FLSA employee, and not as an exempt FLSA employee, the declaratory relief will ensure that the employee begins to receive overtime pay in the future and in conformity with the FLSA.5 As another example, in this case, the dispute is whether Beard is currently calculating overtime correctly. A declaration that the overtime calculations are incorrectly being made will help Plaintiffs to obtain the full future FLSA wages and overtime that would be due to them under a proper calculation. In cases where monetary damages are unavailable or very tenuous, but a violation of the FLSA appears to be occurring, the availability of attorney’s fees provides an incentive to correct the FLSA violation. Without the availability of attorney’s fees, the expense to employees bringing such lawsuits would be increased and the incentive for attorneys to take such cases would be diminished.
There is a broader interpretation of § 216(b) that is also reasonable. The fifth sentence is ultimately tethered to actions under the first and second sentences involving violations of § 206, § 207, and § 215(a)(3). In actions that seek to remedy violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), the fifth sentence requires courts to award attorney’s fees in addition “to any judgment obtained by the plaintiff.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). There is no express limit as to the type or amount of judgment that must be obtained before attorney’s fees are available, rather, so long as “any judgment” is obtained by the plaintiff, attorney’s fees are to be awarded. Declaratory relief has been awarded in this district in an FLSA case against a State, the Third Circuit has held that declaratory relief in an FLSA case is available against a State, and the District of Tennessee has awarded declaratory relief in an FLSA case even in the absence of monetary damages. See Balgowan v. New Jersey, 115 F.3d 214, 217–18 (3d Cir.1997); Barrows, 944 F.Supp.2d at 605;Biggs v. Wilson, 828 F.Supp. 774, 779–80 (E.D.Cal.1991), aff d 1 F.3d 1537 (9th Cir.1993). If a declaratory judgment may be issued in an FLSA case, then it is unclear why a declaratory judgment would not be included under § 216(b)‘s “any judgment” language. As long the lawsuit/action is one that seeks to correct/remedy violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), obtaining a declaratory judgment would constitute “any judgment” and could serve as the basis for attorney’s fees under § 216(b).6 Such an interpretation would permit attorney’s fees not only when unpaid wages for past violations of § 206 or § 207 are obtained, but also for declarations that would essentially end ongoing violations of § 206 or § 207. Declarations that find and/or remedy ongoing violations of § 206 or § 207 would help to ensure that an employee obtains the full wages and overtime that are due him in the future. Correcting violations of § 206 or § 207 and obtaining full wages due are both consistent with congressional intent.
As such, the court concluded that fees and costs are available to an FLSA plaintiff who prevails solely on a claim for declaratory relief:
The Court does not find Beard’s interpretation to be unreasonable. However, as discussed above, there is a broader interpretation of § 216(b) that appears consistent with Congressional intent. Further, the very limited case law that deals with § 216(b) attorney’s fees provision in the context of declaratory relief indicates that attorney’s fees may be awarded. Considering the arguments made by the parties, the limited case law, and the Ninth Circuit’s admonition for a liberal interpretation of the FLSA, the Court concludes that, in cases that seek to correct violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), attorney’s fees under § 216(b) are available when only declaratory relief is sought or obtained, so long as an actual violation of the FLSA by the employer is involved. In this case, Plaintiffs allege ongoing violations of § 207, and seek declarations relating to the proper calculation of overtime under § 207. This case is therefore one that seeks to correct an actual and ongoing violation of § 207. Accordingly, if Plaintiffs prevail and obtain declaratory relief, they will be entitled to attorney’s fees.
The declaratory relief requested by Beard is a pure issue of law, and no further facts need be developed before resolving that issue. The declaratory relief requested by Beard is contrary to the Court’s conclusion. Because attorney’s fees are available under § 216(b) in this case, it is appropriate to dismiss Beard’s request for declaratory relief.
Click Pickett v. Beard to read the entire Order on Plaintiffs’ Motion to Dismiss and Alternatively Motion to Strike.
E.D.Pa.: For Application of Computer Exemption, Hourly Rate Must Be Measured Hour-by-Hour, Not On A Weekly Average Basis
This case was before the court on a variety of motions from all parties. As discussed here, the court was tasked with deciding how the hourly rate must be calculated for purposes of applying the computer exemption, where all parties agreed that the plaintiff was paid on an hourly not salary basis. Plaintiff’s primary contention was that the defendant misclassified him and other employees as exempt from the FLSA’a overtime provisions under 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17) (the FLSA’s computer-employee exemption), and subsequently failed to pay them overtime compensation.
Describing the relevant factual background, the court explained:
Defendant maintains a variety of pay structures for its employees. The pay structures at issue are the “Professional Day” and “Professional Week” agreements, which apply only to employees who Defendant has classified as exempt under the FLSA’s computer-employee exemption. Under the “Professional Day” agreement, an employee “will not be paid for more than eight hours in a day, unless that employee works more than ten hours in a day. If the employee works more than ten hours in a day and the manager approves, the employee will be entitled to be paid an additional fee for services provided after the 11th hour.” Under the “Professional Week” plan, employees receive a set hourly rate for every hour worked up to forty hours per week, and receive no additional compensation for hours worked in excess of forty hours per week. (Id. at ¶¶ 10, 15–18) (alterations omitted). Defendant considers employees designated under either structure as exempt under § 213(a)(17).
Plaintiff Morgan Jones initially contacted Defendant through one of its recruiters, Robert Helsel. In July 2011, Defendant successfully placed Plaintiff in a position as Senior Project Manager with Citigroup. When Plaintiff started at Citigroup, he was classified by Defendant as exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements under 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17) and was subject to Defendant’s “Professional Day” pay plan. (Id. at ¶¶ 20, 27, 30–31, 51.)
Like Defendant’s other employees, Plaintiff was required to enter his daily hours into Defendant’s “EaZyTyme system,” an online-based time reporting system maintained and controlled by Defendant. In addition to reporting his time in EaZyTyme, Plaintiff also reported his work hours directly to Citigroup for purposes of effectuating payment from Citigroup to Defendant for Plaintiff’s work. During his placement with Citigroup, Plaintiff routinely worked over forty hours per week and occasionally over fifty hours per week. (Id. at ¶¶ 39–40, 46, 52.) Beginning on November 14, 2011, Plaintiff was taken out of the Professional Day structure and paid on an hourly basis. (Id. at ¶¶ 13–14, 56–57.)
(1) that the employee perform certain “primary duties”; and (2) that he be compensated at a rate of at least $27.63 an hour.
Framing the issue presented by the respective parties, the court stated:
Defendant asserts that it is entitled to judgment on the second criteria, reasoning that the requirement is met so long as an employee is paid an average hourly wage of $27.63 or more in a given workweek (hereinafter, “the workweek method”). Defendant explains that because it is undisputed that, in any given week, Plaintiff was always paid an average hourly wage well above $27.63, there is no dispute that the exemption’s $27.63 requirement is met. (Def.’s Br. in Support of Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 7–14.)
Plaintiff counters that the statute sets forth an hour-by-hour, rather than an averaging, approach, and thus computer employees must be paid at least $27.63 for each hour worked (hereinafter, “the hour-by-hour method”). Because Plaintiff was paid $0.00 for hours nine and ten while he was paid under the “Professional Day” structure, he argues that the exemption’s second requirement was not met and he was thus misclassified as exempt. (Pl.’s Br. in Opp’n to Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 9–12.)
Noting that the issue presented was one of first impression and susceptible to different interpretations, the court held:
With the above precepts in mind, and after examination of the statutory language, the Department of Labor regulations and the canons of construction applicable to FLSA exemptions, we conclude that an employee paid on an hourly basis may only be classified as exempt under 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17) if that employee is compensated at least $27.63 for each and every hour he or she works
The court reasoned that the language in the exemption was not intended to merely mimic that of the minimum wage portions of the FLSA, but rather should be construed narrowly, as any other exemption should be:
We initially find that the statutory language is susceptible to different interpretations. Neither the FLSA nor the implementing regulations set forth a formula for determining whether an employee has received “not less than $27.63 an hour,” and both parties have presented plausible interpretations of the provision. That said, it appears that a more exact reading of the language is that it requires an employer to pay the requisite sum for each and every hour worked. Indeed, the language of the provision in question specifically refers to compensation on an “hourly basis,” and is silent regarding the use of a weekly or averaging basis.
Defendant argues we should treat the $27.63 hourly rate as a minimum wage provision, and points to Dove v. Coupe, 759 F.2d 167, 171–72 (D.C.Cir.1985), a case which allowed a minimum wage requirement to be met by looking at the average of hours worked. While we have carefully considered Dove, we decline to follow its holding, in part because that case focused on minimum wage requirements while the issue before us is Defendant’s exempting Plaintiff from overtime compensation.
Defendant also posits that applying the workweek standard effectuates congressional intent. Defendant asserts that the averaging approach ensures that the purpose of the minimum wage—the protection of “certain groups of the population from sub-standard wages … due to … unequal bargaining power,” Dove, 759 F.2d at 171 (quoting Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (internal quotation marks omitted))—is met. Defendant further argues that the Department of Labor’s Wage & Hour Division has adopted the workweek as the period for determining whether an employee has received wages at a rate not less than the statutory minimum, and that this interpretation of the statute is entitled to deference. (Def.’s Br. in Support of Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 8–10.) Again, Defendant’s arguments focus on minimum wage theories not at issue here.
We agree with Plaintiff’s view that, based on the allegations raised in this case, the $27.63 requirement is not a minimum wage test, but rather a compensation test for applicability of the exemption pertaining to overtime. Plaintiff correctly stresses that Defendant’s argument fails to recognize that his claims are for unpaid overtime under § 207, not for unpaid minimum wages under § 206, and that there is a significant distinction between those provisions. Section 206 is directed at providing a minimum standard of living while § 207 is concerned with deterring long hours by making those hours more expensive for the employer. In light of these two separate provisions, we conclude that Defendant’s reliance on minimum wage arguments and case law is misplaced. The fact that § 213(a) refers to both §§ 206 and 207 does not mean, as Defendant urges, that the overtime provisions of § 207 can be conflated with minimum wage principles.
The parties also dispute which construction of § 213(a)(17) best effectuates the purpose of the FLSA. Because neither legislative history nor the regulations clarify whether the computer-employee exemption’s $27.63 requirement is to be calculated on a weekly or hourly basis, our determination must necessarily rest on a construction that “best accords with the overall purposes of the statute.” United States v. Introcaso, 506 F.3d 260, 267 (3d Cir.2007) (internal quotation marks omitted).
Plaintiff argues that the FLSA is remedial in nature, and thus should be construed liberally in favor of employees. He also notes that, in light of this remedial purpose, courts have consistently found that FLSA exemptions must be narrowly construed, that is, against the employer. (Pls.’ Br. in Opp’n to Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 9–10.) Defendant counters that, because the FLSA contains criminal penalties for violations of the minimum wage and overtime requirements, the rule of lenity dictates that a less harsh meaning should be applied in interpreting the computer-employee exemption. (Def.’s Br. in Support of Mot. for Partial Summ. J. 10–11.)
Courts are to apply the rule of lenity only if, “after considering text, structure, history, and purpose, there remains a ‘grievous ambiguity or uncertainty in the statute.’ ” Barber v. Thomas, 560 U.S. 474, 130 S.Ct. 2499, 2508–09, 177 L.Ed.2d 1 (2010) (quoting Muscarello v. United States, 524 U.S. 125, 139, 118 S.Ct. 1911, 141 L.Ed.2d 111 (1998)). In other words, the rule of lenity’s application is limited to instances in which a court “can make no more than a guess as to what Congress intended.” United States v. Wells, 519 U.S. 482, 499, 117 S.Ct. 921, 137 L.Ed.2d 107 (1997) (quoting Reno v. Koray, 515 U.S. 50, 65, 115 S.Ct. 2021, 132 L.Ed.2d 46 (1995) (internal quotation marks omitted)). That is not the case here.
While the relevant unit for determining compliance with the computer-employee exemption’s compensation requirement is less than clear, and appears to be a matter of first impression, the appropriate construction of FLSA exemptions is not. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has held that the FLSA must be construed liberally in favor of employees, and that statutory exemptions should thus be construed narrowly. Lawrence v. City of Phila., 527 F.3d 299, 310 (3d Cir.2008) (citing Tony & Susan Alamo Found. v. Sec’y of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 296, 105 S.Ct. 1953, 85 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985), Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981) and Arnold v. Ben Kanowsky, Inc., 361 U.S. 388, 392, 80 S.Ct. 453, 4 L.Ed.2d 393 (1960)). Therefore, an employer seeking to apply an exemption to the FLSA must prove that the employee and/or employer comes ‘plainly and unmistakably’ within the exemption’s terms and spirit. Id. (quoting Arnold, 361 U.S. at 392) (emphasis omitted).
With the above canon of construction in mind, we conclude that the hour-by-hour approach advocated by Plaintiff best accords with the remedial nature of the FLSA. Exemptions are to be construed narrowly and their application must be established by the employer. Defendant has not persuaded us that the computer-employee exemption “plainly and unmistakably” applies. Nor has Defendant demonstrated that its proposed interpretation is required by the plain language of the provision, that the legislative history or regulations support its interpretation, or that the interpretation best accords with the purpose of the FLSA. Therefore, we find that, as a matter of law, the computer-employee exemption is applicable only where, assuming the primary duties test is met, an employee paid on an hourly basis receives compensation at a rate of $27.63 for each and every hour worked.
Applying this standard, we conclude that Plaintiff was misclassified as exempt under § 213(a)(17). Accordingly, we will deny Defendant’s motion for partial summary judgment with respect to this claim.
Click Jones v. Judge Technical Services, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.
Courts Continue to Hold That Exotic Dancers Are Misclassified as Independent Contractors When Actually Employees; Entitled to Minimum Wage For All Hours Worked
If you are someone who follows the trends in wage and hour law, you are no doubt aware of the recent proliferation of cases in which exotic dancers or strippers have challenged the seemingly industry wide misclassification of their positions. Whereas adult entertainment clubs have classified their exotic dancers as independent contractors for many years, for almost the same duration of time, courts have held that such a classification is erroneous and that the dancers are actually “employees,” as defined by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). In the continuing cat and mouse game, clubs typically utilize the misclassification of independent contractor, reap the additional profits, and only change their classification of the position if and when they are called to task when same is challenged in a lawsuit—typically brought by a dancer no longer employed by the club. In the two decisions discussed below, two addition courts joined the overwhelming majority of courts to have opined on the issue—albeit with slightly different fact patterns—and held that exotic dancers are “employees” and not independent contractors, as the clubs had classified them.
In the first case, the court—in the District of Maryland—summarized the relevant facts as follows:
Defendant PP & G, Inc. is the owner and operator of Norma Jean’s Nite Club, a night club located in Baltimore that features semi-nude female dancers. Plaintiff Unique S. Butler worked at various times as an exotic dancer at Norma Jean’s until August 2012, when she alleges that she was terminated.
Defendant has always classified the dancers who perform at Norma Jean’s as independent contractors. Defendant asserts that the dancers are permitted to elect, in writing, to become either an employee or independent contractor. To date, no dancer, including Plaintiff, has elected to be classified as an employee.
There is no dispute that, during her time as an exotic dancer at Norma Jean’s, Plaintiff did not receive compensation in the form of hourly wages. Rather, the only compensation Plaintiff received for her work as an exotic dancer was from customer tips. Defendant contends that dancers were permitted to keep the entirety of their tips, save a non-mandatory, $45 cleaning or maintenance fee that they could pay to the club per shift. Following her separation from Norma Jean’s, Plaintiff filed the present lawsuit against PP & G, Inc., arguing that, because she was misclassified by Defendant as an independent contractor rather than an employee, Defendant illegally failed to pay her wages. She claims that, as an employee, she is entitled to back pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. (“FLSA”), and the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law, Md.Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. §§ 3–501 et seq. (“MWPCL”). Defendant argues that Plaintiff elected to be an independent contractor, and thus was not entitled to wages under the FLSA and MWPCL.
After laying out the factors to be applied under the “economic reality” test, the court explained that the factors required a finding that the dancers were employees:
The ultimate question for the Court’s consideration is whether the dancers were, “as a matter of economic reality, dependent on the business they served, or, conversely, whether they were in business for themselves.” Schultz, 466 F.3d at 305.
With regard to the first factor, “degree of control,” the court discussed same specifically in regard to voluminous case law that has now developed regarding exotic dancers:
Courts considering the status of exotic dancers under the FLSA generally look not only to the guidelines set by the club regarding the entertainers’ performances and behavior, but also to the club’s control over the atmosphere and clientele. For example, in Reich v. Circle C. Investments, Inc., 998 F.2d 324 (5th Cir.1993), the court determined that the club exerted significant control where the defendant set weekly work schedules, fined the dancers for absences and tardiness, set price levels for table dances and couch dances, set standards for costumes, and managed song selection, among other things. Id. at 327. Similarly, in Morse v. Mer Corp., the defendant exercised control by publishing “Entertainer Guidelines” that set minimum shift lengths, minimum charges, and behavioral prohibitions. No. 1:08–cv–1389–WTL–JMS, 2010 WL 2346334, at *3 (S.D. Ind. June 4, 2010). Additionally, although the court in Priba Corp. noted that the defendant exercised control over the entertainers by setting show times and establishing behavioral guidelines, it emphasized that “the real touchstone” of the control factor was the “reality of the employment relationship.” 890 F.Supp. at 592. Thus, the Priba court focused on the dancers’ dependence on the club for earnings, and the club’s control over advertising and atmosphere. Id.
Here, unlike in many of the cases involving exotic dancers, see, e.g., Hart v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc., ––– F.Supp.2d ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *6 (S.D.N.Y.2013) (club exerted control where it had written behavioral guidelines, imposed fines, and imposed a dress code); Thompson v. Linda And A., Inc., 779 F.Supp.2d 139, 148 (D.D.C.2011) (significant control exercised where dancers were required to “sign in,” follow a schedule, were permitted to dance only for set durations, and the defendant enforced certain behavioral rules); Harrell v. Diamond A Entertainment, Inc., 992 F.Supp. 1343, 1349–50 (M.D.Fla.1997) (economic dependence found where the club set fees, had a “stage rotation,” controlled customer volume and atmosphere, and required dancers to abide by written rules and regulations), Defendant does not appear to manage the day-to-day aspects of the dancers’ performance. Defendant does not create work schedules for the dancers, but rather permits them to work at other clubs and to “come and go as they please.” Walter Alexander Robinson, III Dep. 45:15–21, 79:1–4, Aug. 9, 2013. Defendant did not mandate that Plaintiff dress or dance a certain way, did not limit the amount of lap dances she could perform, and did not limit the number of beverages a customer could purchase for her. Unique S. Butler Dep. 40:1–10, Aug. 9, 2013. The only behavioral guidelines that Defendant required Plaintiff to follow were those set by the Maryland State Liquor Board and the adult entertainment laws. Robinson Dep. 51:1–14.
Defendant asserts that the only fee imposed on the Plaintiff was a non-mandatory $45 cleaning or maintenance fee. Id. at 71:10–14. Although Defendant recommends a minimum fee for lap dances, the manager testified that each dancer can set her own fee. Id. at 55:13–56:4. Plaintiff asserts that Defendant also imposed a “late fee,” mandated that she pay the DJ prior to getting on stage, and required her to tip the house mom. Butler Dep. 20:9–13, 31:14–32:9. Plaintiff also stated that Defendant required her to dance at particular times. Id. at 19:11–19. Further, she testified that, if dancers were sanctioned for any matter, they were instructed to work the day shift as punishment. Id. at 32:6–15.
It is undisputed, however, that the Defendant alone is responsible for advertising and creating the atmosphere of the club. Robinson Dep. 30:16–20 (“Q [:] The Defendant is responsible for the advertising, location, business hours, maintenance of facility, aesthetics, and inventory of beverages and food? A [:] Yes. There’s no food.”); 33:6–12 (“Q[:] Okay. The Plaintiff’s employment with Defendant was dependent on Defendant’s financial savvy and business know-how to keep Defendant’s business financially sound so as to keep the doors open and afford Plaintiff the opportunity to work at Norma Jean’s Nightclub? A [:] Yes.”). Like in Priba Corp., the visibility and quality of the club itself “dictates the flow of customers into the club.” 890 F.Supp. at 592. Plaintiff is thus entirely dependent on the Defendant to provide her with customers, and her economic status “is inextricably linked to those conditions over which [Defendant has] complete control.” Id.
Thus, although viewing the facts in the light most favorable to the Defendant suggests that Defendant does not exercise control over the day-to-day decisions and work of its dancers, it exercises significant control over the atmosphere, clientele, and operation of the club. Thus, this factor likely tips in favor of economic dependence, as Defendant exclusively controls the flow of customers, on which Plaintiff depended for her income.
Applying the second factor, “opportunity for profit or loss,” the court held that same supported a finding of employment, based on the defendant’s acknowledgement that plaintiff did not share in the profits or losses of the club. The court similarly held that plaintiff made virtually no investment in equipment or material, the third factor considered, and the little or no skill was required for her job (the fourth factor).
While the court acknowledged that the fifth factor, “permanence of the working relationship was not as clear, it nonetheless concluded that, the mere fact that the plaintiff was free to come and go as she pleased and work at other clubs, did not belie classification as an employee:
As to the permanence and duration of the working relationship, Plaintiff was generally permitted to work without a specified end date and could come and go as she pleased. Robinson Dep. 45:15–21, 79:1–4. Additionally, she was free to work at other adult entertainment clubs. This factor tends to weigh in favor of independent contractor status. As other courts have noted in considering this factor, however, “it is entitled to only modest weight in assessing employee status under the FLSA.” Hart, ––– F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14; see also Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593 (“Because dancers tend to be itinerant, the court must focus on the nature of their dependence.”). As the District Court for the Southern District of New York recently noted in regard to a similar challenge, “[t]hat dancers were free to work at other clubs or in other lines of work, and that they were not permanent employees, do[es] not distinguish them from countless workers in other areas of endeavor who are undeniably employees under the FLSA-for example, waiters, ushers, and bartenders.” Hart, ––– F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14.
Finally, the court dismissed the defendant’s argument that plaintiff’s services were not of an “integral nature” to its business operations:
It is undisputed that Defendant maintains an adult entertainment business at Norma Jean’s Nite Club. Defendant asserts that, although the club features dancers, dancers are not integral to the operation of the business. Rather, Defendant characterizes Norma Jean’s as “a sports bar” with pool tables, and contends that dancers constitute but one of the features. Robinson Dep. 19:5–10, 31:2–7. Defendant states that it makes all of its profits off of the sale of alcoholic beverages, not the exotic dancers.
Courts have routinely noted that the presence of exotic dancers are “essential,” or “obviously very important,” to the success of a topless nightclub. See, e.g., Harrell, 922 F.Supp. at 1352; Martin v. Circle C. Invs., Inc., No. MO–91–CA–43, 1991 WL 338239, at *4 (W.D.Tex. Mar. 27, 1991). For example, the court in Hart stated, in considering the club owners’ argument that “the Club’s restaurant, bar, and televisions served to attract customers,” that “[n]o reasonable jury could conclude that exotic dancers were not integral to the success of a club that marketed itself as a club for exotic dancers.” ––– F.Supp.2d at ––––, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14.
Here, any contention that the exotic dancers were not integral to the operation of Norma Jean’s flies in the face of logic. The presence of the exotic dancers was clearly a major attraction of the club, and increased significantly the sales of alcoholic beverages and, accordingly, the profits earned by PP & G. Further, unlike the club in Hart, Norma Jean’s does not serve food or have a restaurant. Rather, the only attractions, aside from exotic dancers, are televisions and pool tables. Because no reasonable jury could determine that exotic dancers were not integral to the success of Norma Jean’s, this factor also tips in favor of employee status.
Holding that all factors together supported an employment relationship the court concluded:
Considering the preceding factors in conjunction, and resolving all disputes of fact in favor of the Defendant, the Court concludes that Plaintiff was an employee, not an independent contractor, at Norma Jean’s Nite Club. Although Defendant asserts that Plaintiff elected to become an independent contractor, neither the label placed on an employment relationship, nor an individual’s subjective belief about her employment status, are dispositive. See, e.g., Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc., 808 F.Supp.2d 1326, 1329 (N.D.Ga.2011). Defendant controlled the economic opportunity of the Plaintiff. Plaintiff did not have the opportunity for profit or loss, did not invest in the club, and did not have any specialized skills. Moreover, work of the type performed by Plaintiff as an exotic dancer is integral to the operation of the club. Regardless of the Defendant’s characterization of the relationship as that of an independent contractor, “[w]here the work done, in its essence, follows the usual path of an employee, putting on an ‘independent contractor’ label does not take the worker from the protection of the [Fair Labor Standards] Act.” Rutherford, 331 U.S. at 729.
Click Butler v. PP & G, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum opinion.
In a second recent opinion, on very similar facts, a court within the Northern District of Georgia reached the same conclusion. Applying the same “economic reality” test to the facts before it, the court explained:
To begin, this is not a matter of first impression for this Court. In Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc., 808 F.Supp.2d 1326 (N.D.Ga.2011), this Court found that adult entertainers-working under conditions similar to the Plaintiffs in this action-were “employees” protected by the FLSA. Many other courts have reached the same conclusion. See Reich v. Circle C. Investments, Inc., 998 F.2d 324 (5th Cir.1993); Reich v. Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. 586 (N.D.Tex.1995); Harrell v. Diamond A Entertainment, Inc., 992 F.Supp. 1343 (M.D.Fla.1997); Morse v. Mer Corp., 1:08–CV–1389–WTL–JMS, 2010 WL 2346334 (S.D. Ind. June 4, 2010); Hart v. Rick’s Cabaret Intern., Inc., No. 09 Civ. 3043, 2013 WL 4822199 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 10, 2013).
Here, five out of the six factors support finding “employee” status. First, Pin Ups exercised a significant amount of control over the Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs were issued a document titled “General Policies and Procedures.” (Pls.’ Statement of Facts ¶ 59.) These rules laid out standards for appropriate dress5 and how the entertainers were to conduct themselves on stage. (Id., Ex. 4.) They also stipulated that the DJ would ultimately select the music that the entertainers would perform to. (Id.) These rules applied not only to how the Plaintiffs conducted themselves on the main stage, but also to how they conducted themselves in the VIP room. (Id.) Further, these rules were enforced. Violations could result in dismissal. (Id. ¶¶ 16–17.) The “house moms” made sure that the Plaintiffs complied with the appearance standards. (Id. ¶ 23.) If there was a dispute regarding proper dress, the manager would make the final call. (Id. 43.) In addition to these regulations, the Plaintiffs were required to pay several fees. Upon arriving for a shift, they had to pay a house fee. (Id. ¶¶ 31–32.) They also paid fees that went to the house mom and the DJ. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 24.) Moreover, Pin Ups was responsible for settling disputes arising within the club. For example, disputes concerning the entertainer tip pool were resolved by the house mom and the manager. (Id. ¶ 49.) Pin Ups also handled disputes between the Plaintiffs and the customers. (Id. ¶ 18.) The Defendants argue that the entertainers could set their own schedules. But this was true in several cases where courts found that the entertainers were nonetheless employees. See, e.g., Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 591; Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1348. Control over scheduling is minimal compared to all of the elements of the job that Pin Ups controlled. See Usery, 527 F.2d at 1312 (“Each operator is given the right to set her own hours … [i]n the total context of the relationship … the right to set hours [does not indicate] such lack of control by [the defendant] as would show these operators are independent from it …. [c]ontrol is only significant when it shows an individual … stands as a separate economic entity.”). Here, “the entertainer’s economic status is inextricably linked to those conditions over which defendants have complete control.” Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 592.
Second, the Plaintiffs and Pin Ups did not share equally in the opportunities for profit and loss. Although the Plaintiffs risked a loss equal to the fees they paid-assuming they made nothing in tips-“The risk of loss [was] much greater for the Club.” Clincy v. Galardi South Enterprises, Inc., 808 F.Supp.2d 1326, 1346 (N.D.Ga.2011). It bore the vast majority of overhead costs. Pin Ups also had more of an impact on potential profits. It was “primarily responsible for attracting customers to the Club, as decisions about marketing and promotions for the Club, its location, its maintenance, aesthetics, and atmosphere, and food and alcohol availability and pricing are made by” Pin Ups. Id. The Defendants argue that the entertainers could earn more profit based on their interactions with the customers. (Defs.’ Resp. to Mot. for Summ. J., at 17–18.) This argument was rejected in Clincy. See Clincy, 808 F.Supp.2d at 1345–46. The Plaintiffs’ control over profits was minor compared to Pin Ups’. “[B]ut for defendants’ provision of the lavish work environment, the entertainers at the club likely would earn nothing.” Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593.
Third, Pin Ups invested far more than the Plaintiffs on necessary personnel and equipment. It provided bartenders, waitresses, cashiers, security staff, and disc jockeys. (Pls.’ Statement of Facts ¶¶ 12–13, 70.) Pin Ups also provided the facility, the stages, and the poles. (Id. ¶ 71.) As other courts have noted, the amount spent on clothing, hair styling, and make-up “is minor when compared to the club’s investment.” Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1350; see also Reich, 998 F.2d at 328 (“A dancer’s investment in costumes and a padlock is relatively minor to the considerable investment Circle C has in operating a nightclub.”). Many employees in many different fields are also financially responsible for maintaining an appearance suitable to their respective work environments.
Fourth, little skill is required. Pin Ups does not require that its entertainers undergo formal training. (Id. ¶ 73.) The Defendants argue that the entertainers get better as they gain experience. Although different entertainers may possess varying degrees of skill, there is no indication that a high degree of skill or experience is necessary. Taking your clothes off on a nightclub stage and dancing provocatively are not the kinds of special skills that suggest independent contractor status. See Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593 (“The scope of her initiative is restricted to decisions involving what clothes to wear or how provocatively to dance. Such limited initiative is more consistent with the status of an employee than an independent contractor.”).
Fifth, and most definitively, the Plaintiffs’ services were an integral part of Pin Ups’ business. Pin Ups is an adult entertainment club and so it needs adult entertainers. Kelly Campbell, the general manager of Pin Ups, acknowledged this. (Campbell Dep. at 20.) (“Because we are an entertainment facility and we could not be such without an entertainer.”). Pin Ups’ General Policies and Procedures issued to the entertainers states: “Your job as an entertainer is the most important one in our organization.” (Pls.’ Statement of Facts, Ex. 4.)
The court did recognize that the final factor did not necessarily weigh in favor of an employment relationship, but—citing some of the identical language as the Butler court had—it held that same was not terribly important in its inquiry:
Only the duration factor supports the Defendants’ position. There is no indication that all of the Plaintiffs worked at Pin Ups for an extended period of time, and all of the Plaintiffs were permitted to work as entertainers at other clubs. However, “[t]hat dancers were free to work at other clubs or in other lines of work, and that they were not permanent employees, do not distinguish them from countless workers in other areas of endeavor who are undeniably employees under the FLSA-for example, waiters, ushers, and bartenders.” Hart, 2013 WL 4822199, at *14. In light of the other factors, this alone cannot nudge the Plaintiffs out of the protective sphere of the FLSA.7 See Reich, 998 F.2d at 328–29 (“The transient nature of the work force is not enough here to remove the dancers from the protections of the FLSA. In analyzing the … factors, we must not lose sight of economic reality.”).
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S.D.N.Y.: Existence of Arbitration Agreements for Some (Not All) Employees in Putative Class, Irrelevant re “Similarly Situated” Inquiry at Stage I
This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. The case concerned allegations of impermissible tip credit, inadequate notice of same (under 203(m)), and other allegations of unpaid minimum wages. As further discussed here, defendants largely focused their attack on their twin contentions that the class proposed by plaintiff was not similarly situated to him and/or was too broad, because it contained English speakers (the plaintiff did not speak English) and employees and former employees who had signed arbitration agreements (the plaintiff did not). The court rejected both of these contentions, and reasoned that neither of these factors were appropriately considered at Stage I, the conditional certification stage.
Rejecting the defendant’s arguments in this regard, and holding that such issues were more properly reserved for Stage II or decertification analysis, the court reasoned:
The Court disagrees with defendants’ arguments. Case law imposes only a very limited burden on plaintiffs for purposes of proceeding as a conditional collective action. “[C]ourts have conditionally certified collective actions under the FLSA where plaintiffs, based on their firsthand observations, identify an approximate class of similarly situated individuals.” Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc ., 2012 WL 4369746, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 24, 2012). Here, Romero has done just that, stating in his declaration that he “personally observed … Defendants’ policy to pay below the statutory minimum wage rate to all tipped employees,” that he and other tipped employees were compensated “all at rates below the minimum wage,” that he has never seen a tipped employee “receive proper notice explaining what a tip credit is,” that he and other tipped employees had to spend more than 20% of their daily time in non-tipped related activities, that he observed defendants engaging in time-shaving, that he observed when employees were sent home without call-in pay if the restaurant was not busy, and that he “personally observed that all non-exempt employees received the same form of wage and hour notice.” Romero Decl. ¶¶ 2–9. The affidavit of a plaintiff attesting to the existence of similarly situated plaintiffs is sufficient for the purposes of a motion to approve a collective action. See Cheng Chung Liang v. J.C. Broadway Restaurant, Inc., 2013 WL 2284882, at *2–3 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2013) (“For the purposes of this motion, … plaintiffs’ evidence—in the form of [one employee’s] affidavit—is sufficient to establish that … there may be class members with whom he is similarly situated.”). Thus, Romero has made a sufficient showing that he and potential plaintiffs “were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.” Hoffman, 982 F.Supp. at 261.
Defendants’ principal argument is that because other employees signed arbitration agreements, Romero is not similarly situated to these other employees. Def. Mem. at 6–14. Defendants assert that the claims here are “properly pursued solely in arbitration, on an individual basis, by all of Ruhlmann’s employees who signed such an agreement” and therefore that “Ruhlmann’s employees are dissimilar from Plaintiff Romero and must pursue any claims they may have in an arbitral forum rather than federal court.” Def. Mem. at 8–9. Romero challenges both the enforceability and the validity of these arbitration agreements. He argues that the agreements are not enforceable because they violate the fee-shifting provision of the FLSA. Reply at 6–7. Romero also argues that defendants caused several of these agreements to be signed by coercion, that it is highly likely that several employees did not actually sign arbitration agreements, and that the validity of the signatures on several agreements are questionable. Reply at 7–9; Pl. May 31 Letter at 2. Additionally, he asserts that the agreements are unenforceable because they limit the statute of limitations on employees’ claims to six months and because they were not provided to employees in their native language. Pl. Aug. 20 Letter at 2–3.
As already noted, the question on a motion to proceed as a collective action is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated “with respect to their allegations that the law has been violated.” Young, 229 F.R.D. at 54; accord Meyers, 624 F.3d at 555 (in conditional collective action approval, question is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated to the named plaintiffs “with respect to whether a FLSA violation has occurred”). The arbitration agreements do not create any differences between Romero and the proposed plaintiffs with respect to Romero’s claims that defendants have violated the FLSA. That is, the validity vel non of the agreements is unrelated to any claims of a violation of the FLSA. Under this reasoning, the existence of differences between potential plaintiffs as to the arbitrability of their claims should not act as a bar to the collective action analysis. Indeed, courts have consistently held that the existence of arbitration agreements is “irrelevant” to collective action approval “because it raises a merits-based determination.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., 2011 WL 5878045, at *4 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (citing cases); accord Hernandez, 2012 WL 4369746, at *5;Salomon v. Adderly Indus., Inc., 847 F.Supp.2d 561, 565 (S.D.N.Y.2012) (“The relevant issue here, however, is not whether Plaintiffs and [potential opt-in plaintiffs] were identical in all respects, but rather whether they were subjected to a common policy to deprive them of overtime pay ….”) (alteration in original) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).
In support of its argument that the existence of arbitration agreements merits denial of collective action approval, defendants make arguments about the eventual enforceability of the arbitration agreements and rely on cases in which courts granted motions to dismiss and compel arbitration because of such agreements. See Def. Mem. at 6–7. Critically, defendants do not even address the cases holding that consideration of the validity of arbitration agreements is inappropriate in the context of a motion to approval an FLSA collective action. The situation here is thus akin to the situation in Raniere v. Citigroup Inc., 827 F.Supp.2d 294 (S.D .N.Y.2011), rev’d on other grounds, 2013 WL 4046278 (2d Cir.2013), in which the court remarked:
Defendants have failed to cite a single authority finding that due to the possibility that members of the collective [action] might be compelled to bring their claims in an arbitral forum, certification is not appropriate. Such arguments are best suited to the second certification stage, where, on a fuller record, the court will examine whether the plaintiffs and opt-ins are in fact similarly situated.
Id. at 324.
Defendants’ strongest argument is that “[i]t would be a waste of judicial and party resource to force defendants” to send notice to individuals ultimately bound to arbitrate claims. Def. June 4 Letter at 3. But the notice requirement is not unduly burdensome in this case and the defendants’ proposal essentially amounts to an invitation for the Court to adjudicate the validity of the arbitration agreements. But, as already noted, case law makes clear that this sort of merits-based determination should not take place at the first stage of the conditional collective action approval process. Plaintiff has raised at least colorable arguments to support the invalidity or unenforceability of the arbitration agreements, some of which are fact-intensive. Case law holds, however, that issues of fact surrounding arbitration agreements are properly resolved at the second stage of the two-step inquiry. D’Antuono, 2011 WL 5878045, at *5; accord Salomon, 847 F.Supp.2d at 565 (“[A] fact-intensive inquiry is inappropriate at the notice stage, as Plaintiffs are seeking only conditional certification.”) (citing cases); Ali v. Sugarland Petroleum, 2009 WL 5173508, at *4 (S.D.Tex. Dec. 22, 2009) (“The Court will make the determination [of whether to exclude those who signed arbitration agreement from the class] at the conclusion of discovery, when it may properly analyze the validity of the arbitration agreement.”). Defendants not only fail to distinguish these cases, they do not even proffer any argument as to why the reasoning of these cases is wrong.
Defendants have submitted evidence contradicting Romero’s claim that he is similarly situated to other employees with respect to other aspects of his claims, such as his understanding of the tip credit. See Collin Decl. ¶ 9. However, “the two-stage certification process exists to help develop the factual record, not put an end to an action on an incomplete one.” Griffith v. Fordham Fin. Mgmt., Inc., 2013 WL 2247791, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2013) (granting collective action approval where defendant had put forth “contravening evidence”) (emphasis omitted) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). For these reasons, Romero’s motion for conditional approval of a collective action is granted.
Click Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C. to read the court’s entire Opinion & Order.