Home » Posts tagged 'FLSA Employee'
Tag Archives: FLSA Employee
4th Cir.: Strippers Are Employees NOT Independent Contractors; Trial Court Properly Applied the Economic Reality Test
McFeeley v. Jackson Street Entertainment, LLC
In this case, multiple exotic dancers sued their dance clubs for failure to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and corresponding Maryland wage and hour laws. The district court held that plaintiffs were employees of the defendant companies and not independent contractors as the clubs contended. Following a damages-only trial and judgment on behalf of the dancers, the Defendant-clubs appealed the court’s finding that the dancers were employees and not independent contractors. The Fourth Circuit held that the court properly captured the economic reality of the relationship here, and thus affirmed the judgment.
The Fourth Circuit summarized the salient facts regarding the dancers’ relationship with the defendant-clubs as follows:
Anyone wishing to dance at either club was required to fill out a form and perform an audition. Defendants asked all hired dancers to sign agreements titled “Space/Lease Rental Agreement of Business Space” that explicitly categorized dancers as independent contractors. The clubs began using these agreements after being sued in 2011 by dancers who claimed, as plaintiffs do here, to have been employees rather than independent contractors. Defendant Offiah thereafter consulted an attorney, who drafted the agreement containing the “independent contractor” language.
Plaintiffs’ duties at Fuego and Extasy primarily involved dancing on stage and in certain other areas of the two clubs. At no point did the clubs pay the dancers an hourly wage or any other form of compensation. Rather, plaintiffs’ compensation was limited to performance fees and tips received directly from patrons. The clubs also collected a “tip-in” fee from everyone who entered either dance club, patrons and dancers alike. The dancers and clubs dispute other aspects of their working relationship, including work schedules and policies.
After discussing the traditional elements of the economic reality test, the Fourth Circuit discussed each element and concluded that, overall, they supported the district court’s holding that the dancers were employees and not independent contractors.
Here, as in so many FLSA disputes, plaintiffs and defendants offer competing narratives of their working relationship. The exotic dancers claim that all aspects of their work at Fuego and Extasy were closely regulated by defendants, from their hours to their earnings to their workplace conduct. The clubs, not surprisingly, portray the dancers as free agents that came and went as they pleased and used the clubs as nothing but a rented space in which to perform. The dueling depictions serve to remind us that the employee/independentcontractor distinction is not a bright line but a spectrum, and that courts must struggle with matters of degree rather than issue categorical pronouncements.
Based on the totality of the circumstances presented here, the relationship between plaintiffs and defendants falls on the employee side of the spectrum. Even given that we must view the facts in the light most favorable to defendants, see Ctr. for Individual Freedom, Inc. v. Tennant, 706 F.3d 270, 279 (4th Cir. 2013), we cannot accept defendants’ contrary characterization, which cherry-picks a few facts that supposedly tilt in their favor and downplays the weightier and more numerous factors indicative of an employment relationship. Most critical on the facts of this case is the first factor of the “economic realities” test: the degree of control that the putative employer has over the manner in which the work is performed.
The clubs insist they had very little control over the dancers. Plaintiffs were allegedly free in the clubs’ view to determine their own work schedules, how and when they performed, and whether they danced at clubs other than Fuego and Extasy. But the relaxed working relationship represented by defendants—the kind that perhaps every worker dreams about—finds little support in the record.
To the contrary, plaintiffs described and the district court found the following plain manifestations of defendants’ control over the dancers:
Dancers were required to sign in upon arriving at the club and to pay the “tip-in” or entrance fee required of both dancers and patrons.
The clubs dictated each dancer’s work schedule. As plaintiff Danielle Everett testified, “I ended up having a set schedule once I started at Fuego’s. Tuesdays and Thursdays there, and Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at Extasy.” J.A. 578 (Everett’s deposition). This was typical of the deposition testimony submitted in the summary judgment record.
The clubs imposed written guidelines that all dancers had to obey during working hours. J.A. 769-77 (clubs’ rulebook). These rules went into considerable detail, banning drinking while working, smoking in the clubs’ bathroom, and loitering in the parking lot after business hours. They prohibited dancers from leaving the club and returning later in the night. Dancers were required to wear dance shoes at all times and could not bring family or friends to the clubs during working hours. Violations of the clubs’ guidelines carried penalties such as suspension or dismissal. Although the defendants claimed not to enforce the rules, as the district court put it, “[a]n employer’s ‘potential power’ to enforce its rules and manage dancers’ conduct is a form of control.” J.A. 997 (quoting Hart v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc., 967 F.Supp.2d 901, 918 (S.D.N.Y. 2013)).
The clubs set the fees that dancers were supposed to charge patrons for private dances and dictated how tips and fees were handled. The guidelines explicitly state: “[D]o not [overcharge] our customers. If you do, you will be kicked out of the club.” J.A. 771.
Defendants personally instructed dancers on their behavior and conduct at work. For example, one manager stated that he “ ‘coached’ dancers whom he believed did not have the right attitude or were not behaving properly.” J.A. 997.
Defendants managed the clubs’ atmosphere and clientele by making all decisions regarding advertising, hours of operation, and the types of food and beverages sold, as well as handling lighting and music for the dancers. Id.
Reviewing the above factual circumstances into account the Fourth Circuit held that the district court was correct to conclude that the dancers were employees of the clubs under the FLSA and not independent contractors. The Court reasoned:
Taking the above circumstances into account, the district court found that the clubs’ “significant control” over how plaintiffs performed their work bore little resemblance to the latitude normally afforded to independent contractors. J.A. 997. We agree. The many ways in which defendants directed the dancers rose to the level of control that an employer would typically exercise over an employee. To conclude otherwise would unduly downgrade the factor of employer control and exclude workers that the FLSA was designed to embrace.
None of this is to suggest that a worker automatically becomes an employee covered by the FLSA the moment a company exercises any control over him. After all, a company that engages an independent contractor seeks to exert some control, whether expressed orally or in writing, over the performance of the contractor’s duties and over his conduct on the company’s premises. It is rather hard to imagine a party contracting for needed services with an insouciant “Do whatever you want, wherever you want, and however you please.” A company that leases space or otherwise invites independent contractors onto its property might at a minimum wish to prohibit smoking and littering or to set the hours of use in order to keep the premises in good shape. Such conditions, along with the terms of performance and compensation, are part and parcel of bargaining between parties whose independent contractual status is not in dispute.
If any sign of control or any restriction on use of space could convert an independent contractor into an employee, there would soon be nothing left of the former category. Workers and managers alike might sorely miss the flexibility and freedom that independent-contractor status confers. But the degree of control the clubs exercised here over all aspects of the individual dancers’ work and of the clubs’ operation argues in favor of an employment relationship. Each of the other five factors of the “economic realities” test is either neutral or leads us in the same direction.
Two of those factors relate logically to one other: “the worker’s opportunities for profit or loss dependent on his managerial skill” and “the worker’s investment in equipment or material, or his employment of other workers.” Schultz, 466 F.3d at 305. The relevance of these two factors is intuitive. The more the worker’s earnings depend on his own managerial capacity rather than the company’s, and the more he is personally invested in the capital and labor of the enterprise, the less the worker is “economically dependent on the business” and the more he is “in business for himself” and hence an independent contractor. Id. at 304 (quoting Henderson v. Inter-Chem Coal Co., Inc., 41 F.3d 567, 570 (10th Cir. 1994)).
The clubs attempt to capitalize on these two factors by highlighting that dancers relied on their own skill and ability to attract clients. They further contend that dancers sold tickets for entrance to the two clubs, distributed promotional flyers, and put their own photos on the flyers. As the district court noted, however, “[t]his argument—that dancers can ‘hustle’ to increase their profits—has been almost universally rejected.” J.A. 999 (collecting cases). It is natural for an employee to do his part in drumming up business for his employer, especially if the employee’s earnings depend on it. An obvious example might be a salesperson in a retail store who works hard at drawing foot traffic into the store. The skill that the employee exercises in that context is not managerial but simply good salesmanship.
Here, the lion’s share of the managerial skill and investment normally expected of employers came from the defendants. The district court found that the clubs’ managers “controlled the stream of clientele that appeared at the clubs by setting the clubs’ hours, coordinating and paying for all advertising, and managing the atmosphere within the clubs.” J.A. 1001. They “ultimately controlled a key determinant—pricing—affecting [p]laintiffs’ ability to make a profit.” Id. In terms of investment, defendants paid “rent for both clubs; the clubs’ bills such as water and electric; business liability insurance; and for radio and print advertising,” as well as wages for all non-performing staff. Id. at 1002. The dancers’ investment was limited to their own apparel and, on occasion, food and decorations they brought to the clubs. Id. at 1002-03.
On balance then, plaintiffs’ opportunities for profit or loss depended far more on defendants’ management and decision-making than on their own, and defendants’ investment in the clubs’ operation far exceeded the plaintiffs’. These two factors thus fail to tip the scales in favor of classifying the dancers as independent contractors.
As with the control factor, however, neither of these two elements should be overstated. Those who engage independent contractorsare often themselves companies or small businesses with employees of their own. Therefore, they have most likely invested in the labor and capital necessary to operate the business, taken on overhead costs, and exercised their managerial skill in ways that affect the opportunities for profit of their workers. Those fundamental components of running a company, however, hardly render anyone with whom the company transacts business an “employee” under the FLSA. The focus, as suggested by the wording of these two factors, should remain on the worker’s contribution to managerial decision-making and investment relative to the company’s. In this case, the ratio of managerial skill and operational support tilts too heavily towards the clubs to support an independent-contractor classification for the dancers.
The final three factors are more peripheral to the dispute here and will be discussed only briefly: the degree of skill required for the work; the permanence of the working relationship; and the degree to which the services rendered are an integral part of the putative employer’s business. As to the degree of skill required, the clubs conceded that they did not require dancers to have prior dancing experience. The district court properly found that “the minimal degree of skill required for exotic dancing at these clubs” supported anemployee classification. J.A. 1003-04. Moreover, even the skill displayed by the most accomplished dancers in a ballet company would hardly by itself be sufficient to denote an independent contractor designation.
As to the permanence of the working relationship, courts have generally accorded this factor little weight in challenges brought by exotic dancers given the inherently “itinerant” nature of their work. J.A. 1004-05; see also Harrell v. Diamond A Entm’t, Inc., 992 F.Supp. 1343, 1352 (M.D. Fla. 1997). In this case, defendants and plaintiffs had “an at-will arrangement that could be terminated by either party at any time.” J.A. 1005. Because this type of agreement could characterize either an employee or an independent contractor depending on the other circumstances of the working relationship, we agree with the district court that this temporal element does not affect the outcome here.
Finally, as to the importance of the services rendered to the company’s business, even the clubs had to concede the point that an “exotic dance club could [not] function, much less be profitable, without exotic dancers.” Secretary of Labor’s Amicus Br. in Supp. of Appellees 24. Indeed, “the exotic dancers were the only source of entertainment for customers …. especially considering that neither club served alcohol or food.” J.A. 1006. Considering all six factors together, particularly the defendants’ high degree of control over the dancers, the totality of circumstances speak clearly to an employer-employee relationship between plaintiffs and defendants. The trial court was right to term it such.
Significantly, the Fourth Circuit also affirmed the trial court’s holding that the performance fees collected by the dancers directly from the clubs’ patrons were not wages, and that the clubs were not entitled to claim same as an offset in an effort to meet their minimum wage wage obligations. Discussing this issue, the Court explained:
Appellants’ second attack on their liability for damages targets the district court’s alleged error in excluding from trial evidence regarding plaintiffs’ income tax returns, performance fees, and tips. The clubs contend that fees and tips kept by the dancers would have reduced any compensation that defendants owed plaintiffs under the FLSA and MWHL. According to defendants, the fees and tips dancers received directly from patrons exceeded the minimum wage mandated by federal and state law. Had the evidence been admitted, the argument goes, the jury may have awarded plaintiffs less in unpaid wages.
We disagree. The district court found that evidence related to plaintiffs’ earnings was irrelevant or, if relevant, posed a danger of confusing the issues and misleading the jury. See Fed. R. Evid. 403. Proof of tips and fees received was irrelevant here because theFLSA precludes defendants from using tips or fees to offset the minimum wage they were required to pay plaintiffs. To be eligible for the “tip credit” under the FLSA and corresponding Maryland law, defendants were required to pay dancers the minimum wage set for those receiving tip income and to notify employees of the “tip credit” provision. 29 U.S.C. 203(m); Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 3-419 (West 2014). The clubs paid the dancers no compensation of any kind and afforded them no notice. They cannot therefore claim the “tip credit.”
The clubs are likewise ineligible to use performance fees paid by patrons to the dancers to reduce their liability. Appellants appear to distinguish performance fees from tips in their argument, without providing much analysis in their briefs on a question that has occupied other courts. See, e.g., Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 926-34 (discussing how performance fees received by exotic dancers relate to minimum wage obligations). If performance fees do constitute tips, defendants would certainly be entitled to no offset because, as noted above, they cannot claim any “tip credit.” For the sake of argument, however, we treat performance fees as a possible separate offset within the FLSA’s “service charge” category. Even with this benefit of the doubt, defendants come up short.
For purposes of the FLSA, a “service charge” is a “compulsory charge for service … imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55(a). There are at least two prerequisites to counting “service charges” as an offset to an employer’s minimum-wage liability. The service charge “must have been included in the establishment’s gross receipts,” Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 929, and it must have been “distributed by the employer to its employees,” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55(b). These requirements are necessary to ensure that employees actually received the service charges as part of their compensation as opposed to relying on the employer’s assertion or say-so. See Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 930. We do not minimize the recordkeeping burdens of the FLSA, especially on small businesses, but some such obligations have been regarded as necessary to ensure compliance with the statute.
Neither condition for applying the service-charge offset is met here. As conceded by defendant Offiah, the dance clubs never recorded or included as part of the dance clubs’ gross receipts any payments that patrons paid directly to dancers. J.A. 491-97 (Offiah’s deposition). When asked about performance fees during his deposition, defendant Offiah repeatedly stressed that fees belong solely to the dancers. Id. Since none of those payments ever went to the clubs’ proprietors, defendants also could not have distributed any part of those service charges to the dancers. As a result, the “service charge” offset is unavailable to defendants. Accordingly, the trial court correctly excluded evidence showing plaintiffs’ earnings in the form of tips and performance fees.
This case is significant because, while many district courts have reached the same conclusions, this is the first Circuit Court decision to affirm same.
Click McFeeley v. Jackson Street Entertainment, LLC to read the entire Fourth Circuit decision.
2 Recent Cases Draw Distinction Between Volunteers and Employees
With the uptick in FLSA case filings in recent years, a previously rarely litigated issue- whether certain types of workers are volunteers or “employees” subject to FLSA coverage- has increasingly come under judicial scrutiny. And, while case law has long interpreted the FLSA in a liberal manner, with the stated purpose of erring on the side of coverage for workers, two recent cases demonstrate that definition is not without its limits. In the first case, the domestic partner/girlfriend of a Domino’s Pizza store manager helped the manager with his management duties, in the hopes that eventually such efforts would lead to the partner’s advancement within the company. In the second case, an alumni for a public high school served as a mentor to students following his graduation from school. As discussed below, in both cases, the courts employed the “economic reality” test, and held that the workers were volunteers as opposed to employees.
Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc.
In the first case, the plaintiff- apparently the girlfriend of the general manager of a Domino’s franchise store- assisted her boyfriend in his duties as the general manager. After the boyfriend’s employment with the defendant ceased, the plaintiff sought renumeration for all of the work she had previously performed on behalf of defendants, while he boyfriend had been employed. Interestingly, it appears from the style of the case that the defendants- who denied that the plaintiff was ever their employee- sought to bring a claim for indemnification/contribution against the boyfriend by impleading him as a third-party defendant. Looking at the totality of the circumstances, the court concluded that she was a volunteer and not an employee under the FLSA. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Elucidating the relevant facts, the court explained that at some point in 2007, the plaintiff (Emanuel) told her boyfriend that she wanted to work at the store he managed on behalf of the defendants. Apparently, the plaintiff wanted to help with her boyfriend’s effort to become a Domino’s Pizza franchise owner.In response the boyfriend said he’d have to speak to the defendants about Emanuel working at the Elmhurst store. Thereafter, the boyfriend conveyed to Emanuel that defendants “believed your talents can be better utilized somewhere else.” Nonetheless, sometime later, the boyfriend (Shafer) communicated to Emanuel that she could begin working at the Elmhurst store. Significantly, the plaintiff acknowledged that she could not have worked in the store pursuant to the defendants anti-nepotism policy and that defendants would have told her to “get the hell out of my store,” had they known she was performing work in the store.
It was undisputed that neither the defendants, nor plaintiff’s boyfriend or anyone for that matter, ever promised plaintiff any compensation for the work she performed.
Ultimately, the plaintiff’s boyfriend and defendants got into a dispute regarding their agreement about his [plaintiff’s boyfriend’s] compensation, and as a result both plaintiff and her boyfriend ceased working for defendants. Subsequently, she filed the lawsuit, seeking compensation for the approximately 3 years of work she performed on behalf of defendants (and her boyfriend).
Laying out the elements of the “economic reality” test, the court explained:
Courts look to the totality of the circumstances when determining whether an individual is an “employee” under the FLSA and examine the “economic reality” of the working relationship. See, e.g., Vanskike v. Peters, 974 F.2d 806, 808 (7th Cir.1992). Courts have considered a variety of factors when examining the “economic reality” of a purported employment relationship, though none are dispositive or controlling. Secretary of Lab. v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1534 (7th Cir.1987). Six commonly applied factors are: (1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer’s control as to the manner in which the work is to be performed; (2) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending upon his managerial skill; (3) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of workers; (4) whether the service rendered requires a special skill; (5) the degree of permanency and duration of the working relationship; and (6) the extent to which the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business. Id. at 1534–35.
Rejecting the plaintiff’s contention that she was defendants’ “employee,” the court reasoned:
“Here, plaintiff Emanuel advances an absurd position. Emanuel argues that defendant Lindeman’s repeated statement that he would not pay her to work at the Elmhurst store was not a refusal to hire her as an employee, but an offer for her to work for free. Since Emanuel claims to have worked at the Elmhurst store without compensation and without [defendants] forcibly ejecting her from the store or otherwise preventing her from working, it is her position that an employment relationship impliedly exists.” However, noting the no one ever promised plaintiff compensation and that her work likely violated one or more of defendants corporate policies, the court held it was unreasonable for plaintiff to believe she was actually their employee, rather than a volunteer. Thus, the court granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment.
Click Emanuel v. Rolling in the Dough, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.
Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ.
In the second case, the plaintiff, Brown, graduated from the New School for Arts and Sciences, a high school that shared space with Banana Kelly. After graduation, Brown maintained ties with Banana Kelly and occasionally came in to visit former teachers. In October 2007, when Plaintiff expressed an interest in mentoring students, the school offered Plaintiff the opportunity to do so at Banana Kelly. Neither Brown nor the school raised the issue of compensation at this time, and neither discussed Brown’s employee status. No one interviewed Brown about his background or qualifications. Thereafter, the plaintiff went to Banana Kelly and continued at the school for more than three years, finally leaving in December 23, 2010, apparently because he was being investigated for inappropriate conduct related to his comments to a freshman student. During his time at the school, with minor exceptions, the plaintiff reported five days a week throughout the academic year, working 7-8 hours per day on a regular basis.
Citing the fact that the plaintiff never submitted to the normal, legal requirements for employment by the Department of Education: application, interview, background check, job classification, and assignment, the court rejected plaintiff’s assertion that he was an employee, because he expected compensation for his services. Although it was undisputed that the defendant told plaintiff that there was not enough money in the budget to pay him, according to the plaintiff, defendant promised that he would attempt to search the budget for the funding.
Again, looking at the “economic realities” and the totality of the facts of the situation, the court held that plaintiff was a volunteer and not an employee, subject to FLSA coverage. Thus, the court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment.
The court gave the following overview of the analysis applicable to the issue:
Whether one is a volunteer is to be determined “in a common-sense manner, which takes into account the totality of the circumstances surrounding the relationship between the individual providing services and the entity for which the services are provided.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428;City of Elmendorf, 388 F.3d at 528; Todaro, 40 F.Supp.2d at 230. Accordingly, courts should review “the objective facts surrounding the services performed to determine whether the totality of the circumstances establish volunteer status, or whether, instead, the facts and circumstances, objectively viewed, are rationally indicative of employee status.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428. The court then examined 2 factors to determine whether the plaintiff was an employee or a volunteer. First, the court considered whether Brown performed the tasks at Banana Kelly for “civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons,” pursuant to 553.101(a).
Looking at this factor, the court reasoned:
One is a volunteer, if motivated by an altruistic sense of civic duty, see Krause, 969 F.Supp. at 276, as opposed to the expectation of compensation, see Rodriguez, 866 F.Supp. at 1019. When the situation is one of mixed motives, “the regulatory definition does not require that the individual be exclusively, or even predominantly, motivated by ‘civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons. Rather, what is required is that the individual must be motivated by civic, charitable or humanitarian reasons, at least in part.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429 (citing Todaro, 40 F.Supp. at 230); see also Benshoff v. City of Virginia Beach, 9 F.Supp.2d 610, 623 (E.D.Va.1998) (finding that firefighters were volunteers when motivated primarily, but not exclusively, by civic, charitable and humanitarian concerns). Here, Brown accepted Jerome’s offer to mentor, in part, because he wanted “[s]omeone … to stand up, and make a change, and show the kids that we do care.” (Welikson Dec. Ex. C, Brown Dep. at 35:21–22.) He felt that the school needed the change because in his experience as a student, “nobody cared” (id. 35:14–17). This motivation remained unchanged as Brown started performing non-mentorship tasks. Brown testified that he helped with lunch duty, dismissals and escorting students despite his displeasure with being asked because he wanted to be a “team player” and that he “want[ed] to help and [he] care[d].” (38:14–39:5.) He felt obligated because he did not want to “let[ ] the school down.” (id. at 150:20–22.) These statements show a continued civic and charitable intent to improve the environment at Banana Kelly. At the same time, Brown testified that he worked because he believed (“hoped”) that money was forthcoming. (Okoronkwo Dec. Ex. 13 Brown Dep. 231:18–19). Accepting Brown’s acknowledgements, the Court turns to whether, in this mixed motive case, Brown acted at least in part, by the proper humanitarian concerns. See Purdham, 637 F.3d at 429. Plaintiff’s testimony shows that his actions at Banana Kelly, had their source, at least in part, in his concern for what would become of students if he did not show up, and was thus properly motivated.
Next the court looked at whether there was a “promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(a). Noting that plaintiff was not compensated, was not offered “under-the-table” compensation, and was not promised compensation, the court concluded that the plaintiff had no reasonable expectation of compensation. Looking at all the circumstances the court concluded that:
There is ample evidence that Brown knew and understood, despite his hopes to the contrary, that he would not be compensated. Brown admitted that he understood that he would not get paid for mentoring. No one led Plaintiff to believe that he would get paid for non-mentoring tasks. Laub testified that he had conversations with Plaintiff in which he relayed to Brown that he was volunteer and intern. Banana Kelly gave him certificates of appreciation that acknowledged his services as an intern and volunteer which Brown accepted without objection. While labels used by the parties do not control the outcome (P. Opp. at 11), the parties’ understanding of their arrangement is a relevant factor in the totality-of-circumstances analysis. See Rodriguez v. Township, 866 F.Supp. 1012, 1020 (S.D.Tex.1994) (declining to hold that the plaintiff was a volunteer in part because both parties understood their relationship as an employment, rather than volunteer, relationship).
Taking all of the circumstances into consideration, the court concluded that the plaintiff was a volunteer.
Click Brown v. New York City Dept. of Educ. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
E.D.Cal.: Plaintiff Could Simultaneously Be Part-Owner of Closely-Held S-Corp. and Its FLSA-Covered Employee
Hess v. Madera Honda Suzuki
This case was before the Court on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding all of plaintiffs’ claims. As discussed here, one of the issues the court was asked to resolve was whether someone can simultaneously be a part-owner of a closely held s-corporation and an employee thereof. The court distinguished the case from one concerning a business structured as a partnership, and held indeed the plaintiff could simultaneously be a part-owner of the defendant and its employee. Thus, the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment with regard to her FLSA claim for unpaid wages on this ground.
As relevant to this discussion, the court recited the following facts (following a period of employment where the plaintiff was solely defendant’s employee):
As support for the contention Plaintiff was not their employee, Defendants point to evidence in the record, primarily from Plaintiff’s deposition testimony, establishing the following. After investing $100,000 ($50,000 allocated to stock and $50,000 as a business loan) with her husband, Terry Hess, Plaintiff became a co-owner of Madera Honda Suzuki, controlling 24 percent of the 100,000 shares of common stock originally issued by Harry D. Wilson, Inc. (Terry controlled 25 percent; defendant Robert Wilson controlled 26 percent while his wife, Lisa, controlled 25 percent.) Plaintiff was then elected as a director and chief financial officer of the corporation. Pursuant to their investment, it appears Plaintiff and her husband provided personal guarantees to Central Valley Bank for money presumably borrowed by the company. Plaintiff further stated she and her husband provided personal guarantees to American Honda and Suzuki, presumably to cover debts and obligations that might be incurred by the company through its sale of Honda and Suzuki motorcycles. Plaintiff understood it was possible she might lose some or all of her investment, and that even if the business were successful, it would take some time before it would start showing a profit. Plaintiff further understood that although the shares of stock were split 51 percent/49 percent between the Wilsons and the Hesses, everything else—including profits—would be divided equally (i.e., 50/50 between the Wilsons and the Hesses). According to Plaintiff, the business never made a profit.
Plaintiff testified it was her responsibility to pay bills and that she had authority to pay certain expenses, such as rent and dealership insurance, without consulting the other officers. Plaintiff was authorized to issue payroll checks to herself and others if the company had sufficient funds, and it appears Plaintiff issued a check to herself at least once during her tenure as CFO. At his deposition, Wilson testified he and Plaintiff interviewed prospective employees together and that Plaintiff “had a say in everybody [the company] hired.” Wilson further testified Plaintiff handled employee disciplinary matters “95 percent of the time” and that she was not required to consult with him before terminating an employee. It also appears Plaintiff was afforded special benefits. Plaintiff testified “if [she or Wilson] took days off, since [they] were on salary, [they] would be paid the days.” Other employees also had paid vacation, but only for a limited number of days. The company paid for vehicles and fuel for the Wilsons and the Hesses, whereas other employees did not have a vehicle allowance. Per Wilson, the company paid the cost of health insurance for shareholders, including Plaintiff, whereas it covered only part of the premiums for employees, who had to contribute the rest. All of this evidence, Defendants contend, shows Plaintiff was a co-owner, not an employee.
In light of the above undisputed facts, the defendant argued “that Plaintiff [could not] be considered an employee because Plaintiff assumed significant business risk, had involvement and discretion in the corporate decision-making process and was entitled to benefits not available to Madera Honda Suzuki’s other employees, none of which was consistent with employee status.” However, the court disagreed.
The court distinguished case law that has held that partners of a partnership cannot simultaneously be FLSA employees, in part discussing a case previously discussed here, from the situation before it where the alleged employee had a part-ownership interest in an s-corp. The court explained:
Defendants have provided no authority—and the Court’s research reveals no authority—stating categorically that a co-owner and shareholder of a closely held corporation who works for the corporation in another capacity, as was apparently the case here, cannot also be the corporation’s employee for the purpose of the FLSA. Indeed, case law seems to suggest otherwise. See Goldberg v. Whitaker House Co-op, Inc., 366 U.S. 28, 32, 81 S.Ct. 933, 6 L.Ed.2d 100 (1961) (“There is nothing inherently inconsistent between the coexistence of a proprietary and an employment relationship. If members of a trade union bought stock in their corporate employer, they would not cease to be employees within the conception of [the FLSA]. For the corporation would ‘suffer or permit’ them to work whether or not they owned one share of stock or none or many”).
While the court noted similarities between the structures of a partnership and the closely-held s-corp. at issue here, ultimately it reasoned that the differences permitted a co-owner who lacked the ability to use the corporate assets as her own and lacked the ability to use the corporate assets as she thought fit. Further, contrary to the relationship partners have in a partnership where they are primarily investors, the court noted that shareholders such a plaintiff remain economically dependent on the s-corporation and their primary source of income is typically wages earned from the s-corporation:
The fact the company is a closely held corporation is key because shareholders view closely held corporations precisely as a means of acquiring corporate assets through employment: “Unlike the typical shareholder in a publicly held corporation, who may be simply an investor or a speculator and does not desire to assume the responsibilities of management, the shareholder in a close corporation considers himself or herself as a co-owner of the business and wants the privileges and powers that go with ownership. Employment by the corporation is often the shareholder’s principal or sole source of income. Providing employment may have been the principal reason why the shareholder participated in organizing the corporation. Even if shareholders in a close corporation anticipate an ultimate profit from the sale of shares, they usually expect (or perhaps should expect) to receive an immediate return in the form of salaries as officers or employees of the corporation, rather than in the form of dividends on their stock. Earnings of a close corporation are distributed in major part in salaries, bonuses and retirement benefits[.]” Hollis v. Hill, 232 F.3d 460, 467 (5th Cir.2000).
Having determined that part-ownership of an s-corporation does not preclude a finding of an employer-employee relationship under the FLSA, the court held that—taking the facts most favorably for plaintiff, the non-movant—plaintiff could meet the economic reality test and demonstrate that she was an employee subject to FLSA coverage. Thus, the court denied defendant’s motion for summary judgment on this ground.
Click Hess v. Madera Honda Suzuki to read the entire Order re: Motion for Summary Judgment or Summary Adjudication.
E.D.Wisc.: Plaintiff Who Helped Set Up Defendants’ Business Was an Employee Subject to FLSA Coverage, Not a Volunteer
Okoro v. Pyramid 4 Aegis
This case was before the Court on the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on a variety of issues. As discussed here, the plaintiff sought a finding that she was entitled to minimum wages under the FLSA as an employee, while the defendants contested that, arguing that any duties she had performed for them were volunteered. The case apparently followed the break-up of the plaintiff from the individual defendant in their romantic relationship. It was undisputed that the plaintiff performed many duties for the defendants- operators of a group home- over the approximate 2 years in question, including obtaining workers compensation insurance, attendance at residential training classes, cleaning and purchasing items for the facility, putting in business processes for the business (i.e. payroll services), marketing, hiring employees on behalf of defendants and other duties necessary for the defendants’ business to operate. While most of these facts were uncontested, the defendants maintained that this work was all volunteered, despite the fact, while the plaintiff asserted she expected to be paid as an employee.
After discussing various tests for employment under the FLSA (i.e. independent contractor vs employee), the court noted that there was no specific test for determining whether someone who performs duties for another is an employee or a volunteer under the FLSA. Thus, the court explained it was constrained only by a flexible “reasonableness” standard that takes into account the totality of the circumstances. The court explained:
In determining whether someone is an employer or a volunteer, this court has not stumbled upon any factored test similar to that of the 6–factor economic realities test used to differentiate independent contractors and employees. Rather, the court finds that the test for employment is governed by a reasonableness standard that takes into account the totality of the circumstances. The court is to review ” ‘the objective facts surrounding the services performed to determine whether the totality of the circumstances’ establish volunteer status, … or whether, instead, the facts and circumstances, objectively viewed, are rationally indicative of employee status.” Purdham, 637 F.3d at 428 (quoting Cleveland v. City of Elmendorf, 388 F.3d 522, 528 (5th Cir.2004)). In addition to the “economic reality” of the situation, other factors to consider include whether there was an expectation or contemplation of compensation, whether the employer received an immediate advantage from any work done by the individual, the relationship of the parties, and the goals of the FLSA. See Alamo Found., 471 U.S. at 300–01;
Rutherford Ford Corp. v. McComb, 331 U.S. 722, 730 (1947) (stating that the employer-employee relationship “does not depend on such isolated factors but rather upon the circumstances of the whole activity”); Lauritzen, 835 F.2d at 1534–35). It is the examination of objective indicia and the application of common sense with which this court arrives at its determination of whether the plaintiff here is an employee for purposes of the FLSA.
Applying this test to the facts at bar, the court held that the plaintiff was an employee rather than a volunteer:
According to Okoro, she never agreed to volunteer for Aegis; at all times, she expected to be compensated for her work. Specifically, Okoro expected to be paid $2,000 per month for her work, and in agreeing to defer her compensation until the facility garnered clients, she still worked with the expectation that she would be paid. (Okoro Aff. ¶¶ 4, 7–9.) Battles, while arguing that Okoro was a volunteer, also states that he intended to pay Okoro for her work if she qualified as an administrator and if the business had enough money in the future. (Battles Aff. ¶¶ 6, 25 .) The court notes Battles’s expectation not for the purpose of weighing the parties’ competing assertions (for this would surely contradict the FLSA’s remedial purpose) but to merely highlight that he too contemplated a compensation mechanism for Okoro’s work.
Expectations aside, it is not entirely correct for the plaintiff to assert that the defendants have failed to identify any personal benefit that Okoro purportedly received from her work for Aegis. In his affidavit, Battles avers that when Okoro sold him worker’s compensation insurance for Aegis, she told him “that she wanted to learn the group home business and therefore, she would learn the business by working at Pyramid 4 Aegis for no compensation.” (Battles Aff. ¶ 5.)
This court is not unmindful of any claim that Okoro may have wanted to learn and indeed did learn about the CBRF business. That may certainly have been part of her motivation in providing Battles some assistance in his effort to build the business. However, Battles does not deny that the work Okoro performed on behalf of Aegis conferred an immediate benefit to the company. Thus, the facts in this case stand in stark contrast to those in Walling. In Walling, the lower court’s finding that “the railroads receive[d] no ‘immediate advantage’ from any work done by the trainees” was unchallenged. 330 U.S. 148, 153. Indeed, “the applicant’s work [did] not expedite the company business, but … sometimes [did] actually impede and retard it.” Id. at 150. In other words, the railroad was not receiving any immediate benefit from the training that was being given to the prospective brakemen.
Not so in the case at bar. The evidence here does not demonstrate that the work performed by Okoro on behalf of Aegis interfered in any way with the business of Aegis. To the contrary, the nature of the work that she performed, such as cleaning, picking up prescriptions, appearing in court on behalf of clients at the facility, and calling in hours for caregivers to Paychex, was undeniably of substantial assistance to Aegis. Even more to the point, such work was not akin to the “course of practical training,” which the prospective yard brakemen in Walling received. Id. at 150. One hardly needs to be trained in how to clean a facility, how to pick up prescriptions, and how to call in hours for caregivers.
Additionally, the economic reality of the situation was that Okoro worked for Aegis for a substantial length of time. The length of the “training course” that the prospective brakemen received in Walling was seven or eight days. Id. at 149. By contrast, Okoro worked for Aegis over the course of almost one year.
To be sure, Okoro and Battles had a “personal relationship” over the course of the relevant time period. (Okoro Aff. ¶ 6.) While it may be that at least some of the time Okoro spent at Aegis was to socialize with Battles, that particular matter may speak to the amount of damages to which she is entitled; after all, socialization may not be the equivalent of work. For purposes of Okoro’s motion, it is sufficient to find that, despite her relationship with Battles, she still performed substantial work for Aegis, Aegis reaped a direct and immediate benefit from her work, and she had a reasonable expectation that she would be compensated for her work. In sum, taking into account the totality of the circumstances in this case leads me to conclude that Okoro performed work for Aegis as an employee and not as a volunteer.
The court also noted the duty to interpret the FLSA broadly in favor of coverage, given the FLSA’s remedial purpose:
Finally, it must not be forgotten that, by design, the FLSA’s purpose is “remedial and humanitarian.” Tenn. Coal, Iron & R.R. Co. v. Muscodoa Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 597 (1944), superseded by statute, Portal–to–Portal Act of 1947, Pub.L. No. 80–49, 61 Stat. 86 (1947) (codified as amended at 29 U.S.C. § 254). To effectuate this purpose, the FLSA requires courts to interpret its application broadly. See id. With this in mind, allowing Aegis the benefit of Okoro’s free labor when there existed an expectation of compensation would not comport with the FLSA’s purpose.
Thus, to the extent that the plaintiff’s motion seeks a determination that she worked for Aegis and is therefore entitled to compensation for such work under the FLSA, her motion will be granted. Precisely how much work she performed for Aegis, and for how many hours she should be compensated by Aegis, are matters for trial. It is enough to say that the work she performed for Aegis, at least for purposes of the FLSA, was not as a volunteer, but rather as an employee.
Click Okoro v. Pyramid 4 Aegis to read the entire Decision and Order on Plaintiff’s Motion for Summary Judgment.
C.D.A.C.: Court Declines to Adopt “Economic Reality” Test and Confirms Prisoners Are Not Covered by FLSA
Shipley v. Woolrich, Inc.
This case was before the court on plaintiff’s appeal of an order dismissing his FLSA case below, based on the fact that, as a federal prisoner, he was not an employee subject to FLSA coverage. The district court sua sponte dismissed the complaint, relying on the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Henthorn v. Dep’t of the Navy, 29 F.3d 682, 686 (D.C . Cir.1994), in which they noted that convicted criminals are not protected by the Thirteenth Amendment against involuntary servitude and that a prisoner is barred from asserting a claim under the FLSA where the prisoner’s labor is compelled and/or where any compensation he receives is set and paid by his custodian.
On appeal the plaintiff argued that the court should adopt an “economic reality” test based on whether the labor in question involves a “service,” such as the janitorial chores performed in Henthorn, or rather involves a “good,” such as the making of clothes performed by the plaintiff.
Rejecting this argument, the court reasoned:
“In Henthorn the appellant asked us to adopt a somewhat similar “economic reality” test that would have made a distinction, for purposes of applying the FLSA, between work inside or outside the prison compound. We declined the request, holding instead that a prerequisite to finding that an inmate is covered “under the FLSA is that the prisoner has freely contracted with a non-prison employer to sell his labor.” 29 F.3d at 686. Here we likewise reject Shipley’s request and follow our holding in Henthorn.
In Henthorn we stated that at the pleading stage “a federal prisoner seeking to state a claim under the FLSA must allege that his work was performed without legal compulsion and that his compensation was set and paid by a source other than the Bureau of Prisons itself.” Id. at 687. Here, Shipley has made no allegation that his work was voluntary or that he was paid by anyone other than UNICOR, an entity within the organizational structure of the Bureau of Prisons.”
While the court made clear that work performed for a private entity may sometimes qualify a prisoner as an “employee” subject to the FLSA coverage, such facts were not present here.
Click Shipley v. Woolrich, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
6th Cir.: Applying “Primary Benefit” Test, Students in Work-Study Program Were Not Employees Under FLSA
Solis v. Laurelbrook Sanitarium and School, Inc.
This case was before the Sixth Circuit on the Secretary of Labor’s appeal of the decision below, holding that the student-workers at Defendant’s sanitarium were not “employees” under the FLSA, and thus, were not entitled to the child labor protections afforded by the FLSA. Of interest here, the Sixth Circuit clarified the test to be used under circumstances where students perform work as part of a work-study program, in which they are not compensated for such work monetarily. After surveying the applicable case law, the DOL’s regulations and its interpretations of same, the court held that the applicable test was the “primary benefit” test. In other words, the issue of whether such student-workers are covered by the FLSA or not turns on whether the “employer” or they themselves derive the “primary benefit” of the work performed. Here, reviewing the specific facts of the case, the Sixth Circuit held that the trial court had properly concluded that the student-workers were non-employees, properly excluded from the coverage of the FLSA.
Describing the general factual background, the court explained:
“In conformity with its beliefs, Laurelbrook operates a boarding school for students in grades nine through twelve, an elementary school for children of staff members, and a 50–bed intermediate-care nursing home that assists in the students’ practical training (the Sanitarium). The school has been approved and accredited by the Tennessee Department of Education since the 1970s. The State of Tennessee accredits certain private schools through independent authorized accrediting agencies. The E.A. Sutherland Education Association (EASEA) is one such agency, whose purpose is to consider and adjudicate requests for accreditation from self-supporting (as opposed to denominational) schools, like Laurelbrook, which are operated by members of the Seventh–Day Adventist Church. Laurelbrook is currently accredited through EASEA.”
After surveying the applicable law and deeming the “primary benefit” test to be the proper test for determining whether the student-workers were employees, the court reasoned the student-workers here were not “employees” under the FLSA:
“In applying the primary benefit test, the district court recognized that students’ activities at Laurelbrook contribute to Laurelbrook’s maintenance, thereby benefitting Laurelbrook’s operations. Laurelbrook receives payment for services it provides to patients at the Sanitarium; some of these services are performed by students at no cost to Laurelbrook. Hours worked by students in the Sanitarium also contribute to the Sanitarium’s satisfaction of its licensing requirements. Laurelbrook sells flowers and produce grown at Laurelbrook with student help. The proceeds from these sales go directly to Laurelbrook’s operations. As part of a course on collision repair, students assist in repairing cars for the public. Beneficiaries of these services pay Laurelbrook directly and the money is recycled back into school programs. Laurelbrook also earns revenue from the sale of wood pallets the students help build.
The value of these benefits to Laurelbrook, however, is offset in various ways. The district court found that Laurelbrook students do not displace compensated workers, and instructors must spend extra time supervising the students at the expense of performing productive work. Specifically, the court found that Laurelbrook is sufficiently staffed such that if the students did not perform work at the Sanitarium, the staff members could continue to provide the same services there without interruption. And while not specifically mentioned by the district court in its findings, there was evidence at trial that the same was also true of the work performed by students outside the Sanitarium. There was also testimony that, were it not for the instructors’ supervisory responsibilities, instructors would be able to complete more productive tasks in less time. Moreover, as the district court found, Laurelbrook is not in competition with other institutions for labor, so Laurelbrook does not enjoy an unfair advantage over other institutions by reason of work performed by its students…
Students do not receive wages for duties they perform. They are not entitled to a job with Laurelbrook upon graduation, and are expected to move on after graduation.”
On the other side of the ledger are the tangible and intangible benefits that accrue to the students. The district court found that Laurelbrook provides it students with significant tangible benefits. Students are provided with hands-on training comparable to training provided in public school vocational courses, allowing them to be competitive in various vocations upon graduation. Students learn to operate tools normally used in the trades they are learning, while being supervised by instructors. Students engage in courses of study that have been considered and approved of by the state accrediting agency. In short, the educational aspect of the instruction at Laurelbrook is sound, in contrast to the training program at issue in Baptist Hospital, where the supervision was inadequate, the exposure to various aspects of the trade limited, and the overall value to the students nil. None of these educational shortcomings is present here. Indeed, the Tennessee Department of Education, through EASEA, has determined that Laurelbrook’s vocational program provides benefits to the students sufficient to warrant accreditation.
Significant, too, are the intangible benefits students receive at Laurelbrook. As the district court found, receiving a well-rounded education—one that includes hands-on, practical training—is a tenet of the Seventh–Day Adventist Church. Laurelbrook provides students with the opportunity to obtain such an education in an environment consistent with their beliefs. The district court found that the vocational training portion of the education teaches students about responsibility and the dignity of manual labor. Thought not mentioned in the district court’s opinion, there is ample evidentiary support for these findings. Parents testified to the benefits their children received from the program, stating that the students learn the importance of working hard and seeing a task through to completion. Some parents testified that their children have become more responsible and have taken on leadership roles since participating in Laurelbrook’s program. Service in the Sanitarium engenders sensitivity and respect for the elderly and infirm. Laurelbrook alumni testified that the leadership skills and work ethic developed at Laurelbrook have proved highly valuable in their future endeavors. Employers also testified that Laurelbrook alumni have a strong work ethic, leadership skills, and other practical skills that graduates of other vocational programs lack.
The Secretary discounts the value of these intangible benefits, but we agree with the district court that they are of significant value. Courts that have addressed the value of such benefits have likewise concluded that they are significant enough to tip the scale of primary benefit in the students’ favor even where the school receives tangible benefits from the students’ activities. See, e.g., Blair, 420 F.3d at 829; Woods, 400 F.Supp.2d at 1166; Bobilin, 403 F.Supp. at 1108. The overall value of broad educational benefits should not be discounted simply because they are intangible.
After considering all of the evidence, the district court found that there is benefit to Laurelbrook’s operations from the students’ activities, but the primary benefit of the program runs to the students. We find no error in the district court’s application of the primary benefit test.”
Click Solis v. Laurelbrook Sanitarium & School to read the entire opinion.
S.D.Ind.: Exotic Dancers Are Employees, Not Independent Contractors; Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment Granted
Morse v. Mer Corp.
Before the Court were the parties’ cross motions for summary judgment. Plaintiffs, exotic dancers, alleged that they were employees of Defendant, the owner of the adult entertainment facility where they worked. Defendant alleged that Plaintiffs were independent contractors and thus, not covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion and denied Defendants motion.
Reciting the facts pertinent to its inquiry, the Court explained:
“The Plaintiffs in this case were all exotic dancers at Dancers Showclub, an establishment owned and operated by the Defendant, in Indianapolis, Indiana. To be hired by the Defendant, an individual had to go to the club, complete an audition application, provide sufficient identification, and perform an audition by dancing to two or three songs. Individuals who passed their auditions and were hired by the Defendant were given a copy of the Entertainer Guidelines (Docket No. 58 Ex. 3). Many of these guidelines, such as those prohibiting the Plaintiffs from leaving with male patrons and those banning family and significant others from the club while the Plaintiffs were performing, were put in place to keep the Plaintiffs safe and to ensure that the Plaintiffs followed the law.
The Defendant classified the Plaintiffs as independent contractors. Accordingly, the Defendant never paid any of the Plaintiffs a wage or other compensation. Instead, the Plaintiffs earned their income by collecting tips from customers. The Defendant did not monitor the Plaintiffs’ income.
None of the Plaintiffs had set work schedules. They were free to come to work on whatever dates and times they chose. They were also free to develop their own clientele and could generate business by advertising on the internet. The Plaintiffs’ dancing rotation was set on a first come, first served basis. Once at work, the Defendant preferred that the Plaintiffs work at least a six-hour shift. At some point during her shift, each Plaintiff was required to pay a House Fee to the Defendant. The House Fee was based on when a Plaintiff checked in to work.
The Entertainer Guidelines suggest that the Plaintiffs pay a “tip out” to the bar and the disc jockey (“DJ”) at the end of every shift. The suggested gratuity is ten percent to the bar and five percent to the DJ. However, this is not a requirement, and the Plaintiffs were not prohibited from working if they failed to pay the recommended tip out.
According to the Entertainer Guidelines, the Plaintiffs were to charge a minimum of $20 for VIP dances. Some Plaintiffs charged more than $20 for VIP dances and, according to the Defendant, no Plaintiff was ever disciplined for charging less than $20 for a VIP dance. A Plaintiff’s success as an exotic dancer was based, in large part, on her ability to entice interaction with her customers.
Discussing and applying the relevant law, the Court explained:
“The Plaintiffs filed this collective action lawsuit alleging that the Defendant violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U .S.C. § 201, by failing to pay them a minimum wage. The parties agree that the relevant inquiry is whether the Plaintiffs were employees or independent contractors. This determination of a worker’s status is a question of law. Sec’y of Labor v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1535 (7th Cir.1985). “For purposes of social welfare legislation, such as the FLSA, ‘employees are those who as a matter of economic reality are dependent upon the business to which they render service.’ ” Id. at 1534 (quoting Mednick v. Albert Enters., Inc., 508 F.2d 297, 299 (5th Cir.1975)). To determine the parties’ economic reality, the Seventh Circuit “do[es] not look to a particular isolated factor but to all the circumstances of the work activity.” Id. The six factors considered by courts in this circuit are:
(1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer’s control as to the manner in which the work is to be performed; (2) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending upon his managerial skill; (3) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of workers; (4) whether the service rendered requires a special skill; (5) the degree of permanency and duration of the working relationship; [and] (6) the extent to which the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business. Id. at 1535.
There is no analogous Seventh Circuit case law, and the only federal appellate court to examine the issue of whether exotic dancers are employees or independent contractors was the Fifth Circuit in Reich v. Circle C. Investments, Inc., 998 F.2d 324 (5th Cir.1993). Like the Plaintiffs in the instant litigation, the exotic dancers in Circle C claimed that they were employees, not independent contractors. After applying the Fifth Circuit’s version of the economic realities test, the court of appeals agreed.”
Similarly, here the Court applied the various factors to determine that Plaintiffs were indeed employees, and not independent contractors:
“A. The Defendant’s control as to the manner in which the work is performed.
With respect to the control factor, the Fifth Circuit explained that the club “exercise[d] a great deal of control over the dancers .” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327. The dancers were “required to comply with weekly work schedules, which Circle C compile[d].” Id. Dancers who were tardy were fined. Circle C set the prices for table and couch dances. Although dancers could choose their own costumes and their own music, both the costume and the music had to meet standards set by Circle C. Id. Circle C also extensively controlled the dancers’ conduct by promulgating rules including: “[N]o flat heels, no more than 15 minutes at one time in the dressing room, only one dancer in the restroom at a time, and all dancers must be ‘on the floor’ at opening time.” Id. Dancers who violated the code of conduct were fined.
The Plaintiffs in the instant case are “subject to a broad range of control by Defendant when it comes to the manner in which their work is performed.” Docket No. 57 at 8. When they are hired, the Plaintiffs receive and review a copy of the Entertainer Guidelines. These guidelines require that, among other things, the Plaintiffs: work at least a six hour shift; charge at least $20 for all VIP dances; refrain from inviting significant others or family members to the club while the Plaintiffs are working; and avoid walking with a lit cigarette, chewing gum, drinking anything from a bottle, or having a cell phone on the club floor. Docket No. 58 Ex. 3 ¶¶ 9-10, 12, 15. Another version of the Entertainer Guidelines prohibits the Plaintiffs from frequenting the club on days when they are not working. See Docket No. 58 Ex. 6 ¶ 13.
The Defendant claims that the Entertainer Guidelines were “of no real import,” Docket No. 64 at 12, because there was no written record of violations. Docket No. 65 Ex. 2 at 27, lines 18-20. Further, certain violations such as chewing gum on the floor were not punished. Id. at 36, lines 3-10. In addition, the Defendant argues that some of the Entertainer Guidelines were included “to ensure that the Entertainers’ behavior conformed with the law and to keep both the patrons and Entertainers safe.” Docket No. 64 at 15. Finally, the Defendant asserts that Circle C is distinguishable because the Plaintiffs in this case were free to work on the dates and times that they chose and thus they largely set their own schedules.
Despite the Defendant’s arguments otherwise, this case is analogous to Circle C. The Defendant in the instant case regulated the Plaintiffs’ behavior with a written code of conduct. Although the Defendant claims that the rules in the Entertainer Guidelines were never enforced, there is nothing in the record indicating that anyone informed the Plaintiffs of this fact. The Defendant cannot claim that it did not impose a significant amount of control on the Plaintiffs by arguing, with absolutely no evidentiary support, that the rules did not actually apply. While it is true that the Plaintiffs in the instant case could set their own work schedules, once at the club, the Defendant asked the Plaintiffs to work for a certain amount of time. The Plaintiffs could request music, but the music was ultimately controlled by the Defendant. See Docket No. 58 Ex. 5 at 46, lines 8-14. The Plaintiffs could pick their own costumes; however, as in Circle C, the Defendant had ultimate veto power. See id. 46-47. Further, the Defendant prohibited the Plaintiffs from being at the club in their free time and also prohibited the Plaintiffs’ families and significant others from coming to the club while the Plaintiffs were working. Docket No. 58 Ex. 6 ¶¶ 13, 16. Finally, the Defendant’s argument that many of the rules were imposed to protect the Plaintiffs and to ensure compliance with the law is unavailing. See Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327 (rejecting Circle C’s attempt to downplay its control). In short, all of the parties’ admissible evidence indicates that the Defendant exerted a significant amount of control over the Plaintiffs. Thus, although the Defendant exercises less control than the club in Circle C, the Defendant’s conduct still indicates that the Plaintiffs were employees.
B. The Plaintiffs’ opportunity for profit or loss.
As to the opportunity for profit and loss, in Circle C the Fifth Circuit noted that although a dancer’s “initiative, hustle, and costume significantly contribute to the amount of her tips,” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 328, the dancers were not responsible for drawing customers to the club in the first place. “Circle C is responsible for advertisement, location, business hours, maintenance of facilities, aesthetics, and inventory of beverages and food.” Id. The court concluded that “[g]iven its control over determinants of customer volume, Circle C exercises and high degree of control over a dancer’s opportunity for ‘profit.’ ” Id. Therefore, “[t]he dancers are ‘far more akin to wage earners toiling for a living, than to independent entrepreneurs seeking a return on their risky capital investments.’ ” Id. (quoting Brock v. Mr. W Fireworks, Inc., 814 F.2d 1042, 1051 (5th Cir.1987)).
In the instant case, a Plaintiff’s only “opportunity for loss comes in the form of a ‘House Fee’ that she is required to pay for each shift, the amount of which ranges from $0.00-$30.00.” Docket No. 57 at 12. “All other potential risks of loss, be they food and beverage related or liability-related, are borne solely by Defendant .” Id. at 13. Similarly, an entertainer has no real opportunity to profit. At best she can “increase her earnings by taking care of herself, working harder, and enticing social interaction with her customers.” Id. The Defendant tacitly acknowledges that this was one way in which the Plaintiffs could enhance their profits. However, the Defendant refuses to acknowledge that this argument has been rejected by every court that has considered it. See, e.g ., Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1350; Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593. The Defendant also emphasizes that the Plaintiffs were allowed to advertise and market themselves by using MySpace, Facebook, and simple word of mouth. Docket No. 64 at 17. This may be true, but the simple fact remains that, like the club in Circle C, the Defendant is primarily responsible for drawing customers into the club. See Circle C, 998 F.2d at 328. Thus, the second factor also tips in favor of employee status.
C. The Plaintiffs’ investment in equipment or materials.
In Circle C, the Fifth Circuit noted that “a dancer’s investment is limited to her costumes and a padlock.” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327. Although the court acknowledged that some dancers spend a significant amount of money on their costumes, the court concluded that “[a] dancer’s investment in costumes and a padlock is relatively minor to the considerable investment Circle C has in operating a nightclub.” Id. at 328; see also Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1350. “Circle C owns the liquor license, owns the inventory of beverages and refreshments, leases fixtures for the nightclub … owns sound equipment and music, maintains and renovates the facilities, and advertises extensively.” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 327. Thus, this factor indicated that the dancers were employees.
The instant case is markedly similar to Circle C. The Plaintiffs “do not make any capital investment in Defendant’s facilities, advertising, maintenance, security, staff, sound system and lights, food, beverage, and other inventory.” Docket No. 57 at 14. The Plaintiffs’ only investment is in their costumes and their general appearance (i.e. hair, makeup, and nails). Id. at 15. Thus, as in Circle C, this factor tips in favor of employee status.
D. Special skills required.
The Fifth Circuit concluded that the dancers in Circle C “do not need long training or highly developed skills to dance at a Circle C nightclub.” 998 F.2d at 328. Indeed, many of Circle C’s dancers had never before worked at a topless dance club. Id. Other courts have consistently held that little skill is necessary to be a topless dancer. See, e.g., Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1351; Priba Corp., 890 F.Supp. at 593; Jeffcoat v. Alaska Dept. of Labor, 732 P.2d 1073, 1077 (Alaska 1987) (applying federal courts’ economic realities analysis).
In the instant case, the Defendant claims that although the entertainers are not trained dancers, they must possess special skills “in communicating, listening, and (to some minor extent) counseling” in order to be successful. Docket No. 64 at 21. According to the Defendant, an Entertainer must be a peculiar combination of a customer service representative and counselor: she must have excellent listening skills, the ability to read another person’s affect and discern from that demeanor his particular conversational or emotional needs, and the ability and willingness to fulfill those needs in a purely non-sexual way. Id. at 21-22. This argument is unconvincing, especially because nothing in the record indicates that the Defendant’s hiring process included an assessment of a prospective dancer’s communication or counseling skills. Having examined all of the parties’ admissible evidence, the Court is convinced that this factor indicates that the Plaintiffs are employees.
E. The degree of permanency of the working relationship.
The Circle C court noted that “most dancers have short-term relationships with Circle C.” Circle C, 998 F.2d at 328. “Although not determinative, the impermanent relationship between the dancers and Circle C indicates non-employee status.” Id. However, the court concluded that “[t]he transient nature of the work force is not enough here to remove the dancers from the protections of the FLSA.” Id. at 328-29. Thus, despite the fact that this factor tipped in favor of independent contractor status, the court was convinced that the economic realities of the relationship indicated that the dancers were employees. Id. at 329.
In the case presently before this Court, the Plaintiffs argue that the Defendant considered the relationship between the parties to be ongoing. See Docket No. 57 at 16-17. Thus, according to the Plaintiffs, their situation is materially different “from the limited-duration relationship typical to independent contractors.” Id. at 17. However, the Defendant submitted admissible evidence indicating that most of the dancers only worked at the Defendant’s club for six months. Docket No. 65 Ex. 6 ¶ 3. Thus, as in Circle C, this factor tips in favor of independent contractor status.
F. The extent to which the Plaintiffs’ service is integral to the Defendant’s business.
The Fifth Circuit does not include this factor in its economic realities analysis. However, other district courts have considered this issue and have concluded that “[e]xotic dancers are obviously essential to the success of a topless nightclub.” Harrell, 992 F.Supp. at 1352; see also Jeffcoat, 732 P.2d at 1077. Although the Defendant claims that no more than ten percent of its profits came from the dancers, and thus, “the Entertainers are not a vital part of its business,” Docket No. 64 at 24, this assertion is belied by the Defendant’s own deposition testimony. Manager James Nicholson stated that “[p]robably less than one percent” of the club’s customers go to the club solely for food and drink. Docket No. 58 Ex. 1 at 27, line 20. When asked what would happen “if the club limited the use of dancers at the facility,” Nicholson stated: “The same thing if McDonald’s got rid of hamburgers, all right? We wouldn’t be that business.” Id. at 27, lines 21-25; id. at 28, line 1.
The Defendant’s argument that the dancers are non-essential forms of extra entertainment, “like televisions at a sports bar” is simply unconvincing. Robert W. Wood, Pole Dancers: Employees or Contractors? TAX NOTES, Nov. 9, 2009, at 673, 675. Indeed, the Defendant’s own manager apparently does not believe this assertion. The Plaintiffs are critical to the Defendant’s current business model. Thus, this factor indicates that the Plaintiffs are employees, and not independent contractors.
Having considered all of the parties’ admissible evidence and viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the Defendant, the Lauritzen factors indicate that the Plaintiffs are employees.”
M.D.Fla.: Cable Installer Is An Employee Not An Independent Contractor Of Contractor To Cable Company
Parrilla v. Allcom Const. & Installation Services, LLC
This matter came before the Court after a one-day bench trial on the issue of whether Plaintiff, was an independent contractor, and thus exempt from the overtime compensation requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (the “FLSA”). In its decision, on this highly litigated issue, the Court held that Plaintiff was an employee, notwithstanding Defendant’s argument otherwise, after reviewing the six factor “economic reality” test.
Initially the Court laid out the oft-used test:
“In determining whether an individual is an employee or independent contractor, the United States Supreme Court has explained that lower courts must consider the “economic realities” of the parties’ relationship-not the labels or formalities by which the parties characterize their relationship. See generally Rutherford Food Corp. v. McComb, 331 U.S. 722, 67 S.Ct. 1473, 91 L.Ed. 1772 (1947); see also Bartels v. Birmingham, 332 U.S. 126, 130, 67 S.Ct. 1547, 91 L.Ed. 1947 (1947). The Eleventh Circuit has noted that the following factors guide this inquiry:
(1) the nature and degree of the alleged employer’s control as to the manner in which the work is to be performed;
(2) the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending upon his managerial skill;
(3) the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of workers;
(4) whether the service rendered requires a special skill;
(5) the degree of permanency and duration of the working relationship; and
(6) the extent to which the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.
Freund v. Hi-Tech Satellite, Inc., 185 F. App’x 782, 783 (11th Cir.2006) (unpublished) [hereinafter “Freund”] (quoting Sec’y of Labor v. Lauritzen, 835 F.2d 1529, 1535 (7th Cir.1987)); see also 29 C.F.R. § 500.20(h)(4).”
The Court then discussed its factual findings as applied to the six factor test:
“A. Nature and Degree of Control Exerted by Defendant Over Plaintiff
The testimony and record evidence in this case establishes that Defendant exerted significant control over Plaintiff. Specifically, Defendant controlled Plaintiff’s daily work schedule, the type of work Plaintiff performed, the amount of time Plaintiff could take off from work, and the manner in which Plaintiff carried out his work.
Defendant determined Plaintiff’s daily work schedule, the resulting number of hours that Plaintiff worked, and the type of jobs that Plaintiff performed. Defendant required Plaintiff to arrive at its place of work at approximately 7:30 a.m. each day; Defendant would then hand Plaintiff a list of work orders to perform for the day. Plaintiff had no control over the work orders that he received, the types of jobs that he could perform or the order in which he carried out the work orders. Plaintiff could not, for instance, perform work orders relating only to Internet service. He had to carry out the work orders that Defendant gave him and in the order that Defendant specified. Furthermore, if a customer requested additional work, or work that differed from what was printed on an existing work order, Plaintiff could not accept the new work unless Bright House and Defendant’s supervisors first approved the new work and Plaintiff received a new work order. Finally, Defendant did not permit Plaintiff to perform cable installation work for any other cable installation provider.
Plaintiff also had little control over when to perform the work orders or the order in which he choose to carry out the work orders. When Bright House customers schedule an appointment with a technician, they are given a two-hour window in which they must wait for the technician to arrive and start performing the work. To ensure that its technicians would be able to meet these windows, Defendant assigned its work orders based largely on geographical proximity. Plaintiff had no control over this assignment process and was required to meet Bright House customers’ time windows. He could not re-schedule customer appointments. Furthermore, Defendant would sometimes instruct Plaintiff to leave a particular job (even if the job were not complete) and go to another job; Plaintiff did not have any meaningful discretion to refuse those instructions.
Defendant also controlled the amount of time, and the manner in which, Plaintiff could take time off. While there was conflicting evidence on this issue, the Court finds that the more credible evidence revealed that Defendant would penalize, or at least threatened to penalize, technicians who frequently requested time off, failed to show up each morning at Defendant’s office, or failed to attend Defendant’s mandatory weekly meetings. Although Defendant appears to have made some allowances for doctors’ appointments, family emergencies and vacations that were planned in advance, it would penalize or terminate technicians who simply decided that, for whatever reason, they did not want to work on a particular day. Indeed, Defendant’s manager testified that its technicians needed to “request” time off.
Defendant also supervised, to a significant extent, the manner in which Plaintiff carried out his work. Defendant provided Plaintiff with specifications (that came mostly from Bright House) on how his work was to be performed. If Bright House informed Defendant that it was not satisfied with the manner in which Plaintiff performed an installation, Defendant would assess Plaintiff with fixed monetary penalties (or “charge-backs”) based on the type of job performed (e.g., the penalty for an unsatisfactory modem installation might be $50, while the penalty on an unsatisfactory television installation might be $25). Defendant automatically deducted these charge-backs from the weekly payments it made to Plaintiff’s company. In some instances, these penalties actually exceeded the total amount Plaintiff was supposed to be paid on a job. Plaintiff had no way of disputing or negotiating the amount of a particular charge-back. Finally, Defendant and Bright House sometimes sent supervisors to “spot-check” or monitor Plaintiff and other technicians after they completed a job or even during a job.
B. Plaintiff’s Opportunity for Profit or Loss Depending on His Managerial Skill
The testimony and record evidence in this case establishes that Plaintiff’s opportunity for profit or loss did not depend upon his managerial skill. Instead, Plaintiff’s compensation was based simply on the number and type of jobs that Defendant gave him and the quality and pace of Plaintiff’s work.
Because Plaintiff was paid on a piece work basis, Plaintiff’s opportunity for profit or loss was, in a simplistic sense, a function of the number of jobs he could complete in a finite time frame. Excluding charge-backs, the more jobs Plaintiff could quickly complete, the more Plaintiff stood to profit.
As noted, supra, however, Plaintiff’s profit was also a function of the type of work orders that Defendant assigned him (and the amount of charge-backs Plaintiff received). Because the types of jobs that Plaintiff performed each paid differently, notwithstanding the amount of time it took to complete those jobs, Plaintiff would experience days that were more profitable than others simply as a result of the type of work orders that Defendant assigned to him. For example, assuming cable modem installations paid more than television installations, if all the work orders Plaintiff received on a given day were for cable modem installations, Plaintiff would make more on that day, ceteris paribus, than if he had been assigned all television installations. Of course, if cable modem installations took twice as long as television installations, it might be the case that Plaintiff could earn the same amount (or more) by just doing television installations throughout the day. Importantly, though, Plaintiff had no control over the types of work orders that he was given and, in at least some instances, Defendant instructed him to leave particular jobs to perform other potentially less profitable jobs.
Furthermore, Plaintiff was not permitted to install cable services for other cable installation companies. Nor was he permitted to provide additional services for Bright House customers without first obtaining a new work order authorized by both Bright House and Defendant.
No matter how quickly or efficiently Plaintiff worked, Defendant’s charge-backs, the manner in which it assigned jobs, and the directives it gave to sometimes leave jobs prior to their completion obviated Plaintiff’s ability to rely upon his own managerial skill.
C. Plaintiff’s Investment in Equipment or His Employment of Others
The testimony and record evidence in this case establishes that Plaintiff did not make any significant investment in capital or employ others.
Although Plaintiff provided most of the equipment necessary for performing installations on behalf of Defendant, Plaintiff’s relative investment in that equipment was small. In total, the cost of the hand tools, cable fishing stick, crimper, hammer drill, cable meter, and ladder that Defendant required Plaintiff to purchase amounted to perhaps no more than $1,000 (the cable meter and hammer drill, for instance, cost $500 and $150, respectively). Bright House provided the actual cable, cable modems, digital video recorders and other material inputs required for the installations. While Plaintiff used his own vehicle (a mini-van) to drive to customer’s houses, that vehicle was also for personal use.
*5 Defendant ostensibly gave Plaintiff the option to hire others through his own company. But that option was illusory. With the exception of just one husband and wife team, none of Defendant’s technicians, including Plaintiff, ever utilized or substituted others to carry out the work orders that Defendant assigned.
D. Special Skills Required for Plaintiff’s Services
The testimony and record evidence in this case establishes that Plaintiff’s work did not require the application of particularly special, or difficult to acquire, skills.
Although Plaintiff’s work involved proper cable wiring, connecting and configuring Internet cable modems, the use of a cable meter, and answering customer’s questions, Defendant’s manager testified that those skills could be acquired in as little as two weeks of on-the-job training. In fact, Defendant often assigned experienced technicians to work with new technicians for a one or two week period in order to get new technicians up to speed. After this short training period, Defendant would start sending the new technicians out into the field.
E. The Degree of Permanence and Duration of Plaintiff’s Working Relationship With Defendant
The testimony and record evidence in this case establishes that there was a high degree of permanence in Plaintiff’s relationship with Defendant. As noted, supra, Plaintiff was not permitted to provide cable installation services for any other cable installation company while we worked for Defendant. Plaintiff was expected to show up at Defendant’s office each morning, six days a week, and was given work orders that typically amounted to a full day’s worth of work. This relationship continued for nearly one and a half years.
F. The Extent to Which Plaintiff’s Work Was Integral to Defendant
The testimony and record evidence in this case establishes that Plaintiff’s work was clearly integral to Defendant’s business. In the absence of Plaintiff’s work, and the work of Defendant’s other installation technicians, Defendant would not succeed as an ongoing enterprise. Defendant conceded as much in its trial brief (Doc. 52 at 5) and later at trial.
Based on the totality of the circumstances, it is clear that Plaintiff was an employee-and not an exempt independent contractor-for purposes of the FLSA. Taken together, all six of the factors comprising the “economic reality” test overwhelmingly support the conclusion that Plaintiff was an employee who was economically dependent on Defendant.”
E.D.N.Y.: Alleged Operators Of Garment Factory May Constitute Plaintiffs’ Employers Or Joint Employers Under FLSA; Motion To Dismiss Denied
Lin v. Great Rose Fashion, Inc.
In this Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) case, Plaintiffs allege that they were deprived of a minimum wage and overtime pay while working in a garment factory, and ultimately discharged from their employment in retaliation for pursuing their rights to this compensation. Plaintiffs had previously moved for both a preliminary injunction and a TRO, based on alleged retaliatory conduct from Defendants, and allegations that Defendants were seeking to strip the factory where Plaintiffs had been employed of their assets. Of particular interest on the parties Motions currently before the Court, the Defendants sought to dismiss Plaintiffs’ claims based on alleged lack of standing—arguing that that Defendants were not Plaintiffs’ employers under the FLSA. Denying Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss based on lack of standing, the Court reviewed the elements of joint employers under the FLSA as well as those used to distinguish between independent contractors and employees. The Court held an evidentiary hearing and made factual findings regarding the nature of the parties’ relationship.
“Defendants argue that Plaintiffs lack standing to sue because they were not ’employees,’ as defined in the FLSA, but rather ‘independent contractors.’ Defendants claim they ‘outsourced the packing and trimming work to Wen Ming Lin and Yu Jiao Lin,’ and Wen Ming Lin’ in turn employed a group of ‘independent contractors,’ the Packer Plaintiffs. In support of their view, Defendants assert that they did not hire, fire, supervise, or manage the workers. They claim that the ‘subcontractors’ maintained the other workers’ employment records, negotiated a pay rate for the group and collected checks on one desk, and that ‘the plaintiffs themselves decided when they should arrive, depart, and the amount of time for which they were to work.’
The evidence presented at the Hearing exposed each of these assertions to be patently false. Applying the Brock factors, there is simply no question that these Plaintiffs “depend[ed] upon someone else’s business for the opportunity to render service” and were not “in business for themselves.” See Brock, 840 F.2d at 1059. The Plaintiffs were low-skilled, immigrant piece-workers toiling for long hours of manual labor in a garment factory. At least one, Yu Jiao Lin, expressed that she was illiterate. The testimony of the Plaintiffs established that they were interviewed, hired, fired, assigned work and hours, and supervised and managed by Mrs. Lin and Fang Zhen, or others under their control. (Tr. 31, 33-36, 78-81.) Contrary to the Defendants’ assertions, there is no evidence that Wen Ming Lin or Yu Jiao Lin had the power to hire, fire, manage assignments and schedules, or discipline other workers. (Id.)
It is plain that Mrs. Lin and Fang Zhen exercised a degree of control over the workers commensurate with the role of an employer. The Defendants’ collective denial of control over the workers is not credible. Wen Ming Lin’s referral of prospective workers to Mrs. Lin for her to interview does not elevate him to the role of independent contractor. (Tr. 52-53.) The Defendants’ additional arguments are similarly unavailing and unsupported by the evidence. For example, the Defendants’ repeatedly point to a single paycheck issued on December 9, 2005 and marked “payment for the assigned contractors” as evidence that “Plaintiffs shared and shared alike,” creating a relationship “best [ ] characterized as a partnership.” (Def. Post-Hearing Opp. 3, Def. Ex. A.) The Defendants’ choice to unilaterally label the Plaintiffs “contractors,” and to attempt to pay them via a collective paycheck on one occasion years ago, does not control the legal question before the court. This crude argument fails to set the Plaintiffs apart as independent contractors.
Considering the remaining Brock factors, the Defendants’ “independent contractor” theory proves even more preposterous. There is zero evidence that Plaintiffs had any opportunity for profit or loss or an “investment” in the business. The packers and thread-cutters were engaged in low-skilled factory labor, which was obviously not a matter of “independent initiative.” The Plaintiffs who took the stand worked at the Factory on a permanent, daily basis for three years. Their work at the Factory was not an occasional project. The Plaintiffs performed discrete tasks that assisted the line production, assembly, and packaging of goods. It is clear that their work was “an integral part of the employer’s business.”
Defendants’ contrived efforts to distance themselves from their workers and treat them as “subcontractors” have failed. The Defendants’ argument is nothing more than a transparent attempt to use a legal fiction to escape liability for their alleged labor abuses. The notion that these Plaintiffs acted as independent contractors outside the protection of the FLSA is so thoroughly without merit that it borders on an affront to the dignity of this court.”
B. Silver Fashion and Mrs. Lin Constitute “Employers” Under the FLSA
As a matter of economic reality, the Plaintiffs were employed by the Factory and the entities that owned it over the years: Silver Fashion, Great Rose, and Spring Fashion. Under the Carter factors, Silver Fashion maintained formal control over the Plaintiffs through the actions of its principal managers. Since Mrs. Lin’s parents were absentee, nominal owners of the business, Mrs. Lin controlled the company. The persistent euphemism that Mrs. Lin was just “helping out” her parents and that Fang Zhen was “helping” Mrs. Lin cannot be taken seriously. The only conceded owners or managers of Silver Fashion were Mrs. Lin’s parents, who live in China and appear to have no involvement whatsoever in the operations of this company held in their names. As Mrs. Lin eventually summarized: “Basically I was running the company.”(Tr. 262.)
As reviewed above, Plaintiffs were interviewed, hired, fired, assigned work and hours, and supervised and managed by Mrs. Lin and Fang Zhen, or others under their control. (Tr. 31, 33-36, 78-81.) There is no serious dispute that Mrs. Lin or others acting on her behalf determined the rate and method of payment. Mrs. Lin also maintained employment records, as demonstrated by the Defendants’ production of the Weekly Trim/Packing Reports. (See Def. Ex. A (original records in blue ink).) These records purport to show the quantity and price of the piecework performed by the Packer Plaintiffs, which formed the basis for their weekly compensation. At a minimum, Plaintiffs have standing to sue Silver Fashion, its predecessor entities, and Mrs. Lin under the FLSA. The court reserves judgment pending discovery as to the role of Fang Zhen in the employment scheme.
C. Great Wall and Mr. Lin May Constitute Joint Employers Under the FLSA
Defendants also argue that the case should be dismissed as to Great Wall and Mr. Lin, because they had no “operational control” over the Plaintiffs. (Def. Post-Hearing Opp. 10-15.) The agency regulations promulgated under the FLSA expressly recognize that a worker may be employed by more than one entity at the same time. See29 C.F.R. § 791.2 (2003); Zheng, 355 F.3d at 66 (citing Torres-Lopez v. May, 111 F.3d 633, 639-45 (9th Cir.1997) (permitting claims against joint employers under the FLSA); Antenor v. D & S Farms, 88 F.3d 925, 929-38 (11th Cir.1996) (same)). Plaintiffs have standing to sue Great Wall and Mr. Lin, in addition to the other Defendants, if they exercised “functional control” over the Factory and its workers. See Barfield, 537 F .3d at 143;
Zheng, 355 F.3d at 66, 72.
Discovery is needed to determine whether a functional employment relationship existed between the Plaintiffs and Great Wall under the Zheng factors. The economic reality test intentionally reaches beyond traditional concepts of agency law to encompass “working relationships, which prior to [the FLSA], were not deemed to fall within an employer-employee category.” Zheng, 355 F.3d at 69 (quoting Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., 330 U.S. 148, 150-51 (1947)). Under the theory of functional control, “an entity can be a joint employer under the FLSA even when it does not hire and fire its joint employees, directly dictate their hours, or pay them.” Zheng, 355 F.3d at 70 (interpreting Rutherford Food Corp. v. McComb, 331 U.S. 722 (1947)). Evidence already establishes that purported agents of Great Wall-Mrs. Lin and Fang Zhen, who each testified that they were employed exclusively by Great Wall-supervised the Plaintiffs’ work in the Factory. The ownership of the premises and the equipment used in the Factory could be imputed to Great Wall, given the tangled leasing relationships between Mr. and Mrs. Lin and the fact that the Factory’s space was distinguished from Great Wall’s space by nothing more than a pile of paper boxes. The Second Circuit has also recognized that a company can de facto set employees’ wages and “dictate[ ] the terms and conditions” of their employment, though they do not “literally pay the workers,” where those employees perform work exclusively in service of that company. Id. at 72.In effect, Plaintiffs functionally worked for Great Wall, because they worked in a Factory that manufactured garments exclusively for Great Wall. Upon review of the preliminary evidence before the court, the relationship between Plaintiffs and Silver Fashion appears to have had “no substantial, independent economic purpose” beyond serving as a “subterfuge meant to evade the FLSA or other labor laws” for the benefit of Great Wall.Id.
In light of the court’s obligation to look beyond the strictures of formal tests and consider all relevant facts, the court finds that Defendants’ dubious uses of the corporate form and the interlocking relationships between the Defendant Corporations are pertinent to the joint employer inquiry in this case. Defendants’ attempt to distinguish Great Wall as a mere “customer of Silver Fashion” is a fallacy. Nearly every aspect of these businesses was intertwined. Together, the Lins controlled both companies. Mr. Lin owned Great Wall, and his wife operated Silver Fashion. Mrs. Lin’s parents appear to be nothing more than straw owners of Silver Fashion. Great Wall was Silver Fashion’s landlord and sole client. Silver Fashion manufactured garments exclusively for Great Wall. In turn, Mr. Lin could not identify a single supplier to his company other than Silver Fashion. Mrs. Lin owned the building where both companies were housed, yet leased the entire building to a company wholly controlled by her husband, so that he could sublet part of it back to her parents for $18,000 a month. (See Section II.A supra.)From the rent and the garment sales, significant funds flowed between these related companies on a regular basis. These entities were functioning as complementary components of a single business enterprise.FN9Based upon these facts, Plaintiffs may have standing to hold Great Wall and Mr. Lin liable either as their functional employers or under other legal theories. The court denies Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss for lack of standing in its entirety.”