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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.”