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This case was before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment following what appears to be an aborted settlement. As discussed here, plaintiffs sought summary judgment imposing liquidated damages on defendants, and contended that defendants had failed to demonstrate the requisite good faith.
After discussing the well-defined standards regarding an employer’s burden to show “good faith” to avoid an otherwise mandatory imposition of liquidated damages, the court discussed the evidence proffered by defendants:
Defendants assert as “a possible claim of good faith and reasonable grounds” the fact that Central USA Wireless relied on the aforementioned third-party professional employment organization, HUMACare, “to take care of Central’s payroll and employee administrative obligations.” (Doc. 29 at PageID 1091).
Regarding Plaintiffs’ compensation, Chris Hildebrant testified:
A: I didn’t. John, as I said, went to Michigan, Huffman, had conversations
with [Plaintiffs], and told me what they agreed upon.
Q: Did you do any analysis as to whether what they agreed upon was in
compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act?
Q: Did you ask anybody else to do any analysis?
A: We submitted documentations to our PEO company, and we didn’t think
anything else about it.
Q: What does PEO company mean?
A: Professional Employment Organization.
Q: Did you ask your attorneys to look into whether or not the compensation
structure was in compliance with the –
Mr. Ash: Objection. I’ll allow the question to be answered just the
way you asked, obviously the content of the question from the very beginning.
Mr. Kimble: Sure.
Mr. Ash: Go ahead.
The Witness: No.
(Doc. 15-3, Hildebrant Dep. at PageID 255–56 (39:10–40:7)).
The court held that “[t]his evidence falls far short of creating a question of material fact or meeting the ‘substantial’ burden Defendants shoulder to prove ‘both good faith and reasonable grounds’ for a failure to pay overtime.”
Elaborating, the court explained:
Hildebrant made no special inquiry to HUMACare or legal counsel about whether Plaintiffs were exempt employees. See generally id. at 857 (caselaw usually cites discussion with attorneys or government officials or sometimes accountants as evidence of good faith). Rather, he “didn’t think anything else about it.” This statement concedes negligence, which “is sufficient to support an award of liquidated damages.” Fulkerson v. Yaskawa America, Inc., No. 3:13-cv-130, 2015 WL 6408120 at *2 (S.D. Ohio Oct. 23, 2015) (citing Martin, 381 F.3d at 584).
Thus, the court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to liquidated damages.
11th Cir.: Trial Court Erred in Denying Liquidated Damages Where Sole Evidence of Good Faith Was VP’s Testimony He Researched Alleged Exemption After Plaintiff Commenced Legal Action
This case was before the Eleventh Circuit for a second time. Previously, the plaintiff had successfully appealed the trial court’s decision that he was exempt from the FLSA under the so-called Motor Carrier Exemption. Following remand, plaintiff prevailed at trial and was awarded unpaid overtime wages. The plaintiff then moved for an award of liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees and costs. As discussed here, despite virtually non-existent evidence of any good faith on the part of the defendant to determine its FLSA obligations prior to the lawsuit, the court below denied plaintiff liquidated damages. The Eleventh Circuit reversed reiterating that a defendant (and not plaintiff) bears the burden of proof on this issue and that the burden is a relatively high one.
Discussing the relevant burden of proof, the court explained:
Under the FLSA, liquidated damages are mandatory absent a showing of good faith by the employer. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2012); Joiner v. City of Macon, 814 F.2d 1537,1538-39 (11th Cir. 1987). Although liquidated damages are typically assessed at an equal amount of the wages lost due to the FLSA violation, they can be reduced to zero at the discretion of [*7] the court. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 216(b), 260. If an employer shows to the satisfaction of the court that the act or omission giving rise to such action was in good faith and that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his act or omission was not a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act . . . the court may, in its sound discretion, award no liquidated damages . . . .
29 U.S.C. § 260.
An employer who seeks to avoid liquidated damages bears the burden of proving to the court that its violation was “both in good faith and predicated upon such reasonable grounds that it would be unfair to impose upon him more than a compensatory verdict.” Reeves v. Int’l Tel. & Tel. Corp., 616 F.2d 1342, 1352 (5th Cir. 1980) (quoting Barcellona v. Tiffany English Pub, Inc., 597 F.2d 464, 468 (5th Cir. 1979)). “Before a district court may exercise its discretion to award less than the full amount of liquidated damages, it must explicitly find that the employer acted in good faith.” Joiner, 814 F.2d at 1539.
The Eleventh Circuit then held that the defendant in this case had not carried its burden of proof:
The district court erred in denying liquidated damages on this record. Aqua Life had the burden of proving good faith and reasonable belief and failed to carry that burden. The only evidence of the alleged good faith was the testimony of its Vice President, [*8] Mr. Ibarra, who ostensibly researched the Motor Carrier Act exception to the FLSA, concluding that Mr. Reyes did not need to be paid overtime hours for his work. Yet, Mr. Ibarra also admitted that he had never heard of the FLSA until legal action was taken by Mr. Reyes. Aqua Life thus did not make a sufficient factual showing upon which the district court could have reasonably relied to deny liquidated damages and the record does not support the district court’s refusal to grant liquidated damages.
We need not reach Mr. Reyes’s alternative arguments against the denial of liquidated damages, as the factual record contains no evidence to support the district court’s denial of liquidated damages. Accordingly, we REVERSE, and direct the district court to assign full liquidated damages in the amount of $14,770.00 to Mr. Reyes.
Click Reyes v. Aqua Life Corp. to read the entire decision.
2 Recent Decisions Hold That an Employer-Defendant Cannot Avoid Liquidated Damages By Relying on Involuntary Administrative Governmental Audits
As FLSA cases have proliferated in recent years, among the formally sleepy areas of jurisprudence that has seen a dramatic rise in litigation is the so-called “good faith” defense. Although in its earliest years the FLSA provided for mandatory liquidated damages, a subsequent amendment to the FLSA, through the Portal-to-Portal Act, now allows for a defendant to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages (in addition to the underlying unpaid wages damages) if it can demonstrate that it took affirmative steps to attempt compliance with the FLSA, but violated the FLSA nonetheless. Two recent cases reiterate that a defendant’s burden is not met solely by demonstrating that it had a subjective belief that it was complying.
McLean v. Garage Management Corp.
In the first case, the defendant sought to avoid liquidated damages by relying on a series of involuntary misinformed DOL audits, which it claimed it reasonably relied upon in establishing their belief that its illegal pay methodology, whereby it treated hourly employees as executive exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. While the DOL has in fact found the defendant’s classification to be proper, the court noted that the DOL’s finding was based on its examination of the employees’ duties alone, because the defendant had misrepresented to the DOL that the employees were paid on a salary basis, at the required rate under the applicable regulations in the initial audit. Subsequent audits simply compounded this initial incomplete investigation, based on the information the defendant provided to the DOL in the initial audit.
Significantly, the court rejected the defendants’ claimed reliance on the DOL audits for 3 separate reasons. First, it found that any informal conversations do not constitute “active steps” to ascertain the dictates of the law. Second, the court noted that the audits were involuntary and defendant had not requested same and thus, giving government investigators access to records and employees did not relieve defendant of its own obligation to determine what the labor laws require. Third, the court noted that defendant had not shown that any government investigator focused with care on its time and payroll records for the employees in question, and thus the DOL had not undertaken a review to see whether the defendant indeed paid a predetermined amount that did not vary, as required to meet the “salary basis” prong of the executive exemption. “Without such full disclosure, [the defendant] cannot reasonably rely on the existence of the investigations and their failure to find any inadequacies in the compensation system for [the employees].”
Finally, the court held that the defendant was not entitled to rely on the fact that it periodically consulted with outside counsel, because it had invoked its attorney-client privilege. The court explained that absent a waiver of the privilege, the defendant could not sustain a defense based on good faith reliance on the advice of counsel.
Click McLean v. Garage Management Corp. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc.
In the second case- concerning an alleged misclassification of drivers under the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption- the defendant sought to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages, by relying on a prior involuntary Department of Transportation (DOT) audit/citations and the advise of counsel it received as part of the audit process. As in McLean above, the court rejected this evidence of “good faith” as insufficient to meet the defendant’s heavy burden.
The court noted:
Defendants maintain they have demonstrated both their subjective good faith and objectively reasonable belief that their failure to pay overtime wages to their drivers did not violate FLSA. To meet their burden, Defendants rely almost exclusively on their compliance with DOT rules and the DOT’s citation of “some” of their intrastate-only drivers. The DOT’s citation of “some” of Defendants’ intrastate-only drivers, however, does not provide a sufficiently reasonable basis for concluding all such drivers were under the DOT’s jurisdiction and, therefore, exempt from FLSA. The objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure is undermined by the fact that the determination as to whether the Department of Labor or the DOT has jurisdiction is resolved on a driver-by-driver basis, as the Court explained at length on summary judgment, and, in any event, DOT jurisdiction for a driver who only occasionally drives in interstate commerce lasts only 4 months from the last such trip. See Reich v. Am. Driver Serv., Inc., 33 F.3d 1153, 1155–56 (9th Cir.1994). Furthermore, exemptions to FLSA, such as the Motor Carrier Exemption relied on by Defendants, are to be construed narrowly and only apply to employees who “plainly and unmistakably” fall within their terms. See Solis v. Washington, 656 F.3d 1079, 1083 (9th Cir.2011). Thus, the Court concludes Defendants’ generalizations about entire classes of their drivers on the basis of DOT citations of some of its drivers are insufficient to establish the objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure to comply with FLSA. Similarly and in light of the lack of testimony in this regard, the fact that Defendants required both their interstate and intrastate drivers comply with DOT regulations neither establishes Defendant’s subjective belief nor its objective reasonableness.
Defendants also maintain their belief that their drivers were exempt from FLSA is reasonable in light of the fact that they hired counsel to assist with the November 2009 DOT compliance audit. Although there is not any direct evidence as to the purpose of counsel’s representation, the Court concludes it is fair to infer that counsel was hired to ensure Defendants’ compliance with DOT regulations rather than to ensure Defendants were compliant with FLSA. In any event, there is not any evidence on this record from which the Court can find that Defendants took “the steps necessary to ensure [its] practices complied with [FLSA].” Alvarez, 339 F .3d at 910 (“Mistaking ex post explanation and justification for the necessary affirmative ‘steps’ to ensure compliance, [the defendant] offers no evidence to show that it actively endeavored to ensure such compliance.”). Thus, the Court concludes on this record that Defendants did not satisfy their “difficult” burden to show their subjective good faith failure to comply with FLSA or the objective reasonableness of their actions, and, therefore, the Court concludes Plaintiff is entitled to liquidated damages in the amount equal to the unpaid overtime wages.
Click Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc. to read the entire Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Verdict.
E.D.Ky.: “Self-Critical Analysis” Privilege Does Not Shield Employer From Disclosure Of Documents Relating To FLSA Classification; Such Discovery Is Relevant To Issues Of “Good Faith” And Willfulness
Cochran v. National Processing Co.
This matter was before the Court on the Motions to Quash filed by the Defendants. Defendants sought to quash a subpoena issued by the Court and served on one of the Defendants (Hanna), seeking documents relating to the FLSA classification of the Plaintiffs, who were employees of Defendant, National, assigned to work for Defendant, Hanna. Defendants argued that the documents requested in the subpoena are protected under the self-critical analysis privilege and that they are beyond the scope of discovery.
The underlying action was pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. National was the Defendant in the Texas action. The Plaintiffs in that action are current and former National employees. They asserted a claim against National under the Fair Labor Standards Act, alleging that National had improperly classified them as “exempt” employees under the Act and has, thus, improperly failed to pay them overtime. Hanna, which is located in Lexington, Kentucky, was not a party to the Texas action. However, the subpoena required Hanna to produce certain documents relating to work performed by Hanna for National regarding National’s policies and procedures for paying overtime.
Discussing the lack of “self critical analysis” privilege, the Court stated:
“National argues that the documents sought by the Plaintiffs are protected by the ‘self-critical analysis privilege.’
As an initial matter, it is not clear that the privilege exists. As support for its argument that the Sixth Circuit has adopted the self-critical analysis privilege, the Plaintiffs cite ASARCO, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 805 F.2d 194 (6th Cir.1986). In that case, the Sixth Circuit determined that the employer should not have to disclose self-critical reports prepared after serious accidents in order to improve safety and prevent similar mishaps. Id. at 199. The court determined that “[t]he practice of uninhibited self-critical analysis, which benefits both the union’s and employer’s substantial interest in increased worker safety and accident prevention, would undoubtedly be chilled by disclosure.” Id. at 200.
However, that case involved a company’s duty to turn over certain information in collective bargaining efforts with the employee’s union. The Sixth Circuit specifically noted that items subject to discovery in litigation may not be subject to disclosure “in the collective bargaining context” and that any duty to disclose in that context must be evaluated in light of the rights and obligations created by the National Labor Relations Act. Id. at 199.
Even after ASARCO, district courts have found that the Sixth Circuit has never explicitly adopted the self-critical analysis privilege. See United States v. Allison Engine Company, Inc., 196 F.R.D. 310, 313-14 (S.D.Ohio 2000); Hickman v. Whirlpool Corp., 186 F.R.D. 362, 363 (N.D.Ohio 1999).
One district court has summarized the status of the privilege as follows:
Furthermore, “no circuit court of appeals has explicitly recognized the self-critical analysis privilege.” Johnson v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 206 F.R.D. 686, 689-90 (M.D.Fla.2002). Most important, the validity of the self-critical analysis privilege is highly doubtful in light of the Supreme Court’s decision University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182, 110 S .Ct. 577, 107 L.Ed.2d 571 (1990), which declined to recognize a common law privilege against disclosure of confidential peer review materials.Granberry v. Jet Blue Airways, 228 F.R.D. 647, 650 (N.D.Cal.2005).
In Allison Engine, the court considered a claim of self-critical analysis privilege regarding internal audits of quality control for products supplied to the United States Navy. It applied a four-part test from Bredice v. Doctors Hosp., Inc., 50 F.R.D. 249 (D.D.C.1970):
(1) the information must result from self-critical analysis undertaken by the party seeking protection; (2) the public must have a strong interest in preserving the free flow of the type of information sought; (3) the information must be of the type whose flow would be curtailed if discovery were allowed; and (4) no documents should be accorded the privilege unless it was prepared with the expectation that it would be kept confidential.
The court rejected the privilege in that case, noting that the privilege had rarely been applied and that its very rationale had been called into doubt. Id. at 313.See also Wade v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 2006 WL 890679 at * 5 (D.D.C.2006)(the privilege is “rarely recognized.”)
Even if the Sixth Circuit has or would adopt the privilege, National would not meet all four elements of the test set forth above. National argues that the documents requested from Hanna relate to an evaluation that National hired Hanna to perform of National’s classification of employees as exempt or non-exempt under the FLSA. However, clearly not all the information contained in documents relating to the evaluation are necessarily protected by the privilege:
The privilege is not absolute. It applies only to analysis or evaluation, not the facts on which evaluation is based. See In re: Crazy Eddie Securities Litigation, 792 F.Supp. 197, 205 (E.D.N .Y.1992). Courts have protected analytical or evaluative information but allowed discovery of factual information. See Troupin, 169 F.R.D. at 550. Under the privilege, parties are not required to reveal self-critical analyses, but must produce data or statistical information. See Roberts v. National Detroit Corp., 87 F.R.D. 30, 32 (E.D.Mich.1980). Information, documents or records otherwise available from other sources are not immune from discovery. See Shipes, 154 F.R.D. at 307 (citing Hollowell v. Jove, 247 Ga. 678, 279 S.E.2d 430, 434 (1981)). Additionally, this is a qualified privilege and it can be overcome by showing extraordinary circumstances or special need. See Reichhold Chem. Inc., 157 F.R.D. at 527. The privilege must be balanced against the opposing party’s need for discovery. See In re: Crazy Eddie Securities Litigation, 792 F.Supp. at 205. Allison Engine, 196 F.R.D. at 315.
The subpoena requests “all documents relating or pertaining to any review(s), audit(s), consulting or human resources management-related work performed by you for [National] regarding its policies or procedures concerning payment of overtime and/or classification of employees for overtime purposes,” and “all communications between you and anyone with [National] related to its policies or procedures concerning payment of overtime and/or classification of employees for overtime purposes.”
National has produced no evidence at all regarding the kinds of information contained in the documents requested, i.e., whether the information is “analysis” or “evaluation” or whether the information is “factual.” Thus, the Court has no basis for finding any of the documents are privileged.
Further, the privilege is most often applied in cases involving public health or safety. First Eastern Corp. v. Mainwaring, 21 F.3d 465, 467 n. 1 (C.A.D.C.1994). In fact the privilege was “initially developed to promote public safety by encouraging businesses to voluntarily evaluate their safety procedures. Morgan v. Union Pacific R. Co., 182 F.R.D. 261, 265 (N.D.Ill.1998)(citing Bredice v. Doctors Hosp. Inc., 50 F.R.D. 249, 251 (D.D.C.1970)). “Because production of such documents ‘would tend to hamper honest, candid self-evaluation geared toward the prevention of future accidents,’ the doctrine evolved in order ‘to prevent a ‘chilling’ effect on self-analysis and self-evaluation prepared for the purpose of protecting the public by instituting practices assuring safer operations.’ “ Id. (citing Granger v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 116 F.R.D. 507, 508-509 (E.D.Pa.1987)).
While the privilege has been applied in other settings, the “essence of the privilege is the value to the public of continuing the free flow of the type of information created by the analysis. Consequently, the inquiry focuses on the public policy requirement, that is, whether disclosure of material generated by a party’s self-critical analysis will discourage or curtail future such studies.” Drayton v. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., 2005 WL 2094903 at *2 (E.D.Pa.2005).
The assessment at issue in this case involved National’s classification of employees as exempt or non-exempt under the FLSA. National argues that it hired Hanna to develop and implement a compensation structure for the company including an evaluation of National’s classification of employees as exempt or non-exempt under the FLSA. Disclosure of that assessment will not inhibit National from conducting further such assessments. In order to pay its employees, it obviously must continue to classify them as exempt or non-exempt. Thus, to the extent that the Hanna report contained any “evaluation” or “analysis,” National must continue to engage in that analysis in order to pay its employees and avoid liability under the Act.
The privilege has been extended to employment cases to “protect business entities which are legally mandated to critically evaluate their hiring and personnel policies.” Morgan v. Union Pacific R. Co., 182 F.R.D. 261, 265 (N.D.Ill.1998). However, the rationale for the privilege in employment cases is different than it is for tort cases. While, “the justification for the privilege in tort cases is to promote public safety through voluntary and honest self analysis,” id., the privilege in employment cases is meant to “protect those businesses that are required to engage in critical self-evaluation from exposure to liability resulting from their mandatory investigations.” Id. To the extent that Hanna’s assessment contained any “evaluation” or “analysis,” National has pointed to no law requiring such an evaluation.
For all these reasons, the Court hold that the Hanna documents are not protected under the self-critical analysis privilege.
Next the Court addressed Defendants’ argument that the documents sought were not relevant. Rejecting this argument, the Court explained, “National objects that the documents sought are not relevant to the Plaintiffs’ action and Hanna has joined in that objection. National argues that the Plaintiffs are IT Support Technicians in Texas but that the subpoena seeks information about every National employee and that it seeks information beyond the classification of those employees under the FLSA.
The Plaintiffs argue that the documents are relevant to the “good faith” defense to the imposition of liquidated damages under the Act and to the extended statutory limitations period for “willful violations” of the Act. National has asserted the good faith defense and has denied any willful violations or purposes of extending the limitations period. The Plaintiffs argue that the defense “delves into the mind of the employer” and, thus, communications with Hanna regarding interpretation and application of the FLSA are relevant.
The Court agrees with the Plaintiffs that National’s communications with Hanna regarding the FLSA classification of its employees for overtime purposes is relevant to National’s “good faith” and “willfulness.” The subpoena is confined to documents regarding “payment of overtime and/or classification of employees for overtime purposes.” Accordingly, the documents requested in the subpoena are discoverable.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Within days of the issuance of the Order in this case, a court within the Northern District of California held that there is no such thing as the “self-critical analysis” privilege. See Lewis v. Well Fargo & Co., 2010 WL 890183 (N.D.Cal. March 12, 2010).