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5th Cir.: Severance Payment Not A Set-off To FLSA Damages for Unpaid Overtime

Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc.

Plaintiff sued her former employer, to recover unpaid overtime wages allegedly due under the Fair Labor StandardsAct (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.  The district court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction after finding that Plaintiff’s maximum potential recovery was less than the value of her severance package received from Defendant, which the district court determined should be set-off against anypotential damages awarded to Plaintiff.  Holding that such a set-off was improper, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.

The court reasoned:

“At issue is whether Pepsi can set-off the value of benefits it paid to Karen Martin under her severance agreement against Martin’s FLSA claim for overtime wages. The district court found that Pepsi was entitled to the set-off and, consequently, dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We review a court’s ruling on a FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss de novo. See Budget Prepay, Inc. v. AT&T Corp., 605 F.3d 273, 278 (5th Cir.2010) (citing Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir.2001)). When challenging a 12(b)(1) motion, the party asserting jurisdiction bears the burden of proof. Id.

Pepsi initially contends that our opinion in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), should be read broadly to allow set-offs in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Generally speaking, courts have been hesitant to permit an employer to file counterclaimsFN1 in FLSA suits for money the employer claims the employee owes it, or for damages the employee’s tortious conduct allegedly caused. See Brennan v. Heard, 491 F.2d 1, 4 (5th Cir.1974), rev’d on other grounds by McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 108 S.Ct. 1677, 100 L.Ed.2d 115 (1988); see also Donovan v. Pointon, 717 F.2d 1320, 1323 (10th Cir.1983) (“[T]he purpose of the present action is to bring Pointon into compliance with the Act by enforcing a public right. To permit him in such a proceeding to try his private claims, real or imagined, against his employees would delay and even subvert the whole process. Pointon is free to sue his employees in state court ….”).

In Heard, we said that set-offs and counterclaims are inappropriate in any case brought to enforce the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions. In that case, the Secretary of Labor sued an employer to enjoin it from withholding base and overtime wages from employees. Heard, 491 F.2d at 2. After finding a willful FLSA violation, the district court ordered the employer to pay its employees back wages, but permitted a set-off for the value of goods the employer had furnished to its employees. Id. This court reversed, stating that “[t]he federal courts were not designated by the FLSA to be either collection agents or arbitrators for an employee’s creditors.” Id. at 4. Noting that the only function of the federal judiciary under the FLSA “is to assure to the employees of a covered company a minimum level of wages,” we said that “[a]rguments and disputations over claims against those wages are foreign to the genesis, history, interpretation, and philosophy of the Act.” Id. And we observed that “[t]he only economic feud contemplated by the FLSA involves the employer’s obedience to minimum wage and overtime standards. To clutter [FLSA] proceedings with the minutiae of other employer-employee relationships would be antithetical to the purpose of the Act.” Id.; see also Pointon, 717 F.2d at 1323 (declining to address employer’s counterclaim for tortious sabotage in employee’s FLSA suit); Hodgson v. Lakewood Broad. Serv., 330 F.Supp. 670, 673 (D.Colo.1971) (declining to allow set-off or counterclaim against Secretary for employee’s breach of employment contract).

This language notwithstanding, in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), we allowed an employer to set-off certain wage overpayments against the employees’ overall damages award. Singer involved a class of municipal fire fighters whose hours varied among pay periods. The city’s method for calculating their regular rate of pay under the FLSA resulted in an underpayment of the fire fighters’ overtime pay during some pay periods. Id. at 817, 824-25. When calculating how much money the city owed the fire fighters in unpaid overtime wages, “the district court found that the City’s method of calculating overtime compensation resulted in small deficiencies … in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 120 hours,” but “the City’s method resulted in considerable overpayments ($126.20) in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 96 hours.” Id. at 826. Because of this incongruity, the district court allowed the employer to set-off overpayments in some work periods against shortfalls in others. Id. at 826. We viewed these overpayments as akin to pre-payments, not prohibited by the Code of Federal Regulations or the FLSA, and affirmed. Id. We reconciled our holdings in Singer and Heard by observing that “the offsets permitted by the district court [in Heard] caused the final awards of many of the defendants’ workers to drop below the statutory minimum.” Id. at 828 n. 9 (quoting Heard, 491 F.2d at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). Meanwhile, in Singer, “no party contend[ed] that the offset might cause the fire fighters’ wages to fall below the statutory minimum wage.” 324 F.3d at 828 n. 9.

Relying on this distinction, Pepsi contends that Singer should be read to limit Heard, to stand for the proposition that set-offs are appropriate in FLSA cases so long as they do not cause an employee’s wages to fall below the statutory minimum. Pepsi has cited, as did the district court, several lower court decisions from outside this circuit that have given Singer such a broad construction. See, e.g. Hanson v. ABC Liquors, Inc., No. 3:09-cv-966, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108954, at *7-8 (M.D.Fla. Nov. 9, 2009) (collecting cases); see also Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 n.3. These cases, however, predate our opinion in Gagnon v. United Technisource, Inc., 607 F.3d 1036 (5th Cir.2010), where we clarified that Heard’s longstanding prohibition of set-offs in FLSA cases is the rule in this circuit and Singer an exception.

In Gagnon, the district court found an FLSA overtime violation and awarded damages to the plaintiff. 607 F.3d at 1040. The defendant-employer counterclaimed and sought a set-off in the amount equal to the damages caused by the plaintiff’s breach of contract (i.e., his failure to notify the employer of his new address, as he was contractually obligated to do). Id. The district court did not address the employer’s counterclaims, and this court gave them short shrift likewise, holding that “our precedent suggests that such claims should not be addressed in an FLSA action.” 607 F.3d at 1042 (citing Heard, 491 F.2d at 4).

We specifically addressed the employer’s set-off claim in Gagnon, despite its semblance to the contract counterclaim, to clarify a reasonable uncertainty over Singer’s reach. See 607 F.3d at 1043 (“we nonetheless address the claim because we have previously held that offsets are permissible in FLSA actions”). Gagnon distinguished the set-off allowed in Singer as one that “simply acknowledged that the City had already paid the bulk of its overtime obligations.” Id. (citing Singer, 324 F.3d at 828) (emphasis in original). Gagnon (the employee), by contrast, was not paid “any additional sums that could be characterized as advanced or inappropriate amounts subject to an offset against the overtime owed to him,” id., and thus, a set-off was inappropriate.

In Gagnon, we rejected the employer’s argument, which Pepsi renews here, that Singer stands for the proposition that set-offs are allowed in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Although that reading of Singer may have been plausible at one time, Gagnon clarified that it was the unique character of the set-offs in Singer-that they represented overtime obligations already fulfilled-that allowed for a narrow exception to the bright-line rule spelled out in Heard. We continue to look with disfavor on set-offs unless the money being set-off can be considered wages that the employer pre-paid to the plaintiff-employee.

Pepsi contends, alternatively, that the benefits paid to Martin are similar to the fire fighters’ wages set-off in Singer because, in both cases, the employer paid some extra money or benefits to the employee to which the employee was not otherwise entitled. And in the opinion granting Pepsi’s motion to dismiss, the district court cited several lower court decisions that have allowed employers to plead set-offs as an affirmative defense in FLSA wage cases “where the employer paid the employee funds to which the employee was not entitled.” (Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 & n.3.) This misconstrues the reciprocal nature of the benefits bargained for in Martin’s severance agreement. Although Martin had no legal entitlement to the benefits included in her severance package, these benefits were not gratuitous. Pepsi paid these benefits in return for Martin’s release of claims. That Martin later sued Pepsi on state law claims simply means that Martin did not keep her end of the agreement. Pepsi’s damages flow from a breach of contract. Pepsi is not entitled to set-off those damages here because unlike Singer, the money and benefits Pepsi paid to Martin were not wage payments, advance or otherwise; they were not related to her labors at all.

Because we find that the district court erred in setting-off the value of Martin’s severance package against her potential recovery at trial, we VACATE the district court’s dismissal of Martin’s FLSA claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and REMAND the case for further proceedings.”

Click Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc. to read the entire decision.

6th Cir.: Effect Of Impermissible Deductions On Exempt Status; Under Old Regs “Significant Likelihood” Standard All Weeks Rendered Non-Exempt; Under New Regs Only Weeks Where Impermissible Deductions Actually Occurred

Baden-Winterwood v. Life Time Fitness, Inc.

In this case, the 6th Circuit addressed a common issue raised in mis-classification cases: the effect of a compensation plan which makes impermissible deductions to otherwise exempt employees, whose exemptions require they be paid on a “salary basis.”

On July 10, 2007, the district court granted in part Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment, finding “that the deductions from the salaries of eight Plaintiffs were deductions resulting from ‘variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed,’ in violation of the salary-basis test.”Baden-Winterwood v. Life Time Fitness, No. 2:06-CV-99, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49777, at *42 (S.D.Ohio July 10, 2007) (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 541.602(a)). However, the district court limited Plaintiffs’ recovery to overtime pay for the three pay periods in 2005-the periods ending November 9, November 23, and December 9-during which Life Time Fitness took actual deductions from Plaintiffs’ salaries. Id. The court dismissed all other claims for overtime pay, including, in their entirety, the claims of the ten Plaintiffs who appealed.

The issue before the Court was whether Plaintiffs’ compensation plans satisfy the salary-basis test. Prior to August 23, 2004, the salary-basis test, as defined by regulation, provided:

“An employee will be considered to be paid “on a salary basis” within the meaning of the regulations if under his employment agreement he regularly receives each pay period on a weekly, or less frequent basis, a predetermined amount constituting all or part of his compensation, which amount is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed. 29 C.F.R. § 541.118(a) (1973). In August 2004, the DOL updated the regulations defining the salary-basis test. The new regulation states: An employee will be considered to be paid on a “salary basis” within the meaning of these regulations if the employee regularly receives each pay period on a weekly, or less frequent basis, a predetermined amount constituting all or part of the employee’s compensation, which amount is not subject to reduction because of variations in the quality or quantity of the work performed. 29 C.F.R. § 541.602(a) (effective August 23, 2004). Under both versions, Life Time Fitness bears the burden of proving that Plaintiffs were paid: (1) a predetermined amount, which (2) was not subject to reduction (3) based on quality or quantity of work performed. Notably, however, rather than include the term “employment agreement,” the updated regulations focus on pay received. Compare29 C.F.R. §§ 541.118(a), 541.602(a).”

Significantly, the Court explained, “[f]or our purposes, the salary-basis test has two interpretations of the phrase ‘subject to,’ both of which are relevant here. In 1997, in Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452 (1997), the Supreme Court adopted the interpretation offered by the Secretary of Labor that the salary-basis test denies exempt status “if there is either an actual practice of making … deductions [based on variations in quality or quantity of work performed] or an employment policy that creates a ‘significant likelihood’ of such deductions.” Id. at 461. Specifically, the Auer Court held

‘The Secretary’s approach rejects a wooden requirement of actual deductions, but in their absence it requires a clear and particularized policy-one which “effectively communicates” that deductions will be made in specified circumstances. This avoids the imposition of massive and unanticipated overtime liability … in situations in which a vague or broadly worded policy is nominally applicable to a whole range of personnel but is not “significantly likely” to be invoked against salaried employees.’

Thus, under Auer, an employee is not paid on a salary basis if (1) there is an actual practice of salary deductions or if (2) an employee is compensated under a policy that clearly communicates a significant likelihood of deductions. Id.

Following Auer, on March 31, 2003, the DOL provided published notice on a proposed set of new FLSA regulations. See Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees, 68 Fed.Reg. 15,560 (Mar. 31, 2003). After a 90-day comment period, the DOL revised and released its final regulations, defining the exemptions under the FLSA. See Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions for Executive, Administrative, Professional, Outside Sales and Computer Employees, 69 Fed.Reg. 22,122 (Apr. 23, 2004). The new regulations became effective on August 23, 2004. Id.

Under the new regulations, the Secretary of Labor reinterpreted the salary-basis test. Life Time Fitness argues that the DOL specifically eliminated the “policy” part of the Auer test, whereby a “significant likelihood” of improper deductions was sufficient to cause an employee to lose his or her FLSA exemption. The new regulations (” § 541.603“) provide that “[a]n actual practice of making improper deductions demonstrates that the employer did not intend to pay employees on a salary basis.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.603(a). Moreover, Life Time Fitness argues that the new regulations limit the scope of recovery by providing that “[i]f the facts demonstrate that the employer has an actual practice of making improper deductions, the exemption is lost during the time period in which the improper deductions were made for the employees in the same job classification working for the same managers responsible for the actual improper deductions.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.603(b).

In its comments, the DOL explains that while the new rule represents a departure from the Secretary’s position in Auer,”[t]he ‘significant likelihood’ test is not found in the FLSA itself or anywhere in the existing Part 541 regulations. Moreover, nothing in Auer prohibits the [DOL] from making changes to the salary[-]basis regulations after appropriate notice and comment rulemaking.” Defining and Delimiting the Exemptions, 69 Fed.Reg. at 22,180. The DOL stated its reasoning behind the changes:

Any other approach, on the one hand, would provide a windfall to employees who have not even arguably been harmed by a “policy” that a manager has never applied and may never intend to apply, but on the other hand, would fail to recognize that some employees may reasonably believe that they would be subject to the same types of impermissible deductions made from the pay of similarly situated employees.

Under the Auer test, the Court, found that Defendants’ policy whereby deductions would be made (although they were not in practice violated the salary basis requirements) violated the salary basis test, explaining:

The district court erred in concluding that there was not enough evidence to suggest Life Time Fitness intended to enforce its permissive policy. The Auer subject-to-reduction test requires only a “clear and particularized policy-one which ‘effectively communicates’ that deductions will be made in specified circumstances.” 519 U.S. at 461. The test does not require a formulaic set of “magic words” indicating that the test is mandatory. If employers can avoid overtime liability by crafting payment policies with permissive (may ) language instead of mandatory (will ) language, then the purposes of the FLSA would clearly be frustrated. Rather, as set out by this Court in Takacs and Whisman, Auer’s test is better satisfied by a policy that demonstrates that deductions are “more than a mere theoretical possibility” and that “permit[s] disciplinary or other deductions in pay ‘as a practical matter.’ ” 246 F.3d at 781

Here, Life Time Fitness’s pre-August 23, 2004 compensation plan subjected employees’ pay to reductions under the Auer test.  The compensation plan at issue does more than create a theoretical possibility of deduction; instead it plainly lays out a policy under which Life Time Fitness would make future deductions.  Therefore, under the old regs, the Court found the Plaintiffs were non-exempt for all weeks within the relevant statute of limitations period.

However, since the current regulations require an actual violation, the Court held that the otherwise exempt employees were only stripped of their exempt status, and thus entitled to overtime for the 3 weeks when the pay practice was actually used to reduce their “salary.” In all other weeks, the Court found the salary basis test met, and thus found that, aside from three weeks where actual reduction were made, the Plaintiffs remained exempt, notwithstanding the three weeks where deductions were actually made.”