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W.D.Ark.: In Individual FLSA Cases, Where All Parties Are Represented By Counsel Throughout, Court Approval of Settlement Not Required
What seemed taboo in many parts of the country just a few years ago, dismissing an FLSA case with prejudice and foregoing court approval, has continued to gain steam in most jurisdictions. Most recently, a court in the Western District of Arkansas declined to approve the settlement of an individual-plaintiff FLSA claim, where the parties had jointly requested that the court review the settlement agreement in camera, so that they could avoid placing it in the docket. However, in denying to approve the settlement, the court advised the parties that—under the circumstances of this particular case—court-approval of the settlement agreement was not necessary. Instead, the court held that where: (1) the lawsuit is not a collective action; (2) all individual plaintiffs were represented by an attorney from the time of the filing of the complaint through the conclusion of subsequent settlement negotiations; and (3) all parties have indicated to the Court in writing through their attorneys that they wish for their settlement agreement to remain private and that they do not wish for any reasonableness review of their settlement to occur no reasonableness review or public filing of an FLSA settlement is necessary.
After reviewing 80 years of FLSA jurisprudence that court’s long cited for the premise that all FLSA settlements must be court approved, the court also discussed recent Fifth Circuit authority which cast doubt on that view, in circumstances where there was little or no risk that an employer would be likely to improperly exercise its authority over an employee in order to extract an improper settlement from the employee.
Adopting the view that many settlement agreements do not require a court’s blessing, the court explained:
Unfortunately, this Court is not aware of any Eighth Circuit precedent that addresses the issues raised in the instant Joint Motion. However, this Court believes that the risk is minimal that an unreasonable settlement will result from “unequal bargaining power as between employer and employee” in FLSA lawsuits where each of the following three criteria is met: (1) the lawsuit is not a collective action; (2) all individual plaintiffs were represented by an attorney from the time of the filing of the complaint through the conclusion of subsequent settlement negotiations; and (3) all parties have indicated to the Court in writing through their attorneys that they wish for their settlement agreement to remain private and that they do not wish for any reasonableness review of their settlement to occur. In such cases, this Court does not believe any reasonableness review or public filing of an FLSA settlement is necessary. The Court finds that each of these requirements is met in the instant case.
As such, the court denied the parties’ motion to review FLSA settlement in camera [if necessary], and directed the parties to file a joint stipulation of dismissal under FRCP 41(a) instead:
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the parties’ Joint Motion to Review FLSA Settlement in Camera, if Necessary, Approve Settlement, and Dismiss with Prejudice (Doc. 23) is DENIED. The parties may instead file a joint stipulation of dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(1)(A)(ii).
Click Schneider v. Habitat for Humanity Intern., Inc. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
11th Cir.: Absent Judgment in Plaintiff’s Favor, Offer Did Not Moot FLSA Claims; Mandatory Attorney’s Fees Due
Wolff v Royal American Management, Inc.
Following an order approving the settlement between the parties and an award of attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiff, as the prevailing party, the defendant appealed arguing that their tender of damages to plaintiff in exchange for a general release mooted the claims. Rejecting this assertion, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the order below and held that an FLSA defendant cannot moot a claim for unpaid wages, absent an offer of judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
Summarizing the relevant facts and procedural history, the Eleventh Circuit explained:
The relevant background is this. After filing a complaint alleging FLSA violations, Wolff calculated that RAM had failed to pay her $1800 in overtime wages. Liquidated damages under the FLSA in the same amount brought her total itemized damages claim to $3600. In December 2011, RAM tendered $3600 to plaintiff through her attorney, and moved to dismiss the complaint; Wolff’s counsel returned the check. In December 2012, RAM offered to settle the case for $5000, but Wolff’s counsel claimed that he never submitted the offer to Wolff because it was never put into writing. Nevertheless, in February 2012, Wolff received a 1099 form reflecting a payment of $3600, and called RAM to determine the reason for the 1099. RAM informed Wolff for the first time of the prior tender to her counsel, and Wolff said she wanted to settle the case. Wolff then met with RAM, signed a general release and took the $3600 check. Thereafter, the parties moved the court to determine whether the payment and release rendered the action moot, stripping Wolff of attorneys’ fees on the ground that there was no judgment in the case to indicate that Wolff was the prevailing party. The district court ultimately approved the settlement as reasonable, even though the parties reached the settlement without the participation of Wolff’s counsel. The district court further found that the settlement had not mooted the lawsuit, and later awarded Wolff’s counsel $61,810.44 in fees and costs. This timely appeal follows.
Discussing recent FLSA jurisprudence regarding mandatory fees and the ability (or lack thereof) of a defendant to moot a claim for same, the Court explained:
Under the FLSA,
Any employer who violates the provisions of section 206 or section 207 of this title shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages …. The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.
29 U.S.C. § 216(b). We have said that because the FLSA seeks to protect employees from “inequalities in bargaining power between employers and employees,” Congress had made its provisions mandatory. Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t. of Labor, 679 F.2d 1350, 1352 (11th Cir.1982). Thus, “FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived because this would nullify the purposes of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.” Id. (quotation omitted). We’ve also held that “[t]he FLSA plainly requires that the plaintiff receive a judgment in his favor to be entitled to attorney’s fees and costs.” Dionne v. Floormasters Enters., Inc., 667 F.3d 1199, 1205 (11th Cir.2012).
The Supreme Court, considering the fee-shifting provisions in “[n]umerous federal statutes [that] allow courts to award attorney’s fees and costs to the ‘prevailing party,’ ” has recognized that a plaintiff is a prevailing party only when she obtains either (1) a judgment on the merits, or (2) a settlement agreement “enforced through a consent decree.” Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep’t. of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603–604 (2001), superseded by statute on other grounds, Open Government Act of 2007, Pub.L. No. 110–175, 121 Stat. 2524. The Buckhannon Court reasoned that a prevailing party needs a judgment or consent decree to prove that there has been an “alteration in the legal relationship of the parties.” Id. at 605. Thus, in the absence of a judgment on the merits, to be a prevailing party, the FLSA plaintiff needs a stipulated or consent judgment or its “functional equivalent” from the district court evincing the court’s determination that the settlement “is a fair and reasonable res[o]lution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions.” Lynn’s Food Stores, 679 F.2d at 1355;
American Disability Ass’n, Inc. v. Chmielarz, 289 F.3d 1315, 1317, 1320 (11th Cir.2002) (holding that the district court’s approval of the terms of a settlement coupled with its explicit retention of jurisdiction are the functional equivalent of a consent decree, which renders the settlement a “judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties” for purposes of the “prevailing party” determination necessary for attorneys’ fees).
In Dionne, we held that an employer, who denied liability for nonpayment for overtime work, did not need to pay attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA if the employer tendered the full amount of overtime pay claimed by an employee, and the employee conceded that “the claim for overtime should be dismissed as moot.” 667 F.3d at 1200. In other words, we concluded that Dionne was not a prevailing party under the FLSA because in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the district court did not award a judgment to the plaintiff. Notably, however, we expressly limited our holding, emphasizing on rehearing that:
Our decision in this matter addresses a very narrow question: whether an employee who conceded that his claim should be dismissed before trial as moot, when the full amount of back pay was tendered, was a prevailing party entitled to statutory attorney’s fees under § 216(b). It should not be construed as authorizing the denial of attorney’s fees, requested by an employee, solely because an employer tendered the full amount of back pay owing to an employee, prior to the time a jury has returned its verdict, or the trial court has entered judgment on the merits of the claim.
Id. at 1206 n. 5 (emphasis added).
Thereafter, in Zinni, we held that a settlement offer for the full amount of statutory damages requested under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), without an accompanying offer of judgment, did not offer full relief to an FDCPA plaintiff and therefore did not render the plaintiff’s claim moot. 692 F.3d at 1167–68. Zinni involved three cases that were consolidated on appeal: in each case, the debt collector offered to settle for $1,001, an amount exceeding by $1 the maximum statutory damages available to an individual plaintiff under the FDCPA, as well as an unspecified amount of attorneys’ fees and costs. Id. at 1164–66. None of the plaintiffs accepted the settlement offers. Id. The district court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because the offers left the plaintiffs with “no remaining stake” in the litigation. Id. at 1164.
On appeal, we reversed, holding that “the failure of [the debt collectors] to offer judgment prevented the mooting of [the plaintiffs’] FDCPA claims.” Id. at 1168. We said that a settlement offer for the “full relief requested” means “the full amount of damages plus a judgment.” Id. at 1166–67. The court explained that judgment is important to a plaintiff because it is enforceable by the district court, whereas a settlement offer without an offer of judgment is “a mere promise to pay” which, if broken, required the plaintiff to sue for breach of contract in state court. Id. at 1167–68 (quoting from and relying on Simmons v. United Mortg. & Loan Inv., LLC, 634 F.3d 754, 766 (4th Cir.2011) (FLSA overtime case)). We also noted that “even if the [settlement] check had been tendered [to the plaintiff], that fact would not change our ultimate conclusion.” Id. at 1164 n. 5. In fact, we said that even if the plaintiff accepted the offer, without an offer of judgment, full relief had not been offered. Id. at 1167 n. 8 (“The issue of whether the offer was accepted or rejected, while argued by the parties, is not relevant to our analysis because Appellees never offered full relief.”).
Applying these principles to the case at bar, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that absent an offer of judgment in plaintiff’s favor, the defendant could not and did not moot the plaintiff’s claims, not withstanding the plaintiff’s acceptance of the monies tendered:
Here, RAM’s settlement offer to Wolff did not include an offer of judgment in Wolff’s favor and against RAM. Rather, Wolff signed a release providing that she “acknowledge[d] receipt of [the $3600] check as full and complete satisfaction of any monies owed to [Wolff] from Royal American.” As a result, under Zinni—which expressly relied on a FLSA case from the Fourth Circuit—we are compelled to conclude that RAM’s offer did not constitute full relief of Wolff’s FLSA claim. We recognize that in Zinni, the plaintiff did not accept the settlement check, but here, Wolff accepted the check and signed a release. However, Zinni made clear that so long as a settlement agreement does not include an offer of judgment against a defendant (and it did not in this case), whether a plaintiff accepted the settlement makes no difference. Thus, RAM’s settlement with Wolff did not moot her FLSA claim, and she was entitled to seek attorneys’ fees and costs from RAM.
RAM argues that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 133 S.Ct. 1523 (2013), requires a different result. There, the Supreme Court held that a “collective action” brought under the FLSA—wherein an employee brings an action to recover damages for FLSA violations on behalf of himself and other “similarly situated” employees—became non justiciable when the lone plaintiff’s individual claim became moot. Id. at 1526. However, Genesis involved a settlement offer that included an offer of judgment-unlike the offer here, and unlike the one in Zinni. See id. at 1527 (“When petitioners answered the complaint, they simultaneously served upon respondent an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68.”). What’s more, Genesis explicitly said that it was “assum[ing], without deciding, that [an employer’s] Rule 68 offer mooted [an employee’s] individual claim.” See id. at 1529; see also id. n. 4 (“[W]e do not resolve the question whether a Rule 68 offer that fully satisfies the plaintiff’s claims is sufficient by itself to moot the action.”). Accordingly, Genesis is not directly on point, and expressly does not answer the question before us.
Affirming the district court’s award of attorneys fees to plaintiff, the Court reasoned:
We also find unavailing RAM’s claim that the district court abused its discretion in awarding the fees in this case. As for RAM’s claim that Wolff was not a prevailing party for purposes of obtaining FLSA attorneys’ fees, we are unpersuaded. As we’ve said, to be entitled to fees under the FLSA, a plaintiff must “receive a judgment in [her] favor.” Dionne, 667 F.3d at 1205. Here, the district court plainly found that the settlement—which RAM admits included the full amount of back pay as well as an equal amount for liquidated damages—was reasonable, and by doing so, the district court entered a judgment in Wolff’s favor. See Lynn’s Food Stores, 679 F.2d at 1355;
Chmielarz, 289 F.3d at 1317, 1320. RAM provides us with no reason to depart from Lynn, which directs a district court to enter a judgment after “scrutinizing” for fairness a proposed settlement entered into between the employee and the employer in an action brought for back wages under the FLSA. Id. at 1353. Further, unlike in Thomas v. State of La., 534 F.2d 613, 615 (5th Cir.1976), it is unclear in this case whether Wolff received “everything to which [she was] entitled under the FLSA at the time the agreement [wa]s reached,” since the district court found that the parties did not intend the settlement agreement to preclude attorneys’ fees under the FLSA.
As for RAM’s claim that it was denied due process when the district court entered the judgment, the record shows that RAM was given an opportunity to respond to Wolff’s motions on this matter, and that RAM expressly made arguments regarding its liability in its papers before the district court. Nor has RAM shown, based on the record of this case—including the record of attorney and party conduct on both sides—that the district court abused its considerable discretion in granting attorneys’ fees using the lodestar analysis. This is especially true given that in cases like this one where attorney fees are allowed to the prevailing party by federal statute, the compensable fees include time spent litigating both the entitlement to and amount of fees incurred; i.e. “fees for litigating fees.” Thompson v. Pharmacy Corp. of Am., Inc., 334 F.3d 1242, 1245 (11th Cir.2003) (statutory fees for civil rights litigants includes “fees for litigating fees”). Accordingly, we affirm.
Click Wolff v Royal American Management, Inc. to read the entire unpublished Per Curiam Opinion.
Brooke v. Administrative Maintenance Services, LLC
Generally, we post cases here that feature issues that are likely to come up in other cases. Other times we post cases simply because they involve interesting fact patterns or scenarios. This case falls in the latter category. Here, the case was before the court on the parties’ joint motion to approve their settlement. However, this was no ordinary settlement. Instead, based on concerns pertaining to plaintiff’s credibility, regarding the number of improperly compensated overtime hours claimed by plaintiff, and the defendants’ assertions that they were due various offsets based on unrelated transactions between the parties, the parties entered into a unique settlement agreement, following mediation.
In order to resolve the various issues, largely involving the credibility of the parties, the parties agreed that the plaintiff would submit to a lie detector case, the results of which would dictate what, if any, amounts of damages plaintiff would recover under the settlement.
As described by the court:
“The parties… agreed that Mr. Brooke will be asked, in a format crafted by the operator of the lie detector, whether he worked five, ten, and, finally, fifteen hours per week, on average, of overtime. If the operator concludes Mr. Brooke worked no overtime, Mr. Brooke will dismiss his case and reimburse the Defendants one-half of the lie detector administrator’s fee to the Defendants. If the operator concludes Mr. Brooke did work overtime in the brackets described above, he will be paid the greatest number of average weekly overtime he credibly answers about, per week, times $12.00 (one-half his base rate of $12.00 per hour and an equal amount in liquidated damages), times the eighty one weeks he was employed by the Defendants. If the result is inconclusive, the Defendants will pay a total of $10,000.00, including fees and costs.”
While the court noted the settlement might be fair, depending on the amounts ultimately payable to plaintiff under the agreement, the court declined to approve the settlement citing the contingency nature of the settlement and the fact that it was unclear how much plaintiff would receive. The court reasoned:
“The Court does not quarrel with the parties’ contention that this approach is quicker and cheaper than a jury. The same can be said, however, as dueling and coin flips. The standard is not whether a resolution is quick and cheap, but whether it is fair and reasonable. There is no showing here that conditioning an award based on the ability to pass a lie detector test is either of those things.
To be clear, the Court is not finding that settlement in the amounts suggested would not be fair. If the parties had presented an agreement for Defendant to pay $10,000, for example, the Court could evaluate that sum in view of all of the pertinent considerations supporting a settlement, and could issue a recommendation on same. As long as there was an agreement as to an amount rationally related to the claim, and the Court found the settlement to be voluntary and objectively fair and reasonable, it would not matter if the actual numbers were reached via lie detector test, rock-paper-scissors, or drawing straws. Here, however, the parties are not asking the Court to approve a settlement—they are asking the Court to approve a method of reaching a settlement. This is beyond the scope of the fairness finding duties set forth in Lynn’s Food.
For these reasons, it is respectfully recommended that the Court deny the motion, without prejudice to renewal, if appropriate, upon clarification of the status of the corporate Defendants and upon a presentation of terms that are consistent with the principles discussed herein.”
Click Brooke v. Administrative Maintenance Services, LLC to read the entire Report and Recommendation, which was ultimately adopted in full by the presiding District Court Judge.
M.D.Fla.: Approval Of Confidential Settlement In FLSA Case Rejected; Confidentiality Frustrates Remedial Purposes Of The FLSA
Dees v. Hydradry, Inc.
This case was before the Court on the parties’ Joint Stipulation of Dismissal. Although, the Court noted that, “a private settlement and stipulation for dismissal ends the typical case without judicial intervention, the Eleventh Circuit requires the district court to review the settlement of an FLSA claim. See Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350 (11th Cir.1982).”
As part of a lengthy discussion of the remedial purposes behind the FLSA, the history of the FLSA and the applicable case law regarding waiver and settlements, and the role of the Court in the settlement process, the Court reasoned that no such resolutions of FLSA cases should involve confidentiality provisions, because such provisions contravene the public policy behind the FLSA’s implementation.
“ii. A Confidentiality Provision Contravenes FLSA Policy
Because of worry that settling with one employee will encourage other employees to assert FLSA rights, the employer may seek to maintain the confidentiality of the settlement agreement. But a confidentiality provision furthers resolution of no bona fide dispute between the parties; rather, compelled silence unreasonably frustrates implementation of the “private-public” rights granted by the FLSA and thwarts Congress’s intent to ensure widespread compliance with the statute. To further Congress’s intent, the Department of Labor requires the employer of an employee covered by the FLSA to display conspicuously in the workplace a detailed notice of the employee’s FLSA rights. By including a confidentiality provision, the employer thwarts the informational objective of the notice requirement by silencing the employee who has vindicated a disputed FLSA right.
Furthermore, Section 15(a)(3) of the FLSA proscribes an employer’s retaliating against an employee for asserting rights under the FLSA. If an employee covered by a confidentiality agreement discusses the FLSA with fellow employees or otherwise asserts FLSA rights, the employer might sue the employee for breach of contract. The employer’s most proximate damages from the employee’s breach are the unpaid FLSA wages due other employees who learned of their FLSA rights from the employee who breached the confidentiality agreement. A confidentiality agreement, if enforced, (1) empowers an employer to retaliate against an employee for exercising FLSA rights, (2) effects a judicial confiscation of the employee’s right to be free from retaliation for asserting FLSA rights, and (3) transfers to the wronged employee a duty to pay his fellow employees for the FLSA wages unlawfully withheld by the employer. This unseemly prospect vividly displays the inherent impropriety of a confidentiality agreement in settlement of an FLSA dispute.
A confidentiality provision in an FLSA settlement agreement both contravenes the legislative purpose of the FLSA and undermines the Department of Labor’s regulatory effort to notify employees of their FLSA rights. “The statute was a recognition of the fact that due to the unequal bargaining power as between employer and employee, certain segments of the population required federal compulsory legislation to prevent private contracts on their part which endangered the national health and efficiency and as a result the free movement of goods in interstate commerce.” Brooklyn Savings Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706-07 (1945). The district court should reject as unreasonable a compromise that contains a confidentiality provision, which is unenforceable and operates in contravention of the FLSA.”
Later in the opinion the Court discussed the issue of confidentiality in greater detail, reasoning that beyond evaluating a settlement for “reasonableness,” the Court has other functions when reviewing FLSA settlements, specifically to ensure that such settlements and records of same are available for public review:
“B. External Factors: Does the Compromise, Although Reasonable, Otherwise Frustrate Implementation of the FLSA
In evaluating a compromise, the district court should also consider an array of “external” or contextual factors pertinent to the statutory purpose of the FLSA. Compromise of a retrospective dispute may be permissible if, for example, the FLSA issue in a case is unresolvably close on the facts or the law or some extraordinary circumstance (say, a suddenly disabled claimant or an employer in liquidation) commends a speedy or certain resolution. On the other hand, several factors may commend rejecting a proposed compromise, including the presence of other employees situated similarly to the claimant, a likelihood that the claimant’s circumstance will recur, a history of FLSA non-compliance by the same employer or others in the same industry or geographic region, or the requirement for a mature record and a pointed determination of the governing factual or legal issue to further the development of the law either in general or in an industry or in a workplace. In all instances, the district court should faithfully execute the congressional mandate for “minimum wages, promptly paid … for the lowest paid segment of the nation’s workers.” D.A. Schulte v. Gangi, 328 U .S. 108, 116 (1946).
IV. The Effect of Judicial Review: “Confidential” FLSA Settlement Agreements and Public Access to Court Records
“Parties who settle a legal dispute rather than pressing it to resolution by the court often do so, in part anyway, because they do not want the terms of the resolution to be made public.” Jessup v. Luther, 277 F.3d 926, 928 (7th Cir.2002). See generally Laurie Kratzky Dore, Secrecy by Consent: The Use and Limits of Confidentiality in the Pursuit of Settlement, 74 Notre Dame L.Rev. 283 (1999). In an FLSA action, the employer worries that compromise with an employee who has vindicated a valuable FLSA right will inform and encourage other employees, who will vindicate their FLSA rights (or who will wrongly, but expensively for the employer, conclude that additional wages are due). Although perhaps both uncomfortable and expensive to an employer, vindication of FLSA rights throughout the workplace is precisely the object Congress chose to preserve and foster through the FLSA.
In the typical settled case, the district judge remains unaware of the terms of compromise, and the parties enforce the settlement agreement, if necessary, only through a separate action. The parties maintain the confidentiality of their compromise by submitting a stipulation for dismissal under Rule 41, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In an FLSA case, however, Lynn’s Food requires the parties to obtain judicial approval of the compromise. Forced to submit the agreement to the court after filing a motion for approval, the parties often seek to preserve the confidentiality of the compromise either by moving to submit the agreement under seal or by requesting an “in camera review” of the agreement.
In the typical FLSA case, however, neither attempt to conceal the compromise comports with the public’s right of access to a judicial proceeding, which right is “an essential component of our system of justice [and] instrumental in securing the integrity of the process.” Chicago Tribune Co. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 263 F.3d 1304, 1311 (11th Cir.2001). The judge’s “approving” a settlement constitutes a “public act,” and the public “has an interest in knowing what terms of settlement a federal judge would approve.” Jessup, 277 F.3d at 929. As an active component of the judge’s decision, the settlement agreement is presumptively a public record. See Brown v. Advantage Eng’g, Inc., 960 F.2d 1013, 1016 (11th Cir.1992) (“Once a matter is brought before a court for resolution, it is no longer solely the parties’ case, but also the public’s case.”); Bank of Am. Nat’l Trust & Sav. Ass’n v. Hotel Rittenhouse Assocs., 800 F.2d 339, 343 (3d Cir.1986) (“[T]he common law presumption of access applies to motions filed in court proceedings and to the settlement agreement … filed and submitted to the district court for approval.”). The public enjoys the right both to attend a trial or hearing and to inspect and copy a judicial record.
The presumption that the record of a judicial proceeding remains public “is surely most strong when the ‘right at issue is of a ‘private-public character,’ as the Supreme Court has described employee rights under the FLSA.” Stalnaker, 293 F.Supp.2d at 1264 (quoting Brooklyn Savings Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 708 (1945)). Sealing an FLSA settlement agreement between an employer and employee, reviewing the agreement in camera, or reviewing the agreement at a hearing without the agreement’s appearing in the record (in any event precluding other employees’ and the public’s access to, and knowledge of, the agreement) thwarts Congress’s intent both to advance employees’ awareness of their FLSA rights and to ensure pervasive implementation of the FLSA in the workplace.
Furthermore, before sealing a document, the district court must identify and articulate “an overriding interest based on findings that [a seal] is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. The interest is to be articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the [sealing] order was properly entered.” Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California, 464 U.S. 501, 510 (1984). Preventing the employee’s co-workers or the public from discovering the existence or value of their FLSA rights is an objective unworthy of implementation by a judicial seal, which is warranted only under “extraordinary circumstances” typically absent in an FLSA case. Absent an “overriding interest” in the preservation of some “higher value,” the court should not abide the parties’ request for a seal
The parties’ stipulation to seal the agreement (and the absence of a third-party objection to sealing the compromise agreement) fails to justify a seal. In Citizens First National Bank of Princeton v. Cincinnati Insurance Co., 178 F.3d 943, 944-45 (7th Cir.1999), Judge Posner states:
The parties to a lawsuit are not the only people who have a legitimate interest in the record compiled in a legal proceeding…. [T]he public at large pays for the courts and therefore has an interest in what goes on at all stages of a judicial proceeding. That interest does not always trump the property and privacy interests of the litigants, but it can be overridden only if the latter interests predominate in the particular case, that is, only if there is good cause for sealing a part or the whole of the record in that case. The determination of good cause cannot be elided by allowing the parties to seal whatever they want, for then the interest in publicity will go unprotected unless the media are interested in the case and move to unseal. The judge is the primary representative of the public interest in the judicial process and is duty-bound therefore to review any request to seal the record (or part of it). He may not rubber stamp a stipulation to seal the record. See also Wilson v. American Motors Corp., 759 F.2d 1568, 1571 (11th Cir.1985) (“[I]t is the rights of the public, an absent third party, which are preserved by prohibiting closure of public records….”).
Reviewing an FLSA settlement agreement under seal conflicts with the public’s access to judicial records, frustrates appellate review of a judge’s decision to approve (or reject) an FLSA compromise, contravenes congressional policy encouraging widespread compliance with the FLSA, and furthers no judicially cognizable interest of the parties. A proper consideration of the intent of Congress and the public’s interest in judicial transparency permits only one method to obtain judicial review of a compromise of an FLSA claim. The parties must file the settlement agreement in the public docket. See Stalnaker, 293 F.Supp. at 1262-64; see also Hanson v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 08-80182-CIV, 2009 WL 1490582 (S.D.Fla. May 26, 2009) (requiring the parties to submit an unsealed copy of their settlement agreement).
To ensure that “all our able-bodied working men and women [receive] a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” the FLSA requires a covered employer to pay each employee a minimum wage and overtime. To combat the typically unequal bargaining power between employer and employee, Congress prohibits a private agreement altering FLSA rights. An employee entitled to FLSA wages may compromise his claim only under the supervision of either the Department of Labor or the district court.
If presented in an FLSA action with a notice of settlement, a stipulation for dismissal, an offer of judgment, or the like, the judicial approval required by Lynn’s Food and the public’s right of access to a judicial proceeding compel the parties to file their agreement in the public docket of the district court. As an initial matter, the district court must determine whether the employee purports to compromise an FLSA right. If judicial scrutiny confirms that the parties’ settlement involves no compromise, the district court should approve the settlement and dismiss the case (if the employer has paid) or enter judgment for the employee (if the employer has not paid). If the parties’ proposed resolution requires the employee to compromise an FLSA right, the district court must scrutinize the compromise for “fairness.”
An employee’s right to a minimum wage and overtime is unconditional, and the district court should countenance the creation of no condition, whether confidentiality or any other construct, that offends the purpose of the FLSA. An employer is obligated unconditionally to pay a minimum wage and overtime to the complainant and his fellow employees; the district court should not become complicit in any scheme or mechanism designed to confine or frustrate every employee’s knowledge and realization of FLSA rights. Accordingly, the district court evaluating an FLSA compromise should examine first the “internal” fairness of the compromise, including the existence of a bona fide dispute and the absence of a prospective waiver, confidentiality agreement, or other provision antithetical to the FLSA. If the proposed compromise is fair and reasonable to the employee, the court should consider whether any other external factor, such as the need to resolve definitively an issue affecting similarly situated employees, recommends rejecting the compromise. If the compromise is fair and reasonable to the employee and furthers the implementation of FLSA rights in the workplace, the court should approve the compromise.
For the reasons stated in this order, the parties’ stipulation of dismissal is rejected.”
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see if other court’s follow the Court’s reasoning.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Less than a week after this opinion, Judge Merryday, who authored the opinion, went a step further in another case, holding that settlement agreements in FLSA cases that prohibit an employee from disparaging his or her employer are equally inappropriate. See McGowan v. CSPS Hotel, Inc., 8:09-cv-02311-SDM-MAP (M.D.Fla. Apr.29, 2010).
M.D.Ga.: Settlement Agreements Entered Into Without Benefit Of Counsel Not Binding; Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss Denied
Dowling v. Athens Ahmed Family Restaurant, Inc.
Plaintiffs April Dowling, William Smith, and Debra Scott initiated this action against Defendants, seeking to recover minimum wage and overtime compensation allegedly withheld from them by Defendants in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. After filing the lawsuit, all three Plaintiffs terminated their relationship with legal counsel, received money from Defendants in an attempt to satisfy their FLSA claims, and expressed disinterest in continuing the litigation. Therefore, Defendants contended that all three Plaintiffs’ claims against Defendants should be dismissed with prejudice. Plaintiffs, on the other hand, opposed the dismissal of any FLSA claims and request that the Court not approve any alleged settlements. Before the Court were: (1) Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss with Prejudice April Dowling’s Claims against Defendants and Approve Settlement Agreement between Dowling and Defendants (Doc. 37, hereinafter Mot. to Dismiss Dowling) and (2) Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss Debra Scott’s and William Smith’s Claims against Defendants (Doc. 38, hereinafter Mot. to Dismiss Scott & Smith). For the following reasons, Defendants’ motions are denied.
The Court denied Defendant’s Motion to dismiss applying the framework from Lynn’s Foods, requiring the Plaintiffs to return any money received under the “settlements.” Interestingly, the Court did note, that if the Plaintiffs failed to return the money paid to them, it would revisit the Motion to Dismiss:
“Since these claims remain pending for adjudication or proper settlement, the Court orders Plaintiffs Dowling, Smith and Scott to return any money paid to them by Defendants in the attempted settlement of their claims if they have not already done so. That money shall be returned to Defendants within 21 days of the date of this Order. If that money is not returned as ordered, the Court will reconsider its decision not to dismiss these Plaintiffs’ claims.”