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E.D.Cal.: Attorney’s Fees and Costs Recoverable Under 216(b) When Plaintiff Obtains Declaratory Relief
This case was before the court on the relatively novel issue of whether an FLSA plaintiff, who prevails in a case solely seeking a declaratory judgment or declaratory relief is entitled to attorneys fees and costs under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The court answered the question in the affirmative, reasoning that the broad remedial purpose of the FLSA dictated that such fees are recoverable.
Describing the somewhat unique procedural posture of the case, the court explained:
This case is brought as a collective action under 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), by Plaintiffs against Defendant Jeffrey Beard in his official capacity as the Secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. Plaintiffs complain about the calculation of wages by Beard and seek a declaration that Beard is violating the FLSA. Plaintiffs also seek attorneys’ fees under § 216(b). Beard has filed a counterclaim in which he seeks several declarations, the gist of which is that Plaintiffs are not entitled to attorneys’ fees under § 216(b) in this case. Plaintiffs have filed a motion to dismiss under Rules 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), and alternatively a Rule 12(f) motion to strike Beard’s counterclaim. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs’ motion to dismiss will be granted.
Initially, the court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that defendant’s claim that attorneys fees was not recoverable on their declaratory judgment count, holding that the issue was one of pure law and thus ripe from the outset of the case.
After summarizing the parties’ respective positions, the court framed the issue before it as follows:
The issue of whether attorney’s fees may be awarded under § 216(b) when only declaratory judgment is sought or obtained appears to be relatively novel. The parties rely to one degree or another on the language of § 216(b), the policies behind § 216(b) and the FLSA in general, and a comparable 2013 district case.
The court then examined the applicable law, noting that it was aware of only two cases discussing the issue before it:
With respect to case law, there are actually two cases that bear on the issue. The first case is Barrows v. City of Chattanooga, 944 F.Supp.2d 596 (E.D.Tenn.2013), which has been cited by Plaintiffs. In Barrows, Fire Captain Barrows sued the City of Chattanooga under the FLSA regarding his employee classification and for past unpaid overtime. Following a bench trial, the district court held that the City had been improperly classifying Barrows as an FLSA-exempt employee and that a declaration that Barrows was a non-exempt FLSA employee was appropriate. See Barrows, 944 F.Supp.2d at 605. As for past unpaid overtime compensation, the district court held that Barrows had failed to meet his burden of proof in that his evidence was essentially too inconsistent and vague. See id. at 606. As a result, Barrows was awarded no monetary damages. See id. With respect to attorney’s fees, the district court held that Barrows could recover attorney’s fees, despite the lack of monetary relief, because Barrow was entitled to a declaratory judgment. See id. at 607. The court explained:
Section 216 of the FLSA provides, in relevant part, that the Court shall allow a prevailing employee to recover his reasonable attorney’s fees, as well as the costs of the action. Defendant has conceded that Plaintiff is entitled to attorney’s fees and costs in the event that he prevails in this action. Although the Court has found that Plaintiff is not entitled to damages for overtime compensation, Plaintiff has prevailed as to his claim for declaratory relief. Judgment for a plaintiff on a claim for declaratory relief will “usually” be satisfactory for finding that the plaintiff has prevailed in order to recover attorney’s fees. Because Plaintiff here has prevailed on his claim for declaratory relief on the merits, the Court finds that he is a prevailing party; accordingly, he is entitled to recovery of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs of this action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).
The second case, which was cited by neither party, is Council 13, American Fed’n of State, Cnty. & Mun. Emples., AFL–CIO v. Casey, 156 Pa.Cmwlth. 92, 626 A.2d 683 (Pa.Commw.Ct.1993).3 In Council 13, employees of the State of Pennsylvania sought inter alia a declaration that the FLSA required Pennsylvania to pay wages and salaries that were coming due, despite an anticipated exhaustion of appropriated funds. See id. at 684. The court held that the employees were entitled to the declaration they sought, and that the FLSA required payment of wages. See id. at 686. With respect to attorney’s fees under § 216(b), the court found that attorney’s fees were not available. See id. After quoting the third and fifth sentences of § 216(b), the court explained:
Although that sentence, as quoted above, itself contains no mention of fault or violation, it rests in a context which plainly involves legal actions against employers in violation. The first sentence in the quoted passage states that it deals with an ‘action to recover the liability prescribed in either of the preceding sentences … against any employer (including a public agency) in any Federal or State court….’ The ‘preceding sentences’ expressly and exclusively refer to situations involving any “employer who violates” [FLSA § 206 or § 207]. However, this present action clearly is not an enforcement action under [§ 216(b) ] to cure and punish a violation, but is one mutually pursuing a declaratory judgment for guidance—no violation having yet occurred. Hence, the federal Act does not mandate imposition of attorney’s fees here….
Id. at 686–87 (emphasis in original).
In both Barrows and Counsel 13, declaratory relief was sought and obtained. In both Barrows and Counsel 13, attorney’s fees under § 216(b) were sought by the plaintiffs. However, only in Barrows, where an actual violation of the FLSA was found, were fees awarded. Because no violation of the FLSA was actually involved in Counsel 13, the court held that attorney’s fees were not appropriate. Together, Barrows and Counsel 13 indicate that an award of only declaratory relief may form the basis of attorney’s fee under § 216(b), but that attorney’s fees are only available when an actual violation of the FLSA is involved.
Turning to the public policy and legislative intent behind the FLSA’s fee provisions, the court reasoned that such policy and intent too supported a reading of the FLSA that permitted the recovery of attorneys fees and costs for a plaintiff who successfully recovered declaratory relief:
With respect to the policy and legislative intent behind § 216(b)‘s attorney’s fee provision, several circuits have made observations. The Fourth and Eleventh Circuits have indicated that Congress intended that a wronged employee “receive his full wages plus the penalty without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs.” Silva v. Miller, 307 Fed. Appx. 349, 351 (11th Cir.2009); Maddrix v. Dize, 153 F.2d 274, 275–76 (4th Cir.1946). Similarly, the Fifth Circuit has indicated that the legislative intent behind § 216(b)‘ s attorney’s fee provision is “to recompense wronged employees for the expenses incurred in redressing violations of the FLSA and obtaining wrongfully withheld back pay.” San Antonio Metro. Transit Auth. v. McLaughlin, 876 F.2d 441, 445 (5th Cir.1989). The Sixth Circuit, in reliance in part on Maddrix, has found that “the purpose of § 216(b) is to insure effective access to the judicial process by providing attorney fees for prevailing plaintiffs with wage and hour grievances; ‘obviously Congress intended that the wronged employee should receive his full wages … without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs.’ ” United Slate, Local 307 v. G & M Roofing & Sheet Metal Co., 732 F.2d 495, 501–02 (6th Cir.1984) (quoting Maddrix, 153 F.2d at 275–76). Finally, the D.C. Circuit has noted that through § 216(b), “Congress clearly hoped to provide an adequate economic incentive for private attorneys to take employment discrimination cases, and thereby to ensure that plaintiffs would be able to obtain competent legal representation for the prosecution of legitimate claims.” Laffey v. Northwest Airlines. Inc., 746 F.2d 4, 11 (D.C.Cir.1984). These cases reflect that the intent behind § 216(b) was to allow employees to obtain payment owed under the FLSA in court without the employee incurring legal fees and expenses, and to encourage attorneys to take FLSA cases.
While the court acknowledged that the defendant’s proposed reading of the plain language of the FLSA could support the defendant’s argument that the fees at issue were not recoverable, ultimately it rejected this view, citing the need to liberally construe the FLSA:
The FLSA as a whole is to be interpreted liberally to the fullest extent of Congressional direction. See Probert, 651 F.3d at 1010. As indicated above, the intent behind the attorney’s fees provision is to ensure that employees obtain full payment owed under the FLSA without incurring legal fees. An interpretation of § 216(b) that would eliminate the availability of attorney’s fees to employees who seek to obtain or who only obtain declaratory relief, would partially frustrate the intent behind § 216(b). Although declaratory relief will not necessarily permit an employee to obtain past payments that were mandated by the FLSA, it could ensure that future payments do conform to the FLSA. That is, declaratory relief could aid an employee in obtaining his full future wages. For example, in a case like Barrows, no monetary relief was awarded despite obtaining declaratory relief.4 Nevertheless, by declaring that an employee is properly classified as a non-exempt FLSA employee, and not as an exempt FLSA employee, the declaratory relief will ensure that the employee begins to receive overtime pay in the future and in conformity with the FLSA.5 As another example, in this case, the dispute is whether Beard is currently calculating overtime correctly. A declaration that the overtime calculations are incorrectly being made will help Plaintiffs to obtain the full future FLSA wages and overtime that would be due to them under a proper calculation. In cases where monetary damages are unavailable or very tenuous, but a violation of the FLSA appears to be occurring, the availability of attorney’s fees provides an incentive to correct the FLSA violation. Without the availability of attorney’s fees, the expense to employees bringing such lawsuits would be increased and the incentive for attorneys to take such cases would be diminished.
There is a broader interpretation of § 216(b) that is also reasonable. The fifth sentence is ultimately tethered to actions under the first and second sentences involving violations of § 206, § 207, and § 215(a)(3). In actions that seek to remedy violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), the fifth sentence requires courts to award attorney’s fees in addition “to any judgment obtained by the plaintiff.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). There is no express limit as to the type or amount of judgment that must be obtained before attorney’s fees are available, rather, so long as “any judgment” is obtained by the plaintiff, attorney’s fees are to be awarded. Declaratory relief has been awarded in this district in an FLSA case against a State, the Third Circuit has held that declaratory relief in an FLSA case is available against a State, and the District of Tennessee has awarded declaratory relief in an FLSA case even in the absence of monetary damages. See Balgowan v. New Jersey, 115 F.3d 214, 217–18 (3d Cir.1997); Barrows, 944 F.Supp.2d at 605;Biggs v. Wilson, 828 F.Supp. 774, 779–80 (E.D.Cal.1991), aff d 1 F.3d 1537 (9th Cir.1993). If a declaratory judgment may be issued in an FLSA case, then it is unclear why a declaratory judgment would not be included under § 216(b)‘s “any judgment” language. As long the lawsuit/action is one that seeks to correct/remedy violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), obtaining a declaratory judgment would constitute “any judgment” and could serve as the basis for attorney’s fees under § 216(b).6 Such an interpretation would permit attorney’s fees not only when unpaid wages for past violations of § 206 or § 207 are obtained, but also for declarations that would essentially end ongoing violations of § 206 or § 207. Declarations that find and/or remedy ongoing violations of § 206 or § 207 would help to ensure that an employee obtains the full wages and overtime that are due him in the future. Correcting violations of § 206 or § 207 and obtaining full wages due are both consistent with congressional intent.
As such, the court concluded that fees and costs are available to an FLSA plaintiff who prevails solely on a claim for declaratory relief:
The Court does not find Beard’s interpretation to be unreasonable. However, as discussed above, there is a broader interpretation of § 216(b) that appears consistent with Congressional intent. Further, the very limited case law that deals with § 216(b) attorney’s fees provision in the context of declaratory relief indicates that attorney’s fees may be awarded. Considering the arguments made by the parties, the limited case law, and the Ninth Circuit’s admonition for a liberal interpretation of the FLSA, the Court concludes that, in cases that seek to correct violations of § 206, § 207, or § 215(a)(3), attorney’s fees under § 216(b) are available when only declaratory relief is sought or obtained, so long as an actual violation of the FLSA by the employer is involved. In this case, Plaintiffs allege ongoing violations of § 207, and seek declarations relating to the proper calculation of overtime under § 207. This case is therefore one that seeks to correct an actual and ongoing violation of § 207. Accordingly, if Plaintiffs prevail and obtain declaratory relief, they will be entitled to attorney’s fees.
The declaratory relief requested by Beard is a pure issue of law, and no further facts need be developed before resolving that issue. The declaratory relief requested by Beard is contrary to the Court’s conclusion. Because attorney’s fees are available under § 216(b) in this case, it is appropriate to dismiss Beard’s request for declaratory relief.
Click Pickett v. Beard to read the entire Order on Plaintiffs’ Motion to Dismiss and Alternatively Motion to Strike.
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.
11th Cir.: Following Tender of Unpaid Wages and Liquidated Damages, an Employer Only Moots a Case if the Plaintiff Agrees to Dismissal, Absent Payment of Mandatory Fees and Costs
Dionne v. Floormasters Enterprises, Inc.
Following a controversial opinion that created more questions than it answered, the Eleventh Circuit reconsidered it’s prior Opinion in this case and in so doing largely restricted its holding to the unique facts presented in the case. Previously the Court had held that an employer, who denies liability for nonpayment for overtime work, need not pay attorney’s fees and costs pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) if the employer tenders the full amount of overtime pay claimed by an employee, and moves to dismiss on mootness grounds where the employee concedes that “the claim for overtime should be dismissed as moot. Although the prior Opinion seemed restricted to these unique facts where the employee conceded that the overtime claim should be dismissed (but attempted to reserve as to fees/costs), courts throughout the Eleventh have since expanded the holding to scenarios where the employee makes no such stipulation. Here, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the prior decision, but clarified and limited its applicability.
Significantly, the Eleventh Circuit included the following footnote in its new Opinion:
“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.”
It remains to be seen exactly how the new Dionne Opinion will be applied by trial courts, but it does appear that much of the uncertainty created by the initial Opinion has now been resolved. To that end, it appears that a Plaintiff who has suffered a theft of his or her wages can now safely accept tender of such wages (and liquidated damages) in response to a lawsuit to collect same, without fear that the employer can avoid payment of mandatory fees and costs, as long as they do not agree that the tender moots the case.
Click Dionne v. Floormasters Enterprises, Inc. to read the entire Opinion on Petition for Rehearing.
M.D.Fla.: Defendant Does Not Moot FLSA Case By Tender of Unpaid Wages/Liquidated Damages, Absent Payment of Reasonable Attorneys Fees and Costs
Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises
Following the recent 11th Circuit decision Dionne v. Floormasters, the blogosphere has been abuzz with articles positing that the decision gave employers the green light to engage in wholesale wage theft and take a wait and see approach with regard to paying employees their wages. Several management-side attorneys have even gone as far as to suggest that a thieving employer could tender payment of wages/liquidated damages alone on the courthouse steps on the eve of a jury verdict and simply avoid paying mandatory fees and costs under 216(b). Not so, holds Judge James D. Whittemore, in the first case on the issue post-Dionne.
In Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises, the defendants-employers attempted just this strategy. After Klinger filed a lawsuit seeking the payment of her unpaid wages and liquidated damages, her former employers tendered what it deemed “full payment” of her unpaid wages and liquidated damages. However, it denied liability and refused to pay reasonable attorneys fees and costs. Instead, it filed a Motion to Dismiss, asserting that the case was now moot. The Court rejected the defendants’ contention that the case was moot absent payment of attorneys fees and costs and denied defendants’ motion.
Significantly, the Court noted:
“Defendants’ mere tender of payment does not provide Plaintiff with all the relief she seeks and would be entitled to as a prevailing party in this action, to wit: an enforceable judgment, attorney’s fees, and costs. Allowing Defendants to avoid responsibility for Plaintiff’s attorneys fees merely by tendering full payment after litigation has commenced would run counter to the FLSA’s goal of fully compensating the wronged employee. See Silva v. Miller, 307 Fed. App’x 349, 351 (11th Cir. 2009)(“FLSA requires judicial review of the reasonableness of counsel’s legal fees to assure… that counsel is compensated adquately…”. Further, Defendants’ tender effectively circumvents the requirements of Rule 68(a), Fed.R.Civ.P.”
As such, the Court denied the defendants’ motion.
Click Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises to read the entire Order.
DISCLAIMER: It is not this author’s assertion that the defendants in this particular case engaged in willful wage theft. Absent further research into the facts giving rise to the underlying claim, the author makes no representations whatsoever as to the specific facts of this case. Instead, this post is a commentary on the procedural history of the case once filed.
2d. Cir.: Award of Attorney’s Fees for All Time Worked Cannot Be Based Solely Upon Court’s Observation of Counsel
Scott v. City of New York
This case was before the Second Circuit for the second time on the issue of attorney’s fees. The plaintiffs prevailed in the underling case, but the plaintiffs’ attorney failed to keep contemporaneous time records. Nonetheless, following judgment for employees in a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) suit, the trial court awarded plaintiffs’ attorney partial attorney fees. On the first appeal, the defendant appealed, and plaintiffs’ attorney cross-appealed from denial of certain fees. In a decision discussed here, the Court of Appeals, 626 F.3d 130, vacated the initial fee award and remanded because the district court did not explain the basis on which attorney was excepted from requirement to submit contemporaneous time records with fee application. Upon remand, the District Court, 2011 WL 867242, reinstated original award, and based the award on its own observations of plaintiffs’ counsel during the case. Both parties appealed. The Second Circuit held that the district court’s personal observation and opinions of attorney (alone) did not constitute exceptional circumstances that permitted award of attorney’s fees. Thus, the case was again remanded for a finding as to reasonable attorney’s fees.
The court reasoned:
“An award based entirely on the district court judge’s personal observation and opinions of the applying attorney, however, is contrary to Carey and must be vacated. If nothing else, permitting that basis for what should be a rare exception is completely unfair to an attorney who has done identical work, failed to keep the required contemporaneous records but whose reputation is unknown to the judge. It would also be unfair to that lesser-known attorney who has done good work but for one reason or another has failed to impress the judge. Moreover, such an “exception” is not an exception to the Carey rule at all. It is an abrogation. We interpreted Carey as conditioning attorney’s fees on contemporaneous records in all but the “rarest of cases.” Scott, 626 F.3d at 133. A district court judge has an opportunity to see and evaluate a lawyer’s work in all cases. On appellate review there are additional considerations. As we recognized in Carey, it is difficult if not impossible for courts of appeal to meaningfully review awards based entirely on a district court’s sense of fairness. 711 F.2d at 1147. Without contemporaneous records “we have little choice but to show considerable deference to the District Court’s conclusion as to how many hours were reasonably compensable.” Id. Abuse of discretion review in these instances, however, requires a more searching inquiry. While it is true that we will—by default—need to rely on a district court’s estimate of compensable time when Carey’s narrow exception is triggered, such deference is a necessary evil brought about only by some other good reason. It is not a justification unto itself.
We have been pointed to no evidence that would permit us to conclude that this case falls within an exception to the Carey rule that would justify an award of all the fees for time that might be documented by an attorney’s contemporaneous records. Nonetheless, we are persuaded that Puccio should be eligible to recover limited fees for any contemporaneously documented time that he was physically before the district court. We thus hold that entries in official court records (e.g. the docket, minute entries, and transcriptions of proceedings) may serve as reliable documentation of an attorney’s compensable hours in court at hearings and at trial and in conferences with the judge or other court personnel. Where the court’s docket reflects that Puccio was in the courtroom participating in trial or was in chambers in conference with the judge and other counsel, these entries, comparable to contemporaneous attorney time records, may be effective substitutes for Puccio’s own contemporaneous records. In so holding, we hasten to add that this is not an invitation for district courts to engage in the type of conjecture that has occurred here with respect to Puccio’s purported 120 hours of trial time. Instead, attorneys seeking fees must point to entries in the official court records that specifically and expressly demonstrate their presence before the court and indicate with reasonable certainty the duration of that presence. No accommodation is to be made for travel time or out-of-court preparation because that will vary from attorney to attorney and issue by issue. Finally, we emphasize that the onus of gathering the applicable docket entries and other court records, if any, is on the applying attorney, not the district court. The district courts are under no obligation to award fees based on such time. Our holding today merely clarifies that using such remedies in this limited fashion will not run afoul of Carey if the district court chooses to do so. We believe that such a regime prevents a totally inequitable result in cases such as this while, at the same time, preserving the strong incentive Carey creates for lawyers to keep and submit contemporaneous records.”
Accordingly, the Second Circuit vacated the district court’s order reinstating plaitniffs’ attorney’s fees, and remanded the case to the district court so that plaintiff could submit a new application for attorney’s fees based exclusively on official court records.
As some have noted, the series of decisions rendered in this case seem to be in contradiction to previous Second Circuit jurisprudence, which has not required contemporaneous time records in order to support an award of fees. Since the Second Circuit did not explicitly overrule its prior cases, it will be interesting to see what effect, if any, the Scott decisions will have on future cases.
Click Scott v. City of New York to read the entire Second Circuit opinion.
D.Ariz.: Employee Who Resolved His Claims For Unpaid Overtime Prior To Lawsuit Entitled To Award Of Attorney’s Fees Under § 216
McBurnie v. City of Prescott
Before the court was plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment regarding entitlement to attorneys fees following his presuit acceptance of a check that purported to resolve all of his claims for unpaid overtime wages and attorneys fees. Noting that an empl0yee can not waive his or her rights to substantive FLSA rights absent a settlement supervised by either the DOL or a court, the court held that notwithstanding Plaintiff’s prior acceptance of payment for his unpaid overtime, he was entitled to an award of attorneys fees under the FLSA.
In November 2007, Plaintiff filed a grievance against his then supervisor, alleging that the City’s forced use of compensatory time in lieu of overtime pay violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 207. In February 2009, prior to the institution of Plaintiff’s lawsuit, the Defendant sent two checks to plaintiff-one in the amount of $26,000 for overtime compensation and the other in the amount of $5,778.32 for attorney’s fees. The settlement letter enclosed with the two checks stated that “[b]y cashing either or both of these two checks your client is accepting these funds as resolution of any and all overtime issues; we have indicated that on each of these checks.” Plaintiff accepted and cashed the $26,000 settlement offer, but returned the check for attorney’s fees to the City.
In August, 2009, Plaintiff filed his lawsuit. Among other claims, he sought attorney’s fees related to the settlement of his FLSA wage claim.
Reasoning that Plaintiff was entitled to an award of attorneys fees and granting Plaintiff summary judgment with regard to same, the court explained:
“Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on Count 12, his claim for attorney’s fees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 207 and 216 (“FLSA”). The FLSA was enacted for the purpose of protecting workers from substandard wages and oppressive working hours. Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 1444 (1981). The Act provides that an employee shall receive overtime wages “at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.” 29 U .S.C. § 207(a)(1). The FLSA further provides that any employer who violates the overtime wage provision will be liable to the affected employee in the amount of unpaid overtime wages, plus an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. Id. § 216(b).
Because of the unequal bargaining power between employers and employees, Congress made the FLSA provisions mandatory. D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 116, 66 S.Ct. 925, 929 (1946) (“neither wages nor damages for withholding them are capable of reduction by compromise”). An individual may not relinquish rights under the Act, even by private agreement between the employer and employee, “because this would ‘nullify the purposes’ of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.” Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 740, 101 S.Ct. at 1445 (quoting Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707, 65 S.Ct. 895, 902 (1945)).
The FLSA provides two avenues for claim resolution. Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350, 1353-54 (11th Cir.1982). First, under section 216(c), the Secretary of Labor can supervise an employer’s voluntary payment to employees of unpaid wages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(c). An employee who accepts such supervised payment waives his right to file an action for both the unpaid wages and for liquidated damages. Id. Or, under section 216(b), an employee can bring a private action for back wages under the FLSA and can “present to the district court a proposed settlement, [and] the district court may enter a stipulated judgment after scrutinizing the settlement for fairness.” Lynn’s Food Stores, 679 F.2d at 1353 (citing D.A. Schulte, Inc, 328 U.S. at 113 n. 8, 66 S.Ct. at 928 n. 8). Settlements that do not follow the two methods authorized by the Act are unenforceable. Hohnke v. United States, 69 Fed. Cl. 170, 178-79 (Fed.Cl.2005).
Here, we have neither an agreement supervised by the Department of Labor, nor entered as a stipulated judgment by a court. The settlement agreement regarding back wages is fully consummated and the parties do not seek court approval. Therefore, the settlement falls outside the two statutorily-prescribed avenues of FLSA claim resolution.
An award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing party in an action brought under section 216(b) is mandatory. “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) (emphasis added); Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 415 n. 5, 98 S.Ct. 694, 697 n. 5 (1978) (referring to § 216 of the FLSA as one of the “statutes [that] make fee awards mandatory for prevailing plaintiffs”). The payment of the attorney’s fees discharges a statutory, not a contractual, duty. Because the FLSA was intended to provide workers with the full compensation due under the law, requiring a claimant to pay attorney’s fees incurred to enforce his FLSA rights would frustrate the statute’s underlying purpose. See Maddrix v. Dize, 153 F.2d 274, 275-76 (4th Cir.1946) (stating that Congress intended that a claimant “should receive his full wages plus the penalty without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs”).
Thus, the statement in the settlement letter that “[b]y cashing either or both of these two checks your client is accepting these funds as resolution of any and all overtime issues” in unenforceable as to plaintiff’s claim for attorney’s fees under the FLSA. Plaintiff has not waived his right to attorney’s fees under the Act. We grant summary judgment in favor of plaintiff on Count 12.”
Click McBurnie v. City of Prescott to read the entire opinion.
E.D.Tex.: Notwithstanding Settlement Agreement Stating Plaintiffs Were Not “Prevailing Party,” Plaintiffs Were Prevailing Party, Entitled To Attorneys Fees And Costs Under FLSA
Champion v. ADT Sec. Services, Inc.
The case was before the court on Plaintiffs’ motions for attorneys fees and costs, following the settlement of their FLSA claims. The Defendant argued that Plaintiffs were not entitled to recover attorneys fees and/or costs, because the settlement agreement contained language stating that Plaintiffs were not the “prevailing party,” despite the fact that they had successfully resolved their case by settlement.
Rejecting Defendant’s argument, the court reasoned:
“The Court concludes that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties, for the purposes of the fee-shifting statute, and are thus entitled to attorney’s fees. Under the FLSA, the court may award reasonable attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. Saizan, 448 F.3d at 799. “A typical formulation is that plaintiffs may be considered prevailing parties’ for attorney’s fees purposes if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433, 103 S.Ct. 1933, 76 L.Ed.2d 40 (1983) (internal quotes omitted); see also Abner v. Kansas City S. Ry. Co., 541 F.3d 372, 379 (5th Cir.2008). The Court holds that the plaintiffs are prevailing parties for these purposes because the plaintiffs succeeded in procuring a favorable settlement. ADT initially made payments for the owed overtime to seven of the named plaintiffs that totalled $11,324.48, and the settlement obtained for those seven plaintiffs totalled $48,500.00. (See P’s Reply Br., Dkt. No. 57 at 13-14.) Thus, the plaintiffs have certainly “achiev[ed] some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley, 461 U.S. at 433. In the present case, however, Defendant ADT argues Plaintiffs are not prevailing parties for two reasons: (1) this case was resolved by settlement; and (2) the settlement agreement signed by the parties states that Plaintiffs shall not be deemed a prevailing party. For the following reasons, the Court disagrees with Defendant on both points and concludes that Plaintiffs are prevailing parties.
First, settlement does not preclude Plaintiffs from being considered prevailing parties. The Supreme Court has held that settlement agreements enforced through a consent decree may serve as the basis for an award of attorney’s fees. Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129-30, 100 S.Ct. 2570, 65 L.Ed.2d 653 (1980). “Although a consent decree does not always include an admission of liability by the defendant … it nonetheless is a court-ordered change in the legal relationship between the plaintiff and the defendant.” Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. +West Virg. Dep’t of Health & Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598, 604, 121 S.Ct. 1835, 149 L.Ed.2d 855 (2001) (internal quotes omitted). In the present case, the Court entered a consent decree in the Court’s Order approving the settlement as a fair and reasonable compromise of the dispute under the FLSA. (Dkt. No. 50.) Therefore, the settlement does not limit Plaintiffs’ ability to be prevailing parties.
Second, regarding the settlement agreement signed by both parties and submitted to this Court, the agreement states in one part:
No Admission of Liability. The Parties agree and acknowledge this Agreement is the result of a compromise and shall not be construed as an admission of liability, responsibility, or wrongdoing as alleged in the Lawsuit. It is expressly understood by the Parties that [plaintiffs] shall not be deemed a “prevailing party” for any purpose, including any fee shifting statute, rule, or agreement. (Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ E.) Defendant argues this settlement agreement, which was signed by the parties and submitted to the Court, means the plaintiffs are not prevailing parties because the settlement agreement acknowledges that they are not prevailing parties. The Court disagrees.
As an initial matter, the settlement agreement is treated as a contract and will be interpreted under Texas law. The Texas Supreme Court has recently explained the law:
In construing [a contract], we first determine whether it is possible to enforce the contract as written, without resort to parol evidence. Deciding whether a contract is ambiguous is a question of law for the court. Coker v. Coker, 650 S.W.2d 391, 394 (Tex.1983). In construing a written contract, the primary concern of the court is to ascertain the true intentions of the parties as expressed in the instrument. R & P Enters. v. LaGuarta, Gavrel & Kirk, Inc., 596 S.W.2d 517, 518 (Tex.1980); City of Pinehurst v. Spooner Addition Water Co., 432 S.W.2d 515, 518 (Tex.1968). To achieve this objective, we must examine and consider the entire writing in an effort to harmonize and give effect to all the provisions of the contract so that none will be rendered meaningless. Universal C.I.T. Credit Corp. v. Daniel, 150 Tex. 513, 243 S.W.2d 154, 158 (1951). No single provision taken alone will be given controlling effect; rather, all the provisions must be considered with reference to the whole instrument. Myers v. Gulf Coast Minerals Mgmt. Corp., 361 S.W.2d 193, 196 (Tex.1962); Citizens Nat’l Bank v. Tex. & P. Ry. Co., 136 Tex. 333, 150 S.W.2d 1003, 1006 (1941). A contract is unambiguous if it can be given a definite or certain legal meaning. Columbia Gas Transmission Corp. v. New Ulm Gas, Ltd., 940 S.W.2d 587, 589 (Tex.1996). On the other hand, if the contract is subject to two or more reasonable interpretations after applying the pertinent rules of construction, the contract is ambiguous, creating a fact issue on the parties’ intent. Id. J.M. Davidson, Inc. v. Webster, 128 S.W.3d 223, 229 (Tex.2003). Further, under Texas law, “[c]ourts interpreting unambiguous contracts are confined to the four corners of the document, and cannot look to extrinsic evidence to create an ambiguity.” Texas v. Am. Tobacco Co., 463 F.3d 399, 407 (5th Cir.2006). Parol evidence may only be used if the contract is first found to be ambiguous. Id.
Keeping these principles in mind, the Court concludes that the contract is unambiguous and the plaintiffs are entitled to attorney’s fees, or in other words, the settlement agreement does not prevent the plaintiffs from being considered prevailing parties. The Court recognizes that the settlement agreement states that the plaintiffs “shall not be deemed a prevailing party’ for any purpose, including any fee shifting statute, rule, or agreement.” (Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ E.) But the agreement also states:
The parties have made no agreement regarding the payment of Champion’s attorney fees, court costs and a portion of the mediation fees, beyond that provided for in Paragraph A above. Champion’s counsel intends to apply to the Court for an award of attorney’s fees, and ADT reserves the right to contest this application.(Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ B.) The Court concludes the contract is unambiguous when considering only the four corners of the document and attempting to “harmonize and give effect to all the provisions of the contract so that none will be rendered meaningless.” The parties agreed that there was “no agreement regarding the payment of [Plaintiffs’] attorney fees.” (Plaintiff’s Unopposed Motion to Approve FLSA Settlement, Settlement Agreement, Dkt. No. 48, Ex. 1, ¶ B.)
But on the other hand, the parties agreed that the plaintiffs shall not be “deemed” a prevailing party. (Id. at ¶ E.) In harmonizing these statements together, the Court concludes that when the agreement states that the plaintiffs shall not be “deemed” a prevailing party, the parties were agreeing that whether the plaintiffs are a prevailing party is to be determined by the Court. In other words, the parties were not deeming the plaintiffs as a prevailing party. Further, the specific language stating the plaintiffs “shall not be deemed a prevailing party” is located in the section of the agreement titled “No Admission of Liability,” which confirms the parties’ intention was merely to not admit the plaintiffs were the prevailing party. (Id.) Rather, the parties were confirming that “ADT reserves the right to contest this application” of awarding attorney’s fees. (Id. at ¶ B.)
Therefore, the Court interprets the settlement agreement as unambiguously allowing the Court to determine whether the plaintiffs are the prevailing parties and entitled to attorney’s fees. The Court concludes for the abovementioned reasons that the plaintiffs are prevailing parties for the purposes of the statute and are entitled to attorney’s fees.”
Not quoted here, the court noted that there were emails between counsel prior to the settlement agreement, wherein the parties made clear that they intended the settlement agreement to resolve the issue of damages only and not the issue of attorneys’ fees or costs.
11th Cir.: Rehearing En Banc Denied On Refusal To Award Prevailing FLSA Plaintiff Attorney’s Fees; Strong Dissents
Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L.
In a decision discussed here previously, the 11th Circuit had affirmed the trial court’s decision to award no attorneys fees or costs, in a case where they reasoned that attorney civility towards one another trumped the mandatory fee provisions of the FLSA. The case was again before the 11th Circuit, this time on Plaintiff’s Motion for a Rehearing En Banc. Although the Court denied the Motion for Rehearing, significantly, there was very strong dissent, perhaps signaling that the case may be ripe for review at the United States Supreme Court, who just this week signaled they will begin hearing more cases than they have in recent years.
Citing legal principle, but little statutory authority for the Court’s position, in a concurring opinion, one Judge explained, in part:
“About this case, I have a few observations to make. Lawyers, as members of the Courts’ Bars (that is, as officers of the Courts) are often, and in a variety of ways, treated by the Courts better or worse than nonlawyers. I stress that I do not see the Courts’ inherent powers to supervise the members of their Bars as “overriding” (that is, cancelling) the FLSA statute’s treatment of fees. The statute is law, general law tied to the outcome of FLSA suits.
I see the Courts’ inherent powers over Bar members as a separate and pre-existing font of law and legal authority that specifically governs the conduct of lawyers as lawyers, regardless of the outcome of the case: the law of inherent powers supplements the FLSA statute to make up the whole of the applicable law in this case. Therefore, I see the whole applicable law to run this way: When the outcome favors the plaintiff, fees shall be awarded unless the District Court, in the reasonable exercise of its power to supervise lawyers in their practice in cases before the Court, determines that an award of fees (given the specific circumstances of a particular case) is not right-not right directly because of lawyer conduct related to the specific case. Thus, fees nearly always are to be awarded; but never are the Courts altogether stripped of the power to supervise lawyer conduct through the grant or withholding of fees.
That Courts have the inherent and main-if not exclusive-authority (along with the duty and responsibility) to supervise their Bar members is, I believe, no innovative idea. And that Courts can use the control of attorney fees as a means of exercising the inherent power to supervise lawyer conduct in particular cases seems uninnovative too. See Chambers v. NASCO, Inc., 111 S.Ct. 2123, 2133 (1991) (court may per inherent power assess attorneys fees when a party has acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive purposes); Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper, 100 S.Ct. 2455, 2463 (1980) (federal courts have inherent powers to assess attorneys fees against counsel).”
With separate strongly worded dissents, Circuit Court Judges Barkett and Wilson, sternly warned that the Eleventh Circuit had exceeded their authority by attempting to ignore the FLSA, a federal statute, without any basis.
BARKETT, Circuit Judge, dissenting:
“En banc review is warranted in this case because district courts do not have the power, inherent or otherwise, to directly contravene a federal statute. The panel decision, holding that the district court could deny attorneys’ fees mandated by the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), is contrary to settled United States Supreme Court precedent providing that the use of a district court’s inherent supervisory powers is invalid when it conflicts with a statutory command. See, e.g. Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U.S. 250, 254 (1988); Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 148 (1985). As Judge Wilson notes in his dissent, there is no dispute that the language of the statute is mandatory, see29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.”), and has been previously so construed by our court. Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1223 n.12 (11th Cir.2007).
The panel characterizes the denial of attorneys’ fees as an informal sanction of Sahyers’ lawyer for suing fellow lawyers without first attempting to resolve the dispute through informal means. In his concurrence to the denial of rehearing, Judge Edmondson stresses that the district court based its decision on local litigation customs and practices, but the district court opinion references no such customs or practices. The district court simply says that, in its view, it is “reasonable” to call another lawyer prior to filing suit. That is not enough to give notice to Sahyers’ attorney. District courts do not have the authority to sanction lawyers for conduct not proscribed by law or rule-which is the case here-without first providing them with notice that their conduct may warrant sanctions. Fed.R.Civ.P. 83(b) (“No sanction or other disadvantage may be imposed for noncompliance with any requirement not in federal law, federal rules, or the local rules unless the alleged violator has been furnished in the particular case with actual notice of the requirement.”). Because Sahyers’ attorney was given no actual notice, the district court had no authority to sanction him for failing to contact the defendants or their lawyers before filing suit. See In re Mroz, 65 F.3d 1567, 1575 (11th Cir.1995) (“Due process requires that the attorney (or party) be given fair notice that his conduct may warrant sanctions and the reasons why.” (citation omitted)). Accordingly, there is no authority for disregarding the mandatory language of FLSA on this basis.
The panel’s only supporting authority for its contention that a court may deny an award of litigation expenses to which a client is otherwise entitled by law is Litton Syss., Inc. v. Am. Tel. & Tel. Co., 700 F.2d 785 (2d Cir.1983). However, that decision does not permit a district court to simply disregard the express language of a statute that mandates attorneys’ fees and costs. Rather, it affirms a sanction imposed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 for “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” by the plaintiff’s lawyers. Id. at 826-28. The failure to notify an opposing lawyer prior to suit in the absence of any known requirement to do so can hardly qualify as negligence or willful misconduct.
Because the panel opinion disregards the express mandate of Congress, this case warrants en banc review.”
WILSON, Circuit Judge, dissenting:
“The Court affirms a decision by a district court that denies a prevailing plaintiff’s lawyer his entitlement to an attorney’s fee under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) on account of his failure to give the defendant, a lawyer, advance notice of the lawsuit. I am concerned about the precedent this case sets. First, an award of attorneys’ fees to a prevailing party is mandatory under the FLSA. Second, I have found no authority that requires plaintiff’s counsel to provide pre-suit notice when another lawyer is the defendant. Although well-intentioned, I doubt that the federal courts have the inherent authority to ignore and override a statutory mandate in the interest of promoting a professional courtesy. I also do not believe that Congress intended to single out lawyers for exclusive treatment under the FLSA. Since it is now within the inherent authority and discretion of the district courts in our Circuit to hold that no attorney’s fee is a reasonable fee when no pre-suit notice is extended to defendants who are lawyers, I would consider this case en banc before permitting this new Circuit precedent to stand.
The facts are these. Plaintiff Christine Sahyers worked as a paralegal for the defendant law firm Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L. On January 9, 2007, Sahyers filed a lawsuit against her former employer and its three owners and principals, Timothy F. Prugh, James W. Holliday, II, and Theodore Karatinos (collectively the “defendants”), pursuant to the FLSA to recover unpaid overtime compensation. The defendants filed an answer, denying liability. The case proceeded to discovery, and less than one month after a failed court-ordered mediation, the plaintiff accepted an offer of judgment pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. The next day, the district court entered final judgment against the defendants in the amount of $3,500.
Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a motion for attorneys’ fees and expenses, in which she sought $15,640.70, comprised of $13,800 in attorneys’ fees and $1,840.70 in costs. The district court determined that the plaintiff was a prevailing party under the FLSA. However, recognizing that the FLSA provides for a mandatory award of reasonable attorneys’ fees, the district court was persuaded to conclude that this case presented “special circumstances” and decided that “a reasonable fee is no fee.” Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L., No. 8:07-cv-52-T-30MAP, slip op. at 3 (M.D.Fla. Feb. 1, 2008) (“District Court Order”).
The district court found that the plaintiff subjected the defendants to “unnecessary litigation” and refused to reward such behavior because at no time prior to filing the lawsuit did the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s attorney make a written demand for payment of the overtime compensation. Id. at 3-5. Further, the district court stressed that the plaintiff’s attorney should have notified the defendant law firm, because prior to filing suit in the Middle District of Florida, “it is still reasonable to pick up the phone and call another lawyer so it won’t be necessary to file suit.” Id. at 4. The district court dismissed the plaintiff’s counsel’s claim that his client did not want him to make a pre-suit demand, “remind[ing] [plaintiff’s counsel] that the lawyer is the officer of the Court, not the client.” Id. at 5. The plaintiff appealed the denial of attorneys’ fees and costs, and defendant Karatinos cross-appealed the district court’s determination that the plaintiff was a prevailing party.
With the benefit of oral argument, the Sahyers opinion affirmed. The Sahyers opinion framed the issue in this way: “This appeal is about the power of a district court to supervise the work of the lawyers who practice before it.” Sahyers v. Prugh, Holliday & Karatinos, P.L., 560 F.3d 1241, 1243 (11th Cir.2009). The Sahyers opinion construed the District Court Order as creating an “exception” to the FLSA’s mandatory fee statute based on the district court’s “inherent powers to supervise the conduct of the lawyers who come before it and to keep in proper condition the legal community of which the courts are a leading part.” Id. at 1244. It explained that “at least in the absence of very clear words from Congress, we do not presume that a statute supersedes the customary powers of a court to govern the practice of lawyers in litigation before it.” Id. at 1245 n.6. I disagree-well-settled Supreme Court precedent rejects the Sahyers opinion’s “very clear words” standard.
“In the exercise of its supervisory authority, a federal court ‘may, within limits, formulate procedural rules not specifically required by the Constitution or the Congress.’ ” Bank of Nova Scotia v. United States, 487 U.S. 250, 254 (1988) (quoting United States v. Hasting, 461 U.S. 499, 505 (1983)) (emphasis added). One of those limits on a federal court is when Congress has spoken: “[e]ven a sensible and efficient use of [a court’s] supervisory power, however, is invalid if it conflicts with constitutional or statutory provisions.” Thomas v. Arn, 474 U.S. 140, 148 (1985). “A contrary result ‘would confer on the judiciary discretionary power to disregard the considered limitations of the law it is charged with enforcing.’ ” Id. (quoting United States v. Payner, 447 U.S. 727, 737 (1980)). Applied here, the Sahyers opinion’s denial of attorneys’ fees and costs as an exercise of its supervisory authority over the practice of lawyers conflicts with the plain language of the FLSA.
The FLSA is a mandatory fee statute, and we have not recognized any exception to it. “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) (emphasis added). The Supreme Court, our Circuit, and our sister circuits have consistently interpreted § 216(b) as mandatory. FN1 We have gone so far as to declare expressly that “[p]revailing plaintiffs are automatically entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA.” Dale v. Comcast Corp., 498 F.3d 1216, 1223 n.12 (11th Cir.2007) (emphasis added).
FN1. See Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 415 & n.5 (1978) (referring to § 216(b) of the FLSA as one of the “statutes [that] make fee awards mandatory for prevailing plaintiffs”); Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813, 829 n.10 (5th Cir.2003) (“The FLSA requires an employer who violates the statute to pay attorney’s fees.”); Uphoff v. Elegant Bath, Ltd., 176 F.3d 399, 406 (7th Cir.1999) (“While the award of fees [under the FLSA] is mandatory, the district court has ‘wide latitude’ in determining the amount of the fee.”) (citation omitted); Fegley v. Higgins, 19 F.3d 1126, 1134 (6th Cir.1994) (“An award of attorney fees to a prevailing plaintiff under § 16(b) of the FLSA is mandatory, but the amount of the award is within the discretion of the judge.”) (citation omitted); Shelton v. Ervin, 830 F.2d 182, 184 (11th Cir.1987) (“Section 216 provides for an award of attorney’s fees, as opposed to granting the court discretion in awarding such fees, to the prevailing plaintiff in FLSA cases.”) (emphasis added); Kreager v. Solomon & Flanagan, P.A., 775 F.2d 1541, 1542 (11th Cir.1985) (“Section 216(b) of the Act makes fee awards mandatory for prevailing plaintiffs.”); Burnley v. Short, 730 F.2d 136, 141 (4th Cir.1984) (“The payment of attorney’s fees to employees prevailing in FLSA cases is mandatory. The amount of the attorney’s fees, however, is within the sound discretion of the trial court.”) (internal citation omitted); Graham v. Henegar, 640 F.2d 732, 736 n.8 (5th Cir. Unit A Mar. 1981) (“[A]n award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing plaintiff in an FLSA suit is mandatory.”); Wright v. Carrigg, 275 F.2d 448, 449 (4th Cir.1960) (“With respect to the counsel fee [pursuant to § 216(b) ], the court had no discretion to deny it; the law’s requirement of an award is mandatory and unconditional.”); Murray v. Playmaker Servs., LLC, 548 F.Supp.2d 1378, 1381 (S.D.Fla.2008) (Ryskamp, J.) (providing that the FLSA “directs district courts to award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to a plaintiff, in addition to any judgment received”) (emphasis added).
In a perfect world, a lawyer who files a lawsuit against another lawyer would first attempt to resolve the matter outside the courthouse. Such a practice is both sensible and efficient. However, a procedural rule that in effect mandates pre-suit notice is invalid if it conflicts with a statutory provision. The Court’s opinion in effect reads a requirement of pre-suit notice into § 216(b) of the FLSA, at least where a law firm or lawyer is a defendant, thereby “confer[ring] on [itself] discretionary power to disregard the considered limitations of the law it is charged with enforcing.” Arn, 474 U.S. at 148 (quoting Payner, 447 U.S. at 737). Although a legislature can make pre-suit notice mandatory when it chooses, that circumstance does not apply here. See, e.g.,Fla. Stat. § 766.106(2)(a) (providing that “prior to filing a complaint for medical negligence, a claimant shall notify each prospective defendant”). While it is desirable to encourage lawyer collegiality and to discourage unnecessary litigation, I do not believe that we can rewrite a statute to conform with certain policy preferences. See Reeves v. Astrue, 526 F.3d 732, 738 (11th Cir.2008) (“The Supreme Court has advised that whatever merits … policy arguments may have, it is not the province of this Court to rewrite the statute to accommodate them.”) (quotation marks, alteration, and citation omitted). The Sahyers opinion provides binding precedent for a district court to ignore a clear Congressional mandate from a federal statute based on its “inherent powers.” Such precedent oversteps the boundaries of our proper duty as neutral arbiters and obviates the role of Congress. My discussion could end here, as the plaintiff was the prevailing party, and the FLSA’s plain language is controlling.
Moreover, I also disagree with the Court’s statement that “a lawyer’s duties as a member of the bar-an officer of the court-are generally greater than a lawyer’s duties to the client.” Sahyers, 560 F.3d at 1245 n.7. It bears repeating that the Sahyers opinion failed to cite any statute, rule, local rule, or case from this Circuit, the Middle District of Florida, or elsewhere that even arguably imposes a duty on an attorney to contact prospective opposing counsel where that counsel represents a law firm or a lawyer. I can find no rule of professional responsibility that would place Sahyers’ lawyer on notice that it is a breach of professional or ethical responsibility to file a lawsuit against a fellow lawyer without the courtesy of advance notice. Honorable though it may be, providing a lawyer-defendant with pre-suit notice in FLSA cases is neither a requirement, nor a breach of a lawyer’s ethical responsibility.
I recognize that the appropriate balance between duty to a client and duty of candor to the court is certainly a difficult one to strike. In certain circumstances, a lawyer’s duty to the court is “greater” than his or her duty to a client. However, while counsel owes a duty to the court, context matters. The plaintiff did not instruct her counsel to commit a crime, to perpetrate a fraud upon the court, or to file a frivolous lawsuit. Rather, the plaintiff merely instructed her counsel to file a lawsuit, which-considering the fact that defendants filed an answer as opposed to a motion to dismiss and ultimately offered judgment-appeared to have, at least, some merit. In fact, the Model Code of Professional Responsibility appears to require exactly what the plaintiff’s counsel did-follow his client’s instructions: “[T]he lawyer should always remember that the decision whether to forego legally available objectives or methods because of non-legal factors is ultimately for the client and not for himself.” Model Code of Prof’l Responsibility EC 7-8 (1983); see also id. at EC 7-7 (providing that, except in areas of legal representation not affecting the merits of the cause or substantially prejudicing the rights of a client, “the authority to make decisions is exclusively that of the client and, if made within the framework of the law, such decisions are binding on his lawyer”) (emphasis added). Hence, not only is there no rule requiring plaintiff’s counsel to give pre-suit notice to his fellow lawyers, plaintiff’s counsel had an ethical duty to follow his client’s instructions. In applying the Sahyers opinion’s reasoning, however, a plaintiff’s lawyer must ignore a client’s explicit instruction to file an arguably meritorious lawsuit and must first give “word” by way of a phone call, e-mail, or letter before “su[ing] his fellow lawyers.” This rule should not be the law.
The Sahyers opinion equated the conduct of the plaintiff’s counsel to bad faith: “the conscious indifference to lawyer-to-lawyer collegiality and civility exhibited by Plaintiff’s lawyer (per his client’s request) amounted to harassing Defendants’ lawyers by causing them unnecessary trouble and expense and satisfied the bad-faith standard.” 560 F.3d at 1246 n.9. It relies on Litton Systems, Inc. v. American Telephone & Telegraph Co., 700 F.2d 785 (2d Cir.1983), stating that “[a] court … may deny an award of litigation expenses to which a client is otherwise entitled.” Sahyers, 560 F.3d at 1245. As a threshold matter, Litton Systems, a Second Circuit opinion, is not binding precedent in this Circuit; it is merely persuasive authority. Additionally, Litton Systems does not stand for that broad proposition, and, even if it did, the facts of Litton Systems are so far removed from Sahyers that the former sheds no light on the latter. The Litton court merely affirmed a sanction pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37 finding “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct.” Here, the district court did not impose any sanction and did not invoke Rule 37. Instead, it carved out a “special circumstances” exception to the FLSA. See District Court Order at 3. The only reason relied upon by the district court to award Sahyers “nothing” as an attorney’s fee was the failure to extend the professional courtesy of pre-suit notice to a law firm. This conduct does not amount to bad faith.
Finally, I am troubled by the implication that lawyers are entitled to exclusive treatment under the FLSA. Although the Sahyers opinion states that it does not intend to create a new rule of pre-suit notice in FLSA cases where the defendant is a law firm or a lawyer, such language will surely fall on deaf ears in this Circuit (as it should) in light of the fact that Sahyers is a published opinion, which makes it binding precedent in this Circuit. See I.O.P. 2 to Fed. R.App. P. 36 (“Under the law of this circuit, published opinions are binding precedent.”). Section 216(b) pays no attention to the occupation of the defendants. Neither should we. The Sahyers opinion has unintentionally created a new rule that a plaintiff’s failure to give pre-suit notice to a lawyer-defendant in an FLSA case may forfeit the plaintiff’s otherwise statutory right to attorneys’ fees and costs. Courts within this Circuit will rely on Sahyers and will interpret it as creating a discretionary exception to a mandatory fee statute. In point of fact, courts both within this Circuit and outside of this Circuit have already followed suit, recognizing, but not yet applying, the proposition that no fee can be a reasonable fee under the FLSA when a plaintiff fails to give pre-suit notice to a lawyer-defendant. See Roldan v. Pure Air Solutions, Inc., S.D. Fla.2010.
Moreover, there is no indication in the record that plaintiff’s counsel filed this lawsuit in an attempt to “shake down” the defendants for attorneys’ fees and costs. The case settled after discovery ended, and the defendants made an offer of judgment only after they had the opportunity to look at the evidence. Any determination that the case would have settled if plaintiff’s counsel sent a pre-suit notice to the defendants (based on the record as it appears before us) is pure speculation. In other words, pre-suit notice may not have made a difference. Moreover, at the motion hearing before the district court, Sahyers’ counsel asserted that (1) Sahyers herself made a demand on the law firm prior to litigation, and (2) he lacked the records necessary to make a pre-suit demand before filing the lawsuit. Tr. of Jan. 24, 2008 Mot. Hr’g at 21:19-23 (arguing that had the defendants deposed Sahyers, “she would have testified that she did ask for her money”); id. at 22:12-18 (arguing that “[plaintiff’s counsel] did not have access to [Sahyers’] time records”).
While counsel’s arguments are not evidence, an evidentiary hearing would prove or disprove these assertions. The district court made no specific factual findings based on any evidence regarding, for example, bad faith on behalf of the plaintiff or the necessity of the litigation. The Sahyers opinion relied solely on plaintiff’s counsel’s failure to give pre-suit notice. Since we have held that “an inquiry into a party’s bad faith is best conducted by the district court,” Turlington v. Atlanta Gas Light Co., 135 F.3d 1428, 1438 (11th Cir.1998), I would at least have remanded this case back to the district court for an evidentiary hearing with instructions to engage in the lodestar analysis.
A district court retains the discretion to determine or to set a reasonable attorney’s fee under the FLSA, but the district courts, in my view, lack the discretion to deny all fees and costs by way of a “special circumstances” exception to promote collegiality. I agree completely with the efforts of the distinguished district judge to seek to promote professionalism and civility in the practice of law. It is an important component of judicial administration. I also agree that this Court was well-intentioned in deferring to the district court’s discretion; however, I fear that we went too far. My primary concern is with the precedent this case now creates: It is now within the discretion of district courts in our Circuit to deny attorney’s fees to lawyers who fail to extend professional courtesies to lawyer-defendants in FLSA and (presumably other) civil rights cases. This new law will undoubtedly discourage public interest lawyers from taking these cases. Although the plaintiff prevailed in her FLSA claim, her lawyer was unable to recover any fees or his client’s costs as mandated by Congress. I would prefer that the full Court consider this appeal before creating this new precedent.”
Many legal scholars have already voiced their opinion that this case is likely headed to the United States Supreme Court for ultimate decision. Stay tuned, because this one is likely not done yet.