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2 Recent Decisions Hold That an Employer-Defendant Cannot Avoid Liquidated Damages By Relying on Involuntary Administrative Governmental Audits
As FLSA cases have proliferated in recent years, among the formally sleepy areas of jurisprudence that has seen a dramatic rise in litigation is the so-called “good faith” defense. Although in its earliest years the FLSA provided for mandatory liquidated damages, a subsequent amendment to the FLSA, through the Portal-to-Portal Act, now allows for a defendant to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages (in addition to the underlying unpaid wages damages) if it can demonstrate that it took affirmative steps to attempt compliance with the FLSA, but violated the FLSA nonetheless. Two recent cases reiterate that a defendant’s burden is not met solely by demonstrating that it had a subjective belief that it was complying.
McLean v. Garage Management Corp.
In the first case, the defendant sought to avoid liquidated damages by relying on a series of involuntary misinformed DOL audits, which it claimed it reasonably relied upon in establishing their belief that its illegal pay methodology, whereby it treated hourly employees as executive exempt from the FLSA’s overtime provisions. While the DOL has in fact found the defendant’s classification to be proper, the court noted that the DOL’s finding was based on its examination of the employees’ duties alone, because the defendant had misrepresented to the DOL that the employees were paid on a salary basis, at the required rate under the applicable regulations in the initial audit. Subsequent audits simply compounded this initial incomplete investigation, based on the information the defendant provided to the DOL in the initial audit.
Significantly, the court rejected the defendants’ claimed reliance on the DOL audits for 3 separate reasons. First, it found that any informal conversations do not constitute “active steps” to ascertain the dictates of the law. Second, the court noted that the audits were involuntary and defendant had not requested same and thus, giving government investigators access to records and employees did not relieve defendant of its own obligation to determine what the labor laws require. Third, the court noted that defendant had not shown that any government investigator focused with care on its time and payroll records for the employees in question, and thus the DOL had not undertaken a review to see whether the defendant indeed paid a predetermined amount that did not vary, as required to meet the “salary basis” prong of the executive exemption. “Without such full disclosure, [the defendant] cannot reasonably rely on the existence of the investigations and their failure to find any inadequacies in the compensation system for [the employees].”
Finally, the court held that the defendant was not entitled to rely on the fact that it periodically consulted with outside counsel, because it had invoked its attorney-client privilege. The court explained that absent a waiver of the privilege, the defendant could not sustain a defense based on good faith reliance on the advice of counsel.
Click McLean v. Garage Management Corp. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc.
In the second case- concerning an alleged misclassification of drivers under the Motor Carrier Act (MCA) exemption- the defendant sought to avoid the imposition of liquidated damages, by relying on a prior involuntary Department of Transportation (DOT) audit/citations and the advise of counsel it received as part of the audit process. As in McLean above, the court rejected this evidence of “good faith” as insufficient to meet the defendant’s heavy burden.
The court noted:
Defendants maintain they have demonstrated both their subjective good faith and objectively reasonable belief that their failure to pay overtime wages to their drivers did not violate FLSA. To meet their burden, Defendants rely almost exclusively on their compliance with DOT rules and the DOT’s citation of “some” of their intrastate-only drivers. The DOT’s citation of “some” of Defendants’ intrastate-only drivers, however, does not provide a sufficiently reasonable basis for concluding all such drivers were under the DOT’s jurisdiction and, therefore, exempt from FLSA. The objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure is undermined by the fact that the determination as to whether the Department of Labor or the DOT has jurisdiction is resolved on a driver-by-driver basis, as the Court explained at length on summary judgment, and, in any event, DOT jurisdiction for a driver who only occasionally drives in interstate commerce lasts only 4 months from the last such trip. See Reich v. Am. Driver Serv., Inc., 33 F.3d 1153, 1155–56 (9th Cir.1994). Furthermore, exemptions to FLSA, such as the Motor Carrier Exemption relied on by Defendants, are to be construed narrowly and only apply to employees who “plainly and unmistakably” fall within their terms. See Solis v. Washington, 656 F.3d 1079, 1083 (9th Cir.2011). Thus, the Court concludes Defendants’ generalizations about entire classes of their drivers on the basis of DOT citations of some of its drivers are insufficient to establish the objective reasonableness of Defendants’ failure to comply with FLSA. Similarly and in light of the lack of testimony in this regard, the fact that Defendants required both their interstate and intrastate drivers comply with DOT regulations neither establishes Defendant’s subjective belief nor its objective reasonableness.
Defendants also maintain their belief that their drivers were exempt from FLSA is reasonable in light of the fact that they hired counsel to assist with the November 2009 DOT compliance audit. Although there is not any direct evidence as to the purpose of counsel’s representation, the Court concludes it is fair to infer that counsel was hired to ensure Defendants’ compliance with DOT regulations rather than to ensure Defendants were compliant with FLSA. In any event, there is not any evidence on this record from which the Court can find that Defendants took “the steps necessary to ensure [its] practices complied with [FLSA].” Alvarez, 339 F .3d at 910 (“Mistaking ex post explanation and justification for the necessary affirmative ‘steps’ to ensure compliance, [the defendant] offers no evidence to show that it actively endeavored to ensure such compliance.”). Thus, the Court concludes on this record that Defendants did not satisfy their “difficult” burden to show their subjective good faith failure to comply with FLSA or the objective reasonableness of their actions, and, therefore, the Court concludes Plaintiff is entitled to liquidated damages in the amount equal to the unpaid overtime wages.
Click Solis v. R.M. Intern., Inc. to read the entire Supplemental Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law and Verdict.
S.D.Fla.: Defendant May Not Seek SJ Against Individual Plaintiffs Where Case Remains Certified At Stage 2
Hernandez v. Starbucks Coffee Co.
In this case plaintiffs, “store managers” at Starbucks claimed they had been uniformly misclassified as exempt employees and wrongly denied overtime as a result. The case was before the court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment regarding 4 individual plaintiffs in the (certified) class—on the ground that these Plaintiffs offered generally consistent testimony that compels the conclusion that they are exempt “executive” employees as a matter of law. Significantly, prior to defendant filing its motion for summary judgment, the court had denied defendant’s motion to decertify the class. The court denied defendant’s motion, largely on the ground that it is inappropriate for a defendant to attempt to target individual plaintiffs for summary judgment, where the class is proceeding as a whole and liability will therefore be determined on a classwide rather than individual basis.
The court explained:
“Before reaching the merits of this argument, the Court must first consider whether it is even proper for Defendant to move for summary judgment as to selected individual Plaintiffs when the Court is presented with a collective action. Relying upon Hogan v. Allstate Ins. Co., 361 F.3d 621, 623 (11th Cir.2004), Defendant argues that where a “FLSA collective action has been conditionally certified but no ruling has been made as to whether the case will proceed to trial as a collective action, the district court may entertain summary judgment motions as to individual plaintiffs.” [DE–241, pg. 12]; see also Lindsley v. Bellsouth Telecomm., Inc., Case No. 07–6569, 2009 WL 322144, at *2 (E.D.La. Feb.9, 2009) (denying motion to strike motion for summary judgment against an individual, named plaintiff, finding it “appropriate to choose [the individual plaintiff] as a test plaintiff to resolve the issue of employee versus independent-contractor status.”).
In response, Plaintiffs argue that the Court should reject Defendant’s attempt to have its motion treated as one directed to only certain individuals, as opposed to the class as a whole, pointing to Judge Marra’s conclusion in Pendlebury v. Starbucks Coffee Company, Case No. 04–80521–CIV–KAM, DE–495 (S.D. Fla. filed Jan. 8, 2008). Plaintiffs point out that unlike Hogan, 361 F.3d at 623, neither this Court nor Plaintiffs have consented to a “test plaintiff” procedure, and Defendant cannot randomly select certain individual Plaintiffs and at the same time seek to prohibit Plaintiffs from using testimony from other Plaintiffs in order to oppose the entry of summary judgment. Defendant attempts to refute this argument by contending that Rule 56(a) permits it to seek summary judgment as to a claim or defense, or part of a claim or defense, and reiterates the holding in Hogan. Defendant also argues that Plaintiffs have not cited to any authority prohibiting the Court from considering such a motion where as here the Court has not yet conducted a stringent review of the propriety of collective treatment.
Importantly, subsequent to Defendant filing the instant motion for summary judgment, on June 28, 2011, this Court denied Defendant’s motion for decertification [DE–300], concluding that Plaintiffs are similarly situated and can proceed as a class. As such, the Court has now conducted a stringent review of the propriety of collective treatment and found collective treatment to be appropriate. Defendant’s reliance on Hogan as its basis for moving for summary judgment as to only four (4) individual Plaintiffs is misplaced. Defendant similarly attempted to raise this argument and rely on Hogan in filing its motion for partial summary judgment in Pendlebury. The Pendlebury court rejected Defendant’s argument, pointing out that in Hogan the court had specifically authorized the selection of test plaintiffs for purposes of discovery and motions for summary judgment. Case No. 04–80521–CIV–KAM, DE–495 at pg. 3. The court concluded that “allowing Defendant to move for summary judgment against particular individuals who are indistinguishable from other members of the class defeats the entire purpose of a collective action.” Id. at 5. Instead, the court held that since the action was certified as a collective action, the court would “only address dispositive motions that resolve common issues of law or fact as to the entire class or an identifiable subclass.” Id.
Similarly here, the Court has already concluded that collective treatment is appropriate and has not authorized the use of “test” plaintiffs. Instead it appears that Defendant unilaterally selected individuals as its “test” plaintiffs. Notably, Defendant does not argue that these Plaintiffs somehow represent a “subclass” or otherwise address the Pendlebury court’s ruling on this issue in any manner. Consequently, the Court finds that it is not proper for Defendant to move for summary judgment as to individual Plaintiffs given the Court’s recent conclusion that Plaintiffs shall proceed as a class.”
M.D.La.: Defendant Not Entitled to FWW in Salary Misclassification Case, Where Failed to Pay Plaintiff “Fixed Salary” as Required by 778.114
McCumber v. Eye Care Center of America, Inc.
This case was before the court on the parties cross-motions seeking summary judgment. As discussed here, the court held that Plaintiff’s unpaid overtime damages, if any, were to be calculated using the FLSA’s default time and a half methodology, rather than the fluctuating workweek (“FWW”) methodology. Although the Defendant claimed it was entitled to use the FWW to calculate Plaintiff’s damages, due to the fact that Plaintiff was salaried misclassified, the court disagreed. The court held that Defendant had failed to pay Plaintiff a “fixed salary” as required for application of 29 C.F.R. § 778.114, because the evidence showed that Defendant docked Plaintiff’s pay on at least 2 occasions when Plaintiff worked fewer than 40 hours in a workweek.
Reviewing the parties’ respective arguments and holding that any damages ultimately found due were to be calculated at time and a half, the court reasoned:
“Defendants’ motion for partial summary judgment seeks judgment in its favor declaring that any wages found to be due plaintiff in this case shall be calculated using the fluctuating workweek method (“FWW method”) pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 778.114. Subsection (a) of the provision at issue instructs that
‘[a]n employee employed on a salary basis may have hours of work which fluctuate from week to week and the salary may be paid him pursuant to an understanding with his employer that he will receive such fixed amount as straight time pay for whatever hours he is called upon to work in a workweek, whether few or many.’
Under the FWW method, the amount of overtime owed to such an employee is paid at the rate of one-half-time pay, rather than one-and-a-half-time pay. The reason for this is that, according to the salary agreement among the parties, all the hours worked by the employee have already been compensated at straight-time pay and, thus, these hours are only shortchanged by half-time pay, rather than completely uncompensated.
In order to calculate the amount actually due under the FWW method, the fixed weekly salary is divided by the number of hours actually worked in a particular week. The resulting sum is the employee’s “regular rate of pay.” An employee found to be due overtime pay would be paid one half of the regular rate of pay for each hour of overtime worked in that particular week. While the regular rate of pay decreases as hours worked each week increase, the fixed salary must be sufficient such that the regular rate of pay never falls below the minimum wage requirement of 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1).
In addition to the requirement that the minimum wage requirement be sustained by the regular rate of pay calculation, the employer who has allegedly misclassified a position as exempt under the FLSA bears the burden of proving that there existed a “clear mutual understanding” among the employer and employee that the fixed weekly salary is compensation for the hours worked in any given workweek, no matter how few or many, in order to impose the FWW method for calculating overtime due.
Defendants argue that “it is undisputed that [p]laintiff was classified as exempt under the FLSA and was paid a fixed salary of $40,000 per year, regardless of the hours he worked.” Defendants point to plaintiff’s testimony that he was “usually paid a set amount in each paycheck” and “often worked before and more often after the time set on the schedule” as evidence that plaintiff and defendants were parties to a “clear mutual understanding” that his salary was fixed, despite his varying hours .
The court has examined plaintiff’s written statement, as cited by defendants, and finds that the citation offered by defendants quotes only a portion of plaintiff’s statement. In its entirety, the passages cited by defendants reads
22. I was usually paid a set amount in each paycheck, plus production and other bonuses.
23. The weekly schedule made by the store manager was the minimum time I was expected to work. I often worked before and more often after the time set on the schedule when there were orders to fill or equipment to maintain or repair, or when I had to drive to one of the other labs in the district to repair or maintain equipment. I was also frequently called in to repair machinery on my days off.
Plaintiff asserts that he was not party to a “clear mutual understanding” as is required for application of the FWW method. Plaintiff points out that, on at least two occasions, his biweekly paycheck was reduced by 8 hours so that he was paid for only 72 hours, though he is usually paid for 80 hours. Plaintiff argues that, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 778.114(c), the FWW method is inapplicable in the instant case because subsection (c) clearly instructs that the employer must pay the salary agreed to by the parties even when the employee does not work the full number of hours scheduled.
Plaintiff further asserts that ECCA internal policies instruct general managers to assume a 40 hour workweek when scheduling various management personnel to work in their stores. Plaintiff also points to the ECCA policy entitled “Work Schedules and Attendance,” which states that “[t]he normal workweek will consist of forty hours. The normal workday will consist of eight hours of work with an unpaid meal period.” Plaintiff argues that these policies, as well as the documented deductions in his biweekly paychecks demonstrate that defendants expected plaintiff to work a minimum of 40 hours and, in the event he failed to do so and did not claim leave or other holiday to make up for the time, defendants expected not to pay him the full amount of his salary.
The court has reviewed the documentary evidence cited by plaintiff, as well as plaintiff’s statement, cited by defendants and finds that defendants have failed to demonstrate that no genuine dispute exists as to the applicability of the FWW method in this case. In light of the documentary evidence produced by plaintiff, the court finds that plaintiff has demonstrated that, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 778.114(c), the FWW method is inapplicable to the case at bar. More specifically, the court finds that the check summary documents offered by plaintiff demonstrate that, on two occasions (9/25/2009 and 10/9/2009), plaintiff failed to work the required 80 hours in a designated two-week period and did not claim any holiday or vacation to make up for the shortage in his hours and, accordingly, eight hours worth of pay was deducted from his salary. Thus, no sincere argument may be made by defendants that its intention was to pay plaintiff a set salary regardless of the hours he worked in a given week, as required for application of the FWW method. On the contrary, the evidence before the court demonstrates defendants’ expectation that plaintiff work a minimum of forty hours each week and that he would be compensated only for those hours he worked or for which he claimed holidays or vacation to which he was entitled. Defendants’ motion will be denied as to its request for application of the FWW method in this case and, accordingly, any overtime found by the jury to be owed to plaintiff shall be compensated at the rate of one and one-half times the amount of plaintiff’s regular hourly wage pursuant to 29 C.F.R. 541.207(a)(1).”
Click McCumber v. Eye Care Center of America, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Ruling.
S.D.N.Y.: Although Elements of First-Filed Rule Satisfied, Court Declines to Transfer Second-Filed Case Due to Lack of Progress of First-Filed Case
Pippins v. KPMG LLP
This case was before the court on defendant’s motions to dismiss the case under the first-filed rule, or in the alternative to transfer the case to the site of the first-filed case, as well as defendant’s motion to stay the case, pending the outcome of a related appeal in the first-filed case. Citing the lack of progress in the first-filed case, the court denied the motions, although acknowledging that the underlying elements necessary for application of the first-filed rule were present.
The court reasoned:
“KPMG has met its burden of showing that the first-filed rule applies in this case by demonstrating that the Present Action and the California Action are nearly identical; however, due to the extensive delay in the California Action, the application of the first-filed rule is diminished.
Since the actions include the same parties and claims, the first-filed rule applies. However, application of the first-filed rule is diminished where there has been little progress in the first-filed action. Am. S.S. Owners Mut. Prot. & Indem. Ass’n, Inc. v. Lafarge N. Am., Inc., 474 F.Supp.2d 474, 489 (S.D.N.Y.2007), aff’d sub nom, N.Y. Marine & Gen. Ins. Co. v. Lafarge N. Am ., Inc., 599 F.3d 102 (2d Cir.2010); see Raytheon Co. v. Nat’l Union Fire Ins. Co. of Pittsburgh, 306 F.Supp.2d 346, 352–53 (S.D.N.Y.2004). This case was filed by the California Plaintiffs in 2007. Since that time there has been no significant movement in the case, (Swartz Decl. Ex. 2.) and there has been no movement since the case was stayed in 2009 pending the outcome of Campbell by the Ninth Circuit. Thus, the presumption afforded the California Action is diminished here. If Plaintiffs can show the balance of convenience tilts even slightly in their favor, there is no reason for this court to transfer the action.
Plaintiffs have not identified any “special circumstances” that warrant deviation from the first-filed rule. However, the balance of convenience factors weigh in favor of maintaining this action in the Southern District of New York.”
The court also denied defendant’s motion for a stay, pending the outcome of a related appeal in the Ninth Circuit, noting:
“The first three factors are similar to those considered in the “first-filed” analysis, so those factors weigh in favor of proceeding with this action. The interests of the persons not parties to the civil litigation and the public interest also weigh in favor of denying Defendant’s motion to stay the action. As a collective action, the statute of limitations for opt-in plaintiffs continues to run until the plaintiffs opt-in to the action. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b); Hoffman v. Sbarro, Inc., 982 F.Supp. 249, 260 (S.D.N . Y.1997) (Sotomayor, J.). The FLSA has a statute of limitations of three years, two if “willfulness” is not found. Any further delay could prejudice the interests of potential opt-in plaintiffs, whose claims may stale. Public interest also favors the swift resolution of claims alleging violations of the FLSA.”
USSC: Plaintiff’s Petition for Certiorari Denied Regarding Calculation of Damages for “Salaried Misclassified” Workers
Urnikis-Negro v. American Family Property
In a case where the United States Supreme Court could have decided the oft-raised issue of how to calculate an employee’s damages, following a finding that they were “salaried misclassified,” the Supreme Court has denied Plaintiff’s Petition for Cert, and therefore the issue remains largely unresolved. In a decision discussed here, the Seventh Circuit held that the proper calculation of damages in such a situation was the the “fluctuating workweek” methodology, rather than time and a half. The Fourth Circuit held that only “half-time” damages are due when an employee is salaried misclassified recently too. This decision was widely watched by Wage and Hour practitioners, because of the impact the calculation issue has on damages for such employees who are misclassified. Under the fluctuating workweek calculation, an employee who was salaried and misclassified receives less than one third the damages he or she would receive if the award were made at time and a half.
W.D.Va.: Parties May File FLSA Settlement Agreement Under Seal For Limited Time; Good Cause Demonstrated By 800 Similar Cases Pending
Murphy v. Dolgencorp, Inc.
This case is one of many such individual plaintiff cases pending against Dolgencorp (Dollar General), following the decertification of a nationwide collective action pertaining to its alleged misclassification of its “Store Manager” position. The case was before the court on the parties second motion seeking approval of settlements of these related cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The court had previously denied approval because of the parties’ insistence on the confidentiality of the settlement terms without showing good cause. Murphy v. Dolgencorp, Inc., No. 1:09CV00007, 2010 WL 3766946 (W.D.Va. Sept. 21, 2010).
Permitting the parties to file the settlement under seal for a limited time, the court discussed its basis for doing so, under the limited and somewhat unique circumstances of the case:
“I continue to find that I cannot approve the settlements without knowing the terms thereof, although the parties continue to ask me to do so on that basis. As an alternative, they ask me to consider the written terms either secretly, in camera, or by having them stated orally in an open, but hopefully empty, courtroom.
As I earlier elaborated, these procedures preferred by the parties do not, in my opinion, conform to my responsibilities under the FLSA or under the law generally. See id., 2010 WL 3766946, at *1.
The parties suggest another alterative, which I eluded to in my earlier opinion, which is to file and seal the settlement agreements for a limited period of time. As good cause for such a procedure, they represent that there are approximately 800 similar cases pending against the defendant in this and other federal courts around the nation, in which all of the plaintiffs are represented by the same counsel. They contend that keeping the terms of other settlements from each of these plaintiffs is beneficial in order to allow negotiations to concentrate on the specific merits of each individual case. They represent that plaintiffs’ counsel have agreed that they will not divulge the terms of another settlement to any of their individual clients.
It is true, as the parties assert, that the individual facts of each case are significant. Indeed, I have so ruled in denying summary judgment for the defendant in Teresa Hale’s case. Hale v. Dolgencorp, Inc., No. 1:09CV00014, 2010 WL 2595313, at *2-3 (W.D.Va. June 23, 2010) (holding that to determine if an individual store employee is exempt from overtime under the FLSA’s executive exemption requires a fact-intensive inquiry, unique to each store’s situation). The issue in each of these cases is whether the employee’s primary duty is management, which requires an analysis of various factors, including the amount of time spent by the employee in managerial duties. Id. Among the many stores operated by the defendant, those factors vary based on the circumstances of each store, as well as the preferences and circumstances of the various district managers. Id. at 4.
Under these circumstances, I find that good cause has been shown to seal the settlement agreements for a limited period of time. While the parties suggest three years, I find that two years ought to allow the parties the opportunity to negotiate settlement in most cases, and adequately balances the needs of the parties with the presumptive right of the public to access court records.
Accordingly, it is ORDERED as follows:
1. In connection with the requested approval of the settlements of these two cases, the parties must file under seal copies of the settlement agreements, together with (a) the amount of the plaintiffs’ overtime and liquidated damages claims, and (b) the amount of attorneys’ fees and expenses paid from the settlements, together with the basis for the calculation of the attorneys’ fees; and
2. The materials described above will be filed under seal, not to be unsealed earlier than two years after filing.”
7th Cir.: FWW Is Appropriate Method To Determine Unpaid Overtime Where Plaintiff Was Salaried Misclassified
Urnikis-Negro v. American Family Property Services
Although plaintiff Brenda Urnikis-Negro prevailed in her suit for overtime pay, she contended on appeal that the district court improperly calculated the amount of pay she was owed. After a bench trial, the district court found that the Defendants, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended, 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq. (“FLSA”), when they treated Urnikis-Negro as an administrative employee who was exempt from the overtime provisions of the statute. Urnikis-Negro v. Am. Family Prop. Servs., Inc., No. 06 C 6014, 2008 WL 5539823, at *5-*9 (N.D.Ill. Jul. 21, 2008); see 29 U.S.C. §§ 207, 216(b). As a result of Defendants’ misclassification, Urnikis-Negro was never paid anything above her fixed salary for her overtime hours.
However, in calculating Urnikis-Negro’s regular rate of pay and thence the overtime to which she was entitled, the court used the fluctuating workweek (“FWW”) method set forth in 29 C.F.R. § 778.114(a), an interpretive rule promulgated by the Department of Labor. 2008 WL 5539823, at *11-*12.
Recognizing that section 778.114(a) itself does not provide the authority for applying the FWW method in a misclassification case, it applied the FWW anyway. In a troubling opinion, the Court specifically stated that the FWW “is not a remedial measure that specifies how damages are to be calculated when a court finds that an employer has breached its statutory obligations.”
Nonetheless, the Court held that irrespective of the rule, it was appropriate for the district court to apply the FWW method in this case, citing the authority found in the Supreme Court’s decision in Overnight Motor Transp. Co. v. Missel, 316 U.S. 572, 62 S.Ct. 1216 (1942), superseded on other grounds by statute as stated in Trans World Air Lines, Inc. v. Thurston, 469 U.S. 111, 128 n. 22, 105 S.Ct. 613, 625 n. 22 (1985), “which approved this very method of calculating of an employee’s regular rate of pay and corresponding overtime premium. We therefore affirm the district court’s judgment.”
To read the entire decision, click here.
W.D.Va.: Dollar General “Store Manager” May Have Been Misclassified As Executive Exempt; Defendant’s Motion For SJ Denied
Hale v. Dolgencorp, Inc.
This case was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment. Defendant asserted the Plaintiff, the “Store Manager” of its Dollar General store was properly classified as exempt from the Fair Labor Standard Act’s (“FLSA”) overtime provisions, under the executive exemption. Citing factual issues, that needed to be resolved by a jury, the Court denied Defendant’s Motion however.
The Court conducted a detailed factual inquiry in reaching its holding, as is typical in most exemption cases:
“Dollar General operates a chain of discount retail stores located around the country. Hale was hired as a full-time clerk in one of the stores in 1996. Initially, she earned $4.75 per hour and worked as a clerk until January 1997, when she was promoted to a position known as “third key.” A third key worker is a clerk who can open and close the store, and may take deposits to the bank. A year later, in 1998, Hale was promoted to assistant store manager. During this period she transferred from her original store to several different Dollar General stores in Southwest Virginia. With each promotion Hale also received a pay raise. She was promoted to the position of store manager in November 1999, and she worked in this position until July 2003, when she left the company for a new job.
During her tenure as a store manager, Hale was paid a weekly salary and she was eligible for bonuses based upon her store’s profitability. In the four years that she managed a store, Hale received one bonus for $1,182.02. Her salary as a manager ranged from $313 per week to $431 per week. As a manager Hale estimated that she averaged between sixty to seventy hours of work per week. In her management position, Hale was not required to punch a time clock and the company did not pay her overtime.
The parties in this case agree that Hale made more than $250 and her work included the regular direction of two or more employees. The central issue thus is whether Hale’s primary duty consisted of management.
Contrary to the defendant’s assertion, it is not particularly helpful to compare Hale’s situation to that of other discount store managers, such as the one described in Grace v. Family Dollar Stores Inc., No. 3:08 MD 1932, 2009 WL 2045784 (W.D.N.C. July 9, 2009). The question here centers upon the facts of Hale’s employment. I must, therefore, perform a fact-intensive inquiry as to each prong of the five-factor test as applied to Hale in order to determine whether the management issue can be decided as a matter of law.
Although the plaintiff’s estimate of time spent on managerial tasks is important, it has been held that “ ‘when non-management duties are performed simultaneous to the supervision of employees or other management tasks” this supports a finding “ ‘that the employee’s primary duty is managerial.’ “ Jones, 69 F. App’x at 637 (quoting Horne v. Crown Cent. Petroleum, Inc., 775 F.Supp. 189, 190 (D.S.C.1991)).
Hale stated she spent ten percent of her time, about six hours each week, performing management duties such as ordering supplies and scheduling workers. The remainder of her time was spent performing menial labor: cleaning restrooms, scrubbing floors, checking out customers, and stocking shelves.
Hale’s district manager determined how many labor hours each store was allotted. As a store manager, Hale was responsible for scheduling employees according to the district manager’s allotment of labor hours. Hale’s primary concern was making certain she had enough staff to unload supply trucks and place merchandise on the store floors on “truck day.” (Hale Dep. 274.) Dollar General required stores to place stock on the floor within twenty-four hours of a supply truck’s arrival. The store referred to this as their “door-to-store in 24” strategy. (Hale Dep. 278.) Hale would save her staff’s hours for truck day so merchandise could be placed in the store within twenty-four hours. During the rest of the week, Hale had to run the store with a skeleton crew.
To save labor hours for truck day, Hale worked alone in the store for about four hours every day during her ten-hour shift. During this time she manned the cash register, which could not be left unattended. When staff was in the store with her, Hale would have the other individual man the register while she stocked merchandise on shelves according to the company’s “Plan-O-Grams.” A Plan-O-Gram was a chart that instructed employees where to place specific merchandise within a store. Typically, ninety percent of Hale’s store was organized according to the Plan-O-Gram, with the remaining ten percent stocked according to rules prescribed by Dollar General and Hale’s discretion. (Hale Dep. 125-128.)
In response to questions from defense counsel in her deposition, Hale admitted that she was always thinking about how to manage her store even when she performed menial labor such as stocking shelves or cleaning. (Hale Dep. 205-207.) Hale’s answer, however, did not indicate that she actively managed the store while performing menial labor. Rather, she performed menial tasks and at the same time she pondered ways to clean the store or organize merchandise.
The defendant argues that a reasonable jury “could only” conclude that these facts demonstrate Hale’s primary duty was management. (Def.’s Individual Reply Br. 6.) But, in fact, a reasonable juror could reach the opposite conclusion. Based upon these facts, a juror could decide that Hale spent very little time managing the store. Hale spent forty percent of her time alone in the store, during which she supervised no one and she performed tasks typically done by a clerk. A juror could conclude that her mental management of the store, such as spotting empty shelves while performing menial labor, did not constitute management or supervision of others. Further, a reasonable juror could determine that the company’s strict policies and stringent allocation of staff labor hours resulted in Hale forgoing true management duties in order to perform menial tasks so the store could simply remain open. Thus, a genuine issue of material fact exists as to whether Hale’s primary duty was management, or, whether Hale essentially performed a clerk’s duties under a different title and pay scale.
Dollar General argues that it principally valued Hale’s management abilities. This is evidenced, the defendant asserts, by the fact that Hale had to take a test to become a manager and that Hale’s district manager transferred Hale to two different locations to “rescue” the troubled stores. (Id.) Further evidence of the store’s emphasis on Hale’s management duties was Hale’s salary-she earned more than any other employee in the store-and the fact that she could receive a bonus based upon the profitability of her store. The defendant also notes that Hale was subject to very little supervision because the district manager only visited Hale’s location once every few months for twenty to thirty minutes. The company asserts that this shows that it trusted Hale’s management abilities and that she was the individual responsible for the store’s overall performance.
Although Dollar General asserts that these facts indicate Hale’s management duties were the most important tasks that she performed, a reasonable juror could reach a different conclusion.
Hale’s deposition testimony emphasizes that she spent a significant amount of time alone in the store manning the cash register. Further, the company frequently sent Hale to a store in nearby West Virginia where she spent the day stocking shelves. While Hale testified that her district manager, Judy Spangler, never interfered with her ability to perform her duties, a possible reason for this was that Spangler did not have enough time to frequently visit Hale’s store or to spontaneously review Hale’s work. As Hale testified, Spangler served as the district manager for twenty to thirty stores within in a 200-mile radius. In addition, Spangler worked from an office located three hours away from Hale’s store. Hale testified that Spangler left frequent voice mails for her, which included detailed instructions on running the store. Under Dollar General’s policies, the company expected store managers to immediately report issues to district managers, which Hale did. The company’s policies did not instruct store managers to wait for a district supervisor’s visit to discuss issues or problems.
Based upon these facts, a reasonable juror could conclude that Dollar General valued Hale’s ability to quickly stock shelves, man a cash register, and serve as an employee who promptly informed her superior about problems. Hale’s testimony could lead a juror to conclude that what Dollar General truly valued was Hale’s unquestionable compliance with company rules and her ability to promptly report problems to a supervisor who could then decide how to proceed.
As a store manager, Hale interviewed and recommended candidates for hiring, trained employees, conducted employee performance evaluations, created employees’ work schedules, and recommended employees for raises, promotions and terminations. While Dollar General permitted Hale to perform these tasks, she did so under rules that a reasonable juror could interpret as severely limiting the frequency with which Hale truly exercised discretion.
Although Hale created work schedules, she had no control over the amount of labor hours allotted to the store. Given the company’s emphasis on its “door-to-store in 24” policy, Hale had almost no discretion with scheduling staff because her primary focus was to make sure she had enough staff for truck day. Hale was unable to discipline or terminate employees unless the district manager directed her to do so. While Hale could recommend that employees receive raises or promotions, the district manager decided whether to adopt such recommendations. Further, the company’s standard operating procedures dictated, with step-by-step directions, how Hale should respond to numerous issues, such as angry customers, answering the phone, and store operations during possible weather emergencies.
Hale testified that the true amount of discretion she exercised depended upon the specific task at hand. When it came to general staff issues on a day-to-day basis, things were “pretty open.” (Hale Dep. 280.) But, when she made decisions about inventory, procedures, and stocking shelves, Hale “didn’t feel like [she] had that much discretion….” (Id.)
Dollar General argues that Hale had the discretion to manage inventory and to mark down items, but Hale testified that she never discounted an item unless she had express permission from her district manager. The defense asserts that Hale had discretion as to what she placed within the “flex-space” that constituted ten percent of the store’s floor area. But, even within this space, Hale had to adhere to company policies such as placing related items near one another.
Given these facts, it would be rational for a juror to conclude that in reality, the company’s policies left little for Hale to decide and therefore, she did not frequently exercise her discretion.
Hale testified that Spangler, the district manager, spent relatively little time inside Hale’s store. Hale testified that Spangler was in the store for eight to ten hours during inventory visits. Outside of inventory days, Spangler was in the store for about twenty minutes every two to three months.
Clearly, the record demonstrates that Hale had little face-to-face contact with her supervisor. This factor weighs in favor of the exemption. But the record does not show that Hale was genuinely free from supervision. Rather, Hale’s testimony indicates that she knew she did not have the freedom to make unfettered decisions about employee pay, promotions, terminations, or punishment. Further, Hale was constantly reminded by Spangler’s frequent voice mails or in-store visits that she had to closely adhere to Dollar General’s rules regarding placement of merchandise, store cleanliness, and other customer relations policies such as greeting customers within ten feet of entry.
Viewing the evidence at this stage most favorably to Hale, it appears that her decisions about merchandise and store procedures were dictated by company policies, from which she could not deviate. So while Spangler did not personally supervise Hale on a day-to-day basis, Hale had little freedom from the supervisory rules and regulations outlined in Dollar General’s corporate publications and ultimately enforced by Spangler.
Hale testified that on average, she worked sixty to seventy hours. Prior to her departure from Dollar General, Hale earned $431 per week. When she started as a manager, her pay was $313 per hour. Converted to an hourly rate, Hale’s salary ranged from $4.47 to $5.21 when she began as a manager, and between $6.16 and $7.19 per hour when she left the company. The actual hourly rate depends upon whether Hale’s salary is based upon her minimum work week, sixty hours, or the higher end of her average work week, seventy hours.
During the time Hale worked as a manager, the federal minimum wage was $5.15. When Hale left the company in 2003, the lowest paid clerk earned $5.60 per hour. (Hale Dep. 112). At that same time, assistant managers earned about $7 per hour.
Hale was also eligible for bonuses and during her tenure as a manager she received one for $1,182. The bonus paid to Hale weighs against a finding that Hale’s salary was similar, or close to, the salary of an hourly worker because Hale earned a ten percent bonus based upon the store’s profit while the remainder of the profit was pro-rated among lower-paid employees.
The analysis of Hale’s salary, however, when converted to an hourly rate, weighs toward a finding that Hale essentially earned the same as a clerk. For example, had a clerk earning $5.60 per hour, the lowest paid salary in Hale’s store, worked a sixty-hour week, she would have earned $224 for the first forty hours, and time and a half, or $168, for the next twenty hours. If this clerk worked a sixty-hour week she would earn $392 to Hale’s $431. If the same clerk worked seventy hours, she would earn $476 to Hale’s salary of $431. Thus, only when Hale worked a sixty-hour week would she earn slightly more than an hourly employee. Given these facts, a reasonable juror could determine that this factor weighs in favor of Hale and demonstrates that her primary duty was not management.
Whether Hale’s primary duty consisted of management is a question which must be answered by a jury. Based upon the applicable five-prong test, a reasonable juror could determine that Hale’s primary duty was not management. Thus, summary judgment in favor of the defendant is inappropriate.”
Similarly, the Court denied the branch of Defendant’s Motion seeking summary judgment regarding the alleged willful nature of its FLSA violations.
The Court’s analysis and holding was starkly similar to another case, recently discussed here, where another Court held that issues of fact required a jury determination of whether a Dollar General “Store Manager” was exempt under the executive exemption.
EDITOR’S NOTE: On July 8, 2010, another Court reached virtually the same decision, regarding another claim alleging that a Dollar General “Store Manager” was improperly denied overtime. In that case, Kanatzer v. Dogencorp, Inc., No. 4:09CV74 CDP (E.D. Mo. July 8, 2010), the Court denied Defendant’s motion for summary judgment, citing to factual issues regarding the applicability of the executive exemption.
E.D.Ky.: “Self-Critical Analysis” Privilege Does Not Shield Employer From Disclosure Of Documents Relating To FLSA Classification; Such Discovery Is Relevant To Issues Of “Good Faith” And Willfulness
Cochran v. National Processing Co.
This matter was before the Court on the Motions to Quash filed by the Defendants. Defendants sought to quash a subpoena issued by the Court and served on one of the Defendants (Hanna), seeking documents relating to the FLSA classification of the Plaintiffs, who were employees of Defendant, National, assigned to work for Defendant, Hanna. Defendants argued that the documents requested in the subpoena are protected under the self-critical analysis privilege and that they are beyond the scope of discovery.
The underlying action was pending in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas. National was the Defendant in the Texas action. The Plaintiffs in that action are current and former National employees. They asserted a claim against National under the Fair Labor Standards Act, alleging that National had improperly classified them as “exempt” employees under the Act and has, thus, improperly failed to pay them overtime. Hanna, which is located in Lexington, Kentucky, was not a party to the Texas action. However, the subpoena required Hanna to produce certain documents relating to work performed by Hanna for National regarding National’s policies and procedures for paying overtime.
Discussing the lack of “self critical analysis” privilege, the Court stated:
“National argues that the documents sought by the Plaintiffs are protected by the ‘self-critical analysis privilege.’
As an initial matter, it is not clear that the privilege exists. As support for its argument that the Sixth Circuit has adopted the self-critical analysis privilege, the Plaintiffs cite ASARCO, Inc. v. N.L.R.B., 805 F.2d 194 (6th Cir.1986). In that case, the Sixth Circuit determined that the employer should not have to disclose self-critical reports prepared after serious accidents in order to improve safety and prevent similar mishaps. Id. at 199. The court determined that “[t]he practice of uninhibited self-critical analysis, which benefits both the union’s and employer’s substantial interest in increased worker safety and accident prevention, would undoubtedly be chilled by disclosure.” Id. at 200.
However, that case involved a company’s duty to turn over certain information in collective bargaining efforts with the employee’s union. The Sixth Circuit specifically noted that items subject to discovery in litigation may not be subject to disclosure “in the collective bargaining context” and that any duty to disclose in that context must be evaluated in light of the rights and obligations created by the National Labor Relations Act. Id. at 199.
Even after ASARCO, district courts have found that the Sixth Circuit has never explicitly adopted the self-critical analysis privilege. See United States v. Allison Engine Company, Inc., 196 F.R.D. 310, 313-14 (S.D.Ohio 2000); Hickman v. Whirlpool Corp., 186 F.R.D. 362, 363 (N.D.Ohio 1999).
One district court has summarized the status of the privilege as follows:
Furthermore, “no circuit court of appeals has explicitly recognized the self-critical analysis privilege.” Johnson v. United Parcel Serv., Inc., 206 F.R.D. 686, 689-90 (M.D.Fla.2002). Most important, the validity of the self-critical analysis privilege is highly doubtful in light of the Supreme Court’s decision University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182, 110 S .Ct. 577, 107 L.Ed.2d 571 (1990), which declined to recognize a common law privilege against disclosure of confidential peer review materials.Granberry v. Jet Blue Airways, 228 F.R.D. 647, 650 (N.D.Cal.2005).
In Allison Engine, the court considered a claim of self-critical analysis privilege regarding internal audits of quality control for products supplied to the United States Navy. It applied a four-part test from Bredice v. Doctors Hosp., Inc., 50 F.R.D. 249 (D.D.C.1970):
(1) the information must result from self-critical analysis undertaken by the party seeking protection; (2) the public must have a strong interest in preserving the free flow of the type of information sought; (3) the information must be of the type whose flow would be curtailed if discovery were allowed; and (4) no documents should be accorded the privilege unless it was prepared with the expectation that it would be kept confidential.
Allison Engine, 196 F.R.D. at 312.
The court rejected the privilege in that case, noting that the privilege had rarely been applied and that its very rationale had been called into doubt. Id. at 313.See also Wade v. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, 2006 WL 890679 at * 5 (D.D.C.2006)(the privilege is “rarely recognized.”)
Even if the Sixth Circuit has or would adopt the privilege, National would not meet all four elements of the test set forth above. National argues that the documents requested from Hanna relate to an evaluation that National hired Hanna to perform of National’s classification of employees as exempt or non-exempt under the FLSA. However, clearly not all the information contained in documents relating to the evaluation are necessarily protected by the privilege:
The privilege is not absolute. It applies only to analysis or evaluation, not the facts on which evaluation is based. See In re: Crazy Eddie Securities Litigation, 792 F.Supp. 197, 205 (E.D.N .Y.1992). Courts have protected analytical or evaluative information but allowed discovery of factual information. See Troupin, 169 F.R.D. at 550. Under the privilege, parties are not required to reveal self-critical analyses, but must produce data or statistical information. See Roberts v. National Detroit Corp., 87 F.R.D. 30, 32 (E.D.Mich.1980). Information, documents or records otherwise available from other sources are not immune from discovery. See Shipes, 154 F.R.D. at 307 (citing Hollowell v. Jove, 247 Ga. 678, 279 S.E.2d 430, 434 (1981)). Additionally, this is a qualified privilege and it can be overcome by showing extraordinary circumstances or special need. See Reichhold Chem. Inc., 157 F.R.D. at 527. The privilege must be balanced against the opposing party’s need for discovery. See In re: Crazy Eddie Securities Litigation, 792 F.Supp. at 205. Allison Engine, 196 F.R.D. at 315.
The subpoena requests “all documents relating or pertaining to any review(s), audit(s), consulting or human resources management-related work performed by you for [National] regarding its policies or procedures concerning payment of overtime and/or classification of employees for overtime purposes,” and “all communications between you and anyone with [National] related to its policies or procedures concerning payment of overtime and/or classification of employees for overtime purposes.”
National has produced no evidence at all regarding the kinds of information contained in the documents requested, i.e., whether the information is “analysis” or “evaluation” or whether the information is “factual.” Thus, the Court has no basis for finding any of the documents are privileged.
Further, the privilege is most often applied in cases involving public health or safety. First Eastern Corp. v. Mainwaring, 21 F.3d 465, 467 n. 1 (C.A.D.C.1994). In fact the privilege was “initially developed to promote public safety by encouraging businesses to voluntarily evaluate their safety procedures. Morgan v. Union Pacific R. Co., 182 F.R.D. 261, 265 (N.D.Ill.1998)(citing Bredice v. Doctors Hosp. Inc., 50 F.R.D. 249, 251 (D.D.C.1970)). “Because production of such documents ‘would tend to hamper honest, candid self-evaluation geared toward the prevention of future accidents,’ the doctrine evolved in order ‘to prevent a ‘chilling’ effect on self-analysis and self-evaluation prepared for the purpose of protecting the public by instituting practices assuring safer operations.’ “ Id. (citing Granger v. National R.R. Passenger Corp., 116 F.R.D. 507, 508-509 (E.D.Pa.1987)).
While the privilege has been applied in other settings, the “essence of the privilege is the value to the public of continuing the free flow of the type of information created by the analysis. Consequently, the inquiry focuses on the public policy requirement, that is, whether disclosure of material generated by a party’s self-critical analysis will discourage or curtail future such studies.” Drayton v. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., 2005 WL 2094903 at *2 (E.D.Pa.2005).
The assessment at issue in this case involved National’s classification of employees as exempt or non-exempt under the FLSA. National argues that it hired Hanna to develop and implement a compensation structure for the company including an evaluation of National’s classification of employees as exempt or non-exempt under the FLSA. Disclosure of that assessment will not inhibit National from conducting further such assessments. In order to pay its employees, it obviously must continue to classify them as exempt or non-exempt. Thus, to the extent that the Hanna report contained any “evaluation” or “analysis,” National must continue to engage in that analysis in order to pay its employees and avoid liability under the Act.
The privilege has been extended to employment cases to “protect business entities which are legally mandated to critically evaluate their hiring and personnel policies.” Morgan v. Union Pacific R. Co., 182 F.R.D. 261, 265 (N.D.Ill.1998). However, the rationale for the privilege in employment cases is different than it is for tort cases. While, “the justification for the privilege in tort cases is to promote public safety through voluntary and honest self analysis,” id., the privilege in employment cases is meant to “protect those businesses that are required to engage in critical self-evaluation from exposure to liability resulting from their mandatory investigations.” Id. To the extent that Hanna’s assessment contained any “evaluation” or “analysis,” National has pointed to no law requiring such an evaluation.
For all these reasons, the Court hold that the Hanna documents are not protected under the self-critical analysis privilege.
Next the Court addressed Defendants’ argument that the documents sought were not relevant. Rejecting this argument, the Court explained, “National objects that the documents sought are not relevant to the Plaintiffs’ action and Hanna has joined in that objection. National argues that the Plaintiffs are IT Support Technicians in Texas but that the subpoena seeks information about every National employee and that it seeks information beyond the classification of those employees under the FLSA.
The Plaintiffs argue that the documents are relevant to the “good faith” defense to the imposition of liquidated damages under the Act and to the extended statutory limitations period for “willful violations” of the Act. National has asserted the good faith defense and has denied any willful violations or purposes of extending the limitations period. The Plaintiffs argue that the defense “delves into the mind of the employer” and, thus, communications with Hanna regarding interpretation and application of the FLSA are relevant.
The Court agrees with the Plaintiffs that National’s communications with Hanna regarding the FLSA classification of its employees for overtime purposes is relevant to National’s “good faith” and “willfulness.” The subpoena is confined to documents regarding “payment of overtime and/or classification of employees for overtime purposes.” Accordingly, the documents requested in the subpoena are discoverable.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Within days of the issuance of the Order in this case, a court within the Northern District of California held that there is no such thing as the “self-critical analysis” privilege. See Lewis v. Well Fargo & Co., 2010 WL 890183 (N.D.Cal. March 12, 2010).