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N.D.Ga.: Defendant Barred from Unilateral Meetings With Putative Class Members Outside of Formal Discovery Process, Absent Detailed Disclosures to Alleviate Concerns re Chilled Participation and/or Retaliation
This case was before the court for consideration of the parties’ Joint Statement regarding restrictions on communications with putative class members, as required by L.R. 23.1(C)(2) of the Northern District of Georgia.
The specific issue raised by the parties’ Joint Submission was explained as follows:
In the Joint Statement, Plaintiffs raise a concern that Defendants will question putative class members about a policy requiring employees to lodge contemporaneous internal complaints about incorrect pay (“Complaint Policy”). Plaintiffs fear that if representatives of Defendants raise the Complaint Policy in communications with putative plaintiffs, the putative plaintiffs will believe that their failure to have lodged a contemporaneous complaint about incorrect pay may have been a violation of company policy that could result in their termination from employment. In its portion of the Joint Statement, Defendants do not deny an intention to make such inquiries of employees.
Initially the court discussed the basic applicable law:
[A]n order limiting communication between parties and potential class members should be based on a clear record and specific findings that reflect a weighing of a need for limitation and the potential interference with the rights of the parties. Only such a determination can insure that the court is furthering, rather than hindering, the policies embodied in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, especially Rule 23.
Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 101–102, 101 S.Ct. 2193, 68 L.Ed.2d 693 (1981). “Unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class sabotage the goal of informed consent by urging exclusion on the basis of a one-sided presentation of the facts, without opportunity for rebuttal. The damages from misstatements could well be irreparable.” Kleiner v. First Nat’l Bank of Atlanta, 751 F.2d 1193, 1203 (11th Cir.1985).
Based on its conclusion that there were inherent risks in the anticipated questioning by the defendants, the court held that the defendants were barred from communicating with former employee putative class members regarding the subject matter of the case, outside of the regular discovery process in the case and without the consent of plaintiff’s counsel. While the court permitted defendants’ counsel to speak with current employees who were putative class members, it set forth detailed prerequisites prior to any such communications, in order to safeguard against defenadnts’ improperly influencing putative class members from exercising their rights under the FLSA:
The Court finds that the risks inherent in the anticipated questioning by Defendants warrant the following limitations on Defendants’ communications with potential class members.
There shall be no communications with any named Plaintiff or with any current or future opt-in Plaintiffs outside the formal discovery process or without the consent of the named Plaintiff’s counsel of record, except-as to any currently employed present or future opt-in Plaintiff-for routine business matters unrelated to this action.
With respect to any presentation of information, including any views or opinions, to any “putative class members” by the Defendants—whether acting through management, counsel, other employees, or any other agent of any kind—that relates to the allegations and claims in this action, whether for the purpose of gathering information in a one-on-one or group basis to defend this action or to address any employee complaints regarding past, current or future compensation practices, such communication shall commence with the following statements:
(a) The person(s) present on the Defendants’ behalf is a Defendant employee or agent acting at the direction of Defendants’ management;
(b) The person(s) present on the Defendants’ behalf is there to address a lawsuit filed against the Defendants, as well as employee complaints, involving allegations that the Defendants failed to pay employees all the wages and overtime they had earned and were entitled to receive;
(c) The lawsuit is a class-action—which means the individual may receive money as a result of the lawsuit;
(d) The allegations of wrongdoing (accurately stated), accompanied by a copy of the Third Amended Complaint;
(e) The “putative class member” is under no obligation to stay, or listen, or speak, or respond;
(f) No record of anyone who does not stay, speak, or respond is being made and no record of who does not stay, speak, or respond will be made at any future time;
(g) No adverse action will be taken if the “putative class member” chooses not to stay, speak, or respond;
(h) No adverse action will be taken if the “putative class member” says, in substance, they believe they not were not properly compensated or did not receive all compensation owed to them, whether or not they complained to anyone about any compensation issues; and
(i) The “putative class member” is free to leave at any time, including at this point.
Click Wilson v. Regions Financial Corporation to read the entire Order Regarding Communications With Putative Class Members.
While the procedural posture of this case was somewhat unique, in that the Northern District of Georgia has a detailed/explicit rule regarding pre-certification communications (and there was a Rule 23 class claim in addition to the FLSA collective action claim), this decision will likely serve as a blueprint for many courts going forward, given the chilling effect unilateral meetings with current and former employees can have, as many courts have previously noted.
N.D.Ala.: Arbitration Agreements Obtained By Defendant in Required Meetings After Putative Collective Commenced Unenforceable
Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc.
This case was before the court following the court’s order prohibiting enforcement of arbitration agreements that the defendant obtained from opt-ins (prior to the time they opted in to the case). The court previously had ruled that such arbitration agreements were unenforceable, because of the manner in which they were obtained from current employees, following an evidentiary hearing regarding same. This case is particularly important because it addresses the common situation in which a defendant-employer, at least arguably, crosses the line from attempting to mount a defense to a potential collective/class action, and begins to improperly exercise its unequal power over its current employees/putative class members. Denying the defendant’s motion for reconsideration, the court expanded on the reasoning of its prior order.
As the court explained:
This Fair Labor Standards Act case presents the court with a dilemma: enforce arbitration agreements against Defendant Citi Trends Store Managers, who are potential opt-in Plaintiffs in this collective action that were obtained during the conditional certification stage of this case and gut the collective action mechanism Congress provided for the protection of employees or refuse to enforce the arbitration agreements and run afoul of the federal policy favoring their enforcement. Because of the particular events surrounding the roll-out of the arbitration agreement in this case, as specifically discussed below, the court finds it cannot approve employer conduct like that involved in this case specifically targeting only potential class members during a critical juncture in this case with the definite goal of undercutting the Congressional intent behind the collective action process. The court will DENY the Defendant’s motion to compel arbitration and preserve the viability of the collective action mechanism.
Summarizing the parties’ respective contentions, the court explained:
Defendant Citi Trends, Inc. argues that this court’s ruling at the January 2013 hearing that it could not seek to compel arbitration against those opt-in Plaintiffs who signed mandatory arbitration agreements was an error of law. The Plaintiffs argue that the court’s ruling was appropriate and necessary to correct Citi Trends’s wrongful action—intimidating its employees into waiving their rights to join this lawsuit by signing mandatory arbitration agreements. On April 19, 2013, the court granted the motion to reconsider its ruling and set an evidentiary hearing to hear evidence surrounding presentment of the arbitration agreements to determine if any coercion, duress, or intimidation occurred.
While the court had previously denied the plaintiff’s motion for protective order and/or to strike declarations obtained from current employees, that was not the end of its inquiry as to whether the arbitration agreements should be enforced. Rather, the court held an evidentiary hearing because the
high standard had not been met on the parties’ submission alone, and thus, the court decided it needed to hold a hearing to determine if any coercion, duress, intimidation, or other abusive conduct occurred at the time SMs were required to sign the Agreement. The question of enforcement of or invalidation of the Agreement invokes a different standard than did the motion to strike or to enter a protective order, which was the requested relief before the court previously.
The court summarized the evidence received at the hearing as follows:
At the evidentiary hearing on May 14 and 15, 2013, the court heard testimony from opt-in Plaintiffs Roilisa Prevo and Katina Alfred, former Citi Trends SMs; Ivy Council, Executive Vice President of Human Resources for Citi Trends; Rashad Luckett, Human Resources Coordinator for Citi Trends; Vanessa Davis, Director of Human Resources for Citi Trends; and LaKesha Wilkins, an “independent third party witness” hired by Citi Trends to sit in SM meetings with Ms. Davis. The court will briefly summarize that testimony here but will also reference it as needed in the discussion below.
Citi Trends devised and implemented its new ADR policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—shortly after it was served with the complaint on February 27, 2012 (doc. 6), and after the court on May 16, 2012, set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. (Doc. 17). On May 31, 2012, this court issued a Scheduling Order requiring the Plaintiffs to file their motion for conditional certification of the class on or before July 31, 2012 with briefing to be completed by September 10, 2012. (Doc. 18). Just a couple weeks after the Order, in mid-June, Citi Trends began the process of rolling out its new Alternative Dispute Resolution (“ADR”) plan, including the mandatory Agreement. Ms. Davis testified that as of mid-June she had virtually completed the new employee handbook she was working on, which did not include an ADR policy; she learned for the first time in mid-June that the updated handbook would include the new ADR policy. Citi Trends, under the direction of Ms. Council, sent Ms. Davis, Mr. Luckett, and other HR representatives to have two-on-one private meetings with SMs across the country as early as June 30, 2012 to roll out the new ADR policy. The HR representatives met with all SMs individually throughout the summer.
District Managers (“DMs”) told the SMs that they must attend the meetings that concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook. DMs were only asked to sign the Agreement if the HR Representatives happened to see them at the SM meetings, but Citi Trends distributed the Agreement to DMs, other corporate employees, and store associates at a later date.
When the SMs arrived at the meetings, they were greeted by an HR Representative and another individual, who Ms. Prevo claimed was never introduced to her and whom Ms. Alfred identified as another Citi Trends corporate employee. The HR Representatives gave the SMs four documents: the SM Disclosure, the Agreement, the SM Declaration, and a photocopied version of a new employee handbook. The two-on-one private meetings took place in small, back rooms in Citi Trends retail stores, the same places where interrogations or investigations of employees occurred. The HR Representatives who met with the SMs played an advisory role in the employment decisions of Citi Trends employees, and both Ms. Prevo and Ms. Alfred testified that they believed the HR representatives conducting the meetings had authority to make employment decisions about them, such as hiring and firing.
Ms. Alfred and Ms. Prevo testified that they signed the documents but came away from those meetings having felt intimidated by the HR Representatives and pressured to sign the Agreement or lose their jobs. The SMs were not given copies of the documents they signed at the meeting or at anytime afterward, even if they specifically requested copies.
After finding the agreements at issue to be both procedurally and substantively unconscionable, the court weighed the related public policy concerns as well:
The biggest public policy concern that the court has to consider about actions of Citi Trends, however, is the effect of the Defendant’s efforts on the purpose of an FLSA collective action. The court’s decision on this issue is bigger than this one case, and that concern is what has plagued the court about this situation from the first mention of the Agreement. The purposes of the FLSA and its collective action procedure factor into the court’s decision on this motion.
Congress passed the FLSA during the Great Depression to protect workers from overbearing practices of employers with greatly unequal bargaining power over them. See Roland Elec. Co. v. Walling, 326 U.S. 657, 668 n. 5 (1946) ( “The Bill was introduced May 24, 1937, [and] … accompanied by a Presidential message by Franklin D. Roosevelt …. ‘to protect the fundamental interests of free labor and a free people we propose that only goods which have been produced under conditions which meet the minimum standards of free labor shall be admitted to interstate commerce. Goods produced under conditions which do not meet rudimentary standards of decency should be contraband and ought not to be allowed to pollute the channels of interstate trade.’ “) (quoting 81 Cong. Rec. 4960, 4961). To further that purpose, § 216(b) of the FLSA authorizes an employee to file suit for and on behalf of himself and others similarly situated. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Those employees who wish to join the lawsuit must give written consent or opt-in to the lawsuit, but they only know that they can do so once court-approved notice has been sent to them. See id…
In this case, the court finds that such goals are defeated if the court approves actions taken by defendants, such as those taken by Citi Trends in this case, that are designed and used to prevent employees from vindicating their rights in an FLSA collective action. The court wishes to make clear that it is not addressing a pre-lawsuit or pre-employment arbitration agreement between an employer and employee that would preclude participation in a collective action. Instead, this ruling only addresses the Agreement in this case that was presented to the specifically-targeted potential class of employees in the specific manner that gave those potential opt-in Plaintiffs no meaningful choice or known opportunity to refuse to sign without the fear of termination in a setting that was ripe for and calculated to produce perceived intimidation or coercion and when its very purpose and effect was to preclude participation in this lawsuit.
For these reasons, the court finds that the Agreement at issue in this case reeks of both procedural and substantive unconscionability in the context in which it was presented and obtained. The Agreement cannot and will not be enforced against Ms. Prevo, Ms. Alfred, or Ms. Cunningham, and the court will DENY Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration against them. In making this decision, the court notes that it found the testimony presented by the Defendant, specifically that from Ms. Council and Ms. Davis, particularly enlightening. In addition to the language of the documents themselves, the court finds that the concurrent timing of the ADR roll-out and the Plaintiffs’ preparation of the motion for conditional certification and court approved notice, and the manner in which the Agreement was presented weigh in favor of invalidating the Agreement as it relates to the SMs who were presented the Agreement during its initial roll-out in the summer of 2012.
The court truly believes it would be a derogation of the court’s responsibility if it were to approve employer conduct like that in this case that specifically undercuts the Congressional intent behind creating the FLSA collective action process for aggrieved employees, and the court does not take such action lightly.
In light of this reasoning, the court denied the defendant’s motion for reconsideration and held that the arbitration agreements, obtained from current employees were unenforceable.
Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion.
A review of the docket shows that the defendant has filed an appeal to the Eleventh Circuit. Thus, this issue will likely get further review. Stay tuned for further developments….
C.D.Cal.: Motion for Corrective Action Granted Where Defendant Provided Insufficient Info to Putative Class Members When Obtaining Releases
Gonzalez v. Preferred Freezer Services LBF, LLC
This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion for corrective action, under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 23, on grounds that the defendant had improperly contacted potential plaintiffs to this putative class action in efforts ‘to obtain releases from its employees concerning the claims pled by [Gonzalez] in this action.’ The plaintiff sought an order requiring the defendant to release the names and contact information of individuals from whom the defendant had attempted to extract releases. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion, applying Rule 23’s protections to an FLSA case.
The court described the relevant facts/procedural history as follows:
Gonzalez brought a collective action on behalf of himself and other of Preferred Freezer’s employees for unpaid overtime pay under California law and the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). (Mot.2.) In August 2012, Preferred Freezer unilaterally drafted a “Release Agreement” that it provided to its employees, who are potential plaintiffs to this putative class action. (Mot.6–7.) The Agreement explained that in exchange for a settlement payment “in full satisfaction of all claims that Employee has, had or could have had arising out of the lawsuit or in any way related thereto,” the employee waived any and all claims arising out of a “former employee[‘s]” wage-and-hour lawsuit or in any way related to the lawsuit. (Mot.7.) But the Release Agreement did not state when this unnamed lawsuit was filed, the name of the former employee, the names of the employee’s attorneys, the attorneys’ contact information, or the period of time covered by the release. (Id.)
The court explained that the plaintiff learned of the defendant’s actions that were the subject of the motion, when a putative class member who had been approached by the defendant contacted plaintiff’s counsel. After discussing the general concept that settlements are favored, the court explained how the manner in which the defendant obtained the general releases here was misleading:
The waiver Preferred Freezer tendered its employees was misleading in many ways. It did not include any information regarding this class action, except that a former employee had brought a lawsuit against Preferred Freezer. (Sinay Decl. Exs. A, B.) The waiver did not attach the Complaint, any information on when the case was filed, nor any information regarding the essence of the case. (Mot.7.) Preferred Freezer also did not include Gonzalez’s counsel’s contact information. (See Gamez Decl. Ex. 1.) Even when Preferred Freezer’s agents spoke to the potential plaintiffs, the agents never provided them with the name of the case. (Gamez Decl. ¶ 6.) Furthermore, Preferred Freezer’s counsel never contacted Gonzalez’s counsel to confer over possible communication to Preferred Freezer’s employees regarding the potential settlement. (Mot.6.) Thus, the waiver misleadingly failed to provide the potential plaintiffs with adequate notice of this case in order to make an informed decision regarding waiver of their rights.
While the facts surrounding the manner in which the defendant had obtained the releases were uncontested, the defendant argued that corrective action was inappropriate and that: (1) defendant’s first amendment right to communicate with the putative class should not be hindered; (2) putative class members of a 216(b) collective actions are not entitled to the same protections as those in a Rule 23 class action; (3) the DOL supervised the settlements at issue; and (4) they did provide enough information to the settling class members, so as to alleviate concerns that the releases were obtained based on misleading information.
Noting that the plaintiff was not seeking to invalidate the releases at this juncture, and was not seeking to stop the defendant from communicating with putative class members, the court granted the plaintiff’s motion. The court granted the plaintiff’s motion as follows:
In response to Preferred Freezer’s misleading contact with putative class members in this action, Gonzalez asks that the Court orders Preferred Freezer to provide names, addresses, and telephone numbers for each and every person contacted by Preferred Freezer regarding the waiver. (Mot.25.) Gonzalez also requests that any communication to potential plaintiffs should include all the important information relating to Gonzalez’s case. (Mot.24.) For the reasons discussed above, the Court finds this request reasonable and therefore GRANTS Gonzalez’s motion.
Preferred Freezer is therefore ORDERED to provide Gonzalez with the contact information of all of those prospective plaintiffs in this case with whom Preferred Freezer has had contact regarding settlement. Furthermore, any communication that either party has with putative plaintiffs must include the following information: (1) the name of this case; (2) the case number; (3) a summary of the basis of Gonzalez’s claims; (4) the name of Gonzalez’s attorneys and their contact information; and (5) a statement concerning the effect of executing Preferred Freezer’s released documents will have on its employees’ ability to participate in this lawsuit.
Click Gonzalez v. Preferred Freezer Services LBF, LLC to read the entire Order Granting Plaintiff’s Motion for an Order for Corrective Action.