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This case was before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment following what appears to be an aborted settlement. As discussed here, plaintiffs sought summary judgment imposing liquidated damages on defendants, and contended that defendants had failed to demonstrate the requisite good faith.
After discussing the well-defined standards regarding an employer’s burden to show “good faith” to avoid an otherwise mandatory imposition of liquidated damages, the court discussed the evidence proffered by defendants:
Defendants assert as “a possible claim of good faith and reasonable grounds” the fact that Central USA Wireless relied on the aforementioned third-party professional employment organization, HUMACare, “to take care of Central’s payroll and employee administrative obligations.” (Doc. 29 at PageID 1091).
Regarding Plaintiffs’ compensation, Chris Hildebrant testified:
A: I didn’t. John, as I said, went to Michigan, Huffman, had conversations
with [Plaintiffs], and told me what they agreed upon.
Q: Did you do any analysis as to whether what they agreed upon was in
compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act?
Q: Did you ask anybody else to do any analysis?
A: We submitted documentations to our PEO company, and we didn’t think
anything else about it.
Q: What does PEO company mean?
A: Professional Employment Organization.
Q: Did you ask your attorneys to look into whether or not the compensation
structure was in compliance with the –
Mr. Ash: Objection. I’ll allow the question to be answered just the
way you asked, obviously the content of the question from the very beginning.
Mr. Kimble: Sure.
Mr. Ash: Go ahead.
The Witness: No.
(Doc. 15-3, Hildebrant Dep. at PageID 255–56 (39:10–40:7)).
The court held that “[t]his evidence falls far short of creating a question of material fact or meeting the ‘substantial’ burden Defendants shoulder to prove ‘both good faith and reasonable grounds’ for a failure to pay overtime.”
Elaborating, the court explained:
Hildebrant made no special inquiry to HUMACare or legal counsel about whether Plaintiffs were exempt employees. See generally id. at 857 (caselaw usually cites discussion with attorneys or government officials or sometimes accountants as evidence of good faith). Rather, he “didn’t think anything else about it.” This statement concedes negligence, which “is sufficient to support an award of liquidated damages.” Fulkerson v. Yaskawa America, Inc., No. 3:13-cv-130, 2015 WL 6408120 at *2 (S.D. Ohio Oct. 23, 2015) (citing Martin, 381 F.3d at 584).
Thus, the court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to liquidated damages.
11th Cir.: Trial Court Erred in Denying Liquidated Damages Where Sole Evidence of Good Faith Was VP’s Testimony He Researched Alleged Exemption After Plaintiff Commenced Legal Action
This case was before the Eleventh Circuit for a second time. Previously, the plaintiff had successfully appealed the trial court’s decision that he was exempt from the FLSA under the so-called Motor Carrier Exemption. Following remand, plaintiff prevailed at trial and was awarded unpaid overtime wages. The plaintiff then moved for an award of liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees and costs. As discussed here, despite virtually non-existent evidence of any good faith on the part of the defendant to determine its FLSA obligations prior to the lawsuit, the court below denied plaintiff liquidated damages. The Eleventh Circuit reversed reiterating that a defendant (and not plaintiff) bears the burden of proof on this issue and that the burden is a relatively high one.
Discussing the relevant burden of proof, the court explained:
Under the FLSA, liquidated damages are mandatory absent a showing of good faith by the employer. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2012); Joiner v. City of Macon, 814 F.2d 1537,1538-39 (11th Cir. 1987). Although liquidated damages are typically assessed at an equal amount of the wages lost due to the FLSA violation, they can be reduced to zero at the discretion of [*7] the court. See 29 U.S.C. §§ 216(b), 260. If an employer shows to the satisfaction of the court that the act or omission giving rise to such action was in good faith and that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his act or omission was not a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act . . . the court may, in its sound discretion, award no liquidated damages . . . .
29 U.S.C. § 260.
An employer who seeks to avoid liquidated damages bears the burden of proving to the court that its violation was “both in good faith and predicated upon such reasonable grounds that it would be unfair to impose upon him more than a compensatory verdict.” Reeves v. Int’l Tel. & Tel. Corp., 616 F.2d 1342, 1352 (5th Cir. 1980) (quoting Barcellona v. Tiffany English Pub, Inc., 597 F.2d 464, 468 (5th Cir. 1979)). “Before a district court may exercise its discretion to award less than the full amount of liquidated damages, it must explicitly find that the employer acted in good faith.” Joiner, 814 F.2d at 1539.
The Eleventh Circuit then held that the defendant in this case had not carried its burden of proof:
The district court erred in denying liquidated damages on this record. Aqua Life had the burden of proving good faith and reasonable belief and failed to carry that burden. The only evidence of the alleged good faith was the testimony of its Vice President, [*8] Mr. Ibarra, who ostensibly researched the Motor Carrier Act exception to the FLSA, concluding that Mr. Reyes did not need to be paid overtime hours for his work. Yet, Mr. Ibarra also admitted that he had never heard of the FLSA until legal action was taken by Mr. Reyes. Aqua Life thus did not make a sufficient factual showing upon which the district court could have reasonably relied to deny liquidated damages and the record does not support the district court’s refusal to grant liquidated damages.
We need not reach Mr. Reyes’s alternative arguments against the denial of liquidated damages, as the factual record contains no evidence to support the district court’s denial of liquidated damages. Accordingly, we REVERSE, and direct the district court to assign full liquidated damages in the amount of $14,770.00 to Mr. Reyes.
Click Reyes v. Aqua Life Corp. to read the entire decision.
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.
5th Cir.: Defendants’ Purported Day-Rates Were Impermissible Where They Made Deductions For Partial Days Worked
Solis v. Hooglands Nursery, L.L.C.
This is an appeal from the district court’s order granting summary judgment for Plaintiff on behalf of various employees of Defendants. The district court held that the Defendants violated the overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The Defendants appealed the district court’s order as it relates to its non-salaried employees, arguing that there were genuine issues of fact regarding whether their day rate plan was invalid under the FLSA and whether they acted in good faith. Discussing each basis for summary judgment in turn, the 5th Circuit affirmed.
Briefly discussing Defendants’ purported day-rate methodology, the Court explained:
“Appellants first argue that there remained a genuine issue of fact regarding whether their day-rate method of paying their employees met the standards of 29 C.F.R. § 778.112. However, Appellants concede both before the district court and on appeal that their employees’ wages were reduced when the employees worked less than a full day. Accordingly, Appellants did not have a valid day-rate plan in use, and their failure to pay their employees overtime compensation pay for time worked beyond forty hours per week violated 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1).”
Next the Court discussed the issue of unpaid fifteen minute breaks.
“Appellants next concede that they failed to pay their employees for two fifteen-minute breaks per day, in violation of the FLSA. Nevertheless, Appellants argue that their purported overpayment to their employees as part of their day-rate plan compensated for the shortfall, pursuant to 29 C.F.R. § 778.202(a). However, as the district court properly held, Appellants did not employ a valid day-rate plan, because they reduced employees’ pay for hours they did not work. Accordingly, the district court properly concluded that Appellants remain liable for the amounts deducted from their employees’ compensable break periods.”
Last the Court discussed the award of liquidated damages, and the fact that the Court was entitled to award liquidated damages, notwithstanding a showing of both subjective and objective good faith.
“Finally, Appellants argue that even if they violated the FLSA by not implementing a proper day-rate plan and failed to pay proper overtime compensation, there remained a question of fact as to whether Appellants’ failures were in good faith, thus precluding an award of liquidated damages. Liquidated damages are awarded as a matter of course for violations of 29 U.S.C. § 207. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 260, however, a district court may decline to award liquidated damages if the employer demonstrates that it acted reasonably and in good faith. Heidtman v. County of El Paso, 171 F.3d 1038, 1042 (5th Cir.1999). Nevertheless, even if a defendant shows both subjective good faith and objective reasonableness, an award of liquidated damages remains in the discretion of the district court. See § 260; Heidtman, 171 F.3d at 1042. After reviewing the record, the district court correctly held that Appellants “ha[ve] submitted no evidence that [their] reliance on a bookkeeper with no managerial authority to ensure [their] compliance with the FLSA was reasonable.” Accordingly, Appellants have not carried their burden of showing good faith, and an award liquidated damages was proper.”