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S.D.Tex.: Defendants’ Motion For Protective Order, Seeking To Bar Plaintiffs’ Attorneys From Communicating With Putative Class Denied; No Evidence Of Coercive, Misleading, Or Improper Communications
McKnight v. D. Houston, Inc.
In this collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., Plaintiffs sued six strip clubs in Houston, along with the owners and operators. The court conditionally certified a class previously. Following the conditional certification, the defendants filed an expedited motion for a protective order, asking the court to forbid the plaintiffs and their attorneys from using the class members’ contact information “for any purpose other than the mailing of the court-approved notice,” or, alternatively, to require “specific approval from the court for any mailings, emails, phone calls or communications with potential opt-in plaintiffs other than the court-approved notice.” (Id. at 9). The defendants argued that without such an order, the plaintiffs will be able to recruit more plaintiffs under the guise of contacting fact witnesses, undermining the purpose of court-approved notice to potential class members. Holding that the Defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proof to necessitate such a protective order, the court denied the Defendants’ motion.
The court reasoned:
“The defendants argue that communications ban is necessary to prevent solicitation of clients under the guise of contacting fact witnesses. In support, they cite portions of McKnight’s deposition testimony in which McKnight explains that she spoke to the individuals who are now her coplaintiffs about her plans to file a lawsuit and gave them her attorney’s contact information. They also point to inconsistencies between the practices alleged by the plaintiffs in their declarations and described in their depositions, and conclude that “[t]he dynamic between the unlawful solicitations to join the suit and the subsequent substantial inconsistencies between the declarations that were filed in support of the motion for notice to class members and the deposition testimony of the plaintiffs suggests some level of impropriety or inaccuracy with regard to the pre-suit solicitations and communications that occurred in this case.” (Docket Entry No. 47 at 5-6).
This evidence falls short of the “evidence of coercive, misleading, or improper communications” necessary to impose the type of order the defendants seek. See Jackson, 2009 WL 650181, at *2. There is no evidence that McKnight’s precertification communications with her coplaintiffs were misleading or coercive. There is also no evidence that the plaintiffs plan to engage in improper communications going forward. Gulf Oil cautioned against protective orders that make it “more difficult [for counsel] … to obtain information about the merits of the case from the persons they sought to represent.” 452 U.S. at 101. The record does not support a protective order to prevent misleading or otherwise abusive communications by plaintiffs and their counsel.
The defendants’ expedited motion for a protective order is denied on the present record.”
D.Minn.: Defendant’s Request To Distribute Post-Notice Memorandum To Opt-ins Denied; Risk That Opt-ins Would Be Discouraged From Exercising FLSA Rights Outweighs Defendant’s Interests
Ahle v. Veracity Research Co.
Following the Court’s Order granting Notice, Defendant sought to send out a memorandum to all putative class members reminding them that they may not divulge trade secrets (without outlining what those trade secrets were). Plaintiff objected and Defendant’s filed a Motion to send the memorandum out. Finding that the chilling effect outweighed the probative value, if any, of such memorandum, the Court denied Defendant’s Motion.
The Court initially described the procedural history up until the point of the Motion and the contents of the memorandum Defendant sought to distribute.
“Veracity is a private investigative firm that specializes in insurance defense investigations. The Plaintiffs are current or former employees of Veracity, who work, or worked, as private investigators, and who claim that Veracity has violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, Title 29 U.S.C. §§ 201–219 (“FLSA”), by failing to pay them for certain hours that they had allegedly worked. Veracity denies any violation of the FLSA, and filed Counterclaims against certain of the Plaintiffs, including claims that those Plaintiffs had misappropriated confidential information, and trade secrets. In an Order dated July 28, 2009, the District Court, the Honorable Ann D. Montgomery presiding, granted the Plaintiffs’ Motion to Dismiss Veracity’s claims, on jurisdictional grounds, that those Plaintiffs had misappropriated Veracity’s confidential information, and trade secrets. See, Memorandum Opinion and Order dated July 28, 2009, Docket No. 67.
Veracity now seeks leave of the Court to distribute the following memorandum to those of its employees who elect to opt-into this collective action:
We understand that you recently elected to become a party plaintiff in this wage and hour lawsuit. We respect your decision and assure you that you will not be retaliated against in any way by [Veracity] because of your involvement in this case.
However, we want to remind you that, like all [Veracity] employees, you have a duty not to share or disclose any of our trade secrets or other confidential information outside of the Company except as authorized by [Veracity]. This includes any company property, whether in tangible or electronic form. Although we have no desire to interfere with your participation in this lawsuit, it does not relieve you of your obligations as a [Veracity] employee, including to protect our trade secrets and other confidential information.
Please let me know if you have any questions concerning this Memorandum or our policies prohibiting the nondisclosure and nonmisappropriation of [Veracity’s] confidential information and property, as reflected in our Employee Manual and your Agreement with [Veracity].
Before distributing the memorandum to opt-ins, counsel for Veracity requested permission to do so from counsel for the Plaintiffs, who objected to the distribution, and urged that Veracity seek Court approval.
Without the knowledge of its counsel, on August 6, 2009, Veracity sent a copy of the memorandum, authored by Veracity’s Chief Executive Officer, to a current employee who had opted into the lawsuit, and followed that transmission with a personal email to the employee which directed that he confirm that he received, understood, and would comply, with the terms of that memorandum. According to the Plaintiffs, Veracity sent the memorandum to that employee “within 20 minutes” of the employee’s election to opt-into the case. See, Plaintiffs’ Memorandum in Opposition, Docket No 93 (“Pl’s Memo.”), at p. 4 of 8; see also, Sokolowski Aff., supra at p. 4 of 6. After counsel for the Plaintiffs reiterated their opposition to the distribution of the memorandum, Veracity filed their Motion for Court approval to do so.”
Veracity contends that the memorandum is “neither threatening, coercive, nor misleading, and Plaintiffs fail to explain why they object to it,” see, Veracity’s Memorandum in Support, Docket No. 89 (“Veracity’s Memo.”), at p. 1 of 6, and believes that, as the employer of those opt-ins who are current employees, Veracity is doing no more than reminding those employees of their obligation to maintain the secrecy of Veracity’s confidential information, and trade secrets. Id. at p. 1-2 of 6 (“The memo, which [Veracity] believed to be appropriate and benign, was intended to remind employees of their obligation not to disclose trade secrets or other confidential information.”). Accordingly, Veracity requests an Order that permits “it to distribute the memorandum to any future opt-in plaintiffs who are current employees of [Veracity] at the time they opt in to the lawsuit.” Id.
Addressing the competing interests, the Court noted, ” ‘Because of the potential for abuse, a district court has both the duty and the broad authority to exercise control over a class action and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties.’ Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 100 (1981). “But this discretion is not unlimited, and indeed is bounded by the relevant provisions of the Federal Rules.” Id., citing Eisen v. Carlisle & Jacquelin, 417 U.S. 156 (1974). “Before entry of such an order, there must be a clear record and specific findings that reflect a weighing of the need for a limitation and the potential interference with the rights of the parties.” Great Rivers Cooperative of Southeastern Iowa v. Farmland Industries, Inc., 59 F.3d 764, 766 (8th Cir.1995), citing Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, supra at 101.
‘In addition, such a weighing-identifying the potential abuses being addressed-should result in a carefully drawn order that limits speech as little as possible, consistent with the rights of the parties under the circumstances.’ Id., quoting Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, at 102. ‘Nevertheless, a limited restriction-such as precluding a defendant from soliciting class members to opt out of the litigation-will sometimes be justified.’ Id., quoting Manual for Complex Litigation, Second, at § 30.24 at p. 232, citing, in turn, Kleiner v. First Nat’l Bank of Atlanta, 751 F.3d 1193 (11th Cir.1985). While the foregoing authorities specifically address class action proceedings, the same principles have been extended to collective actions, such as this one. See, Hoffman-La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170-71 (1989). In Hoffman-La Roche, the Court specifically recognized that the benefits of the collective form of litigation “depend on employees receiving accurate and timely notice concerning the pendency of the collective action, so that they can make informed decisions about whether to participate.” Id. at 170.
We do not suggest that there is anything misleading in the contents of Veracity’s proposed memorandum. Rather, we have concern that the memorandum, which will only be sent to Veracity’s current employees who opt-into the collective action, will unnecessarily highlight Veracity’s close attention to that employee’s election to participate in this proceeding. Perhaps, in and of itself, such a highlighting could prove to be innocent, we find no logical nexus between joining this collective action, and any derivative motivation to impermissibly share Veracity’s confidential information, or trade secrets. Instead, we are left with the distinct impression that the transmission of the memorandum-only to opt-ins-is intended to not-so-subtly influence the opt-in, as to his choice to engage in this lawsuit, by assuring him or her that Veracity’s management will be more closely scrutinizing that employee’s demeanor and conduct, than other similarly-situated employees who have not joined the suit.
The opt-ins do no wrong in joining this collective action; they are simply exercising their rights under a statute that Congress enacted to assure that they were fairly compensated for the hours that they worked for Veracity, or for any other employer. If that joinder warrants a cautionary, that the opt-in should not seek to steal Veracity’s property, whether tangible or electronic, the connection escapes us. Nor are we able to clearly understand Veracity’s asserted business purpose for the advisory. While we certainly accept that Veracity is engaged in a sensitive business, and could be exposed to penalties if the information its investigators gather is improperly disclosed in such a way as to violate State or Federal statutes, or Veracity’s contracts with third-parties, we are unable to perceive why joining this lawsuit potentiates toward any such violations. Veracity, and the Plaintiffs, have entered a Protective Order that preserves the confidentiality of information that has been so labeled by one party or the other. Counsel for the Plaintiffs need not request, even if they were so unprofessionally motivated to do so, information from the opt-ins which is otherwise available from Veracity.
Nor is it clear what Veracity characterizes as confidential, or as a trade secret. Surely that characterization could not encompass evidence, if any there be, that Veracity’s policies and practices violate the provisions of the FLSA, and yet, that inference may not be fully understood by the opt-ins who are warned not to communicate some undefined information to persons outside of Veracity. The Confidentiality Agreements between Veracity, and its investigators, have not been presented for our review, but we have grave difficulty in conceiving why “information about other employees” could be considered confidential. See, Veracity’s Memo., supra at p. 5 of 6 (“[Veracity’s] employees have access to confidential information and trade secrets, including clients lists and information about other employees.”). While the confidences of Veracity’s client lists would surely be proprietary, we are unable to fathom why that information would be a subject of inquiry, by the Plaintiffs’ counsel, in an FLSA action.
In our considered view, Veracity’s memorandum unfairly chills the opt-ins’ Sixth Amendment right of access to the Courts, as well as their entitlement to consult with legal counsel, concerning their FLSA claims, without fear of retribution arising from some notion that the information that they are disclosing will subject them to discipline, or other legal action, predicated upon a breach of a Confidentiality Agreement. Moreover, we are unable to perceive any reason for the opt-ins to be disclosing information that would compromise a confidence, or a trade secret. As we have noted, the issues raised in this action pertain to wages, and hours worked; they do not involve matters of confidence or trade secret, and Veracity has failed to explain why it should fear such disclosures, much less why it believes that counsel for the Plaintiffs would be interested in any such information.
Given these considerations, and the entirety of the Record that the parties have presented for our consideration, we find that Veracity should be allowed to exercise its free speech right to communicate with its employees on matters as significant as the preservation of confidential information, and trade secrets. In order to preserve that right, without trammeling upon the opt-in’s right of access to the Courts, any communication from Veracity, on this subject, should be transmitted to all of its employees, who signed a Confidentiality Agreement, and not just to the opt-ins. In this fashion, the rights of both sides are appropriately weighed and protected. While our ruling will require that the memorandum be modestly reworded, if Veracity truly has a concern that its employees, or some subclass of them, will improperly disclose its trade secrets, or confidential information, then a cautionary advisory to its workforce will further its interest in preserving the integrity of such information, without sacrificing the opt-ins’ rights under the FLSA. As we did at the Hearing, we suggest that the memorandum be generic in form and content, and not be connected to this litigation. If a suitable memorandum evades the parties, they may jointly contact this Court for assistance.”
Thus, the Court denied the Defendant’s Motion for an Order Approving the Distribution of a Memorandum to Opt-ins.