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D.Ariz.: Employee Who Resolved His Claims For Unpaid Overtime Prior To Lawsuit Entitled To Award Of Attorney’s Fees Under § 216
McBurnie v. City of Prescott
Before the court was plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment regarding entitlement to attorneys fees following his presuit acceptance of a check that purported to resolve all of his claims for unpaid overtime wages and attorneys fees. Noting that an empl0yee can not waive his or her rights to substantive FLSA rights absent a settlement supervised by either the DOL or a court, the court held that notwithstanding Plaintiff’s prior acceptance of payment for his unpaid overtime, he was entitled to an award of attorneys fees under the FLSA.
In November 2007, Plaintiff filed a grievance against his then supervisor, alleging that the City’s forced use of compensatory time in lieu of overtime pay violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 207. In February 2009, prior to the institution of Plaintiff’s lawsuit, the Defendant sent two checks to plaintiff-one in the amount of $26,000 for overtime compensation and the other in the amount of $5,778.32 for attorney’s fees. The settlement letter enclosed with the two checks stated that “[b]y cashing either or both of these two checks your client is accepting these funds as resolution of any and all overtime issues; we have indicated that on each of these checks.” Plaintiff accepted and cashed the $26,000 settlement offer, but returned the check for attorney’s fees to the City.
In August, 2009, Plaintiff filed his lawsuit. Among other claims, he sought attorney’s fees related to the settlement of his FLSA wage claim.
Reasoning that Plaintiff was entitled to an award of attorneys fees and granting Plaintiff summary judgment with regard to same, the court explained:
“Plaintiff moves for summary judgment on Count 12, his claim for attorney’s fees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 207 and 216 (“FLSA”). The FLSA was enacted for the purpose of protecting workers from substandard wages and oppressive working hours. Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 1444 (1981). The Act provides that an employee shall receive overtime wages “at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed.” 29 U .S.C. § 207(a)(1). The FLSA further provides that any employer who violates the overtime wage provision will be liable to the affected employee in the amount of unpaid overtime wages, plus an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. Id. § 216(b).
Because of the unequal bargaining power between employers and employees, Congress made the FLSA provisions mandatory. D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 116, 66 S.Ct. 925, 929 (1946) (“neither wages nor damages for withholding them are capable of reduction by compromise”). An individual may not relinquish rights under the Act, even by private agreement between the employer and employee, “because this would ‘nullify the purposes’ of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.” Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 740, 101 S.Ct. at 1445 (quoting Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707, 65 S.Ct. 895, 902 (1945)).
The FLSA provides two avenues for claim resolution. Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350, 1353-54 (11th Cir.1982). First, under section 216(c), the Secretary of Labor can supervise an employer’s voluntary payment to employees of unpaid wages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(c). An employee who accepts such supervised payment waives his right to file an action for both the unpaid wages and for liquidated damages. Id. Or, under section 216(b), an employee can bring a private action for back wages under the FLSA and can “present to the district court a proposed settlement, [and] the district court may enter a stipulated judgment after scrutinizing the settlement for fairness.” Lynn’s Food Stores, 679 F.2d at 1353 (citing D.A. Schulte, Inc, 328 U.S. at 113 n. 8, 66 S.Ct. at 928 n. 8). Settlements that do not follow the two methods authorized by the Act are unenforceable. Hohnke v. United States, 69 Fed. Cl. 170, 178-79 (Fed.Cl.2005).
Here, we have neither an agreement supervised by the Department of Labor, nor entered as a stipulated judgment by a court. The settlement agreement regarding back wages is fully consummated and the parties do not seek court approval. Therefore, the settlement falls outside the two statutorily-prescribed avenues of FLSA claim resolution.
An award of attorney’s fees to a prevailing party in an action brought under section 216(b) is mandatory. “The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added); Christiansburg Garment Co. v. EEOC, 434 U.S. 412, 415 n. 5, 98 S.Ct. 694, 697 n. 5 (1978) (referring to § 216 of the FLSA as one of the “statutes [that] make fee awards mandatory for prevailing plaintiffs”). The payment of the attorney’s fees discharges a statutory, not a contractual, duty. Because the FLSA was intended to provide workers with the full compensation due under the law, requiring a claimant to pay attorney’s fees incurred to enforce his FLSA rights would frustrate the statute’s underlying purpose. See Maddrix v. Dize, 153 F.2d 274, 275-76 (4th Cir.1946) (stating that Congress intended that a claimant “should receive his full wages plus the penalty without incurring any expense for legal fees or costs”).
Thus, the statement in the settlement letter that “[b]y cashing either or both of these two checks your client is accepting these funds as resolution of any and all overtime issues” in unenforceable as to plaintiff’s claim for attorney’s fees under the FLSA. Plaintiff has not waived his right to attorney’s fees under the Act. We grant summary judgment in favor of plaintiff on Count 12.”
Click McBurnie v. City of Prescott to read the entire opinion.