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7th Cir.: Named-Plaintiffs Who Settled Their Individual Claims Following Decertification Retained Standing to Appeal Decertification Based on Possibility of Incentive Awards
Espenscheid v. DirectSat USA, LLC
This case presented the relatively novel issue of whether the named-plaintiffs in a decertified class/collective action retain standing to appeal decertification once they have settled their individual claims. Noting that it was a case of first impression, the Seventh Circuit held that individual employees had sufficient interest for standing to appeal decertification, in large part because they retained a financial stake inasmuch as the stood to receive incentive awards if the class/collective action was ultimately successful.
Briefly discussing the relevant procedural history and facts the court explained:
The district judge certified several classes but later decertified all of them, leaving the case to proceed as individual lawsuits by the three plaintiffs, who then settled, and the suits were dismissed. The settlement reserved the plaintiffs’ right to appeal the decertification, however, and they appealed. The defendants then moved to dismiss the appeal on the ground that the plaintiffs had suffered no injury as a result of the denial of certification and so the federal judiciary has lost jurisdiction of the case.
The court distinguished the case from one in which the defendant seeks to moot or “pick off” a class/collective by making an offer of judgment that exceeds the named-plaintiff’s damages and reasoned that the named-plaintiffs retained standing by virtue of prospective incentive awards, if the case were to proceed as a class/collective rather than individual basis:
One might think that because the plaintiffs settled, the only possible injury from denial of certification would be to the unnamed members of the proposed classes; and if therefore the plaintiffs have no stake in the continuation of the suit, they indeed lack standing to appeal from the denial of certification. Premium Plus Partners, L.P. v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 648 F.3d 533, 534–38 (7th Cir.2011); Pettrey v. Enterprise Title Agency, Inc., 584 F.3d 701, 705–07 (6th Cir.2009). This is not a case in which a defendant manufactures mootness in order to prevent a class action from going forward, as by making an offer of judgment that exceeds any plausible estimate of the harm to the named plaintiffs and so extinguishes their stake in the litigation. As we explained in Primax Recoveries, Inc. v. Sevilla, 324 F.3d 544, 546–47 (7th Cir.2003) (citations omitted), “the mooting of the named plaintiff’s claim in a class action by the defendant’s satisfying the claim does not moot the action so long as the case has been certified as a class action, or … so long as a motion for class certification has been made and not ruled on, unless … the movant has been dilatory. Otherwise the defendant could delay the action indefinitely by paying off each class representative in succession.”
But the plaintiffs point us to a provision of the settlement agreement which states that they’re seeking an incentive reward (also known as an “enhancement fee”) for their services as the class representatives. In re Synthroid Marketing Litigation, 264 F.3d 712, 722 (7th Cir.2001); In re Continental Illinois Securities Litigation, 962 F.2d 566, 571–72 (7th Cir.1992); In re United States Bancorp Litigation, 291 F.3d 1035, 1038 (8th Cir.2002); 2 Joseph M. McLaughlin, McLaughlin on Class Actions § 6:27, pp. 137–42 (6th ed.2010). The reward is contingent on certification of the class, and the plaintiffs argue that the prospect of such an award gives them a tangible financial stake in getting the denial of class certification revoked and so entitles them to appeal that denial.
After an extensive discussion of incentive payments to class representatives, the Seventh Circuit adopted the plaintiffs reasoning. Additionally the court noted that judicial economies could never be preserved if the named-plaintiffs forfeited standing when they settled their individual claims, because another named-plaintiff would simply come forward and start the entire process anew, the court held that the named-plaintiffs here retained their standing to pursue class/collective issues, notwithstanding the settlement of their individual claims. Thus, the court denied the defendants motion to dismiss.
Click Espenscheid v. DirectSat USA, LLC to read the entire Order denying Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.
5th Cir.: Where Employees Were Represented in Grievance Process By Their Union and Its Attorneys, Private Settlement of a Bona Fide Dispute Enforceable
Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C.
Following the entry of summary judgment on behalf of the defendants, the plaintiffs appealed. As discussed here, plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s holding that the private settlement reached between their union and one of their alleged employers was binding and enforceable. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that absent: (1) court approval, (2) DOL supervision, or (3) a showing that they had been paid their wages in full without compromise, the settlement previously reached was not binding and/or enforceable. Affirming the decision below, the Fifth Circuit held that the settlement agreement was binding and enforceable notwithstanding the lack of court or DOL supervision, because it was a resolution of a bona fide dispute. While it is not entirely clear, it appears that the Fifth Circuit reasoned that the agreement, at least arguably could be said to be “without compromise,” thus making it binding and enforceable.
The case concerned grips and other movie production employees who worked on the set of a movie. Laying out the relevant procedural/factual background, the Fifth Circuit explained:
The plaintiffs “filed a grievance against Spring Break Louisiana alleging that they had not been paid wages for work they performed. The Union sent a representative to investigate the merits of the claims. After his investigation, the representative concluded that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they alleged they had worked. The Union and Spring Break Louisiana entered into a Settlement Agreement pertaining to the disputed hours allegedly worked by Appellants.”
Discussing the issue of whether the private settlement here was binding and enforceable the Fifth Circuit reasoned:
The district court concluded that the plain language of the Settlement Agreement “is binding upon the [Appellants] in their individual capacities and prohibits those individuals from pursuing future legal action against Spring Break Louisiana after receiving their settlement payments.” We agree. The Settlement Agreement, in relevant part, states:
The Union on its own behalf and on behalf of the IATSE Employees agrees and acknowledges that the Union has not and will not file any complaints, charges or other proceedings against Producer, its successors, licenses and/or assignees, with any agency, court, administrative body, or in any forum, on condition that payment in full is made pursuant to the terms of this Settlement Agreement.
The Settlement Agreement also states that the Union “has the full power and authority to enter into this Settlement Agreement on behalf of IATSE Employees and bind them in accordance with the terms hereof.” By this plain language, the Appellants, who were IATSE Employees, were bound by its terms. Appellants contend, however, that the Settlement Agreement is unenforceable because they never signed it or agreed to it—instead, the Settlement Agreement was signed by Union representatives. However, Appellants do not dispute that they received full payment for their claims pursuant the terms of the Settlement Agreement. Nor do Appellants dispute that they cashed the Settlement Agreement payment checks they received. The Appellants were members of the Union and, under the CBA, Spring Break Louisiana recognized “the Union as exclusive representative of the employees in the bargaining unit.” Considering that Appellants, who were members of the Union, received and accepted full payment for their FLSA claims under the Settlement Agreement, the fact that Appellants did not themselves personally sign the Settlement Agreement does not render it unenforceable. See N.L.R.B. v. Allis–Chalmers Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 175, 180, 87 S.Ct. 2001, 18 L.Ed.2d 1123 (1967) (“The employee may disagree with many of the union decisions but is bound by them.”).
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the settlement agreement was not binding and enforceable, because generally individuals may not privately settle FLSA claims. In response the defendants argued that that a private compromise of claims under the FLSA is permissible where there exists a bona fide dispute as to liability (and as to the amount of appropriate damages). After a discussion of the relevant Fifth Circuit precedent, the court agreed with the Defendants and held the settlement agreement at issue to be enforceable.
Significantly the court reasoned:
[H]ere, there is a bona fide dispute between Appellants and Spring Break Louisiana over the number of hours for which they are owed their set rate of pay. In fact, the Union representative conducted an investigation into the dispute and received conflicting information from various sources, ultimately concluding that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they claimed they had worked in their grievance. Approving of this rationale, we hold that the payment offered to and accepted by Appellants, pursuant to the Settlement Agreement, is an enforceable resolution of those FLSA claims predicated on a bona fide dispute about time worked and not as a compromise of guaranteed FLSA substantive rights themselves. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 714, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (“Our decision … has not necessitated a determination of what limitation, if any, Section 16(b) of the [FLSA] places on the validity of agreements between an employer and employee to settle claims arising under the Act if the settlement is made as the result of a bona fide dispute between the two parties, in consideration of a bona fide compromise and settlement.”); see also D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114–15, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946) (“Nor do we need to consider here the possibility of compromises in other situation which may arise, such as a dispute over the number of hours worked or the regular rate of employment.”); 29 U.S.C. § 253(a).
Apparently the court also believed that the settlement at issue here could arguably be said to be “without compromise” such that the third permissible basis for an enforceable private settlement was met:
Notably, in Thomas v. Louisiana, 534 F.2d 613 (5th Cir.1976), we held that a private settlement of FLSA claims was binding and enforceable where the settlement gave employees “everything to which they are entitled under the FLSA at the time the agreement is reached.” Id. at 615. We explained that, “[a]lthough no court ever approved this settlement agreement, the same reason for enforcing a court-approved agreement i.e., little danger of employees being disadvantaged by unequal bargaining power[,] applies here.” Id. Here, Spring Break Louisiana and the Union agreed in the Settlement Agreement that the payments Appellants were paid pursuant to that agreement were the “amounts due and owing” for the disputed number of hours they claimed they had worked and not been paid for. The Settlement Agreement was a way to resolve a bona fide dispute as to the number of hours worked—not the rate at which Appellants would be paid for those hours—and though Appellants contend they are yet not satisfied, they received agreed-upon compensation for the disputed number of hours worked.
Lastly, the court distinguished a settlement privately negotiated by a union and its attorneys from a situation where a labor union purports to waive an employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, a longstanding no-no under well-established FLSA jurisprudence:
Finally, Appellants contend, citing Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981), that because the Supreme Court has held that a union cannot waive employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, they cannot have settled their FLSA claims in the Settlement Agreement, which was arrived at through the Union-facilitated grievance procedure laid out in the CBA. See Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“FLSA rights … are independent of the collective-bargaining process. They devolve on petitioners as individual workers, not as members of a collective organization. They are not waivable.”). Although the terms and conditions of Appellants’ employment with Spring Break Louisiana were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, Barrentine is distinguishable. In Barrentine, the plaintiffs’ grievances based on rights under the FLSA were submitted by the union to a joint grievance committee that rejected them without explanation, a final and binding decision pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. 450 U.S. at 731, 101 S.Ct. 1437. Here, Appellants accepted and cashed settlement payments—Appellants’ FLSA rights were adhered to and addressed through the Settlement Agreement, not waived or bargained away. The concerns the Court in Barrentine expressed, that FLSA substantive rights would be bargained away, see id. at 740, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“This Court’s decisions interpreting the FLSA have frequently emphasized the nonwaivable nature of an individual employee’s right to a minimum wage and to overtime pay under the Act. Thus, we have held that FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived because this would ‘nullify the purposes’ of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.”), are not implicated by the situation here where Appellants’ Union did not waive FLSA claims, but instead Appellants, with counsel, personally received and accepted compensation for the disputed hours. We reiterate that FLSA substantive rights may not be waived in the collective bargaining process, however, here, FLSA rights were not waived, but instead, validated through a settlement of a bona fide dispute, which Appellants accepted and were compensated for. Therefore, the district court did not err by finding an enforceable release resolving this wage dispute.
Given, the somewhat unique facts of this case, it remains to be seen whether the Fifth Circuit’s decision while trigger a change in longstanding FLSA jurisprudence regarding the enforceability of privately-negotiated settlements, or whether this case will remain an outlier, largely limited to its facts. For example, it is not clear whether the settlement would have been enforced absent the fact that plaintiffs were represented by both their union and attorneys in the negotiations, or if this was a “straight time” case where there was demonstrative evidence of the precise number of hours at issue. Stay tuned, for what’s likely to be an influx of cases where defendant-employers seek to expand this case’s holding while plaintiff-employees seek to limit the holding to the facts at bar (which are not likely to be oft-repeated).
Click Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C. to read the entire Decision. For an excellent historical overview of more typical decisions regarding the enforceability of private settlements of FLSA claims click here to read an outline from the folks at Outten & Golden.
Brooke v. Administrative Maintenance Services, LLC
Generally, we post cases here that feature issues that are likely to come up in other cases. Other times we post cases simply because they involve interesting fact patterns or scenarios. This case falls in the latter category. Here, the case was before the court on the parties’ joint motion to approve their settlement. However, this was no ordinary settlement. Instead, based on concerns pertaining to plaintiff’s credibility, regarding the number of improperly compensated overtime hours claimed by plaintiff, and the defendants’ assertions that they were due various offsets based on unrelated transactions between the parties, the parties entered into a unique settlement agreement, following mediation.
In order to resolve the various issues, largely involving the credibility of the parties, the parties agreed that the plaintiff would submit to a lie detector case, the results of which would dictate what, if any, amounts of damages plaintiff would recover under the settlement.
As described by the court:
“The parties… agreed that Mr. Brooke will be asked, in a format crafted by the operator of the lie detector, whether he worked five, ten, and, finally, fifteen hours per week, on average, of overtime. If the operator concludes Mr. Brooke worked no overtime, Mr. Brooke will dismiss his case and reimburse the Defendants one-half of the lie detector administrator’s fee to the Defendants. If the operator concludes Mr. Brooke did work overtime in the brackets described above, he will be paid the greatest number of average weekly overtime he credibly answers about, per week, times $12.00 (one-half his base rate of $12.00 per hour and an equal amount in liquidated damages), times the eighty one weeks he was employed by the Defendants. If the result is inconclusive, the Defendants will pay a total of $10,000.00, including fees and costs.”
While the court noted the settlement might be fair, depending on the amounts ultimately payable to plaintiff under the agreement, the court declined to approve the settlement citing the contingency nature of the settlement and the fact that it was unclear how much plaintiff would receive. The court reasoned:
“The Court does not quarrel with the parties’ contention that this approach is quicker and cheaper than a jury. The same can be said, however, as dueling and coin flips. The standard is not whether a resolution is quick and cheap, but whether it is fair and reasonable. There is no showing here that conditioning an award based on the ability to pass a lie detector test is either of those things.
To be clear, the Court is not finding that settlement in the amounts suggested would not be fair. If the parties had presented an agreement for Defendant to pay $10,000, for example, the Court could evaluate that sum in view of all of the pertinent considerations supporting a settlement, and could issue a recommendation on same. As long as there was an agreement as to an amount rationally related to the claim, and the Court found the settlement to be voluntary and objectively fair and reasonable, it would not matter if the actual numbers were reached via lie detector test, rock-paper-scissors, or drawing straws. Here, however, the parties are not asking the Court to approve a settlement—they are asking the Court to approve a method of reaching a settlement. This is beyond the scope of the fairness finding duties set forth in Lynn’s Food.
For these reasons, it is respectfully recommended that the Court deny the motion, without prejudice to renewal, if appropriate, upon clarification of the status of the corporate Defendants and upon a presentation of terms that are consistent with the principles discussed herein.”
Click Brooke v. Administrative Maintenance Services, LLC to read the entire Report and Recommendation, which was ultimately adopted in full by the presiding District Court Judge.
S.D.N.Y.: Court Refuses To Allow “Settlement” That Grossly Undervalued FLSA Claims To Serve As Basis For Summary Judgment
Latacela v. Cohen
This case involved an action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., for unpaid minimum wages and unpaid overtime wages. The case was before the court on defendants motion for summary judgment and for judicial approval of a settlement allegedly reached by the parties. The plaintiff opposed the defendants’ motion on the basis that he had withdrawn support for the settlement because the sum certain agreed to by the parties was based on faulty calculations by the plaintiff. Plaintiff asserted that he had mistakenly calculated that he was owed $1,415.82 in unpaid minimum wages, rather than $14,170. This miscalculation also affected the amount the plaintiff claimed in liquidated damages, since employees are entitled to liquidated damages (in addition to back wages) equal to the amount of unpaid wages. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).
Denying the defendants’ motion, the court reasoned:
” ‘There are only two ways in which back wage claims arising under the FLSA can be settled or compromised by employees. First, under [29 U.S.C. § 216(c) ], the Secretary of Labor is authorized to supervise payment to employees of unpaid wages owed to them. Second [sic] when employees bring a private action for back wages under the FLSA, and present to the district court a proposed settlement, the district court may enter a stipulated judgment after scrutinizing the settlement for fairness.’ Manning v. New York Univ., 2001 WL 963982 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 22, 2001). Even assuming that the agreement defendant presses the Court to approve remains valid, the Court is not satisfied that it is fair. Under the agreement, the plaintiff would receive approximately $28,000 less than the amount he claims he is owed not for strategic reasons, but rather because plaintiff’s counsel made an arithmetical error. Cf. Elliot v. Allstate Investigations, Inc., 2008 WL 728648, at *2 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 19, 2008) (approving settlement of less than half the amount plaintiff claims he was owed under the FLSA when the plaintiff could not support his claims through documentary evidence and the defendant could not pay more than the amount agreed to).
Accordingly, defendant’s motion for summary judgment is DENIED.”
Click Latacela v. Cohen to read the entire opinion.
Today’s Boston Globe reports that:
“Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and other CareGroup Inc. affiliates have agreed to settle a class-action lawsuit against the hospital chain that alleges workers were not paid for working through lunch breaks or beyond their scheduled shifts. The settlement, if given court approval, will cover as many as 9,000 current and former CareGroup employees.
CareGroup Inc. and its affiliates — Beth Israel, Beth Israel Deaconess-Needham, Mount Auburn Hospital, and New England Baptist Hospital — will pay up to $8.5 million. The settlement will include payments to cover back wages. CareGroup and its affiliates deny any wrongdoing.”
To read the entire story, click here.
M.D.Fla.: Approval Of Confidential Settlement In FLSA Case Rejected; Confidentiality Frustrates Remedial Purposes Of The FLSA
Dees v. Hydradry, Inc.
This case was before the Court on the parties’ Joint Stipulation of Dismissal. Although, the Court noted that, “a private settlement and stipulation for dismissal ends the typical case without judicial intervention, the Eleventh Circuit requires the district court to review the settlement of an FLSA claim. See Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350 (11th Cir.1982).”
As part of a lengthy discussion of the remedial purposes behind the FLSA, the history of the FLSA and the applicable case law regarding waiver and settlements, and the role of the Court in the settlement process, the Court reasoned that no such resolutions of FLSA cases should involve confidentiality provisions, because such provisions contravene the public policy behind the FLSA’s implementation.
“ii. A Confidentiality Provision Contravenes FLSA Policy
Because of worry that settling with one employee will encourage other employees to assert FLSA rights, the employer may seek to maintain the confidentiality of the settlement agreement. But a confidentiality provision furthers resolution of no bona fide dispute between the parties; rather, compelled silence unreasonably frustrates implementation of the “private-public” rights granted by the FLSA and thwarts Congress’s intent to ensure widespread compliance with the statute. To further Congress’s intent, the Department of Labor requires the employer of an employee covered by the FLSA to display conspicuously in the workplace a detailed notice of the employee’s FLSA rights. By including a confidentiality provision, the employer thwarts the informational objective of the notice requirement by silencing the employee who has vindicated a disputed FLSA right.
Furthermore, Section 15(a)(3) of the FLSA proscribes an employer’s retaliating against an employee for asserting rights under the FLSA. If an employee covered by a confidentiality agreement discusses the FLSA with fellow employees or otherwise asserts FLSA rights, the employer might sue the employee for breach of contract. The employer’s most proximate damages from the employee’s breach are the unpaid FLSA wages due other employees who learned of their FLSA rights from the employee who breached the confidentiality agreement. A confidentiality agreement, if enforced, (1) empowers an employer to retaliate against an employee for exercising FLSA rights, (2) effects a judicial confiscation of the employee’s right to be free from retaliation for asserting FLSA rights, and (3) transfers to the wronged employee a duty to pay his fellow employees for the FLSA wages unlawfully withheld by the employer. This unseemly prospect vividly displays the inherent impropriety of a confidentiality agreement in settlement of an FLSA dispute.
A confidentiality provision in an FLSA settlement agreement both contravenes the legislative purpose of the FLSA and undermines the Department of Labor’s regulatory effort to notify employees of their FLSA rights. “The statute was a recognition of the fact that due to the unequal bargaining power as between employer and employee, certain segments of the population required federal compulsory legislation to prevent private contracts on their part which endangered the national health and efficiency and as a result the free movement of goods in interstate commerce.” Brooklyn Savings Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706-07 (1945). The district court should reject as unreasonable a compromise that contains a confidentiality provision, which is unenforceable and operates in contravention of the FLSA.”
Later in the opinion the Court discussed the issue of confidentiality in greater detail, reasoning that beyond evaluating a settlement for “reasonableness,” the Court has other functions when reviewing FLSA settlements, specifically to ensure that such settlements and records of same are available for public review:
“B. External Factors: Does the Compromise, Although Reasonable, Otherwise Frustrate Implementation of the FLSA
In evaluating a compromise, the district court should also consider an array of “external” or contextual factors pertinent to the statutory purpose of the FLSA. Compromise of a retrospective dispute may be permissible if, for example, the FLSA issue in a case is unresolvably close on the facts or the law or some extraordinary circumstance (say, a suddenly disabled claimant or an employer in liquidation) commends a speedy or certain resolution. On the other hand, several factors may commend rejecting a proposed compromise, including the presence of other employees situated similarly to the claimant, a likelihood that the claimant’s circumstance will recur, a history of FLSA non-compliance by the same employer or others in the same industry or geographic region, or the requirement for a mature record and a pointed determination of the governing factual or legal issue to further the development of the law either in general or in an industry or in a workplace. In all instances, the district court should faithfully execute the congressional mandate for “minimum wages, promptly paid … for the lowest paid segment of the nation’s workers.” D.A. Schulte v. Gangi, 328 U .S. 108, 116 (1946).
IV. The Effect of Judicial Review: “Confidential” FLSA Settlement Agreements and Public Access to Court Records
“Parties who settle a legal dispute rather than pressing it to resolution by the court often do so, in part anyway, because they do not want the terms of the resolution to be made public.” Jessup v. Luther, 277 F.3d 926, 928 (7th Cir.2002). See generally Laurie Kratzky Dore, Secrecy by Consent: The Use and Limits of Confidentiality in the Pursuit of Settlement, 74 Notre Dame L.Rev. 283 (1999). In an FLSA action, the employer worries that compromise with an employee who has vindicated a valuable FLSA right will inform and encourage other employees, who will vindicate their FLSA rights (or who will wrongly, but expensively for the employer, conclude that additional wages are due). Although perhaps both uncomfortable and expensive to an employer, vindication of FLSA rights throughout the workplace is precisely the object Congress chose to preserve and foster through the FLSA.
In the typical settled case, the district judge remains unaware of the terms of compromise, and the parties enforce the settlement agreement, if necessary, only through a separate action. The parties maintain the confidentiality of their compromise by submitting a stipulation for dismissal under Rule 41, Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. In an FLSA case, however, Lynn’s Food requires the parties to obtain judicial approval of the compromise. Forced to submit the agreement to the court after filing a motion for approval, the parties often seek to preserve the confidentiality of the compromise either by moving to submit the agreement under seal or by requesting an “in camera review” of the agreement.
In the typical FLSA case, however, neither attempt to conceal the compromise comports with the public’s right of access to a judicial proceeding, which right is “an essential component of our system of justice [and] instrumental in securing the integrity of the process.” Chicago Tribune Co. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 263 F.3d 1304, 1311 (11th Cir.2001). The judge’s “approving” a settlement constitutes a “public act,” and the public “has an interest in knowing what terms of settlement a federal judge would approve.” Jessup, 277 F.3d at 929. As an active component of the judge’s decision, the settlement agreement is presumptively a public record. See Brown v. Advantage Eng’g, Inc., 960 F.2d 1013, 1016 (11th Cir.1992) (“Once a matter is brought before a court for resolution, it is no longer solely the parties’ case, but also the public’s case.”); Bank of Am. Nat’l Trust & Sav. Ass’n v. Hotel Rittenhouse Assocs., 800 F.2d 339, 343 (3d Cir.1986) (“[T]he common law presumption of access applies to motions filed in court proceedings and to the settlement agreement … filed and submitted to the district court for approval.”). The public enjoys the right both to attend a trial or hearing and to inspect and copy a judicial record.
The presumption that the record of a judicial proceeding remains public “is surely most strong when the ‘right at issue is of a ‘private-public character,’ as the Supreme Court has described employee rights under the FLSA.” Stalnaker, 293 F.Supp.2d at 1264 (quoting Brooklyn Savings Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 708 (1945)). Sealing an FLSA settlement agreement between an employer and employee, reviewing the agreement in camera, or reviewing the agreement at a hearing without the agreement’s appearing in the record (in any event precluding other employees’ and the public’s access to, and knowledge of, the agreement) thwarts Congress’s intent both to advance employees’ awareness of their FLSA rights and to ensure pervasive implementation of the FLSA in the workplace.
Furthermore, before sealing a document, the district court must identify and articulate “an overriding interest based on findings that [a seal] is essential to preserve higher values and is narrowly tailored to serve that interest. The interest is to be articulated along with findings specific enough that a reviewing court can determine whether the [sealing] order was properly entered.” Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California, 464 U.S. 501, 510 (1984). Preventing the employee’s co-workers or the public from discovering the existence or value of their FLSA rights is an objective unworthy of implementation by a judicial seal, which is warranted only under “extraordinary circumstances” typically absent in an FLSA case. Absent an “overriding interest” in the preservation of some “higher value,” the court should not abide the parties’ request for a seal
The parties’ stipulation to seal the agreement (and the absence of a third-party objection to sealing the compromise agreement) fails to justify a seal. In Citizens First National Bank of Princeton v. Cincinnati Insurance Co., 178 F.3d 943, 944-45 (7th Cir.1999), Judge Posner states:
The parties to a lawsuit are not the only people who have a legitimate interest in the record compiled in a legal proceeding…. [T]he public at large pays for the courts and therefore has an interest in what goes on at all stages of a judicial proceeding. That interest does not always trump the property and privacy interests of the litigants, but it can be overridden only if the latter interests predominate in the particular case, that is, only if there is good cause for sealing a part or the whole of the record in that case. The determination of good cause cannot be elided by allowing the parties to seal whatever they want, for then the interest in publicity will go unprotected unless the media are interested in the case and move to unseal. The judge is the primary representative of the public interest in the judicial process and is duty-bound therefore to review any request to seal the record (or part of it). He may not rubber stamp a stipulation to seal the record. See also Wilson v. American Motors Corp., 759 F.2d 1568, 1571 (11th Cir.1985) (“[I]t is the rights of the public, an absent third party, which are preserved by prohibiting closure of public records….”).
Reviewing an FLSA settlement agreement under seal conflicts with the public’s access to judicial records, frustrates appellate review of a judge’s decision to approve (or reject) an FLSA compromise, contravenes congressional policy encouraging widespread compliance with the FLSA, and furthers no judicially cognizable interest of the parties. A proper consideration of the intent of Congress and the public’s interest in judicial transparency permits only one method to obtain judicial review of a compromise of an FLSA claim. The parties must file the settlement agreement in the public docket. See Stalnaker, 293 F.Supp. at 1262-64; see also Hanson v. Wells Fargo Bank, No. 08-80182-CIV, 2009 WL 1490582 (S.D.Fla. May 26, 2009) (requiring the parties to submit an unsealed copy of their settlement agreement).
To ensure that “all our able-bodied working men and women [receive] a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” the FLSA requires a covered employer to pay each employee a minimum wage and overtime. To combat the typically unequal bargaining power between employer and employee, Congress prohibits a private agreement altering FLSA rights. An employee entitled to FLSA wages may compromise his claim only under the supervision of either the Department of Labor or the district court.
If presented in an FLSA action with a notice of settlement, a stipulation for dismissal, an offer of judgment, or the like, the judicial approval required by Lynn’s Food and the public’s right of access to a judicial proceeding compel the parties to file their agreement in the public docket of the district court. As an initial matter, the district court must determine whether the employee purports to compromise an FLSA right. If judicial scrutiny confirms that the parties’ settlement involves no compromise, the district court should approve the settlement and dismiss the case (if the employer has paid) or enter judgment for the employee (if the employer has not paid). If the parties’ proposed resolution requires the employee to compromise an FLSA right, the district court must scrutinize the compromise for “fairness.”
An employee’s right to a minimum wage and overtime is unconditional, and the district court should countenance the creation of no condition, whether confidentiality or any other construct, that offends the purpose of the FLSA. An employer is obligated unconditionally to pay a minimum wage and overtime to the complainant and his fellow employees; the district court should not become complicit in any scheme or mechanism designed to confine or frustrate every employee’s knowledge and realization of FLSA rights. Accordingly, the district court evaluating an FLSA compromise should examine first the “internal” fairness of the compromise, including the existence of a bona fide dispute and the absence of a prospective waiver, confidentiality agreement, or other provision antithetical to the FLSA. If the proposed compromise is fair and reasonable to the employee, the court should consider whether any other external factor, such as the need to resolve definitively an issue affecting similarly situated employees, recommends rejecting the compromise. If the compromise is fair and reasonable to the employee and furthers the implementation of FLSA rights in the workplace, the court should approve the compromise.
For the reasons stated in this order, the parties’ stipulation of dismissal is rejected.”
Needless to say, it will be interesting to see if other court’s follow the Court’s reasoning.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Less than a week after this opinion, Judge Merryday, who authored the opinion, went a step further in another case, holding that settlement agreements in FLSA cases that prohibit an employee from disparaging his or her employer are equally inappropriate. See McGowan v. CSPS Hotel, Inc., 8:09-cv-02311-SDM-MAP (M.D.Fla. Apr.29, 2010).
W.D.Mich.: FLSA Permits Successful Plaintiff To Recover Costs Which Are ‘Normally Charged To A Fee-paying Client’ In Addition To Those Enumerated In § 1920
Carlson v. Leprino Foods Co.
This case was before the Court on both parties’ objections to the Report and Recommendation (R&R) issued by the Magistrate Judge regarding an award of fees and costs following the settlement of a collective action. Of note, the Plaintiffs objected to the R&R issued by the Magistrate Judge, because the Magistrate cut over $2,000 in miscellaneous costs Plaintiffs requested. The Court extensively discussed the award of the attorneys fees to the prevailing Plaintiffs and, as discussed here, reinstated the miscellaneous costs, opining that a prevailing Plaintiff in an FLSA case is entitled to recover those types of costs ‘normally charged to a fee-paying client,’ in addition to those enumerated in § 1920.
Specifically, discussing the award of costs, the Court reasoned:
“Finally, Plaintiffs object that the Magistrate Judge should not have deducted $2,343.45 in miscellaneous expenses from the total award of costs. (Pls.’ Objections to Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Judge, docket # 221, at 8.) The Court agrees. The Report and Recommendation states that Plaintiffs failed to describe these miscellaneous expenses with particularity and that the expenses therefore are not recoverable. (Report and Recommendation, docket # 219, at 12.) However, Plaintiffs described the expenses with particularity in Exhibit 2 of their original fee petition. (Br. in Support of Mot. for Attorneys’ Fees and Costs, docket # 196, Ex. 2.) The miscellaneous expenses identified include, without limitation, costs for travel, supplies, web maintenance, translations, and telephone service. (Id.) These are the sort of costs which are “normally charged to a fee-paying client.” See, e.g., Renfro v. Indiana Mich. Power Co., 2007 WL 710138 at *1 (W.D.Mich., Mar.6, 2007) (overruled on other grounds, 497 F.3d 573 (6th Cir.2007) (citations omitted)); Communities for Equity v. Mich. High School Athletic Ass’n, 2008 WL 906031 at *22-23 (W.D.Mich., Mar.31, 2008). The total award for costs to Plaintiffs should include the $2,343.45 for miscellaneous expenses.”
Cintas Corp. To Pay $6.5 Million To Settle Case That Alleged It Violated L.A. ‘Living Wage’ Ordinance, L.A. Times Reports
The L.A. Times is reporting that industrial laundry company, Cintas Corp., has settled a longstanding lawsuit that alleged it violated a Los Angeles municipal ordinance pertaining to ‘living wages.’
According to the report, Cintas “[a] major firm providing laundry services to business and governments nationwide has agreed to pay $6.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by hundreds of Southern California laundry workers who alleged the company violated Los Angeles’ “living wage” laws.
Cintas Corp., which operates industrial laundries and other facilities in the United States and Canada, denied any wrongdoing but agreed to settle the 5 -year-old case “in order to avoid the additional expense and distraction of ongoing litigation,” the Cincinnati-based company said in a statement.
Labor leaders who helped file the complaint said it was believed to be the largest monetary amount ever paid for alleged violations of living wage ordinances, which set salary and benefit standards for contractors and other firms engaged in government business.
The settlement provides $3.3 million in back wages and interest for more than 500 laundry employees who worked at Cintas facilities in Ontario, Pico Rivera and Whittier, according to Workers United/Service Employees International Union, which assisted in the lawsuit. The remainder of the $6.5 million goes to penalties and legal fees arising from the case.”
A copy of the entire story can be obtained from the L.A. Times website.
S.D.N.Y.: Notwithstanding Defendants’ Disclaimer Of Liability, FLSA Plaintiffs That Accepted OJ Are “Prevailing Party”; Entitled To Reasonable Attorneys’ Fees And Costs
Kahlil v. Original Old Homestead Restaurant, Inc.
Plaintiffs moved for attorneys’ fees and costs following their acceptance of Defendants’ offer of judgment. The Defendants argued there was no fee entitlement, because their offer contained a disclaimer of liability. Rejecting this argument, the Court awarded Plaintiffs’ attorneys reasonable attorneys fees and costs.
The Court highlighted the following procedural history:
“Plaintiffs Sayed Kahlil, Wayne Walker, Mohamed Elmahdy and Brian Lahoff were employed as waiters at defendant The Original Old Homestead Restaurant. On January 30, 2007, plaintiffs filed a complaint to resolve wage and hour disputes arising under section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) and section 198 of the New York State Labor Law (“NYLL”). 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2008); N.Y. Lab. Law § 198 (McKinney 2009). Plaintiffs were represented in this matter by Louis Pechman, a partner at Berke-Weiss & Pechman LLP (“BWP”), and Jaime Duguay, an associate at the same firm. On April 29, 2008, mid-way through the discovery process, defendants submitted an offer of judgment in the amount of $36,000, exclusive of attorneys’ fees, pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiffs accepted the offer of judgment on May 8, 2008, and judgment was entered by the Clerk on May 30, 2008. On June 13, 2008, plaintiffs filed a Motion for Attorneys’ Fees and Costs, pursuant to FLSA § 216(b) and NYLL § 198. Plaintiffs seek $119,737.15 to compensate Pechman and Duguay for labor and costs incurred up to the filing of the motion. Defendants oppose the award of attorneys’ fees and costs on the grounds that plaintiffs did not prevail in the foregoing litigation. In the alternative, defendants contend that the requested fee award should be reduced in light of Pechman’s excessively high hourly rate, the limited nature of plaintiffs’ success, the vagueness of BWP’s time entries, BWP’s small size, excessive hours, billing of clerical tasks at attorney rates, and billing of work completed prior to the filing of the complaint.”
The Court then determined that Plaintiffs were the “prevailing party” as defined by the FLSA:
In an action pursuant to the FLSA, a “prevailing party” must be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs: “The Court in such action shall … 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). Likewise, the NYLL requires that “[i]n any action … in which the employee prevails, the court shall allow such employee reasonable attorney’s fees ….“ § 198(1-a) (emphasis added).
Plaintiffs are the prevailing party for the purposes of the FLSA and NYLL “if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir.1978)). Likewise, to qualify as a prevailing party, a plaintiff must demonstrate a change in the legal relationship between itself and the defendant arising from the resolution of the lawsuit. Texas State Teachers Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989).
The judgment in this case suffices to establish plaintiffs as the prevailing party under the FLSA and NYLL. Where, as here, plaintiffs obtained a favorable settlement, they are entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees: “[t]he fact that [plaintiff] prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not weaken [plaintiff’s] claim to fees.” Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129 (1980). Defendants contend that the settlement is insufficient to render plaintiffs the prevailing party because the complaint sought monetary, declaratory, and equitable relief, while the offer of judgment provided only monetary relief. The Court finds defendants’ argument unpersuasive. Plaintiffs surely obtained some of the relief sought, and no court in this circuit has indicated that relief obtained in settlement must exactly match relief sought in the complaint. See Lyte v. Sara Lee Corp., 950 F.2d. 101, 104 (2d Cir.1991) (holding that a plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party if the relief obtained through settlement is of the “same general type” as relief requested in the complaint); Koster v. Perales, 903 F.2d 131, 134 (2d Cir.1990) (“A plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party even though the relief ultimately obtained is not identical to the relief demanded in the complaint”); Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 791-92 (indicating that a plaintiff’s receipt of some of the benefit sought is enough to “cross the threshold to a fee award of some kind”).
The Court also finds unpersuasive defendants’ argument that the disclaimer of liability in the offer of judgment indicates that the settlement did not change the legal relationship between the parties, and therefore that plaintiffs are not the prevailing party. It is not necessary for a defendant to admit liability in order for a plaintiff to be designated as the prevailing party. In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court indicated that a consent judgment without an admission of liability by the defendant “[is] nonetheless … a court-ordered ‘chang[e][in] the legal relationship between [the plaintiff] and the defendant.’ “ 532 U.S. at 604, citing Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 792. Further, the Supreme Court in Maher v. Gagne upheld an award of attorneys’ fees based on a settlement agreement containing a disclaimer of liability similar to the one in defendants’ offer of judgment. See 448 U.S. at 126 n. 8. The Court therefore finds that plaintiffs are the prevailing party, and that they are entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA and NYLL.”
Thus, the Court calculated a reasonable attorneys fee and costs and awarded same to Plaintiffs’ counsel.
E.D.Cal.: Settlement Of Rule 23 And 216(b) Class Hybrid Action Requires Simultaneous Notice; Opt-out Notice Alone Insufficient To Bind Class On FLSA Claims
Wright v. Linkus Enterprises, Inc.
Plaintiffs filed this action against Defendant for violation of various state and federal labor laws. Before the Court was Plaintiffs’ Unopposed Motion for Preliminary Approval of Settlement of their hybrid action, which consisted of both a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23(b)(3) class action and a Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), collective action. Though the Motion was essentially unopposed, the parties did disagree as to one issue pertaining to release of claims by currently absent parties, regarding notice required to the class members (Defendant proposed an opt-out Rule 23 notice alone). The Court resolved that dispute by ordering that the parties’ existing agreement and forms be modified to provide both “opt-out” procedures as allowed under Rule 23 and “opt-in” procedures as required by the FLSA.
Explaining that opt-in notice as well as opt-out notice must be provided to class members in such a hybrid action, the Court stated, “According to Defendants, the Rule 23 opt-out procedures, under which potential plaintiffs are bound by the terms of the settlement unless they affirmatively opt out, should apply to both the state law claims and to those claims arising under the FLSA. Plaintiffs disagree arguing that, while Rule 23 applies to their state law claims, the FLSA requires potential plaintiffs to opt-in to this action in order to release any claims they may have under the FLSA. The Court agrees with Plaintiffs.
In a collective action brought under the FLSA, “[n]o employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.”29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Congress enacted this provision for the purpose of “limiting private FLSA plaintiffs to employees who asserted claims in their own right and freeing employers of the burden of representative actions.” Hoffman-La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 173 (1989).
Conversely, a class action brought pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) mandates notice informing potential plaintiffs that they can avoid being bound by the terms of a settlement or judgment if they so inform the court. SeeFed.R.Civ.P. 23(c)(2)(B)(v). Thus, a plaintiff that does not affirmatively “opt-out” from the class may be bound by the disposition of the case, regardless of whether he received actual notice. Amchem Products, Inc. v. Windsor, 521 U.S. 591, 614-15 (1997).
In Kakani v. Oracle Corp., the Northern District examined the relationship between the two regimes and held that the use of “opt-out” notice would violate the FLSA.2007 WL 1793774, at *7 (N.D. Cal. June 19, 2007). That court stated that it would have been “unconscionable to try to take away the FLSA rights of all workers, whether or not they choose to join in affirmatively.”Id. (emphasis in original).
Defendants’ authority to the contrary is inapposite. First, Defendants cite Hoffman-La Roche Inc. for the proposition that district courts possess discretion over the procedural methods used to join multiple parties in a single case. However, Defendants interpret Hoffman-La Roche too broadly. That case merely established that district courts may authorize notification of potential plaintiffs regarding the opportunity to “opt-in” to a collective action. 493 U.S. at 169. Hoffman La Roche does not stand for the proposition that this Court may substitute Rule 23 “opt-out” notice for the “opt-in” notice expressly required by 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).
Defendants also cite two district court opinions, one in which the court stated without analysis that “opt-out” procedures would be used to settle both FLSA and state law claims, and one in which the federal court simply refused to enjoin a state court from releasing FLSA claims as part of a settlement that utilized “opt-out” notice. Frank v. Eastman Kodak Co., 228 F.R.D. 174, 179 (W.D.N.Y.2005); Dibel v. Jenny Craig, Inc., 2007 WL 2381237, at * 1 (S.D. Cal Aug. 10, 2007). This Court finds neither of these cases persuasive and now holds that “opt-in” procedures must be provided for the release of the instant FLSA claims.