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6th Cir.: Collective Action Waivers in Employees’ Separation Agreements Did Not Validly Waive Employees’ Rights to Participate in Collective Action Under FLSA, Absent Valid Arbitration Provision
Although this one is not exactly breaking news, we are discussing it because of its importance in the general landscape of FLSA jurisprudence. As discussed here, this case was before the Sixth Circuit on Plaintiffs’ appeal, regarding an issue of first impression. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit was asked to decide whether an agreement by employees to waive their rights to participate in a collective action under the FLSA can be enforceable in the absence of an agreement to arbitrate their FLSA claims. Reversing the district court, the Sixth Circuit held that such agreements are unenforceable, absent an agreement to arbitrate the claims in an alternative forum, because in such a situation there is no congressional interest that weighs against the remedial goals of the FLSA.
In this case, former employees of the Defendant brought putative collective action against their former employer to recover overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The district court determined that collective-action waiver in certain employees’ separation agreements was enforceable, despite the fact that the separation agreements contained no agreement to arbitrate their FLSA claims. The employees appealed, and the Sixth Circuit reversed.
Framing the parties’ respective positions, the Sixth Circuit explained:
This brings us to the merits regarding the validity of the unmodified collective-action waivers. The plaintiffs argue that this court’s decision in Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services, Inc., 725 F.3d 603 (6th Cir.2013), controls because it holds that an employee will not be bound by a contract entered into with his employer that has the effect of limiting his rights under the FLSA. In response, KeHE argues that cases upholding agreements that require employees to submit to arbitration on an individual basis are more on point. No court of appeals appears to have squarely addressed this issue outside of the arbitration context.
Given its recent related decision in Boaz, the Sixth Circuit began by discussing that case’s implications on the issue presented in this case:
This court’s decision in Boaz provides the relevant framework for the issue before us. In Boaz, the plaintiff-employee signed an employment agreement that contained a provision requiring her to bring any legal action against the defendant-employer within “6 months from the date of the event forming the basis of [the] lawsuit.” Id. at 605. When the plaintiff filed an FLSA lawsuit after the six-month time period had elapsed, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that her claims were untimely under the employment agreement.
This court disagreed. It first noted that “[s]hortly after the FLSA was enacted, the Supreme Court expressed concern that an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights … to minimum wages, overtime, or liquidated damages.” Id. at 605–06. The Boaz court concluded that because the waiver of the statutory-limitations period would have deprived the plaintiff of her FLSA rights, the provision was invalid. Id. at 606. It also rejected the defendant’s argument that a plaintiff may waive procedural rights under the FLSA, just not substantive ones. Id. Finally, the court distinguished cases enforcing an employee’s agreement to arbitrate his or her claims on an individual basis due to the strong federal presumption in favor of arbitration. Id. at 606–07 (distinguishing Floss v. Ryan’s Family Steak Houses Inc., 211 F.3d 306 (6th Cir.2000), on that basis).
Following its own reasoning from the Boaz decision, the Sixth Circuit concluded that normally a plaintiff’s right to participate in a collective action under 29 U.S.C. 216(b) cannot be waived:
Boaz therefore implies that a plaintiff’s right to participate in a collective action cannot normally be waived. The court clearly said that “[a]n employment agreement cannot be utilized to deprive employees of their statutory [FLSA] rights.” Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). And “Congress has stated its policy that ADEA plaintiffs [and thus FLSA plaintiffs because the statutory language is identical] should have the opportunity to proceed collectively.” Hoffmann–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). We have little reason to think that the right to participate in a collective action should be treated any differently than the right to sue within the full time period allowed by the FLSA. The concern, Boaz explained, is that “an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights under the Act.” 725 F.3d at 605.
Conscious of the body of law that has permitted collective action waivers when they are contained in agreements containing arbitration clauses, the court was careful to distinguish such cases:
We are aware, of course, that the considerations change when an arbitration clause is involved. Boaz explained that “an employee can waive his right to a judicial forum only if the alternative forum allow[s] for the effective vindication of [the employee’s] claim.” Id. at 606–07 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Arbitration, it noted, is such a forum. Id. at 606. But this line of precedents is of only minimal relevance here because the plaintiffs’ collective-action waivers in this case contained no arbitration clause. And, in any event, none of our precedents permitting arbitration of FLSA claims has addressed employees’ collective-action rights.
KeHE nonetheless points to cases from other circuits enforcing agreements to arbitrate FLSA claims on an individual basis. As KeHE notes, the Eleventh Circuit recently addressed the jurisprudence of the courts of appeals on collective-action waivers in the arbitration context in Walthour v. Chipio Windshield Repair, LLC, 745 F.3d 1326 (11th Cir.2014). It determined that
all of the circuits to address this issue have concluded that § 16(b) does not provide for a non-waivable, substantive right to bring a collective action. See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290, 296–97 & n. 6 (2d Cir.2013) (determining that the FLSA does not contain a “contrary congressional command” that prevents an employee from waiving his or her ability to proceed collectively and that the FLSA collective action right is a waivable procedural mechanism); Owen [v. Bristol Care, Inc.], 702 F.3d [1050,] 1052–53 [ (8th Cir.2013) ] (determining that the FLSA did not set forth a “contrary congressional command” showing “that a right to engage in class actions overrides the mandate of the FAA in favor of arbitration”); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Indus., Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 298 (5th Cir.2004) (rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim that their inability to proceed collectively deprived them of a substantive right to proceed under the FLSA because, in Gilmer [v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 111 S.Ct. 1647, 114 L.Ed.2d 26 (1991) ], the Supreme Court rejected similar arguments regarding the ADEA); Adkins [v. Labor Ready, Inc.], 303 F.3d [496,] 503 [ (4th Cir.2002) ] (determining that a plaintiff failed to point to any “suggestion in the text, legislative history, or purpose of the FLSA that Congress intended to confer a non-waivable right to a class action under that statute” and that the plaintiff’s “inability to bring a class action, therefore, cannot by itself suffice to defeat the strong congressional preference for an arbitral forum”); cf. D.R. Horton [v. NLRB ], 737 F.3d [344,] 362 [ (5th Cir.2013) ] (determining that the National Labor Relations Act does not contain a contrary congressional command overriding the application of the FAA).
Id. at 1336. The Eleventh Circuit then joined this emerging consensus. Id. Crucially, however, the respective waiver agreements in all of the above-cited cases included provisions subjecting the employees to arbitration. See Walthour, 745 F.3d at 1330 (noting the existence of an arbitration*592 agreement between the parties); Sutherland, 726 F.3d at 296 (same); Owen, 702 F.3d at 1052 (same); Carter, 362 F.3d at 298 (same); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 498 (same).
These circuit decisions, in turn, rely on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 35, 111 S.Ct. 1647 (“We conclude that Gilmer has not met his burden of showing that Congress, in enacting the ADEA, intended to preclude arbitration of claims under that Act.”), and American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2304, 2309, 186 L.Ed.2d 417 (2013) (holding that “[n]o contrary congressional command requires us to reject the waiver of class arbitration here”). See Walthour, 745 F.3d at 1331 (citing Gilmer and Italian Colors); Sutherland, 726 F.3d at 296 (quoting Italian Colors ); Carter, 362 F.3d at 298 (citing Gilmer); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 502 (citing Gilmer ). Accordingly, none of the foregoing authorities speak to the validity of a collective-action waiver outside of the arbitration context.
Thus, the Sixth Circuit concluded that, in the absence of a valid arbitration agreement, a collective action waiver is unenforceable because there is no countervailing federal policy (i.e. the FAA) that outweighs the remedial policy articulated in the FLSA:
Because no arbitration agreement is present in the case before us, we find no countervailing federal policy that outweighs the policy articulated in the FLSA. The rationale of Boaz is therefore controlling. Boaz is based on the general principle of striking down restrictions on the employees’ FLSA rights that would have the effect of granting their employer an unfair advantage over its competitors. Requiring an employee to litigate on an individual basis grants the employer the same type of competitive advantage as did shortening the period to bring a claim in Boaz. And in cases where each individual claim is small, having to litigate on an individual basis would likely discourage the employee from bringing a claim for overtime wages. Boaz therefore controls the result here where arbitration is not a part of the waiver provision.
Click Killion v. KeHE Distributors, LLC to read the Sixth Circuit’s decision.
Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc.
Plaintiff sued her former employer, to recover unpaid overtime wages allegedly due under the Fair Labor StandardsAct (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. The district court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction after finding that Plaintiff’s maximum potential recovery was less than the value of her severance package received from Defendant, which the district court determined should be set-off against anypotential damages awarded to Plaintiff. Holding that such a set-off was improper, the Fifth Circuit vacated the district court’s dismissal and remanded the case for further proceedings.
The court reasoned:
“At issue is whether Pepsi can set-off the value of benefits it paid to Karen Martin under her severance agreement against Martin’s FLSA claim for overtime wages. The district court found that Pepsi was entitled to the set-off and, consequently, dismissed the case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. We review a court’s ruling on a FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(1) motion to dismiss de novo. See Budget Prepay, Inc. v. AT&T Corp., 605 F.3d 273, 278 (5th Cir.2010) (citing Ramming v. United States, 281 F.3d 158, 161 (5th Cir.2001)). When challenging a 12(b)(1) motion, the party asserting jurisdiction bears the burden of proof. Id.
Pepsi initially contends that our opinion in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), should be read broadly to allow set-offs in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Generally speaking, courts have been hesitant to permit an employer to file counterclaimsFN1 in FLSA suits for money the employer claims the employee owes it, or for damages the employee’s tortious conduct allegedly caused. See Brennan v. Heard, 491 F.2d 1, 4 (5th Cir.1974), rev’d on other grounds by McLaughlin v. Richland Shoe Co., 486 U.S. 128, 108 S.Ct. 1677, 100 L.Ed.2d 115 (1988); see also Donovan v. Pointon, 717 F.2d 1320, 1323 (10th Cir.1983) (“[T]he purpose of the present action is to bring Pointon into compliance with the Act by enforcing a public right. To permit him in such a proceeding to try his private claims, real or imagined, against his employees would delay and even subvert the whole process. Pointon is free to sue his employees in state court ….”).
In Heard, we said that set-offs and counterclaims are inappropriate in any case brought to enforce the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime provisions. In that case, the Secretary of Labor sued an employer to enjoin it from withholding base and overtime wages from employees. Heard, 491 F.2d at 2. After finding a willful FLSA violation, the district court ordered the employer to pay its employees back wages, but permitted a set-off for the value of goods the employer had furnished to its employees. Id. This court reversed, stating that “[t]he federal courts were not designated by the FLSA to be either collection agents or arbitrators for an employee’s creditors.” Id. at 4. Noting that the only function of the federal judiciary under the FLSA “is to assure to the employees of a covered company a minimum level of wages,” we said that “[a]rguments and disputations over claims against those wages are foreign to the genesis, history, interpretation, and philosophy of the Act.” Id. And we observed that “[t]he only economic feud contemplated by the FLSA involves the employer’s obedience to minimum wage and overtime standards. To clutter [FLSA] proceedings with the minutiae of other employer-employee relationships would be antithetical to the purpose of the Act.” Id.; see also Pointon, 717 F.2d at 1323 (declining to address employer’s counterclaim for tortious sabotage in employee’s FLSA suit); Hodgson v. Lakewood Broad. Serv., 330 F.Supp. 670, 673 (D.Colo.1971) (declining to allow set-off or counterclaim against Secretary for employee’s breach of employment contract).
This language notwithstanding, in Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813 (5th Cir.2003), we allowed an employer to set-off certain wage overpayments against the employees’ overall damages award. Singer involved a class of municipal fire fighters whose hours varied among pay periods. The city’s method for calculating their regular rate of pay under the FLSA resulted in an underpayment of the fire fighters’ overtime pay during some pay periods. Id. at 817, 824-25. When calculating how much money the city owed the fire fighters in unpaid overtime wages, “the district court found that the City’s method of calculating overtime compensation resulted in small deficiencies … in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 120 hours,” but “the City’s method resulted in considerable overpayments ($126.20) in the work periods in which the fire fighters worked 96 hours.” Id. at 826. Because of this incongruity, the district court allowed the employer to set-off overpayments in some work periods against shortfalls in others. Id. at 826. We viewed these overpayments as akin to pre-payments, not prohibited by the Code of Federal Regulations or the FLSA, and affirmed. Id. We reconciled our holdings in Singer and Heard by observing that “the offsets permitted by the district court [in Heard] caused the final awards of many of the defendants’ workers to drop below the statutory minimum.” Id. at 828 n. 9 (quoting Heard, 491 F.2d at 3) (internal quotation marks omitted). Meanwhile, in Singer, “no party contend[ed] that the offset might cause the fire fighters’ wages to fall below the statutory minimum wage.” 324 F.3d at 828 n. 9.
Relying on this distinction, Pepsi contends that Singer should be read to limit Heard, to stand for the proposition that set-offs are appropriate in FLSA cases so long as they do not cause an employee’s wages to fall below the statutory minimum. Pepsi has cited, as did the district court, several lower court decisions from outside this circuit that have given Singer such a broad construction. See, e.g. Hanson v. ABC Liquors, Inc., No. 3:09-cv-966, 2009 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 108954, at *7-8 (M.D.Fla. Nov. 9, 2009) (collecting cases); see also Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 n.3. These cases, however, predate our opinion in Gagnon v. United Technisource, Inc., 607 F.3d 1036 (5th Cir.2010), where we clarified that Heard’s longstanding prohibition of set-offs in FLSA cases is the rule in this circuit and Singer an exception.
In Gagnon, the district court found an FLSA overtime violation and awarded damages to the plaintiff. 607 F.3d at 1040. The defendant-employer counterclaimed and sought a set-off in the amount equal to the damages caused by the plaintiff’s breach of contract (i.e., his failure to notify the employer of his new address, as he was contractually obligated to do). Id. The district court did not address the employer’s counterclaims, and this court gave them short shrift likewise, holding that “our precedent suggests that such claims should not be addressed in an FLSA action.” 607 F.3d at 1042 (citing Heard, 491 F.2d at 4).
We specifically addressed the employer’s set-off claim in Gagnon, despite its semblance to the contract counterclaim, to clarify a reasonable uncertainty over Singer’s reach. See 607 F.3d at 1043 (“we nonetheless address the claim because we have previously held that offsets are permissible in FLSA actions”). Gagnon distinguished the set-off allowed in Singer as one that “simply acknowledged that the City had already paid the bulk of its overtime obligations.” Id. (citing Singer, 324 F.3d at 828) (emphasis in original). Gagnon (the employee), by contrast, was not paid “any additional sums that could be characterized as advanced or inappropriate amounts subject to an offset against the overtime owed to him,” id., and thus, a set-off was inappropriate.
In Gagnon, we rejected the employer’s argument, which Pepsi renews here, that Singer stands for the proposition that set-offs are allowed in FLSA cases so long as they do not result in sub-minimum wages. Although that reading of Singer may have been plausible at one time, Gagnon clarified that it was the unique character of the set-offs in Singer-that they represented overtime obligations already fulfilled-that allowed for a narrow exception to the bright-line rule spelled out in Heard. We continue to look with disfavor on set-offs unless the money being set-off can be considered wages that the employer pre-paid to the plaintiff-employee.
Pepsi contends, alternatively, that the benefits paid to Martin are similar to the fire fighters’ wages set-off in Singer because, in both cases, the employer paid some extra money or benefits to the employee to which the employee was not otherwise entitled. And in the opinion granting Pepsi’s motion to dismiss, the district court cited several lower court decisions that have allowed employers to plead set-offs as an affirmative defense in FLSA wage cases “where the employer paid the employee funds to which the employee was not entitled.” (Docket Entry No. 110, Memorandum Order at 5 & n.3.) This misconstrues the reciprocal nature of the benefits bargained for in Martin’s severance agreement. Although Martin had no legal entitlement to the benefits included in her severance package, these benefits were not gratuitous. Pepsi paid these benefits in return for Martin’s release of claims. That Martin later sued Pepsi on state law claims simply means that Martin did not keep her end of the agreement. Pepsi’s damages flow from a breach of contract. Pepsi is not entitled to set-off those damages here because unlike Singer, the money and benefits Pepsi paid to Martin were not wage payments, advance or otherwise; they were not related to her labors at all.
Because we find that the district court erred in setting-off the value of Martin’s severance package against her potential recovery at trial, we VACATE the district court’s dismissal of Martin’s FLSA claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction and REMAND the case for further proceedings.”
Click Martin v. PepsiAmericas, Inc. to read the entire decision.