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This case was before the court on the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment following what appears to be an aborted settlement. As discussed here, plaintiffs sought summary judgment imposing liquidated damages on defendants, and contended that defendants had failed to demonstrate the requisite good faith.
After discussing the well-defined standards regarding an employer’s burden to show “good faith” to avoid an otherwise mandatory imposition of liquidated damages, the court discussed the evidence proffered by defendants:
Defendants assert as “a possible claim of good faith and reasonable grounds” the fact that Central USA Wireless relied on the aforementioned third-party professional employment organization, HUMACare, “to take care of Central’s payroll and employee administrative obligations.” (Doc. 29 at PageID 1091).
Regarding Plaintiffs’ compensation, Chris Hildebrant testified:
A: I didn’t. John, as I said, went to Michigan, Huffman, had conversations
with [Plaintiffs], and told me what they agreed upon.
Q: Did you do any analysis as to whether what they agreed upon was in
compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act?
Q: Did you ask anybody else to do any analysis?
A: We submitted documentations to our PEO company, and we didn’t think
anything else about it.
Q: What does PEO company mean?
A: Professional Employment Organization.
Q: Did you ask your attorneys to look into whether or not the compensation
structure was in compliance with the –
Mr. Ash: Objection. I’ll allow the question to be answered just the
way you asked, obviously the content of the question from the very beginning.
Mr. Kimble: Sure.
Mr. Ash: Go ahead.
The Witness: No.
(Doc. 15-3, Hildebrant Dep. at PageID 255–56 (39:10–40:7)).
The court held that “[t]his evidence falls far short of creating a question of material fact or meeting the ‘substantial’ burden Defendants shoulder to prove ‘both good faith and reasonable grounds’ for a failure to pay overtime.”
Elaborating, the court explained:
Hildebrant made no special inquiry to HUMACare or legal counsel about whether Plaintiffs were exempt employees. See generally id. at 857 (caselaw usually cites discussion with attorneys or government officials or sometimes accountants as evidence of good faith). Rather, he “didn’t think anything else about it.” This statement concedes negligence, which “is sufficient to support an award of liquidated damages.” Fulkerson v. Yaskawa America, Inc., No. 3:13-cv-130, 2015 WL 6408120 at *2 (S.D. Ohio Oct. 23, 2015) (citing Martin, 381 F.3d at 584).
Thus, the court held that the plaintiffs were entitled to liquidated damages.
6th Cir.: Where Plaintiff Presented No Other Evidence, Plaintiff’s Testimony Alone Sufficient to Defeat Defendant’s Motion for Summary Judgment
This case was before the Sixth Circuit on the plaintiff’s appeal of the trial court’s order awarding defendants summary judgment on liability. As explained in more detail in the court’s decision, the defendants relied on their own time and pay records, and testimony from plaintiff’s former supervisor, in which they denied that plaintiff ever worked more than 40 hours in a workweek. Although the plaintiff testified that the records were not accurate and that he typically worked approximately 58 hours per week, the court below adopted the testimony of the defendants that plaintiff never worked in excess of 30 hours per week, and thus was properly paid $10 per hour (or $300 per week). The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded, and applied well-settled law regarding the parties’ respective burdens at the summary judgment stage.
The court framed the issue before it as follows:
This appeal raises one simple question: Where Plaintiff has presented no other evidence, is Plaintiff’s testimony sufficient to defeat Defendant’s motion for summary judgment?
The Sixth Circuit held that an FLSA plaintiff’s testimony alone is sufficient to defeat a defendant’s motion for summary judgment:
We hold that it is. Plaintiff’s testimony coherently describes his weekly work schedule, including typical daily start and end times which he used to estimate a standard work week of sixty-five to sixty-eight hours. The district court characterized this testimony as “somewhat vague .” (R. 26, Opinion and Order, Page ID # 475.) However, while Plaintiff’s testimony may lack precision, we do not require employees to recall their schedules with perfect accuracy in order to survive a motion for summary judgment. It is unsurprising, and in fact expected, that an employee would have difficulty recalling the exact hour he left work on a specific day months or years ago. It is, after all, “the employer who has the duty under § 11(c) of the [FLSA] to keep proper records of wages [and] hours,” and “[e]mployees seldom keep such records themselves.”Anderson, 328 U.S. at 687. Defendants emphasize the fact that Plaintiff’s testimony is inconsistent with the allegedly contemporaneous timesheets Defendants provided to the court. But these timesheets do not amount to objective incontrovertible evidence of Plaintiff’s hours worked. Plaintiff denies the validity of these timesheets, which were handwritten by Defendants, and contends that Defendants sanctioned his overtime work. Whether his testimony is credible is a separate consideration that is inappropriate to resolve at the summary judgment stage.
Putting this case in perspective, the Sixth Circuit discussed its prior jurisprudence regarding the same issue:
We have previously found that a Plaintiff’s testimony can create a genuine issue of material fact foreclosing summary judgment in a lawsuit brought under the FLSA. In O’Brien v. Ed Donnelly Enters., Inc., 575 F.3d 567 (6th Cir.2009), we considered a collective action brought against an employer for underpayment of wages in violation of the FLSA. Although we affirmed the district court’s decertification of the collective action in O’Brien, we considered the district court’s grant of summary judgment as to the lead plaintiffs. Plaintiff O’Brien alleged both that the defendants altered her time records and that she was required to work off-the-clock. With respect to O’Brien’s “off-the-clock” claim, the defendants argued that they were “not liable under the FLSA because there is no evidence that defendants knew that O’Brien was working without compensation.”Id. at 595–96. Nonetheless, despite the lack of corroborating evidence, we held that the district court “erred when it granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment as to O’Brien’s ‘off the clock’ claim,'” since the plaintiff’s own “deposition testimony clearly creates a genuine factual issue, because she asserts that [the defendants] knew that she was working off the clock.”Id. at 596. The O’Brien court reached this conclusion despite the plaintiff’s at times contradictory testimony. Id. at 595.
This holding is consistent with our decision in Harris v. J.B. Robinson Jewelers, where we explicitly found that a plaintiff’s testimony is itself sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact. 627 F.3d 235 (6th Cir.2010). In Harris, we considered the appropriateness of summary judgment where a plaintiff testified that her jeweler had replaced a diamond in her ring with a smaller, less-valuable diamond. In that case, we reviewed the district court’s decision to exclude the plaintiff’s testimony as well as its decision to exclude the affidavits of three corroborating witnesses. Notably, we determined that “[the plaintiff’s] testimony alone is sufficient to create a jury question regarding the alleged replacement [of her diamond].”Id. at 239 (emphasis added). The district court in this case disregarded the applicability of that determination to the case at hand, focusing instead on the fact that the Harris court also deemed admissible the sworn affidavits of the three corroborating witnesses. Such disregard was mistaken. Our opinion in Harris clearly states that, regardless of the three additional affidavits, the plaintiff’s testimony was itself sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact.
The same principles at work in Harris and O’Brien apply here. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence, Plaintiff’s testimony is sufficient to create a genuine dispute of material fact that forecloses summary judgment at this juncture. Defendants cite to no Sixth Circuit precedent for the opposite conclusion; rather, they rely on three district court opinions and a handful of opinions from other circuits. None of these cases counsel in favor of ignoring clearly applicable Sixth Circuit caselaw. The district court cases cited by Defendants are neither precedential nor instructive in the present case, and we note that this Court did not have an opportunity to review their reasonableness on appeal. Nor do the out-of-circuit cases cited by Defendants belie the applicability of our own Circuit’s on-point precedent and the basic tenets of summary judgment law to the case at hand.
As such the court concluded:
On summary judgment, all reasonable inferences must be made in favor of the non-moving party and, as we have held in the past, a plaintiff’s testimony alone may be sufficient to create a genuine issue of material fact thereby defeating a defendant’s motion for summary judgment. This is such a case. Here, Plaintiff put forward testimony that contradicted that of Defendants, describing his typical work schedule with some specificity and estimating that he worked sixty-five to sixty-eight hours a week on average. This contradictory testimony creates a genuine issue of material fact.
We therefore REVERSE the ruling of the district court granting summary judgment in favor of Defendants and REMAND the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.
Click Moran v. Al Basit LLC to read the entire Sixth Circuit decision.
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.
6th Cir.: Purportedly “Volunteer” Firefighters, Paid Per Call as Independent Contractors, Are “Employees” Under FLSA
Mendel v. City of Gibraltar
This case was before the Sixth Circuit, following the district court’s order granting the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. Although the case concerned the issue of whether the defendant-City met the prerequisite for FMLA coverage (number of employees), the issue considered by the Sixth Circuit was “purportedly volunteer firefighters who receive a substantial hourly wage for responding to calls whenever they choose to do so are “employees” or “volunteers” for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and Family Medical Leave Act (“FMLA”).” The Sixth Circuit held that the firefighters at issue were employees rather than volunteers, such that the defendant met the number of employee requirement to trigger FMLA coverage.
The Sixth Circuit laid out the following facts relevant to its inquiry of whether the firefighters were properly deemed to be employees or volunteers:
The volunteer firefighters of Gibraltar must complete training on their own time without compensation. While they are not required to respond to any emergency call, they are paid $15 per hour for the time they do spend responding to a call or maintaining equipment. They do not work set shifts or staff a fire station; they maintain other employment and have no consistent schedule working as volunteer firefighters. The firefighters generally receive a Form–1099 MISC from the City. They do not receive health insurance, sick or vacation time, social security benefits, or premium pay. The City does have an employment application for the firefighters, and it apparently keeps a personnel file for each firefighter. A volunteer firefighter may be promoted or discharged. [The Plaintiff] introduced evidence below of what several other local communities pay their full-time firefighters. According to his wife’s affidavit, she and Mendel discovered that certain other communities in the area pay hourly wages ranging from approximately $14 to $17 per hour. Also, the City pays its own part-time Fire Chief $20,000 per year, and the Chief testified in his deposition that he “tr[ies] to work 20 hours per week at the [Gibraltar] fire station.” Based on this information, the Secretary of Labor notes in her amicus brief that if one assumes the Fire Chief works fifty-two weeks per year, he effectively earns $19.23 per hour.
After explaining that the FMLA’s definition of “employees” incorporates the FLSA’s definition, the Court then examined the issue under the FLSA. Holding that the firefighters were employees and not volunteers, the Court explained:
Here, it appears that the Gibraltar firefighters fall within the FLSA’s broad definition of employee. The firefighters are suffered or permitted to work, see
29 U.S.C. § 203(g), and they even receive substantial wages for their work.
This is not the end of our analysis, however. In 1986, Congress amended the FLSA to clarify that individuals who volunteer to perform services for a public agency are not employees under the Act. Section 203(e) now includes the following provision:
The term “employee” does not include any individual who volunteers to perform services for a public agency which is a State, a political subdivision of a State, or an interstate governmental agency, if—
(i) the individual receives no compensation or is paid expenses, reasonable benefits, or a nominal fee to perform the services for which the individual volunteered; and
(ii) such services are not the same type of services which the individual is employed to perform for such public agency.
Thus, the question becomes whether the Gibraltar firefighters fall within this exception to the FLSA’s generally broad definition of “employee.” Specifically, the question before us is whether the wages paid to the firefighters constitute “compensation” or merely a “nominal fee.” If the hourly wages are compensation, then the firefighters are employees under the FLSA. Conversely, if the wages are merely a nominal fee, then the firefighters are volunteers expressly excluded from the FLSA’s definition of employee.
The official regulations provide guidance at this juncture. The regulations define “volunteer” as “[a]n individual who performs hours of service for a public agency for civic, charitable, or humanitarian reasons, without promise, expectation or receipt of compensation for services rendered.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.101(a); see also 29 C.F.R. § 553.104(a) (employing similar language). The regulations proceed to recognize, “Volunteers may be paid expenses, reasonable benefits, a nominal fee, or any combination thereof, for their service without losing their status as volunteers.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(a). The specific provision addressing nominal fees provides, in part, “A nominal fee is not a substitute for compensation and must not be tied to productivity. However, this does not preclude the payment of a nominal amount on a ‘per call’ or similar basis to volunteer firefighters.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(e). Finally, the regulations caution, “Whether the furnishing of expenses, benefits, or fees would result in individuals’ losing their status as volunteers under the FLSA can only be determined by examining the total amount of payments made (expenses, benefits, fees) in the context of the economic realities of the particular situation.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(f).
In the context of the economic realities of this particular situation, we hold that the hourly wages paid to the Gibraltar firefighters are not nominal fees, but are compensation under the FLSA. The firefighters do not receive “a nominal amount on a ‘per call’ or similar basis.” 29 C.F.R. § 553.106(e). Rather, they render services with the promise, expectation, and receipt of substantial compensation. See 29 C.F.R. §§ 553.101(a), 553.104(a). Each time a firefighter responds to a call, he knows he will receive compensation at a particular hourly rate—which happens to be substantially similar to the hourly rates paid to full-time employed firefighters in some of the neighboring areas. Essentially, the Gibraltar firefighters are paid a regular wage for whatever time they choose to spend responding to calls. These substantial hourly wages simply do not qualify as nominal fees. Cf. Purdham v. Fairfax Cnty. Sch. Bd., 637 F.3d 421, 433–34 (4th Cir.2011) (holding that a School Board’s payment of a fixed stipend to a golf coach was a nominal fee where: (1) the stipend amount did not change based on either how much time and effort the coach expended on coaching activities or how successful the team was; and (2) the approximate hourly rate to which the coach’s stipend could be converted was only a fraction (less than¼) of the hourly wage he received as a full-time security assistant employed by the School Board).
Notably, the Supreme Court has held that those who “work in contemplation of compensation” are “employees” within the meaning of the FLSA, even though they may view themselves as “volunteers.” Tony & Susan Alamo Found., 471 U.S. at 300–02, 306, 105 S.Ct. 1953. Despite the fact that the Gibraltar firefighters are referred to as “volunteers,” the inescapable fact nevertheless remains that they “work in contemplation of compensation.” Thus, the Gibraltar firefighters are “employees” and not “volunteers” within the meaning of the FLSA. See Krause v. Cherry Hill Fire Dist. 13, 969 F.Supp. 270, 277 (D.N.J.1997) (“In view of the fact that the plaintiffs [firefighters] both expected and received hourly compensation, in an amount greater than a ‘nominal’ fee, it is clear that plaintiffs were not volunteers….”).
Finally, the Court rejected the defendant’s contention—apparently adopted by the court below, that the firefighters were not “employees” under the FLSA, because they fell within the purview of 207(y).
Thus, the Court concluded “under the relevant authority and the facts of this case, we are constrained to hold that, simply put, the substantial wages paid to these firefighters constitute compensation, not nominal fees, which makes the Gibraltar firefighters employees, not volunteers, for purposes of the FLSA and FMLA.”
6th Cir.: Employment Contract That Purported to Shorten FLSA Statute of Limitations to 6 Months Invalid
Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc.
Employers continue to include language in employment contracts which purports to shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims. By law, the statute of limitations is 2 years on such claims if the employee is unable to show the employers violations are willful, and 3 years if the employee can make such a showing. Recently, the Sixth Circuit reviewed FedEx’s contract that purported to reduce that time to 6 months. As discussed below, it struck down the employers’ attempts to shorten the statute of limitations. Reasoning that same was an impermissible waiver of rights under the FLSA, the court agreed that such a limitation was unenforceable. In so doing, the Sixth Circuit reversed the trial court, which had held that such an abridgement of FLSA rights was permissible.
Initially the court briefly reiterated longstanding black-letter law regarding the non-waivable nature of FLSA rights:
Shortly 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 under the Act. See Brooklyn Savs. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706–10, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945). Such waivers, according to the Court, would “nullify” the Act’s purpose of “achiev[ing] a uniform national policy of guaranteeing compensation for all work or employment engaged in by employees covered by the Act.” Jewell Ridge Coal Corp. v. Local No. 6167, United Mine Workers of Am., 325 U.S. 161, 167, 65 S.Ct. 1063, 89 L.Ed. 1534 (1945); see also O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707. The Court therefore held that employees may not, either prospectively or retrospectively, waive their FLSA rights to minimum wages, overtime, or liquidated damages. D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946); O’Neil, 324 U.S. at 707; see also Runyan v. Nat’l Cash Register Corp., 787 F.2d 1039, 1041–42 (6th Cir.1986) (en banc).
The issue here is whether Boaz’s employment agreement operates as a waiver of her rights under the FLSA. Boaz accrued a FLSA claim every time that FedEx issued her an allegedly illegal paycheck. See Hughes v. Region VII Area Agency on Aging, 542 F.3d 169, 187 (6th Cir.2008). She filed suit more than six months, but less than three years, after her last such paycheck—putting her outside the contractual limitations period, but within the statutory one.
An employment agreement “cannot be utilized to deprive employees of their statutory [FLSA] rights.” Jewell Ridge, 325 U.S. at 167 (quotation omitted). That is precisely the effect that Boaz’s agreement has here. Thus, as applied to Boaz’s claim under the FLSA, the six-month limitations period in her employment agreement is invalid.
In so doing, the court rejected FedEx’s reliance on what it deemed inapposite case law:
FedEx (along with its amicus, Quicken Loans) responds that courts have enforced agreements that shorten an employee’s limitations period for claims arising under statutes other than the FLSA—such as Title VII. And FedEx argues that the discrimination barred by Title VII (i.e., racial discrimination) is just as bad as the discrimination barred by the FLSA, and hence that, if an employee can shorten her Title VII limitations period, she should be able to shorten her FLSA limitations period too. But that argument is meritless for two reasons. First, employees can waive their claims under Title VII. See, e.g., Alexander v. Gardner–Denver Co., 415 U.S. 36, 52, 94 S.Ct. 1011, 39 L.Ed.2d 147 (1974). Second—and relatedly—an employer that pays an employee less than minimum wage arguably gains a competitive advantage by doing so. See Citicorp Indus. Credit, Inc. v. Brock, 483 U.S. 27, 36, 107 S.Ct. 2694, 97 L.Ed.2d 23 (1987). An employer who refuses to hire African–Americans or some other racial group does not. The Court’s rationale for prohibiting waiver of FLSA claims is therefore not present for Title VII claims.
FedEx also relies on Floss v. Ryan’s Family Steak Houses, Inc., 211 F.3d 306 (6th Cir.2000). There, we held that an employee asserting an FLSA claim can waive her right to a judicial forum, and instead arbitrate the claim. Id. at 313, 316. From that holding FedEx extrapolates that employees can waive their “procedural” rights under the FLSA even if they cannot waive their “substantive” ones. But the FLSA caselaw does not recognize any such distinction. That is not surprising, given that the distinction between procedural and substantive rights is notoriously elusive. See Sun Oil Co. v. Wortman, 486 U.S. 717, 726, 108 S.Ct. 2117, 100 L.Ed.2d 743 (1988). More to the point, Floss itself said 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.” 211 F.3d at 313. The provision at issue here does the opposite.
Click Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services Inc. to read the entire Opinion. Click DOL Amicus Brief, to read the amicus brief submitted by the Department of Labor in support of the Plaintiff-Appellant.
6th Cir.: Although Changing Into PPE At Food-Processing Plant Is “Changing Clothes” and Excluded Under 203(o), It Is A Principle Activity And Begins The “Continuous Workday”
Franklin v. Kellogg Co.
This case was before the Sixth Circuit on appeal from the order at the court below granting Defendant summary judgment in all respects with regard to Plaintiff’s claims that she was entitled to be paid for changing into required personal protection equipment (“PPE”) each day, before she could perform their work on Defendant’s plant floor. The Court affirmed the lower court’s holding that time spent changing into the PPE could be properly excluded by continued practice under 203(0), but remanded the case to determine whether there was significant time the that elapsed after the donning of the PPE, before Plaintiff was put “on the clock,” because such time was compensible under the “continuous workday” if it was not deemed de minimus.
“B. Post-Donning/Pre-Doffing Walking Time
Franklin argues that if we conclude that her time spent donning and doffing the uniform and equipment is excluded under § 203(o), she is still entitled to compensation for her time spent walking between the locker room and the time clock, because those activities are “principal activities.” Under the “continuous workday” rule, “the ‘workday’ is generally defined as ‘the period between the commencement and completion on the same workday of an employee’s principal activity or activities.’ “ IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, 546 U.S. 21, 29 (2004) (quoting 29 C.F.R. § 790.6(b)). In addition, “during a continuous workday, any walking time that occurs after the beginning of the employee’s first principal activity and before the end of the employee’s last principal activity is … covered by the FLSA,” and must be compensated. Id. at 37. Principal activities are those that are an integral and indispensable part of the activities which the employee is employed to perform. See Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 256 (1956).
1. Does Exclusion Under § 203(o) Affect Whether an Activity is a Principal Activity?
One court recently explained that “[t]he courts have taken divergent views” on the issue of whether activities deemed excluded under § 203(o) may still constitute “principal activities.” In re Tyson Foods, Inc., 694 F.Supp.2d 1358, 1370 (M.D.Ga.2010). Some courts have concluded that time that is excluded under § 203(o) may still be a “principal activity,” because § 203(o) only addresses the compensability of the time, not whether it is integral and indispensable. See, e.g., id. at 1371 (“After considering both of these positions, the Court concludes that § 203(o) only relates to the compensability of time spent donning, doffing, and washing of the person and that it does not mean that § 203(o) tasks cannot be considered principal activities that start the continuous workday.”); Andrako v. U.S. Steel Corp., 632 F.Supp.2d 398, 413 (W.D.Pa.2009) (“Section 203(o) relates to the compensability of time spent donning, doffing, and washing in the collective-bargaining process. It does not render such time any more or less integral or indispensable to an employee’s job.”); Gatewood v. Koch Foods of Miss., LLC, 569 F.Supp.2d 687, 702 (S.D.Miss.2008) (“Although the act of ‘changing clothes’ itself is barred based on § 203(o) …, the activities that occur after changing into sanitary gear and before changing out of sanitary gear are not impacted by the defense.”); Figas, 2008 WL 4170043, at *20 (“[T]he character of donning and doffing activities is not dependent upon whether such activities are excluded pursuant to a collective-bargaining agreement.”). In contrast, some courts-including the district court presiding over the instant case-have concluded that “once an activity has been deemed a section 3(o) activity, it cannot be considered a principal activity.” Sisk v. Sara Lee Corp., 590 F.Supp.2d 1001, 1011 (W.D.Tenn.2008); see also Salazar v. Butterball, LLC, No. 08-cv-02071-MSK-CBS, 2009 WL 6048979, at * 14 (D.Colo. Dec. 3, 2009) (following Sisk); Hudson v. Butterball, LLC, No. 08-5071-CV-SW-RED, 2009 WL 3486780, at *4 (W.D.Mo. Oct. 14, 2009) (“Because time [plaintiff] spent sanitizing, donning, and doffing is excluded from hours worked under § 203(o), the walking time did not follow or precede a principal work activity, and therefore is not compensable.”). Although the latter position was consistent with the 2007 Opinion Letter, the June 16 Interpretation rejected that position and concluded that “clothes changing that is covered by § 203(o) may be a principal activity.” Compare 2007 Opinion Letter with June 16 Interp.
We agree with the courts that have taken the position that compensability under § 203(o) is unrelated to whether an activity is a “principal activity.” Accordingly, we must consider whether time spent donning and doffing the standard equipment and uniform is integral and indispensable to Franklin’s job.
2. Integral and Indispensable
Kellogg asserts that even though it requires its employees to wear these items, changing into them is not “integral and indispensable” under the FLSA. In Steiner, the Supreme Court concluded that changing into protective gear before beginning the shift and showering and changing out of the protective gear at the end of the shift was an integral and indispensable part of employment at a battery-manufacturing plant. 350 U.S. at 256 (“[I]t would be difficult to conjure up an instance where changing clothes and showering are more clearly an integral and indispensable part of the principal activity of the employment than in the case of these employees.”) The Court did not address whether “changing clothes and showering under normal conditions” was integral and indispensable to the principal activity of work, and it did not explicitly hold that changing clothes and showering can only be integral and indispensable when the working environment was toxic or lethal. See id. at 249, 256. Nonetheless, at least one court applying Steiner has made that distinction. See Gorman v. Consol. Edison Corp., 488 F.3d 586, 594 (2d Cir.2007). In Gorman, the Second Circuit held that donning and doffing of protective gear-helmet, safety glasses, and steel-toed boots-was not integral and indispensable to employment at a nuclear power plant. Id. It distinguished Steiner because “the environment of the battery plant could not sustain life-given the toxic substances in liquid, solid, powder, and vapor form (and in the dust of the air) that ‘permeate[d] the entire [battery] plant and everything and everyone in it.’ “ Id. at 593 (quoting Steiner, 350 U.S. at 249) (alterations in original). It interpreted Steiner narrowly for the proposition “that when work is done in a lethal atmosphere, the measures that allow entry and immersion into the destructive element may be integral to all work done there.” Id. However, under Gorman, when such a lethal environment is not present and the gear is not literally required for entry into the plant, donning and doffing gear is not integral.
The Second Circuit’s position appears to be unique. The Ninth and Eleventh Circuits have both interpreted Steiner less narrowly. For example, relying on 29 C.F.R. § 790.8(c), the Ninth Circuit explained that “ ‘where the changing of clothes on the employer’s premises is required by law, by rules of the employer, or by the nature of the work,’ the activity may be considered integral and indispensable to the principal activities.” Ballaris v. Wacker Siltronic Corp., 370 F.3d 901, 910 (9th Cir.2004), quoting Mitchell v. King Packing Co., 350 U.S. 260, 262-63 (1956) (holding that changing into and out of plant uniforms was integral and indispensable to the principal activities because the employer required its employees to wear the uniforms and doing so was performed for the benefit of the company); see also Alvarez, 339 F.3d at 902-03 (“To be ‘integral and indispensable,’ an activity must be necessary to the principal work performed and done for the benefit of the employer.”). Similarly, the Eleventh Circuit held that the following three factors are relevant to the issue of whether an activity is integral and indispensable: “(1) whether the activity is required by the employer; (2) whether the activity is necessary for the employee to perform his or her duties; and whether the activity primarily benefits the employer.” Bonilla v. Baker Concrete Constr., Inc., 487 F.3d 1340, 1344 (11th Cir.2007) (concluding that time spent going through security screening made mandatory by the FAA was not integral and indispensable because it was not for the benefit of the employer). We follow the reasoning of Ballaris and Bonilla.
Under the broader interpretation of integral and indispensable, donning and doffing the uniform and equipment is both integral and indispensable. First, the activity is required by Kellogg. Second, wearing the uniform and equipment primarily benefits Kellogg. Certainly, the employees receive protection from physical harm by wearing the equipment. However, the benefit is primarily for Kellogg, because the uniform and equipment ensures sanitary working conditions and untainted products. Because Franklin would be able to physically complete her job without donning the uniform and equipment, unlike the plaintiffs in Steiner, it is difficult to say that donning the items are necessary for her to perform her duties. Nonetheless, considering these three factors, we conclude that donning and doffing the uniform and standard equipment at issue here is a principal activity. See IBP, Inc., 546 U.S. at 37 (“[A]ny activity that is ‘integral and indispensable’ to a ‘principal activity’ is itself a ‘principal activity.’ ”) Accordingly, under the continuous workday rule, Franklin may be entitled to payment for her post-donning and pre-donning walking time. Because there are questions of fact as to the length of time it took her to walk from the changing area to the time clock and whether that time was de minimis, however, we reverse and remand to the district court for further consideration of this issue.”
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