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5th Cir.: Department Head Who Notified Employer of Potential FLSA Violations Did Not Engage in Protected Activity, Because She Did Not “Step Outside Her Normal Job Role”
Lasater v. Texas A & M University-Commerce
This case was before the Fifth Circuit on appeal of an order awarding the defendant summary judgment on plaintiff’s FLSA retaliation claim. Specifically, the plaintiff, a former department head for the defendant asserted that she was terminated for raising concerns regarding the defendant’s payroll policies (and failure to comply with the FLSA) to an independent auditor and later her supervisors. The court below held that plaintiff failed to allege that she had engaged in protected activity, because she was merely performing her duties for defendant when she reported her concerns regarding non-compliance. The Fifth Circuit agreed and affirmed the award of summary judgment for the defendant.
The Fifth Circuit recited the following factual history:
This case arises from TAMUC’s termination of Lasater’s employment in December 2009. From March 2006 to December 2009, Lasater was employed as the Director of the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at TAMUC. Prior to that, Lasater worked in the Financial Aid Department at Texas A & M University–Corpus Christi for 17 years.
In November 2008, Lasater met with Lori Ellison, an outside auditor from The Texas A & M University System who was conducting a regularly scheduled audit. During the meeting, Lasater alleges that Ellison asked her if she had any “concerns” and Lasater told her that “there were some things that were of concern to me and I felt like I needed to, in good faith, report some things that I thought were violations, including comp time.” Lasater alleges that in the course of the conversation with Ellison she discussed a number of problems related to the university’s employee compensatory time (“comp time”) policy. First, she was concerned that comp time had to be used before vacation time; because vacation time would be lost if not taken before the end of the year, this could in turn cause employees to lose accrued comp time. She also voiced her concerns that employees in her department had accrued large balances of comp time and were too busy for Lasater to allow them to timely use their comp time and still meet the demands of her office. Third, she specifically expressed her concerns about one of her employees, Diane Lewis, who had been promoted to a position within the department exempt from the overtime requirements of the FLSA and TAMUC had declined Lasater’s request that Lewis be paid for her accrued comp time after her promotion. Finally, Lasater alleges that she reported to Ellison her concerns about the operation of TAMUC’s Financial Services division, including its failure to “draw down” its allotted federal funds and the fact that it was not performing monthly reconciliations related to federal funds for financial aid. At the time of the meeting Lasater did not suggest to Ellison that TAMUC policies regarding comp time violated the FLSA or refer to any applicable law she believed had been violated.
Relevant TAMUC policy provides that employees who are not exempt under the FLSA may earn comp time for working more than forty hours per week; the policy requires component universities to compensate employees by giving them time off rather than paying them overtime. TAMUC policy also provided that administrators who supervise staff were to ensure that no employee accrue a comp time balance in excess of 240 hours and that, if necessary, employees were to use comp time before taking vacation time. Lasater, as a supervisor, had the responsibility for approving, and the authority to deny, employee leave requests. The policy also states that an employee who transfers between departments may, upon the department managers’ agreement, be paid for accumulated comp time but no policy required payment for comp time to an employee promoted within a department. TAMUC policy additionally provides that inquiries or interpretations of FLSA legal issues should be directed to the System Human Resources Office or the Office of General Counsel.
In December 2008, Ellison reported Lasater’s concerns up the chain of command to Lasater’s supervisor, Stephanie Holley; Mary Hendrix, Vice President for Student Access and Success; and Dan Jones, President of TAMUC. Lasater alleges that shortly after her conversation with the auditor Holley and Hendrix demanded to know why she had reported the comp time issue and began to act colder toward her, harassed her, increased their scrutiny of her, and forced her to take unqualified employees.
In May 2009, Holley gave Lasater a favorable evaluation, and in August, Lasatar received a merit raise. In September 2009, Holley and Hendrix met with Lasater and discussed their concerns about the need for a training manual, the role of Lewis, and how Lasater was not “allowing other people into [her] inner circle.” In early December 2009, Rose Giles, one of Lasater’s subordinates, approached Holley to discuss her frustration with the fact that she did not feel Lasater’s staff was properly trained. Holley then spoke with Susan Grove, the Assistant Director of Scholarships, who alleged that Lasater did not adequately train her staff, spent most of her time with co-employee Lewis to the exclusion of all others, repeatedly arrived late, and had a tendency to “lash out.” Grove stated that she was so distressed by Lasater’s management style that she was planning to leave the university. On December 15, 2009, Holley and Hendrix informed Lasater that her employment was terminated.
Discussing the type of behavior a management-level employee must engage in, for such behavior/activity to constitute “protected activity,” the court explained:
[T]his circuit has recognized that an employee’s communication does not constitute a complaint unless that employee “somehow steps outside of his normal job role” so as to make clear to the employer that the employee is “taking a position adverse to the employer.” Id. at 627–28. Such a requirement is “eminently sensible for management employees” because a managerial position “necessarily involves being mindful of the needs and concerns of both sides and appropriately expressing them.” Id. at 628. Thus, voicing “concerns is not only not adverse to the company’s interests, it is exactly what the company expects of a manger.” Id. (emphasis in original). Without such a requirement, “nearly every activity in the normal course of a manager’s job would be protected activity.” Id.
Illustratively, a personnel director responsible for monitoring compliance with workplace laws did not engage in protected activity when she discussed her “concerns about the company’s possible FLSA violations” with the president of the company. McKenzie v. Renberg’s Inc., 94 F.3d 1478, 1481 (10th Cir.1996). The Tenth Circuit found her “job responsibilities” included discussing wage issues and that assisting the company with FLSA compliance was “completely consistent with her duties.” Hagan, 529 F.3d at 627 (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1487). It held that it is “the assertion of statutory rights (i.e., the advocacy of rights) by taking some action adverse to the company … that is the hallmark of protected activity.” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1486). Thus because McKenzie “never crossed the line from being an employee merely performing her job as personnel director to an employee lodging a personal complaint about the wage and hour practices of her employer and asserting a right adverse to the company,” her discussion of her FLSA violation concerns with the president could not reasonably “be perceived as directed towards the assertion of rights protected by the FLSA.” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting McKenzie, 94 F.3d at 1486–87).
Applying this standard to the facts at bar, the court held that the plaintiff failed to show she stepped outside of her normal job role in reporting her concerns regarding the defendant’s comp time system to the auditor and to her supervisors. Further, the court noted that even if she had, her actions could not reasonably be construed to have asserted FLSA rights on behalf of herself or the employees who were the subject of her conversations. Thus, the court affirmed summary judgment for the defendant.
Click Lasater v. Texas A & M University-Commerce to read the entire per curiam decision.