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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.
S.D.N.Y.: Collective Action Waiver Unenforceable Because It Would Prevent Employees From Vindicating Their Substantive Statutory Rights Under the FLSA
Raniere v. Citigroup Inc.
In an issue appearing more and more these days, this case was before the court on the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration on an individualized basis. Although the plaintiffs raised several issues regarding the enforceability of the arbitration agreement at issue, as discussed here, the case is significant because it held that- as a matter of law- purported waivers of the right to participate in an FLSA collective action are unenforceable, because they prevent employees from vindicating their substantive statutory rights (that are not waivable).
In so holding, the court reasoned:
“Plaintiffs make two arguments to the effect that the collective action waiver is unenforceable because it would prevent Plaintiffs from vindicating their substantive statutory rights. The first, and broader, of these arguments is that if the waiver is given effect, the FLSA will not serve both its remedial and deterrent functions. Plaintiffs’ second, narrower, contention is that to give effect to the collective action waiver and arbitration agreement here would have the practical effect of precluding Plaintiffs from pursuing the enforcement of their statutory rights due to the costs involved.
It is well recognized that employees cannot release their substantive rights under the FLSA by private agreement. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (“No one can doubt but that to allow waiver of statutory wages by agreement would nullify the purposes of the Act.”); see also Bormann v. AT & T Commc’ns, Inc., 875 F.2d 399 (2d Cir.1989) (“[P]rivate waiver of claims under the [FLSA] has been precluded by such Supreme Court decisions as Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945), and D.A. Shulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946).” (citations omitted)).
It is likewise well established that “ ‘[b]y agreeing to arbitrate a statutory claim, a party does not forgo the substantive rights afforded by the statute; it only submits to their resolution in an arbitral, rather than a judicial, forum.’ “ Circuit City, 532 U.S. at 123 (quoting Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 26); see also Desiderio, 191 F.3d at 205–06. Arbitration of a claim of statutory rights will only be compelled if that claim can be effectively vindicated through arbitration. See Mitsubishi, 473 U.S. at 637 n. 19 (noting that if arbitration clause and other contractual provisions “operated in tandem as a prospective waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory remedies,” “we would have little hesitation in condemning the agreement as against public policy”); Green Tree, 531 U.S. at 90 (noting that “even claims arising under a statute designed to further important social policies may be arbitrated because so long as the prospective litigant effectively may vindicate his or her statutory cause of action in the arbitral forum the statute serves its functions.” (citations and internal quotation marks and brackets omitted)).
Federal substantive law of arbitrability requires federal courts to declare otherwise operative arbitration clauses unenforceable when enforcement would prevent plaintiffs from vindicating their statutory rights. American Express II, 634 F.3d at 199; see also Kristian v. Comcast Corp., 446 F.3d 25, 47–48 (1st Cir.2006); Hadnot v. Bay, Ltd., 344 F.3d 474, 478 n. 14 (5th Cir.2003); Paladino v. Avnet Computer Technologies, Inc., 134 F.3d 1054, 1062 (11th Cir.1998); Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 768 F.Supp.2d 547, 549 (S.D.N.Y.2011); Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 785 F.Supp.2d 394 (S.D.N.Y.2011); DeGaetano v. Smith Barney, Inc., 983 F.Supp. 459, 469 (S.D.N.Y.1997).
The Second Circuit addressed this issue in American Express I, 554 F.3d 300. The Court concluded that the class action waiver in that case was unenforceable because plaintiffs had demonstrated that they otherwise would not be able to vindicate their statutory rights “in either an individual or collective capacity,” id. at 314 (emphasis in original), due to the great expense of pursuing that antitrust litigation and the small individual recovery each plaintiff could expect. As such, the waiver would have the practical effect of ensuring no claims would be brought at all, granting the defendant “de facto immunity from … liability.” Id. at 320. The Supreme Court vacated American Express I and remanded for reconsideration in light of Stolt–Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp., ––– U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 1758, 176 L.Ed.2d 605 (2010). American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., ––– U.S. ––––, 130 S.Ct. 2401, 176 L.Ed.2d 920. On remand, the Circuit again found the arbitration provision unenforceable because “the class action waiver in this case precludes plaintiffs from enforcing their statutory rights” due to the prohibitive cost of litigating on an individual basis. American Express II, 634 F.3d at 197–99.
In Ragone, 595 F.3d 115, the Court of Appeals again confirmed the importance of the statutory rights analysis, indicating its willingness, if in dicta, to hold unenforceable an arbitration agreement containing a shortened statute of limitations and a fee-shifting provision that would “significantly diminish a litigant’s rights under Title VII.” 595 F.3d at 125–26. The Court of Appeals discussion in Ragone demonstrates “that the holdings of American Express apply not only to ‘negative value’ class action claims, that is, claims that are so small in value that it is not economically viable to pursue them as individual claims.” Chen–Oster, 785 F.Supp.2d at 408.
Defendants are incorrect that the Supreme Court’s decision in AT & T, –––U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742, overrules American Express and Ragone. AT & T addressed only whether a state law rule holding class action waivers unconscionable was preempted by the FAA. ––– U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 179 L.Ed.2d 742. The holdings of both the American Express cases and Ragone were based, in contrast and as this decision must be, on federal arbitral law, and AT & T in no way alters the relevance of those binding circuit holdings. See Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 2011 WL 2671813 (S.D.N.Y. July 7, 2011) (holding that AT & T does not abrogate American Express or Ragone and noting that “it remains the law of the Second Circuit that an arbitration provision which precludes plaintiffs from enforcing their statutory rights is unenforceable.” Id. at *4). Moreover, while the dissent in AT & T noted with concern that “agreements that forbid the consolidation of claims can lead small-dollar claimants to abandon their claims rather than to litigate,” 131 S.Ct. at 1760, AT & T involved the vindication of state, not federal, rights. Thus, even if AT & T is read broadly to acquiesce to the enforcement of an arbitral agreement that as a practical matter would prevent the vindication of state rights in the name of furthering the strong federal policy favoring arbitration, that would not alter the validity of the federal statutory rights analysis articulated in Mitsubishi, Green Tree, American Express and Ragone. The Court accordingly analyses the present issues under the reasoning articulated in those cases.
i. The Right to Proceed Collectively Under the FLSA Cannot be Waived
The Second Circuit has not determined whether the collective action provisions of the FLSA are integral to its structure and function, and, as such, whether an agreement waiving that right can be enforced.
The First Circuit has expressly reserved decision on this question. Skirchak v. Dynamics Research Corp., 508 F.3d 49, 62 (1st Cir.2007) (“We do not need to decide if class actions under the FLSA may ever be waived by agreement…. We also do not reach the question of whether such waivers of FLSA class actions are per se against public policy under either the FLSA or the Massachusetts Fair Wage Law”). And while a number of other Circuits have accepted that, at least in principle, arbitration agreements containing waivers of the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA are enforceable, those decisions were either based upon a premise rejected by the Second Circuit or did not reach the question here. See Horenstein v. Mortgage. Mkt., Inc., 9 F. App’x 618, 619 (9th Cir.2001); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Indus. ., Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 297–98 (5th Cir.2004); Vilches v. Travelers Co., Inc., 413 Fed. App’x 487, 494 n. 4 (3d Cir.2011); Caley v. Gulfstream Aerospace Corp., 428 F.3d 1359, 1378 (11th Cir.2005); Adkins v. Labor Ready, Inc., 303 F.3d 496, 503 (4th Cir.2002).
Specifically, the court in Caley did not address whether the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA may be waived as a matter of federal law. Instead, it addressed whether such waivers were unconscionable under Georgia state law principles. See Caley, 428 F.3d at 1377–79.
The Second Circuit has rejected the reasoning relied on in Horenstein, Adkins, Carter, and Vilches. In American Express, the Second Circuit noted that the issue of whether statutorily granted collective action rights under the ADEA, which incorporates by reference the collective action rights granted in the FLSA, could be waived was not decided by Gilmer, 500 U.S. 20, 111 S.Ct. 1647, 114 L.Ed.2d 26, because “because a collective and perhaps a class action remedy was, in fact, available in that case.” American Express II, 634 F.3d at 195–96; American Express I, 554 F.3d at 314 (same). Countrywide, Adkins, Horenstein, and Vilches, the latter three relying on Johnson v. West Suburban Bank, 225 F.3d 366, 377 (3d Cir.2000), assumed that Gilmer resolved whether collective enforcement rights were waivable. See Vilches, at 494 n. 4 (citing Adkins, 303 F.3d at 503 (citing Johnson, 225 F.3d at 377)); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 503 (citing Johnson, 225 F.3d at 377); Countrywide, 362 F.3d at 298 (citing Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 32). Under the Second Circuit’s precedents, Gilmer does not. See American Express II, 634 F.3d at 195–96. Accordingly, the issue presented by Plaintiffs here, namely whether the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA is unwaivable—beyond such a clause being unenforceable were Plaintiffs to demonstrate that to do so would have the practical effect of denying them their substantive rights—is an open question in this Circuit.
This issue is fundamentally distinct, and more nuanced, than that presented in Gilmer, which addressed whether ADEA claims are arbitrable at all. Here, Plaintiffs do not contest that individually filed FLSA claims are generally arbitrable or that were the agreement to permit proceeding as a collective in arbitration, as the parties could in Gilmer, see American Express II, 634 F.3d at 195–96, that such a provision would be enforceable. Accordingly, this case does not oppose the strong federal policy favoring arbitration with the rights granted in the FLSA, but instead only questions whether the right to proceed collectively may be waived.
There are good reasons to hold that a waiver of the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA is per se unenforceable—and different in kind from waivers of the right to proceed as a class under Rule 23. Collective actions under the FLSA are a unique animal. Unlike employment-discrimination class suits under Title VII or the Americans with Disabilities Act that are governed by Rule 23, Congress created a unique form of collective actions for minimum-wage and overtime pay claims brought under the FLSA.
The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, and its original collective action provision, was a product of the forces that gave rise to what has been termed the constitutional revolution of 1937, marking a high point in the clash of the federal courts with President Roosevelt and New Deal legislators. The original FLSA collective action provision, passed in the wake of the “switch in time that saved nine,” provided that
[a]ny employer who violates the provisions of section 6 or section 7 of this Act shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages. Action to recover such liability may be maintained in any court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated, or such employee or employees may designate an agent or representative to maintain such action for and in behalf of all employees similarly situated. The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant and costs of the action.
Fair Labor Standards Act, 75 Cong. Ch. 676, § 16(b), 52 Stat. 1060, 1069 (1938). As the Supreme Court has noted, this provision appeared for the first time in the bill reported by a Conference Committee of both Houses. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank, 324 U.S. at 705 n. 15 (citing H. Rep. No. 2738, 75th Cong.3d Sess., at 33). The bill that later became the FLSA took over thirteen months to become law and went through a variety of iterations, creating a veritable raft of legislative history. Within this, however, “[t]he only reference to Section 16(b) was by Representative Keller….” Id. at 705 n. 16. Representative Keller stated in relevant part:
Among the provisions for the enforcement of the act an old principle has been adopted and will be applied to new uses. If there shall occur violations of either the wages or hours, the employees can themselves, or by designated agent or representatives, maintain an action in any court to recover the wages due them and in such a case the court shall allow liquidated damages in addition to the wages due equal to such deficient payment and shall also allow a reasonable attorney’s fees and assess the court costs against the violator of the law so that employees will not suffer the burden of an expensive lawsuit. The provision has the further virtue of minimizing the cost of enforcement by the Government. It is both a common-sense and economical method of regulation. The bill has other penalties for violations and other judicial remedies, but the provision which I have mentioned puts directly into the hands of the employees who are affected by violation the means and ability to assert and enforce their own rights, thus avoiding the assumption by Government of the sole responsibility to enforce the act. Id. (citing 83 Cong. Rec. 9264).
This collective action provision was amended by the Portal–to–Portal Act of 1947, the history of which has been described by the courts in the following manner:
In 1947, in response to a “national emergency” created by a flood of suits under the FLSA aimed at collecting portal-to-portal pay allegedly due employees, Congress enacted the Portal–to–Portal amendments to the FLSA. 61 Stat. 87 (1947). The original, stated purpose of the bill containing these amendments was: “To define and limit the jurisdiction of the courts, to regulate actions arising under certain laws of the United States, and for other purposes.” 93 Cong. Rec. 156 (H.R.2157). To this end, the amendments, among other things, barred unions from bringing representative actions under the FLSA. Arrington v. Nat. Broadcasting Co., Inc., 531 F.Supp. 498, 500 (D.D.C.1982) (citations omitted); see also United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1564 of N.M. v. Albertson’s, Inc., 207 F.3d 1193, 1200–01 (11th Cir.2000) (noting the Arrington court’s “exhaustive survey of the legislative history of the 1947 amendments”). As amended, FLSA collective actions allow “plaintiffs the advantage of lower individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources. The judicial system benefits by efficient resolution in one proceeding of common issues of law and fact arising from the same alleged” unlawful activity. Hoffman–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989) (describing the collective action provisions under the ADEA, which are by reference those of the FLSA).
More specifically, the revised collective action provision that resulted from these amendments limited representative suits to those workers who submit written opt-in notices. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (“No 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”). FLSA actions are, consequently, not true representative actions as under Rule 23, but instead those actions brought about by individual employees who affirmatively join a single suit. These collective action provisions were crafted by not one but over the course of several Congresses to balance the need to incentivize the bringing of often small claims by way of collectivization in order to ensure the statute’s function, while barring actions “brought on behalf of employees who had no real involvement in, or real knowledge of, the lawsuit.” Arrington, 531 F.Supp. at 501. The Act’s, and more specifically this provision’s, lengthy legislative history evidences Congress’ precise determination of how this balance should be struck in order to ensure the statute’s remedial and deterrent functions.
In addition, as the Supreme Court has described,
[t]he legislative history of the Fair Labor Standards Act shows an intent on the part of Congress to protect certain groups of the population from substandard wages and excessive hours which endangered the national health and well-being and the free flow of goods in interstate commerce. 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 national health and efficiency as a result of the free movement of goods in interstate commerce. Brooklyn Sav. Bank, 324 U.S. at 706–07. Although the right to sue under the FLSA is compensatory, “it is nevertheless an enforcement provision.” Id. at 709. Not the least integral aspect of this remedy is the ability of employees to pool resources in order to pursue a collective action, in accordance with the specific balance struck by Congress. The particular FLSA collective action mechanism was additionally a Congressional determination regarding the allocation of enforcement costs, as the ability of employees to bring actions collectively reduces the burden borne by the public fisc, as Representative Keller noted. See 83 Cong. Rec. 9264. Moreover, prohibition of the waiver of the right to proceed collectively accords with the Congressional policy of uniformity with regard to the application of FLSA standards, see H. Rep. No. 2182, 75th Cong., 3d Sess. at 6–7, because an employer is not permitted to gain a competitive advantage because his employees are more willing to assent to, or his human resources department more able to ascertain, collective action waivers than those of his competitors. As the Supreme Court has noted, “the purposes of the Act require that it be applied even to those who would decline its protections.” Alamo Foundation v. Secretary of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 105 S.Ct. 1953, 85 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985). It is not enough to respond that such a waiver should be upheld in the name of the broad federal policy favoring arbitration, simply because the waiver was included in an arbitration agreement. An otherwise enforceable arbitration agreement should not become the vehicle to invalidate the particular Congressional purposes of the collective action provision and the policies on which that provision is based.
In sum, a waiver of the right to proceed collectively under the FLSA is unenforceable as a matter of law in accordance with the Gilmer Court’s recognition that “[b]y agreeing to arbitrate a statutory claim, a party does not forgo the substantive rights afforded by the statute.” Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 26. See also Chen–Oster v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., 785 F.Supp.2d 394 (S.D.N.Y.2011) (holding arbitral provision waiving right to proceed as a class unenforceable as to Title VII pattern and practice claims).”
Further, because the arbitration agreement at issue said that if the collective action waiver were found to be unenforceable, the case(s) must be litigated in court, the court held that the case should not be remanded to arbitration, having held the collective action waiver unenforceable.
Click Raniere v. Citigroup Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
M.D.Tenn.: Contractual Limitation of FLSA Claims to One Year SOL Unenforceable; Provision Severed and Arb Agreement Enforced
Pruiett v. West End Restaurants, LLC
Before the court in this putative collective action were the defendants’ motion to dismiss and remand the case to arbitration, as well as plaintiffs’ motion to conditionally certify the case as a collective action. As discussed here, the court held that the provision within the arbitration agreement purporting to reduce the applicable statute of limitations to one year (from either two or three years) was unenforceable. However, because the court further held that the unenforceable provision was severable, it severed the statute of limitations provision and otherwise held the arbitration agreement to be enforceable. Thus, it remanded the case to arbitration after striking the unenforceable provision.
After reviewing a history of applicable case law and determining that the enforceability of the provision in question was an issue of first impression, the court reasoned that allowing an employer to contractually shorten the statute of limitations applicable to FLSA claims would unduly abridge the statutory rights granted under the FLSA. The court explained:
“The FLSA requires employers to pay their employees a statutory minimum wage and to pay overtime compensation at a rate not less than one and one-half times the employees’ regular rate of pay. 29 U.S.C. §§ 206 and 207 (2011). An employer who fails to comply with these provisions is liable for the unlawfully withheld compensation, as well as an additional equal amount of liquidated damages. Id. at § 216(b). These damages, including liquidated damages, are compensatory. Elwell v. Univ. Hosp. Home Care Servs., 276 F.3d 832, 840 (6th Cir.2002).
A plaintiff seeking to recover under the FLSA must file the claim within two years of accrual of the cause of action, or within three years of accrual for a willful violation. 29 U.S.C. § 255(a) (2011). Each paycheck that fails to include required wages constitutes a separate statutory violation. See Archer v. Sullivan Cnty., Nos. 95–5214, 95–5215, 129 F.3d 1263, 1997 WL 720406, at *2 (6th Cir.1997). The plaintiff may recover compensatory damages under § 216(b) as far back as the statute of limitations will reach—that is, the plaintiff may recover up to two years of compensatory damages if the violation was not willful, and up to three years of compensatory damages if the violation was willful, dating back from the date of the complaint. See, e.g., Campbell v. Kelly, No. 3:09–cv–435, 2011 WL 3862019, at *10 (S.D.Ohio Aug.31, 2011) (finding that, where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on November 16, 2009, the plaintiff could seek relief dating back to November 17, 2007 for a non-willful violation, or back to November 17, 2006 for a willful violation); Sisk v. Sara Lee Corp., 590 F.Supp.2d 1001, 1004 (W.D.Tenn.2008) (finding that where plaintiff filed FLSA claims on May 7, 2007, the “relevant time period” for willful violations began on May 7, 2004); Herman v. Palo Grp. Foster Home, Inc., 976 F.Supp. 696, 700, 705–06 (W.D.Mich.1997) (finding that defendant willfully violated FLSA and awarding back wages and liquidated damages for period of three years prior to filing of complaint), aff’d, 183 F.3d 468 (6th Cir.1999) (upholding damages award). Thus, under the FLSA, a plaintiff’s substantive right to full compensation is determined by the statute of limitations. As a consequence, unlike the federal statutory claims at issue in Morrison, Daimler–Chrysler, and Ray, shortening the statute of limitations for an FLSA claim necessarily precludes a successful plaintiff from receiving full compensatory recovery under the statute.
Indeed, BrickTop’s does not dispute that enforcing the contractual limitations provision would limit the Plaintiffs to one year of compensatory damages recovery, even though the FLSA entitles Plaintiffs to more. Thus, Defendants concede that the provision prevents plaintiffs from recovering the “full panoply” of compensatory remedies to which the FLSA entitles them. That is not a permissible result. Plaintiffs’ substantive right to full compensation under the FLSA may not be bargained away. Accordingly, the contractual limitations provision is unenforceable as to FLSA claims.
In reaching this holding, the court has undertaken the necessary statute-specific analysis that neither the Boaz court nor the Wineman court conducted. In Wineman, which was issued before the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Penn Plaza limited Barrentine to its facts, the district court found that a six-month contractual limitations provision in an employment agreement was not enforceable as to FLSA claims. Wineman, 352 F.Supp.2d at 821–23. The defendant had argued, as BrickTop’s does here, that waiver of the FLSA statute of limitations constituted waiver of a procedural right, not a substantive right. Id. at 922. The court rejected this argument, reasoning that, “in light of the public policy implications, … that is a distinction without a difference.” Id. In support of this reasoning, the court relied on Barrentine for the proposition that even FLSA procedural rights, including the right to the judicial forum, could not be abridged, compromised, or waived by private agreement. Id. at 823. Thus, the court characterized the shortened limitations period as “a compromise of employees’ rights under the FLSA” in violation of public policy. Id. at 822–23. It did not analyze whether the shortened statute of limitations affected FLSA remedies, likely based on its assumption that Barrentine rendered that inquiry irrelevant.
In Boaz, the district court enforced a six-month contractual limitation on FLSA claims, but, like Wineman, did not analyze whether that limitation affected FLSA remedies. In Boaz, the plaintiff had asserted claims under Title VII for race and gender discrimination, as well as FLSA claims for pay discrimination and failure to pay overtime compensation. Id. at 932. At the summary judgment stage, the plaintiff, relying on Wineman, contended that her FLSA claims were not time-barred by a six-month limitations provision in her employment agreement. The court declined to follow Wineman, reasoning that the subsequent Penn Plaza decision limited Barrentine to its facts, and found that federal statutory procedural rights may be abridged. Id. The court observed that several courts had found that limitations provisions were enforceable as to other federal statutes, including discrimination claims under § 1981, ERISA claims, and FMLA claims. Id. at 933. It is also noted that, as a general matter, statutes of limitations are procedural, not substantive. Id. However, without any analysis specific to the FLSA, the court summarily concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations is procedural and, therefore, waivable.
Thus, although Boaz and Wineman reached differing conclusions about the enforceability of a contractual limitation on FLSA claims, neither reached the crucial inquiry presented here. In particular, the reasoning in Boaz is flawed for two reasons. First, the Boaz court misinterpreted Penn Plaza, which merely held that statutory claims may be arbitrated, but did not address whether the statute of limitations for any federal statute—let alone the FLSA—constituted a waivable right. Second, the court should not have concluded that the FLSA statute of limitations was purely “procedural” without assessing whether enforcing a shortened limitation on FLSA claims prevented successful plaintiffs from vindicating their substantive right to full compensation.”
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