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11th Cir.: District Court Correctly Refused to Enforce Arbitration Agreement Obtained From Putative Class Members With Motion for Conditional Cert Pending
Employers seem to getting increasingly aggressive with class waivers, arbitration agreements in the wake of recent high court rulings which are seemingly boundless. In the wake of these recent decisions, some employers—who previously did not include waivers or arbitration agreements in their employment agreements—are seeking to play catch up. Troublingly, we seem to be seeing more and more situations where employers, facing the prospect of class/collective actions based on their often willful violations of wage and hour laws are attempting to force arbitration agreements on their employees in an effort to blunt efforts by their employees to recover their rightful wages. However, most courts faced with such situations have invalidated these improperly obtained arbitration clauses, recognizing that employers are in a position to exert undue pressure on employees fearful for their jobs, and that such arbitration “agreements” are frequently anything but an agreement between two parties consenting to arbitration of their own will.
In a recent decision, the Eleventh Circuit was called upon to review one such decision by a district court (first discussed here) that held such a forced arbitration clause to be invalid, and affirmed the district court’s order denying the defendant’s motion to enforce arbitration under the agreements at issue.
Laying out the salient facts of the case, the court explained:
To support its order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration, the district court made the following findings of fact:
Citi Trends devised and implemented a new alternative dispute resolution (“ADR”) policy in the late spring and early summer of 2012—after it was served with the complaint in this action on February 27, 2012, and after the district court set a scheduling conference for May 31, 2012. Weeks after the district court’s May 31, 2012 scheduling order, Citi Trends began to roll out its new ADR policy. The ADR policy included a mandatory agreement to arbitrate all disputes individually rather than collectively.
By June 30, 2012, Citi Trends sent its human resource representatives to meet with store managers to roll out the new ADR policy—but only to putative collective action members (i.e., store managers). Throughout the summer, Citi Trends’s human resource representatives met individually with all store managers across the country. Citi Trends had two employees in each ADR meeting: a human resources representative and a “witness.”
The human resources representative who met with the store managers advised Citi Trends in its employment decisions. Thus, the store managers reasonably believed the human resources representative had authority to make or influence employment decisions, including hiring and firing decisions.
Store managers were ordered to attend the ADR meetings by their supervisors. Citi Trends did not inform the store managers of the true purpose of the mandatory meetings. Instead of telling the store managers that the meetings concerned the company’s new ADR policy, Citi Trends told the store managers that the mandatory meetings concerned the issuance of a new employee handbook.
Typically, Citi Trends rolled out its new employee handbook in a group setting. The handbook was generally provided in printed form (i.e., not as a photocopy), and the employees were required to sign for the handbook. Here, however, Citi Trends did not follow any of its general procedures for rolling out the employee handbook. Instead, Citi Trends (1) held two-on-one private meetings with each store manager in a small, back room in Citi Trends retail stores—the same places where the store interrogated or investigated its employees, (2) discussed only the ADR policy and the fill-in-the-blank declarations related to the store managers’ job duties, (3) provided photocopied versions of the employee handbooks as the store managers left the meetings, and (4) did not require the store managers to sign for the photocopied employee handbook.FN6 The district court found that this rushed and atypical rollout of the employee handbook demonstrated that Citi Trends’s handbook rollout was “pretext for presenting the [arbitration] Agreement to the [store managers] to derail their participation in this lawsuit.”
When a store manager arrived at the back-room meetings, a human resources representative greeted the store manager. A second individual was also at each meeting; however, this person was not introduced to, or known by, the store managers.
At the meetings, Citi Trends’s human resources representative gave the store managers these documents: the arbitration agreement, a fill-in-the-blank declaration, and the store manager disclosure. The store managers were asked to sign each of these documents at the meeting.
Citi Trends informed the store managers that the arbitration agreement was a condition of continued employment. The store managers understood that they would be fired if they did not assent to the arbitration agreement or the new ADR policy. Thus, the store managers lacked meaningful choice in whether to sign the arbitration agreements or other documents. The district court found the setting of the back-room meetings to be a “highly coercive” and “interrogation-like.”
Opt-in plaintiffs testified that they signed the documents but felt intimidated by the human resources representative. They also felt pressured to sign the arbitration agreements to avoid losing their jobs. Even when specifically requested, Citi Trends did not give the store managers copies of the documents that the store managers signed.
The district court found that Citi Trends did not conceive or begin to institute its ADR policy until after the district court held a scheduling conference to determine when and how Billingsley must move for conditional certification. Citi Trends then rolled out its ADR policy in a “blitzkrieg fashion” and only required potential members of this collective action to agree to the ADR policy. The district court found that Citi Trend’s “ADR roll-out was a hurried reaction specifically targeted at curtailing this litigation.”
The district court found that the “purpose and effect” of the arbitration agreement was “to protect Citi Trends in this lawsuit.” The district court also found that the timing of the arbitration agreement’s rollout “was calculated to reduce or eliminate the number of collective action opt-in Plaintiffs in this case” and the rollout was “replete with deceit” and “designed to be[ ] intimidating and coercive.”
After a discussion of the FLSA, its remedial purpose and the broad discretion afforded to courts in managing collective actions, the Eleventh Circuit held that that the district court properly exercised its broad discretion in denying the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, because such a denial was in line with the court’s responsibilities to manage communications between the parties and putative class members. Specifically, the court reasoned:
Given the “broad authority” that the district court has to manage parties and counsel in an FLSA collective action, the district court did not abuse its discretion in determining that Citi Trends’s conduct in the summer of 2012 undermined the court’s authority to manage the collective action. Nor did the district abuse its discretion in determining that—to correct the effect of Citi Trends’s misconduct—it would allow putative collective action members to join the lawsuit notwithstanding their coerced signing of the arbitration agreements.
Whatever right Citi Trends may have had to ask its employees to agree to arbitrate, the district court found that its effort in the summer of 2012 was confusing, misleading, coercive, and clearly designed to thwart unfairly the right of its store managers to make an informed choice as to whether to participate in this FLSA collective action. Since the arbitration agreements by their terms will directly affect this lawsuit, the district court had authority to prevent abuse and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 171, 110 S.Ct. at 486–87; see also Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (class action).
The district court simply did what other district courts routinely do: exercise discretion to correct the effects of pre-certification communications with potential FLSA collective action members after misleading, coercive, or improper communications are made. See, e.g., Balasanyan v. Nordstrom, Inc., No. 11–CV2609–JM–WMC, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2, 4 (S.D.Cal. Mar.8, 2012) (refusing to enforce individual arbitration agreement in an FLSA action because the defendant’s imposition of the agreement was an improper class communication); Williams v. Securitas Sec. Servs. USA, Inc., No. 10–7181, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12 (E.D.Pa. July 13, 2011) (invalidating arbitration agreement imposed on the defendant’s employees during pre-certification stage of FLSA litigation and ordering corrective measures because the arbitration agreement was a “confusing and unfair communication” with the potential opt-in plaintiffs); Ojeda–Sanchez v. Bland Farms, 600 F.Supp.2d 1373, 1379–81 (S.D.Ga.2009) (granting a limited protective order in FLSA collective action where the defendants engaged in unsupervised, unsolicited, in-person interviews of the plaintiffs in an environment that encouraged speedy and uninformed decision-making); Longcrier v. HL–A Co., 595 F.Supp.2d 1218, 1229–30 (S.D.Ala.2008) (striking declarations obtained through the defendants’ abusive and misleading communications with prospective opt-in plaintiffs); Jones v. Casey’s Gen. Stores, 517 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1086, 1089 (S.D.Iowa 2007) (limiting the plaintiffs’ counsel from affirmatively soliciting potential opt-in plaintiffs to join the FLSA action and requiring counsel to modify their website to provide “only a factual, accurate, and balanced outline of the proceedings”); Maddox v. Knowledge Learning Corp., 499 F.Supp.2d 1338, 1342–44 (N.D.Ga.2007) (observing that district courts in § 216(b) actions rely on broad case management discretion by limiting misleading, pre-certification communications and exercising that discretion in the case before the court by ordering the plaintiffs to correct false, unbalanced, and misleading statements on their website); Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 299 F.Supp.2d 664, 667–70 (E.D.Tex.2003) (sanctioning the employer and enjoining the employer from communicating ex parte with potential class action members because the employer intentionally attempted to subvert the district court’s role in the FLSA collective action by unilaterally sending a misleading and coercive letter to potential plaintiffs that encouraged those persons not to join).
District courts’ corrective actions have included refusal to enforce arbitration agreements instituted through improper means and where the timing of the execution of those agreements was similar to the post-filing, pre-certification timing in this case. See, e.g., Balasanyan, 2012 WL 760566, at * 1–2; Williams, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 75502, at *8–12; see also In re Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litig., 361 F.Supp.2d at 252–54 (imposing similar corrective action in Rule 23 class action).
The district court did not abuse its discretion in correcting the effects of Citi Trends’s improper behavior in this case. The district court held an initial hearing, after which it denied Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration. The court then reconsidered its order, held an additional two-day evidentiary hearing, made specific and detailed findings of fact that were supported by the record, and took minimal action to correct the effects of Citi Trends’s conduct.
The district court limited its order temporally and substantively. The district court limited its order to those agreements signed under the coercive conditions used by Citi Trends in the summer of 2012. And, the district court limited its order to this particular FLSA action. The court specifically said that it was not ruling on the enforceability of the arbitration agreements as they relate to other cases or controversies. The district did not restrict Citi Trends from entering into new arbitration agreements with the store managers; nor did the court prevent store managers from electing to comply with the terms of the arbitration agreements that they signed in the summer of 2012.
The district court’s limited remedial action is not an abuse of its considerable discretion to manage this collective action. Accord Kleiner, 751 F.2d at 1203 (holding that a district court’s power to manage a class action included the power to prohibit a defendant from making “unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class”). That is especially true given the opt-in nature of FLSA collective actions. Because FLSA plaintiffs must opt-in, unsupervised, unilateral communications with those potential plaintiffs can sabotage the goal of the FLSA’s informed consent requirement by planting the slightest seed of doubt or worry through the one-sided, unrebutted presentation of “facts.” Because the damage from misstatements could well be irreparable, the district court must be able to exercise its discretion to attempt to correct the effects of such actions. See Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170, 110 S.Ct. at 486 (noting that court intervention in the collective action notice process may be necessary).
Because we affirm the district court’s decision to deny enforceability of the arbitration agreements in this case, we necessarily must affirm the district court’s order denying Citi Trends’s motion to compel arbitration.
Click Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
In his recent article, “Taking the Employer Out of Employment Law? Accountability for Wage and Hour Violations in an Age of Enterprise Disaggregation,” Professor, Timothy P. Glynn of Seton Hall School of Law makes a compelling argument that the answer is yes.
In the abstract to his article, Professor Glynn explains:
“Violations of wage and hour mandates are widespread at the low end of the labor market. The disaggregation of business enterprises into smaller, independent parts has been an important factor in this growing problem. Limitations on liability for work-law violations invite such arrangements since statutory protections for workers usually impose duties only on “employers.” That status, in turn, hinges on the level of control a firm exercises over the work, and when exacting control is not necessary, firms usually can avoid accountability by shifting work to independent third-party suppliers. This creates severe enforcement obstacles: detection becomes difficult, labor suppliers often are undercapitalized, and coverage uncertainties lead to unprosecuted claims and discounted settlements. Thus, disaggregation does far more than shift legal responsibility from one entity to another: it allows end-user firms to avoid noncompliance risks while benefiting from labor at a price discounted by the unlikelihood of enforcement.”
Thus, Professor Glynn proposes “eliminating the ’employer’ coverage barrier altogether.” Under his approach, “commercial actors would be held strictly liable for wage and hour violations in the production of any goods and services they purchase, sell, or distribute, whether directly or through intermediaries. The only limitation is that a firm’s liability would not exceed the proportion of the violations attributable to the goods or services it purchases, sells, or distributes.”
Adopting this less restrictive coverage requirement would lead to easier enforcement of wage and hour laws and thus, fewer abuses at the low end of the labor market. It doesn’t appear that there’s any push to adopt these logical changes which would no doubt further the remedial goals of wage and hour laws, but it’s a refreshing perspective nonetheless. In this day and age, Professor Glynn’s recognition that a modern fractured economy is far different than the economy of the past, with fewer larger actors, is largely unaddressed by wage and hour laws that are currently on the books.
Click Abstract to read more on Professor Glynn’s work.
Thanks to the Workplace Prof Blog for bringing this to our attention.
Florida Sued For Failing To Raise Minimum Wage, In Accordance With The Florida Constitution, Miami Herald Reports
The Miami Herald reports that:
“Two legal groups sued Florida’s labor agency Monday, claiming the state failed to raise the state’s minimum wage by six cents per hour this year to keep up with inflation.
The lawsuit claimed the Agency for Workforce Innovation violated the Florida Constitution by keeping it at the $7.25 federal rate, where it was last year, instead of raising it to $7.31 on Jan. 1.
About 188,000 minimum wage workers could be effected. At stake is up to $128 this year for a full-time employee working a 40-hour week. If all those the minimum-wage employees worked 40-hour weeks the extra six cents would add up to $15 million.”
Go to the Miami Herald to read the entire story.
Arbitrator Rules That Massachusetts Trial Court System Must Pay Workers $30 Million In Retroactive Pay Increases, Boston Herald Reports
The Boston Herald is reporting that an Arbitrator has ruled that Massachusetts’ Trial Court system must pay its clerical workers $30 million in unpaid pay increases.
“In what is being called the costliest settlement of its type in state history, the financially strapped Trial Court system must shell out $30 million in back wages to thousands of unionized clerical workers, the Herald has learned.
In a decision reached May 7, an arbitrator ruled that the Trial Court broke its contract with Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 6, by refusing to pay the negotiated 3 percent pay raises since 2007…
In addition to the $30 million in back pay, the Trial Court must find $17 million in unfunded raises for the union employees for the next budget year, starting in July, said Superior Court Justice Peter W. Agnes Jr., president of the Massachusetts Judges Conference.”
To read the entire article click here.
Reuters is reporting that Wal-Mart has agreed to pay up to $86 Million to settle a class-action lawsuit accusing it of failing to pay vacation, overtime and other wages to thousands of former workers in California.
According to Reuters, “[a]bout 232,000 people will share in the settlement, which was disclosed on Tuesday in a federal court filing.
It requires a minimum payout of $43 million, and “far exceeds other recent settlements” involving Wal-Mart, the filing shows. The accord requires court approval.”
To read the entire story click here.
E.D.Va.: Applicant For A Job May Not Assert An Action For FLSA Retaliation, Because Not A Covered “Employee” Of The Potential Employer
Dellinger v. Science Applications Intern. Corp.
This case was before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss filed by Defendant. Plaintiff alleged that Defendant violated the anti-retaliation provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) codified at 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3), by refusing to hire her after they received notice that she had filed a separate FLSA action against a former employer. Defendant moved to dismiss on the basis that Plaintiff was never an “employee” of Defendant, and the Court granted Defendant’s Motion on this basis.
The Court reasoned:
“In a statutory construction case, the beginning point must be the language of the statute, and when a statute speaks with clarity to an issue [,] judicial inquiry into the statute’s meaning, in all but the most extraordinary circumstance, is finished.” Ramey v. Director, office of Workers’ Compensation Program, 326 F.3d 474, 476 (4th Cir.2003)(citing Estate of Cowart v. Nicklos Drilling Co. ., 505 U.S. 469, 475, 112 S.Ct. 2589, 120 L.Ed.2d 379 (1992)). The statute at issue here, 29 U.S.C. § 215 states, in pertinent part:
(a) [I]t shall be unlawful for any person …
(3) to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to this chapter …
29 U.S.C. § 215 (emphasis added). Congress chose to define “employee” as “any individual employed by an employer.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(e)(1). For an individual to be “employed” by an “employer” they must be “suffer[ed] or permitt[ed] to work.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(g). Here, Plaintiff was never “permitted” to work for SAIC, in fact, her main allegation is that the offer of employment was withdrawn. (See Compl. ¶ 34.).
The two district courts that have addressed this issue have found that a job applicant should not be considered an “employee” for purposes of the anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA. In Harper v. San Luis Valley Regional Medical Center, an applicant for a nursing position at defendant hospital was involved in an unrelated federal wage claim suit against several municipalities. Harper, 848 F.Supp. 911 (D.Colo.1994). The hospital hired several allegedly less qualified individuals over plaintiff Harper and Harper filed suit alleging FLSA retaliation. In reaching its decision the Court specifically relied on the plain language of the statute, noting that “where a statute names parties who come within its provisions, other unnamed parties are excluded.” Id. at 913-914 (D.Colo.1994) (citing Foxgord v. Hischemoeller, 820 F.2d 1030, 1035, cert. denied, 484 U.S. 986, 108 S.Ct. 503, 98 L.Ed.2d 502, (9th Cir.1987); See Contract Courier Services, Inc. v. Research and Special Programs Admin. of U.S. Depart. of Transp., 924 F.2d 112, 114 (7th Cir.1991)(holding “statutory words mean nothing unless they distinguish one situation from another; line-drawing is the business of language”). The Court in Harper held that § 215(a)(3) “specifically identifies those individuals who come within its provisions i.e. employees. Therefore, other unnamed parties such as non-employee job applicants are excluded from its protection.” Harper, 848 F.Supp. at 914.
In the similar case of Glover v. City of North Charleston, plaintiff was also the lead plaintiff in a separate FLSA wage and hour suit against the North Charleston (Fire Dept.) District. Glover, 42 F.Supp. 243 (D.S.C.1996). After Glover brought suit against the District, the District Fire Department was disbanded and the City of North Charleston Fire Department was formed; however, the City had discretion to determine which of the District Department’s employees would be hired. Id. at 245. In his suit against the City, Glover alleged a violation of § 215(a)(3) claiming the City’s decision not to hire Glover was retaliation for his earlier FLSA claims. In dismissing the case, the Glover court found that plaintiffs were job applicants and thus not yet “employees” within the meaning of the Act. Id. at 246.
In so doing, the Court drew a careful distinction between § 215‘s initial language holding that it “shall be unlawful for any person ” to commit certain acts (§ 215(a)), and more limited language of the provision at issue here, protecting “any employee ” from the person’s misconduct (§ 215(a)(3)). Id. at 245-246 (emphasis added). The court found that the statute’s application to “any person” did not bar suit against the “non-employer” City, however, the plain language of the statue restricting its protections to “any employee” did mean that a mere job “applicant” did not have standing to bring a § 215 action. Id. As the Glover court found, the first sentence of the statute applies to “any person,” if “Congress wanted to cover non-employees, it could have written § 215(a)(3) to prevent discrimination [or retaliation] against “any person” instead of “any employee.” Id. at 246-247. Based on the plain language of the statute, the courts that have considered the issue have found that § 215(a)(3) does not cover job applicants.
Plaintiff attempts to distinguish these cases as outliers and non-binding on this Court. As decisions from other Districts they are clearly not binding precedent, however, their reasoning is, contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, applicable here. Both opinions rest on the plain language of the statute and both were unwilling to read the term “employee” to mean an individual who was never employed the Defendant.
Defendant points to the leading Fourth case regarding the sufficiency of an anti-retaliation claim under FLSA, Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334 (4th Cir.2008.) In the Fourth Circuit, to assert a prima facie claim of retaliation under the FLSA a plaintiff must show: “that (1) he engaged in an activity protected by the FLSA; (2) he suffered adverse action by the employer subsequent to or contemporaneous with such protected activity; and (3) a causal connection exists between the employee’s activity and the employer’s adverse action.” Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334, 340 (4th Cir.2008) (citing Wolf v. Coca-Cola Co., 200 F.3d 1337, 1342-43 (11th Cir.2000); Conner v. Schnuck Mkts., Inc., 121 F.3d 1390, 1394 (10th Cir.1997)). Similarly, Defendant argues that as the Fourth Circuit standard requires a “casual connection” between the “employee’s activity” and the “employer’s” action, Plaintiff has no standing to bring suit as she was never an “employee.” (Mem. in Supp. Mot. to Dismiss at 4.) Without reading beyond the plain language of the statute, a job applicant cannot be considered an ’employee.’ ”
Although not highlighted here, the Court also rejected several alternative arguments put forth by Plaintiff, that the Court should look beyond the FLSA, to statutory definitions and construction of Title VII and the NLRA statutes.
Today’s NY Times reports that there is a growing trend of employers, who illegally deem workers, entitled to be paid at least minimum wage, to be unpaid “interns.”
The article reports that, “[w]ith job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor.
Convinced that many unpaid internships violate minimum wage laws, officials in Oregon, California and other states have begun investigations and fined employers. Last year, M. Patricia Smith, then New York’s labor commissioner, ordered investigations into several firms’ internships. Now, as the federal Labor Department’s top law enforcement official, she and the wage and hour division are stepping up enforcement nationwide.
Many regulators say that violations are widespread, but that it is unusually hard to mount a major enforcement effort because interns are often afraid to file complaints. Many fear they will become known as troublemakers in their chosen field, endangering their chances with a potential future employer.”
To read the entire article, click here.
Tyson Foods Found In Violation Of Fair Labor Standards Act In Donning And Doffing Suit, Reuters Reports
Reuters is reporting that “Tyson Foods Inc., one of the nation’s largest poultry producers, has been found in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) at its Blountsville, Ala., facility. The jury’s verdict in federal court in Birmingham resulted from a lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Labor against the company…
The Department of Labor’s lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. The federal department alleged that Tyson Foods did not keep accurate records and failed to pay production line employees for the time they spend donning and doffing safety and sanitary gear, and performing other related work activities. The violations cover the period from the year 2000 to the present and affect approximately 3,000 current and former workers at the plant.
The initial investigation began in April 2000 as part of the department’s Wage and Hour Division’s poultry enforcement initiative. The Labor Department filed the district court complaint in May 2002 following the company’s failure to comply with the law and to pay back wages. The first jury trial, which began in February 2009, ended in a mistrial. The Labor Department chose to pursue a second trial in August 2009 to secure a ruling that Tyson was failing to compensate its employees lawfully.”
To read the full story go to Reuters’ website.
6 Construction Companies Accused Of Using Race-based Pay Scale: Whites At Top, Latinos Rock Bottom, Daily News Reports
The Daily News is reporting that, “[s]ix construction companies are accused in a new state lawsuit of paying their employees according to their race – with whites at the top and Latinos at the bottom.
The suit filed by [New York] state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on Thursday says the companies cheated lower-paid minority workers out of $4 million in wages and overtime.
All six firms are controlled by Michael Mahoney, a contractor exposed by the Daily News last year after workers said his companies provided them with black market federal safety certificates.
Mahoney’s companies paid white workers an average hourly rate of $25, while paying African-Americans $18 and Latinos and Brazilians only $15 an hour for the same work, the suit charges.
Since 2002, the companies short-changed dozens of employes at at least 10 construction sites, Cuomo charged.
Some workers were cheated of as much as $600 a month, according to Cuomo.”