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5th Cir.: General Release Obtained By Defendant in Non-FLSA State Court Case Did Not Waive FLSA Claims
In this appeal, the Fifth Circuit was asked (by the defendant-appellee) to extend its holding in Martin v. Spring Break ′83 Productions, L.L.C., 688 F.3d 247 (5th Cir.2012). In Martin, the Fifth Circuit held that a private settlement reached over a bona fide dispute regarding Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claims was enforceable despite the general prohibition against the waiver of FLSA claims via private settlement. Applying Martin, the district court in the instant action enforced a generic, broad release against the plaintiffs’ subsequent FLSA claims, even though the release was obtained through the private settlement of a prior state court action that did not involve the FLSA or any claim of unpaid wages. Because it reasoned that it could not be assured under the facts at bar that the release at issue resulted from a bona fide dispute regarding overtime wages, the Fifth Circuit declined to extend Martin and reversed.
Laying out the relevant facts and procedural history, the court explained:
Plaintiffs–Appellants Ambre Bodle and Leslie Meech (collectively referred to as “the plaintiffs”) filed the instant FLSA action against their former employer TXL Mortgage Corporation (“TXL”) and its president William Dale Couch (collectively referred to as “the defendants”) on May 16, 2012. The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants failed to compensate them for their overtime work as required by Section 207 of the FLSA. The defendants moved for summary judgment asserting res judicata as a basis for dismissal. The defendants also argued that the plaintiffs executed a valid and enforceable waiver in a prior state court action, which released all claims against the defendants arising from the parties’ employment relationship. The district court found the latter contention dispositive.
The defendants in the instant case filed the prior state court action against the plaintiffs on February 3, 2012. The defendants claimed that the plaintiffs, who had resigned from the company about a year prior, had begun to work for a direct competitor and had violated their noncompetition covenants with TXL by soliciting business and employees to leave TXL for the competitor. In connection with these allegations, the defendants asserted nine state law causes of action against the plaintiffs.3In response, the plaintiffs sought a declaration that the non-compete and non-solicitation of client provisions in the employment agreements were unenforceable.
On May 16, 2012, the parties filed with the state court a joint motion for entry of agreed final judgment pursuant to a settlement agreement. The state court granted the parties’ motion and entered an agreed final judgment on May 23, 2012. The private settlement agreement between the parties contained a release by the plaintiffs which stated the following:
In exchange for the consideration identified above, DEFENDANTS hereby fully and completely release and discharge TXL and its agents, representatives, attorneys, successors, and assigns from any and all actual or potential claims, demands, actions, causes of action, and liabilities of any kind or nature, whether known or unknown, including but not limited to all claims and causes of action that were or could have been asserted in the Lawsuit and all claims and causes of action related to or in any way arising from DEFENDANTS’ employment with TXL, whether based in tort, contract (express or implied), warranty, deceptive trade practices, or any federal, state or local law, statute, or regulation. This is meant to be, and shall be construed as, a broad release.
The district court in the instant action granted summary judgment to the defendants on the basis that the plain language of the release from the state court settlement was binding on the plaintiffs and therefore banned their subsequent FLSA claims. The plaintiffs now appeal the dismissal. The defendants contend that the dismissal was proper under the state court settlement release, and in the alternative, that res judicata bars the plaintiffs’ FLSA claims.
After discussing the well-settled authority which holds that generally—absent approval from the DOL or a court of adequate jurisdiction—private settlements of FLSA claims are not binding on employees, the court then examined its prior holding in the Martin case:
We considered this question in Martin v. Spring Break ′83 Productions, L.L.C., 688 F.3d 247 (5th Cir.2012). In Martin, we enforced a private settlement agreement that constituted a compromise over FLSA claims because the settlement resolved a bona fide dispute about the number of hours worked.Id. at 255. In reaching this conclusion, we adopted reasoning from Martinez v. Bohls Bearing Equipment Co., 361 F.Supp.2d 608 (W.D.Tex.2005).Martinez held that “parties may reach private compromises as to FLSA claims where there is a bona fide dispute as to the amount of hours worked or compensation due. A release of a party’s rights under the FLSA is enforceable under such circumstances.”Id. at 631…
In Martin, we approved, as an enforceable compromise of a bona fide dispute, a settlement between a union representative and a movie production company. 688 F.3d at 249. After an investigation, the union representative concluded it would be impossible to validate the number of hours claimed by the workers for unpaid wages. Id. The parties’ settlement of the union members’ complaints read as follows:
The Union on its own behalf and on behalf of the IATSE Employees agrees and acknowledges that the Union has not and will not file any complaints, charges, or other proceedings against Producer, its successors, licenses and/or assignees, with any agency, court, administrative body, or in any forum, on condition that payment in full is made pursuant to the terms of this Settlement Agreement.
Id. at 254. In reaching the conclusion that a bona fide dispute existed, we emphasized the union representative’s inability to “determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they claimed they had worked[.]”Id. at 255.
However, the Fifth Circuit held that meaningful facts distinguished this case from Martin and declined to extend Martin’s holding to these facts:
In the instant action, the settlement containing the release of future claims derived from a state court action centered upon a disputed non-compete agreement. Nevertheless, the district court concluded that the release validly barred the plaintiffs’ subsequent FLSA claims because the topic of unpaid wages for commissions and salary arose in the settlement negotiations. The district court found that at the time of the settlement discussions regarding the unpaid wages, the plaintiffs were aware of their claims for unpaid overtime because they had signed consent forms to join the instant lawsuit. However, the plaintiffs chose, at that time, to remain silent about their overtime claims. The district court concluded that the overall “bona fide dispute” as to wages (which focused on wages for commissions and salary), could have included the claims for overtime wages, but for the plaintiffs’ silence. And for that reason, the district court held that the plaintiffs are now barred from claiming that the compromise resulting from their bona fide dispute over wages did not encompass their claim for unpaid overtime.
The plaintiffs contend on appeal that the district court erred in extending Martin’s limited holding to the circumstances of this case. The plaintiffs point out that in Martin the settlement was reached in response to the filing of a FLSA lawsuit, as opposed to the state court action concerning a non-compete agreement that is present in this case. The plaintiffs further emphasize that in Martin, the parties specifically disputed the amounts due and the number of overtime hours claimed under the FLSA. The plaintiffs maintain that because they did not receive any FLSA compensation for unpaid overtime in the state court settlement, the rationale set out in Martin, does not apply to this case. The defendants argue that since the state court settlement resolved a bona fide dispute about hours worked and compensation due in a general sense, the release of a claim for unpaid overtime is valid, even if brought under the FLSA. The defendants state that if the plaintiffs wished to bring a subsequent FLSA claim, they should have carved that claim out of the settlement agreement.
The plaintiffs have the stronger argument on this issue. The general rule establishes that FLSA claims (for unpaid overtime, in this case) cannot be waived. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank, 324 U.S. at 706–08. Accordingly, many courts have held that, in the absence of supervision by the Department of Labor or scrutiny from a court, a settlement of an FLSA claim is prohibited. See, e.g., Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. U.S., 679 F.2d 1350, 1355 (11th Cir.1982) ( “Other than a section 216(c) payment supervised by the Department of Labor, there is only one context in which compromises of FLSA back wage or liquidated damage claims may be allowed: a stipulated judgment entered by a court which has determined that a settlement proposed by an employer and employees, in a suit brought by the employees under the FLSA, is a fair and reasonable resolution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions.”) (emphasis added); Taylor v. Progress Energy, Inc., 493 F.3d 454, 460 (4th Cir.2007), superseded by regulation on other grounds as stated in Whiting v. Johns Hopkins Hosp., 416 F. App’x 312 (4th Cir.2011) (“[U]nder the FLSA, a labor standards law, there is a judicial prohibition against the unsupervised waiver or settlement of claims.”).
Nevertheless, we have excepted, from this general rule, unsupervised settlements that are reached due to a bona fide FLSA dispute over hours worked or compensation owed. See Martin, 688 F.3d at 255. In doing so, we reasoned that such an exception would not undermine the purpose of the FLSA because the plaintiffs did not waive their claims through some sort of bargain but instead received compensation for the disputed hours. Id. at 257. The Martin exception does not apply to the instant case because not only did the prior state court action not involve the FLSA, the parties never discussed overtime compensation or the FLSA in their settlement negotiations. Therefore, there was no factual development of the number of unpaid overtime hours nor of compensation due for unpaid overtime. To deem the plaintiffs as having fairly bargained away unmentioned overtime pay based on a settlement that involves a compromise over wages due for commissions and salary would subvert the purpose of the FLSA: namely, in this case, the protection of the right to overtime pay. Under these circumstances where overtime pay was never specifically negotiated, there is no guarantee that the plaintiffs have been or will be compensated for the overtime wages they are allegedly due under the Act.
Thus, the court held as follows:
Accordingly, we hold that the absence of any mention or factual development of any claim of unpaid overtime compensation in the state court settlement negotiations precludes a finding that the release resulted from a bona fide dispute under Martin.The general prohibition against FLSA waivers applies in this case, and the state court settlement release cannot be enforced against the plaintiffs’ FLSA claims.
The court also rejected the Appellee’s alternative argument that the FLSA claims were barred by res judicata due to the plaintiff’s failure to raise them in the unrelated underlying state-law case.
Click Bodle v. TXL Mortg Corp. to read the entire Fifth Circuit Opinion.
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.
5th Cir.: Where Employees Were Represented in Grievance Process By Their Union and Its Attorneys, Private Settlement of a Bona Fide Dispute Enforceable
Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C.
Following the entry of summary judgment on behalf of the defendants, the plaintiffs appealed. As discussed here, plaintiffs challenged the trial court’s holding that the private settlement reached between their union and one of their alleged employers was binding and enforceable. Specifically, the plaintiffs argued that absent: (1) court approval, (2) DOL supervision, or (3) a showing that they had been paid their wages in full without compromise, the settlement previously reached was not binding and/or enforceable. Affirming the decision below, the Fifth Circuit held that the settlement agreement was binding and enforceable notwithstanding the lack of court or DOL supervision, because it was a resolution of a bona fide dispute. While it is not entirely clear, it appears that the Fifth Circuit reasoned that the agreement, at least arguably could be said to be “without compromise,” thus making it binding and enforceable.
The case concerned grips and other movie production employees who worked on the set of a movie. Laying out the relevant procedural/factual background, the Fifth Circuit explained:
The plaintiffs “filed a grievance against Spring Break Louisiana alleging that they had not been paid wages for work they performed. The Union sent a representative to investigate the merits of the claims. After his investigation, the representative concluded that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they alleged they had worked. The Union and Spring Break Louisiana entered into a Settlement Agreement pertaining to the disputed hours allegedly worked by Appellants.”
Discussing the issue of whether the private settlement here was binding and enforceable the Fifth Circuit reasoned:
The district court concluded that the plain language of the Settlement Agreement “is binding upon the [Appellants] in their individual capacities and prohibits those individuals from pursuing future legal action against Spring Break Louisiana after receiving their settlement payments.” We agree. The Settlement Agreement, in relevant part, states:
The Union on its own behalf and on behalf of the IATSE Employees agrees and acknowledges that the Union has not and will not file any complaints, charges or other proceedings against Producer, its successors, licenses and/or assignees, with any agency, court, administrative body, or in any forum, on condition that payment in full is made pursuant to the terms of this Settlement Agreement.
The Settlement Agreement also states that the Union “has the full power and authority to enter into this Settlement Agreement on behalf of IATSE Employees and bind them in accordance with the terms hereof.” By this plain language, the Appellants, who were IATSE Employees, were bound by its terms. Appellants contend, however, that the Settlement Agreement is unenforceable because they never signed it or agreed to it—instead, the Settlement Agreement was signed by Union representatives. However, Appellants do not dispute that they received full payment for their claims pursuant the terms of the Settlement Agreement. Nor do Appellants dispute that they cashed the Settlement Agreement payment checks they received. The Appellants were members of the Union and, under the CBA, Spring Break Louisiana recognized “the Union as exclusive representative of the employees in the bargaining unit.” Considering that Appellants, who were members of the Union, received and accepted full payment for their FLSA claims under the Settlement Agreement, the fact that Appellants did not themselves personally sign the Settlement Agreement does not render it unenforceable. See N.L.R.B. v. Allis–Chalmers Mfg. Co., 388 U.S. 175, 180, 87 S.Ct. 2001, 18 L.Ed.2d 1123 (1967) (“The employee may disagree with many of the union decisions but is bound by them.”).
On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that the settlement agreement was not binding and enforceable, because generally individuals may not privately settle FLSA claims. In response the defendants argued that that a private compromise of claims under the FLSA is permissible where there exists a bona fide dispute as to liability (and as to the amount of appropriate damages). After a discussion of the relevant Fifth Circuit precedent, the court agreed with the Defendants and held the settlement agreement at issue to be enforceable.
Significantly the court reasoned:
[H]ere, there is a bona fide dispute between Appellants and Spring Break Louisiana over the number of hours for which they are owed their set rate of pay. In fact, the Union representative conducted an investigation into the dispute and received conflicting information from various sources, ultimately concluding that it would be impossible to determine whether or not Appellants worked on the days they claimed they had worked in their grievance. Approving of this rationale, we hold that the payment offered to and accepted by Appellants, pursuant to the Settlement Agreement, is an enforceable resolution of those FLSA claims predicated on a bona fide dispute about time worked and not as a compromise of guaranteed FLSA substantive rights themselves. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 714, 65 S.Ct. 895, 89 L.Ed. 1296 (1945) (“Our decision … has not necessitated a determination of what limitation, if any, Section 16(b) of the [FLSA] places on the validity of agreements between an employer and employee to settle claims arising under the Act if the settlement is made as the result of a bona fide dispute between the two parties, in consideration of a bona fide compromise and settlement.”); see also D.A. Schulte, Inc. v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 114–15, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946) (“Nor do we need to consider here the possibility of compromises in other situation which may arise, such as a dispute over the number of hours worked or the regular rate of employment.”); 29 U.S.C. § 253(a).
Apparently the court also believed that the settlement at issue here could arguably be said to be “without compromise” such that the third permissible basis for an enforceable private settlement was met:
Notably, in Thomas v. Louisiana, 534 F.2d 613 (5th Cir.1976), we held that a private settlement of FLSA claims was binding and enforceable where the settlement gave employees “everything to which they are entitled under the FLSA at the time the agreement is reached.” Id. at 615. We explained that, “[a]lthough no court ever approved this settlement agreement, the same reason for enforcing a court-approved agreement i.e., little danger of employees being disadvantaged by unequal bargaining power[,] applies here.” Id. Here, Spring Break Louisiana and the Union agreed in the Settlement Agreement that the payments Appellants were paid pursuant to that agreement were the “amounts due and owing” for the disputed number of hours they claimed they had worked and not been paid for. The Settlement Agreement was a way to resolve a bona fide dispute as to the number of hours worked—not the rate at which Appellants would be paid for those hours—and though Appellants contend they are yet not satisfied, they received agreed-upon compensation for the disputed number of hours worked.
Lastly, the court distinguished a settlement privately negotiated by a union and its attorneys from a situation where a labor union purports to waive an employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, a longstanding no-no under well-established FLSA jurisprudence:
Finally, Appellants contend, citing Barrentine v. Arkansas–Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437, 67 L.Ed.2d 641 (1981), that because the Supreme Court has held that a union cannot waive employees’ rights under the FLSA through a collective bargaining agreement, they cannot have settled their FLSA claims in the Settlement Agreement, which was arrived at through the Union-facilitated grievance procedure laid out in the CBA. See Barrentine, 450 U.S. at 745, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“FLSA rights … are independent of the collective-bargaining process. They devolve on petitioners as individual workers, not as members of a collective organization. They are not waivable.”). Although the terms and conditions of Appellants’ employment with Spring Break Louisiana were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, Barrentine is distinguishable. In Barrentine, the plaintiffs’ grievances based on rights under the FLSA were submitted by the union to a joint grievance committee that rejected them without explanation, a final and binding decision pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement. 450 U.S. at 731, 101 S.Ct. 1437. Here, Appellants accepted and cashed settlement payments—Appellants’ FLSA rights were adhered to and addressed through the Settlement Agreement, not waived or bargained away. The concerns the Court in Barrentine expressed, that FLSA substantive rights would be bargained away, see id. at 740, 101 S.Ct. 1437 (“This Court’s decisions interpreting the FLSA have frequently emphasized the nonwaivable nature of an individual employee’s right to a minimum wage and to overtime pay under the Act. Thus, we have held that FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived because this would ‘nullify the purposes’ of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.”), are not implicated by the situation here where Appellants’ Union did not waive FLSA claims, but instead Appellants, with counsel, personally received and accepted compensation for the disputed hours. We reiterate that FLSA substantive rights may not be waived in the collective bargaining process, however, here, FLSA rights were not waived, but instead, validated through a settlement of a bona fide dispute, which Appellants accepted and were compensated for. Therefore, the district court did not err by finding an enforceable release resolving this wage dispute.
Given, the somewhat unique facts of this case, it remains to be seen whether the Fifth Circuit’s decision while trigger a change in longstanding FLSA jurisprudence regarding the enforceability of privately-negotiated settlements, or whether this case will remain an outlier, largely limited to its facts. For example, it is not clear whether the settlement would have been enforced absent the fact that plaintiffs were represented by both their union and attorneys in the negotiations, or if this was a “straight time” case where there was demonstrative evidence of the precise number of hours at issue. Stay tuned, for what’s likely to be an influx of cases where defendant-employers seek to expand this case’s holding while plaintiff-employees seek to limit the holding to the facts at bar (which are not likely to be oft-repeated).
Click Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L.C. to read the entire Decision. For an excellent historical overview of more typical decisions regarding the enforceability of private settlements of FLSA claims click here to read an outline from the folks at Outten & Golden.
M.D.Tenn.: Where Employees Believed They Were Required to Sign WH-58 and/or Unaware of Private Lawsuit Regarding Same Issues, Waivers Null & Void
Woods v. RHA/Tennessee Group Homes, Inc.
This case was before the court on a variety of motions related to the plaintiffs’ request for conditional certification and for clarification as to the eligible participants in any such class. The case arose from plaintiffs’ claims that defendants improperly automatically deducted 30 minutes for breaks that were not provided to them. Of interest here, during the time the lawsuit was pending, the DOL was also investigating defendants regarding the same claims. Shortly after the lawsuit was commenced, the DOL made findings and recommendations to the defendants, in which it recommended payments of backwages to certain employees that were also putative class members in the case. As discussed here, the defendants then made such payments to the putative class members, but required that all recipients of backwage payments sign a WH-58 form (DOL waiver), which typically waives an employees claims covered by the waiver. Subsequently, the plaintiffs sought to have the WH-58’s declared null & void and asserted that any waiver was not knowing and/or willful as would be required to enforce. The court agreed and struck the waivers initially. However, on reconsideration the court held that a further factual showing was necessary to determine whether the WH-58 waivers were effectual or not under the circumstances.
The court explained the following procedural/factual background relevant to the waiver issue:
“The six named plaintiffs filed this putative collective action on January 13, 2011. Coincidentally, on the same day, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) contacted the defendant and commenced an investigation regarding the Meal Break Deduction Policy. (Docket No. 80 at 25 (transcript of April 14, 2011 hearing).) The DOL was apparently following up on a complaint that it had received nearly a year earlier. (Id. at 32.) Several days later, on January 18, the defendant informed the DOL of the pending private lawsuit.
Nevertheless, the DOL proceeded with the investigation and, in early March 2011, the DOL and the defendant reached a settlement, pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(c). Under the settlement, the defendant agreed to comply with the FLSA in the future and to pay a certain amount of back wages to employees who were subject to the Meal Break Deduction Policy. (See Docket No. 80 at 14.)
To distribute these payments, the defendant posted the following notice in a common area:
The following employees must come to the Administrative Building and see Michelle regarding payment for wages as agreed upon by the Stones River center and the Department of Labor on Tuesday, April 12, 2011, 8:00 am–4:00 pm.
If you have questions, see Lisa or Kamilla
(Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 72; Docket No. 56, Ex. 1.) The posting contained a list of over 60 employees (see Docket No. 56, Ex. 1), including several employees who had already opted into this lawsuit (see, e.g., Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 56), although the defendant claims that their inclusion was an oversight. In her declaration, Human Resources Director Kamilla Wright states that she was simply “instructed to post a list of employees for whom checks were available.” (Docket No. 55 ¶ 7.)
Wright was further instructed “that when an employee came to the office to pick up their check, [she] was to have them sign the receipt for payment of back wages and then give them their check.” (Id. ¶ 9.) The declaration of Lisa Izzi, the defendant’s administrator, states that Izzi received identical instructions. (Docket No. 56 ¶ 9.) Accordingly, at the meetings with employees, each employee was given a check and DOL Form WH–58, which was titled “Receipt for Payment of Back Wages, Employment Benefits, or Other Compensation.” (Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 13.) The form stated:
I, [employee name], have received payment of wages, employment benefits, or other compensation due to me from Stones River Center … for the period beginning with the workweek ending [date] through the workweek ending [date.] The amount of payment I received is shown below.
This payment of wages and other compensation was calculated or approved by the Wage and Hour Division and is based on the findings of a Wage and Hour investigation. This payment is required by the Act(s) indicated below in the marked box(es):
[X] Fair Labor Standards Act 1 …
(Id.) Further down, in the middle of the page, the form contained the following “footnote”:
FN1NOTICE TO EMPLOYEE UNDER THE FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT (FLSA)—Your acceptance of this payment of wages and other compensation due under the FLSA based on the findings of the Wage and Hour Division means that you have given up the right you have to bring suit on your own behalf for the payment of such unpaid minimum wages or unpaid overtime compensation for the period of time indicated above and an equal amount in liquidated damages, plus attorney’s fees and court costs under Section 16(b) of the FLSA. Generally, a 2–year statute of limitations applies to the recovery of back wages. Do not sign this receipt unless you have actually received this payment in the amount indicated above of the wages and other compensation due you.
(Id.) Below that was an area for the employee to sign and date the form.
It appears that Wright and Izzi did not, as a matter of course, inform the employees that accepting the money and signing the WH–58 form was optional. Nor did they inform the employees that a private lawsuit covering the same alleged violations was already pending.
On April 12 and 13, 2011, a number of employees accepted the payments and signed the WH–58 forms. On April 13, the plaintiffs’ counsel learned of this and filed a motion for a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction, seeking to prevent the defendant from communicating with opt-in plaintiffs and potential opt-in plaintiffs. (Docket No. 43.)
The court held a hearing on the plaintiffs’ motion on April 14, 2011. At that hearing, the court expressed its displeasure with the defendant’s actions, which, the court surmised, were at least partly calculated to prevent potential class members from opting in to this litigation. The court stated that it would declare the WH–58 forms (and the attendant waiver of those employees’ right to pursue private claims) to be null and void; thus, those employees would be free to opt in to this lawsuit.”
On reconsideration, the court reconsidered its prior Order on the issue. While re-affirming that non-willful waivers would be deemed null & void, the court explained that the issue would be one for the finder of fact at trial. After a survey of the relevant case law, the court explained:
“To constitute a waiver, the employee’s choice to waive his or her right to file private claims—that is, the employee’s agreement to accept a settlement payment—must be informed and meaningful. In Dent, the Ninth Circuit explicitly equated “valid waiver” with “meaningful agreement.” Dent, 502 F.3d at 1146. Thus, the court stated that “an employee does not waive his right under section 16(c) to bring a section 16(b) action unless he or she agrees to do so after being fully informed of the consequences.” Id. (quotation marks omitted). In Walton, the Seventh Circuit likened a valid § 216(c) waiver to a typical settlement between private parties:
When private disputes are compromised, the people memorialize their compromise in an agreement. This agreement (the accord), followed by the payment (the satisfaction), bars further litigation. Payment of money is not enough to prevent litigation…. There must also be a release. Walton, 786 F.2d at 306. The relevant inquiry is whether the plaintiffs “meant to settle their [FLSA] claims.” Id.
Taken together, Sneed, Walton, and Dent suggest that an employee’s agreement to accept payment and waive his or her FLSA claims is invalid if the employer procured that agreement by fraud or duress. As with the settlement of any other private dispute, fraud or duress renders any “agreement” by the employee illusory. See 17A Am.Jur.2d Contracts § 214 (“One who has been fraudulently induced to enter into a contract may rescind the contract and recover the benefits that he or she has conferred on the other party.”); id. § 218 (“ ‘Duress’ is the condition where one is induced by a wrongful act or threat of another to make a contract under circumstances which deprive one of the exercise of his or her free will. Freedom of will is essential to the validity of an agreement.” (footnote omitted)). The court finds that employees do not waive their FLSA claims, pursuant to § 216(c), if their employer has affirmatively misstated material facts regarding the waiver, withheld material facts regarding the waiver, or unduly pressured the employees into signing the waiver.
This holding does conflict with Solis v. Hotels.com Texas, Inc ., No. 3:03–CV–0618–L, 2004 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 17199 (N.D.Tex. Aug. 26, 2004), in which the district court rejected the contention that “an allegation of fraud could lead to the invalidity of a waiver under 216(c).” Id. at *6. That finding was mere dicta, however, and, regardless, this court is not bound by decisions from the Northern District of Texas.
Here, the defendant posted a sign with a list of employees’ names stating that those employees “must come to the Administrative Building and see Michelle regarding payment for wages as agreed upon by the Stones River center and the Department of Labor.” (Docket No. 43, Ex. 1 at 72 (emphasis added).) It appears that, when the employees met with the defendant’s human resources representatives, neither the representatives nor the Form WH–58 informed the employees that they could choose to not accept the payments. On the evidence presented at the April 14 hearing and submitted thereafter, the court finds that reasonable employees could have believed that the defendant was requiring them to accept the payment. Obviously, this calls into question the willingness of the employees’ waivers.
Additionally, it appears that the defendant never informed the employees that a collective action concerning the Meal Break Deduction Policy was already pending when the waivers were signed. The court finds that it was the defendant’s duty to do so. Section 216 exists to give employees a choice of how to remedy alleged violations of the act—by either accepting a settlement approved by the DOL or by pursing a private claim. An employer should not be allowed to short circuit that choice by foisting settlement payments on employees who are unaware that a collective action has already been filed. If employees are unaware of a pending collective action, they are not “fully informed of the consequences” of their waiver, Dent, 502 F.3d at 1146, because waiving the right to file a lawsuit in the future is materially different than waiving the right to join a lawsuit that is already pending. In the former situation, an employee who wishes to pursue a claim must undertake the potentially time-consuming and expensive process of finding and hiring an attorney; in the latter, all an employee must do is sign and return a Notice of Consent form.
Thus, the court finds that any employee of Stones River Center may void his or her § 216(c) waiver by showing either: (1) that he or she believed that the defendant was requiring him or her to accept the settlement payment and to sign the waiver; or (2) that he or she was unaware that a collective action regarding the Meal Break Deduction Policy was already pending when he or she signed the waiver. The court will vacate its April 14, 2011 Order, to the extent that the order declared all such waivers to be automatically null and void. Instead, under the above-described circumstances, the waivers are voidable at the election of the employee. Because the validity of any particular employee’s waiver depends on questions of fact, the issue of validity as to each employee for whom this is an issue will be resolved at the summary judgment stage or at trial.”
Click Woods v. RHA/Tennessee Group Homes, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion on all the motions.
11th Cir.: Receipt And Signing WH-58 Form And Cashing Of The Employer’s Check Is Sufficient To Effect A Waiver Of Right To Sue Under FLSA
Blackwell v. United Drywall Supply
Plaintiffs were employed by Defendants. In September 2007, they sued Defendants pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Plaintiffs alleged that, from 2002 forward, Defendants intentionally violated the Act by failing to pay them properly for overtime. Plaintiffs further alleged that, in 2007, “as a result of an investigation by the United States Department of Labor involving allegations of the improper payment of overtime compensation to its laborer employees, [United Drywall] made payments to various employees for past due overtime compensation.” Plaintiffs alleged that Defendants retaliated against Williams for his complaints to the Department of Labor regarding overtime violations. And, Plaintiffs alleged that the payments made as part of the Department of Labor supervised settlement were “far lower than what the employees were legally due.” They sought allegedly unpaid overtime compensation for three years before the filing of the complaint and attorney’s fees and expenses pursuant to § 216 of the Act. The Court below granted Defendants’ Motion for Summary Judgment holding that Plaintiffs’ signing of the DOL WH-58 form and cashing of settlement checks was a valid waiver of their FLSA rights. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
Framing the issue before it, the Court explained, “Defendants moved for summary judgment, arguing, among other things: (1) that Plaintiffs had waived their right to sue under the Act when they cashed checks from United Drywall pursuant to the 2007 settlement between the parties supervised by the Department of Labor, and (2) that Plaintiffs are exempt employees under the Motor Carrier Exemption in the Act (“the Exemption”) and therefore are not entitled to back pay pursuant to the Act. Plaintiffs opposed the motion, arguing that there were genuine issues of fact regarding whether they had knowingly waived their rights to sue and whether the Exemption applied. After considering arguments and evidence from both sides, the district court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment. The court held that, because Plaintiffs had received Department of Labor form WH-58 (which contained a statement that if Plaintiffs accepted the back wages provided in conjunction with the form, they would give up their rights to bring suit under the Act) and because Plaintiffs had cashed the checks provided in conjunction with the WH-58 forms, Plaintiffs had waived their rights to sue Defendants for the payments they sought under the Act. The court entered judgment for Defendants. Plaintiffs appeal the judgment.”
Addressing and denying Plaintiffs’ appeal, the Court reasoned, “Plaintiffs argue that the district court erred in finding waiver because Plaintiffs did not knowingly and intentionally waive their rights to sue. They argue that the WH-58 form provided to them by the Department of Labor is ambiguous and did not put them on notice that, by cashing the checks, they would waive their rights to sue for additional back pay. Defendants argue that the district court correctly found waiver and that the judgment can be supported on the additional ground that the Exemption applies to bar Plaintiffs’ claims. In their reply brief, Plaintiffs respond that affirmance of the judgment based on the Exemption would not be proper because the Exemption is not applicable to Defendants’ business as a matter of law or, in the alternative, there are genuine issues of material fact regarding the application of the Exemption.
We affirm the judgment. We find no error in the district court’s holding “that receipt of a WH-58 form and cashing of the employer’s check is sufficient to effect a waiver of the right to sue under the FLSA.” There is no dispute that Plaintiffs received WH-58 forms in connection with the checks written by United Drywall and given to Plaintiffs by the Department of Labor as part of the supervised settlement between United Drywall and its employees. Those forms are receipts for payment of “unpaid wages, employment benefits, or other compensation due … for the period up to and including 05/20/2007 … under … The Fair Labor Standards Act….” They contain this language:
NOTICE TO EMPLOYEE UNDER THE FAIR LABOR STANDARDS ACT-Your acceptance of back wages due under the Fair Labor Standards Act means that you have given up any right you may have to bring suit for back wages under Section 16(b) of that Act. ( Id.)
The WH-58 forms then proceed to describe the types of recovery and statutes of limitations under § 16(b) of the Act. We agree with the district court that these forms unambiguously informed Plaintiffs that, if they cashed the checks provided with the forms, they would be waiving their rights to sue for back pay. And, there is no dispute that Plaintiffs cashed the checks. Therefore, the district court correctly determined that ‘both Plaintiffs have waived their right to sue. Affirming the judgment on waiver grounds, we do not address the parties’ arguments regarding application of the Exemption.’ “
S.D.Tex.: Plaintiff’s Prior Acceptance Of Check For Backwages, Following DOL Investigation, Not A Waiver Of Her FLSA Rights; No Waiver/Release Was Ever Signed
Alvarez v. 9ER’s Grill @ Blackhawk, L.L.C.
In November of 2008 Alvarez went to the Department of Labor (“DOL”) to complain about the lack of overtime pay. Alvarez identified the establishment about which she was complaining as 9ER’s Grill, 1315 Grand Parkway, Katy, Harris County, Texas, and identified Mr. Ali Qattom and Mrs. Ghapa Qattom as the owners of the establishment. Qattom met with a DOL investigator and agreed to pay back wages to Alvarez. The funds to pay the back wages to Alvarez came from Jaser and 9ER’s Grill @ Blackhawk. Since Jaser was out of the country at the time, Qattom “handled the making of the payment [ ].” Alvarez received a cashier’s check for $1,690, but never signed any forms or receipts for the check. The Court denied Defendants’ Motion, finding that under the circumstances, Plaintiff did not waive her right to pursue a private right of action, simply by cashing a check issued by Defendants, resulting from the prior DOL investigation.
Addressing the settlement/waiver issue the Court stated,
“Defendants Jaser and 9ER’s Grill @ Blackhawk contend that they are entitled to summary judgment because Alvarez settled any FLSA claim that she may have against them by accepting payment made at the conclusion of an investigation by the DOL.
(a) Applicable Law
The FLSA provides for a waiver of an additional recovery when settlement payments have been supervised by the Secretary of Labor. 29 U.S.C. § 216(c). For such a waiver to be valid, the employee must agree to accept the payment that the Secretary determines to be due and there must be payment in full. See Sneed v. Sneed’s Shipbuilding, Inc., 545 F.2d 537 (5th Cir.1977). In Sneed, 545 F.2d at 539, the court held there was adequate supervision where the DOL official investigated the claim for back wages, determined the amount owed the employee, presented the check to the employee on the employer’s behalf, and required the employee to sign a receipt waiving his right to sue. Id. 545 F.2d at 538-40.
(b) Application of the Law to the Facts
Citing the Back Wages Disbursement and Pay Evidence Instructions that they received from the DOL, defendants argue that Alvarez’s claims “are barred by settlement of the claims prior to the filing of this lawsuit.” The DOL Back Wages Disbursement and Pay Evidence Instructions instructed the employers “to make the full payment of back wages by 09/03/2008 …” and also instructed the employers to “Send the Wage and Hour Division copies of the signed WH-58 Receipt Form to the Houston TX District Office as they are returned to you.” Alvarez states in her declaration, “I received a cashiers check in certified mail. There was nothing in the envelope with the check. I was never asked to sign any forms to receive my check. I did not sign any forms to receive my check.” Defendants do not dispute Alvarez’s statements that she neither received nor signed any form releasing her right to bring this action. Instead, Jaser states in his affidavit that
[t]he payments would not have been made if we had realized that the Plaintiff [ ] would take the money and then file a lawsuit … Based on the DOL material provided to us, it was my understanding the Plaintiffs were provided with a release and knew that by cashing the checks each was releasing any claims against each of their respective employers.
Because defendants have failed to present any evidence that they either provided Alvarez a form WH-58 to sign, or that Alvarez ever signed such a form releasing her FLSA claims, the court is not persuaded that her claims against Jaser and/or 9ER’s Grill @ Blackhawk are barred by settlement of the claims prior to the filing of this action.
For the reasons explained above, the court concludes that 9ER’s Grill @ Blackhawk and 9ER’s Grill @ 359 are subject to enterprise treatment under the FLSA, and that neither Jaser nor 9ER’s Grill @ Blackhawk has presented evidence showing that the claims asserted against them in this action are barred by prior settlement.”
S.D.N.Y.: General Release Signed Following DOL Audit, Not Supervised By DOL, Not A Valid Waiver Of FLSA Rights
Wright v. Brae Burn Country Club, Inc.
Plaintiffs brought suit under the FLSA for alleged unpaid overtime wages. Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff’s complaint on several grounds. Since, all parties submitted proof outside of the four corners of the pleadings, the Court addressed the Motion as one for summary judgment. While dismissing the New York State Labor Law claims based on a valid waiver, the Court denied the portion of Defendants’ Motion seeking Judgment on Plaintiffs’ FLSA claims.
Describing the pertinent facts, the Court stated: “[a]t some point during or after plaintiffs’ employment with the Club, the United States Department of Labor (the “DOL”) conducted a wage and hour audit of the Club and determined that additional compensation was due employees. Wright was found to have been entitled to an additional $119.10, and a check for that amount, minus applicable taxes, was sent to Wright in May 2008. Plaintiffs do not dispute that Wright received a check from the Club in May 2008.”
Defendants claimed Wright waived his FLSA and NYLL claims by executing the General Release signed in the settlement of his prior claim against the Club. While Wright agreed that he had been “paid in full” by the Club in the Release and agreed to waive any “wage hour” claims he might have against defendants, courts have held that individuals’ rights under the FLSA are non-waivable, except in certain circumstances. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706-07 (1945); Simel v. JP Morgan Chase, No. 05 Civ. 9750(GBD), 2007 WL 809689, at *4 (S.D.N.Y. March 19, 2007); Le v. SITA Information Networking Computing USA, Inc., No. 07 Civ. 86(JS) (MLO), 2008 WL 724155, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. March 13, 2008). The exceptions include situations where the waiver or release of FLSA rights is given as part of a settlement supervised by a court or the Secretary of Labor. Simel, 2007 WL 809689, at *4.
Here, although Wright signed the General Release in settlement of his prior claim against the Club, the Release was not executed as part of a court or DOL-supervised settlement. Accordingly, the Court held that Wright cannot be deemed to have waived his rights under the FLSA.