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2d. Cir.: Question Of Joint Employer Is Mixed Question Of Law And Fact, Properly Submitted To The Jury
Ling Nan Zheng v. Liberty Apparel Co. Inc.
Plaintiffs-appellees were 25 Chinese garment workers living and working in New York City’s Chinatown. In 1999, they sued Liberty Apparel Company and its principals Albert Nigri and Hagai Laniado (collectively, “the Liberty Defendants”), and others, for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), and the New York Labor Law (“NYLL”). After a lengthy procedural history, the case went to a jury trial, and the principal issue was whether the Liberty Defendants were plaintiffs’ “joint employer” for purposes of the FLSA and New York state law claims.
The Liberty Defendants appealed that judgment. In this opinion, the Second Circuit considered Defendants’ contention that the district court-rather than the jury-should have determined whether the Liberty Defendants were plaintiffs’ joint employer. And on that issue, they affirmed. The substantive law regarding the joint employment issue was discussed in a separate opinion.
After a lengthy procedural history, the defendants removed for summary judgment, and on May 23, 2008, Judge Sullivan denied that motion. Zheng v. Liberty Apparel Co., 556 F.Supp.2d 284, 287 (S.D.N.Y.2008) (“Zheng III ”). The court determined that, while there was no genuine issue of fact that the first, second, and fourth Zheng II factors weighed in the Liberty Defendants’ favor, there was a dispute of fact regarding factors three, five, and six. Id. at 289-95. On February 11, 2009, after a two-and-a-half week trial, the jury found in plaintiffs’ favor. The court denied the Liberty Defendants’ post-verdict motions to set aside the verdict and for a new trial. By final judgment entered October 26, 2009, plaintiffs were awarded $556,566.76 in damages.
Discussing the issues on this appeal, the Court framed them as: Whether “(1) the district court improperly allowed the jury to determine the “ultimate legal question” whether the Liberty Defendants were plaintiffs’ joint employer, whereas instead the court itself should have resolved that issue; (2) the district court refused to charge the jury that, as a matter of law, three of the six Zheng II factors weighed in the Liberty Defendants’ favor (to some degree); and (3) as a matter of law, plaintiffs’ evidence was insufficient to support the jury’s finding of joint employment. As to the § 345-a(1) claim, the Liberty Defendants argue that (1) the statute does not authorize a private right of action, and, alternatively, (2) whether it authorizes a private right of action raises a novel and complex issue of state law such that the district court should have declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over that claim, see 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c)(1).”
Holding that the Court below had correctly submitted the issue of joint-employment to the jury, the Court reasoned:
“In the context of a jury trial, the question whether a defendant is a plaintiffs’ joint employer is a mixed question of law and fact. Such questions “involve[ ] the application of a legal standard to a particular set of facts.” Richardson v. N.Y. State Dep’t of Corr. Serv., 180 F.3d 426, 437 (2d Cir.1999) (internal quotation marks omitted). “FLSA claims typically involve complex mixed questions of fact and law….” Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., 450 U.S. 728, 743 (1981); cf. Holzapfel v. Town of Newburgh, N.Y., 145 F.3d 516, 521 (2d Cir.1998).
The jury’s role was to apply the facts bearing on the multi-factor joint employment inquiry to the legal definition of joint employer, as that term had been (properly) defined by the district court in the jury charge. “[M]ixed questions [of law and fact] are ‘especially well-suited for jury determination….’ “ Richardson, 180 F.3d at 437 (quoting Mendell v. Greenberg, 927 F.2d 667, 673 (2d Cir.1990)); see also Kirsch v. Fleet St., Ltd., 148 F.3d 149, 171 (2d Cir.1998); Simms v. Vill. of Albion, N.Y., 115 F.3d 1098, 1110 (2d Cir.1997) (“A mixed question of fact and law may be submitted to the jury only if the jury is instructed as to the applicable legal standards.”).
In the Liberty Defendants’ view, the district court should have provided a special verdict form so that the jury could detail its factual findings regarding the various joint employment factors, and so that the district court could then have applied those findings to make the final determination as to joint employment. But such a rule would distort the jury’s proper role, described above, of applying law to fact. Moreover, requiring the use of a special verdict form would be anomalous in the law, cf. Fed.R.Civ.P. 49(a); Kirsch, 148 F.3d at 171; 9B C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice & Procedure § 2505 (“Wright & Miller”); and appellate courts rarely-if ever-vacate for failure to use a special verdict form, see Skidmore v. Balt. & O.R. Co., 167 F.2d 54, 67 (2d Cir.1948) (“[W]e cannot hold that a district judge errs when, as here, for any reason or no reason whatever, he refuses to demand a special verdict, although we deem such verdict usually preferable to the opaque general verdict.”); Wright & Miller § 2505 (“[A]s numerous courts have held, as evidenced by the many cases cited in the note below, the exercise of th[e trial court’s discretion in using a general rather than a special verdict form] is not likely to be overturned on appeal.”).
The Liberty Defendants’ reliance on language from Zheng II is misplaced. That decision recognized that the joint employment question is a mixed one of law and fact: “Finally, there is the conclusion of law to be drawn from applying the factors, i.e., whether an entity is a joint employer.” Zheng II, 355 F.3d at 76 (emphasis added); cf. id. at 76 n.13 (noting “[t]he fact-intensive character of the joint employment inquiry”). Moreover, to the extent Zheng II contemplated de novo review of a joint employment determination, it did so only in the context of summary judgment, not a jury trial. De novo review of a jury’s joint employment determination would necessitate use of a special verdict-which, as we explained above, we do not require-and would cause the appellate court to tease apart the interwoven elements of facts and law, a project that would raise serious Seventh Amendment concerns, cf. Castillo v. Givens, 704 F.2d 181, 199 (5th Cir.1983) (Higginbotham, J., concurring)-if it could even be done.
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that the district court properly submitted the joint employment issue to the jury. The judgment of the district court is affirmed, subject to the partial vacatur and remand required by the companion summary order. The mandate shall issue forthwith.”