Many times, plaintiff lawyers will try to file FLSA class actions as nationwide lawsuits so the size of the class and potential recovery can be magnified geometrically.  Well, that just got a little harder to do as a federal judge rejected an attempt by a group of Outback Steakhouse front-of-house managers to continue as a countrywide class in a Fair Labor Standards Act overtime case.  The Judge did acknowledge that she harbored “serious concerns” about what her ruling portends for other such collective actions.  The case is entitled Chavira v. OS Restaurant Services LLC and was filed in federal court in the District of Massachusetts.

The Judge denied the motion for conditional certification in the lawsuit which charged the employer has misclassified the Managers as exempt.  The Judge also granted the motion to strike the opt-in notices signed by plaintiffs who worked outside of Massachusetts.  In so doing, the Judge relied on the US Supreme Court’s decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court of California, San Francisco County.

The Judge observed that she had “serious concerns regarding the implications of the ruling on the future of FLSA collective actions.”  She did, however, need to follow the precedent established by the highest Court in the country.  That holding, the Bristol-Myers Squibb case, held that in a class action, a California court did not have jurisdiction over plaintiffs who lived elsewhere because there was an insufficient connection between those plaintiffs and the State of California.  Herein, as the named plaintiff could not demonstrate that there was a connection between the activities of the steakhouse in Massachusetts and those locations elsewhere, the Court had no jurisdiction over them.

The Judge also concluded that was an insufficient basis for a class action because the named Plaintiff had not shown he was similar to others.  His affidavit was very localized in geographical scope.  Therefore, the Court ruled that he had not sustained the burden of showing similarity and it could not be done “on plaintiff’s representations alone.”  As the Court aptly put it, “to allow a putative collective action to proceed to the notice stage on the basis of one named plaintiff’s affidavit, without supporting documentation relevant to Massachusetts locations, pushes an already ‘low’ burden significantly lower.”

The Takeaway

This is a very interesting legal turn, down the path, for a change, of the employer.  Hopefully, it will be a trend.  I wonder if it will make the plaintiff’s bar more reasonable in their often inflated settlement demands.

I wonder…

 

I have defended many claims and lawsuits involving working time, especially travel time.  Employees are continually seeking innovative ways to convert their otherwise non-compensable home-to-work travel into compensable work hours.  These efforts often fail, as illustrated by a recent case where Chicago police officers sought pay for transporting and storing their guns and then retrieving them.  The Court found this activity was not sufficiently connected to or integral to their primary duties.  The case is entitled Bartlett et al. v. City Of Chicago, and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois.

The officers’ theory was that the time was compensable because it helped them be ready for their primary function of responding, on a moment’s notice, to dangerous situations.  The Judge disagreed, finding that although the activity of storing and retrieving their guns supported their primary function that did not “mean that they are integral and indispensable” to that function.

The Judge aptly noted that the effect of finding this small amount of time was compensable would mean that the commuting time of the officers from their homes to the police station would be compensable, as their work day would have already started.  The Judge stated that “the law prohibits a finding that such efforts are compensable when they primarily consist of commute time.”

The Judge also was guided by a Ninth Circuit decision where firefighters tried to claim overtime compensation for loading and transporting their gear to fire stations.  The Ninth Circuit found that these activities were “two steps removed” from their primary duties and the Judge here also found the activity too attenuated to the primary duty of the police officers to warrant compensation.

The Court held, quite aptly, that “while keeping SWAT gear at home may promote the overall goal of critical incident response, it is not integral and indispensable in much the same way that a firefighter’s loading and transporting of gear is not integral and indispensable to fire suppression.”  That, to me, is the essence of the holding.

The Takeaway

Employees are always seeking to elevate the status of things they may have to carry or keep in their cars so as to make all their home-to-work travel time compensable.  In the 1990s, canine police officers did it by claiming carrying their dogs in their patrol cars converted the time.  I won a Second Circuit case, Kavanaugh v Grand Union, where the worker claimed his transporting his tools converted his travel time.  They keep trying.

And failing…

It has finally happened! The USDOL has announced that it is setting the new exempt salary threshold for the “white collar” exemptions at about $35,000, about $700 per week.  The exact salary is $35,368 annually.  This is far lower than the Obama-proposed $47,000 per annum, almost $900 per week.  The new salary level takes take effect on January 1, 2020.

The acting Secretary of Labor noted that “for the first time in over 15 years, America’s workers will have an update to overtime regulations that will put overtime pay into the pockets of more than a million working Americans.”  The agency decided on the new level in March 2019 and just finalized the new rule, with few changes from that proposed in the spring.

The Highly Compensated Exemption (HCE) threshold rose from $100,000 to $107,432. The Obama proposal would have set this level at approximately $147,000.  This exemption applies to well-paid workers who perform a single exempt duty.  On another note, and this is very important, there is no escalator provision in the rule.

The agency believes that approximately 1.3 million workers will now become overtime eligible.  There was, however, political backlash, as Congressman Bobby Scott, D-Va., Chairman of the House Committee on Education and Labor, asserts that many millions will not receive the overtime that they should.  He stated that “the Obama administration’s rule, which was a modest but significant effort to restore overtime protections, would have covered a third of salaried workers.  The Trump overtime rule will cover less than 15 percent of these workers.”  He also lamented the failure to provide for a mechanism for automatic increases to the base salary for exempt status.

The Takeaway

I may be a voice crying out in the wilderness, but I don’t think this is such a big deal.  My experience with my clients is that the vast majority of them, of employers, are already paying $700 per week to workers they deem exempt, even first level supervisors.

Much ado about nothing?

Employees of cannabis companies have the same rights as workers who are employed by any other entity.  A California cannabis company knowingly withheld wages, meal breaks and rest periods from its employees, according to a lawsuit filed by a former worker who accused the company and a separate marketing firm of violating state labor laws.  The case is entitled Fishenden v. Seaside Sales and Marketing LLC and was filed in the Superior Court of California.

The California based employee sued under two entities, Medical Marijuana Inc. and Seaside Sales and Marketing LLC, in a Private Attorneys General Act.  He charged violations of state wage hour laws.  He claims that the employer, through its managers, did not record all hours worked and these managers also lied to employees by telling them that the denial of wages was appropriate.  Also, he claims that the companies automatically deducted a half-hour for lunch but the workers did not take the lunch breaks.

The Complaint alleges that “as a result of defendants’ scheduling practices and/or policies, plaintiff and other non-party aggrieved employees routinely had meal periods that were missed, late, short, and/or interrupted.  In addition, defendants required other non-party aggrieved employees to work in excess of 10 hours in a day but did not relieve them of their duties to take second 30-minute meal periods or even schedule second meal periods.”

The employee alleges workers did not get appropriate lunch breaks at the right time and worked for more than ten hours without receiving an uninterrupted 10-minute rest period.  There is also a serious allegation that employees worked off the clock and were not paid.  The worker alleges several statutory violations and seeks civil penalties and attorney fees.

The Takeaway

Not paying for off-the-clock work is a definite no-no, in any employment context.  The point is, again, that workers in the cannabis industry are entitled to many (if not all) of the same protections that workers in so-called “straight” businesses are.

Good to know…

I read a very interesting article in the Epstein Becker Wage & Hour Defense Blog, whose sentiments I wholeheartedly agree with.  It concerns the issue of attorney fees for plaintiff lawyers in FLSA/wage cases.  The blog post notes that often, these lawyers get big dollar fee awards, while the allegedly victimized people they represent get “pennies.”

The posting notes, and I agree, that there are many, many plaintiff wage hour class (or single) action lawyers who believe in their clients and feel that their clients were “wronged” by not receiving proper payment (e.g. overtime).  With that said, there are also many who are more dedicated to their fees and maximizing those fees than they are in vindicating their clients’ position.

The posting notes that some plaintiff lawyers will announce that they “need” to get a certain sum as their fees for the case.  Then, the defendant’s lawyer (and a mediator, if it goes that far) know that they have to work back from that demanded fee award to get to a point where the case settles and the plaintiff(s) get something, whatever that “something” is.  That is, as the post correctly notes, the “tail wagging the dog.”

The posting notes, and again I agree, that the issue defaults to whether judges will try to do something about this disturbing trend, to stem this tide.  One example makes the point.  A Judge was presiding over a matter where the parties settled a wage-hour case, with small recoveries by the plaintiffs and where the plaintiff lawyers sought fees far greater than the recoveries that their clients would themselves receive.

The Judge could have easily approved the settlement, just to get it off the docket, but this Judge refused to take the easy way out.  She observed that these cases often are not about the employees or “justice” but rather the plaintiff lawyer’s fees.  She would not approve the settlement and hoped that other Judges would also not put up with these tactics.

 The Takeaway

I am so glad to hear a Judge express this sense of frustration.  I encounter it all the time and feel it all the time.  She is right.  Often times, I find myself settling so-called small cases because the portent of a large attorney fee demand makes the risk of defending too great, even if I know the client did nothing wrong.  That is wrong and very frustrating to me.

I hope the next Judge I get in a wage hour case is just like this one…

The New Jersey independent contractor test is one of the toughest for a putative employer to prevail upon.  So, when an employer does do that, it is a great day for the employer community and that is what has happened in the case of a law firm who fought the UI claim of its paralegal, lost before the agency and prevailed before the Appellate Division.  The case is entitled Law Office of Gerard C. Vince, LLC v. Board of Review and issued from the New Jersey Appellate Division.

The worker filed for unemployment benefits after she was terminated.  She had been engaged to integrate the law firm’s files into a web-based computer software system known as “LEAP.”  The law firm would identify the files to be integrated into LEAP, but provided no instruction on how the person would actually do this integration.  The parties entered into a consulting agreement, a temporary agreement (3-6 months).  The worker would not be paid for any expenses, had to take care of her own taxes and recited that she was an independent contractor.

The Board of Review, the final agency tribunal, found, under Part A of the “famous” A-B-C in the statute (N.J.S.A. 43:21-19(i)(6)) that “[a]lthough the claimant had some flexibility as to when and where the work was performed, it was the employer who assigned specific tasks to the claimant.” Under part “B”, the Board found that the worker “was performing paralegal work for a law firm,” and she was an employee “as the work performed by the claimant was essential to the services provided by that type of business.”  The Board found there was no need to look at the third prong, the independent business component, because the first two prongs had not been satisfied.

The Appellate Division reversed, finding that the employer satisfied the ABC test.  There was no showing that the employer exercised control beyond that required by a Rule of Professional Conduct.  The law firm did not control the manner or means as to how she performed the work.  Any lawyer would have to maintain some level of control for client relations and protection.  Thus, some modicum of direction and control was required or the paralegal would be engaging in the unauthorized practice of law.  The Court pointed out that under the agency’s view, a paralegal could never be an independent contractor because of the ethically required control that an attorney must exercise.

As to part B, there was no dispute that the work could have been performed at any location and the facts showed some work performed away from the firm.  On the independent business prong, the Court noted that the Board did not even examine that but there was a showing that the worker was a certified paralegal who received income from other similar businesses and that she also, importantly, advertised her services as a certified paralegal.

The Takeaway

A person is presumed to be an employee unless the employer satisfies each part of the ABC test.  This case shows that under the right set of circumstances, an employer can prevail.  What I find most interesting and encouraging is that the Court did not seem to focus on whether the plaintiff derived 28% of her income from other sources, which is the ironclad, golden rule of the Department of Labor.

It’s a start…

The issue of willfulness is very important in FLSA cases because such a finding extends the statute of limitations from two years to three. The standards utilized in making these decisions have been established but their application to particular situations often is difficult. A recent example of this tenet has just emerged in a case involving the calculation of employee wage rates. The case is titled Stone et al. v. Troy Construction LLC and issued from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court noted that the lower court, which did not find willfulness existed, applied an “overly burdensome” standard to reach the conclusion a third year of liability was not warranted.  The Court sent the case back for further proceedings.

The worker had claimed that per diem compensation for travel time was reported as “wages” by the Company for tax purposes but the Company did not include these payments in employees’ wage rates when overtime was calculated (which it would have had to do if these payments were in fact wages). That would have increased the amounts of overtime due the workers. The employee claimed that the Company was aware that this was wrong but continued not to include the monies when computing the proper overtime rate. The lower court found there were insufficient facts to demonstrate willfulness, limiting the statute of limitations to two years.

The appellate court stated that “the district court was evidently looking for something egregious.  Supreme Court case law and our own precedent counsel against a standard for willfulness that requires a showing of egregiousness.”  If the statute extends back another year, the Court noted, some of the claims of the named plaintiff would not be time-barred, i.e. if the recklessness standard, in lieu of a more stringent “egregious” standard, was applied.

The Takeaway

The standard for willfulness has been, for many years, one of “reckless disregard,” meaning that the employer knew that its wage practices were illegal but nevertheless continued to engage in these practices. For example, if an employer was audited by the USDOL and told that certain employees were misclassified as exempt, but still maintained them as exempt, that would evidence willfulness. The “egregious” standard, seemingly invented by the lower court, was a bridge too far for the Third Circuit.

As it should have been…

The area of prevailing wage law, construction wage-hour law, is a niche within a niche and a very complicated area of wage hour law.  I am proud to say I have defended more than one hundred employers in these cases, both the federal Davis Bacon Act and a number of state prevailing wage, but there are many vagaries in this law and unique pleading issues that lay in wait for unwary plaintiffs.  An example of this is a recent New Jersey decision where the Court granted a motion to dismiss on the pleadings because the plaintiffs did not allege that they were performing “public work.”  The case is entitled Chambers v Precision Pipeline Solutions and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

The plaintiffs claimed they were owed prevailing wages for work they allegedly performed for the Company on the Rockford Eclipse Valve Replacement project.  However, to make out a case under the New Jersey Prevailing Wage Act, they had to allege facts that supporting a possible conclusion that they performed “public work” which were “on property or premises owned by a public body.” The Court noted that neither of these conditions were alleged in the Complaint.

The Complaint vaguely alleged that the Plaintiffs’ job duties “included but were not limited to, regulator changes installs, high pressure gas valves [sic] changes, and pipeline mechanic work.”  However, and significantly, the Complaint did not set forth the specific work that the Plaintiffs did while working at the Rockford Eclipse Valve Replacement project.  Thus, the Court was unable to conclude that the project was of a type that the Prevailing Wage Act would encompass.

Moreover, the contention that the Rockford Eclipse Valve Replacement work was “state-funded and/or state-incentivized” could not establish the source of the funds that paid for the work, i.e. whether it was paid for through public financing, making it “public work” as the statute defines such work.  Therefore, the Court ruled that the Plaintiffs had failed to allege sufficient facts to allow their NJPWA claims to survive and dismissed the Complaint.

The Takeaway

Defense lawyers must look for any option to make a case go away early.  Now, the plaintiff here may file an Amended Complaint but given the posture of the case, might not.  Even if he did, this tactic shows the plaintiffs (and their lawyers) that the employer is going to fight aggressively against the case, which may engender an early (and reasonable) settlement.

I applaud my colleague and friend, Eric Stuart, on this victory.

Well done!

The State of New Jersey has passed several laws in the wage-hour area that are definitely pro-employee, to say the least.  The latest effort on this front is something quite special, or onerous, depending on which side you are on.  The brand new, effective immediately, New Jersey State Wage Theft Act (WTA) geometrically adds to the existing penalty structure for employers by adding a liquidated damages provision and gives extra protections for employee retaliation claims.  The joint employer provisions have also been expanded; indeed, the new law states that any waiver of its “joint and several liability” section is void and against the law.”

There is now a rebuttable presumption against employers who do not maintain records mandated by law or who take disciplinary actions (e.g. firing) against workers who voice internal or external complaints.  The law also increases the ceiling on wage claims that can be filed with the NJDOL Wage Collection Section (“Section”).  The ceiling was $30,000—now it is $50,000.  The Section can now also take jurisdiction over retaliation claims.

Importantly, the law also now, for the first time ever, imposes liquidated damages on employers who do not properly pay wages.  These penalties, amazingly, can be to Two-hundred (200) percent of the wages owed.  Just as amazingly, the statute of limitations has been extended from the current two years to six years (equal to that of New York).

The rebuttable presumption of retaliation kicks in should an employer fire/discipline a worker within ninety (90) days of his engaging in any conduct or actions protected under the new law.  The employer must establish the bona fides of the adverse action under a stringent “clear and convincing evidence” standard and prove that the action was for a legitimate, business-based reason.

The penalties have also been stepped up.  Now, it is $1,000 for a first violation (or imprisonment of 10 to 90 days); $1000-2000 for a second or subsequent violation (or imprisonment of 10 to 100 days).  These penalties can be assessed, in theory, for every employee and for every week.

Significantly, a first-time offender can escape liquidated damages if that business can show that the violation was “an inadvertent error made in good faith and that the employer had reasonable grounds for believing that the act or omission was not a violation.”  In order to maybe get that safe harbor, the Company must admit it violated the law and pay the entire amount owed in thirty (30) days.

Each employee must be give a WTA notice, whether incumbent or new hire.  Interestingly, the notice must advise how a claim for wages can be filed.

The Takeaway

This law is a quantum leap in terms of enforcement efforts.  It also places (as did the NJ Equal Pay Act before it) a heavy burden on employers to prove they were right, e.g. motivated by legitimate business reasons.  The threat of liquidated damages and the vast increase in penalty assessments that are possible really puts pressure on employers to settle cases/audits quickly, even if they believe they did nothing wrong.

What’s next?

The New Jersey DOL is very aggressive on the issue of independent contractor status, i.e. the issue of misclassification.  The latest, perhaps best (or worst) illustration of this view is the agency’s determination that court reporters are employees for purposes of the Unemployment Law.  This errant decision, which cuts against traditional modes of thinking on the status of these individuals, is but a sign of the enforcement efforts that have emanated from Trenton.

This determination, which is being fought by Jersey Shore Reporting LLC, brings into the focus the heightened enforcement efforts of the DOL; the end point of all this is alarming for businesses and the lawyers who advise them.  This is because not only would these reporters need to pay back due contributions, they would, going forward, have to file the necessary quarterly forms and pay UI, which will significantly reduce their incomes.

The State is clearly becoming very aggressive on this issue.  The Commissioner of Labor has asserted that misclassification “robs” the State of revenue streaming into the unemployment compensation fund.  To add to this stance, Governor Murphy has stated he will foster a bill to allow the NJDOL to halt work at construction sites when allegedly “sufficient violations” are found relating to worker misclassification.

Jersey Shore argued that it satisfied the so-called A-B-C test for the determination of independent contractor status.  The Company also argued that a 2009 amendment to the UI law that made court reporter-type employees ineligible for unemployment compensation and therefore exempt from contributing to the UI coffers was dispositive.  The DOL did not answer that contention but mechanically asserted in a brief that the reporters did not meet the statutory A-B-C test.

There is a definite preference for the NJDOL to classify people as employees observed Ian Meklinsky, co-chair of Fox Rothschild’s labor and employment department and the administrative hearing process makes it tough for an employer to prevail.  This is because the findings of the Administrative Law Judge are “nonbinding recommendations that state agencies can choose to accept or reject,” Meklinsky said.  “That means an agency essentially has the final say on its own determination.”  He added that “I personally don’t think it is, or should be, appropriate for the head of an administrative agency to overturn the decision of an Office of Administrative Law judge.”

The Takeaway

The problem is that, in reality, people who are classified as independent contractors truly want to be and in fact consider themselves as such.  The State is taking, as this court reporter decision (and a host of others) demonstrates, a draconian position, painting with the broadest brush possible on who is and who is not an independent contractor.

An individual’s preference should count for something…