A group of sales representatives for a car dealership have requested conditional certification in a Fair Labor Standards Act case.  The employees allege that they were paid less than minimum wage and were not properly paid their commissions.  The case is entitled Hotaranu et al. v. Star Nissan Inc. and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York.

Auto dealership row of cars
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The named plaintiffs contend that they only received a base rate of $100 per week for those weeks in which they did not earn commissions, thereby causing their compensation not to meet the minimum wage standards. The complaint (filed in September 2016) alleges that there were numerous times when a sales representative did not earn any commissions, or where the commission were insufficient to meet the minimum wage/overtime requirements of the FLSA.

The Complaint also claims that the dealer manipulated gross profits of sold cars that resulted in reductions of the commissions earned by the sales representatives.  The named plaintiffs allege that they received flat commissions regardless of the gross profit on the car sold.  This, they claim, was done, notwithstanding agreed-upon calculations in their commission agreements.

The motion for certification claims that the plaintiffs have met their burden for conditional collective certification because they have demonstrated that the sales representatives are subject to the same policies.  At the conditional certification stage, the burden is fairly low (in any event) and the plaintiffs note that they have produced an alleged “well-pled” complaint and four affidavits from Star Nissan employees.  This is sufficient, according to plaintiffs, for the motion to be granted.

The Takeaway

It seems that there is a good chance that the motion will be granted, as the burden on plaintiffs at this stage is low – some might say, ridiculously so.  With that said, there might be an out, a magic bullet for the employer.  If the auto dealership is defined as a “retail business” under Section 207(i) of the FLSA and if the commissions earned equaled or exceeded 50% of weekly income over a representative period, then the sales representative(s) would be exempt from overtime for those weeks under the so-called commission exemption of the FLSA.

Then, the whole thing (or a good chunk of it) goes away.

Worth looking into…

The issue of whether to pay for training time is a vexing one.  In a recent case, a major airline avoided liability (for the most part) in a FLSA collective action alleging that it did not pay workers for time spent in a customer service-training program.  The Court held that the trainees were not employees “engaged” in work.  The case is entitled Otico v. Hawaiian Airlines Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Airplane
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The individual (Otico) had claimed that she was entitled to ten days pay for her time spent in a pre-employment training program.  The Court concluded, in granting summary judgment that no reasonable juror could conclude that this person was acting as an “employee” when she took the training courses.  The Court found that the airline was not directly benefitting from any free labor.  The Court held that “the trainees receive the benefit of learning how to do a job they hope to get.  Otico, therefore, was the ‘primary beneficiary’ of the arrangement. Although one wonders why Hawaiian is unwilling to pay something to these people, since they no doubt must sacrifice to participate in the program, the law does not require it to do so.”

The employer contended that the training provided was equivalent to the kind of instruction that the people could have received at a trade or vocational school and which would have cost them a lot of money.  The airline also asserted that it incurred extra costs and there were disruptions to its operations that were a by-product of its providing the training.

Ms. Otico, as a part of the hiring process, claimed that she was compelled to attend the unpaid training course, which took ten days, for eight hours per day.  The people learned about federal regulations and how to utilize the airline computer/software system.  Ms. Otico completed the course in December 2015 and got a job with the airline after she passed a drug test and received clearance from the airport.

The Takeaway

I do not understand the judicial reasoning here.  The person claimed that attendance was mandatory, the course material was related to the trainee’s job, and attendance was during regular working hours.  If those facts are true, then, under FLSA regulations and precedent, this time should have been compensable.

Usually, in FLSA cases, no emotional damages are allowable in retaliation cases.  Perhaps that inviolate principle is now changing.  In an important case, the Fifth Circuit has recently held that “an employee may recover for emotional injury resulting from retaliation” under the Fair Labor Standards Act in Pineda, et al. v. JTCH Apartments LLC. 

Stressed businessman in the office
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The FLSA prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for complaining about not being paid correctly or for commencing a lawsuit or an administrative proceeding.  The anti-retaliation damages clause states that “[a]ny employer who violates the provisions … shall be liable for such legal or equitable relief as may be appropriate to effectuate the purpose of” the anti-retaliation section.  In Pineda, the issue was whether this language allowed a plaintiff to recover emotional harm damages in FLSA retaliation cases as well as the lost wages.

The plaintiff was a maintenance worker who was given an apartment to live in, at a discounted rent, as part of his compensation.  He sued for alleged unpaid overtime; then, three days after the Company was served with the Complaint, the employer told Pineda (and his wife) to vacate their apartment for nonpayment of rent, where the unpaid rent equaled the discount that the Company had given to Mr. Pineda.  The employee then added a FLSA retaliation Count and at trial requested a jury instruction on emotional distress damages for the retaliation claim, which was denied.   The employee won his wage case (and attorney fees) and then he appealed the lower court’s refusal to instruct the jury on emotional distress damages to the Fifth Circuit.

The Fifth Circuit found the language of the FLSA damages provision for retaliation claims to be “expansive” and should “be read to include the compensation for emotional distress that is typically available for intentional torts like retaliatory discharge.” The Fifth Circuit cited precedent from other Circuits that have approved such awards.  The Fifth Circuit also noted that intentional retaliation cases were more detrimental than ordinary wage violations.  In this case, the Court noted that the plaintiff’s testimony on the nature and level of emotional harm was “sufficient to enable a jury to find that the plaintiff experienced compensable emotional distress damages.” Now, he has to prove such harm.

The Takeaway

Employers must be careful when they want to discipline or fire an employee who filed a wage claim or complained about his compensation.  It seems that a disturbing trend is forming, with more and more courts ready to award emotional distress damages in FLSA retaliation cases.  Thus, even a simple wage violation, even if an accident, may expose the employer to damages for pain and suffering.  The action(s) cannot be, or be perceived to be, retaliatory.

Although Andrew Puzder, the fast food executive who has been named as the nominee for Secretary of Labor, has indicated that he is “looking forward” to his confirmation hearing, there are also indications that he may withdraw his name from consideration for this post.  There are unnamed sources that assert that he was having second thoughts about the job and could be “bailing” due in part to the intense criticism that has come at him from many sides, e.g. labor unions.

Andrew Puzder
By U.S. Senate [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mr. Puzder opposes increasing the minimum wage and an expansion for overtime pay and has hard line positions on immigration.  In this vein, the AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. have requested that Puzder release documents prior to the confirmation hearing, showing the manner in which his company has treated its employees, such as contracts with CKE franchisees, employee pay and benefit data and employee handbooks.  Indeed, Senator Murray called Puzder “a uniquely unqualified choice.” Mr. Trumka stated that Puzder has “used his position and authority to enrich himself at the expense of workers by violating labor laws.”

A group that supports restaurant industry workers issued an unscientific report that concluded that workers were subjected to significant wage theft while Puzder was in charge and also that many female employees were victims of sexual harassment in numbers that far exceeded the national average in this industry.  The report was mentioned during the hearings held last week led by Senator Murray and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, when they heard testimony from workers relating to their experiences with many allegedly restrictive employment practices.

Puzder has also been criticized for his views on immigration.  He has called the current system “unfair and unworkable.”  He has stated that any such reform should include a guest worker program, as well as some channel or mechanism to “adjust status” for people in this country without authorization and “special relief” for the children of unauthorized immigrants.  Interestingly, the news site Breitbart (which has been linked to white nationalists, i.e. the “alt-right”) also attacked the nominee, claiming that he “stands diametrically opposed to Trump’s signature issues on trade and immigration.”

The Takeaway

We will see (yet again).  Seems like there is an active groundswell of opposition that is shaping up that may doom this nominee.

There have been a number of cases in which the FLSA employee status of exotic dancers has been litigated.  Well, in a very recent one, the plaintiffs’ counsel is strongly attacking the Company’s early summary judgment motion.  The dancers argued they were employees, not independent contractors; the Court has now granted conditional certification to the class.  The case is entitled Shaw et al. v. The Set Enterprises Inc. et al., and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Florida.

Former dancers Sarah Shaw, Rebecca Wiles and Ashley Howell argued that the amount of control exerted over them by the club owners was the key in deciding what their status should be.  The plaintiffs reeled off many cases in which just such findings were made.  Their papers noted that their “position is not novel; the vast majority of courts to have considered this issue have found exotic dancer/entertainers to be employees as a matter of law.”

Their theory was a willful misclassification had occurred and they were paid only through tips from the customers.  The class was granted conditional certification in December 2016, as the Court found that a sufficient evidentiary showing was made indicating 300 entertainers worked at the two clubs during the three years leading up to the lawsuit and all were similarly situated.

The owners asserted they were independent contractors who just paid a “modest fee” to the club as a licensee, in exchange for being allowed to perform, use the facilities and collect tips and fees from the clientele. They also asserted they exercised no control while they were dancing and performing.

An attorney for the plaintiffs said that notice was being sent to 4,500 prospective class members.  He opined that, in the end, these people would be considered employees under the law, as they have in many other cases.  He said that “there’s been very strong precedent over the last ten years or so, consistently, in nearly all courts, that has found entertainment dancers do qualify as employees. We believe the same will be found under the facts of this case.”

The Takeaway

These cases are very fact-sensitive, but I agree that the majority of them rule that these folks are employees.  This case is interesting in the sense that an ultimate decision on the merits has not been made, but the opt-in notices are being sent to prospective claimants.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., took testimony from workers at Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s. These are the businesses that are operated by Labor Secretary nominee Andrew Puzder. The employees spoke of wage theft and other allegedly improper employment practices.

The Senators organized the forum after Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. (the Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee) denied a request by several Democratic senators to allow the workers to testify at Puzder’s forthcoming confirmation hearing.  Senator Warren utilized the event to attack a number of policy positions that the nominee has taken, such as his opposition to an increase in the federal minimum wage and his opposition to the USDOL’s initiative to increase the numbers of workers eligible for overtime.

One of the workers testified that restrictive labor budgets set down for the individual restaurants compelled managers to have employees work off-the-clock without pay to make sure that all of the work was done.  She also asserted that the Company placed restrictions on the number of full-time workers so that health care benefits need not be provided.

Senator Warren observed that “if you work for a living, this man is important to you.” She noted that the Secretary will be responsible for enforcing wage and hour laws and establishing workplace safety standards and then added that “unfortunately, Mr. Puzder is not the kind of person that workers can trust will stand up for them.”

Senator Murray observed that “I can’t help but think about President-elect Trump throughout the campaign telling rally after rally that he was on the side of workers.  I met with the secretary of labor nominee, Mr. Puzder, and it’s such a contrast to what I heard President-elect Trump say. … I’m increasingly concerned that this is a very broken promise from the president-elect.”

The Takeaway

It is difficult to envision how this Secretary will be a pro-employee advocate. His views have been well-publicized and they will be/are in line with the very much pro-business (i.e. anti-worker) views of the new President.

Assuming the nominee is confirmed, we will soon see where this goes…

I love this one.  For the title of the worker classification involved.  It appears that a class of drilling fluid specialists, commonly referred to as “mud men,” has reached a $7 million settlement in its wage and hour suit against M-I LLC.  The case is entitled Syed et al. v. M-I LLC and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of California.

The employees worked in drilling operations in Bakersfield, Calif.  They claimed they were compelled to work either twelve (12) hour shifts daily for two weeks before leaving their work sites, or work full-days (i.e. 24 hours) in which they were always on-call.  They claimed that they were not paid overtime when they worked more than forty hours per week.  (They also claimed no overtime pay when their work days exceeded eight hours, which is California law).

The settlement monies will be paid to 115 members of the national FLSA class as well as 353 members of the California class; the $7 million settlement includes up to $2.37 million in attorneys’ fees and costs, service awards of $15,000 to plaintiff Balfour and $20,000 to named plaintiff Syed, $11,500 in claims administration expenses and a $75,000 Private Attorneys General Act payment.

That leaves more than four million dollars to be paid out to class members, based on the number of weeks worked during the class period. Some class members will receive $55 for every week, while the California class members will receive $165 for each week worked.  The proposed settlement document stated that “for purposes of this proposed settlement, at a mediation … the parties operated under the premise that Rule 23 proposed class members were in a better position under California law for claims than FLSA collective action members, where in some individual cases, the covered positions have generally been deemed ‘exempt’ under federal law.  This is crucial to understand in order to realize the structure of the proposed settlement.”

The Takeaway

The plaintiffs’ attorney posited that “there are many of these types of cases pending against many major players in the industry.”  If this is an industry wide pattern and practice, that would be a problem.  The only thing to do in that instance is get into compliance and hope no one sues for two years…

granite slabs
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Usually, it is the USDOL that is seeking sanctions against an employer who has, in wholesale fashion, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Well, for once that wheel has turned the other way. A federal judge has just sanctioned Labor Secretary Tom Perez for discovery failures and the Court prevented the government from calling witnesses at trial. Further, the lawyer representing the agency has sought permission to withdraw from the case. The case is entitled Perez et al v. Virginia Marble and Granite Inc. et al, and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The Judge granted three motions for sanctions filed by the Company, “for reasons stated from the bench” in an Order filed a few days ago. The Judge also barred the Secretary from discussing a damages calculation at trial and denied the agency’s motion to extend the discovery deadline; that motion was filed five days after discovery closed. The agency admitted that several unexpected medical emergencies involving the agency attorney’s son delayed its discovery responses.

The agency had sued the Company, alleging overtime violations involving forty-six employees. The Complaint alleged that the Company paid some workers a flat rate for each day of work, but not the required time-and-a-half when they did overtime work. The agency also charged that the Company was altering their records to make it appear that the employees were paid proper overtime.

The Company, for its part, filed three sanctions motions, alleging discovery derelictions and deficiencies; the Company requested that the Court bar testimony regarding the agency’s damages calculation or, even better, dismiss the case completely. The Company contended that the Secretary failed to himself appear or make an investigator available for a deposition, failed to disclose the agency’s damages calculation and witness lists under Rule 26(a) and failed to respond to written discovery requests. The Company sought to accommodate scheduling issues and many times had asked for the damages calculation and witness list.

The Takeaway

This makes me feel good—even the Secretary of Labor can be sanctioned for failure to comply with discovery deadlines and protocols in federal court. I have found state courts much more lenient on discovery issues and failure to meet deadlines.

Good way to start the holidays!

Employers may make deductions for uniforms under the Fair Labor Standards Act but such deductions cannot take their wage rates under the minimum. Life Time Fitness just learned this truism. The gym chain has agreed to pay in excess of $976,000 in back wages and damages to almost 16,000 employees whose wages fell below the minimum after these deductions were made.

Gym Treadmills
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The Wage Hour Administrator stated that “the U.S. Department of Labor takes its responsibility to ensure workers receive the wages they have earned very seriously. This agreement will put thousands of dollars where they belong — in the pockets of hardworking people and their families.”

The agreement applies to workers at locations in 26 states. The Company will pay back $11,899 to 363 workers across three locations in Minnesota and $476,329 to 15,546 employees at locations in 26 states for a total of $488,228 in back wages. The Company will also pay a sum equal to the wages in liquidated damages and was also assessed Civil Money Penalties of almost $100,000 for these FLSA violations.

The Company has self-corrected. More than a year ago, the Company voluntarily ceased compelling employees buy their own uniforms. A Company spokesperson stated that “we are pleased to have since reached a resolution with the Department of Labor that was acceptable to all parties.”

The Takeaway

The minimum wage is inviolate. Deductions can never reduce an employee’s wage rate below that basement level. Moreover, each State has their own rules, often times stricter than the FLSA, concerning “illegal” deductions. Thus, the takeaway here is to learn the wage payment laws of each State where business is conducted and to “honor” the sacredness of the minimum wage.

I blogged about this the other day.  Well, the Fifth Circuit has acted with alacrity and has stated that it will hear the USDOL appeal of the lower court injunction blocking the new overtime regulations on an accelerated, expedited basis.  Indeed, the Court has ordered that briefs be submitted by the end of January, which, for legal proceedings, is very quick.  The case is entitled Nevada et al. v. U.S. Department of Labor et al., in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Courthouse pillars
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The appellate Court has advised that it will schedule oral argument as soon as possible after briefs are submitted.

The successful (for the moment) plaintiffs are not at all cowed by this development.  The Nevada Solicitor has stated that “the Fifth Circuit’s willingness to expedite oral argument shows that it recognizes the national importance of this issue.   As we did in the district court, the states look forward to presenting how this new overtime rule is unlawful and presents a sweeping departure from over 75 years of past practice.”

The twenty-one States that had brought the suit opposed the fast-tracking of the appeal.  They asserted that such an expedited proceeding could conflict with the lower court’s ruling on their motion arguing for final judgment invalidating the DOL rule.  These plaintiffs also argued that if the lower court issued a new decision, that action would then moot the preliminary injunction and the Fifth Circuit would not have needed to rearrange its calendar and oral argument schedule.

The DOL countered by asserting that even if court below issued a final order, the Fifth Circuit would then consolidate the preliminary injunction appeal with the agency’s appeal from final judgment.  The DOL argued that this approach would be very efficient because the legal basis for the grant of a preliminary injunction would be the legal foundation for the summary judgment proceeding and Order.

The Takeaway

As they say, now the fun begins.

Anyone who tells you they know how this will turn out does not, really know at all.