businessman with boxing gloves ready to fightI have always approached litigation as seeking to maintain a cordial, civil relationship with my adversary, especially if it is (as happens a lot) my goal to settle the case early on.  There are times, however, I love when it gets nasty.  Especially when I am not involved.  In a recent FLSA class case, a federal magistrate judge was angry at both attorneys.  The court actually granted a motion for sanctions against the employer but observing that both sets of lawyers persistently ignored the court’s warnings to act like professionals and both had rendered the normal conduct of discovery almost “impossible.” The case is entitled Piccolo v. Top Shelf Productions et al., and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York.

Magistrate Judge Gary R. Brown said that Joseph M. Labuda and Saul D. Zabell were constantly unprofessional and the attorneys were unable “to act with a modicum of courtesy toward each other.”  The Judge stated that “both [attorneys] have handled this matter in a needlessly contentious fashion.  Such tactics will no longer be tolerated.”

Mr. Piccolo filed suit, claiming he was not paid proper overtime, amongst other violations.  He sought to represent a class of all other nonexempt employees.  The case began discovery in July 2017 and, as the Judge wryly put it, it went “off the rails.”  The judge would not recite the list of “seeming[ly] endless complaints and accusations, and what can only be characterized as a cavalcade of name-calling by counsel.”  There were eight time he had to tell them to be civil to each other. But, they did not stop.

For example, the latest tiff involved a deposition and the antics that went on there.  The Judge ordered that the deposition be allowed to continue but he did not trust the lawyers enough that they would act civilly.  He therefore ordered that it would be held in the courtroom.  The Judge told both lawyers that “any improper conduct will result in significant sanctions.”  The Judge also did not spare the lawyer who was not sanctioned.  He scolded him for suggesting that the court was biased against him.  The Judge said that was “transparently manipulative.”

The Takeaway

Can’t we just get along?

Often, when a class of workers petitions for conditional certification in FLSA collective action, and such certification is granted, it usually is for the entire class being asked for.  Sometimes it is not and when that happens, it is “news.”  That has happened in a recent Pennsylvania case where the proposed class was more than two-hundred workers and the certified class was less than forty.  The case is entitled Hunt v. McKesson Corp., and was filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

The Judge slashed the sought-after class from all McKesson employees in the “grade 103″ category to only the workers in the grade whose job descriptions matched concerning the use and levels of discretion and judgment.  The Judge noted that “this is a conditionally certified collective that is comprised of a group of employees for whom McKesson itself describes the scope of their discretion and judgment identically.  It is McKesson’s grouping of different titles with identical definitions of discretion and judgment (which plaintiff attests were accurate in practice) and McKesson’s identical treatment of that group for purposes of overtime exemptions that makes those job positions sufficiently similarly situated at the conditional certification stage.”

The plaintiff alleged that her duties lacked the requisite discretion and independent judgment needed for the administrative exemption.  The named plaintiff asserted that her job entailed that she “[follow] policies and procedures in analyzing situations or data from which answers can be readily obtained,” and that similar language was found in the description for other grade 103 jobs.  If that was borne out, it certainly would not be discretion as contemplated by the regulations.

close-up of a judge hitting mallet at deskThe Judge made specific note that many of the job descriptions at issue had language different than the plaintiff’s and these differences impacted whether or not discretion was utilized by the workers. The Judge found that “plaintiff continues to lump together ‘readily obtained’ job positions with ‘appropriate action’ job positions, but plaintiff has no evidence to show how those two ‘sub-categories’ of grade 103 are similarly situated to one another other than they share the same grade 103.”  Then, he cut the class.

The Takeaway

This Judge really delved into the minutiae of this matter and made a very reasoned decision that the class being asked for was an overreach.  This could well be a sound tactic for defense counsel to utilize when attacking a class and trying to whittle it down, if not eliminate/defeat it entirely.

It’s a start…

 

There is an old saying, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Everybody thinks that is funny as, often, the opposite is true, especially for the employer community. Well, the USDOL is putting a new spin on this maxim by creating an office to (supposedly) help employers in complying with the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The new organ, denominated the Office of Compliance Initiatives, will coordinate with other enforcement agencies in an effort to improve compliance with the FLSA. There will also be an enforcement perspective. The sub-agency will also work with employers (so they say) to facilitate greater employer compliance.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There are two new websites, www.worker.gov and www.employer.gov. These websites will give data pertaining to the compensation and benefits that are required to be paid under various laws. The agency will also give contact information for the Wage and Hour Division and for State labor departments. This contact information is vital, assuming it is not the general 800 number.

This could be a sign that the DOL will look more towards enhancing compliance, than punishing transgressors or seeking to ferret out alleged wrongdoers. This approach would actually yield more for employees, as many employers are well-intentioned and have good faith but are confused by the laws.

The Takeaway

I think, actually, that this is a good idea. I have found that most employers want to comply with the law and have trouble doing that as it is often very nuanced and gray. If an employer can get information from this office and helpful hints, then double check that information with direction from counsel on how to apply and implement that information, everybody would win.

A zero sum game. Of sorts…

I had blogged about this case when it first came out. It struck me as very interesting because not only is the subject matter unique, it also raises the whole thorny issue of what is (or is not) working time. This latest case involves Parking Production Assistants (PPAs). These people worked for CBS and their function was to guard parking spaces. Now, the employer will settle this class action for $9.98 million to settle the case where the theory was unpaid overtime. The case is entitled Hines et al. v. CBS Corporation and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York.

Empty parking lotThis settlement parallels other similar settlements for these employees at other production companies. In fact, there are approximately twelve of these cases working their ways through the various pipelines of litigation. The motion by the parties to the Judge, seeking his approval on the settlement, stated “while the other settled PPA cases generally contain similar factual and legal allegations, they were brought against different movie and/or television production studios.  Although not binding, presently there is substantial precedent of both preliminary and final approval of settlements … similar to the one presented here.”

The plaintiff attorneys assert that they met with in excess of one-hundred potential plaintiffs and reviewed at least 20,000 weeks of payroll records. They further assert that more than one hundred people have already joined the lawsuit, although the opt-in notice has not even been sent out. On that basis, the lawyers seek 33% of the gross settlement amount for their fees.

The case started three years ago when the named plaintiffs sued, alleging that they were not paid proper overtime when they secured various sets and lots on production sites in New York for TV shows. They claimed that they worked up to 100 hours per week but were only paid a day rate or per diem rate.

The Takeaway

Working time is when an activity is directed or controlled by an employer or inures to that employer’s benefit. The “guarding” of the parking spots accomplished an important goal for the employer and therefore was of (considerable) benefit to the employer. That meant it was working time. The fact that the employer settled this case for almost ten million dollar shows that it came to understand this.

A little bit too late…

Where a plaintiff files a FLSA (or other statutory wage hour) lawsuit, he may well file state law, tort-like claims, such as unjust enrichment, breach of contract, fraud and others. Usually, if not always, those claims/counts are predicated upon and solely arise from the alleged FLSA violations. As such, the FLSA (or any other wage statute at issue, like the NJ Prevailing Wage Act) is the exclusive remedy for these alleged violations and the state law claims are preempted. Thus, the employer should initially file a motion to dismiss rather than answer the Complaint.

Law books and justice scales
Copyright: phartisan / 123RF Stock Photo

For example, in Moeck v. Gray Supply Corp., 2006 WL 42368, at *1-2 (D.N.J. Jan. 6, 2006), plaintiffs asserted fraud and negligent misrepresentation claims (in addition to their FLSA claims), arising out of the fact that defendants purportedly ‘’materially misrepresented“ that employees would be given overtime pay and “concealed“ that defendant’s employees “would be compelled to work additional time without compensation.” The Moeck court found these claims preempted by the FLSA because they were “merely based on Plaintiffs’ [FLSA] overtime claims.” Id

Similarly, in Kronick v. bebe Stores Inc., 2008 WL 4509610 (D.N.J Sept. 29, 2008), plaintiff claimed that the employer required employees to work overtime without compensation, thereby violating the FLSA and state common law. The Kronick court determined that the state common law claims were preempted because plaintiff premised the state law claims on the same facts relied upon in support of plaintiff’s FLSA claims. Id. Additionally, in Ramirez v. Gromitsaris, 2013 WL 2455966 (D.N.J. June 3, 2013), the court likewise dismissed plaintiff’s unjust enrichment claim as preempted by the FLSA because plaintiff did “not make any independent factual allegations in support of [the] claim.

Furthermore, the Davis-Bacon Act (DBA), 40 U.S.C. 3141 et seq., a federal statute which mandates the payment of prevailing wages for certain work performed under federally funded or assisted contracts has been deemed to preempt common law claims based on the same nucleus of facts. See Alvarez-Soto v. B. Frank Joy, LLC, 258 F. Supp.3d 615, 627-628 (D. Md. 2017) (unjust enrichment claim was “based on the failure to pay wage rates in accordance with the [DBA],” and therefore, was preempted by the DBA); Grochowski v. Phoenix Const., 318 F.3d 80, 85-86 (2d Cir. 2013) (DBA preempts breach of contract and quantum meruit claims because those claims are “indirect attempts at privately enforcing the prevailing wage schedules contained in the DBA.”).

The Takeaway

I believe this is a very good, strong tactic for defense counsel to employ. The law is very solid  on this issue. It also makes the plaintiff’s lawyer do some work, changes the dynamic and momentum of the case and shows the plaintiff that it is not going to be easy and that their case is fraught with difficulty.

It’s called changing the momentum…

New Jersey Silhouette in Rubber Stamp StyleThe issue of who is and who is not an independent contractor has exploded on the legal scene in recent years. Many agencies are honing in on this topic and I have, over the last five years, probably defended more than fifty audits, inspections and lawsuits involving this issue. Well, the landscape just got murkier, or more difficult for employers as the US Department of Labor and the NJ Department of Labor have just signed a cooperation agreement to target the misclassification of individuals as independent contractors in New Jersey.

This memorandum of cooperation will enhance enforcement efforts by facilitating the coordination of investigations by the agencies as well as sharing resources. The agencies want to send a “strong message” to the business world that misclassification laws “are being strictly enforced.”

Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo stressed that his agency’s strong goal is to ensure that workers are shielded from “unscrupulous business practices.” He stated that “this partnership with U.S. DOL will help ensure that our business partners and the state’s workers all get the protections they deserve.” The sectors most amenable to misclassification problems are the construction, transportation and information technology. The new so-called gig economy is also a focus of these issues.

Mark Watson, of the USDOL stated that the agreement “will amplify the effectiveness of both agencies.” He added that “the U.S. Department of Labor looks forward to improving coordination and increasing joint outreach and compliance assistance efforts with all of our state partners.”

This agreement follows an earlier New Jersey initiative where the Governor announced he wanted to take a harder line on this misclassification issue. That initiative was the establishment of a cross-agency task force to focus on the problem of misclassification. Finding more people to be true “employees” would generate more money for the State

The Takeaway

I know a lot of employers classify people as independent contractors when, perhaps, they should not be. I also know that a lot of these individuals want those relationships to exist as one of independent contractor status. In New Jersey, under the strict ABC test, it was very difficult to win on the third prong, the “independently established business” prong, until the advent of the Garden State Fireworks case. We will see where that goes.

But, employers now need be aware if they are found to have violated the New Jersey unemployment statute on independent contractor, they may find the USDOL alleging that under that statute, the workers are really employees.

It is vital for employers to remember that when non-exempt employees earn commissions, those commissions must be included in the computation of their regular rate when they work overtime. The inclusion of the commissions bumps up the regular rate a little but if this is not done, then these small amounts of money can quickly add up if an employee or, worse yet, a class of employees files a lawsuit. That is exactly what has happened in a recent case involving sales representatives in a class action. The case is entitled Johnson v. Cincinnati Bell Inc. et al., and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Ohio.

Salesperson holding the receiver of a corded desk phone while dialing in the office.The named plaintiff, Michael Johnson, was a sales representative for less than one year. His theory was that the failure to include the commissions in the regular rate violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. He moved for conditional certification in May and then the parties filed a joint stipulation in which they agreed to the definition of the class as certified and they also agreed on a method for advising potential members.

The court found that the class was appropriate, as there was a low standard of proof that needed for the establishment of a class. The judge stated that she was “satisfied that both the agreement of the parties and evidentiary submissions by plaintiff demonstrate the modest showing necessary to support conditional certification of the proposed class.”

There were affidavits, as well as payroll records which undergirded the theory that these employees, the outbound sales representatives, who worked in the telesales department “had certain standard duties, [were] paid in the same manner and regularly worked more than forty hours per week, and defendants did not include commission payments in the regular rate of compensation for purposes of overtime.”

The Takeaway

This case highlights the complexity of the Fair Labor Standards Act and all of its nuanced regulations. It is very easy for a well-intentioned, good faith employer to make a mistake. If it affects but one employee, that is all it is, a simple mistake, maybe costing a few dollars. If it affects a class, it is a much bigger issue.

Much bigger. And costlier…

I am a big believer in advice from the U.S. Department of Labor. I have applauded the re-introduction of opinion letters and I welcome any published guidance (on any subject) so I can better advise/counsel my clients on compliance issues. The home health care industry has been aflutter recently with all kinds of litigation and DOL issuances. A thorny issue is when/if someone working in this field is an independent contractor. Well, the agency has recently published guidance on this issue.

Copyright: rmarmion / 123RF Stock Photo

The guidance addresses the home-care registry industry. The registries funnel home care workers to elderly and infirm clients. Almost universally, these workers are treated as independent contractors. Although the field bulletin addresses a small number of workers in a discrete industry, the guidance suggests the manner in which the Trump DOL will view other flash point independent contractor sectors, like Uber (where there has also been extensive litigation). .

The guidance lists a number of factors that will be considered when making the determination of employee-independent contractor status. The guidance smacks of earlier guidance and numerous cases on this subject. If the registry gets into the details of the manner of care provided, that would be evidencing too much control. In this regard, giving a modicum of training to such workers might pass muster, as the Company can argue that such generic training is for customer relations purposes or for safety reasons.

There also a number of industry-specific factors that will be considered. The bottom line is that the analysis will be the usual totality of the circumstances test.

The Takeaway

So it seems that the watchword will (continue to) be “totality of the circumstances.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Except—it is the application of the factors and how they play out in a given case.

That’s where the rub is…

The car wash industry is one that is subject to many alleged wage-hour issues (some might say abuses). A recent case illustrates this maxim. A car wash has just settled a lawsuit with the USDOL for $4.2 million on wage hour claims. The theory was that the employer avoided paying proper minimum wage and overtime by compelling workers to clock out but yet remain on the premises until more cars came in for washes. The case is entitled Acosta v. Southwest Fuel Management Inc. et al. and was filed in federal court in the Central District of California.

Close-up of hand with green brush washing red carThe judge approved the settlement which yields 1.9 million in back pay and an equal amount in liquidated damages. The employer also has to pay $400,000 in civil money penalties. Several hundred employees are involved.

An interesting twist. Evidently, the employer strenuously resisted efforts by the agency to gain discovery. The DOL asserted that the company was stonewalling its legitimate efforts to garner relevant documents. The government alleged the company also did not preserve video footage, a spoliation-type allegation. Accordingly, the special master concluded that the client and his lawyers, Littler Mendelson, PC have to pay the DOL approximately $20,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Naturally, the company must come into compliance. The Acting Administrator of the DOL San Francisco office said that “the judgment is a major win for hundreds of employees systematically abused by one of Southern California’s largest car wash operators.” The DOL Regional Solicitor observed that federal laws protect workers and neither any employer nor his attorneys can interfere with these principles or the rights of the workers. She said “the integrity of our justice system depends on employers and their attorneys ensuring that a true and accurate record free of any undue influence is presented to the court,”

The Takeaway

I have handled many car wash cases in the last few years. All I can say is that when I have a client that I know has not complied with the law, my aim and goal, my only goal, is to get them out as quickly and cheaply as possible. Protracted discovery disputes and/or intransigence during that process, to me, is counterproductive.

Maybe better to cultivate the agency’s good will and try to make the best deal possible.

The Fair Labor Standards Act is eighty years old this month and commentators strongly suggest that the law needs updating in many areas.

 cupcake with sparkler against a blue background, illustrating birthday conceptMy colleague Tammy McCutchen stated that a complaint-driven mechanism defense should be engrafted into the FLSA. She stated that “I think employers should get the opportunity to avoid [some liability] by having in place a system of compliance and taking appropriate action based on investigations, just like they have under Title VII and the ADA and the ADEA.”

In this manner, an employee complaint or issue about wages (e.g. overtime) would/could get resolved quickly and cheaply. Ms. McCutchen (a former DOL official) opines that if such a system is in place, that should work to limit employer liability if the employee ultimately sues. Under her theory, with which I concur, the “penalty” for such an employee who did not avail himself of the internal reporting system would be that he/she would not receive liquidated damages.

Another item on the management side wish list is a heartfelt desire to make securing class certification a little more difficult. In a typical FLSA collective action, the Plaintiff(s) first seek so-called conditional certification, fairly easy to secure, and then, later on, the employer can move to de-certify the class.

It should be harder to get over that first hurdle. Nowadays, plaintiffs use a few certifications, sometimes which are identical, and courts seem satisfied with such a meager showing. When a class is conditionally certified, the stakes and legal fees/costs for an employer rise dramatically. This contingency forces many employers into settlements which they might not otherwise have undertaken.

It should be harder, as perhaps with some multi-part test or standard, rather than a few similar sounding certifications.

Another area of concern and one badly in need of updating is the exemption “question.” For example, the outside sales exemptions emanates from a time when most salesmen were door-to-door or were, literally, outside all/most of the time. Nowadays, many sales are made and sales work done from a computer and a telephone, inside the employer’s place of business. Yet, the regulations still require that the salesman be “customarily and regularly” performing outside sales work. That is but one example. In that regard, reasonable people can differ on how exemption law should be applied, but there certainly is a need for more clarity, no matter which side you are on.

The Takeaway

These all sound pretty reasonable and common sensical to me.

Or is it my perspective?