An interesting decision just issued involving an employer who attempted to use a blended compensation system to pay employees overtime.  A federal appellate court ruled, however, that this system did not comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and allowed a million dollar judgment obtained by the USDOL to stand.  The case is entitled U.S. Department of Labor v. Fire & Safety Investigation Consulting Services LLC, and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.  The compensation system “mixed and matched” the employees’ regular hourly pay rate with their overtime rate.  Thus, the workers were basically paid a single uniform hourly rate for all hours worked and therefore their OT rate was not calculated properly.

As the Court aptly stated, “the FLSA shields employees from precisely the type of payment scheme utilized by Fire & Safety — one that appears to compensate employees for both non-overtime and overtime but in reality, uses a single rate for all hours worked, regardless of whether they are non-overtime or overtime hours.  Upholding such a scheme and accepting Fire & Safety’s retroactive justifications would undercut one of the fundamental purposes of the FLSA: ensuring that employees are adequately paid for all overtime hours.”

These workers, who investigated fires and provided security for oil-and-gas companies worked shifts of twelve hours for fourteen consecutive days, followed by fourteen days off.  The pay system involved the workers receiving a fixed amount for the entire 168 hours.  That supposedly included both the regular pay rate for the first eighty (80) hours worked and (allegedly) time-and-a-half for the additional eighty-eight (88) hours.  If the workers, however, did not work the full schedule, the Company then used the blended rate.  The Company did this by dividing the total number using a pre-set formula that was based on the compensation they would have earned if they worked the full 168 hours.

The Court provided a hypothetical example of this illegal system in operation: Any person who earned $10 an hour would receive $2,120 in regular pay/overtime for the fourteen days.  If the person was short of the 168 hours, the Company divided the full pay of $2,120 by 168 and multiplied that figure by the actual number of hours worked.  There was a complaint and the agency found it was illegal; the Company corrected the practice but would not pay back pay.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court and used an actual example from the Company’s records.  The Court stated that “this series of calculations demonstrates that … Fire & Safety’s blended rate in fact served as the regular rate.  Otherwise, when consultants like those above worked less than a full hitch, their wages would have properly accounted for their non-overtime and overtime hours using their purported regular hourly rates, instead of their blended rates.”

The Takeaway

Interesting approach but ultimately doomed to failure.  There are very few ways to pay overtime when non-exempt people work more than forty hours.  If the overtime can (somehow) be built into the agreed-upon compensation, that would work but threading that needle can be tricky.

Tricky, but doable…

I often preach that, when dealing with a class action, the employer should try to pick off the named plaintiff, perhaps overpaying to do so (or maybe not).  In this interesting case, the parties settled (i.e. with the named plaintiff) right after the class had been decertified.  The plaintiff had argued that he was misclassified as an independent contractor.  The case is entitled Roberson et al. v. Restaurant Delivery Developers LLC et al., and was filed in federal court in the Middle District of Florida.

The settlement came after the Judge held that the named plaintiff had not shown that there was sufficient similarity between he and the other workers he wanted in the collective action.  Thus, the Court granted the employer’s motion to decertify the collective action due to this dissimilarity between the employees.

The suit began in March 2017, on the theory that the Company had misclassified the workers as independent contractors and was not paying overtime.  The Judge granted conditional certification in September 2017.  The Company defended by asserting that it never hired Roberson (or anyone else) and was a consulting company that assisted local restaurant delivery entities in getting off the ground and which would use the Doorstep Delivery in a manner similar to being a franchisee.  These new companies would then use delivery drivers who were deemed to be independent contractors.

Mr. Roberson contended that this company gave out a manual to its customers, the licensed restaurant delivery companies.  The Judge, however, concluded that did not mean that the discrete delivery companies had put the polices into operation.  The Judge also noted that the manual did not have any guidance for significant components of the job, such as whether they could face penalties for refusing deliveries.

Thus, the Court dismissed claims of the opt-in plaintiffs, but allowed Mr. Roberson to continue to pursue his own claims.

The Takeaway

This is an excellent result.  All the more better if it can be done sooner, rather than later, in the litigation “process.”

And a lot cheaper…

There has been a good deal of controversy and confusion over whether the recently enacted New Jersey Equal Pay Act was retroactive.  The law became effective July 1, 2018 and has a six year statute of limitations.  Could a lawsuit filed after enactment, say in August 2018, go back to August 2012?  We did not know but it now seems that the answer is a resounding “no.”  This is because a recent federal court decision has said so. The case is entitled Perrotto v. Morgan Advanced Materials, PLC and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

The plaintiff asserted that retroactive application was warranted and would neither vitiate any party’s constitutional rights nor cause manifest injustice. The Company defended by asserting there was no basis to indicate retroactivity.  The Company contended there was no express or implied legislative intent for retroactive application.  The law was also not curative, as it was a totally new statutory scheme.  Lastly, the Company maintained that the parties’ expectations did not allow for retroactive application.

The Court agreed with the Company.  The Court examined the statute’s plain language to discern legislative intent and opined that, although the law was passed on April 25, 2018, it specifically postponed the effective date until July 1, 2018.  The Court believed that this delayed enactment demonstrated that the Legislature intended the law to only have prospective application.

The Court also found that the law cured nothing by amendment.  As the Court noted, a curative amendment remedies “a perceived imperfection in or misapplication of a statute” or clarifies the lawmakers’ intent behind the creation of the law.  Moreover, a retroactive application would not cure anything because this is a “first of its kind” law that dealt with pay fairness for performing “substantially similar work.”  In other words, the law expanded employee protections, by, for example, making a six year statute of limitations rather than the two years for an alleged violation of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination.  Thus, the law did not seek to explain or clarify existing law.

The Takeaway

An eminently correct result, I daresay…

 

Employers should always look for a preemption defense when a FLSA suit is lodged against a unionized client.  Clear proof of that was just given by the Ninth Circuit when that Court held that unionized offshore oil rig workers could not pursue overtime claims because the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) barred the suit.  The case is entitled Curtis et al. v. Irwin Industries Inc. et al. and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Court affirmed the lower court.  The holdings were based on the fact that the labor contract satisfied the California overtime pay requirements.  The Court found that “Curtis’s claim for overtime pay is preempted under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act because California overtime law does not apply to an employee working under a qualifying collective bargaining agreement, and Curtis worked under such an agreement…”

The workers did twenty-four hour shifts on offshore oil rigs.  They worked twelve and were off for twelve but asserted that they could not leave the platform or otherwise use the time for their own pursuits.  They were on the platforms for seven consecutive days.  The workers worked under two separate labor agreements.

The Ninth Circuit noted that Section 301 meant that “nonnegotiable rights” under state law, i.e. minimum wage and overtime, were not always preempted, even if the parties had a labor contract.  The Court stated that a two-step test should be utilized to determine if preemption was appropriate.

The first prong of the test is to determine if the controversy concerned a right inuring to the employees only because of its presence in the labor contract.  That would be sufficient to find that preemption was appropriate.  If a court determined the controversy involved a right established under state law, then the court would inquire whether any provision(s) of the labor contract had to be interpreted for the claim to be resolved and if such an analysis was necessary, then the matter was also preempted.  The Court found that “because Curtis’s right to overtime ‘exists solely as a result of the CBA,’ his claim that Irwin violated overtime requirements by not paying him for the 12 off-duty hours is preempted under § 301.”

The Takeaway

Whenever there is a labor contract involved, try to find some connection between provisions in that contract and the purported overtime or other claim.  Stress that contractual interpretation is required to resolve the dispute, so it is an arbitral issue, rather than a statutory one. Or violation.

It’s certainly worth a try…

When will employers learn?  They keep classifying retail Store Managers and Assistant Managers as exempt, when these workers are often misclassified, not intentionally, but because the nature of their duties often tends to undermine the primary duty test and render them non-exempt.  Another example is a recent case where Store Managers have been granted conditional certification in their FLSA collective action.  The case is entitled Spack et al. v. Trans World Entertainment Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of New York.

The plaintiffs can now send out notices to current and former store managers so they might opt in to the case.  The plaintiffs also want a class of Assistant Managers for alleged off the clock work.  The Company, however, won that round, convincing the Judge that it was too soon to certify such a class, asserting that it had not yet been ascertained if these workers were non-exempt, which would allow them to make these claims.

The Judge appeared to reserve decision on a combined class and also indicated that the class could also be de-certified.  The Court stated that “should additional discovery demonstrate the existence of significant differences between the SMs or between the SMs and SAMs, the court can choose to deny any future motion seeking conditional collective certification of the SAMs, or, at the second stage of the analysis, decertify the collective.”

The plaintiffs met the “modest” burden at this conditional stage by submitting twelve Certifications from opt-in plaintiffs who claimed they worked 50-70 hours per week and spent the vast majority of their time performing non-exempt, low-level tasks that were not managerial in nature.  The Company also submitted statements from managers that showed they performed managerial (i.e. exempt) work and tried to undermine the plaintiffs’ statements but the Court would not allow these manager statements to bear the weight that the Company urged they should be accorded.

The Takeaway

My advice to employers is to test the duties of their management personnel, especially lower level managers, against the criteria in the FLSA regulations.  This can be done via a “self-audit” or internal audit, of which I have conducted dozens.  You also need to check the law of the particular state in which the controversy may be litigated, as the state law may be tougher than the FLSA standards, such as in California or New York.

There is a tripartite test for independent contractor under the New Jersey Unemployment Compensation statute (and many other States), the so-called “ABC” test.  Under this test, services performed by an individual for remuneration shall be deemed to be employment unless it is shown to the satisfaction of the Department of Labor that: (a) Such individual has been and will continue to be free from control or direction over the performance of such service, both under his contract of service and in fact; (b) Such service is either outside the usual course of business for which such service is performed, or that such service is performed outside of all the places of business of the enterprise for which such service is performed; and, (c) Such individual is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, profession or business. All three of the above conditions must exist; the New Jersey unemployment compensation test traditionally has been one of the most difficult to meet and the NJ Supreme Court has adopted this test.

In this case, the Employer claimed that the exotic dancers who worked at the club from 2002-2005, were independent contractors. The DOL Commissioner found that the dancers were employees because they worked for tips, which represented compensation under the statute.  The Court also found that none of the three prongs of the ABC test were satisfied.  The case is entitled Dance, Inc. v NJDOL and issued from the New Jersey Appellate Division.

The statue defined “employment” as any service “performed for remuneration or under any contract of hire, written or oral, express or implied.”  This was broad enough to encompass “all compensation for personal services, including commission and bonuses and the cash value of all compensation in any medium other than cash.”  Although wages paid by an employer were one type of compensation, tips or “gratuities” were as well.

The dancers worked only for tips from the customers.  They all signed a “State Rental/License Agreement” setting forth that they were independent contractors.  Also, they had to “lease” the right to use the club’s stage.  There was no rental amount set forth; it was also in English, with the fact that the dancers spoke only Spanish or Portuguese.

The Company claimed that the dancers were independent contractors who took no direction from the Company, could work when they wanted and came and went as they pleased.  The Court noted, however, that the website showed pictures of numerous, scantily-dressed women and gave their work schedules.  The dancers performed every night, demonstrating that they were (obviously) integral to the Club’s operation, a sure sign of employee status.

The Takeaway

These independent contractor tests, especially an ABC type test, are very hard for an employer to overcome.  That is why retaining independent contractor relationships with single-person “businesses” is often very dangerous, because these are exactly the kind of people who should be deemed independent contractors, because that is what they want.  But the law works against the entities that retain their services by imposing an onerous burden of proof on the putative employer.

Get your Sherpas and keep climbing…

In a very interesting and off-beat decision, the Third Circuit has thrown out one class of loan officers who alleged misclassification but let stand the lower court’s decision that certified the case as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act.  The case is entitled Reinig et al. v. RBS Citizens NA, and issued from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

The panel overruled the decision that had given certification to Loan Officers across ten States who alleged that they were not properly paid for time off the clock.  However, the Court allowed the decision granting collective action certification to stand as it opined that it did not have jurisdiction over that issues as a component of the Employer’s interlocutory appeal.

The Court addressed the issue of “pendent appellate jurisdiction.”  This means that the appellate court is allowed in certain scenarios to assert jurisdiction over issues that are not allowed to be appealed independently but that are “intertwined” with matters over which the Court has jurisdiction.  The Court herein first observed that FLSA collective certification orders are not appealable because they are not final and further concluded that the order in this case was not “inextricably intertwined” with the Rule 23 class certification determination.  Thus, the Court would not exercise pendant jurisdiction over it.

The Court stated that “in so holding, we are persuaded by our prior precedent and the Second Circuit’s well-reasoned decision in [Myers v. Hertz Corp. ] that Rule 23 class certification and FLSA collective action certification are fundamentally different creatures.  Further, judicial efficiency notwithstanding, the myriad problems that could result from exercising jurisdiction in this context counsel against expanding the narrow doctrine of pendent appellate jurisdiction in the way Citizens proposes.”

The legal requirements for conditional certification of FLSA claims is less onerous than securing class certification under Rule 23.  The Court also noted that if it concluded that pendant jurisdiction could be asserted over FLSA certification, then, in the future, a party could “abuse the doctrine” by filing insipid interlocutory appeals so that litigant could get appellate review before a final decision on that issue has been rendered by the district court.

In another (very) interesting twist, the Third Circuit criticized the lower court for not doing its job of specifying the particular classes and claims that were involved.  Indeed, the Court stated that it was compelled to “comb through and cross-reference multiple documents in an attempt to cobble together” the classes and claims that might be amenable to class adjudication.

The Takeaway

Rule 23 claims are harder for a plaintiff to establish as a class.  The danger is that the Rule 23 action is an opt-out, not an opt-in, as a FLSA collective action is; everybody is in except for a handful that might opt out.  It is an interesting twist because I think the Court is right—there would be defendants/employers who would utilize this vehicle as a poor man’s way of getting the collective action certification issue examined sooner rather than later.

Sounds only like good lawyering…

The retail industry is notoriously prone to FLSA collective action misclassification lawsuits because there are many levels of management, especially so-called lower management, where the employees may/may not discharge actual/true supervisory powers. Another illustration of this principle has resulted in a large dollar settlement that will pay employees known as “sales team managers” a fairly large amount of money, although the exact amount has not been disclosed. What was disclosed is that the plaintiffs’ lawyers will receive almost two million dollars in attorney fees! The case is entitled , and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas.

ArbitrationThe Judge examined the six-factor test under the Fair Labor Standards Act for granting approval to such settlements and concluded that there was no evidence of fraud and also, importantly, that the settlement addresses the plaintiffs’ possibility of prevailing on the merits. The Court stated that “after considering the factors, the court finds that the settlement agreement should be approved because it is a fair and reasonable settlement of a bona fide dispute.”

The hundreds of sales team managers claimed that they performed the same job duties as their subordinates, such as selling, restocking products and maintaining the organization of the store and the clothing racks. The employees denied that they performed any managerial tasks, such as hiring or firing. In sum, they alleged that although they had the title of “manager,” they were not at all performing the tasks required under the Part 541 regulations that address exempt status. There were 384 workers who had opted in.

As is typical in these cases, the parties devised a formula for determining the amounts of money workers will receive. It will be based on the number of weeks they worked in the three years before they opted in. It remains unclear the aggregate amount of money that the employees will receive, as that (important) fact was redacted.

The Judge noted that the fourth factor, the “probability of the plaintiffs’ success on the merits,” was the “most important factor absent fraud and collusion.” The Judge observed that the employees “face considerable hurdles in succeeding on the merits.” Thus, the Judge concluded that the settlement represented a “fair and reasonable recovery.”

The Takeaway

As these lawsuits are so common, my advice to my clients for years has been to treat lower level managers as non-exempt and pay them hourly. It is possible to take the salary being paid and “back into” a correct hourly rate so that, even with the anticipated overtime worked, the employer’s labor costs will not be increased. That puts an end to the threat of a misclassification lawsuit.

It works…

Working time claims/lawsuits take many forms and often arise out of seemingly unlikely circumstances.  In a recent case, the Third Circuit ruled that temporary workers brought in to take over the jobs of locked out workers cannot receive pay under the FLSA for their time spent travelling to and crossing the picket line.  The case is entitled Smith et al. v. Allegheny Technologies Inc. et al. and issued from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Strike

The panel held that riding across the picket line in vans provided by an industrial strike staffing company was not their principal activity nor was it integral to their principal activity.  Those are the factors that determine if a particular tangential (or preliminary) activity is compensable.  The Court held that the travel time was not a principal activity just because the employer mandated particular travel procedures.  The workers were driven to the facility, across the picket line, from their hotel, which was almost an hour away.

The Court noted that “for example, a temporary workforce’s commute would be a principal activity if members of that workforce were simply hired to cross the picket line in the morning, enter its factory, and then re-cross the picket line at night.  Similarly, a complaint could allege facts that demonstrated the employee’s crossing the picket line was as important as the work the employee subsequently performed. But no such facts were alleged here.”

The Court also stated that this picket line crossing was not “integral or indispensable” to the job of making steel.  The Court stated that “taking a Strom van to work was at least two steps removed from their steel production duties.”

The Takeaway

This is the correct decision.  This was, in essence, home-to-work commuting which is never compensable under the FLSA.  Yes, there was an interesting variation on the theme but the Court found that the principle remained inviolate.  Still, employers must always be wary of the pre-work activities their employees engage in as a collective action could be lurking around the corner.

Or just down the road…

Many employers these days have timekeeping systems that deduct time (e.g. thirty minutes) for lunch on a daily basis.  There is an inherent danger in doing this, as employees may claim that they worked through lunch and therefore should be paid.  This is evidenced in yet another settlement in such an action, a settlement that totals $1.5 million.  The case is entitled Magpayo v. Advocate Health and Hospitals Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois.

Lunch BreakThe collective action involved hundreds of emergency room nurses.  This class submitted papers to a federal Judge asking approval of the settlement, which will include 262 ER Nurses.  The motion noted that the employer would have continued to litigate and there were risks, for the plaintiffs, in maintaining the suit.

The motion stated that “the traditional means for handling wage claims like those at issue here — individual litigation — would unduly tax the court system, require a massive expenditure of public and private resources and, given the relatively small value of the claims of the individual class members, would be impracticable.  The proposed settlement, therefore, is the best vehicle for class members to receive the relief to which they are entitled in a prompt and efficient manner.”

As stated above, the theory of the case was worked lunch breaks were going unpaid because of the automatic deductions.  The lead plaintiff also claimed the Hospital did not pay for overtime when more than forty hours were worked and that she had to work after she clocked out.  The class had been certified under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The plaintiffs wanted to settle because there was a risk the class could be decertified and greater expense would be incurred.  The motion noted that by asserting that “additional litigation would only serve to increase the expenses incurred without reducing the risks facing class members.”  The layers will receive $600,000 in fees.

The Takeaway

Automatic lunch deduction systems are legal but there must be a reporting mechanism, a fail-safe mechanism, for when employees do work through lunch (or claim they do).  The employee is trained to fill out a form, submit it to the supervisor for approval, and payment.  Then, the employer is protected and the employee properly paid for a true missed lunch break.

Sounds simple, yet these suits keep happening?