In FLSA cases, the plaintiff will often sue not only the Company, but its owners and/or officers as well.  I know from personal experience in defending these cases that clients often are motivated to settle because they fear the specter of possible personal or individual liability.

The recent case involving the owner of Gristede’s Foods Incorporated illustrates this maxim in a graphic manner.  He has appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, arguing that he is not an “employer” under the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus should not be held liable for any portion of the $3.5 million settlement just arrived at to resolve overtime employees who were pursuing a class action.  The case is entitled Torres et al. v. Gristede’s Operating Corporation.

The CEO, John Catsimatidis, argues that he should not be liable to payments to the more than five hundred Department Managers (who were allegedly misclassified as exempt) because the day-to-day operations were handled by his deputies and their deputies and so on.  Thus, he disclaimed any operational control at the level where the working conditions, job duties, and, most importantly, hours, of the employees were regulated and directed from.  A lower federal Court had ruled in September 2011 that he “retained” control of the daily operations of the various stores and thus he was an “employer” as defined under the FLSA.

The CEO’s appeal focuses its attack on the legal standard used by the District Court.  He urges that the district court had applied the wrong legal standard and should have used the so-called “economic reality” test, which is the test used to determine independent contractor status under the FLSA.  The CEO argues that this test would zero in on an owner’s “actual relationship” with employees.  The appeal papers urged that “the district court did not apply the ‘economic reality’ test or focus on Catsimatidis’ relationship with the store employees in question. Instead, it looked at Catsimatidis’ overall corporate control and supervision.”  The evidence showed that for over a decade, the CEO has not played a role in hiring or firing decisions, did not make payroll decisions and did not negotiate with the labor unions representing the employees.

An affirmance would pose a danger for employers because it would expose controlling shareholders to liability in scenarios in which they may exercise general oversight of Company operations but are not “on the ground” in a particular store or facility (where decisions about exempt status and work hours may be made).  The Company claims that the “FLSA does not contemplate such disdain for the corporate form.”  On the other hand, the buck (all three million of them) may stop at the top.

To be continued.