Classification issues are annoying ones, to state the obvious. Especially decisions and issues as to who is and who is not an independent contractor. And, it does not matter whether the defending entity is a mom-and-pop candy store or one of our most elite educational institutions, such as Harvard University. That august institution has just recently agreed to revise its university-wide worker classification system as part of a settlement of a class action involving allegations of misclassification. The case is entitled Donahue v. Harvard University and was filed in state court in Massachusetts.

A massage therapist treating a female client on a table in an apartmentThe settlement included a class of approximately 20 acupuncturists and massage therapists who worked at the University’s Center for Wellness from January 2013 to December 2017. These workers will now be re-classified as employees and receive up to $30,000 each in back pay. When the University re-classifies other workers, the side “benefit” will be that they will be eligible to join unions.

The plaintiff’s attorney complimented the university. She stated, “from the outset of this case, I have said that Harvard should be a role model for other employers. I am very proud of this settlement and hope that it sets an example of how other employers should respond when a concern is raised that its workers have been misclassified.”

The named plaintiff, Kara Donohoe, a massage therapist, sued the University in January 2016, alleging it misclassified her and others as independent contractors. They were, consequently, denied certain employee-related benefits. She will receive $30,000 in back pay and an extra $30,000 for being the named plaintiff, a so-called “incentive award.” Other workers will receive up to $30,000 in back pay. Harvard has now tasked a group of people (e.g. HR) with revising its policies concerning classification of individuals as independent contractors. This study will be guided by federal and state law principles.

The Takeaway

A wholesale classification of any group of individuals as independent contractors is dangerous. As I have harped on many times, the starting point for any such analysis, whether under FLSA principles or state law, any state’s law, is to ascertain if the individual has other customers or clients or works solely/mostly for the putative employer.  In this case, if these Therapists worked only for Harvard, they were not engaged in an “independently established business” and that is the death knell for any employer defense in an independent contractor case.

Sorry, but, on this one, Harvard gets an “F.”

I have blogged several times recently on the rash of “check bag” cases that have percolated through the courts. Another example. A class of workers employed by Converse Inc. have now asked the Ninth Circuit to revive a class action resting on the theory that the time waiting to go through mandatory security inspections was compensable. The employees allege that the trial court’s decision that the time spent was de minimis was incorrect. The case is entitled Chavez v. Converse Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

White canvas sneakersThe lower court judge found that the waiting time spent in inspections was a minute or a little more. Thus, the Court ruled that the time was de minimis. The employees argued that the judge should not have applied this doctrine to the California Labor Code claims because the test utilized by the Court was ostensibly meant to apply to Fair Labor Standards Act claims under the holding in Lindow v. United States. In this regard, the Court acknowledged that the question of whether the de minimis doctrine could ever apply to the California state statute was a question pending before the California Supreme Court after the Ninth Circuit certified that question to the Supreme Court.

The employees filed suit in July 2015 and in September 2016, Judge Cousins certified a class of approximately 1500 employees, finding that the claims shared commonality sufficient for a class-based litigation. Nevertheless, the judge dismissed the suit because the time spent in waiting was too brief to warrant litigation or to make findings that compensation was owed because the time was “working time.”

There were competing experts in this case. The Company expert stated that the inspection took less than ten seconds. The workers’ expert stated that the inspections took approximately 2.5 minutes per occurrence. The Judge ruled that even if the worker expert was right and it took 144 seconds per inspection, each worker would have to go through five exit inspections daily to amass more than ten minutes of off-the-clock time, which is the standard baseline for a de minimis finding.

The Takeaway

This case is interesting because the state Supreme Court is going to rule on the meaning of de minimis, which will impact on the holding reached in this matter. With that said, the lesson for employers is to always, I mean always, stake out the de minimis defense in any waiting time case, especially a bag case.

It just may work…

What is working time? There are many variations on this theme, some far grayer than others. When does waiting time become working time? Is the employee engaged to be waiting or waiting to be engaged? If the former, then it is working time. A class action involving more than 1,100 workers is now testing these hypotheses. These workers have been granted certification in a class action alleging they were not paid for time spent undergoing security checks before they left the store. The case is entitled Heredia et al. v. Eddie Bauer LLC and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Isometric Illustration of a Line at Security Checkpoint - Body Scan Machine U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman certified several causes of action, including a class for off-the-clock “exit inspections.” The Judge stated that there were two existing questions common to all class members–did the company mandate that security checks be performed off the clock and, if it did so, was the time spent by employees off the clock, waiting to go through security checks. compensable hours worked.

The theory of the suit (filed by a sales associate at a retail store) was that employees were not properly paid for time spent engaged in screening and time they waited for the screening to be conducted. The employee alleged that she was compelled to undergo bag checks and security inspections whenever she left the facility and these inspections were conducted pursuant to Company policy. Indeed, the worker alleged that supervisors directed her to clock out and wait at the front of the store before a manager would conduct a bag check.

The Company defended by asserting that the employees were only subject to screening if they were carrying a bag that might be utilized to steal store merchandise. The Company further stated that these bag checks were to be conducted on the clock, pursuant to Company policy. It also argued that the named plaintiff could not demonstrate that all class members incurred a common injury because there was no liability for some employees, such as those who did not carry a bag. The Judge observed that Eddie Bauer’s written policies did not mention whether employees had to clock out before undergoing a screening, or whether managers had to advise employees that these screenings were to be conducted on the clock.

Significantly, the judge rejected the contention that plaintiffs could not establish commonality because the Company policy allowed inspections to be performed on the clock. The Court observed that “this argument itself is an answer to the common question: whether Eddie Bauer’s policy and practice was to mandate that security checks be performed off-the-clock. Of course, the parties disagree on the answer to this question, but that does not preclude a finding of commonality under Rule 23(a)(2).”

The Takeaway

This is a troubling case. The element of compulsion, i.e. allegedly making employees punch out and wait for the inspection, makes this case very dangerous for the employer. It is made more interesting because the Supreme Court ruled a few years ago that similar waiting time was not compensable because that waiting time was not directly related to the job.

Maybe that is the next argument the Company should make…

I have blogged many times about the rash of intern cases that have popped up over the last few years. Now maybe there will be a consistent, uniform test for determining whether interns are really statutory “employees.” The US Department of Labor has endorsed such a test. The agency is approving the so-called “primary beneficiary” standard.

Students/interns sitting at a table with laptops talking
Copyright: bialasiewicz / 123RF Stock Photo

The agency has endorsed a seven-part test for determining intern status. This was set forth in the Second Circuit decision in the 2015 ruling in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc. That test analyzes the “economic reality” of interns’ relationship with the putative employer to ascertain who is the primary beneficiary of the relationship. This test has been applied in a number of cases and industries of industries, where courts have found that, as the primary beneficiaries of these internships, the individuals are not employees under the FLSA and therefore cannot file claims for misclassification and wage violations.

The agency noted that four federal appellate courts have rejected the six-part DOL test set forth almost a decade ago. The agency issued a statement asserting that the “Department of Labor today clarified that going forward, the department will conform to these appellate court rulings by using the same ‘primary beneficiary’ test that these courts use to determine whether interns are employees under the FLSA. The Wage and Hour Division will update its enforcement policies to align with recent case law, eliminate unnecessary confusion among the regulated community, and provide the division’s investigators with increased flexibility to holistically analyze internships on a case-by-case basis.”

Under the “old” test, an intern is an employee unless all of the six factors were satisfied. These included whether the intern displaced a regular employee and whether the employer derived any “immediate advantage” from the intern’s work. The updated test now restates the seven non-exhaustive factors that constituted the Glatt test. Those include: 1) whether there’ exists a clear understanding that no expectation of compensation exists; 2) whether interns receive training similar to what they would receive in an educational environment; and, 3) to what extent the internship is tied to a formal education program. The agency specifically noted that the primary beneficiary standard is “flexible,” and that determinations on intern-employee status hinge upon the unique circumstances of each case.

The Takeaway

I believe this is a better, fairer, more realistic test. Is it, as I postulated, “definitive guidance?”We will see…

There have been a great many intern cases recently, cases testing whether interns crossed the line into being statutory employees and therefore covered by the FLSA. I have blogged about these kinds of cases and have specifically blogged about beauty school cases. The Ninth Circuit has just affirmed a lower federal court’s dismissal of a lawsuit from three beauty school students, who allege they were employees while they studied for their degrees. The case is entitled Benjamin, et al v. B & H Education and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

Hairdresser cutting young woman's hairApplying the test enunciated in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures, Inc., the Court agreed with the lower court’s conclusion that the students had not shown that the educational benefit they had received from attending B&H Education Inc.’s Marinello Schools of Beauty was not superseded by the amount of unpaid “work” that they performed. The Court stated that the “application of the Glatt factors establishes that students were the primary beneficiaries of their labors. Their participation in Marinello’s clinic provided them with the hands-on training they needed to sit for the state licensing exams.”

The Court also found that even if another, more restrictive test, i.e. the DOL factors, was applied, the students would still not be employees. The Court stated that even if it applied these DOL factors, “we view the training provided to plaintiffs to be in an educational environment, because state law requires students to clock hundreds of hours of instruction and practical training in order to qualify for taking the licensing exams.”

The issue was that as part of their educational training, the students at the school were expected to practice providing cosmetology services and, on occasion, some customers received these services. That gave the foundation for the students to allege that they were really “employees.” The Court was not convinced, finding that “as the district court noted in this case, schools typically exercise significant control over their students, but that does not make them employers.”

The Takeaway

There is a tension between the “moment” actual work may get performed and whether that alleged work is too integrally connected to the education to be called “work.”

The trick is knowing where that line gets crossed…

There has been a great deal of litigation about class action waivers in Employee Handbooks and use of arbitration mechanisms in Employee Handbooks to preclude judicial litigation. A recent New Jersey federal case sheds more light on this thorny issue, and the decision favors employers. The case is entitled Essex v. The Children’s Place and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

Pen on paperIn October 2014, the Company developed an arbitration program that applied to all Associates working at retail stores in the United States. The Company used an intranet portal to communicate with Associates. To gain access, Associates used an employee identification number and personal password. Since October 2014, the Portal included The Mutual Agreement to Arbitrate Claims.

When the Company introduced the arbitration program, it sent Associates already working for the Company received a message through the Portal, directing them to review the Arbitration Agreement. That message explained “it is important that you review the Arbitration Agreement carefully” and that “[w]e expect all Associates to review and sign the Arbitration Agreement. However, because it is not a mandatory condition of your employment, you may elect to opt out and not be subject to the Arbitration Agreement.” Associates hired after October 2014 reviewed the Arbitration Agreement following orientation. The Arbitration Agreement included a class, collective, and representation waiver.

An Associate who declined to accept the terms of the Arbitration Agreement filled out an Opt Out Form, which was also located on the Portal. Of the 377 Store Managers who filed consent to join the lawsuit, 209 of them signed and submitted the Arbitration Agreements. These employees were not required to participate in the arbitration program as a condition of employment and the Arbitration Agreement expressly provided that signing the Arbitration Agreement was not a mandatory condition of employment.

The Court ruled that the Arbitration Agreement had a clear “opt out” provision. The Court noted that numerous Plaintiffs who opted into the case first opted out of the Arbitration Agreement. Thus, it was clear that the arbitration agreement had an opt-out clause and that “[s]uch a provision can hardly be construed to interfere with, restrain, or coerce an employee into forfeiting the rights afforded by § 7 of the NLRA”).  The Defendant conceded that the forty-nine Plaintiffs who did opt out of the Arbitration Agreement were not subject to this motion to compel. Thus, the Court dismissed the case as concerned those Plaintiffs who did not opt out of the arbitration provision.

The Takeaway

This is a very instructive case for employers. The defense works! In how many of my postings am I talking about magic bullets or an easy, quick, cheap way out of a FLSA collective action (at least for many of the opt-in workers).

Well, here is a real good one…

I read an interesting post by Daniel Schwartz in the Connecticut Employment Law Blog. It concerned a recent Second Circuit decision that bodes well for employers in the never-ending fight against wage-hour class actions. The case is entitled Rodriguez-Depena v. Parts Authority, Inc. et al. and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Auto parts store shelvesThe Court therein ruled that the arbitration clause set forth in the employment agreement precluded the federal action.  Dan noted that the “clear logic” of the decision will be hard to overlook and I believe he is quite right. The Court relied upon an earlier decision that held that age discrimination claims could not be brought in court if a valid arbitration policy was in place.

The Court also examined the issue of whether the required judicial oversight of FLSA settlements would be a bar to arbitration of these claims. The Court held that it did not, as the guarantee of the fairness of a settlement of a claim filed in court did not mean that this right provided an ironclad right to file suit in court.

Dan notes that this “federal endorsement of arbitration provisions” will allow employers to adopt these provisions and provide themselves with another defense. It also provides yet another stratagem to be utilized in the early stages of a FLSA class action case.

The Takeaway

Maybe employers should consider utilizing such mandatory arbitration provisions. Arbitration is a much cheaper and faster litigation mechanism. I am a big advocate of taking the easiest way out of a class action federal court FLSA case and these kinds of provisions may be another weapon in that early dismissal arsenal.

Well done, Dan…

A class of equipment operators and trainees has asked a federal court to approve a $1.35 million settlement of their FLSA class action lawsuit alleging the Company did not fairly pay them their wages and used a gimmick to avoid doing so.  The case is entitled Elliott v. Schlumberger Technology Corp. et al., and was filed in federal court in the District of North Dakota.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Company violated the law by paying them under the “fluctuating workweek” method.   Interestingly (or maybe not so much), the settlement talks took place after U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson granted the Company’s motion to decertify the class.   The Judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show that the workers were similarly situated. There are 138 people in the class.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Company paid equipment operators and trainees by the fluctuating-workweek (FWW) method.  That method allows employers to pay workers overtime at a half-time, as opposed to time and one-half, but certain conditions must be met.  The workers claimed that in order to validly use this method, the employees must be paid on a fixed salary, which they were not.

The Court had conditionally certified a collective class of equipment operators, trainees and other similar employees who were employed at the Company plant in Williston, North Dakota, and to whom the Company applied the fluctuating workweek method for at least one week during the three years preceding the lawsuit.

The Takeaway

This case presents a valuable lesson.  Attempted use of the FWW method of payment must have the employees receiving a fixed salary and an agreement, in advance of the work, that the employees understand what the payment arrangements and overtime protocols are going to be.  This allows the employer to pay half time for overtime instead of time and one-half.  Without these two requirements being met, any attempt to use the FWW method is doomed to failure.  Put differently, the FWW method can be the employer’s best friend, if done right.

If not, it is the employer’s worst enemy…

There has not been much litigation over the HCE, the so-called Highly Compensated Employee exemption under the FLSA. Recently, an interesting case explored the issue of whether commission payments can form the entirety of the required salary. In Pierce v. Wyndham Vacation Resorts, Inc., a federal court interpreted this exemption to determine this issue. The case was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Tennessee.

Dollar signs
Copyright: sergo / 123RF Stock Photo

The court observed that the regulation allowed a highly compensated employee to be paid on a salary or a fee basis. The Court looked at related regulations and found that the highly compensated administrative or professional employees could be compensated on a salary or fee basis to comply with the exemption, but held that a highly compensated executive had to be paid on a salary basis, as the fee type of compensation did not apply to the executive exemption. Thus, the Court held that an exempt executive had to receive a salary of $455 per week, but that other forms of compensation could help satisfy the requirements of the highly compensated employee exemption.

The Court went on to explicate that even if the fee form of compensation applied to exempt executives, the Court held that the commissions paid to the plaintiffs were not a fee basis type of compensation. The Court stated explicitly that the Company’s argument was “illogical.” In that regard, the Court reasoned that if a commission could be considered a “fee basis,” “there would be no need for the Department of Labor to include the work ‘commission’ in the second sentence of the regulation” as an acceptable form of additional compensation to reach the $100,000 annual threshold.” Moreover, there was no showing that the commission paid to the plaintiffs were akin to a fee, as the commissions were founded on sales made and were linked to the results of the job.

The Court then examined a USDOL Opinion Letter in which employees were paid commissions but they also received a guaranteed salary. In this case, the employees did not receive any salary but were paid entirely by commissions. Therefore, they failed to satisfy the requirements of the highly compensated employee exemption.

The Takeaway

This is an unusual case but with a very valuable lesson. When deciding whether to classify an employee as exempt under the HCE exemption, a component of the aggregate compensation paid must be “pure” salary.  Even if that salary is the statutory minimum of $455 per week. The failure of the employer to do so in this case means that these employees, some making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, will be entitled to overtime!

How is that for the law of unintended consequences?

I always look for the easiest way out of a FLSA lawsuit. I use the word “easiest” in the most generic sense, as no magic bullet defense is truly easy. However, there are times when you catch lightning in a bottle, i.e. the jurisdictional defense. In a recent case, the Company was able to use this defense/shield to dismiss a FLSA overtime suit. The case is entitled Zheng v. Best Food In Town, LLC et al and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey. The plaintiff alleged violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law (“NJWHL”).

Cooks in restaurant kitchenThe plaintiff alleged that he was a salaried employee and worked as a kitchen helper for Defendants with a fixed lump sum per month compensation. His duties included washing and cutting vegetables, frying and cooking rice, preparing meat, and cleaning. He separated employment in May 2015. The plaintiff alleged that his employer engaged in a widespread pattern and practice of not paying a class of employees proper minimum wage and overtime compensation.

The Court noted that to sustain a suit under the FLSA, an employee must work for an enterprise or business that “has employees engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce, or that has employees handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in or produced for commerce by any person.” 29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)(a). This enterprise must have annual gross sales or business “not less than $500,000.” Id.

On this point, the Company submitted individual and corporate tax returns to support the argument that the business did not reach this threshold. These documents included tax returns from 2013, 2014, and 2015; Defendants’ gross corporate annual revenue ranged from $385,420 to $428,856. The plaintiff countered by asserting that these income tax records did not account for all of Best Food In Town’s sales. The Court observed that, thus, the Plaintiff’s only evidence to rebut these documents was “an assertion of tax fraud.”

The Court concluded that this lack of evidence was fatal. In a summary judgment proceeding, the non-moving party must make some showing of evidence from which a reasonable jury might return a verdict in his favor. All the Plaintiff did here was make an assertion. That did not and could not carry the day. Thus, the Court ruled that the FLSA did not apply to the Company and dismissed the Complaint.

The Takeaway

How quick and effective! No jurisdiction because the dollar threshold was not met and the case is dismissed, early on. This will certainly not work in every case, but the moral of the story remains the same. Defense counsel should explore the possibility of a sure-fire, quick, easy way out. If you don’t look, you don’t find.

Always look…