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?

I have often written about the scourge of Assistant Manager class actions. The employee category is particularly subject to this kind of lawsuit as these workers often perform some non-exempt work and it is unclear many times if they possess and exercise sufficient and proper supervisory authority. A recent case in New Jersey provides yet another example. A federal judge has just conditionally certified a class of Assistant Store Managers who work for Panera Bread. They allege that they were misclassified as exempt. Interestingly, the Court would not certify such classes in Massachusetts and New York.  The case is entitled Friscia v. Doherty Enterprises Inc. and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

Waitress carrying three platesThe judge concluded that the lead plaintiff Jacqueline Friscia made a “modest factual showing” concerning the alleged misclassification but refused to certify classes in other states. The court stated that “put simply, Friscia has not produced sufficient evidence to show that she is similarly situated to assistant managers in New York or Massachusetts.”

As is typical in these cases, the named plaintiff claims she worked 55-80 hours per week. She also claims that she performed many non-exempt tasks and that these tasks comprised the majority of her work time per week These tasks included preparing food, taking food orders, cleaning the store, working at the cash register and dish washing. Other than her weekly salary of $800, she asserted that she never received overtime for her long hours.

The company took the position that since the named plaintiff worked in only one store, she could not know conditions at other stores or whether the other Assistant Managers were “similarly situated.” The company also contended that there was an arbitration agreement in place and thus the workers could not be included all together in the same class actions. The judge was not impressed by these arguments, finding that the plaintiffs had met the “lenient burden” to receive conditional certification.

The Takeaway

The company can still defeat this class action by making a motion to de-certify the class later on. This would entail taking more discovery, perhaps many more depositions, in an effort to show that there is too much individual difference between the workers across the system to allow for class treatment. This will be expensive and may not be successful.

Or, the company can bite the bullet and settle…

U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.The legal world is abuzz with the ripples created by a recent US Supreme Court decision on the statute of limitations in class actions.  A recent post in the Epstein Becker Wage & Hour Defense Blog makes some interesting observations on the case and the issue of its application to wage-hour/overtime class actions.  The case is entitled China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh  and issued from the US Supreme Court a few days ago.

Under the FLSA, each week in which an employee was not properly paid is a separate violation.  There are situations when a plaintiff seeks to bring a class action, but loses on the class certification motion and then, lo and behold, a different plaintiff tries to assert a new class action based on the same theory.

This case followed the holding in American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, where the Court held that a timely-filed complaint seeking relief for a class stayed the running of the statute of limitations for other class members and that if class certification was denied, other people could enter the case without their own statute of limitations being eroded away.  As the post notes, the Court subsequently ruled that this tolling principle also applied when individual members of the class later filed their own individual actions.  That left the question of whether the tolling rules enunciated in these cases applied to future class actions.

In China Agritech, the plaintiff filed a putative class action under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, with a two-year statute of limitations. The court denied class certification in May 2012; the initial case settled in September 2012 and was dismissed.  The next month, a second plaintiff filed a class action alleging the same claims and seeking the same class as in the first case.  Certification was again denied and that case also settled.

Then, in June 2014, a new plaintiff filed a third class action; the district court dismissed it as untimely but the Ninth Circuit reversed.  The case went to the Supreme Court where the Court decided that “American Pipe does not permit the maintenance of a follow-on class action past expiration of the statute of limitations.”

The Court distinguished individual claims from class actions.  If certification was denied, only then would individual claims be allowed to proceed so there was a rationale for preserving the original statute of limitations.  However, if the next case concerned class claims, the Court held that for sake of efficiency, it was important to determine the best class representative (if there were competing representatives) and then class certification, if appropriate, would be determined, essentially, once and for all in the case.   The Court rejected the implicit argument of a rolling statute of limitations, as that would allow the statute “to be extended time and again; as each class is denied certification…”   Thus, subsequent time-barred class actions were not permitted.

The Takeaway

The China Agritech, holding gives employers a new and powerful weapon to defeat class actions.  The American Pipe doctrine of allowing tolling for future plaintiffs in FLSA class is not viable anymore although courts will probably permit individual lawsuits seeking recovery for weeks which would have been barred under the American Pipe rationale.  It is possible that subsequent class actions will be allowed if filed by people who were in a putative class that did not receive certification but there will be no tolling.  As the Epstein post notes, and with which I totally agree, employers should look, first, when defending a FLSA class action, if there is a statute of limitations defense.  That would get rid of the entire case!

Simply put, June 11, 2018 was a good day for us on the management side…

I have often blogged (and am concerned about) working time issues, especially when they comprise the basis for a class action. These are “soft,” subtle activities that may rise to the level of compensable time, catching n employer unawares. A recent example of this is a class action filed seeking compensation for “homework” done after an employer mandated training session. The case is entitled Acevedo et al. v. Southwest Airlines Company and was filed in federal court in the District of New Mexico.

Child daydreaming while doing math homeworkThe customer service representatives were mostly successful in warding off the employer’s motion to dismiss, which was based on an exemption peculiar to the airline industry. They claim they worked off-the-clock and had to do more work at home following training. The Judge noted that examination of the employees’ job duties is necessary to ascertain if the exemption applies. The Court will make that ultimate determination after discovery is completed.

The Company required the customer representatives to attend training for six weeks; they were paid for that time, the classroom time, but they were not paid for the required homework assignments that were connected to and part of the classroom training. The homework took approximately 60-90 minutes, per night. The plaintiffs also contended that the Company only considered them to be on the clock when they opened a certain telephone program on their computer. The plaintiffs also allege they were not paid for work they were compelled to perform before they clocked in, or were allowed to clock in.

The Court rejected the Company’s attempt to dismiss state law wage claims because they were supposedly preempted by the Railway Labor Act. The Court found that the “plaintiff’s NMMWA claims are independent, state law claims that do not require contractual interpretation. For this reason, the court will not dismiss plaintiff’s NMMWA claims on the basis of preemption under the RLA.”

The Takeaway

Absent a victory on the exemption issue, which may be problematic, I frankly do not see how the Company can prevail on this. The classroom training hours were (obviously) work hours and were paid for as such by the Company. The homework time directly derived from the classroom work and was tied to it. Unless there is a viable de minimis argument/defense (which is, again, doubtful), my advice is to settle this case quickly, unless the Company believes it has a sure-fire winner on the exemption argument. The takeaway is that these soft, subtle types of working time claims can explode on an employer in an instant.

Too bad, back in elementary school, homework was not compensable…

We have experienced a watershed change in the law this week and its ripples will move outward in ever widening circles for years to come. This is, naturally, the decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (one of a trio of cases, the others being National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA and Ernst & Young LLP v Morris) that dealt with the issue of class action waivers in arbitration agreements. Well, the Supreme Court agreed with the employer and asserted that such waivers are now legal.  As a recent blog in the Epstein Becker Wage & Hour Defense Blog points out, this decision may well have a major effect on pending wage-hour class and collective lawsuits, many of which have been held in abeyance until the Court decided the case. I imagine many employers will now implement these waivers and practitioners will likely be advising clients to do so. I wonder, however, if the case will be the panacea that many commentators are hailing it as.

U.S. Supreme Court Building, Washington, D.C.The vote was 5-4, with new Justice Neil Gorsuch writing the decision. The bottom line is that class action waivers are permissible under the Federal Arbitration Act and are not illegal under the National Labor Relations Act. This resolves a conflict in the federal appellate courts as many of these tribunals had held that such waivers were illegal.

As the Epstein Becker post points out, the decision “is an unqualified victory for employers, particularly those who already have such arbitration agreements in place.” As wage hour class actions abound and defending them is so very expensive (e.g. due to the fee shifting potential), a “reasonable” employer might be well-advised to implement such agreements and force their employees, individually, into arbitrations over their wage-hour claims.

But let’s not, those on the management side, start toasting each other with expensive champagne just yet. In many states, the employer has to pay all costs associated with the arbitration, including the arbitrator’s fees. So, as the post mentions, clever plaintiff lawyers can start filing dozens, if not hundreds of individual arbitration cases, which will cause employer costs to skyrocket and maybe then force employers to settle cases that they pushed into arbitration for the very reason of trying to cut costs of litigation.

The Takeaway

I hail this decision too, but the practical implications will take some time to play themselves out. The thought of defending dozens and dozens of individual arbitrations, each likely based on the same theory will likely yield gargantuan legal fees and expenses (e.g. arbitrator fees) for the employer. At that point, wouldn’t an employer want to aggregate these individual claims for efficiency and to save money?

Isn’t that a class action?

Employers are always trying to cut off the head of a class action, i.e. the named plaintiff, in order to bring the case to an end. What happens when the named plaintiff is gone from the case but some people have opted in? Do they become named plaintiffs, with the case continuing?  The Eleventh Circuit has seemingly answered that question in the affirmative. The court has just ruled that workers who opt into collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act only have to file that little piece of paper, the consent form, to then become a named party to the case,  The case is entitled Mickles et al. v. Country Club Inc.

The Elbert P. Tuttle U.S. Courthouse in Atlanta, Georgia, now home to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
By Eoghanacht [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Importantly, the ruling is a published one, meaning it is precedential. The panel reversed the lower court which held that the three opt-ins were not properly added to the case and should have been eliminated from the suit after the original plaintiff did not succeed in securing conditional certification and then settled. The Judge who wrote the decision stated that this was a case of first impression.

The Court noted that the FLSA, on its face, buttressed the conclusion that workers who opt into a collective “become party plaintiffs upon the filing of a consent and that nothing further, including conditional certification, is required.” The Court stated that “we conclude that filing a written consent pursuant to [FLSA] section 216(b) is sufficient to confer party-plaintiff status.”

The case was filed in 2014 by a single named plaintiff Andrea Mickles, a dancer at Goldrush. The suit alleged that the company (Country Club Inc.) had misclassified her and other dancers as independent contractors and thus they were denied proper minimum wages and overtime monies. She sought a class of current and former dancers; three other dancers then opted in by filing consents.

The lower court denied the motion to conditionally certify the class, as it was filed beyond the deadline set forth in local court rules for such a motion. There was no mention, however, of what would happen to the three opt-in plaintiffs. The Company then asked the court to specify which individuals would stay in the case. The company claimed the opt-ins had never become named party plaintiffs and thus were eliminated from the case when the conditional certification motion was denied.

The three additional workers claimed they could not be dropped from the case because the conditional certification motion was denied. The lower court held that the three had not been ruled similarly situated to the original plaintiff and had not been joined to the collective action. Then, the original plaintiff settled with the company and the three opt-ins appealed to the Eleventh Circuit.

That appellate court noted that there was no determination made as to the “similarly situated” element for the three workers, as needed to be done. Although opt-ins must be similarly situated to the original plaintiff, as no ruling on this issue had been made, the three employees stayed as parties until that ruling was made; if they were not ruled to be similarly situated, then they would be dismissed from the case.

The Eleventh Circuit therefore ordered that the opt-in cases be dismissed without prejudice so they were free to refile their claims, or proceed with their own suits. The court stated that “the “appellants were parties to the litigation upon filing consents and, absent a dismissal from the case, remained parties in the litigation, Thus, the district court erred in deeming appellants non-parties in the clarification order, which had the effect of dismissing their claims with prejudice.”

The Takeaway

This is a major change in the FLSA litigation landscape and makes it harder for an employer to get a case dismissed or to even settle a case. Yes, it is only one circuit, but the reasoning and rationale may spread to other circuits.

I hope not…

Exemption class actions, i.e. lawsuits alleging misclassification, continue to pop up in different contexts and concerning different classifications. A bank has just agreed to settle a case by paying more than $2 million to put a close to a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) collective action based on a theory that the bank misclassified certain computer/IT workers. The case is entitled Schaefer Jr. v. M&T Bank Corporation, and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York.

Network switch and ethernet cables,data center conceptThe settlement will pay almost $2.5 million to more than two hundred IT workers across the country. The parties have filed a joint motion asking that the settlement be approved. The motion notes that the employer denied liability as well as that it even was the employer of the workers. The motion then asserts that the settlement was “reasonable in light of the considerable risk that Plaintiffs face.” Naturally, the motion seeks money for attorney’s fees that would amount to 33% of the gross settlement funds and money for a settlement claims administrator.

The motion provides the rationale for the settlement by stating that “first, although plaintiffs obtained conditional certification, maintaining the collective and certifying a class through trial may be difficult. Defendant would likely argue that the differences among various job titles, departments and other individualized questions preclude class certification and would warrant decertification of the collective. Moreover, defendant could argue that the computer exemption applies to plaintiffs and ultimately convince the court that plaintiffs were properly classified as exempt from overtime pay. Although Plaintiffs disagree, other defendants have prevailed on such arguments in similar cases.”

The theory of the suit was that the bank did not properly pay overtime to technology department network computing analysts and staff specialists. The lead plaintiff, James Schaefer Jr., alleged that he was such an IT worker for several years and was not paid overtime because he was misclassified as exempt.

The Takeaway

These exemption cases prove difficult to win, often times. On the computer exemption issue, numerous titles abound which may or may not connote an exempt classification. A lot of gray here. With that said, the need-for-individualized-scrutiny defense sometimes works. Sometimes it does not and then the stakes for the employer-defendant are dramatically escalated.

Much better to settle…

I blog a lot about working time cases because these are the issues can sneak up on an employer, even the most well intentioned and good faith employer. Travel time is one of these murky, arcane kind of activities that go unnoticed by companies until, often, a lawsuit is filed. Another example emerges. A group of workers who constructed and maintained cellphone towers in several States gave been granted conditional certification in a FLSA collective action based on an alleged failure to pay for travel time. The case is entitled Lichy et al. v. Centerline Communications LLC, and was filed in federal court in the District of Massachusetts.

Silhouette of a cell phone tower shot against the setting sun.The judge certified a class of tower technicians and foremen. These workers can now opt into the lawsuit, which is based on the theory that the company should have compensated them for hours they spent driving company vehicles to work, over supposedly vast distances. The inclusion of foremen in the class, e.g. supervisory personnel, is quite interesting, but the Court found their duties were very similar to the rank-and-file workers and the foremen were working under the identical travel time policy.

The plaintiffs’ lawyer, naturally, applauded the decision, stating “first, the court recognized that slight differences among members of the class do not preclude conditional certification where all class members are subject to the same policy regarding payment of wages  Second, the court explicitly recognized that plaintiffs need not submit affidavits in support of their motion for conditional certification in order to prevail.”

Five tower technicians/lineworkers filed the suit. Their job duties included climbing cell towers, many times in distant locations and installing antennae, radios and cables. The Company mandated that the workers drive together to these job sites. The men were paid their regular hourly rates for the travel time between a meeting point and the job site. However, the Company failed to pay for the travel time returning to the central meeting place unless there were traffic delays or the job location was more than 130 miles from the regional workshop, according to the allegations in the case. The workers seek payment for the time driving back in Company vehicles to the central location. The Company contends that the FLSA does not mandate payment for travel time.

The Takeaway

I wonder why the company would not pay for the travel time back to the meeting place or regional office when the Company did pay for the travel time from the meeting place to the job site. That initial agreement to pay seems to undermine the defense that travel time is non-compensable. Home to work travel time is non-compensable, but when workers must first report to a central location, leave from there to the first job site and travel back to that central location, the travel time then does become compensable.

I bet this case settles…

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…