I have written a number of times about law firms that have been sued in FLSA actions. Another example. Employees have sued two Florida personal injury law firms, alleging that they were misclassified and not properly paid proper overtime wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In fact, there are two class actions filed. The cases are entitled Durrett v. Disparti Law Group PA et al and Hinkle v. Jodat Law Group PA. et al. Both cases were filed in federal court in the Middle District of Florida.

Law books and justice scales
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The employees at issue in the Disparti suit are case managers; these are the same kind of employees whose status is at issue in the Jodat case.  The employees claim that their duties are non-exempt. The Durrett plaintiff alleged, “in most if not all work-weeks, plaintiff was paid for 40 hours but was not compensated time and half for hours worked over 40.” She alleged that the “defendant would pay plaintiff straight time by personal check for all hours over 40 in a workweek. This disguised method of compensation was implemented to circumvent the FLSA’s requirement for overtime compensation.”

The plaintiffs claim that the founders of the firm knew of these illegal payment practices and have named both of them as individual defendants. The suit also alleges that sometimes the defendant gave Durrett compensatory time and failed to pay Hinkle for her time spent delivering mail between the offices, although she asserted this was a routine part of her duties.  Hinkle claimed that the “defendants were able to avoid paying overtime by not paying plaintiff travel time when she would transport firm mail between office locations.

The women employees claim all they did was manage cases, keep clients informed of status of their cases, order supplies and organize files.  Ms. Durrett made a very (potentially) damaging allegation, i.e., that she was ordered to clock out and then keep working, many times in excess of fifty (50) hours per week. Naturally, the employees claim the violations were willful and that there are many other workers at these two firms with similar claims.

The Takeaway

Law firms, or doctor offices, are not immune to FLSA lawsuits, particularly on misclassification grounds. It is always the employer’s obligation to classify employees properly. It sounds like the employees at issue do mainly ministerial tasks, run-of-the-mill tasks that do not smack of exemption. Unless the plaintiffs (and possible opt-ins), supervise workers so they might possibly fit within the executive exemption, the only realistic possibility is the administrative exemption.

The grayest and toughest of the white-collar exemptions for the employer to prove…

There have been so many cases involving employees in the financial services industries and their exempt status or lack thereof. In another variation on this theme, Provident Savings Bank is seeking review by the US Supreme Court of a Ninth Circuit decision that gave new life to allegations that its mortgage underwriters are non-exempt and entitled to overtime. The bank asserts that these employees are exempt under USDOL regulations, i.e. the administrative regulations. The case is entitled Provident Savings Bank, FSB v. Gina McKeen-Chaplin, et al. and has been submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Banking and Financial Services
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The bank had defended the lawsuit by asserting that these workers did qualify as exempt administrative employees because their duties involved the “servicing” and “running” of the bank’s business by analyzing and evaluating whether the bank should risk money by rendering loans to certain borrowers. The petition states “nothing in the FLSA’s text or purpose justifies interpreting the ‘administrative’ exemption with a heavy thumb on the scale against the employer. Perhaps for that reason, this court has pointedly refused to apply the canon in recent FLSA cases.”

The Ninth Circuit concluded that the job functions of these workers, i.e. reviewing loan applications using guidelines set down by the bank and investors, were not the back office functions relating to management or general business operations that the exemption requires. The named plaintiff had appealed a lower court decision that granted summary judgment to the Bank.

The district court had first granted conditional certification but then threw the case out because it concluded that the underwriters fit within the administrative employee exemption because major, primary functions included “quality control.”  That is one of the functions enumerated in the regulations as work related to the management or general business operations of the bank.

The Takeaway

This case highlights the confusion in the regulations concerning the financial services industry. If these workers are “simply” using established guidelines and standards to make decisions, well, that is not “discretion and independent judgment.” Although quality control is certainly a back-office type business function, this particular exemption still requires employees to use discretion.

That is where these kinds of cases usually go south for the employer.

In the movie “Grease,” there is a song entitled “Beauty School Dropout,” sung by Frankie Avalon. Well, in a legal version of that number, the Seventh Circuit has affirmed that beauty school students have, sort of, dropped out of the FLSA as they are not considered employees. The case is entitled Hollins v. Regency Corp., and issued from the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

Hairdresser cutting young woman's hairThe decision affirmed a lower court decision, holding that a cosmetology student who worked at the beauty school’s salon was not an employee of the school. This employer, a cosmetology school, requires that students complete 1,500 hours of classroom and hands-on work. They do this by working in the school’s salon; the customers pay discounted prices. Significantly, the students are not paid, but they do receive credit of hours towards their license as well as academic credit.

The named plaintiff alleged that her hours were compensable under the FLSA and she brought a collective action; the lower court denied the motion for conditional class certification as moot, as the court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment on the “employee” issue.

The Seventh Circuit looked at the “primary beneficiary” test and determined that under those standards, the workers were not employees. The right approach was that taken by the lower court, which examined the “particular relationship and program.” What was also important was that the work (of serving the public) was required to attain the professional license in cosmetology. The court found that the students were paying the school “for the opportunity to receive both classroom instruction and supervised practical experience.”

It was also probative to the Court that the main business operations were centered on providing an education, not operating “actual” beauty salons. Thus, the Seventh Circuit ruled, “that the fact that students pay not just for the classroom time but also for the practical-training time is fundamentally inconsistent” with the notion that the students were employees.

The Takeaway

There has always been controversy over whether students at these types of schools are FLSA employees. It seems that when students are engaged in the usual and typical jobs and tasks that students engage in when they are pursuing a degree (of any kind), that is not “work.” Perhaps, even though the students here lost, others may try the same tactics, albeit in different jurisdictions.

If the tasks at issue are claimed or argued to be not connected to attaining a degree, maybe these cases would have better prospects of succeeding and giving some unlucky employer a real “haircut.”

I have blogged (somewhat incessantly, I admit) about manager FLSA class actions and what the line(s) of defense are for the employer in these cases, and how to defeat these cases. Another case in point. A federal judge has now decertified a collective class, following the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation against the class continuing in this overtime action. The case is entitled McEarchen et al. v. Urban Outfitters Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York.

Retail clothing storeJudge Roslynn R. Mauskopf adopted the Magistrate Judge’s report and recommendations, concluding that there was no plain error in the Report. Moreover, the Managers had not lodged objections to the Report/Recommendations. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein had ruled that there were too many differences in duties, responsibilities and authority among the members of the class to allow the claims to proceed as a collective action.

The Managers stated that they agreed not to object to the Report if the Company gave the Managers more time to file, perhaps, individual lawsuits. The original lawsuit alleged misclassification, i.e. that the Managers did not fit the executive exemption, they were not true managers and therefore were non-exempt under the FLSA. The plaintiffs moved to certify a class of all current/former department Managers at the Company’s 179 stores. The plaintiffs argued that all of the Managers had similar job duties and lacked meaningful discretion. There were notices sent to 1,500 potential opt-ins, following the granting of conditional certification. More than two hundred opted in and several were deposed.

The Magistrate Judge found that there were major differences between the duties and experiences of the opt-in plaintiff and the named plaintiffs. The Judge found that the opt-ins seemed to be exempt, as opposed to the named plaintiffs. The named plaintiffs asserted that they had little say in hiring and firing decisions. To the contrary, many opt-ins “described being active participants in the hiring and firing process,” Judge Orenstein wrote. The named plaintiffs posited that they spent but little time training hourly workers, but many opt-ins testified to a broad range of training responsibilities.

The Takeaway

This is another lesson for employers, not only in these Manager type cases but also for all employers defending almost any kind of FLSA (or state) class/collective action.  Bang away at individual differences in the class. It sure helps if the opt-ins to the class give favorable testimony at the expense of their own self-interest (and wallet). The interesting twist is that the plaintiffs extracted more time for possible plaintiffs to file their own individual cases.

Maybe they know something…

Most wage-hour class actions settle, usually with the lead plaintiff getting an extra sum of money for leading the “good fight.” In any such action, the Judge has to approve the settlement. Well, sometimes a Judge does not like what is in the settlement and will reject it. That is exactly what has happened in a Pennsylvania case. The federal judge has declined to approve a settlement between a former Assistant Manager and his class, who had sued an auto repair shop. The Court found that the proposed settlement was too generous to the named plaintiff and, more tellingly, his attorneys. The case is entitled Hoover et al. v. Mid-Atlantic Lubes Inc. et al, filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Silhouette of mechanic in an auto repair shopThe Judge found that the proposed $6,000 incentive award for the named plaintiff, in addition to his money from the actual settlement, would see him receive the amount of the $15,000, which was deemed excessive. The Court also found the $175,512 requested by his counsel for his fees was also excessive. As the Court aptly put it, “the fee award named plaintiff’s counsel seeks is almost 12 times greater than the amount the opt-in collective will receive in total. In these circumstances, I cannot preliminarily approve the settlement.”

The employees alleged that the Company denied proper compensation by throwing out time records and/or editing time entries to reduce or remove hours. The Company also allegedly ordered employees to clock out when they were not assisting customers, although they were required to stay in the store.

The parties sought approval of the settlement in January; every potential class member was going to receive compensation for hours worked but uncompensated. A settlement fund of 15,000 had been established. The class included customer service technicians and assistant managers who worked at the store in Warminster, PA, from January 2014-January 2016.

Counsel for the named plaintiff contended that the $6,000 incentive award requested for Mr. Hoover was fair, as he was actively involved in going to judicial proceedings and court conferences. He also agreed not to seek employment with the Company and asserted that should be worth something. The Judge disagreed and dubbed the incentive award “excessive and unduly preferential.”

The Takeaway

Plaintiff’s counsel stated that, “the parties have worked amicably with one another from the outset of this litigation and we look forward to continuing to work with the defendants to consummate a mutually agreeable resolution.” To that, I say that more reasonableness in the demand for fees would be a good way to work together amicably. From my experience in these matters as an employer’s attorney, plaintiff counsel fee demands (especially the opening number) often seem disproportionate to the amount of work I believe (reasonably) should have gone into the case.

No industry is immune to FLSA collective actions and the energy industry is seeing a significant uptick in these actions. In this regard, a class of workers employed by an oil field services company has just agreed to a $2.1 million deal to settle a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action alleging that the company did not pay them proper overtime wages. The case is entitled Meals v. Keane Frac GP LLC et al., and was filed in federal court in the Western District of Pennsylvania.

Oil pump jack and oil tank silhouette
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The employer advised the Court that a settlement had been reached with a class of “frac supervisor I’s” to settle a FLSA collective action, seeking overtime, on a misclassification theory. The agreement recited that both counsel believed the settlement was in the best interests of all the parties, given the costs to be incurred, the risks inherent in litigation, as well as the delays, when placed up against the benefits of the settlement.

The defendant, however, made sure to secure non-admissions language. The papers stated that the “defendant denies and continues to deny all of plaintiff’s allegations in the action. Defendant enters into this agreement expressly disavowing any fault, liability and/or wrongdoing.”

Importantly, there had been a grant of conditional certification in June to a class of current and former “frac supervisor I’s” and other like employees who were employed by the Company in the last three years. The plaintiffs alleged that these alleged supervisors performed primarily manual work, which precluded the application of the exemption. The plaintiffs also claimed that the Company has a policy of deliberately misclassifying these supervisors to save overtime costs (even though they received bonuses). The Complaint alleged that all of these supervisors were similarly situated because they shared common job duties, were all classified as exempt and all performed uncompensated work.

The Takeaway

This was the right move by the employer. Exemption cases are always tough to win—often, the entire class is held to be exempt, or, heaven forbid, non-exempt, especially if common policies apply to the affected workers. The issue now becomes whether to re-classify these workers, i.e. pay them hourly, or enhance their duties so they “evolve” into exempt employees.

A lot easier to re-classify.  A lot less (future) worry and aggravation…

I have blogged on this topic many times but I never tire of it. What is the way to defeat a class action? The magic bullet? The answer? Too much individual scrutiny is needed! Another Judge has proven me right on this. A federal judge has denied a motion to certify a class of distributors who distributed products for a bakery with brands such as Wonder Bread and Nature’s Own. The drivers alleged that they were misclassified as independent contractors and should have been overtime-eligible employees. The case is entitled Soares et al. v. Flowers Foods Inc. et al. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Bakery
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The judge acknowledged that there were common questions as to the drivers’ substantive claims. However, it was the varying nature of their businesses, such as differences in operations, whether they hired their own “employees” and whether they did business with other entities that would have necessitated the individual evaluation(s). The Judge noted that “individualized issues over how to determine which distributors personally serviced their routes and whether the distributors operated distinct businesses prevents common questions of fact or law from predominating, and class wide treatment is not superior to individual actions.”

The class members bought exclusive rights to sell products in designated geographic territories and were responsible for delivering, displaying and selling the products in their chosen territories. The agreements designated the distributor as “an independent contractor with the resources, expertise and capability to act as a distributor.” The documents also specifically stated that the distributors would not be subject to Company control “as to the specific details or manner” of their business. In October 2015, they filed suit alleging that the Company misclassified them as independent contractors.

The Judge noted that although the class was confined to distributors who “personally serviced” their routes, the sorting out of those distributors that actually did that and when they did that “cannot be answered in one fell swoop.” The Court indicated that some distributors did engage their own employees who performed the routes some of the time and neither party could show through evidence, which distributors “personally serviced” their routes and which did not or how many days they did or did not personally service the routes.

The Court stated that “there would need to be mini-trials into these distributors’ recollections of how often they personally serviced their routes, and when and how often, if at all, they provided distribution services for other companies. Thus, some distributors might be found to operate businesses distinct from Flowers’ operation, while for others this factor would weigh in favor of an employment relationship, and thus this factor is not subject to common proof.”

The Takeaway

This is the object lesson for employer-defendants. I believe these independent contractor cases are peculiarly susceptible to these defenses. The employer must always look at and focus upon the “individual scrutiny” defense because it could be a single stroke method of making the whole thing go away.

It is difficult to defend a class action based on exemption, which explains why many of these cases (as herein) settle. This is because the employer-defendant is (usually) going to be completely right, or totally wrong. Either the class of workers (especially if the exemption at issue is professional or administrative) will meet the regulatory tests or they will fall short. That is the reason these cases often settle, because the employer does not want to test its theory at an expensive trial.

Artist at computer
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Case in point. A judge in California just gave final approval to a 1.5 million settlement to resolve class action allegations that a group of senior artists for a video game giant company were wrongly classified. The case is entitled Lee et al. v. Activision Blizzard Inc. et al., and was filed in Superior Court of the State of California, County of Los Angeles.

The Judge approved a settlement in this case, more than two years after the named plaintiff, John Lee, filed a suit alleging that the Company had misclassified the senior artists as exempt, salaried employees to avoid paying overtime. The Court approved the sum of $1.5 million for the class of 128 artists, as well as legal fees of $500,000.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs claimed they had a strong case on the classification issue. The Company maintained that the senior artists were properly classified and it had a basis for potentially wiping out all damages in the case. The Company had garnered several Affidavits from the class members themselves who asserted that they were properly classified. The Company asserted in the motion that “given that the makeup of the 128 member putative class consisted of approximately 80 percent individuals, who continue to be employed by the defendant, it was possible that at trial, any if not all of the currently employed class members might testify that they were properly classified during the class period or that they worked no overtime hours at all.”

The Takeaway

The exemptions at issue were the professional and possibly the administrative. The Company might have been well advised to settle, however, because the professional exemption virtually mandates a long, prolonged course of study in a field recognized as “professional.” The administrative exemption, as I have preached many times, is the most difficult of the white collar exemptions to defend, especially on the issue of discretion vs skills and experience, which may well have been the stumbling block in this case for the Employer.

I always look for a preemption defense when I am defending a FLSA collective action, whenever there is a labor contract involved. What a magic bullet that is—get rid of the entire matter in one fell swoop (with maybe just a 12(b)(6) motion). But, and it is a big but, there must be something in the labor contract that is pertinent. If not, that tactic fails, as evidenced by a recent (split) Third Circuit opinion.  The Court refused to dismiss a FLSA collective action brought by nurses at a New Jersey assisted living home and send the case to arbitration, asserting that there were factual disputes, not claims contained within the collective bargaining agreement. The case is entitled Tymeco Jones et al. v. SCO Silver Care Operations LLC, and was issued by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

Hospital Emergency signThe plaintiffs alleged that their employed miscalculated their overtime wages and did not pay them when they were compelled to work through lunch. The Court found that the workers did not explicitly waive their right to sue under the Fair Labor Standards Act and the claims did not center on a contractual dispute at its heart. As the majority succinctly stated, “neither of the plaintiffs’ FLSA claims depend on disputed interpretations of CBA provisions such that arbitration is necessary.”

The nurses filed the action in December 2013, charging that the Company did not include shift differentials (up to $3.00 per hour) when calculating their overtime, i.e. their regular rate and also claimed they were not paid for working through lunch on the many occasions that they did. The employer argued that the case should have been sent to arbitration.

The Third Circuit noted that a court could compel arbitration on a federal statutory claim when the Union “clearly and unmistakably” waived its right to sue and the statute at issue did not exclude arbitration as a forum. In addition, a court could order arbitration when the claims depended “on the disputed interpretation of a CBA provision” even if the Union had not waived its right to sue.  That was not the case herein, as the Court concluded that “all of these so-called disputed ‘interpretations’ of the CBA … are factual questions — length of meal breaks, types of interruptions, how they were handled and whether the plaintiffs ever received compensation due to these interruptions.”

The Takeaway

I think this is a chance worth taking. There are always labor contract articles that focus on methods and amounts of compensation. I believe, all the time, a plausible argument can be made for a preemption position. The employer here came close to prevailing. Even if the employer loses, I believe it makes the case that the challenged payment method is legal, because, if it was not, wouldn’t the Union have challenged it or negotiated it out of the contract?        

We usually think of FLSA and overtime cases arising in our country, but companies operating overseas have to deal with the laws of that country. In an interesting case that hearkens to the headlines of national security and international crisis, Fluor Corporation has requested that a federal judge dismiss a putative class action filed by contractors who allege that they were not paid overtime in violation of Afghanistan labor law. The company claims that the Afghan labor code does not apply to employees of U.S. contractors. The case is entitled Allen et al. v. Fluor Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Texas.

Silhouette of U.S. soldier
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The contractors filed suit in May 2016, claiming that the Company violated Article 67 of the Afghanistan Labor Code by not paying them overtime despite the fact that they worked twelve hours per day, seven days a week. They seek a class of at least 100 contractors and allege their total claims exceed $5 million dollars. They built base camps, provided housing, transportation and meals to the troops.

The Company defends by claiming that the contractors were fully paid under their employment agreements and under American law. The Company claims that although these men were “paid a fortune,” the workers are engaged in a “self-serving” attempt to benefit from the overtime laws in the Afghanistan Labor Code; the Company asserts such law does not apply to them. The lawyer for the Company asserted “these plaintiffs are not entitled to a windfall recovery under the laws of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.”

The Company argues that the Afghanistan Labor Code only applies to foreign workers who are required to obtain work permits, which these workers did not have, or need. The Company asserts that even if Afghan labor laws applied, there must first be findings of fact made by that nation’s labor regulator before that ruling could be appealed to a competent court.

The lawyer for the plaintiffs appealed for sympathy from the Court. He asserted that if the court declines jurisdiction, then hundreds or thousands of Americans will be prevented from pursuing their rights. He also claimed (perhaps with some justification) that going to Afghanistan to pursue these claims would be far too dangerous for the workers, adding that security alone would cost $20,000 a day. He also urged the Court note that Afghanistan remains a sovereign nation with the right to have its laws apply to workers who are in the country.

The Takeaway

What an interesting set of circumstances this is! Of course, these men cannot go to Afghanistan to pursue their claims. That is why I believe the Court will side with the workers.