When a class action is filed, often times there are issues (for the plaintiff and their counsel) as to who should be in the class. Often, the named plaintiff will seek to reach out to other putative class members, but it is not every day when a Judge orders that the plaintiff may telephone or email these other class members, despite a claim that this would unfairly facilitate the plaintiff’s case. That is what a New Jersey federal judge has just ordered. The case is entitled Sanchez v. Santander Bank NA et al., and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

computer-email

The theory of the case is that the employer coerced employees into not filing for overtime; the named plaintiff claims the information will help her figure out if the workers are class members. The Judge denied Santander’s bid to limit contact and now the plaintiff can contact Branch Operations Managers at more than 600 banks spread across nine states. The Judge allowed this unrestricted access to facilitate the plaintiff’s discovery efforts. There are more than 1100 other possible class members.

The Judge observed that the plaintiff “is already in possession of the contact information for potential opt-ins, and the court sees no basis to prevent plaintiff from investigating whether or not these employees are similarly situated to plaintiff by limiting the scope or means of communication.”

The theory of the suit was that the Bank prohibited these employees from reporting extra hours worked or ostensible overtime. There were also allegations that the Bank punished/disciplined employees who did attempt to report the extra time worked. The named plaintiff asserted that she implored upper management to hire more employees or dispatch help from other branches, but these initiatives went nowhere. The named plaintiff claimed she had to work 10-12 extra hours per week, without pay.

The Bank had argued that Sanchez’ contact with potential plaintiffs should be limited to those Branch Managers she worked with or who were in the immediate geographical area. The Bank also opposed Sanchez calling or emailing other workers, contending that any communications should be confined to the letter that the Judge had approved.

The Takeaway

I don’t like this. It seems that the courts often make it easier for plaintiffs to do the “best” job that they can in securing the biggest class they can. The plaintiff already had the addresses so these people could have easily been contacted in the more traditional manner.

Seems the pendulum swings a little far to the left on this one…

This is an interesting case because it combines the elements of necessary, but not proven, commonality of situation for class certification and a quirky element of overtime calculation based on a unique FLSA provision.  The bottom line is that the two workers who sought a class action on both the federal and state levels lost both because of the need for too much individual scrutiny of worker claims.  The case is entitled Sinclair et al. v. PGA Inc., and was filed in federal court in the Western District of Wisconsin.

The Judge rejected the claim, for a class, that the Company should have paid the higher wage rates for skilled labor (e.g. trade work, such as carpentry) as opposed to generic wage rates.  The Judge also agreed to decertify a FLSA collective whose overtime rates were allegedly miscalculated or underestimated.  The Judge opined that the state-law part of the suit did not possess several elements of a viable class action under Rule 23, citing to the need for too much individual attention needed for each worker’s situation.  The Judge also observed that no other worker had opted into the suit, and this fact “undermines the entire purpose of a collective action.”

The theory was that the employer violated the Wisconsin prevailing wage law by paying workers at a lower, general for work done to support more skilled work.  The plaintiffs alleged that this practice violated the FLSA because the rate should have been that which they earned before overtime kicked in as opposed to the lower-rated work they were actually performing in the overtime hours.

Importantly, the Judge denied the request for class certification on the prevailing wage claims.  The Court held that the workers failed to meet the numerosity requirement, as they could not make a showing as to the actual number of workers who worked the lower-rated support work.  They also could not meet the “predominance” requirement, meaning that the underpayment theory applied to most members of the class.

The Judge stated that the claim of the employees is based “not just on the amount, but also on the type of work” each class member did, and would force the court to make “an individual determination of whether an employee’s work on a specific week, day and even hour made possible, supported or cleaned up after a skilled trade worker.”  The Court added that a trial would focus on individual workers’ “unique work on an hourly, daily or weekly basis” and whether it should have been paid at higher wages, the workers did not meet the “superiority” requirement that they show a single class case would be better than a series of individual cases.

The Takeaway

Here, the workers lost the federal and state class actions.  The state case is quite interesting because it shows a path for employers sued in class actions in prevailing wage cases how they can defeat the motion for class certification.  I have preached this dogma for years and repeat it proudly now, again.

Individual scrutiny destroys a class!

When an employer realizes that a certain classification or number of employees has been misclassified as exempt, the employer may do the right thing and, henceforth, treat those people as non-exempt and pay overtime accordingly.  That corrective measure, however, leaves a gap because the workers can sue for overtime for the period preceding the change.  That is just what happened in a case where the employer agreed to pay $2.75 million to settle a class action involving inside sales representatives claims for overtime.  The case is entitled Bisaccia v. Revel Systems Inc. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Salesperson holding the receiver of a corded desk phone while dialing in the office.There were 264 employees who would be part of the settlement.  The attorney fees and costs would be around $750,000.  The lawyer for the plaintiffs asserted that “this settlement avoids expenditures of resources for all parties and the court, and provides ‘significant benefit that [plaintiffs] would not receive if the case proceeded — certain and prompt relief.”  The settlement is also reasonable because the proposed release only requires plaintiffs to release claims they might bring against Revel relating to their classification as exempt ISRs.”  To date, 151 people have opted in.

The plaintiffs claimed they should have been paid overtime prior to when they were changed over to non-exempt employees and overtime eligible.  These kinds of positions used to be (routinely) deemed exempt but now they are viewed as white-collar production jobs and simply a glorified form of “production,” i.e. non-exempt work.

The papers filed by the plaintiffs stated that “this settlement provides favorable resolution for all plaintiffs, without the need for litigating decertification or motions to compel arbitration.” Their attorney said that he was “pleased with the outcome, which we believe provides very good value to the inside sales representatives in this case.”

The Takeaway

When an employer converts people from exempt to non-exempt, he must always determine what to do with the years in the past.  One tactic is just ignore it and hope for the best, knowing that the statute of limitations gets eroded away week by week.  Another is to do a calculation of what people are owed for the two years prior to the change and make “restitution” on those hours.  I think the proactive way is the better way.

It will no doubt be cheaper than another litigation.

New Jersey Silhouette in Rubber Stamp StyleThe issue of who is and who is not an independent contractor has exploded on the legal scene in recent years. Many agencies are honing in on this topic and I have, over the last five years, probably defended more than fifty audits, inspections and lawsuits involving this issue. Well, the landscape just got murkier, or more difficult for employers as the US Department of Labor and the NJ Department of Labor have just signed a cooperation agreement to target the misclassification of individuals as independent contractors in New Jersey.

This memorandum of cooperation will enhance enforcement efforts by facilitating the coordination of investigations by the agencies as well as sharing resources. The agencies want to send a “strong message” to the business world that misclassification laws “are being strictly enforced.”

Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo stressed that his agency’s strong goal is to ensure that workers are shielded from “unscrupulous business practices.” He stated that “this partnership with U.S. DOL will help ensure that our business partners and the state’s workers all get the protections they deserve.” The sectors most amenable to misclassification problems are the construction, transportation and information technology. The new so-called gig economy is also a focus of these issues.

Mark Watson, of the USDOL stated that the agreement “will amplify the effectiveness of both agencies.” He added that “the U.S. Department of Labor looks forward to improving coordination and increasing joint outreach and compliance assistance efforts with all of our state partners.”

This agreement follows an earlier New Jersey initiative where the Governor announced he wanted to take a harder line on this misclassification issue. That initiative was the establishment of a cross-agency task force to focus on the problem of misclassification. Finding more people to be true “employees” would generate more money for the State

The Takeaway

I know a lot of employers classify people as independent contractors when, perhaps, they should not be. I also know that a lot of these individuals want those relationships to exist as one of independent contractor status. In New Jersey, under the strict ABC test, it was very difficult to win on the third prong, the “independently established business” prong, until the advent of the Garden State Fireworks case. We will see where that goes.

But, employers now need be aware if they are found to have violated the New Jersey unemployment statute on independent contractor, they may find the USDOL alleging that under that statute, the workers are really employees.

It is vital for employers to remember that when non-exempt employees earn commissions, those commissions must be included in the computation of their regular rate when they work overtime. The inclusion of the commissions bumps up the regular rate a little but if this is not done, then these small amounts of money can quickly add up if an employee or, worse yet, a class of employees files a lawsuit. That is exactly what has happened in a recent case involving sales representatives in a class action. The case is entitled Johnson v. Cincinnati Bell Inc. et al., and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of Ohio.

Salesperson holding the receiver of a corded desk phone while dialing in the office.The named plaintiff, Michael Johnson, was a sales representative for less than one year. His theory was that the failure to include the commissions in the regular rate violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. He moved for conditional certification in May and then the parties filed a joint stipulation in which they agreed to the definition of the class as certified and they also agreed on a method for advising potential members.

The court found that the class was appropriate, as there was a low standard of proof that needed for the establishment of a class. The judge stated that she was “satisfied that both the agreement of the parties and evidentiary submissions by plaintiff demonstrate the modest showing necessary to support conditional certification of the proposed class.”

There were affidavits, as well as payroll records which undergirded the theory that these employees, the outbound sales representatives, who worked in the telesales department “had certain standard duties, [were] paid in the same manner and regularly worked more than forty hours per week, and defendants did not include commission payments in the regular rate of compensation for purposes of overtime.”

The Takeaway

This case highlights the complexity of the Fair Labor Standards Act and all of its nuanced regulations. It is very easy for a well-intentioned, good faith employer to make a mistake. If it affects but one employee, that is all it is, a simple mistake, maybe costing a few dollars. If it affects a class, it is a much bigger issue.

Much bigger. And costlier…

The car wash industry is one that is subject to many alleged wage-hour issues (some might say abuses). A recent case illustrates this maxim. A car wash has just settled a lawsuit with the USDOL for $4.2 million on wage hour claims. The theory was that the employer avoided paying proper minimum wage and overtime by compelling workers to clock out but yet remain on the premises until more cars came in for washes. The case is entitled Acosta v. Southwest Fuel Management Inc. et al. and was filed in federal court in the Central District of California.

Close-up of hand with green brush washing red carThe judge approved the settlement which yields 1.9 million in back pay and an equal amount in liquidated damages. The employer also has to pay $400,000 in civil money penalties. Several hundred employees are involved.

An interesting twist. Evidently, the employer strenuously resisted efforts by the agency to gain discovery. The DOL asserted that the company was stonewalling its legitimate efforts to garner relevant documents. The government alleged the company also did not preserve video footage, a spoliation-type allegation. Accordingly, the special master concluded that the client and his lawyers, Littler Mendelson, PC have to pay the DOL approximately $20,000 in attorneys’ fees.

Naturally, the company must come into compliance. The Acting Administrator of the DOL San Francisco office said that “the judgment is a major win for hundreds of employees systematically abused by one of Southern California’s largest car wash operators.” The DOL Regional Solicitor observed that federal laws protect workers and neither any employer nor his attorneys can interfere with these principles or the rights of the workers. She said “the integrity of our justice system depends on employers and their attorneys ensuring that a true and accurate record free of any undue influence is presented to the court,”

The Takeaway

I have handled many car wash cases in the last few years. All I can say is that when I have a client that I know has not complied with the law, my aim and goal, my only goal, is to get them out as quickly and cheaply as possible. Protracted discovery disputes and/or intransigence during that process, to me, is counterproductive.

Maybe better to cultivate the agency’s good will and try to make the best deal possible.

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…

I have blogged about some USDOL initiatives of late and see they are picking up some momentum with further developments coming down the line. The agency is going to revise the manner in which overtime is calculated (maybe to the employer’s benefit) and speak more on the issue (thorny as it is) of inclusion of bonuses in the regular rate.

U.S. Department of Labor headquarters
By AgnosticPreachersKid (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
There are other forms of “compensation” for employees, such as employee discounts and referral fees. The issue of whether these items are includible in the regular rate may also be opined about.  As I blogged about, the regulatory Agenda specifically stated that it would “clarify, update, and define regular rate requirements.” No other details have been forthcoming.

There is consensus that the new regulations would establish new groups of payment that may be excludible from the regular rate for overtime which businesses would welcome. There are any number of non-economic incentives and “payments” that are not directly amenable to computation and should (or should not) be includible.

Mr. Alexander Passantino, a former Wage-Hour Division Chief has observed that “it would be nice to have more guidance on what you’re talking about there so that we could give clients more advice on that with more certainty. Clients come up with good ideas on how they want to reward employees. It’s just helpful to say, ‘Yeah, that’s going to impact overtime rate,’ or, ‘no, it’s not.’”

The Takeaway

I agree with that sentiment. Employers want to comply with the law and often times have difficulty in properly interpreting what the FLSA does/does not command.  We will see what happens to the definition of the “regular rate” and what items it will/will not include.

I can’t wait…  .

White papers flying on blue sky background.A group that monitors government activities sued the U.S. Department of Labor last year seeking records related to the agency’s position and work on the new overtime rules and the fiduciary rules asserted to a federal judge that the agency was being less than forthcoming with the documents. In response, the Judge stated that he was “concerned” about the agency’s lack of responsiveness. The case is entitled American Oversight v. U.S. Department of Labor and was filed in federal court in the District of Columbia.

In the parties’ joint status report, the group, dubbed American Oversight, stated that it “continues to have concerns about the consistency and sufficiency of the information DOL is providing.’ The group maintains that the DOL has been either dilatory or has given conflicting reports regarding the records search. American Oversight sued the DOL in October. The group requested records related to the rules; they want calendar entries concerning agency meetings on the rules, names of attendees in the meetings and copies of correspondence sent to or received from the DOL relating to the rules.

The DOL has stated in its part of the Report that it will respond to the requests over the next few months. It also asserted that everything related to the new overtime rules has been produced. The group asking for the records states that it is “confused” by some statements in the DOL update. The group stated that “plaintiff believes that the July production deadline is more reasonable…but DOL’s inability to accurately and consistently report out the status of its anticipated productions continues to be of significant concern.”  .

The Executive Director of American Oversight, Austin Evers, charged the agency with “delaying the release of records showing what outside interests influenced decisions to roll back the rules.” He stated that “we filed this lawsuit last October to find out who had a seat at the table, and now more than seven months later, the agency is long on excuses and short on answers. What is the Labor Department so desperate to hide?”

The Takeaway

It should be interesting to see what is in those records and who was at those meetings. That might throw light on the position that the DOL is going to take on the overtime rules. The agency’s delay in producing the information may be related simply to bureaucratic slowness.it something else?