I love this one.  For the title of the worker classification involved.  It appears that a class of drilling fluid specialists, commonly referred to as “mud men,” has reached a $7 million settlement in its wage and hour suit against M-I LLC.  The case is entitled Syed et al. v. M-I LLC and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of California.

The employees worked in drilling operations in Bakersfield, Calif.  They claimed they were compelled to work either twelve (12) hour shifts daily for two weeks before leaving their work sites, or work full-days (i.e. 24 hours) in which they were always on-call.  They claimed that they were not paid overtime when they worked more than forty hours per week.  (They also claimed no overtime pay when their work days exceeded eight hours, which is California law).

The settlement monies will be paid to 115 members of the national FLSA class as well as 353 members of the California class; the $7 million settlement includes up to $2.37 million in attorneys’ fees and costs, service awards of $15,000 to plaintiff Balfour and $20,000 to named plaintiff Syed, $11,500 in claims administration expenses and a $75,000 Private Attorneys General Act payment.

That leaves more than four million dollars to be paid out to class members, based on the number of weeks worked during the class period. Some class members will receive $55 for every week, while the California class members will receive $165 for each week worked.  The proposed settlement document stated that “for purposes of this proposed settlement, at a mediation … the parties operated under the premise that Rule 23 proposed class members were in a better position under California law for claims than FLSA collective action members, where in some individual cases, the covered positions have generally been deemed ‘exempt’ under federal law.  This is crucial to understand in order to realize the structure of the proposed settlement.”

The Takeaway

The plaintiffs’ attorney posited that “there are many of these types of cases pending against many major players in the industry.”  If this is an industry wide pattern and practice, that would be a problem.  The only thing to do in that instance is get into compliance and hope no one sues for two years…

granite slabs
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Usually, it is the USDOL that is seeking sanctions against an employer who has, in wholesale fashion, violated the Fair Labor Standards Act. Well, for once that wheel has turned the other way. A federal judge has just sanctioned Labor Secretary Tom Perez for discovery failures and the Court prevented the government from calling witnesses at trial. Further, the lawyer representing the agency has sought permission to withdraw from the case. The case is entitled Perez et al v. Virginia Marble and Granite Inc. et al, and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Virginia.

The Judge granted three motions for sanctions filed by the Company, “for reasons stated from the bench” in an Order filed a few days ago. The Judge also barred the Secretary from discussing a damages calculation at trial and denied the agency’s motion to extend the discovery deadline; that motion was filed five days after discovery closed. The agency admitted that several unexpected medical emergencies involving the agency attorney’s son delayed its discovery responses.

The agency had sued the Company, alleging overtime violations involving forty-six employees. The Complaint alleged that the Company paid some workers a flat rate for each day of work, but not the required time-and-a-half when they did overtime work. The agency also charged that the Company was altering their records to make it appear that the employees were paid proper overtime.

The Company, for its part, filed three sanctions motions, alleging discovery derelictions and deficiencies; the Company requested that the Court bar testimony regarding the agency’s damages calculation or, even better, dismiss the case completely. The Company contended that the Secretary failed to himself appear or make an investigator available for a deposition, failed to disclose the agency’s damages calculation and witness lists under Rule 26(a) and failed to respond to written discovery requests. The Company sought to accommodate scheduling issues and many times had asked for the damages calculation and witness list.

The Takeaway

This makes me feel good—even the Secretary of Labor can be sanctioned for failure to comply with discovery deadlines and protocols in federal court. I have found state courts much more lenient on discovery issues and failure to meet deadlines.

Good way to start the holidays!

Employers may make deductions for uniforms under the Fair Labor Standards Act but such deductions cannot take their wage rates under the minimum. Life Time Fitness just learned this truism. The gym chain has agreed to pay in excess of $976,000 in back wages and damages to almost 16,000 employees whose wages fell below the minimum after these deductions were made.

Gym Treadmills
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The Wage Hour Administrator stated that “the U.S. Department of Labor takes its responsibility to ensure workers receive the wages they have earned very seriously. This agreement will put thousands of dollars where they belong — in the pockets of hardworking people and their families.”

The agreement applies to workers at locations in 26 states. The Company will pay back $11,899 to 363 workers across three locations in Minnesota and $476,329 to 15,546 employees at locations in 26 states for a total of $488,228 in back wages. The Company will also pay a sum equal to the wages in liquidated damages and was also assessed Civil Money Penalties of almost $100,000 for these FLSA violations.

The Company has self-corrected. More than a year ago, the Company voluntarily ceased compelling employees buy their own uniforms. A Company spokesperson stated that “we are pleased to have since reached a resolution with the Department of Labor that was acceptable to all parties.”

The Takeaway

The minimum wage is inviolate. Deductions can never reduce an employee’s wage rate below that basement level. Moreover, each State has their own rules, often times stricter than the FLSA, concerning “illegal” deductions. Thus, the takeaway here is to learn the wage payment laws of each State where business is conducted and to “honor” the sacredness of the minimum wage.

I blogged about this the other day.  Well, the Fifth Circuit has acted with alacrity and has stated that it will hear the USDOL appeal of the lower court injunction blocking the new overtime regulations on an accelerated, expedited basis.  Indeed, the Court has ordered that briefs be submitted by the end of January, which, for legal proceedings, is very quick.  The case is entitled Nevada et al. v. U.S. Department of Labor et al., in the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Courthouse pillars
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The appellate Court has advised that it will schedule oral argument as soon as possible after briefs are submitted.

The successful (for the moment) plaintiffs are not at all cowed by this development.  The Nevada Solicitor has stated that “the Fifth Circuit’s willingness to expedite oral argument shows that it recognizes the national importance of this issue.   As we did in the district court, the states look forward to presenting how this new overtime rule is unlawful and presents a sweeping departure from over 75 years of past practice.”

The twenty-one States that had brought the suit opposed the fast-tracking of the appeal.  They asserted that such an expedited proceeding could conflict with the lower court’s ruling on their motion arguing for final judgment invalidating the DOL rule.  These plaintiffs also argued that if the lower court issued a new decision, that action would then moot the preliminary injunction and the Fifth Circuit would not have needed to rearrange its calendar and oral argument schedule.

The DOL countered by asserting that even if court below issued a final order, the Fifth Circuit would then consolidate the preliminary injunction appeal with the agency’s appeal from final judgment.  The DOL argued that this approach would be very efficient because the legal basis for the grant of a preliminary injunction would be the legal foundation for the summary judgment proceeding and Order.

The Takeaway

As they say, now the fun begins.

Anyone who tells you they know how this will turn out does not, really know at all.

The DOL filed an appeal of the lower court’s granting an injunction staying the implementation of the new overtime regulations.  Now, as expected, frankly, the agency has requested that the Fifth Circuit expedite these proceedings.  The agency claims that the delay has denied giving additional pay (i.e. overtime) to millions of workers.

Dollar signs
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The Department of Labor observed that the States themselves asked for an expedited argument and decision.  The agency’s theory is that the lower court decision should be reversed because the Judge incorrectly ruled that the FLSA did not provide the agency with the authority to use “a salary-level test” to gauge which workers would be exempt from overtime.

The DOL motion stated that “this court, however, reached the opposite conclusion in Wirtz v. Mississippi Publishers Corp. There, this court emphasized that ‘[t]he statute gives the secretary broad latitude to ‘define and delimit’ the meaning of the term ‘bona fide executive … capacity’,” and rejected the argument “that the minimum salary requirement is arbitrary or capricious.”

The DOL has also contended that the newly revised salary threshold is consistent with the salary levels established over the last seven decades.  It notes that the proposed minimum salary level for exempt employees is roughly three times the minimum wage for a 40-hour work week, which is equivalent to the multiplier utilized at the law’s inception, in 1938.

The Takeaway

I assumed this request would be made.  I also believe the request will be granted as this is an issue of national importance.

That does not mean the lower court decision will be overturned or that the new Administration will not roll back (in some part) the proposed salary level.

We will see…

On November 22, 2016, Judge Mazzant of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued a nationwide injunction against the Department of Labor (DOL) blocking its Final Overtime Rule, which was set to go into effect on December 1, 2016.

The injunction “preserves the status quo while the Court determines the Department [of Labor]’s authority to make the Final Rule as well as the Final Rule’s validity.” Moving forward, the Final Rule may face an uphill battle as the Court found the states challenging the Final Rule showed a “substantial likelihood of success on the merits.”

Dollar signs
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This leaves many employers in a quandary.  Employers who had plans to implement those changes must decide whether to postpone, temporarily or otherwise, those initiatives, proceed with the changes or see what develops down the line.

I believe the following guidelines provide some reasoned basis for dealing with this injunction and the uncertainty that it brings with it:

  • Employers that have already implemented changes in anticipation of the new rules taking effect need to consider from a human resources standpoint the impact of reversing those actions. Taking away promised salary increases will inevitably lead to dissatisfied employees and employee relations problems. Employers need to weigh the “human” costs of that unhappiness against the cost of the salary increases.
  • Employers that have not implemented changes are better able to take a wait-and-see approach. The injunction could well be modified or even lifted.  If that happens, there is no way to know how long employers will have to comply with any revised standards.
  • Employers must still be mindful of the duties test of the “white-collar exemption,” which has not been altered. If employees are non-exempt, today, from a duties perspective, they will be non-exempt in the future, whatever the salary levels are raised or (or not raised to).
  • As always, employers must comply with state-specific requirements for overtime exemptions, which may well include salary thresholds more than $455 per week, e.g. California, New York.
  • Keep employees informed, whatever you do!

The Takeaway

In my humble opinion, I do not believe these new changes will be implemented, or, if they are, they might/will be diluted under the pro-business Administration that will be taking over in seven weeks.

To be continued…

A group of New Jersey sales associates who work in Dish Network LLC call centers urged a federal court to confirm a $1.9 million arbitration award stemming from a proposed class action, in which the workers said the satellite television provider miscalculated their overtime pay rates.  The case is entitled Frisari v. Dish Network LLC, and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.

Group of satellite dishes
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The workers urge that the award, which gave the employees overtime at time and one-half, instead of the half-time overtime rates they were paid, is appropriate under long established principles.  The plaintiffs urge that “it is well established that when this court reviews an arbitration award, as long as the arbitrator’s award is not by ‘his own brand of industrial justice,’ the award is legitimate.”

The plaintiffs’ lawyer stated that the award shows that employers could not “cut corners” by paying overtime based on a half-time premium, which is a form of the FLSA “fluctuating work week” method.  He stated that “this sets precedent that companies cannot use the fluctuating work week method under the New Jersey Wage & Hour Law.”

The employees claimed that they were compelled to work off the clock and were prevented from accurately reporting these overtime hours.  They asserted that they were not paid while they performed preliminary duties before their shifts began, such as booting up computers and launching software.  The employees also claimed that they often worked through lunch, although these meal breaks were counted as unpaid periods.

The employees had filed suit and then the Company claimed that they were compelled to arbitrate their claims individually, as opposed to a class action, but the arbitrator held that there was the possibility the workers could still proceed with their claims as a class.   The Company sought to vacate that award but was unsuccessful.  In the final order he entered, the arbitrator awarded $480,000 in attorneys’ fees to the class and $1.9 million damages for the class.

The Takeaway

This case illustrates an interesting trend that is perhaps developing.  I believe (and I see it in my practice) that plaintiff lawyers are becoming less averse to litigating FLSA claims in an arbitral forum, where defendants would much prefer to be in.  On balance, I think it is better for both sides.  It is much cheaper, much faster and arbitrators are usually pretty savvy, both in deciding the case on the merits and facilitating settlements.

A win win.  Maybe…

A group of field service engineers have filed a FLSA suit against Alcon Laboratories, on the theory that the company misclassified them as exempt employees.  They seek conditional class certification, alleging that they were consistently denied overtime pay.  The case is entitled Voss v. Alcon Laboratories Inc., and was filed in federal court in the District of Minnesota.

Lab and engineers
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The allegation is that the Company wrongfully classified field service engineers as exempt until the Company changed their classification in 2016.  The plaintiffs seek conditional certification of a class of field service engineers.  The motion for certification asserts that “regardless of their specific job title, Alcon’s field service engineers performed the same primary job duties and were compensated in the same manner.  And despite the fact that they routinely worked over 40 hours per week, they were uniformly classified as exempt and denied proper overtime pay.”

Although they now receive overtime, the employees want back due wages for the period(s) of time they were misclassified.  The lead plaintiff asserts that his duties included installing, repairing, troubleshooting, servicing and maintaining ophthalmic laser equipment.  The Company defended its earlier classification decision by contending that the employees were professionally exempt or fit within the Highly Compensated Employee (HCE) exemption.

But – and it is a big but – at the conditional certification stage, there is a lower burden of proof and the plaintiffs argue that they have met the “fairly lenient” burden of evidence for conditional certification, i.e., a showing that the workers were similarly situated.  The plaintiffs argue that they share the same job duties, FLSA classification and pay structure and that they were all told, via a series of conference calls, about their new classification policy.

The Takeaway

The danger, always, when an employer re-classifies employees and begins to pay them overtime going forward is that the employees will realize that maybe they should have been paid overtime “all along” and will take some action.  In the litigious world in which we live, in the internet world in which we live, where employees can (all too) easily learn about their “rights,” an employer who re-classifies must always anticipate future challenges to its prior reclassification decisions.

One answer.  Compute what the employees are owed for that past overtime and pay them, along with getting the employees to sign releases.  That also brings with it legal issues, as one or more of the people may take that Release to an attorney or seek an attorney’s advice, but if the employer can get most of the people to “take the money and run” on that backdue overtime, the size of any ostensible class has been greatly diminished.

Whenever a FLSA suit is lodged against a unionized employer, I always look for the possibility of a preemption defense, which will, in one fell swoop, doom the entire litigation.  If the Court finds that the matter is governed by the parties’ labor contract and is better and properly left for the arbitration (or NLRB) process, then the Court does not have jurisdiction.  In a recent case, FreshPoint Inc. has tried to argue just that.  The Company has urged dismissal of a class action FLSA suit, asserting that the claims are nullified by the drivers’ collective bargaining agreement.  The case is entitled Rodriguez Jr. v. FreshPoint Inc. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of California.

Picket line
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The FreshPoint attorney argued that the claims for failure to pay straight wages, pay overtime, provide meal periods and permit rest periods are not suited for resolution in federal court because these items were negotiated into the labor contract by FreshPoint and the Teamsters.  He also argued that the California Labor Code has an exemption from state overtime and meal break requirements for commercial drivers who have agreed to such a union contract.

The lawyer for the workers acknowledged that the meal break and overtime pay policy complied with the collective bargaining agreement under California law.  She asserted, however, that the other claims should not be dismissed and took issue with the defendant’s contention that the workers were seeking “improper reimbursements” by seeking relief with both rest break premiums and penalties and for not enumerating the breaks in the wage statements of the employees.  She claimed that “it’s not a double recovery. That’s just what they’re owed.  There are hours they were off the clock that weren’t paid for.”

The Judge seemed skeptical about the federal preemption argument.  The Judge wondered “if I were to find there was no preemption, what’s the basis of jurisdiction under the state law claim?”

The was filed in state court but the defendants removed it to federal court in September.  This is the usual course of action when federal claims are implicated, explicitly or otherwise, in a state court law suit.

The Takeaway

This is the best starting point to mount a defense.  If this is successful, the whole thing goes away.  That would be good because if these alleged violations were the products of common policies or practices, the argument for a class certification would be stronger.

I blogged about this a short time ago. More than fifty (50) business groups requested that a US District Court Judge render a fast decision in the case involving the constitutionality of the USDOL’s new overtime regulations, i.e. the doubling of the salary threshold.  The case is entitled Plano Chamber of Commerce et al. v. Perez and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas.

Courthouse pillars
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The theory is that the DOL exceeded its powers.  Also, they argue that the cost of compliance will be massive, forcing many small business owners to cut jobs or close.  The groups also want the date pushed back beyond December 1, 2016 so plaintiffs want oral arguments to be held as soon as possible and the rule vacated.  The plaintiffs argued that “this conclusion is compelled by the plain text of the statute and is further confirmed by over 70 years of administrative practice and judicial decisions left untouched by Congress.”

The suit was filed in late September, as were other similar cases by two dozen States.  These plaintiffs have this week filed a motion for preliminary injunction in their case.  The business groups have stated that they want their case adjudicated on the same timeline as the motion by the States.

The business groups have contended that the proposed changes are not merely limited to raising the salary level, but they, really, change the basis for determining whether or not employees are exempt.  The groups argue that the new DOL rule does not abide by the requirement that the duties of positions govern the exemption tests.

The motion papers, in this regard, state that “rather, they fundamentally alter the focus of the exemption analysis, shifting the test from one focused primarily on the functions identified by Congress in the FLSA to one that turns almost entirely on a salary threshold that is not a plausible proxy for those statutorily defined job functions.  And by automatically adjusting the salary threshold every three years in perpetuity, the rule ensures that this disconnect will only grow greater over time.”

The Takeaway

I am fascinated by these initiatives and I cannot wait to see how it plays out.  I think the motions are going to fail, because I think the DOL did have the regulatory power to make these changes.

I hope I’m wrong…