Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

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…

I am always telling clients who are sued in FLSA actions not to take any actions against employees who may still be working for them (which, admittedly, is not the case very often) because that will make things dramatically worse.  Well, it appears that HBO may not be heeding this admonition because production assistants who joined FLSA collective and state class actions have alleged that the company is taking actions against them for joining those suits.  The case is entitled Sapia et al. v. Home Box Office Inc. and was filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York.

Photo of movie clapper on woodThe company had settled suits based on a theory that it did not pay parking production assistants properly for their hours, i.e. work hours, spent holding spaces for large productions like “Girls” and “Vinyl.”  The company allegedly retaliated against employees who opted into the cases by asking them to sign agreements that they would drop out of the litigation and, more importantly, by cutting their shifts and/or refusing to hire them back for additional work.  The Complaint alleges that the “defendant reduced plaintiffs’ shifts to strategically force plaintiffs to resign by reducing their pay to levels below those necessary to sustain themselves and their dependents.”

Although the studios made millions of dollars from the projects.  The studios, however, only paid a per diem pay to the employees, who were assigned to hold parking spaces over long shifts.  HBO settled the case for $8,000,000 in September.  However, the company allegedly was not content to leave it there.  For example, one plaintiff stated that he was called into a meeting with the Parking Coordinator and at that meeting was informed that any assistants who participated in the overtime lawsuits would be given fewer shifts.  The Coordinator also asked if the employee would sign a “working agreement.” This would require the employee to remove himself from the litigation.

The worker not only refused to sign the agreement, he tore it up in front of his supervisor.  Then, he was denied more shifts when he asked for them, he alleges. When he asked to be assigned shifts, the company denied the requests or just ignored them.  The Complaint then alleges that the “defendant constructively terminated plaintiff Sapia by refusing to assign him any shifts of work in retaliation for opting into the lawsuit and for refusing to opt-out of it.”

The Takeaway

As an employer, you need to know when to walk away from something, fix it and move forward.  This case was settled, over, but now has been given new life in a needless manner.

Didn’t have to happen…

The controversy over whether employees must arbitrate wage claims continues with full force. A federal judge has just sent to arbitration a claim by an employee that the Company violated the Fair Labor Standards Act by not paying him overtime pay. The Court found that the parties had “clearly and unmistakably” agreed that an arbitrator should decide whether the allegations are arbitrable. The case is entitled Smith v. Kellogg Co. et al., and was filed in federal court in the District of Nevada.

Copyright: kzenon / 123RF Stock Photo

The district judge granted a motion to compel arbitration. The Court found that the retail sales representative signed an employment agreement that contained a mandatory arbitration clause under the Judicial Arbitration Mediation Services rules, which leave the determination of arbitrability to the arbitrator.

The judge noted several cases involving the issue of whether the sophistication of the parties matters in deciding whether a delegation of arbitrability is clear and unmistakable. The judge, however, referred to language in another decision holding that the parties do not need to be sophisticated to conclude that the incorporation of arbitrator rules “constitutes clear and unmistakable evidence of the parties’ intent” to delegate the decision about arbitrability.” As the Court aptly noted, “… the requisite intent to delegate is present in the continued employment/incentive agreement in the incorporation of the JAMS rules, which delegate the determination of arbitrability to the arbitrator.”

The judge also noted that the Agreement contained a clause telling the employee to consult with an attorney. The document also gave at least 21 days to consider the Agreement prior to signing it and there was, very generously, a seven-day grace period to revoke the decision made previously to agree to the arbitration procedure. The judge concluded that although “ Smith has raised a slight inference of procedural unconscionability [he} has not made a showing of substantive unconscionability as to the delegation provision. Therefore, the delegation provision is enforceable and I grant the motion to compel arbitration.”

The Takeaway

An arbitration provision such as this one is an escape mechanism for the employer in an overtime or FLSA context. It must be drafted properly, with all the procedural safeguards necessary and as may need to vary from state to state but it can preclude federal litigation.

Which is always a much more expensive proposition.

Accurate records are extremely important for employers. The employer must record the employees’ start time, when they took lunch, and when they leave at the end of the day.  That is so employees can be properly paid (for overtime as well) and, significantly, it is for the employer’s protection so workers cannot inflate claims of working hours. The one thing employers must never do is to alter, edit or change those records, especially for any ulterior reason.

Female hotel housekeeping worker with linens and cartAn Orlando hotel found this out the hard way. The hotel has been ordered to pay in excess of $400,000 in back wages and penalties after the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that the Company had, on numerous occasions, altered payroll records to avoid paying overtime. The agency found that the Sheraton Vistana Resort did not accurately record all work hours performed by the employees. The Company assessed $372,183 in back wages for 275 employees and more than $40,000 in penalties for repeat violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The USDOL District Director stated that this resolution “puts these wages into the hands of those who earned them, and demonstrates how the Department of Labor’s enforcement protects workers and levels the playing field for law-abiding employers.” The investigation showed that supervisors directed employees to sign documents authorizing the Company to edit the times employees punched in and out. The supervisors then altered time records to indicate that employees did not work through their lunch breaks, notwithstanding that they did so.

The Company maintained that it has taken steps to ensure future compliance. A spokesperson stated that, “Sheraton Vistana Resort has agreed to pay some housekeeping associates for overtime that may not have been fully paid for a period of two years.  Current procedures prevent any similar underpayments to associates.”

The Takeaway

Keeping accurate records is essential, as it shows the hours employees worked and protects the employer in the sense that employees cannot inflate the hours they worked because the records show otherwise.  This is especially so if the employer directs employees to self-certify that the hours worked are accurate.  This lovely reasoning goes out the window if the employer is actively directing employees not to report hours, to work off-the-clock, or, as here, to “authorize” their supervisors to change their working hours.

A big no-no….

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

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

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

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

The Takeaway

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

The trick is knowing where that line gets crossed…

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

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

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

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

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

The Takeaway

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

Well, here is a real good one…

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

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

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

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

The Takeaway

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

Well done, Dan…

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

Dollar signs
Copyright: sergo / 123RF Stock Photo

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

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

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

The Takeaway

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

How is that for the law of unintended consequences?

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

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

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

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

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

The Takeaway

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

Always look…

I recently blogged about this possibility and now it has come to fruition. The House of Representatives has passed a proposal to walk back the Obama USDOL initiative to expand the doctrine of joint employer status/liability for violations of labor law. The vote was 242-181 and followed (mostly) party lines. The new law would amend the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act to state that one entity would be jointly liable for another entity’s labor law violations if that first entity had “direct control” of the second entity’s employees.

U.S. Capitol Building
Copyright: mesutdogan / 123RF Stock Photo

The National Labor Relations Board applied this direct control standard until 2015, when it changed the law in the now famous (or infamous) Browning-Ferris Industries decision. That case held that entities are joint employers under the NLRA when one of them has “indirect or potential control” over the other company’s workers. The USDOL issued guidance that tracked this decision (although the new Labor Secretary rescinded it a few months ago). The D.C. Circuit is now reviewing that case.

The main criticism of the Obama policies and case law was that companies would not enter into agreements with other entities or businesses due to concern over liability. Rep. Bradley Byrne, R-Ala., the bill’s sponsor, stated that these Obama policies have caused “deep uncertainty among job creators.” He asked “what does it mean to have ‘indirect or potential control’ over an employee?” I practiced labor and employment law for decades and I do not know what that means, so I can only imagine the confusion Main Street businesses have faced.”

The fact that the DOL has rescinded its guidance does not change the fact that the tenets in it are still being used and applied. There has been a dramatic increase in the number of lawsuits where joint employer allegations are raised. One management side attorney observes, “every time I’m faced with a wage and hour lawsuit where there’s a temporary agency involved, it’s a sure bet it’s not only going to be the temp agency that’s named as a defendant.”

The opposition takes the view that this law would allow large companies such as franchisors to shield themselves from liability for labor law violations. Representative Mark Takano, D-California, stated “workers and local businesses are on the losing end of today’s vote. The winners are the large corporations and their lobbyists and trade associations who already enjoy outsized power over the economy and the workplace, and whose contributions line the campaign coffers of the House members who voted for this bill.”

The Takeaway

This is a far tougher standard for an agency, whether NLRB or USDOL, to meet, in order to establish a joint employer relationship. I have myself seen, in many cases; these agencies take a very expansive view of this doctrine. This puts tremendous pressure on the entities involved to either litigate to the hilt or settle perhaps on unfavorable terms.

This is one body of law that could do with a little coming back to the middle…