Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)

 

Employers should always look for a preemption defense when a FLSA suit is lodged against a unionized client.  Clear proof of that was just given by the Ninth Circuit when that Court held that unionized offshore oil rig workers could not pursue overtime claims because the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) barred the suit.  The case is entitled Curtis et al. v. Irwin Industries Inc. et al. and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The Court affirmed the lower court.  The holdings were based on the fact that the labor contract satisfied the California overtime pay requirements.  The Court found that “Curtis’s claim for overtime pay is preempted under § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act because California overtime law does not apply to an employee working under a qualifying collective bargaining agreement, and Curtis worked under such an agreement…”

The workers did twenty-four hour shifts on offshore oil rigs.  They worked twelve and were off for twelve but asserted that they could not leave the platform or otherwise use the time for their own pursuits.  They were on the platforms for seven consecutive days.  The workers worked under two separate labor agreements.

The Ninth Circuit noted that Section 301 meant that “nonnegotiable rights” under state law, i.e. minimum wage and overtime, were not always preempted, even if the parties had a labor contract.  The Court stated that a two-step test should be utilized to determine if preemption was appropriate.

The first prong of the test is to determine if the controversy concerned a right inuring to the employees only because of its presence in the labor contract.  That would be sufficient to find that preemption was appropriate.  If a court determined the controversy involved a right established under state law, then the court would inquire whether any provision(s) of the labor contract had to be interpreted for the claim to be resolved and if such an analysis was necessary, then the matter was also preempted.  The Court found that “because Curtis’s right to overtime ‘exists solely as a result of the CBA,’ his claim that Irwin violated overtime requirements by not paying him for the 12 off-duty hours is preempted under § 301.”

The Takeaway

Whenever there is a labor contract involved, try to find some connection between provisions in that contract and the purported overtime or other claim.  Stress that contractual interpretation is required to resolve the dispute, so it is an arbitral issue, rather than a statutory one. Or violation.

It’s certainly worth a try…

When will employers learn?  They keep classifying retail Store Managers and Assistant Managers as exempt, when these workers are often misclassified, not intentionally, but because the nature of their duties often tends to undermine the primary duty test and render them non-exempt.  Another example is a recent case where Store Managers have been granted conditional certification in their FLSA collective action.  The case is entitled Spack et al. v. Trans World Entertainment Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of New York.

The plaintiffs can now send out notices to current and former store managers so they might opt in to the case.  The plaintiffs also want a class of Assistant Managers for alleged off the clock work.  The Company, however, won that round, convincing the Judge that it was too soon to certify such a class, asserting that it had not yet been ascertained if these workers were non-exempt, which would allow them to make these claims.

The Judge appeared to reserve decision on a combined class and also indicated that the class could also be de-certified.  The Court stated that “should additional discovery demonstrate the existence of significant differences between the SMs or between the SMs and SAMs, the court can choose to deny any future motion seeking conditional collective certification of the SAMs, or, at the second stage of the analysis, decertify the collective.”

The plaintiffs met the “modest” burden at this conditional stage by submitting twelve Certifications from opt-in plaintiffs who claimed they worked 50-70 hours per week and spent the vast majority of their time performing non-exempt, low-level tasks that were not managerial in nature.  The Company also submitted statements from managers that showed they performed managerial (i.e. exempt) work and tried to undermine the plaintiffs’ statements but the Court would not allow these manager statements to bear the weight that the Company urged they should be accorded.

The Takeaway

My advice to employers is to test the duties of their management personnel, especially lower level managers, against the criteria in the FLSA regulations.  This can be done via a “self-audit” or internal audit, of which I have conducted dozens.  You also need to check the law of the particular state in which the controversy may be litigated, as the state law may be tougher than the FLSA standards, such as in California or New York.

The retail industry is notoriously prone to FLSA collective action misclassification lawsuits because there are many levels of management, especially so-called lower management, where the employees may/may not discharge actual/true supervisory powers. Another illustration of this principle has resulted in a large dollar settlement that will pay employees known as “sales team managers” a fairly large amount of money, although the exact amount has not been disclosed. What was disclosed is that the plaintiffs’ lawyers will receive almost two million dollars in attorney fees! The case is entitled , and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Texas.

ArbitrationThe Judge examined the six-factor test under the Fair Labor Standards Act for granting approval to such settlements and concluded that there was no evidence of fraud and also, importantly, that the settlement addresses the plaintiffs’ possibility of prevailing on the merits. The Court stated that “after considering the factors, the court finds that the settlement agreement should be approved because it is a fair and reasonable settlement of a bona fide dispute.”

The hundreds of sales team managers claimed that they performed the same job duties as their subordinates, such as selling, restocking products and maintaining the organization of the store and the clothing racks. The employees denied that they performed any managerial tasks, such as hiring or firing. In sum, they alleged that although they had the title of “manager,” they were not at all performing the tasks required under the Part 541 regulations that address exempt status. There were 384 workers who had opted in.

As is typical in these cases, the parties devised a formula for determining the amounts of money workers will receive. It will be based on the number of weeks they worked in the three years before they opted in. It remains unclear the aggregate amount of money that the employees will receive, as that (important) fact was redacted.

The Judge noted that the fourth factor, the “probability of the plaintiffs’ success on the merits,” was the “most important factor absent fraud and collusion.” The Judge observed that the employees “face considerable hurdles in succeeding on the merits.” Thus, the Judge concluded that the settlement represented a “fair and reasonable recovery.”

The Takeaway

As these lawsuits are so common, my advice to my clients for years has been to treat lower level managers as non-exempt and pay them hourly. It is possible to take the salary being paid and “back into” a correct hourly rate so that, even with the anticipated overtime worked, the employer’s labor costs will not be increased. That puts an end to the threat of a misclassification lawsuit.

It works…

Working time claims/lawsuits take many forms and often arise out of seemingly unlikely circumstances.  In a recent case, the Third Circuit ruled that temporary workers brought in to take over the jobs of locked out workers cannot receive pay under the FLSA for their time spent travelling to and crossing the picket line.  The case is entitled Smith et al. v. Allegheny Technologies Inc. et al. and issued from the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

On Strike

The panel held that riding across the picket line in vans provided by an industrial strike staffing company was not their principal activity nor was it integral to their principal activity.  Those are the factors that determine if a particular tangential (or preliminary) activity is compensable.  The Court held that the travel time was not a principal activity just because the employer mandated particular travel procedures.  The workers were driven to the facility, across the picket line, from their hotel, which was almost an hour away.

The Court noted that “for example, a temporary workforce’s commute would be a principal activity if members of that workforce were simply hired to cross the picket line in the morning, enter its factory, and then re-cross the picket line at night.  Similarly, a complaint could allege facts that demonstrated the employee’s crossing the picket line was as important as the work the employee subsequently performed. But no such facts were alleged here.”

The Court also stated that this picket line crossing was not “integral or indispensable” to the job of making steel.  The Court stated that “taking a Strom van to work was at least two steps removed from their steel production duties.”

The Takeaway

This is the correct decision.  This was, in essence, home-to-work commuting which is never compensable under the FLSA.  Yes, there was an interesting variation on the theme but the Court found that the principle remained inviolate.  Still, employers must always be wary of the pre-work activities their employees engage in as a collective action could be lurking around the corner.

Or just down the road…

Many employers these days have timekeeping systems that deduct time (e.g. thirty minutes) for lunch on a daily basis.  There is an inherent danger in doing this, as employees may claim that they worked through lunch and therefore should be paid.  This is evidenced in yet another settlement in such an action, a settlement that totals $1.5 million.  The case is entitled Magpayo v. Advocate Health and Hospitals Corp. and was filed in federal court in the Northern District of Illinois.

Lunch BreakThe collective action involved hundreds of emergency room nurses.  This class submitted papers to a federal Judge asking approval of the settlement, which will include 262 ER Nurses.  The motion noted that the employer would have continued to litigate and there were risks, for the plaintiffs, in maintaining the suit.

The motion stated that “the traditional means for handling wage claims like those at issue here — individual litigation — would unduly tax the court system, require a massive expenditure of public and private resources and, given the relatively small value of the claims of the individual class members, would be impracticable.  The proposed settlement, therefore, is the best vehicle for class members to receive the relief to which they are entitled in a prompt and efficient manner.”

As stated above, the theory of the case was worked lunch breaks were going unpaid because of the automatic deductions.  The lead plaintiff also claimed the Hospital did not pay for overtime when more than forty hours were worked and that she had to work after she clocked out.  The class had been certified under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and as a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The plaintiffs wanted to settle because there was a risk the class could be decertified and greater expense would be incurred.  The motion noted that by asserting that “additional litigation would only serve to increase the expenses incurred without reducing the risks facing class members.”  The layers will receive $600,000 in fees.

The Takeaway

Automatic lunch deduction systems are legal but there must be a reporting mechanism, a fail-safe mechanism, for when employees do work through lunch (or claim they do).  The employee is trained to fill out a form, submit it to the supervisor for approval, and payment.  Then, the employer is protected and the employee properly paid for a true missed lunch break.

Sounds simple, yet these suits keep happening?

It is not often when an employer defends a FLSA lawsuit by asserting that it is in an illegal business and therefore immune to suit. Sound funny? Well, that is precisely what a Colorado employer that furnishes security services to legal cannabis growers/sellers has pressed on the Tenth Circuit. The employer’s theory is that the workers are not entitled to allegedly unpaid overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act because their work is illegal under federal law. The case is entitled Kenney v. Helix TCS, and was argued before the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.

The Company’s counsel argued that the collective action cannot proceed as the FLSA only applies to legal businesses. The lawyer claimed that all job functions engaged in by the workers amount to trafficking in illegal drugs. This case is fascinating because it highlights the tension between a state legalizing cannabis and its continuing illegality under federal law. The lawyer for the Company argued that this controversy entered the “legally ambiguous” sphere in which legal cannabis businesses operate.

The named plaintiff, an armed security guard who guarded growers and sellers, claimed he worked overtime many weeks and was not paid properly. He sought class certification for all such guards, going back three years. The Company moved to dismiss, arguing that the employee’s work (as he was dealing with a Schedule 1 drug under federal law) violated the federal Controlled Substances Act and was thus outside of FLSA coverage.

The district court Judge denied the motion and observed that other courts have not endorsed this concept. The Judge noted that in other cases involving businesses that violate federal laws, e.g. immigration, courts have ruled that these violations did not mean the businesses could not comply with other federal laws. However, the Judge certified the ruling for immediate appeal and thus it went (quickly) to the Tenth Circuit.

The lawyer for the plaintiff asserted that the FLSA does not have a requirement that employees subject to its jurisdiction must be engaged in “only” legal businesses. There was no outright mention of “lawfulness” in the law and there was nothing in the state statute that voided the dictates of the FLSA.

The Takeaway

Maybe Congress should make an exception to the FLSA for this industry, but it has not done so. Consider the implications of granting the employer’s motion to dismiss—it would be giving a business illegal under federal law an advantage over legal businesses by sanctioning the avoidance of paying overtime.

Hmm. Food for thought…

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!

I often settle FLSA actions, as do many other lawyers, defense and plaintiff. It makes sense for both sides, given the costs and uncertainties of litigation and the protracted time it takes for a case to weave its way through the courts. There is now a growing controversy as to the degree that such settlements need to be reviewed by the courts. This dilemma has now found its way to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that may produce a watershed result. The case is entitled Yu v. Hasaki Restaurant Inc. et al., and was argued before the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

A sushi chef who sued his employer and the employer wanted to settle the lawsuit for $20,000. The district court Judge (Jesse Furman) maintained that the statute required him to review the settlement for appropriateness. The matter has now been appealed to the appellate court where oral argument (and some tough questioning by the appellate panel) took place.

The plaintiff’s lawyer argued that Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure explicitly provided that any agreement reached under that Rule had to be entered as a judgment. One of the appellate judges seemed to disagree, stating that this Rule was not intended to be used in that manner. The Judge observed “really, what is 68(a) about? … It’s about getting people to accept settlements in torts.” The lawyer responded that “it’s meant to create a settlement where there are disputes about the facts and what’s owed.” The lawyer noted that these kinds of disputes often exist in wage-and-hour cases.

The lawyer for the advocacy group Public Citizen asserted that the district court was right. She stated that the Judge Furman was correct in looking towards the Second Circuit’s recent holding in Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House for guidance. That case closed the door on settling and dismissing FLSA cases under FRCP 41. The plaintiff’s lawyer countered by stating that there is no similar requirement in Rule 68, as there is in Rule 41, i.e. making sure that no other statute would preclude the proposed settlement.

Judge Debra Ann Livingston’s inquiries allowed the plaintiff’s lawyer to go into a speech about the long amount of time it takes for settlements to be approved by district courts. That Judge was also dubious of the applicability of the Cheeks holding. She observed that Rule 68 settlements were matters of pubic record, while Rule 41 settlements could be (and were) negotiated in a private setting.

The Takeaway

Settlements are such a vital part of the FLSA-litigation process that any obstacle that gets placed in the way of the facilitation of such settlements is bad for both plaintiff and the defendant…

This is an interesting case.  A class action that was denied certification, appealed to the Second Circuit, which reversed because the lower court did not properly interpret the job description on the key issue of duties qualifying for the employer to claim the protection of the Part 541 exemptions.  The employees were salesmen and installation technicians.  Now, they get another shot to prove they are worthy of class status. The case is entitled Sydney et al. v. Time Warner Entertainment-Advance/Newhouse Partnership and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

plastic black toolbox with tools over white backgroundThe lower court had relied upon the outside sales exemption.  The panel, however, concluded that the jobs seemed much more inclined to be installation jobs, rather than selling jobs.  Therefore, it was too early and improper to grant summary judgment as there were issues of fact.  The Court stated that “we conclude that the district court erred in holding on summary judgment that plaintiffs’ primary duties were exempt sales, as opposed to nonexempt installations, and accordingly in its ultimate conclusion that the outside sales exemption applied.”

These workers, dubbed territory sales representatives, or TSRs, contacted apartment building owners in upstate New York.  Their role was to urge these owners to funnel their tenants to the Employer for their cable TV, internet and phone service needs.  They received a small salary and commissions.  The plaintiffs allege they spent some time making calls to get business but the majority of their time was supposedly spent doing the actual installations (which would obviously be non-exempt work).  They asserted that they worked 55-70 hours per week.

They sued but the lower court rejected their claims, relying on the outside sales exemption, finding that that “based on [the] undisputed facts, the court finds that plaintiff’s primary duty was making sales.”  The Second Circuit disagreed.  That Court noted that the men went to work in hard hats and safety glasses.  They also carried tool boxes full of different tools.  Also, there were other employees whose job was to focus on door-to-door sales.

The Takeaway

The issue on summary judgment was whether the facts, i.e., the job description, undisputedly showed that the men were outside salesmen.  If, however, the facts on the ground differ from the printed description, that job description will be worthless as a defense in proving the exemption.  In other words, if the workers spend the majority of the time at work performing nonexempt work, such as installations they are non-exempt.

Simple as that…