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.
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.
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.