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?

I have defended many off-the-clock working time cases and I submit that they are very dangerous for employers. This is because they are particularly amenable to class certification because it is likely that there is a common policy applicable to the members of the class. This premise is highlighted by a recent settlement for a class of security guards employed by a security and facility services at JFK International Airport. The settlement is $2.52 million deal. The case is entitled Douglas v. Allied Universal Security Services et al., and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York.

The plaintiff, Kirk Douglas, requested court approval of the settlement through a motion that labeled the settlement fair and reasonable. The motion stated that “in short, while plaintiff continues to believe in his case, and class counsel has and will continue to capably represent their client’s interests in litigation and mediation, they recognize that Allied has presented significant, and potentially dispositive arguments, that pose a significant risk to their chances for class-wide recovery, and this favors preliminary approval.”

The theory of the case was that the employees were compelled to drive to their bases before they clocked out for the day and they were required to do paperwork after their shifts. There was also an allegation that the employees worked through lunch time. The employees in the class (which totaled about six hundred people) were airport security agents, operations assistants and employees dubbed Tour Supervisors, who were claimed to really not be exempt employees.

The settlement came to be after a mediation. The plaintiffs asserted that while they believed in the rightness of their claims, the Company “has mounted considerable defenses to liability and damages.” In that regard, the Company resisted the contention that the employees were actually performing “work” in these off-the-clock situations. The motion asserted that the proffered settlement was “a good value” given the risks inherent in the litigation. The motion stated that “in class counsel’s estimation, the settlement represents a meaningful percentage of the recovery that the class members would have achieved had they prevailed on all their claims, survived an appeal, and sought to enforce and collect upon a judgment.”

The Takeaway

The activities alleged to be working time in this case are troubling because they are the kind that a good-faith, well intentioned employer might not perceive to even be “work.” That is the problem. Employers have to be aware that any activity that they either compel their employees to perform or which are integral to their jobs may be working time and therefore, compensable.

At least be aware of the possibility…

 

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!

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.

businessman with boxing gloves ready to fightI have always approached litigation as seeking to maintain a cordial, civil relationship with my adversary, especially if it is (as happens a lot) my goal to settle the case early on.  There are times, however, I love when it gets nasty.  Especially when I am not involved.  In a recent FLSA class case, a federal magistrate judge was angry at both attorneys.  The court actually granted a motion for sanctions against the employer but observing that both sets of lawyers persistently ignored the court’s warnings to act like professionals and both had rendered the normal conduct of discovery almost “impossible.” The case is entitled Piccolo v. Top Shelf Productions et al., and was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of New York.

Magistrate Judge Gary R. Brown said that Joseph M. Labuda and Saul D. Zabell were constantly unprofessional and the attorneys were unable “to act with a modicum of courtesy toward each other.”  The Judge stated that “both [attorneys] have handled this matter in a needlessly contentious fashion.  Such tactics will no longer be tolerated.”

Mr. Piccolo filed suit, claiming he was not paid proper overtime, amongst other violations.  He sought to represent a class of all other nonexempt employees.  The case began discovery in July 2017 and, as the Judge wryly put it, it went “off the rails.”  The judge would not recite the list of “seeming[ly] endless complaints and accusations, and what can only be characterized as a cavalcade of name-calling by counsel.”  There were eight time he had to tell them to be civil to each other. But, they did not stop.

For example, the latest tiff involved a deposition and the antics that went on there.  The Judge ordered that the deposition be allowed to continue but he did not trust the lawyers enough that they would act civilly.  He therefore ordered that it would be held in the courtroom.  The Judge told both lawyers that “any improper conduct will result in significant sanctions.”  The Judge also did not spare the lawyer who was not sanctioned.  He scolded him for suggesting that the court was biased against him.  The Judge said that was “transparently manipulative.”

The Takeaway

Can’t we just get along?

A class of equipment operators and trainees has asked a federal court to approve a $1.35 million settlement of their FLSA class action lawsuit alleging the Company did not fairly pay them their wages and used a gimmick to avoid doing so.  The case is entitled Elliott v. Schlumberger Technology Corp. et al., and was filed in federal court in the District of North Dakota.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Company violated the law by paying them under the “fluctuating workweek” method.   Interestingly (or maybe not so much), the settlement talks took place after U.S. District Judge Ralph R. Erickson granted the Company’s motion to decertify the class.   The Judge ruled that there was insufficient evidence to show that the workers were similarly situated. There are 138 people in the class.

The plaintiffs alleged that the Company paid equipment operators and trainees by the fluctuating-workweek (FWW) method.  That method allows employers to pay workers overtime at a half-time, as opposed to time and one-half, but certain conditions must be met.  The workers claimed that in order to validly use this method, the employees must be paid on a fixed salary, which they were not.

The Court had conditionally certified a collective class of equipment operators, trainees and other similar employees who were employed at the Company plant in Williston, North Dakota, and to whom the Company applied the fluctuating workweek method for at least one week during the three years preceding the lawsuit.

The Takeaway

This case presents a valuable lesson.  Attempted use of the FWW method of payment must have the employees receiving a fixed salary and an agreement, in advance of the work, that the employees understand what the payment arrangements and overtime protocols are going to be.  This allows the employer to pay half time for overtime instead of time and one-half.  Without these two requirements being met, any attempt to use the FWW method is doomed to failure.  Put differently, the FWW method can be the employer’s best friend, if done right.

If not, it is the employer’s worst enemy…

I have blogged on this long, protracted saga many times and I am glad to see that with each posting, the judicial result does not change.  The Seventh Circuit has now affirmed a lower court’s ruling that determined that Chicago police officers did not have a viable claim for overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act for their after-hours work performed on city-issued BlackBerrys.  The Court concluded that there was a lack of any systemic or uniform policy that stopped the officers from putting in for the overtime.  The case is entitled Allen v. Chicago and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

The panel affirmed U.S. Magistrate Judge Sidney I. Schenkier’s December 2015 decision, which followed a six-day bench trial.  The Seventh Circuit agreed with the lower court that the police department did not act to affirmatively prevent officers from requesting payment for nonscheduled overtime work.  The Court also concluded that the City had no knowledge that officers were not being paid for the work.

The police department issued BlackBerrys to the officers, which they sometimes used for such off-duty work.  They were required to submit “time due slips” to their supervisors and they had to write a short explanation of the work they performed, after which the supervisor approved the time and the officers were then paid.  The Magistrate eventually concluded that the officers did not demonstrate that the department had an “unwritten policy” that discouraged them from submitting slips.

The officers argued that their supervisors knew they were working off-the-clock because, according to them, the City gave them BlackBerrys so they could be contacted at any time.  The City countered by pointing to evidence that supervisors believed the officers were preparing the overtime slips so they could be paid.  The Seventh Circuit rejected the contention that the department had actual or constructive knowledge that overtime was being underreported and/or that there was pressure on the officers not to report that time.

Interestingly, the Seventh Circuit compared this case to the Sixth Circuit holding in White v.  Baptist Memorial Health Care Center.  In that 2012 decision, the Sixth Circuit held that an employee’s failure to accurately record/log work hours doomed her FLSA suit for overtime.  The Seventh Circuit observed “plaintiffs in this case, like the nurse in White, worked time they were not scheduled to work, sometimes with their supervisors’ knowledge. They had a way to report that time, but they did not use it, through no fault of the employer,” the Seventh Circuit said. “Reasonable diligence did not, in the district court’s view, require the employer to investigate further. Since … we see no clear error in that view of the facts, we see no legal error in reaching the same conclusion as the White court.”

The Takeaway

In order for employees to be paid for alleged off-the-clock work, they must show that their employer knew or should have known about the work.  They must also show that there was a system wide policy or practice that prevented them from being paid.  There was no evidence of either of these scenarios in this case and, more importantly, there was evidence that the City paid for this working time!

The correct result…

As an employer’s, i.e. a defendant’s attorney, I just want to win the case and I don’t care how (within ethical parameters, naturally).  Not too often, however, can an employer argue that the workers who are suing are not even covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act.  In a recent case, an employer was able to do just that because it successfully argued that the suing workers were engaged in “agriculture,” which is an exempt industry under the FLSA.  The case is entitled (Barks v. Silver Bait, LLC  and was decided by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: belchonock / 123RF Stock Photo

The suing workers were employed at a Tennessee facility that raises worms to sell for bait.  The Sixth Circuit concluded (affirming the lower court) that the FLSA definition of agriculture was meant broadly to reach “farming in all its branches” and applied to this sizeable company which cultivated worms for sale to retailers.  Although “worm farming” was not agriculture in a traditional sense, the Court (as other courts) held that the definition is intended to evolve and that the “ordinary meaning” of farming applied to the “entire field of farming.”

The Court examined the FLSA definitions of “farming” and had some difficulty categorizing the activity.  The Court looked at the covered commodities (e.g. milk, wool, eggs, honey) and stated that “the list of included and excluded commodities is instructive in that worms are more like the included cultivated commodities than the excluded wild ones.”  The Court also noted that raising worms was not “expressly exempt” under any FLSA example.  The Court then examined the scope of the “unlisted” farming activities and concluded that the raising of bait worms “has much in common with traditional farms.”  It shared “the same basic purpose” as traditional farms, to raise animals for sale as commodities.”

The Court finally observed that “although not a specifically enumerated farming activity, there is little to distinguish Silver Bait from a traditional farm other than the unfamiliarity of worm farming.”  Thus, the Court found that the growing and raising of worms is a form of farming within the FLSA’s agricultural exemption.

The Takeaway

A win is a win.  The lesson here is always to look at issues like jurisdiction or statute of limitations or some other perhaps, purely procedural, hyper-technical (dare I say gimmicky?) way to win the case especially in its early stages. i.e. motion to dismiss, summary judgment motion.  Here, the defendant convinced the court to stretch the meaning of the word “farming” as defined under the FLSA by arguing that the meaning of farming was not frozen in time and had changed with the times.

As does the need/desire to find creative ways out of a case…