Settling an FLSA Collective Action? Not So Fast!

By Amy Traub and Christina Fletcher

Once a settlement has been reached in an FLSA collective action, the defendant-employer typically wants that settlement to go into effect and end the case as soon as possible, so that the company can get past the myriad of distractions brought by the suit. However, as litigants increasingly are finding, the parties’ agreement to settle an FLSA collective action is nowhere near the end of the road, or the end of the case. There is a “judicial prohibition” against the unsupervised waiver or settlement of claims brought under the FLSA. Settlements must be “supervised” by the Department of Labor or a court, and gone are the days where the court would rubberstamp the parties’ FLSA collective action settlement agreement. Instead, courts nowadays are scrutinizing the settlement to ensure the “fairness” of the agreement.

A recent decision by District Judge Deborah K. Chasanow of the United States District Court for the District of Maryland describes the information that courts are requiring parties to provide in their settlement agreements and accompanying motions for approval of the settlement. In Lane v. Ko-Me, LLC, Judge Chasanow rejected the parties’ motion for approval of their FLSA settlement, finding the parties’ joint motion for approval to be “clearly deficient” in setting forth facts or arguments upon which the court could evaluate the fairness of the agreement.  The Lane decision is helpful in providing a roadmap as to what parties may want to consider including in their submissions to the court seeking approval of an FLSA collective action settlement:

  • Provide a detailed description of the parties’ respective positions as to each issue so the court may assess whether there is, in fact, a bona fide dispute.  The Lane parties “simply listed the points of disagreement” they had regarding various issues, such as their dispute over whether the plaintiffs were properly classified as independent contractors and their disagreement regarding the amount of hours worked by the plaintiffs.  In the court’s view, this was not enough to allow the judge to evaluate the disputed issues resolved by the parties’ settlement.  For example, if an employee’s entitlement to overtime is in dispute, the employer should articulate the reasons for disputing the employee’s right to overtime, and the plaintiff should articulate the reasons justifying his/her entitlement to the disputed wages.
  • Give the court sufficient data to allow it to assess the fairness of the settlement amount. In Lane, the judge rebuked the parties for only providing conclusory assertions that the proposed settlement fund of $90,000 represented the full amount due to the plaintiffs for all hours claimed to have been worked plus all liquidated damages, attorney’s fees, and costs. Instead, the judge wanted concrete data from the parties to allow her to assess whether the $90,000 settlement would fairly compensate the plaintiffs – i.e., the number of hours they claimed to have worked, the rates of pay they were owed, and the liquidated damages to which they claimed to be entitled.
  • Remind the plaintiffs’ counsel of their duty to prove to the court that their proposed fee award is reasonable. Courts are charged with independently assessing the reasonableness of the fee award proposed in an FLSA settlement. While the level of detail required may vary by district or judge, Judge Chasanow wanted the plaintiffs’ counsel to provide her with sufficient facts to allow her to evaluate the requested award of attorneys’ fees under the lodestar method, including declarations establishing the hours counsel had expended on the matter, broken down for each task, and demonstrating that their hourly rate was reasonable. Judge Chasanow also noted that it was imperative that the parties inform the court how the $90,000 proposed settlement award was to be apportioned between the plaintiffs and their counsel.
  • Present the court with a strong argument that any confidentiality provision in the settlement agreement is reasonable. The settlement agreement at issue in the Lane case contained a “Covenant of Confidentiality”, which compelled the plaintiffs’ silence as to the terms of the agreement and the negotiations leading to the agreement. Expressing doubt about the inclusion of such a provision, Judge Chasanow explained that confidentiality provisions in an FLSA settlement agreement operate in contravention of the FLSA, and, therefore, any agreement that contains such a provision must be rejected if it is unreasonable. The burden is on the parties to present arguments in support of their position that the proposed confidentiality provision is reasonable, enforceable, and should be approved by the court.

Following the steps outlined above when seeking court approval of an FLSA collective action may take more time and effort on the front-end, but may help smooth the way to getting the court’s approval and getting the case closed on the back-end.

Florida Wage-Hour Firms Accused (Again) of Soliciting Clients

The Shavitz Law Group and Morgan & Morgan, two of the leading wage-hour firms in Florida, stand accused of soliciting clients in violation of state ethics rules for a case pending in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.  The defendant in the case, Centex Homes, filed a Motion for Sanctions against the two firms on Friday.  

Centex's motion follows on the heels of a story I reported last month, Judge Ryskamp's order in the Hamm case granting sanctions against the Shavitz Law Group for soliciting clients by telephone in violation of Florida Bar Rules.  Centex alleges that the firms engaged in similar conduct in its case in violation of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct. Centex cites Judge Ryskamp's decision in Hamm in support of its motion. Centex also alleges that the Shavitz firm failed to disclose the sanctions order in the Hamm case as required by the local rules of court.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Wage-Hour Firm Strikes Back Against Federal Judge

Last month I reported that United States District Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp had sanctioned the Shavitz Law Group, one of the leading plaintiff-side wage-hour firms in Florida, for soliciting plaintiffs in violation of Florida Bar Rules.  The case was Hamm v. TBC Corp. and Tire Kingdom, Inc., Case No. 07-80829-CIV-RYSKAMP/VITUNAC. 

The Shavitz firm recently struck back, filing a motion to disqualify or recuse Judge Ryskamp from presiding over a different case, a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action against Abercrombie & Fitch.  The motion quoted Judge Ryskamp's comments during a hearing in the Hamm case:

I have had our law clerk check and the Shavitz firm has filed 1,332 cases in the Southern District of Florida since 2000, so we see these things continually, virtually never see them go to trial, I think that I have had one trial with all the cases that have been filed.

In looking at the statistical numbers, they are usually closed within three months of the time they are filed, so what is very clear to me is that most defendants are saying how much is it going to cost me to defend this case and what is the claim and the claim is so small it would cost most to have the lawyers defend it, so they are basically nuisance type claims that get bought off, of course the lawyer’s fees are always – not always, but very often considerably more than the claim itself – and I think this is certainly an area for some Congressional oversight, I think there ought to be written into the statute a provision that a letter demand must be made upon the employer before a lawsuit can be filed because the way this thing is working is just a lawyer’s retirement bill. . . . this has gotten out of hand, I think we have more of these cases in the Southern District of Florida than there are anyplace else in the country and that’s probably because of the Shavitz law firm. . . . I think the problem needs to be resolved.

The Shavitz firm argued that these comments, and others that Judge Ryskamp has made about the Shavitz firm, demonstrate "an apparent bias or prejudice against Plaintiff and Plaintiff’s counsel, such that disqualification/recusal is mandatory."

Three days later, Judge Ryskamp issued an order recusing himself from the case. 

Judge Ryskamp's recusal notwithstanding, from my perspective as a defense attorney, his comments were on the money. Many, if not most, FLSA cases are settled on a nuisance value basis.  In such cases, there is often only a few thousand dollars of overtime pay at issue.  And the employer often has solid defenses which it could prove on summary judgment or at trial.  But after some frank discussions with defense counsel, the employer concludes that it makes more sense to settle the case for, say, $10,000 than to pay its own attorneys $50,000 to $100,000 to litigate the case.  An additional factor is the uncertainty of litigation:  if the employee proves liability, even for a small amount, the employer will be on the hook for the plaintiff's attorney's fees as well.  So these cases typically settle, and Shavitz (or one of his colleagues in the plaintiffs' bar) move on to their next case.  The cycle continues, and South Florida continues to lead the nation in wage-hour lawsuits.   

Court Sanctions Plaintiffs' FLSA Firm for Solicitation

The Shavitz Law Group, one of the leading plaintiff-side FLSA firms in Florida, was sanctioned recently by U.S. District Judge Kenneth L. Ryskamp for soliciting plaintiffs in violation of Florida Bar rules.  The case is Hamm v. TBC Corp. and Tire Kingdom, Inc., Case No. 07-80829-CIV-RYSKAMP/VITUNAC.  The details of the case are laid out in a Report and Recommendation issued by Magistrate Judge Ann E. Vitunac. 

In his Order Adopting the Report and Recommendation, Judge Ryskamp made some telling remarks about the the nature of FLSA litigation in the Southern District of Florida:

This Court would also note that, according to the Administrative Office of the United
States Courts, for the past five years the Southern District of Florida has averaged 28.7% of all FLSA cases filed in the United States. This would cause one to wonder if the employers in the Southern District are willfully ignoring the FLSA. The more logical conclusion is that FLSA cases are heavily weighted in favor of the plaintiff. Most cases are filed against small businesses which quickly realize that it is cheaper to pay a small claim and the plaintiff’s attorney’s fee than it is to defend the claims. Very few FLSA cases go to trial. It is clear that the volume of cases in the Southern District is attorney-driven.

Attorney-driven or not, the flood in FLSA litigation continues.  I suspect that the Hamm decision will do little to stem the tide.