Wage-hour class actions

On April 3, 2017, a federal district court in New Jersey rejected the National Labor Relation Board’s (“NLRB”) D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil holdings and upheld employee waivers of class and collective arbitration. In dismissing wage and overtime claims brought by an employee of Chili’s Grill & Bar, District Judge Noel Hillman ruled that such mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act. Cicero v. Quality Dining, Inc., et al, 1:16-cv-05806 (April 3, 2017).

Judge Hillman noted the issue was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and that the Third Circuit had yet to rule on the issue. However, he also noted a related action, Joseph v. Quality Dining, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and a similar case decided by another federal district judge in New Jersey in Kobren v. A-1 Limousine Inc., both of which also rejected the NLRB’s position.

The NLRB has acquiesced in employers requiring employees to waive court action and agree to submit to arbitration wage and overtime and other employment related claims. However the Board has insisted that employees may not be required to arbitrate each employee’s claims separately, in individual arbitration. This, the Board contends, interferes with employees’ rights to participate in concerted activities for their mutual aid and benefit, otherwise protected under Sections 7 and 8 (a) (1) of the NLRA. In making this argument, commentators point out that the Board appears to be neglecting the second part of Section 7 which expressly reserves to employees the right to refrain from participating in any and all concerted activity.   NLRB opponents contend that waivers of class and collective arbitration are an exercise of that right.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Fall in Murphy Oil and consolidated cases as to whether the NLRA prohibits an employer from requiring employees to agree to waive their rights to arbitrate employment disputes on a class or collective basis, or whether the Federal Arbitration Act favoring arbitration controls. Conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit has recently been sworn in as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court and will take the seat of Justice Scalia, who passed away a year ago. It remains to be seen how the Court will rule on this very important employment law issue.

Our colleague Adriana S. Kosovych, associate at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Hospitality Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Chipotle Exploits Wide Variation Among Plaintiffs to Defeat Class and Collective Certification.

Following is an excerpt:

A New York federal court recently declined to certify under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 23”) six classes of salaried “apprentices” at Chipotle restaurants asserting claims for overtime pay under New York Labor Law (“NYLL”) and parallel state laws in Missouri, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina, on the theory that they were misclassified as exempt executives in Scott et al. v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. et al., Case No. 12-CV-8333 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2017).  The Court also granted Chipotle’s motion to decertify the plaintiffs’ conditionally certified collective action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), resulting in the dismissal without prejudice of the claims of 516 plaintiffs who had opted in since June 2013.

The putative class and collective action of apprentices working in certain of Chipotle’s 2,000-plus restaurants nationwide were provisionally employed while being trained to become general managers of new Chipotle locations. The Scott action challenged Chipotle’s blanket exempt classification of the apprentice position, claiming that the duties plaintiffs actually performed during the majority of their working time were not managerial, and therefore, as non-exempt employees they were entitled to receive overtime pay. …

Read the full post here.

Featured on Employment Law This Week – “For Want of a Comma.” It seems that punctuation was a key factor in a recent class action suit from a group of dairy delivery drivers in Maine.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that an exemption in the states overtime law is ambiguous enough to support the drivers’ overtime claim. The drivers argued that the exemption applies only to workers who pack perishable food products for distribution—and not those who actually distribute the products. On appeal, the First Circuit agreed that a missing “Oxford” comma makes the drivers’ reading of the exemption a reasonable one.

Watch the segment below and see our recent post.

Kevin SullivanOn February 28, 2017, the California Court of Appeal issued its opinion in Vaquero v. Stoneledge Furniture, LLC. The opinion provides guidance to California employers who pay their hourly employees on a commission basis but do not pay separate compensation for time spent during rest periods.

In the case, the employer kept track of hours worked and paid hourly sales associates on a commission basis where, if an employee failed to earn a minimum amount in commissions – comprising of at least $12.01 per hour in commission pay in any pay period – then the employee was paid a “draw” against future advanced commissions. The commission agreement explained: “The amount of the draw will be deducted from future Advanced Commissions, but an employee will always receive at least $12.01 per hour for every hour worked.” In other words, for hourly sales associates whose commissions did not exceed the minimum rate in a given week, the employer clawed back (by deducting from future paychecks) wages advanced to compensate employees for hours worked, including rest periods. The commission agreement did not provide separate compensation for any non-selling time, such as time spent in meetings, on certain types of training, and during rest periods. Although employees clocked out for meal periods, they did not clock out for rest periods.

Two former employees brought suit, alleging, among other things, that the employer did not pay all wages earned during rest periods. The employer filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that “the rest period claim failed as a matter of law because Stoneledge paid its sales associates a guaranteed minimum for all hours worked, including rest periods.” The trial court granted the employer’s motion, finding that, under the employer’s system, “there was no possibility that the employees’ rest period time would not be captured in the total amount paid each pay period.” The employees appealed.

The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, starting with the premise that the “plain language of Wage Order No. 7 requires employers to count ‘rest period time’ as ‘hours worked for which there shall be no deduction from wages.’” (Italics added by the Court.) The Vaquero Court relied on a 2013 decision in Bluford v. Safeway, Inc., where a sister court had held that this language in Wage Order 7 requires employers to “separately compensate[]” hourly employees for rest periods where the employer uses an “activity based compensation system” that does not directly compensate for rest periods.

Finding that “nothing about commission compensation plans justifies treating commissioned employees differently from other [hourly] employees,” the Vaquero Court agreed with the Bluford Court’s holding that “Wage Order No. 7 requires employers to separately compensate employees for rest periods if an employer’s compensation plan does not already include a minimum hourly wage for such time.” And because the Vaquero employer did not separately compensate its sales associates for rest periods, the Court of Appeal reversed summary judgment.

As had been the case for employers with piece-rate compensation plans, the Vaquero decision makes clear that commission-based compensation plans must separately account for – and pay for rest periods – to comply with California law.

Supreme Court Set To Resolve Class Action Waiver DisputeOn January 13, 2017, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear three cases involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements that contain class action waivers.

Whether such agreements are enforceable has been a hotly contested issue for several years now, particularly in cases involving wage-hour disputes.

The Fifth Circuit has held that such waivers can be enforceable (NLRB v. Murphy Oil, Inc.), joining the Second and Eighth Circuits in that conclusion. The Seventh (Epic Systems, Inc. v. Lewis) and Ninth Circuits (Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris) have held that they are not, determining that they violate employees’ rights to engage in collective activities under the National Labor Relations Act.

Barring the failure to confirm a new Supreme Court Justice to fill the vacant seat before the cases are argued — which could well result in a 4-4 tie — the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Murphy Oil, Epic Systems and Ernst & Young cases would seem likely to resolve the current dispute between the Circuits regarding the enforceability of those waivers. And it would provide some much-needed guidance to employers across the country.

Whether a ninth Supreme Court Justice will be seated in time to hear the cases is questionable, though. It is possible that the case could be held over until the next term, when a full Court presumably will be seated. If that does not occur, and if a 4-4 tie resulted, the split among the Circuits would remain.

Of course, there are many cases across the country in which parties are currently debating whether class action waivers are enforceable. One would think that most, if not all, of those cases will now be stayed while the courts await the Supreme Court’s ruling.

One of the most controversial issues in employment law these days involves the position of the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB” or “Board”) that an employer violates the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) when it requires employees to pursue any dispute they have with their employer on an individual, rather than on a class or collective action, basis with other employees. It is a position that has been adopted by two circuit courts and rejected by three—a conflict that suggests that the issue is ripe for U.S. Supreme Court review.

The NLRB has contended that when an employer requires employees to sign an agreement precluding them from bringing or joining a concerted legal claim regarding wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment, the employer deprives them of rights guaranteed under Section 7 of the NLRA to engage in concerted activities for employees’ mutual aid or protection. That right, the proponents argue, includes the right to join together in class and collective litigation to pursue workplace grievances in court or in arbitration.

In making that argument, the NLRB appears to be neglecting the second part of Section 7 (added to the NLRA by the 1947 Taft-Hartley Amendments), which guarantees to employees an equal right to refrain from engaging in concerted activities for their mutual aid and protection. It would seem to follow that, if they have the right to refrain from engaging in concerted activities, employees could waive their right to participate in class and collective actions.

While the NLRB’s argument appears flawed, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits have agreed with the NLRB that where such agreements are a condition of employment, they deprived employees of their rights to engage in “concerted activities” for their mutual aid and benefit guaranteed to them under Section 7 of the NLRA. These decisions conflict with earlier decisions of the Fifth, Eighth, and, most recently, Second Circuits rejecting the Board’s position.

At least one dissenting judge, Sandra Ikuta of the Ninth Circuit, stated that the majority decision was “breathtaking in its scope and in its error.” She noted that the majority decision was directly contrary to Supreme Court Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) precedent and that the individual arbitration mandate should have been enforced according to its terms under the FAA. The Ninth Circuit, it should be noted, previously held that an arbitration agreement with a class and collective action waiver did not violate the NLRA when the employee could opt out of the individual arbitration agreement but chose not to do so.

In those jurisdictions covered by the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, class and collective action waivers are likely unenforceable to the extent they are a condition of employment. In jurisdictions covered by the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits, class and collective action waivers would appear to be enforceable. Other circuits have yet to rule on the issue, leaving district courts within those circuits to weigh conflicting arguments on both sides.

The Supreme Court may well step in to resolve the conflict between the circuits on this important issue. Petitions for certiorari have been filed recently in four different cases. The issue before the Supreme Court in all four of these cases is whether the NLRA prohibits an employer from requiring employees to agree to waive their rights to arbitrate class and collective disputes or whether the FAA, which favors arbitration, controls; in short, whether class and collective waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. As there is clearly a conflict among the circuits, it would appear that there is a significant chance that the Supreme Court will grant certiorari and resolve this conflict.

As a practical matter, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia’s death earlier this year, his still-unfilled seat, and the upcoming presidential election may play significant roles in resolving this issue if the Supreme Court grants certiorari. As many will recall, it was Justice Scalia who wrote the majority opinions in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and American Express v. Italian Colors. In those cases, the Supreme Court upheld class action waivers, albeit in the commercial setting, not in an employment, setting. With Justice Scalia’s seat unfilled and only eight current justices, a four-to-four split at the Supreme Court would leave all of the circuit decisions standing, including both the Seventh and Ninth Circuit decisions in favor of the NLRB’s position, as well as the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuit decisions rejecting the NLRB’s position. Depending upon which party wins the upcoming presidential elections, the makeup of the Supreme Court justices (and of the five-member NLRB) may play a significant role in the outcome of this issue.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Take 5 newsletter Five Critical Wage and Hour Issues Impacting Employers.”

Employers Under the Microscope: Is Change on the Horizon?

When: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Latest Developments from the NLRB
  • Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce
  • ADA Website Compliance
  • Trade Secrets and Non-Competes
  • Managing and Administering Leave Policies
  • New Overtime Rules
  • Workplace Violence and Active-Shooter Situations
  • Recordings in the Workplace
  • Instilling Corporate Ethics

This year, we welcome Marc Freedman and Jim Plunkett from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc and Jim will speak at the first plenary session on the latest developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide.

We are also excited to have Dr. David Weil, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, serve as the guest speaker at the second plenary session. David will discuss the areas on which the Wage and Hour Division is focusing, including the new overtime rules.

In addition to workshop sessions led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! – we are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Former New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton.

View the full briefing agenda here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

One of the top stories featured on Employment Law This Week: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reaffirms an employer’s time-rounding practice. A call-center employee in California recently brought a class action lawsuit against his employer for time-rounding practices. The employee claims that the policy caused him to be underpaid by a total of $15 over 13 months. Relying on a California Court of Appeals precedent, the Ninth Circuit found that the company’s facially neutral rounding policy—one that rounds time both up and down—is legal under California law. The employee also argued that he was denied payment for a total of one minute when he logged into call software before he clocked in. The Ninth Circuit found that the de minimis doctrine applied in this case, because identifying a single instance in order to provide payment would create an undue burden on the employer.

View the episode below or read more about this story in a previous blog post.

The new episode of Employment Law This Week features the U.S. Supreme Court’s easing of class certification standards in a case against Tyson Foods.

In Iowa, a group of Tyson employees brought a hybrid class and collective action for unpaid overtime spent changing clothes and walking to their work area. An expert determined the average amount of time spent on those activities, and the employees relied on those averages to get class certified and prove liability and damages. On appeal, Tyson argued that the employees should never have been grouped into a single class, because each employee took different amounts of time for the unpaid activities. But the Supreme Court ruled that this representative sample could be used to establish classwide liability, and the case will move forward in the district court.

View the episode below or read more about the case in an earlier blog post.

As we mentioned earlier this week, I was recently interviewed on our firm’s new video program, Employment Law This Week.  The show has now released “bonus footage” from that episode – see below.

I elaborate on some of the reasons behind this year’s sharp increase in federal wage-and-hour suits: worker-friendly rules, increased publicity around minimum wage and overtime issues, and the difficulties of applying an outdated law to today’s “gig” economy.