A federal district court in California has weighed in on the question of whether student-athletes are employees for the purposes of minimum wage and overtime laws. And, like the courts before it, it has rejected that notion.

In Dawson v. National Collegiate Athletic Association, No. 16-cv-05487-RS (N.D. Ca. April 25, 2017), the United States District Court for the Northern District of California has joined the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals and other courts in holding that athletes are not employees entitled to minimum wage and overtime time pay.

In Dawson, a former college football player for the University of Southern California filed a putative class action against the NCAA and the associated conference, claiming he was denied full pay for all hours worked, including overtime. Rather than applying the four factor “economic reality” test that the Ninth Circuit has adopted, the district court focused on the “true nature of the relationship.” Borrowing from the Seventh Circuit’s reasoning in Berger v. Nat’l Collegiate Athletic Ass’n, 843 F.3d 285 (7th Cir. 2016), the court concluded that “student athletic ‘play’ is not ‘work,’ at least as that term is used in the FLSA.”

The court rejected the Plaintiff’s argument that the situation differed from Berger because the students in that case were track and field athletes, while the Dawson athletes played Division I football, which generates massive revenue for schools. The court noted that Plaintiff cited no authority to support this distinction.

The court also relied on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook, which indicates that students who participate in extracurricular activities generally are not employees of the school, distinguishing them from work-study students who typically are considered employees. The court drew a distinction between sports and work-study programs, labelling the latter as programs that benefit the school. Conversely, the court felt that football exists for the benefit of the student and only in limited circumstances, for the benefit of the school.

Thus, one federal court in California has joined the parade of courts that have rejected the concept of student athletes being employees of the schools where they are engaged in sports. The issue is likely to be appealed to the Ninth Circuit. And only time will tell whether the Ninth Circuit will confirm this result or whether it will conclude that student-athletes in fact are employees.

As many will recall, the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) overtime rule, increasing the salary threshold for overtime exemptions at the behest of the Obama administration, was scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2016. Months later, it remains in limbo before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal. And it apparently will remain in limbo for at least several more months.

After publication of the final overtime rule on May 23, 2016, two lawsuits were filed by a coalition of 21 states and a number of business advocacy groups, claiming that the DOL exceeded its rulemaking authority in finalizing the overtime rule. The lawsuits, which were consolidated, sought a variety of relief, including a preliminary injunction blocking the overtime rule from taking effect.

Days before the final rule went into effect, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas granted Plaintiffs’ motion and issued a nationwide preliminary injunction. Prior to President Trump’s inauguration, the Department of Labor appealed the order to the Fifth Circuit. Thereafter, the DOL was granted two extensions of time to consider whether it wished to proceed with the appeal.

The most recent extension was set to expire on May 1, 2017 . Now, the DOL has requested – and the Fifth Circuit has granted – yet another 60-day extension because Secretary of Labor nominee Alexander Acosta has not yet been confirmed. In granting the extension, the Fifth Circuit continued the DOL’s deadline to file its reply brief to June 30, 2017.

This most recent extension will give additional time to the DOL to evaluate its options, which includes abandoning the appeal and any further efforts to implement and enforce the overtime rule. It is important to keep in mind, however, that even though Secretary of Labor Nominee Acosta does not appear to support the Obama administration’s plan to more than double the salary threshold, he has expressed opinions that suggest he would support updating the overtime rule to some degree, possibly increasing the salary threshold to mirror inflation. It is also important to be mindful that certain states, including New York and California, have a higher minimum salary threshold than the current federal requirement of $455 per week. We will continue to monitor and report on this important matter as it develops.

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.

Tips Do Not Count Towards the Minimum Wage Unless a Worker Qualified as a “Tipped Employe"In Romero v. Top-Tier Colorado LLC, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that tips received by a restaurant server for hours in which she did not qualify as a tipped employee were not “wages” under the FLSA, and therefore should not be considered in determining whether she was paid the minimum wage.

Tipped Employees & the FLSA

The FLSA provides that employers may take a “tip credit” and pay employees as little as $2.13 per hour if: (i) the tip credit is applied to employees who customarily and regularly receive tips; (ii) the employee’s wages and tips are at least equal to the minimum wage, and (iii) all tips received by a tipped employee are retained by the employee or pooled with the tips of other tipped employees.

In Romero, the Tenth Circuit noted that an employee may hold both tipped and non-tipped jobs for the same employer.  In those cases, the employee is entitled to the full minimum wage while performing the job that does not generate tips.

Moreover, the Circuit Court cited to the directive in the Wage Hour Division’s Field Operations Handbook stating that, if a tipped employee spends more than 20% of his or her time performing related-but-nontipped work, then the employer may not take the tip credit for the amount of time the employee spends performing those duties.

The Plaintiff’s Claims

The plaintiff in Romero worked as a server at the defendants’ restaurant.  The defendants paid her a cash wage of $4.98 an hour, and took a tip credit to cover the gap between the cash wage rate and the federal minimum wage.

The plaintiff contended that she also worked in nontipped jobs for the defendants, and that she spent more than 20% of her workweek performing related-but-nontipped work. Therefore, she concluded she was entitled to a cash wage of at least $7.25 per hour during certain hours, and filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado claiming violations of the federal minimum wage.

The defendants’ moved to dismiss the complaint because plaintiff did not allege that her total weekly earnings, when divided by the number of hours worked, ever fell below the federal minimum wage rate. The District Court reasoned that a minimum wage violation is determined by dividing an employee’s total pay in a workweek by the total number of hours worked that week.  Because the plaintiff did not allege facts that would establish such a violation, the District Court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the complaint.

In light of that reasoning, the District Court never considered whether the plaintiff was properly considered a tipped employee.

When are Tips Considered “Wages” Paid by the Employer?

The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judgment of the District Court. The Tenth Circuit “assumed” that the district court correctly stated that an employer satisfies the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements so long as, after the total wage paid to each employee during any given week is divided by the total time that employee worked that week, the resulting average hourly wage is $7.25 per hour or more.

But the Tenth Circuit held that the existence of a minimum wage violation depends on the “wages” paid by an employer to an employee. The Court stated that tips are “wages” paid by an employer only when the tips are received by a worker who qualifies as a tipped employee under the FLSA.

Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit reversed the District Court’s dismissal of the plaintiff’s complaint. The Tenth Circuit directed the District Court to reconsider its ruling by examining the threshold question of whether the tips received by the plaintiff were “wages” for purposes of the minimum wage requirements of the FLSA.

What is the Impact of an Improper Tip Credit?

Assume, for example, that the plaintiff worked 40 hours in a given week, was paid cash wages of $199.20 (or $4.98 per hour) and received tips of $90.80.

If the evidence demonstrates that the plaintiff was a tipped employee at all times, she was paid wages of $290.00 (or $7.25 per hour) and the defendants did not violate the federal minimum wage.

However, the evidence could demonstrate that the plaintiff performed so much related-but-nontipped work that she did not qualify as a tipped employee at any time. As explained by the Tenth Circuit, the plaintiff’s tips would not count as wages and therefore she was paid $90.80 below the minimum wage.  The defendants could then be liable to her for that amount (as well as potential liquidated damages and attorneys’ fees).

The Tenth Circuit’s decision is consistent with the rulings of other circuit courts. Therefore, employers who are taking tip credits therefore must pay close attention to the specific requirements of the FLSA, and should not consider themselves insulated from liability merely by the fact that their tipped employees are earning more than the minimum wage.

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.

A Maine dairy company has received a potentially expensive grammar lesson from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which held on March 13, 2017, that the company’s delivery drivers may be eligible for up to $10 million in overtime pay, because the lack of a comma in the statute regarding exemptions from the state’s wage and hour law rendered the scope of the exemption ambiguous.

Grammarians have long disputed whether writers should include a comma before the final item in a list—the so-called “serial” or “Oxford” comma.  Opponents of the serial comma consider it superfluous.  Supporters argue that the serial comma is necessary to eliminate potential ambiguity, as in the example, “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”  Are Ayn Rand and God the writer’s parents, or are they being thanked in addition to his or her parents?  Without the serial comma, it is impossible to know.

Similarly, this case, O’Connor v. Oakhurst Dairy, arose “[f]or want of a comma” in the Maine law exempting from overtime compensation employees involved in the “canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of” various perishable goods.  Without the controversial serial comma after “shipment,” the court found it unclear whether the exemption was meant to apply to one category of employees (i.e., those who pack goods, whether for shipment or for distribution) or two (i.e., those who pack goods for shipment, and those who distribute the goods).  Because the plaintiff drivers admittedly distributed goods, but claimed they did not pack goods or engage in any of the other activities specified in the exemption, their case could only proceed if the First Circuit reversed the district court’s ruling that the exemption encompassed both packers and distributors.

In an opinion that should appeal to grammar aficionados everywhere, the First Circuit extensively analyzed the language of the statute in light of “certain linguistic conventions,” or “canons,” including: (i) the rule against surplusage, which states that no word in a statute should be treated as unnecessary; (ii) the convention of using a conjunction before the last item on a list; (iii) the parallel usage convention, which requires words performing the same grammatical function to be presented in the same form; and (iv) the use of the serial comma itself, which the Maine Legislative Drafting Manual generally disfavors, except when its omission may cause the sort of ambiguity presented here.  After engaging in this analysis, and proving unable to determine the law’s clear meaning from the statutory text or its legislative history, the court reversed the district court and held it must “adopt the delivery drivers’ reading of the ambiguous phrase . . . , as that reading furthers the broad remedial purpose of the overtime law, which is to provide overtime pay protection to employees.”

While many commentators have viewed this opinion as an ode to, in the court’s words, “the clarifying virtues of serial commas,” ultimately that is a mere subset of the three broader lessons presented by this case, principles that should prove helpful to anyone who communicates via the written word—that is, all of us.

Lesson One — Say What You Mean

Given the context of this case, the first lesson presented by the court’s analysis was likely aimed primarily at the Maine Legislature, which drafted the ambiguous statute at issue. However, it is advice that all writers would be wise to follow—avoid ambiguity.  Whether drafting a statute, a brief, an employment policy, an email, or a Tweet, use language and punctuation (including the serial comma, where necessary) deliberately, to ensure that you actually write what you intend to say.  Review the grammar rules you may have ignored since middle school, and revise your writing as frequently as necessary, to guard against any accidental ambiguities like the one in the Maine wage and hour law.  Especially for attorneys, words are our primary weapons, and it is crucial that we wield them wisely.

Lesson Two — Remember Your Goal

The second piece of advice that arises from this case is somewhat related to the first—always keep the underlying purpose of a piece of writing in mind. Much as courts seek to effectuate the legislative intent of a statute, parties to a dispute should focus on what, specifically, they are trying to accomplish.  The delivery drivers in this case did not win because of a missing comma; they won because the extra compensation they sought was consistent with the broad remedial purpose of Maine’s wage and hour law.  As an advocate, you will be more likely to succeed if you can find a way to align the outcome you or your clients seek with the societal or legislative purpose the court is seeking to advance.

Lesson Three — Be Consistent (a.k.a., Don’t Be Your Own Worst Enemy)

The third lesson drawn from this case, despite being relegated to a seemingly insignificant footnote, may be the most important—make sure all of your messaging is consistent. In this case, the dairy company argued that the statutory exemption should be read as applying to both employees involved in “packing [goods] for shipment” and employees involved in “distribution” of the goods, because “shipment” and “distribution” are synonyms, and unless “packing for shipment” and “distribution” constituted two separate exempt activities, the statute would be redundant.  The court may have been more receptive to this argument, if it hadn’t noticed that the company’s “own internal organization chart seems to treat [shipment and distribution] as if they are separate activities,” significantly undercutting the company’s argument that the two terms were synonymous and redundant.  The company probably never considered the fact that its own organizational chart could be used against it, but any such inconsistency in a party’s messaging, even in a seemingly unrelated context like an org chart, may ultimately prove fatal to a contradictory legal claim the party seeks to assert sometime in the future.  Accordingly, especially for corporate entities, it is crucial to keep a single consistent and coherent viewpoint in mind when drafting any sort of company messaging, to prevent any inconsistencies from being used against the company at a later date.

Conclusion — It’s Not About the Comma

Contrary to the extensive media coverage of the “comma case,” this case offers a far broader lesson than “always use a serial comma.” Instead, the First Circuit’s opinion presents three fundamental principles that should apply in every context where the written word may prove determinative.  In essence, the opinion is a dissertation on the virtues of clarity in writing—a lesson that may cost Oakhurst Dairy up to $10 million, but which has been made available to the rest of us, free of charge.

Featured on Employment Law This Week – California health care workers can still waive some breaks.

In February 2015, a California appeals court invalidated an order from the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) that allowed health care workers to waive certain meal breaks. The court found the order, which allowed the workers to miss one of their two meal periods when working over eight hours, was in direct conflict with the California Labor Code. The state legislature then passed a new law giving the IWC authority to craft exceptions going forward for health care workers. This month, the appeals court concluded that its 2015 decision was based on a misreading of the statute and that even waivers occurring before the new law are valid.

Watch the segment below and see our recent post on this topic.

Kevin SullivanA little more than two years ago, we wrote about how a California Court of Appeal’s decision exposed health care employers to litigation if they relied upon IWC Wage Order 5 for meal period waivers. That decision was Gerard v. Orange Coast Memorial Medical Center (“Gerard I”), where the Court of Appeal concluded that IWC Wage Order 5 was partially invalid to the extent it authorized second meal period waivers on shifts over 12 hours. Much has happened since then.

After Gerard I was published, the Legislature moved quickly to enact SB 327, which amended Labor Code section 516 to state in pertinent part that “the health care employee meal period waiver provisions in Section 11(D) of [IWC] Wage Orders 4 and 5 were valid and enforceable on and after October 1, 2000, and continue to be valid and enforceable. This subdivision is declarative of, and clarifies, existing law.” In enacting SB 327, the Legislature specifically noted “the uncertainty caused by a recent appellate court decision” – Gerard I – and that “without immediate clarification, hospitals will alter scheduling practices.”

After SB 327 was enacted, the California Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to vacate its decision in Gerard I and to reconsider the case in light of SB 327. The Court of Appeal has now done so. On March 1, 2017, in an unpublished opinion, the Court of Appeal in Gerard II held that SB 327 is effective retroactively. As a result, the second meal period waivers that the plaintiffs had signed were valid and enforceable. Consequently, the Gerard II Court affirmed the trial court’s order granting summary judgment, denying class certification, and striking class allegations.

The Gerard II decision is a welcome development for California health care employers who have relied upon IWC Wage Order 5 for second meal period waivers, reinforcing the use of such waivers for employees who work more than 12 hours in a shift.

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.

Michael D. ThompsonThe Missouri Supreme Court has overturned a lower court’s ruling that St. Louis’ minimum wage ordinance is invalid, finding that the ordinance is not preempted by the state law.

St. Louis City’s Ordinance 70078 (“the Ordinance”) provides for a series of increases to the minimum wage for employees working within the boundaries of St. Louis. The plaintiffs argued that Ordinance 70078 was preempted by the state minimum wage law.  The plaintiffs contended that state law affirmatively authorized employers to pay as little as $7.65 per hour, the state minimum wage rate.

A trial court accepted the plaintiffs’ argument and, in October 2015, held that the Ordinance was invalid.

The Missouri Supreme Court reversed the trial court’s ruling and rejected the plaintiffs’ argument.  Because the state minimum wage law merely prohibits employers from paying employees a wage lower than the state minimum, local ordinances imposing higher minimum wages did not conflict with the state statute.

Furthermore, Missouri’s minimum wage law did not “occupy the field” of minimum wage laws. In fact, the Missouri Supreme Court noted that the state legislature had recognized and authorized local ordinances addressing minimum wages.

Notably, both the trial court and the Missouri Supreme Court rejected the plaintiffs’ argument based on Section 67.1571 of the Missouri Statutes, which prohibits “political subdivisions of this state from establishing or requiring a minimum wage that exceeds the state minimum wage.” The courts agreed that the Missouri Constitution prohibits bills containing more than one subject, and Section 67.1571 violated this requirement because its primary purpose was to establish community improvement districts.

Under the phase-in schedule in the Ordinance, the minimum wage in St. Louis was set to rise to $10.00 per hour on January 1, 2017 and $11.00 per hour on January 1, 2018, after which the minimum wage will be increased annually to reflect the rate of inflation.

St. Louis city officials issued a statement explaining that businesses will be provided “a reasonable grace period to adjust to the new minimum wage rate,” but will be subject to revocation of their business licenses if they do not comply with the Ordinance.