Since 2000, the number of wage and hour cases filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) has increased by more than 450 percent, with the vast majority of those cases being filed as putative collective actions.  Under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), employees may pursue FLSA claims on behalf of “themselves and other employees similarly situated,” provided that “[n]o employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.”  Despite the prevalence of FLSA collective actions, the legal implications and consequences of being a “party plaintiff” in such an action continue to be addressed.  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently examined this issue, in an opinion that may prove useful to defendants seeking to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a putative collective action.

In Halle v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, Inc. et al., the named plaintiff filed a putative collective action alleging defendants violated the FLSA by failing to properly pay employees for work performed during meal breaks.  The district court dismissed the collective action allegations based on a related case that had previously been decided, and dismissed the opt-in plaintiffs’ claims without prejudice to re-filing individual actions.  After the named plaintiff subsequently settled his individual claim, three opt-in plaintiffs sought to appeal the district court’s decision.

The Third Circuit held the opt-in plaintiffs lacked the right to appeal, because they were no longer “parties” after the collective action claims were dismissed. The opt-in plaintiffs retained the right to pursue their own individual claims, but they had no right to pursue an appeal from the named plaintiff’s individual final judgment.  The court held that, “[b]y consenting to join Halle’s collective action, these opt-in plaintiffs ceded to Halle the ability to act on their behalf in all matters, including the ability to pursue this appeal.”

In reaching this decision, the Third Circuit engaged in an extensive analysis of the “fundamental question arising from the procedural history of this case: just what is a ‘collective action’ under the FLSA?” Unlike a class action brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, where all putative class members are bound by the court’s ruling unless they affirmatively “opt out” of the case, “the existence of a collective action depends upon the affirmative participation of opt-in plaintiffs.”  As the Third Circuit noted, “[t]his difference means that every plaintiff who opts in to a collective action has party status, whereas unnamed class members in Rule 23 class actions do not,” prompting “the as-yet unanswered question of what ‘party status’ means in a collective action.”

The court’s analysis of this issue, while tangential to Halle’s holding, highlights the tension inherent in the language of FLSA § 216(b), which, according to the Third Circuit, “raises more questions than it provides answers.  While the first sentence [of § 216(b)] sounds in representational terms (to proceed ‘in behalf of’ others ‘similarly situated’), the second sentence refers to those who file consents as ‘party plaintiffs,’ seeming to imply that all who affirmatively choose to become participants have an equal, individual stake in the proceeding.”  This tension is particularly significant with regard to defendants’ discovery rights in a collective action.

Under Rule 33 and Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, in the absence of any court-imposed limits, a party may serve interrogatories and document requests “on any other party.”  Based on this language, and FLSA § 216(b)’s designation of individuals who opt in to a collective action as “party plaintiffs,” arguably a defendant in a collective action should be entitled to serve discovery requests on each individual who opts in to the litigation, unless the court orders otherwise.  Despite this fact, the Third Circuit noted that, “[f]requently,” discovery in collective actions “focuses on the named plaintiffs and a subset of the collective group,” a limitation that may hinder defendants’ ability to present individualized defenses that may not be applicable to all opt-in plaintiffs.

While the Third Circuit did not fully resolve the question of what it means to be a “party plaintiff,” two aspects of the Halle decision may prove helpful to defendants seeking to assert their right to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a collective action.  First, as noted above, the Third Circuit emphasized that each opt-in plaintiff “has party status.”  This language, when read in conjunction with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding the scope of discovery, should support defendants’ right to seek discovery from “any other party,” including all opt-in plaintiffs.

Second, in holding that the opt-in plaintiffs had no right to appeal a final judgment involving the named plaintiff, the court emphasized the importance of “the language of their opt-in consent forms, which handed over all litigation authority to named plaintiff.” The Third Circuit noted that courts often rely on the language of the opt-in consent form “to determine which rights opt-in plaintiffs delegated to the named plaintiffs.”  Based on this guidance, defendants may wish to propose including language in the opt-in consent form stating that individuals who join the collective action may be required to provide documents and information, sit for depositions, and/or testify at trial.  Such language may help demonstrate that the opt-in plaintiffs were meant to be treated as active parties to the litigation, with the same rights and obligations as named plaintiffs.

While a court may ultimately exercise its discretion to impose limits on the scope of discovery, particularly in collective actions with a large putative class, the Third Circuit’s analysis in Halle may prove useful to defendants seeking support for their argument that they should be entitled to obtain discovery from each opt-in plaintiff.

By Michael Kun

Much has already been written about last week’s California Supreme Court decision in Duran v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, a greatly anticipated ruling that will have a substantial impact upon wage-hour class actions in California for years to come.  Much more will be written about the decision as attorneys digest it, as parties rely on it in litigation, and as the courts attempt to apply it.

In a lengthy and unanimous opinion, the California Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s decision to reverse a $15 million trial award in favor of a class of employees who claimed they had been misclassified as exempt, and to decertify the class.  How the$15 million award had been obtained in the first place has been the subject of much discussion and more than a bit of ridicule.  In short, the trial court had tried the case by essentially pulling names from a hat to determine which class members would be able to testify at trial, with the defendant precluded from presenting evidence as to other employees.  The California Supreme Court described this approach as a “miscarriage of justice.”   It then discussed in great length whether, when and how statistical sampling could be used in these cases, among other things.

Already, both the plaintiffs’ bar and the defense bar are claiming that the Supreme Court’s decision is a victory for them.

Because the Supreme Court did not foreclose the possibility that statistical evidence could be used to establish liability in these types of cases – instead, it recognized that “[s]tatistical sampling may provide an appropriate means of proving liability and damages in some wage and hour class actions” —  the plaintiffs’ bar is claiming victory.  To the extent they contend that Duran allows the use of statistical evidence to prove liability, they are ignoring the most important word in that sentence – “may” – along with the various caveats laid out by the Court.

Because the Supreme Court explained that the process must allow an employer to impeach the statistical model and litigate its affirmative defenses, and that there must be “glue” holding claims together beyond statistical evidence, the defense bar is likewise claiming victory.  But even they must admit that it is not the death blow to wage-hour class actions that they may have hoped for.

In truth, Duran is a unusual decision in that it provides more than a few quotes for plaintiffs’ lawyers and defense lawyers alike to rely on.

Ultimately, the most important language in Duran may be this: “A trial plan that relies on statistical sampling must be developed with expert input and must afford the defendant an opportunity to impeach the model or otherwise show its liability is reduced.”

What does this mean?

It means that some trial plans based on statistical sampling may be approved.

And it means that some trial plans based on statistical sampling may not be approved.

It means that a trial court’s analysis will turn, at least in part, on whether the employer will be able to impeach the model and show that it does not work.

And it means that, more than ever, these cases are going to require the parties to retain expert witnesses, and whether classes will be certified will turn on those expert witnesses.  Remember, the Court did not just say that a trial plan that relies on statistical sampling might be appropriate.  No, it said that such a trial plan “developed with expert input” might be appropriate.

The result of all of this is that, with the plaintiffs’ bar now emboldened because the door has not been shut on the use of statistical evidence on liability, employers may face even more wage-hour class actions in California than before.

And statistical experts can go buy those new houses, cars and boats they’ve been eyeing because their services will be in greater demand than ever.  They are the real victors in this decision.

By: Kara M. Maciel

The following is a selection from the Firm’s October Take 5 Views You Can Use which discusses recent developments in wage hour law.

  1. IRS Will Begin Taxing a Restaurant’s Automatic Gratuities as Service Charges

Many restaurants include automatic gratuities on the checks of guests with large parties to ensure that servers get fair tips. This method allows the restaurant to calculate an amount into the total bill, but it takes away a customer’s discretion in choosing whether and/or how much to tip the server. As a result of this removal of a customer’s voluntary act, the Internal Revenue Service (“IRS”) will begin classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, taxed like regular wages, beginning in January 2014.

This change is expected to be problematic for restaurants because the new treatment of automatic gratuities will complicate payroll accounting. Each restaurant will be required to factor automatic gratuities into the hourly wage of the employee, meaning the employee’s regular rate of pay could vary from day to day, thus adding a potential complication to overtime payments. Furthermore, because restaurants pay Social Security and Medicaid taxes on the amount that its employees claim in tips, restaurants are eligible for an income-tax credit for some or all of these payments. Classifying automatic gratuities as service charges, however, would lower that possible income-tax credit.

Considering that the IRS’s ruling could disadvantage servers as well, restaurants may now want to consider eliminating the use of automatic gratuities. Otherwise, employees could come under greater scrutiny in reporting their tips as a result of this ruling. Furthermore, these tips would be treated as wages, meaning upfront withholding of federal taxes and delayed access to tip earnings until payday.

Some restaurants, including several in New York City, have begun doing away with tips all together. These restaurants have replaced the practice of tipping with either a surcharge or increased food prices that include the cost of service. They can then afford to pay their servers a higher wage per hour in lieu of receiving tips. This is another way for restaurants to ensure that employees receive a sufficient wage, while simultaneously removing the regulatory burdens that a tip-system may impose.

  1. The New DOL Secretary, Tom Perez, Spells Out the WHD’s Enforcement Agenda

On September 4, 2013, the new U.S. Secretary of Labor, Tom Perez, was sworn in. During his remarks, Secretary Perez outlined several priorities for the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”), including addressing pay equity for women, individuals with disabilities, and veterans; raising the minimum wage; and fixing the “broken” immigration system.

Most notably, and unsurprisingly, Secretary Perez emphasized the enforcement work of the Wage and Hour Division (“WHD”). Just last year, the WHD again obtained a record amount—$280 million—in back-pay for workers. Employers can expect to see continued aggressive enforcement efforts from the WHD in 2013 and 2014 on areas such as worker misclassification, overtime pay, and off-the-clock work. In fact, Secretary Perez stated in his swearing-in speech that “when we protect workers with sensible safety regulations, or when we address the fraud of worker misclassification, employers who play by the rules come out ahead.” By increasing its investigative workforce by over 40 percent since 2008, the WHD has had more time and resources to undertake targeted investigation initiatives in addition to investigations resulting from complaints, and that trend should continue.

  1. DOL Investigates Health Care Provider and Obtains $4 Million Settlement for Overtime Payments

On September 16, 2013, the DOL announced that Harris Health System (“Harris”), a Houston health care provider of emergency, outpatient, and inpatient medical services, had agreed to pay more than $4 million in back wages and damages to approximately 4,500 current and former employees for violations of the overtime and recordkeeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The DOL made this announcement after the WHD completed a more than two-year investigation into the company’s payment system, prompted by claims that employees were not being fully compensated.

Under the FLSA, employers typically must pay their non-exempt employees an overtime premium of time-and-one-half their regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours in a workweek. Employers within the health care industry have special overtime rules. Notably, for all employers, an employee’s “regular rate of pay” is not necessarily the same as his or her hourly rate of pay. Rather, an employee’s “regular rate of pay” includes an employee’s “total remuneration” for that week, which consists of both the employee’s hourly rate as well as any non-discretionary forms of payment, such as commissions, bonuses, and incentive pay. The FLSA dictates that an employee’s “regular rate” of pay is then determined by dividing the employee’s total remuneration for the week by the number of hours worked that week.

The DOL’s investigation concluded that Harris had failed to: (i) include incentive pay when determining its employees’ regular rate of pay for overtime purposes, and (ii) maintain proper overtime records. As a result, Harris owed its employees a total of $2.06 million in back wages and another $2.06 million in liquidated damages.

Because an employee’s “total remuneration” for a workweek may consist of various forms of compensation, employers must consistently evaluate and assess their payment structures and payroll systems to determine the payments that must be included in an employee’s overtime calculations beyond just the hourly wage. Additionally, employers should conduct periodic audits to ensure that they are maintaining full and accurate records of all hours worked by every employee.

  1. Federal Court Strikes Down DOL Tip Pooling Rule

In 2011, the WHD enacted a strict final rule related to proper tip pooling and service charge practices. This final rule was met with swift legal challenges, and, this summer, the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon (“District Court”) concluded that the DOL had exceeded its authority when implementing its final rule. See Oregon Rest. and Lodging Assn. v. Solis, No. 3:12-cv-01261 (D. Or. June 7, 2013).

Inconsistent interpretations of the FLSA among various appellate courts have created confusion for both employers and courts regarding the applicability of valid tip pools. One of the most controversial interpretations of the FLSA occurred in early 2010, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that an employer could require servers to pool their tips with non-tipped kitchen and other “back of the house staff,” so long as a tip credit was not taken and the servers were paid minimum wage. See Cumbie v. Woody Woo, Inc., 596 F.3d 577 (9th Cir. 2010). According to the Ninth Circuit, nothing in the text of the FLSA restricted tip pooling arrangements when no tip credit was taken; therefore, because the employer did not take a tip credit, the tip pooling arrangement did not violate the FLSA.

In 2011, the DOL issued regulations that directly conflicted with the holding in Woody Woo. As a result, employers could no longer require mandatory tip pooling with back-of-the-house employees. In conjunction with this announcement, the DOL issued an advisory memo directing its field offices nationwide, including those within the Ninth Circuit, to enforce its final rule prohibiting mandatory tip pools that include such employees who do not customarily and regularly receive tips.

Shortly after the issuance of the DOL’s final rule, hospitality groups filed a lawsuit against the DOL challenging the agency’s regulations that exclude back-of-the-house restaurant workers from employer-mandated tip pools. The lawsuit sought to declare the DOL regulations unlawful and inapplicable to restaurants that pay employees who share the tips at least the federal or applicable state minimum wage with no tip credit. On June 10, 2013, the District Court granted the plaintiffs’ summary judgment motion, holding that the DOL exceeded its authority by issuing regulations on tip pooling in restaurants. The District Court stated that the language of Section 203(m) of the FLSA is clear and unambiguous; it only imposes conditions on employers that take a tip credit.

The District Court’s decision may have a large impact on the tip pool discussion currently before courts across the country, especially if employers in the restaurant and hospitality industries begin to challenge the DOL’s regulations. Given the District Court’s implicit message encouraging legal challenges against the DOL, the status of the law regarding tip pooling is more uncertain than ever. Although the decision is a victory for employers in the restaurant and hospitality industry, given the aggressive nature of the DOL, employers in all circuits should still be extremely careful when instituting mandatory tip pool arrangements, regardless of whether a tip credit is being taken.

  1. Take Preventative Steps When Facing WHD Audits

In response to a WHD audit or inspection, here are several preventative and proactive measures that an employer can take to prepare itself prior to, during, and after the audit:

  • Prior to any notice of a WHD inspection, employers should develop and implement a comprehensive wage and hour program designed to prevent and resolve wage hour issues at an early stage. For example, employers should closely examine job descriptions to ensure that they reflect the work performed, review time-keeping systems, develop a formal employee grievance program for reporting and resolving wage and hour concerns, and confirm that all written time-keeping policies and procedures are current, accurate, and obeyed. Employers should also conduct regular self-audits with in-house or outside legal counsel (to protect the audit findings under the attorney-client privilege) and ensure that they address all recommendations immediately.
  • During a DOL investigation, employers should feel comfortable to assert their rights, including requesting 72 hours to comply with any investigative demand, requesting that interviews and on-site inspection take place at reasonable times, participating in the opening and closing conferences, protecting trade secrets and confidential business information, and escorting the investigator while he or she is at the workplace.
  • If an investigator wants to conduct a tour of an employer’s facility, an employer representative should escort the investigator at all times while on-site. While an investigator may speak with hourly employees, the employer may object to any impromptu, on-site interview that lasts more than five minutes on the grounds that it disrupts normal business operations.
  • If the DOL issues a finding of back wages following an investigation, employers should consider several options. First, an employer can pay the amount without question and accept the DOL’s findings. Second, an employer can resolve disputed findings and negotiate reduced amounts at an informal settlement conference with the investigator or his or her supervisor. Third, an employer can contest the findings and negotiate a formal settlement with the DOL’s counsel. Finally, an employer may contest the findings, prepare a defense, and proceed to trial in court.

In addition, employers should review our WHD Investigation Checklist, which can help them ensure that they have thought through all essential wage and hour issues prior to becoming the target of a DOL investigation or private lawsuit.

Following these simple measures could significantly reduce an employer’s exposure under the FLSA and similar state wage and hour laws.

by John F. Fullerton III

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently took a significant step toward bringing uniformity to the law of class and collective action waivers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). 

In Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, the court held that employees can be contractually compelled to arbitrate their claims on an individual basis, and thereby waive their right to participate in a FLSA collective action. The decision is another in a series of cases that have required employees to arbitrate employment-related claims on an individual basis when they have clearly agreed to do so.

A little background is in order. In its 2011 decision in AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, the U.S. Supreme Court held that, under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), states must enforce arbitration agreements even when the agreement requires individual, and not class action, arbitration. The Court found that states may not apply generally applicable contract defenses, such as unconscionability,” in a way that “disfavors arbitration.” 

Foreshadowing the direction of the law on this issue, in March of this year, the Second Circuit in Parisi v. Goldman, Sachs & Co., reversed a district court decision that had held that an employment agreement’s express “preclusion of class arbitration would make it impossible for [plaintiff] to arbitrate a Title VII pattern-or-practice claim, and that consequently, the clause effectively operated as a waiver of a substantive right under Title VII.” The court noted a few exceptions to the liberal policy favoring arbitration, in which the costs associated with the actions are prohibitive and preclude plaintiffs from bringing such claims. This is known as the “effective vindication” doctrine. The court observed that the doctrine was inapplicable in employment discrimination litigation.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in American Express Co. v. Italian Color Restaurant, which addressed the issue of whether the “effective vindication” doctrine precluded class arbitration waivers in the antitrust context where expert testimony is required and therefore, it was argued, would be prohibitively expensive for individuals to pursue without the availability of class arbitration. The Court held that the FAA does not permit courts to invalidate a contractual waiver of class arbitration on the ground that the plaintiff’s cost of individually arbitrating a federal statutory claim exceeds the potential recovery.

That brings us to Sutherland, and the question of whether these legal developments that apply to other types of class actions apply equally to FLSA collective actions, where the amounts at issue for each individual member of the potential class may indeed be much smaller than in a typical discrimination case. As a condition of employment, Sutherland had agreed to “binding arbitration … on an individual basis only.” She later filed a collective action under the FLSA. 

In its pre-Concepcion decision, the district court invalidated the agreement because plaintiff demonstrated that the waiver essentially resulted in her inability to assert the claims. The court reasoned that Sutherland, because of the small amount of potential individual recovery, (a) would not pursue her claims individually provided the high costs of litigation and (b) would be unable to obtain legal representation for such a small claim, which could be obtained on a class basis. 

Post-Concepcion, the employer moved for reconsideration, but the motion was denied. The court reasoned that the applicability of Concepcion was a “close question” but reconfirmed its view that Sutherland was unable to vindicate her rights on an individual basis. That decision was in conflict with other district court decisions within the Second Circuit under the FLSA, which had found that Concepcion was contrary to any argument that an absolute right to collective action is consistent with the FAA, and instead concluded that plaintiffs could be required to pursue their claims on an individual basis in arbitration. 

The Second Circuit has now subscribed to the same view, finding that the reasoning of the Supreme Court’s decision in Italian Colors abrogated the district court’s basis for invalidating the collective action waiver at issue. The court observed that there was no “contrary congressional command” requiring class-wide arbitration in the FLSA context, and that the recent Supreme Court decisions on class waivers pointed to the same conclusion. The court noted that a substantial majority of circuit and district courts had already concluded that the FLSA does not preclude the waiver of collective action claims. 

Pursuing FLSA claims in a collective action is not a “right;” it is a contractually waivable procedural mechanism that does not prevent an individual from effectively vindicating his or her claims for unpaid overtime wages on an individual basis through arbitration. The Second Circuit’s Sutherland decision therefore opens the door further to employers to draft broad class and collective action waivers in their handbooks and employment agreements that include FLSA claims and require such claims to be pursued in individual arbitrations.

By Michael Kun

“Hybrid” wage-hour class actions are by no means a new concept. 

In a “hybrid” class action, the named plaintiff files suit seeking to represent classes under both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and state wage-hour laws.  As the potential recovery and limitations periods for these claims are often very different, so, too, are the mechanisms used for each. 

In FLSA claims, where classes can be “conditionally certified” if a plaintiff satisfies a relatively low burden of establishing that class members are “similarly situated” – a phrase nowhere defined in the statute – only those persons who affirmatively “opt in” to the lawsuit become class members.  In state wage-hour claims, governed by Federal Rule 23 (or a state law equivalent), a plaintiff generally must satisfy a higher standard – establishing numerosity, commonality, typicality, adequacy and superiority – and, if a class is certified, only those persons who affirmatively “opt out” are removed from the class.

The differences between these two mechanisms can be confusing even for lawyers, particularly in “hybrid” class actions where both are used simultaneously.  It is not difficult to understand how class members would find such proceedings even more confusing, especially if they receive notices telling them how to “opt in” to one type of wage-hour class and “opt out” of another, where the claims themselves sound identical to a layperson.  If class members wish to participate in both classes, they need to figure out that they must “opt in” to the FLSA class and do nothing as to the state law class.  And if they wish to participate in neither, they need to figure out that they should do nothing as to the FLSA class, yet “opt out” of the state class.  Anyone who has every received a class notice in the mail knows that, try as the court and parties might, those notices can be as difficult to navigate as trying to read the instructions for assembling a new bicycle. 

Because of the differences between the two mechanisms, the way the claims proceed under them, and the potential confusion, some employers have successfully argued that the two mechanisms were incompatible – a plaintiff had to choose whether to pursue federal or state law claims.  However, the circuit courts around the country have increasingly weighed in, ruling that the claims are not incompatible and that plaintiffs may pursue “hybrid” class actions.  Now, the Ninth Circuit has joined the chorus, issuing an opinion in Busk v. Integrity Staffing in which it determined that federal and state wage-hour claims may “peacefully co-exist” in the same action.

Unless and until the Supreme Court weighs in with a different opinion, it would seem that they “hybrid” class action is here to stay.  For employers, that means increased potential exposure in wage-hour class actions as plaintiffs can and will pursue both federal and state claims in the same action.  And it also means increased litigation activities, as parties in “hybrid” class actions normally will deal with two separate sets of class certification briefing – one on the FLSA claims, one on the state law claims – as well as two notices if classes are certified on each. 

The upside for employers?  To the extent there is one, it is that the inclusion of the FLSA claim ensures that the case can be removed to federal court at the outset.           

by Stuart Gerson

In Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, the Unites States Supreme Court held that a collective action under the FLSA was properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction after the named plaintiff ignored the employer’s Fed. R. Civ. P. 68 offer of judgment. The Court concluded that the plaintiff had no personal interest in representing putative, unnamed claimants, nor did she have any other continuing interest that would preserve her suit from mootness.

The plaintiff’s collective action was originally filed in District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and the employer made an offer of judgment that would have fully satisfied the plaintiff’s individual claim before any other claimants joined the case. Although the plaintiff did not respond to the offer of judgment, the District Court dismissed the case as moot.

The Third Circuit reversed and held that, while the plaintiff’s individual claim was moot, her collective action could go forward on the theory that a defendant should not be allowed to “pick off” named plaintiffs and thereby avoid certification of a collective action. 

The Supreme Court stated that the Courts of Appeals disagree over whether a Rule 68 offer that fully satisfies a plaintiff’s individual claim renders that plaintiff’s claim moot even if the offer is not accepted. However, the plaintiff in Symczyk had conceded that issue below. The Supreme Court therefore assumed (but did decide) that the plaintiff’s individual claim was moot even though she had not accepted the offer of judgment.

Distinguishing several cases with regard to headless classes being able to go forward where a named plaintiff’s case becomes moot, Justice Thomas, writing for a 5-4 majority (a straight conservative/liberal breakout) reversed the Circuit, holding that well-settled mootness principles control and that when the named plaintiff’s suit became moot (because the ignored Rule 68 motion covered all of her interests, including attorneys’ fees), she had no personal interest remaining that would allow her to represent others.

In so doing, the Supreme Court’s majority opined that while under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, a putative class acquires an independent legal status once it is certified, no such independent status is conferred by” conditional certification” under the FLSA.

You may recall that I recently blogged about the Court’s decision in the Comcast case, suggesting that it presented a useful precedent that could be employed, not just in Rule 23 cases, but under the FLSA’s collective action jurisprudence, to require a court to hear merits arguments prior to certification and rule on standing then.  In fact, the Court’s decision today not only punctuates that view, it suggests that the FLSA allows for more stringent analysis of standing, even after “conditional certification.”

By Douglas Weiner

Last month, we released our Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist for employers and have received terrific feedback with additional questions. Following up on your questions, we will be regularly posting FAQs as a regular feature of our Wage & Hour Defense Blog.

In this post, we address an increasingly common issue that many employers are facing in light of aggressive government enforcement at the state and federal level from the Department of Labor.

QUESTION: If a DOL team of Wage Hour Investigators arrive unannounced demanding the immediate production of payroll and tax records and access to employees for confidential interviews what should we do?

ANSWER: An unannounced arrival to investigate signals some adverse information has been submitted to the DOL concerning your wage and hour practices from either an employee complaint or referral from another law enforcement agency such as a state or federal taxing authority, or even possibly from a competitor or labor union. Effectively managing the investigation from the very beginning is essential to obtaining the best possible results. First, advise the leader of the DOL’s investigation team that you are contacting your designated wage and hour representative  to promptly arrive to provide the investigators with assistance. Courteously direct the investigation team to a comfortable but secure location such as a conference room where normal business operations will not be disrupted.

Upon arrival, our practice is to verify the credentials of the investigators, and conduct an opening conference to ascertain the purpose and focus of the investigation. Our immediate goal is to engage the DOL in a discussion to learn what they are seeking. Clarifying the specific focus of the DOL’s inquiry enhances initial communication, and allows narrowly tailored responses. For clarity, we ask the DOL to provide written requests for documents and employee interviews. Reminding the DOL the employer has the right to cooperate with the investigation in a manner that does not disrupt normal business operations, we ascertain from our client and discuss with the DOL an acceptable protocol for the conduct of the investigation.

Upon ascertaining the specific focus of the investigation, we advise the DOL we understand what they seek, and propose continuing the investigation in a few days after the identified documents have been gathered (and internally reviewed). We invite the investigators to our firm’s conference rooms where payroll records and other documents may be inspected without returning to our client’s facilities. If the lead investigator is unreasonable in demanding immediate access to records and employees, we consider requiring the DOL to obtain a subpoena. If possible it is preferable to establish an agreed protocol to an investigation to avoid giving the DOL reason to believe you have something to hide, the loss of control over the scope of the investigation and the benefits of good faith cooperation.

In sum, we suggest three things to do, and three things not to do:

Do:

1.      Notify your representative immediately.

2.      Allow your representative to take control of the management of the DOL’s investigation.

3.      Maintain a courteous and forthright demeanor until your representative arrives.

Do not:

1.      Ask if the investigation has been prompted by a complaint.

2.      Ask the DOL to identify a complainant.

3.      Allow immediate inspection of records or employee interviews to take place before your representative has arrived or an opening conference has been conducted.

* * * * * * * * * *

In subsequent FAQs, we will discuss in more detail a protocol to produce documents, and what information your wage-hour representative needs to respond to DOL audits, whether scheduled or surprise. But, in the meantime, regular internal reviews and audits of your wage and hour practices and documentation is key to protecting against costly exposure from a government investigation.

Be sure to check out our Wage and Hour Division Investigation Checklist for more helpful tips and advice about preparing for and managing a Wage Hour Inspection.

By Michael Kun

As we have written before in this space,  the latest wave of class actions in California is one alleging that employers have not complied with obscure requirements requiring the provision of “suitable seating” to employees – and that employees are entitled to significant penalties as a result.

The “suitable seating” provisions are buried so deep in Wage Orders that most plaintiffs’ attorneys were not even aware of them until recently.  Importantly, they do not require all employers to provide seats to all employees.  Instead, they provide that employers shall provide “suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” 

Because the “suitable seating” provisions were so obscure, there is scant case law or other analysis for employers to refer to in determining whether, when and how to provide seats to particular employees.  Among other things, the most important phrases in the provisions – “suitable seats” and “nature of the work” – are nowhere defined.  While those terms would seem to suggest that an employer’s goals and expectations must be taken into consideration – including efficiency, effectiveness and the image the employer wishes to project – plaintiffs’ counsel have not unexpectedly argued that such issues are irrelevant.  They have argued that if a job can be done while seated, a seat must be provided. 

The first “suitable seating” case has gone to finally gone to trial in United States District Court for the Northern District of California.  The decision issued after a bench trial in Garvey v. Kmart Corporation is a victory for Kmart Corporation on claims that it unlawfully failed to provide seats to its cashiers at one of its California stores.  The decision sheds some light on the scope and meaning of the “suitable seating” provisions.  But it also may provide some guidance to plaintiffs’ counsel on arguments to make in future cases. 

Addressing the “suitable seating” issue at Kmart’s Tulare, California store, the court rejected plaintiffs’ counsel’s arguments that Kmart was required to redesign its cashier and bagging areas in order to provide seats.  Importantly, the court recognized that Kmart has a “genuine customer-service rationale for requiring its cashiers to stand”:  “Kmart has every right to be concerned with efficiency – and the appearance of efficiency – of its checkout service.”  That concern is one likely shared by many employers. 

In reaching its decision, the court expressed concern not only about safety, but also about the cashiers’ ability to project a “ready-to-assist attitude”: “Each time the cashier were to rise or sit, the adjustment exercise itself would telegraph a message to those in line, namely a message that the convenience of employees comes first.”  The court further explained:  “In order to avoid inconveniencing a seated cashier, moreover, customers might themselves feel obligated to move larger and bulkier merchandise along the counter, a task Kmart wants its cashiers to do in the interest of good customer service.” 

While recognizing that image, customer service and efficiency goals must all be taken into consideration in determining whether seating must be provided, the court then appeared to provide some guidance to plaintiffs.  The court addressed the possibility that these issues could be addressed through the use of “lean-stools.”  Acknowledging that the use of “lean-stools” had not been developed at trial, the court invited arguments about them at the trial of “suitable seating” claims for the next Kmart store.  Thus, while expressly refusing to decide whether Kmart employees should have been provide “lean-stools,” the court may have provided plaintiffs’ counsel with an important argument to make in future trials.

And, as a result, employers in California – particularly in the hospitality and retail industries – should now be expected to address whether they could or should be providing “lean-stools” to employees whom they expect to stand during their jobs. 

By Michael Kun

Employers with operations in California have become aware in recent years of an obscure provision in California Wage Orders that requires “suitable seating” for some employees.  Not surprisingly, many became aware of this provision through the great many class action lawsuits filed by plaintiffs’ counsel who also just discovered the provision.  The law on this issue is scant.  However, at least two pending cases should clarify whether and when employers must provide seats – a case against Bank of America that is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal, and a case against K-Mart that is now being tried in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

The wave of representative and class action lawsuits alleging that employers failed to provide suitable seating in violation of Labor Code § 1198 and Wage Orders was triggered by the Court of Appeal ruling in Bright v. 99 Cents Only Stores, 189 Cal.App.4th 1472 (2010), permitting “suitable seating” claims to proceed under California Private Attorney General Act.    

Prior to that ruling, “suitable seating” lawsuits were few and far between.   All it took was a single published opinion to let the plaintiffs’ bar know about this potential claim and to begin to seek plaintiffs to bring these claims against their employers.

Importantly, the seating provisions of the Wage Orders do not require all employers to provide seating to all employees.  Instead, the provisions state that “[a]ll working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.”

As the former Chief Deputy Labor Commissioner explained in 1986, these seating provisions were “originally established to cover situations where the work is usually performed in a sitting position with machinery, tools or other equipment.  It was not intended to cover those positions where the duties require employees to be on their feet, such as salespersons in the mercantile industry.”

In Green v. Bank of America, the district court relied upon this opinion in dismissing a putative “suitable seating” class action with prejudice, holding that an employer need only give seats to individuals who request them – and there was no allegation in the complaint that any employee had requested a seat.  That decision is now on review before the Ninth Circuit, which presumably will determine what “provide” means in the context of the “suitable seating” requirements.  The Court may well look to the California Supreme Court’s Brinker v. Superior Court decision for guidance on that issue.  There, in the context of requirements that employers “provide” meal and rest periods to employees, the California Supreme Court determined that “provide” means that the employer make the meal and rest periods available, but need not ensure they are taken.  That would suggest that, in the “suitable seating” context, an employer must make seats available to appropriate employees, but need not ensure they take them.  That, of course, would beg the question of who is entitled to seats in the first place.

The “suitable seating” trial relating to K-Mart’s cashiers that has commenced in San Francisco – Garvey v. Kmart — promises to look at that and other issues.  Among other things, that trial should address the impact employers’ expectations and preferences have upon whether “the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.”

Plaintiffs in “suitable seating” cases normally argue that a seat must be provided if the job “could” be done seated.  Of course, that is not what the Wage Orders state.  Many jobs “could” be done while seated.  Whether they can be done as well while seated is a different issue entirely.  (One is reminded of the famous Seinfeld episode where George Costanza insisted on getting a rocking chair for a jewelry store security guard; the guard then fell asleep as the store was robbed right in front of him.)

Among other things, employers in the hospitality and retail industries often wish to have persons in some positions standing in order to make eye contact with customers, establish a relationship with them and be in the best position to assist them.  It is too easy for customers to ignore someone who is seated, or not even notice that person.  The Kmart trial should provide some guidance as to whether such expectations and preferences are to be given weight.

These two cases should provide some much needed clarity as to whether and when seats must be provided to certain employees.  In the meantime, employers would be wise to let employees know whether and why certain jobs are expected to be performed while standing.

By Frederick Dawkins and Douglas Weiner

Earlier this month, at the ABA Labor and Employment Law Conference, Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith reaffirmed that investigating independent contractors as misclassified remains a top priority of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) enforcement initiatives.  The DOL will continue to work with other federal and state agencies, including the IRS, to share information and jointly investigate claims of worker misclassification.  The joint enforcement effort is certainly driven by, among other things, an interest in collecting unpaid tax revenue, and could result in significant liability to employers.

In addition to potential liability resulting from strengthened federal enforcement initiatives, in previous blog posts, we have emphasized that misclassification could become the subject of the next wave of class and collective actions, particularly in view of states enacting new legislation providing for higher penalties.  Further, the re-election of President Obama may augur the re-emergence of the Employee Misclassification Prevention Act, would require employers to keep records of all workers performing labor or services for them, and to notify each worker of their classification and exemption status.  Finally, the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) adds yet another challenge to employee misclassifications as the reclassification of workers from independent contractors to employees could push an employer over the 50 full-time employee threshold for ACA coverage.

The expenses of  misclassification are often significant – including calculations of unpaid overtime wages, back employment taxes, income tax withholdings, unpaid workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance premiums, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, and perhaps 401K matching and pension contributions.

In short, over the next four years of the Obama Administration, which will continue to fund the DOL’s aggressive enforcement efforts, it is undeniable that contractor misclassification investigations will continue to increase in volume and strength.  Employers are best advised to scrutinize their own independent contractor classifications in self-audits before federal and state investigators, or perhaps even worse, plaintiffs’ class action lawyers target what had been common practices.