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.

Berger v. National Collegiate Athletic Association,
No. 14-cv-1710 (7th Cir. Dec. 5, 2016)

Colleges and universities, at least in the jurisdiction of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, surely breathed a collective sigh of relief earlier this month when the Court held that student athletes were not employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and thus were not entitled to minimum wage.

Former student athletes at the University of Pennsylvania sued Penn, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”) and over 120 other colleges and universities that have Division I (the division that covers the largest schools) athletic programs, arguing that student athletes were employees entitled to the minimum wage. Interestingly, the court declined to use any of the multi-factor tests to resolve the issue because those tests would not capture the true nature of the relationship.

Instead, the court relied on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Field Operations Handbook, which indicates that students who participate in extracurricular activities are not employees of the school. In addition, the court took a common sense approach and recognized that college athletes participate in these programs for reasons wholly unrelated to immediate compensation and without any expectation of earning an income. Viewing student athletes as employees also would undermine what the court recognized as a “revered tradition of amateurism in college sports.”

Thus, the Seventh Circuit has added one more nail to the coffin of student athletes as employees. While some may argue that large colleges and universities should share some of the significant income they receive from football and other well attended games with the student athletes, that could signal a slide down a slippery slope. If student athletes were considered employees, what about student actors, orchestra members and any other students involved in extracurricular activities where performances mandate an admission fee? And in the last analysis, students receive a variety of non-economic benefits that distinguish these activities from “employment” within the meaning of the FLSA.

Julie Badel
Julie Badel

Addressing an unusual set of facts, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia has dismissed a suit challenging an employer’s practice of retaining tips that customers give to valets. The plaintiff in Malivuk v. Ameripark, No. 1:15:cv-2570 WSD (N.D. Ga. 2016), alleged that she was promised an hourly wage plus tips but that her employer, who provided valet parking services, retained a portion of the tips.

The defendant moved to dismiss the case because the plaintiff did not allege that the company took a tip credit against the minimum wage or in any other way did not pay the minimum wage. The court agreed and dismissed the case, relying on section 203(m) of the FLSA, which provides that an employer must pay a cash wage but if that wage is less than the federal minimum wage, it can make up the difference with the employee’s tips.  If the cash wages plus the tips are not sufficient to amount to the minimum wage, the employer must increase the cash wages so the employee is paid the minimum.

In its ruling, the court declined to follow a recent Ninth Circuit case, Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Ass’n v. Perez, 816 F.23d 1080 (9th Cir. 2016), that upheld a DOL regulation that most courts have rejected.  This regulation, 29 C.F.R. §531.52, provides that tips are the property of the employee, whether or not the employer takes a tip credit.  The Ameripark court reasoned that if Congress wanted to articulate the principal that tips are the property of the employee, absent a valid tip pool, it could have done so without reference to the tip credit, and it concluded that the DOL regulation violates the plain language of section 203(m).

Conclusion

Although it would seem that employers in industries where employees customarily receive tips normally take a tip credit unless otherwise prohibited by state or local laws, Ameripark suggests that if an employer does not take a tip credit, it may retain a portion of the employees’ tips—at least in the jurisdiction of this federal court.  Of course, other courts may hold to the contrary.  Employers considering adopting such an approach would be wise to review whether the courts in their jurisdictions have weighed in on this subject, or whether such a practice could give rise to other types of claims.  And while the practice might be attractive to employers in some industries where employees receive significant tips, restaurant employers in particular might find it hard to recruit and retain servers to work once they are told that the restaurant will be keeping a portion of the tips.

US Supreme CourtOn March 22, 2016, the United States Supreme Court issued its much anticipated decision in Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, a donning and doffing case in which a class of employees had been awarded $2.9 million following a 2011 jury trial that relied on statistical evidence. (A subsequent liquidated damages award brought the total to $5.8 million.)

In a 6-2 opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed that award.  While the Supreme Court’s decision may not have been the outcome many were expecting, the Court did not issue a broad ruling regarding the use of statistical evidence in class actions, and the decision may prove to have limited application.

In 2007, Tyson Foods employees at a meat processing facility in Iowa filed suit under both state law and the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), alleging that they were not paid overtime for the time spent donning and doffing protective gear.  Because Tyson Foods did not have records of the amount of time employees actually spent in those activities, employees’ filled the “evidentiary gap” at through the presentation of representative evidence. This included not only employee testimony and video recordings, but, most importantly, an expert study showing the average time employees spent in such activities as observed by the expert.

In seeking to reverse the jury award, Tyson Foods argued to both the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court that the amount of time spent donning and doffing varied from person to person – and that some persons did not work sufficient time to be entitled to overtime in any event – such that individualized issues predominated over common ones. And Tyson Foods argued that the use of statistical evidence presented it from presenting individualized defenses.

In making these and other arguments, Tyson Foods sought a broad ruling prohibiting the use of statistical evidence in class actions. The Supreme Court rejected that request, concluding that such a rule would “reach too far.” And it explained that its landmark 2011 Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision “does not stand for the broad proposition that a representative sample is an impermissible means of establishing class-wide liability.”

Instead, the Supreme Court held that a “representative or statistical sample, like all evidence, is a means to establish or defend against liability. Its permissibility turns not on the form a proceeding takes — be it a class or individual action — but on the degree to which the evidence is reliable in proving or disproving the elements of the relevant cause of action.” It further explained, “Whether and when statistical evidence can be used to establish classwide liability will depend on the purpose for which the evidence is being introduced and on ‘the elements of the underlying cause of action’ . . . .”

Under the facts presented to it, the Supreme Court  concluded that statistics could be used to infer the amount of time Tyson Foods employees spent donning and doffing because those statistics could have been used in individual suits by the employees.

Importantly, in reaching its conclusion, just as it declined to issue a blanket rule forbidding the use of statistical evidence, the Court also declined to issue a broad rule affirming the use of statistical evidence in all class actions.

The Court noted that its opinion “is not to say that all inferences drawn from representative evidence in an FLSA case are ‘just and reasonable.’ . . . . Representative evidence that is statistically inadequate or based on implausible assumptions could not lead to a fair or accurate estimate of the uncompensated hours an employee has worked.”  In other words, a defendant can challenge an expert’s methodology, which Tyson Foods did not do.

The Court concluded its discussion of representative evidence by declining to issue any broad rule: “The Court reiterates that, while petitioner, respondents, or their respective amici may urge adoption of broad and categorical rules governing the use of representative and statistical evidence in class actions, this case provides no occasion to do so. Whether a representative sample may be used to establish classwide liability will depend on the purpose for which the sample is being introduced and on the underlying cause of action. In FLSA actions, inferring the hours an employee has worked from a study such as [the expert’s] has been permitted by the Court so long as the study is otherwise admissible. . . . The fairness and utility of statistical methods in contexts other than those presented here will depend on facts and circumstances particular to those cases.”

While the decision is a victory for Tyson Foods employees, it is those sentences quoted directly above that will likely limit the decision from having widespread application.  The decision will no doubt be cited by plaintiffs’ counsel in class and collective actions to support their efforts to use statistical evidence to establish both liability and damages in their cases, even where there are individuals who have not been harmed. And defense counsel in those cases will just as certainly point to language in the decision that would indicate that it is a narrow ruling limited to its facts.

Not unimportantly, one issue left unaddressed by the Court pertains to Tysons Foods’ argument that uninjured class members should not recover damages.  The Court declined to address that issue, holding that that question was not fairly presented to it in this case because the damages award has not yet been distributed and  the record does not indicate how it will be done. Accordingly, Tyson Foods may raise a challenge to the allocation method when the case returns to the trial court for distribution of the award to address persons who were not injured.

Practitioners know how difficult it is to obtain an award of fees against the government. However, in an opinion in which the Court states at the outset, “the government here chose to defend the indefensible in an indefensible manner,” the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has awarded attorneys’ fees to an employer in a wage-hour dispute based on the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) bad faith– both in pursuing a legally indefensible case and in the conduct of the litigation.

The case, Gate Guard Services, L.P. v. Perez, 792 F.3d 554 (5th Cir. 2015), is an unusual one But in this case, the government’s conduct was found to be outrageous on two fronts.  The DOL continued to litigate a case long after it became apparent the case was meritless, and it did so in an inappropriately aggressive fashion.

The DOL jumped into the fray when a drinking pal of a DOL investigator, who was inexperienced in classification issues, expressed concern that he had been underpaid by Gate Guard Services, which provided gate attendants for remote drilling sites and treated the attendants as independent contractors.  After interviewing only three witnesses and destroying his original notes, the investigator concluded that the company owed $6 million in back wages, nearly its entire net worth.  Even though there were several violations of the DOL’s internal policy in the conduct of the investigation, the DOL filed suit.

During the course of the ensuing litigation, the government opposed nearly every motion on spurious grounds, even a routine motion to transfer the case to a division where many of the gate attendants and the investigator lived or worked.  During the investigator’s deposition, the DOL’s lead counsel objected 102 times and instructed the witness 18 times not to answer basic questions about his investigation.

To make matters worse for the government, the district court where the case was pending held that gate attendants in another case, with nearly identical facts, were not employees.  The DOL also learned that the Army Corps of Engineers classified its gate attendants as independent contractors.  Gate Guard won summary judgment at the district court level and was also awarded over $565,000 in attorneys’ fees.  Both sides appealed.

The Fifth Circuit did not hesitate to send a message to the DOL and awarded fees for bad faith, noting “[t]he government’s intransigence in spite of its legally deteriorating case, combined with extreme penalty demands and outrageous tactics, together support a bad faith finding.”

While the circumstances presented in this case are certainly unique, it makes clear that employers should not hesitate to seek fees when the government oversteps its bounds—either in pursuing a case that lacks merit or engaging in unethical and spurious litigation tactics.

Most of us don’t think of window washers on high rise buildings as employees who qualify for an exemption from overtime pay.  But under an unusual set Clear blue skyof facts, this is precisely what the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in Alvarado v. Corporate Cleaning Services, Inc., 782 F.3d 365 (7th Cir. 2015).

Corporate Cleaning Services (“CCS”) provided window washing services to high rise buildings.  When it received an order for a window washing job, it calculated a number of points, based on the job’s complexity and the number of hours estimated to complete it, to determine the price to charge the customer.  It also used that number of points to determine employees’ pay.  Generally, each window washer received the same number of points, and those points were multiplied by a rate specified in the collective bargaining agreement with the union to determine the amount each employee was paid for the job.  Employees worked primarily in the warmer months and were paid $40,000 to $60,000 per year.

Although the company called this compensation system a “piece rate” system, the Court found the company’s label was not determinative, and the employees actually were paid on a commission basis.  Under 29 U.S.C. §207(i), certain commission paid employees need not be paid time and one half for hours worked over 40 in a work week if they meet three requirements: (1) their regular pay is more than one and one half times the federal minimum wage; (2) more than half their compensation for a representative period of time (not less than one month) represents commission on goods or services; and (3) they are employed by a retail or service establishment.

There appeared to be no dispute that the plaintiffs received more than one and one half times the federal minimum wage, and the Court found that the plaintiffs were paid on a commission basis because they were paid only if there was a sale of window washing services to the public.  The Court had no difficulty in concluding that CCS was a “retail or service establishment”  because it sold its window washing services to building owners and managers who were the ultimate customers—they did not resell the window cleaning services.

Because the window washers met all three requirements for the overtime pay exemption for commissioned paid employees, the Court concluded they were not entitled to overtime pay.

The Court made some interesting observations about commission paid employees.

Work paid on a commission basis involves irregular hours of work, according to the Court.  An employee paid by the sale is not a commission paid worker if his sales are made at a uniform rate, such as one sale each hour.  Because the ratio of his hours of work to his pay is constant, that employee is effectively an hourly paid employee.

The CCS window washers necessarily worked irregular hours because they could not work in high winds, rain, snow, sleet and freezing temperatures.  While many of the workers took long vacations during the winter, they often worked more than eight hours a day during the other three seasons.  Because, among other factors supporting the commission exemption, the window washers could not count on working 40 hours per week for the entire year, the Court reasoned that the employer was exempt from the requirement of paying time and a half for overtime hours.