District Court Rules That FLSA Cases Can Be Dismissed Based On Private Settlements, But Employers "Take Their Chances" On Enforcement.

By Michael D. Thompson

The prohibition against private settlements of FLSA claims was scrutinized again last week, when U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York held that parties could voluntarily dismiss an FLSA lawsuit without obtaining approval of the settlement agreement from the court.  Picerni v. Bilingual SEIT & Preschool Inc. 

Courts in FLSA cases have historically expressed the concern that individual waivers of FLSA rights would enable employers to use their superior bargaining power to extract individual waivers from their employees and “thwart the legislative policy [that the FLSA] was designed to effectuate.”  Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neill

Accordingly, in 1982, the Eleventh Circuit held that disputes under the FLSA could not be settled without the approval of a court or the Department of Labor.  Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. United States.

However, in August 2012, we blogged about the Fifth Circuit’s decision to uphold the enforcement of a private settlement agreement resolving FLSA claims.  Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions LLC.  The United States Supreme Court subsequently declined to review the Fifth Circuit’s ruling and settle the split between the circuits.

Thus, when the issue arose in Picerni, the District Court considered whether a prohibition on private settlements for FLSA cases “runs afoul” of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 41.  That rule provides that a federal lawsuit, with certain exceptions, may be voluntarily dismissed by the plaintiff before the defendant files an answer, and may thereafter be dismissed through a stipulation signed by all parties.

The District Court held that FLSA claims were subject to F.R.Civ.P. 41 and therefore the parties were allowed to dismiss their own lawsuit.

However, the District Court made it clear that it was offering no opinion regarding the enforceability of the underlying settlement agreement.

The Court cited Lynn Foods for the proposition that “[m]ost courts have at least suggested in dictum, if not held, that a private FLSA settlement will not be enforced without court approval.”  The District Court further noted that “[o]ther courts have allowed private settlements if the circumstances, when examined in subsequent litigation, are found fair” or “when the court finds that a plaintiff has received in settlement 100% of the wages that he should have been paid.”  See Martinez v. Bohls Bearing Equipment Co.; Mackenzie v. Kindred Hospitals East. L.L.C. 

Thus, the District Court stated that the parties could agree to a private settlement and dismiss their FLSA lawsuit.  In settling the matter without court or DOL approval, however, the parties assumed the risk that the settlement agreement might not be enforced to bar subsequent litigation. 

Nevertheless, “if parties want to take their chances that their settlement will not be effective,” the District Court stated that it would permit them to do so.

The ruling by the District Court for the Eastern District of New York in Picerni, in conjunction with the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Martin, signal an increasing willingness to accept the private settlement of FLSA cases.  However, employers should consider whether the need to keep such an agreement private outweighs the possibility that the agreement will not be enforced to preclude further litigation of the same claims.

Waivers and Releases of Massachusetts Wage Claims

By Evan J. Spelfogel

On December 17, 2012, in Crocker v Townsend Oil, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court invalidated a settlement agreement, waiver and release to the extent it purported to release claims under the Massachusetts Wage and Hour Laws, but did not expressly include that statute by name among the claims being released. Specifically, the Court held:

We...conclude that a settlement or contract termination agreement by an employee that includes a general release, purporting to release all possible existing claims will be enforceable as to the statutorily provided rights and remedies conferred by the Wage Act only if such an agreement is stated in clear and unmistakable terms.  In other words, the release must be plainly worded and understandable to the average individual, and it must specifically refer to the rights and claims under the Wage Act that the employee is waiving.  Such express language will ensure that employees do not unwittingly waive their rights under the Wage Act.  At the same time, this course preserves our policy regarding the broad enforceability of releases by establishing a relatively narrow channel through which waiver of Wage Act claims can be accomplished.

In settling claims with departing employees and offering severance packages in return for all-encompassing written waivers and releases, employers often list by category in the settlement papers, among others, all tort and contract claims, claims for emotional distress, all public policy and statutory claims including, without limitation, all claims that might arise under anti-discrimination laws and wage and hour laws.  We have frequently advised employers that they would be better protected if they listed expressly at least the relevant major federal and state statutes.  In light of Crocker, employers who wish to obtain binding waivers of wage and overtime claims under Massachusetts law must be careful to list the Massachusetts Wage Act expressly, in the settlement documents.

In the Name of "Fairness," a New Jersey Federal Court Strikes the Confidentiality and Release Provisions from a Fair Labor Standards Act Settlement Agreement

By Douglas Weiner and Meg Thering

In one of the many “wrinkles” in Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) litigation, settlements of wage and hour disputes between an employer and its employees are only enforceable if supervised by the U.S. Department of Labor or approved by a court. Courts will approve settlements if they are “fair”; however, as demonstrated in a recent decision arising out of New Jersey - Brumley v. Camin Cargo Control - courts may need to be reminded that employers also have rights and legitimate interests. The Brumley Court took what was a bargained-for exchange between both parties and turned it into what could only be considered a one-sided deal, good only for the plaintiffs. 

After litigating and negotiating alleged overtime violations with 112 opt-in plaintiffs over a four year period, Camin Cargo Control, Inc. ultimately offered to pay $3.9 million in exchange for the release of all wage claims and a confidentiality provision. Plaintiffs then filed an unopposed motion to approve these terms of settlement.  Unfortunately for Camin Cargo Control, Inc., the Court granted Plaintiffs their full benefit of the bargain – including $1.3 million in costs and attorneys’ fees – but in the name of “fairness” denied the portion of the motion containing the confidentiality provision and release of claims.

In Brumley,the Honorable Jose Linares, citing Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1945 and Dees v. Hyradry, Inc., a 2010 casefrom the Middle District of Florida, refused to approve the parties’ agreement as submitted because he found that the confidentiality provisions ran afoul of “the ‘public – private’ rights granted by the FLSA and thwart[ed] Congress’s intent to ensure widespread compliance with the statute.” Additionally, citing Dees, he stated: “[i]n practice, leaving an FLSA settlement to wholly private resolution conduces inevitably to mischief.” He also deemed the release unfair because he interpreted it as a release of both prior and prospective claims.

In light of this opinion, employers should double check the language of release provisions in FLSA settlement agreements to make sure that they unambiguously release all claims prior to the date of the agreement (and no claims after the date of the agreement). 

Employers should also keep in mind that courts are becoming increasingly hostile to confidentiality provisions in FLSA settlements. Thus, employers may no longer assume that their confidentiality provisions will be approved. 

We will keep an eye on this decision and report if it is appealed or distinguished by courts in other jurisdictions.

Settling an FLSA Collective Action? Not So Fast!

By Amy Traub and Christina Fletcher

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

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

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

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

Florida Led Nation in FLSA Lawsuits in 2009

Florida led the nation in Fair Labor Standards Act lawsuits in 2009. Statistics generated from PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) show that about 2000 new cases were filed in United States District Courts in Florida last year, far more than in any other state. 

Of course, Florida is not the only hotbed of wage-hour litigation. California, which has its own, more rigorous wage-hour laws, has a large number of wage-hour cases filed in its state court system. Texas and New York are also seeing increasing numbers of wage-hour cases.

But when it comes to the FLSA, the Sunshine State rules. The reasons for this are somewhat mysterious. Are Florida employees more litigious than in other states? Do Florida employers violate the FLSA more often? Is there a more active plaintiff-side employment bar in Florida? I suspect the answer is a combination of all these factors, plus good old-fashioned word of mouth. Here’s what I mean: the vast majority of FLSA cases settle before trial. FLSA settlements generally must be approved by a court, see Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350 (11th Cir. 1982), and many judges refuse to allow FLSA settlements to be confidential. And even if the terms of a settlement are confidential, a settling plaintiff can always disclose that the case has been “resolved amicably,” or words to that effect. Whatever the exact words, the message is clear – the plaintiff got a nice check. It’s like that old shampoo commercial from the 70’s: a settling plaintiff tells two friends, and they tell two friends, and so on and so on… Pretty soon you have 2000 FLSA cases on the docket.

So what can a Florida employer do to avoid being named in an FLSA lawsuit? Well, the best advice I can offer is to make every reasonable effort to comply with FLSA. That may seem obvious, but it’s not as easy as it sounds because the FLSA can be counterintuitive; its rules are often inconsistent with what seem to be reasonable and ethical business practices. But if you learn what the FLSA requires, and adopt policies and practices that are consistent with the law, you will go a long way toward avoiding a lawsuit. And, yes, get the advice of a qualified employment lawyer if you are unsure about what to do. Believe me, it will be far less expensive than litigation.

Wage-Hour Firm Strikes Back Against Federal Judge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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