Third Circuit Addresses Individual Liability, Joint Employment and Successor Liability Under the FLSA

by Michael D. Thompson

In Thompson v. Real Estate Mortgage Network, the Third Circuit addressed a variety of ways in which a plaintiff could pursue claims against entities that claimed they were not her employer.

The plaintiff was hired as a mortgage underwriter by defendant Security Atlantic Mortgage Company (“SAMC”).  Allegedly in response to an investigation being conducted into SAMC 's mortgage practices, the plaintiff and others were directed to complete job applications for Real Estate Mortgage Network ("REMN"), a “sister company” of SAMC.  The plaintiff completed the application, and subsequently her paychecks were issued by REMN instead of SAMC, and SAMC became "defunct.”

The Plaintiff’s Claims

After leaving REMN, the plaintiff filed a complaint U.S. District Court for New Jersey, alleging that she was misclassified as an exempt employee and unlawfully deprived of overtime. 

The plaintiff sued REMN and SAMC, and also sued two individuals who were co-owners and executives for SAMC (and later became officers of REMN).  The plaintiff contended those individuals were joint employers by virtue of their positions with the defendant companies, and therefore were "personally, jointly and severally liable for the violations” of the FLSA and the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law.

The District Court dismissed the plaintiff's complaint without prejudice pursuant to Rule12(b)(6), and she appealed to the Third Circuit.

Joint Employment

The Third Circuit found that the plaintiff’s allegations were sufficient to state a claim that SAMC and REMN were joint employers under the FLSA based on the “Enterprise test” set forth in In re Enterprise Rent-A-Car Wage & Hour Emp't Prac. Litig., 683 F.3d 462, 467-68 (3d Cir. 2012), which looks to the following non-exhaustive list of factors:

(1)    the alleged employer's authority to hire and fire;

(2)    the alleged employer's authority to promulgate work rules and assignments and to set the employees' conditions of employment (compensation, benefits, and work schedules, including the rate and method of payment);

(3)    the alleged employer's involvement in day-to-day employee supervision, including employee discipline; and

(4)    the alleged employer's actual control of employee records, such as payroll, insurance, or taxes.

The Third Circuit held that the plaintiff had stated a claim for joint employment status by alleging that (i) an employee of REMN trained SAMC employees, (ii) REMN and SAMC were referred to as "sister companies," and (iii) Plaintiff and some other SAMC employees were “abruptly and seamlessly” integrated into REMN's business, and some employees continued to be paid by SAMC even after that integration.

The Third Circuit did not address joint employer status under the New Jersey Wage Hour Law.

Successor Liability

The Third Circuit then concluded that REMN could be liable not only for its own violations, but also for the violations of SAMC as a successor corporation. 

The Third Circuit applied a federal common law standard, which considers (1) continuity in operations and work force of the successor and predecessor employers; (2) notice to the successor-employer of its predecessor's legal obligation; and (3) ability of the predecessor to provide adequate relief directly.

The Third Circuit concluded that the plaintiff had alleged facts sufficient to support such liability, because it contended that all facets of the business at issue, including work in progress, operations, staffing, office space, email addresses and employment conditions remained the same whether plaintiff was an employee of SAMC or REMN. 

The Circuit Court stated that, for the same reasons, the plaintiff could pursue atheory of successor liability under the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law.

Individual Liability

In regard to the individual defendants, the Third Circuit cited to case law under the FLSA and FMLA providing that an individual may be subject to liability when he or she exercises "supervisory authority over the complaining employee and was responsible in whole or part for the alleged violation" while acting in the employer's interest.  An individual supervisor has adequate authority over the complaining employee when the supervisor "independently exercises control over the work situation."

For purposes of Rule 12(b)(6), the plaintiff satisfied these requirements by alleging that the individual defendants made decisions concerning “day-to-day operations, hiring, firing, promotions, personnel matters, work schedules, pay policies, and compensation," and were consulted when personnel issues arose at SAMC.   The Third Circuit did not address individual liability under the New Jersey Wage Hour Law.

In light of the foregoing, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded the case to the District Court.

Are You Sure You Want Your Employees Accessing Work-Related Emails After Hours?

by Michael Kun

The workplace used to be a lot easier to manage.  That’s because the workplace used to be, well, the workplace.

Employees went to work, they worked, and they went home.  And when they went home, they were usually done working for the day, unless they got an emergency phone call from the boss. 

There was the workplace, and there was home, and (with those rare exceptions) never the twain shall meet.

For better or worse, those days are long gone.

First, there was the answering machine at home. 

Then, the cellphone.

Now, few are those employees who do not have a device connecting them to work in their shirt pockets or their purses.  I’m speaking, of course, about smartphones. 

A great many employees, particularly those in engaged in non-manual labor, have workplace email addresses. 

And, more and more, employers allow their employees to send and receive emails from their workplace email addresses through their smartphones. 

And, more and more, employees are sending and receiving emails after-hours on those smartphones.

As employment lawyers, we have long warned clients and prospective clients that it was only a matter of time before non-exempt employees – and their lawyers – started filing suits contending that they were entitled to be paid for the additional time they spent after-hours reviewing and responding to work-related emails.  And, whenever those lawsuits would be filed, we anticipated that they would be filed as class actions or collective actions. 

Well, that day apparently has come.

 Although there have been more than a few lawsuits filed over the years alleging that non-exempt employees were entitled to be paid for the time spent “off the clock” dealing with work-related emails, those claims are more prevalent now than ever. 

Perhaps recognizing that the time spent on after-hours emails might be sporadic or that it might be only a few minutes on many occasions – which would create an argument that such time is non-compensable, de minimis time – employees and their attorneys are not simply filing suit over email time.  Instead, they are filing suit over all alleged “off the clock” time, including not only time spent on emails, but also time spent booting up computers at the beginning of the day and shutting them down at the end, as well as other, similar activities. 

Checking emails after hours may only take 5 or 6 minutes a day, they argue, but when you add it to the other “off the clock” time, it is significant.  And, they argue, they are entitled to be paid for all of that time.

Fifteen minutes a day, they argue, adds up for one employee.  Multiply it by an entire workforce, and the potential exposure could be significant.

There are a number of ways employers can address this phenomenon:

(1)   Employers can reassess their needs and determine whether it would be wise to prevent employees from receiving work-related emails anywhere other than at work.  In other words, they can determine whether to prevent employees from even accessing emails to and from their work email addresses on their smartphones (or on their home computers, laptops or tablets).  If there is an emergency after hours, you can contact them the old-fashioned way – pick up the phone and call them. 

(2)   Should employers decide not to cut off email access outside of the workplace, they – and management employees in particular – can address how often and under what circumstances they send emails to employees after hours.  When you send an email to an employee at 10:00 pm, you may well intend that he or she not look at it until the morning.  But you know your employees are likely to do the same thing you do when their smartphones buzz to let them know they have received new emails – they are going to check.  Yes, that may be a reflex.  But the employee will not know if it is an emergency until he or she opens your email. 

(3)   If employers are not going to cut off access to emails, they should consider revising their time reporting systems to allow employees to report time spent dealing with after-hours emails.  At the very least, that would help to cut off exposure on an “off the clock” claim.  And should employees report significant time spent after hours engaged in such conduct, the employer can then reconsider (1) and (2). 

Texas Health Care Provider's Miscalculation of Overtime Pay Proves Costly

By: Kara Maciel and Jordan Schwartz

On September 16, 2013, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced that Harris Health System (“Harris”), a Houston health care provider of emergency, outpatient and inpatient medical services, has agreed to pay more than $4 million in back wages and damages to approximately 4,500 current and former employees for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime and recordkeeping provisions. The DOL made this announcement after its Wage and Hour Division (“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 Fair Labor Standards Act (“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, an employee’s “regular rate of pay” is not necessarily the same as his 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 FLSA also requires employers to maintain accurate time and payroll records for each of its employees. Should an employer violate these provisions, the FLSA allows employees to recover back wages and an equal amount of liquidated damages.

The DOL’s investigation into Harris’s payment practices found that the company (i) had failed to include incentive pay when determining its employees’ regular rate of pay for overtime purposes, and thus had failed to property compensate its nurses, lab technicians, respiratory health care practitioners and other workers for overtime; and (ii) had failed to 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. Further, Harris has now taken steps to ensure compliance with the requirements of the FLSA by instituting changes in its payroll system and setting up a compliance program to ensure that its employees are properly compensated.

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 hourly wage. Additionally, employers should conduct periodic audits to ensure that it is maintaining full and accurate records of all hours worked by every employee. Our Firm’s WHD Investigation Checklist could help employers ensure that they have thought through these and other essential wage and hour issues prior to becoming the target of a DOL investigation or private lawsuit. These simple steps could significantly reduce an employer’s exposure under the FLSA and similar state wage and hour laws.  

New California Law Limiting When Prevailing Employers Can Recover Attorney's Fees In Wage-Hour Cases Is Bound To Lead To Even More Meritless Lawsuits

By Michael Kun

A California plaintiff who prevails in a wage-hour lawsuit generally may recover his or her attorney’s fees.  The same is so for employers -- but only for the next few months. 

A new statute will take effect in January 2014 that will change whether and how an employer who prevails in such a case may recover its fees.  In a state already overrun with wage-hour lawsuits with questionable merit, that new statute seems to ensure that even more meritless wage-hour lawsuits will be filed by plaintiffs’ counsel who count on the in terrorem effect of those lawsuits to force employers to settle such claims – and who pocket 40% of what they recover. 

Governor Jerry Brown has signed into law a bill that raises the standard for a prevailing employer to recover fees when they prevail in wage-hour actions.  Effective January 2014, an employer must meet a higher standard than an employee to recover fees.   It must not only prevail in the lawsuit, but it must establish that the lawsuit was brought in “bad faith.”  

While the authors of the bill contended that it was needed to correct an injustice that discouraged workers from pursuing such claims, one has to wonder whether those legislators could identify a single California employee who did not pursue a valid wage-hour claim because of the fear of paying attorney’s fees.  The California courts have been overrun with wage-hour lawsuits.  There is little, if anything, to suggest that employees have been deterred from filing these lawsuits.  If anything, they have been greatly encouraged to do so, and plaintiffs’ counsel sometimes file these suits with little effort to determine if they have any merit beforehand.  Indeed, it is not unusual for an employee not to even meet his or her attorney before the attorney files a wage-hour suit, or for that attorney to file a wage-hour class action with minimal, if any, investigation. 

In this way, the new statute seems to be aimed to benefit the plaintiffs’ bar, not employees.  Until now, the only thing that prevented plaintiffs’ counsel from filing a meritless wage-hour action was the possibility that the employer would be able to recover its attorney’s fees.  Now, knowing that an employer is only going to be able to recover fees in meritless cases if it can establish that it was brought in “bad faith,” there is every reason to expect the filing of even more meritless wage-hour actions. 

              

Michael Kun quoted regarding California wage-hour class actions

Michael Kun, chair of EBG’s wage-hour practice group, was recently quoted by California Lawyer magazine regarding the impact of the California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker v. Superior Court on California wage-hour class actions.

Wage & Hour FAQ #2: What to Do When a Wage Hour Investigation Team Arrives to Start Auditing

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.

The First "Suitable Seating" Trial In California Results In A Victory For The Employer - And Guidance For Plaintiffs For Future Cases

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. 

Clarification of California's Obscure "Suitable Seating" Requirement Should Be Forthcoming In Two Pending Cases

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. 

Navigating the Murky Waters of FLSA Compliance

On September 19, 2012, several members of EBG’s Wage and Hour practice group will be presenting a briefing and webinar on FLSA compliance.  In 2012, a record number of federal wage and hour lawsuits were filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), demonstrating that there is no end in sight to the number of class and collective actions filed against employers. Claims continue to be filed, raising issues of misclassification of employees, alleged uncompensated "work" performed off the clock, and miscalculation of overtime pay for non-exempt workers.

In this interactive briefing and live webinar, we will discuss the recent trend in enforcement and class action lawsuits, as well as highlight several common mistakes that managers make when trying comply with the ever-changing and confusing area of the FLSA. Specifically, this briefing will teach you how to:  

  • Determine overtime eligibility
  • Determine whether an employee is exempt
  • Calculate overtime compensation correctly
  • Avoid unauthorized overtime
  • Navigate tip credits, tip pooling, and overtime calculation for wait staff
  • Understand what constitutes off-the-clock work and other traps
  • Develop strategies for avoiding additional wage and hour risks 

You can register for the complimentary briefing here.

New California Laws Increase Penalties for Employee Misclassification and Wage Theft

by Michael S. Kun, Eric A. Cook, and Jennifer A. Goldman

California Governor Jerry Brown has signed two employment-related bills into law, raising the stakes for employers doing business in California. The two laws, which increase the penalties for employers that wrongly classify employees as independent contractors or engage in "wage theft," both go into effect on January 1, 2012.

Read the full advisory online