Federal regulations have long provided that employees whose wages are subject to a tip credit must retain all tips they receive, with the exception that customarily tipped employees — i.e. front-of the-house service employees — are permitted to share in tips received.

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) amended its tip regulations to limit tip pool participation to front-of-the-house employees regardless of whether a tip credit was applied to their wages.

Employers and hospitality industry advocacy groups reacted by filing lawsuits throughout the country challenging the DOL’s rulemaking authority to extend the scope of tip pooling restrictions to employees whose wages were not subject to a tip credit.

There is currently a circuit split over the validity of the DOL’s 2011 regulation.

In Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association v. Perez, the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) does not expressly set forth requirements for employers that do not apply a tip credit against employees’ wages, therefore the DOL is authorized to interpret this absence in the statute through rulemaking.

In contrast, in Marlow v. The New Food Guy, Inc., the Tenth Circuit rejected the 2011 regulation, finding that the DOL is not vested with such rulemaking authority, thus employers may distribute tips to both tip-earning and non-tip-earning employees, e.g. cooks and dishwashers, to the extent a tip credit is not applied to employees’ wages.

The National Restaurant Association has requested the Supreme Court of the United States to hear an appeal of the Ninth Circuit case.  The request is currently pending.

Acknowledging that it may have exceeded its rulemaking authority and in light of the pending petition to the Supreme Court, on December 4, 2017, the DOL issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to rescind the portion of the 2011 regulation requiring tip pool compliance with respect to employees whose wages are not subject to a tip credit.  If finalized, this rule would permit employers to regulate tip pooling without restriction as long as employers do not apply a tip credit against its employees’ wages (or if employees are paid at least the current $7.25 federal minimum wage in states that maintain higher minimum wage thresholds and permit the taking of a tip credit).

In its NPRM Fact Sheet, the DOL explained that the proposed rule would allow employers to distribute customer tips to larger tip pools that include non-tipped workers, such as cooks and dishwashers, which would likely increase the earnings of those employees who are newly added to the tip pool and further incentivize them to provide good customer service.

The DOL additionally cited as a benefit greater flexibility to employers in determining pay practices for tipped and non-tipped workers, as well as a reduction in wage disparities among employees who all contribute to the customers’ experience.  Some early critics of the NPRM have voiced concern that it gives employers the unrestricted ability to retain employees’ tips, which would be antithetical to the DOL’s stated purpose for the Rule.

It is important to keep in mind, however, that even if finalized, the NPRM would not preempt state or local laws or regulations that provide for more expansive employee rights regarding tip pooling.  For example, the NPRM would not result in any change in New York under its current regulations, which prohibit tip sharing with back-of-the-house employees.

The NPRM is currently subject to a 30-day comment period with a January 4, 2018 deadline, pursuant to which the DOL will review and consider all comments received before publishing the rule in its final form in the federal register.

In the interim, employers should review and determine whether it is feasible — and, if so, advantageous — to adjust its employees’ wage rates (including increasing front-of-the-house employees’ wage rates to the $7.25 minimum wage threshold or decreasing back-of-the-house employees’ wage rates to the federal minimum wage) and abandon the tip credit to allow for unrestricted tip pooling among all employees.  In addition to considering the potential economic benefits, employers should also consider the potential employee relations concerns in making any such adjustments, including the possibility that employees’ total compensation may decrease on account of any such potential changes.

As we have discussed previously, in early September the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) withdrew its appeal of last November’s ruling from the Eastern District of Texas preliminarily enjoining the Department’s 2016 Final Rule that, among other things, more than doubled the minimum salary required to satisfy the Fair Labor Standards Act’s executive, administrative, and professional exemptions from $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to $913 per week ($47,476 per year).  The DOL abandoned its appeal in light of the district court’s ruling on August 31, 2017 granting summary judgment and holding that the 2016 increase to the salary level conflicted with the statute and thus was invalid, a ruling that rendered the appeal of the injunction moot.

On October 30, 2017, to the surprise of many observers, the DOL filed a notice of appeal regarding the district court’s summary judgment ruling, taking the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.   Four days later, the DOL filed an unopposed motion asking the Fifth Circuit to stay the appeal in light of the Department’s pending rulemaking to update the salary requirement.  On November 6, 2017, the Fifth Circuit granted the motion, staying the appeal pending the outcome of the new rulemaking.

The DOL’s maneuvers may appear confusing. In short, the district court’s summary judgment ruling causes a certain amount of heartburn for the Department because the court in effect concluded that although the DOL has the authority to require a minimum salary for these exemptions, there is a point beyond which the Department cannot go without having the salary level deemed invalid.  The court did not, however, provide a clear standard for identifying the outer limit of the Department’s authority to impose a salary threshold, and this uncertainty creates confusion and a risk of time-consuming and expensive litigation for the Department — and for employees and employers throughout the country.

By appealing the summary judgment ruling, the DOL preserves the option of challenging the decision rather than simply allowing it to remain on the books as a precedent.  Once the Department completes the rulemaking process and issues an updated salary standard, the likely final move would be for the Department to move to dismiss the litigation and to vacate the district court’s order on the basis that the challenge to the 2016 Final Rule has become moot.  Once the new rule is in place and the district court’s summary judgment ruling is no longer on the books, it will be as though the 2016 Final Rule never happened.

We will keep you posted as this matter develops.

Montgomery County, Maryland, where the minimum wage already is $11.50, is set to join two states (California and New York), the neighboring District of Columbia and at least six local jurisdictions (Flagstaff (Arizona), Los Angeles, Minneapolis, San Francisco, San Jose, SeaTac and Seattle) that have enacted legislation increasing the minimum wage for some or all private sector employees to $15 over the next several years.

On November 7, 2017 the Montgomery County Council unanimously passed Bill 28-17, which increases the minimum wage for “large employers” — those with 51 or more employees in the county — to $15.00 by July 1, 2021, with intermediate increases to $12.25 on July 1, 2018, $13.00 on July 1, 2019, and $14.00 on July 1, 2020.

The bill also increases the minimum wage to $15.00 by July 1, 2023 for “mid-sized employers,” those who (1) employ 11 to 50 employees; (2) have tax exempt status under IRC Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code; or (3) provide “home health services” or “home or community based services,” as defined under federal Medicaid regulations and receive at least 75% of gross revenues through state and federal medical programs.

The bill additionally increases the minimum wage to $15.00 by July 1, 2024 for “small employers” — those with 10 or fewer employee (including non-profits and Medicaid funded home health and home or community based service providers of that size) — with intermediate increases to $12.00 on July 1, 2018, $12.50 on July 1, 2019, $13.00 on July 1, 2020, $13.50 on July 1, 2020, $14.00 on July 1, 2022 and $14.50 on July 1, 2023.

Notably, the rates of increases  is considerably slower than in the neighboring District of Columbia, which is already at $12.50 and will reach $15.00 on July 1, 2020 for all private sector employers.

In addition, the bill includes an “opportunity wage” that allows payment of a wage equal to 85% of the County minimum wage to an employee under the age of 20 for the first six months of employment.

The bill further adopts provisions to automatically adjust the minimum wage rate (1) for large employers annually starting July 1, 2022 to reflect average increases in the CPI-W for Washington-Baltimore for the previous year, and (2) for mid-sized and small employers starting July 1, 2024 and 2025, respectively, to reflect the same CPI-W increase for the previous year, plus one percent of the previous year’s required minimum wage, up to a total increase of $0.50, until the rate is equal to the amount for large employers. An employer’s size is calculated as of the time it first becomes subject to the law, and it remains subject to the applicable schedule regardless of the number of employees employed in subsequent years.

In addition, the Director of Finance must make certifications by January 31 of each year from 2018 through 2022 regarding certain reductions in county private employment, negative growth in the gross domestic product, or whether the U.S. economy is in recession. If certain targets are for that year, for no more than two times.

The bill specifically addresses concerns the County Executive expressed in vetoing a prior version of the bill that passed by a narrow majority in January 2017, by postponing the prior effective dates for large and small employers by one and two years, respectively; increasing from 26 to 51 the number of employees required to be a larger employer; creating a new mid-size employer category of 11 to 50 employees and defining a small employer as one with ten or fewer employees; and adding non-profits and Medicaid funded home health and home health services providers with more than ten employees to the extended schedule for mid-size employers. The County Executive has stated that he will sign the bill.

Notably, it is likely that an effort will be made in the upcoming state legislative session to further increase the state minimum wage, already at $9.25 and set to go to $10.10 on July 1, 2018.

Our colleagues , at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “New Jersey’s Appellate Division Finds Part C of the “ABC” Independent Contractor Test Does Not Require an Independent Business

Following is an excerpt:

In a potentially significant decision following the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling in Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 220 N.J. 289 (2015), a New Jersey appellate panel held, in Garden State Fireworks, Inc. v. New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (“Sleepy’s”), Docket No. A-1581-15T2, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2468 (App. Div. Sept. 29, 2017), that part C of the “ABC” test does not require an individual to operate an independent business engaged in the same services as that provided to the putative employer to be considered an independent contractor. Rather, the key inquiry for part C of the “ABC” test is whether the worker will “join the ranks of the unemployed” when the business relationship ends. …

Read the full post here.

On October 14, 2017, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1701, which will make general contractors liable for their subcontractors’ employees’ unpaid wages if the subcontractor fails to pay wages due.  The new law will go into effect on January 1, 2018.

Specifically, section 218.7 has been added to the Labor Code. Subdivision (a)(1) provides the following:

For contracts entered into on or after January 1, 2018, a direct contractor making or taking a contract in the state for the erection, construction, alteration, or repair of a building, structure, or other private work, shall assume, and is liable for, any debt owed to a wage claimant or third party on the wage claimant’s behalf, incurred by a subcontractor at any tier acting under, by, or for the direct contractor for the wage claimant’s performance of labor included in the subject of the contract between the direct contractor and the owner.

Under section 218.7, the direct contractor’s liability will extend only to any unpaid wage, fringe benefit or other benefit payments or contributions – including interest – but will not extend to penalties or liquidated damages.

Section 218.7 makes clear that nothing in it “shall be construed to impose liability on a direct contractor for anything other than unpaid wages and fringe or other benefit payments or contributions including interest owed.”

Notably, employees will not have standing to enforce section 218.7 on their own. That is, AB 1701 gives the California Labor Commissioner, labor-management cooperation committees, and unions the right to bring an action against the direct contractor, but it does not provide any private right of action to potentially unpaid employees themselves to bring a claim against the direct contractor for unpaid wages.

For labor-management cooperation committees and unions who prevail in an action against a direct contractor for unpaid wages, they will be entitled to their reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.

For judgments rendered against direct contractors, their property may be attached to satisfy judgment.

Direct contractors will now be provided the right to request from their subcontractors their employees’ wage statements under Labor Code section 226(a) and payroll records that must be maintained under section 1174.  Such “records must contain information sufficient to apprise the requesting party of the subcontractor’s payment status in making fringe or other benefit payments or contributions to a third party on the employee’s behalf.”

Direct contractors and subcontractors also have the right to request from subcontractors below them “award information that includes the project name, name and address of the subcontractor, contractor with whom the subcontractor is under contract, anticipated start date, duration, and estimated journeymen and apprentice hours, and contact information for its subcontractors on the project.”

Significantly, a direct contractor may withhold as “disputed” all sums owed if a subcontractor fails to timely provide the payroll or project information referenced above, until that information is provided.

The new statute will make it more important than ever for contractors in California to ensure that they are doing business with reputable subcontractors. As part of those efforts, they will want to consider taking steps to ensure that their subcontractor agreements include adequate indemnification provisions and assurances that the subcontractors will comply with wage-hour laws, and perhaps even a term requiring subcontractors to provide periodic statements ensuring compliance with the law.  Of course, there will be a delicate balance to strike to avoid “joint employer” status.

Additionally, the Labor Commissioner, labor-management cooperation committees, and unions may argue that the term “wages” extends to meal and rest period premiums for missed, short, or non-compliant meal and rest periods. Accordingly, contractors in California may want to include specific assurances that subcontractors have compliant meal and rest period policies and practices, in addition to compliant wage and overtime policies and practices.

Tips Do Not Count Towards the Minimum Wage Unless a Worker Qualified as a “Tipped Employe"It is a common practice for employers to provide their employees with rest breaks during the work day.  (And in some states, like California, it is required by state law.) But under what circumstances is an employer required to pay its employees for break time?

In U.S. Department of Labor v. American Future Systems Inc. et al., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals was asked to decide whether the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less during which they are free from performing any work.

The employer in that case produced business publications that were sold over the telephone by sales representatives.  The sales representatives could log off of their computers and take breaks whenever they chose and for any length of time.  They were free to leave the premises.   However, if the employees were logged off their computers for more than 90 seconds, they were not paid for the break time.

The Department of Labor (“DOL”) filed suit against the company.  The DOL relied on 29 C.F.R. § 785.18, which states:

Rest.

Rest periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry. They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time. They must be counted as hours worked…

The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania granted partial summary judgment to the DOL, concluding that section 785.18 created a “bright-line rule” and the company violated the FLSA by failing to pay its employees for rest breaks of twenty minutes or less.  The company appealed to the Third Circuit.

The company argued that the DOL was attempting to enforce the wrong regulation, and instead the court should apply 29 C.F.R. § 785.16 to its break policy.  That regulation states:

Off duty.

Periods during which an employee is completely relieved from duty and which are long enough to enable him to use the time effectively for his own purposes are not hours worked.  He is not completely relieved from duty and cannot use the time effectively for his own purposes unless he is definitely told in advance that he may leave the job and that he will not have to commence work until a definitely specified hour has arrived.  Whether the time is long enough to enable him to use the time effectively for his own purposes depends upon all of the facts and circumstances of the case.

The company contended that the “off duty” regulation should apply.  The company pointed out that its policy was completely flexible, allowed employees to take as many breaks as they wanted for as long as they wanted, allowed them to be completely relieved of all duties and created no obligation to return to work.  Therefore, the company argued that under the facts and circumstances of the case, even breaks of less than 20 minutes were not compensable.

The Third Circuit disagreed.  It stated that the “off duty” regulation provides a general rule regarding the compensability of hours worked, but section 785.18 is a more specific regulation that carves out an exception to the general rule.  The Third Circuit held that section 785.18 establishes a bright-line rule that employers must pay their employees for any rest breaks of 20 minutes or less.

To date, it does not appear that any other Circuit Court has weighed in on this issue.  That another Circuit might reach a different conclusion is certainly possible.  And it is also possible that the Supreme Court may have the final word on this issue.

In many industries, sales are subject to ebbs and flows.  Sometimes the fish are biting; sometimes they aren’t.

A common device that employers with commissioned salespeople use to take the edge off of the slow weeks and to ensure compliance with minimum wage and overtime laws is the recoverable draw.  Under such a system, an employee who earns below a certain amount in commissions for a given period of time, often a week, receives an advance of as-yet unearned commissions to bring the employee’s earnings for the period up to a specified level.  Then in the next period, the employees’ commissions pay off the draw balance before the employee receives further payouts of commissions.  Occasionally, employees challenge these recoverable draw pay systems.

In Stein v. hhgregg, Inc., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit considered one such draw system.  The employer, a retail seller of appliances, furniture, and electronics at more than 220 stores nationwide, paid its salespeople entirely in commissions.  In weeks where an employee worked 40 or fewer hours and did not earn commissions sufficient to cover minimum wage for the week, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to minimum wage.  In weeks where the employee worked more than 40 hours, and did not earn sufficient commissions to cover one and a half times the minimum wage, the employee would receive a draw against future commissions sufficient to bring the employee’s earnings for the week up to one and a half times the minimum wage.  The purpose of this pay structure was, among other things, to achieve compliance with the overtime exemption in section 7(i) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for certain commissioned employees of a retail or service establishment.  The company’s policy also provided that upon termination of employment, an employee will immediately pay the company any unpaid draw balance.

Two employees of a store in Ohio brought a putative nationwide collective action under the FLSA, as well as a putative state law class action asserting unjust enrichment with respect to the company’s more than twenty-five locations in Ohio.  They alleged failure to pay the minimum wage or overtime based on the theory that offsetting draw payments against future commissions amounted to an improper kick-back of wages to the employer.  They also claimed that the employer did not pay for certain non-sales activities and encouraged employees to work off the clock.  The complaint did not specifically allege that the two named plaintiffs worked off the clock or that the one plaintiff who was a former employee had to repay a draw balance when his employment ended.  The district court granted the company’s motion to dismiss, concluding that there was no FLSA violation and declining to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims.

On appeal, after reviewing extensive interpretive guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor, the Sixth Circuit rejected the plaintiffs’ central theory that a recoverable draw amounts to an impermissible wage kick-back.  To the court, the key consideration is that under the pay system at issue, “deductions will be made from wages not delivered, that is, from future earned commissions that have not yet been paid.”  Because the company does not recover wages already “delivered to the employee,” the court “h[e]ld that this practice does not violate the ‘free and clear’ regulation.  See 29 C.F.R. § 531.35 (emphasis added).”  (Op. at 9-10.)

The divided panel reversed, however, in certain other respects.

First, the court determined that the FLSA section 7(i) overtime exemption does not apply because although the company’s pay plan provides for a minimum rate equal to one and one half times the minimum wage for any week where an employee works more than 40 hours, the exemption technically requires, among other things, a rate that is more than one and a half times the minimum wage.  (Note: federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, and 1.5 times that rate is $10.875 per hour.  Strictly speaking, a wage of $10.875 does not satisfy this aspect of the exemption, whereas $10.88 per hour does.  Perhaps on remand it will turn out that the company actually paid $10.88 per hour rather than $10.875, as it would be very unusual for an employer to use a pay rate that does not round up to the nearest cent.)

Second, the panel majority held that the company’s policy of requiring repayment of a draw balance upon termination of employment violated the FLSA as an improper kick-back.  This part of the decision is interesting because the majority parted ways with the dissenting judge and the district court over the issue of policy versus practice.  The complaint did not suggest that either named plaintiff actually paid back any draw balance, and at oral argument it became clear that the company never enforced that policy and, in fact, had eliminated the repayment policy during the litigation.  The dissenting judge, like the district court before him, believed that because the company had never applied the policy to the named plaintiffs, the policy would not support a claim for relief.  The majority, however, took a more expansive approach to the matter.  “Incurring a debt, or even believing that one has incurred a debt, has far-reaching practical implications for individuals.  It could affect the way an individual saves money or applies for loans.  An individual might feel obligated to report that debt when filling out job applications, credit applications, court documents, or other financial records that require self-reporting of existing liabilities.”  (Op. at 15.)  In short, the court arguably opened the door to allowing plaintiffs to bring FLSA claims even where they have suffered no injury cognizable under the FLSA, so long as the policy they challenge could potentially cause them other types of consequential damages beyond those covered by the FLSA.  This aspect of the ruling appears to be a first of its kind in FLSA jurisprudence.

Third, the panel majority concluded that the plaintiffs adequately alleged minimum wage and overtime violations based on the assertions regarding the company’s knowledge and encouragement of working off the clock.  Although the dissent pointed out that the complaint contained no allegation that either named plaintiff actually suffered a minimum wage or overtime violation as a result of working off the clock, the majority focused on the alleged practice, rather than its specific application to the named plaintiffs, determining that “Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to support a claim that this practice violates the minimum wage and overtime requirements of the FLSA.”  (Op. at 19.)

This decision provides several lessons for employers:

  • Generally speaking, the FLSA allows for the concept of a recoverable draw against commissions.  Recovering a draw against future commissions is not automatically an impermissible wage kick-back.  (Note that there may be certain restrictions under state law, and under some conditions a recoverable draw may violate the FLSA.)
  • When relying on the FLSA section 7(i) exemption, ensure that the policy is clear that an employee will receive more than one and a half times the federal minimum wage for any workweek in which the employer will claim the exemption.
  • Closely review any policies regarding recovery of draw payments (or, indeed, any other types of payments) upon an employee’s termination.  Such policies are often subject to challenge, and they can serve as a trigger for claims by demanding a payment right at the time when a departing employee may cease to have an interest in maintaining a positive relationship with an employer.
  • Be very careful about policies or practices that may arguably encourage employees to work off the clock.  Employers should have clear written policies prohibiting employees from working off the clock, and employees and supervisors should receive periodic training on those policies.

Because of concerns about employee theft, many employers have implemented practices whereby employees are screened before leaving work to ensure they are not taking merchandise with them.  While these practices are often implemented in retail stores, other employers use them as well when employees have access to items that could be slipped into a bag or a purse.

Over the last several years, the plaintiffs’ bar has brought a great many class actions and collective actions against employers across the country, alleging that hourly employees are entitled to be paid for the time they spend waiting to have their bags inspected when leaving work.  These lawsuits are often referred to as “bag check” cases.

While the Supreme Court’s decision in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk largely put an end to these cases under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), it did not do so under California law.  That is because of a critical difference between the FLSA and California law.  Unlike the FLSA, California law requires that employees be paid for all time when they are “subject to the control of the employer” or for all time that they are “suffered or permitted to work.”  And, not surprisingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers in California have argued that employees are “subject to the control of the employer” and “suffered” to work while they wait for and participate in security screenings.

In defending against these claims, not only do employers often argue that each employee’s experience differs such that class certification would be inappropriate, but they frequently argue that the time spent in “bag checks” is so small as to be de minimis – and, therefore, not compensable.

Courts throughout the country have recognized the principle that small increments of time are not compensable, including the United States Supreme Court.

In a class action in the Northern District of California where a class had been certified, Nike argued that the time its employees spent in “bag check” was de minimis.  And the Court agreed, awarding it summary judgment.

In Rodriguez v. Nike Retail Services, Inc., 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 147762 (N.D. Cal. Sept. 12, 2017), the district court certified a class of all Nike non-exempt retail store employees since February 2010.  But in certifying the class, the Court specifically held that, “whether time spent undergoing exit inspections is de minimis is a common issue.  ‘That is, if the time is compensable at all, an across-the-board rule, such as sixty seconds, might wind up being the de minimis threshold.’”

Seizing on that holding, Nike commissioned a time and motion study.  That study revealed that an average inspection takes no more than 18.5 seconds.  Nike argued that such time was de minimis.  The Court agreed.

In reaching its conclusion, the Court found that the average inspection time was minimal, employees did not regularly engage in compensable activities during inspections, and it would have been administratively difficult for Nike to record the exit inspections.

The plaintiffs have already filed an appeal from the order granting summary judgment against them.

A year ago, employers across the country prepared for the implementation of a new overtime rule that would dramatically increase the salary threshold for white-collar exemptions, on the understanding that the new rule would soon go into effect “unless something dramatic happens,” a phrase we and others used repeatedly.

And, of course, something dramatic did happen—a preliminary injunction, followed by a lengthy appeal, which itself took more left turns following the U.S. presidential election than a driver in a NASCAR race. The effect was to put employers in a constant holding pattern as they were left to speculate whether and when the rule would ever go into effect.

The current status of the overtime rule is but one of several prominent issues to reckon with as wage and hour issues, investigations, and litigation remain as prevalent as they have ever been.

The articles in this edition of Take 5 include the following:

  1. The Status of the Department of Labor’s 2016 Overtime Rule
  2. Recent Developments Regarding Tip Pooling
  3. Mandatory Class Action Waivers in Employment Agreements: Is a Final Answer Forthcoming?
  4. “Time Rounding”: The Next Wave of Class and Collective Actions
  5. The Department of Labor, Congress, and the Courts Wrestle with the Definition of “Employee”

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

As noted in earlier postings, in March of this year, a federal judge in New York handed Chipotle Mexican Grill a significant victory, denying a request by salaried management apprentices alleging misclassification as exempt from overtime to certify claims for class action treatment under the laws of six states, as well as granting Chipotle’s motion to decertify an opt-in class of 516 apprentices under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  The plaintiffs then sought—and in July 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted—a discretionary interlocutory appeal of the ruling concerning the six state-law putative classes, allowing the plaintiffs to obtain immediate review of that decision under Rule 23(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure rather than waiting until after final judgment in the case to pursue an appeal as of right.

The plaintiffs also asked the district court for permission to appeal the order decertifying the FLSA collective action.  Under the pertinent statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), a district court may certify a non-final ruling for immediate appeal if the “order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and … an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation[.]”  The plaintiffs argued that “a conflict exists in this Circuit between Rule 23 standards for class certification and FLSA Section [16(b)] standards for certification of a collective action” and that the court’s rulings regarding the FLSA and the state-law classes reflect uncertainty regarding the differences, if any, between the class certification standard and the FLSA decertification standard.

On September 25, 2017, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for an interlocutory appeal.  Although the court “disagrees with Plaintiffs’ argument that there is a ‘rift’ between” those standards, the court nevertheless concluded that the “Plaintiffs’ assertions do point to controlling questions of law which may have substantial grounds for a difference of opinion.”  (Order at 2.)  The court emphasized that “[t]he Second Circuit will review this Court’s Rule 23 class certification decision pursuant to Rule 23(f)” but that this review “would not likely encompass the portion of this Court’s decision decertifying the . . . collective action.”  (Id.)  Because “Plaintiffs are adamant that the two standards need elucidation and that this Court erred in applying the standards, it seems proper to grant Section 1292(b) relief in order for the Circuit to review the entire” ruling—i.e., both the FLSA and the state-law class aspects of the decision—and thereby “avoid the possibility of conflicting decisions on Plaintiffs’ class motions, promote judicial efficiency, and avoid piecemeal appellate litigation.”  (Id.)  The court also remarked that “the Second Circuit has recognized that class certification decisions have the potential to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation which the Second Circuit has held may warrant Section 1292(b) relief.”  (Id. at 3.)

Stepping back from the specific wording of the court’s decision, the ruling reflects a pragmatic approach to the matter: because the Second Circuit has already decided to take up the Rule 23 class certification issue in the case, there is no real harm in allowing the appellate court the opportunity to decide whether it also wants to address the FLSA decertification issue at the same time.  The district court’s decision certifying the matter for interlocutory appeal does not require the Second Circuit to hear the full case at this time; instead, it authorizes the plaintiffs to proceed with a petition for permission to that court to appeal the decertification order.

It remains to be seen to what extent this court and other courts will apply the actual verbiage of this decision even-handedly when employers seek review of orders granting class certification or conditionally certifying FLSA collective actions.  Will being “adamant” that the law needs “elucidation” and that the court “erred” features of nearly every employer-side request for interlocutory review—or the “potential” for class certification decisions “to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation” similarly lead to interlocutory review when employers make comparable requests?  Stay tuned for further developments.