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.

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.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: The U.S. Supreme Court takes on class action waivers.

In 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that class action waivers in arbitration agreements violate employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits disagreed, finding that these waivers do not violate the NLRA and are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. More recently, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits sided with the NLRB on the issue. The Supreme Court will consider three cases in order to resolve this split, but any resolution could depend on the timing of the hearing. If the case is heard this term, before President Trump’s nominee for the vacancy on the Supreme Court is confirmed, it could end in a 4-4 tie. That would leave the law as it stands, and the split would continue.

Watch the segment below and see our recent blog post by Michael Kun.

Bag Security CheckIn recent years, employers across the country have faced a great many class action and collective action lawsuits in which employees have alleged they are entitled to be paid for the time spent in security screenings before they leave their employers’ premises – but after they have already clocked out for the day.  Retailers have been particularly susceptible to these claims as many require employees to undergo “bag checks” before they depart their stores to ensure that employees are not attempting to carry merchandise out in their bags or coats.

In late 2014, in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, the United States Supreme Court held that time spent in security screenings was not compensable under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

While Busk would seem to leave few circumstances under which employees could bring viable “bag check” claims under the FLSA, it did not put an end to the claims.  Among other things, the compensability of such time under California state law, which defines compensable time differently than the FLSA, remained unaddressed.  Indeed, late last week, Bath & Body Works Inc. reportedly agreed to pay $2.25 million to settle a putative class action asserting claims under the California Labor Code for unpaid work hours that included claims that employees were not paid for time spent in security screenings.  The critical difference between the FLSA and California laws is that 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 many, if not most, security screenings, employees who do not have a bag or a coat are not subject to a screening. They simply leave without being checked.  Under those circumstances, we have always argued that time spent in security screenings is not compensable precisely because the employee can avoid the screening altogether by not bringing a bag or coat.

Earlier this week, in what appears to be the first published opinion on the issue, District Court Judge William Alsup reached that very conclusion.  In Frlekin v. Apple Inc., the Court dismissed a class-action lawsuit brought by Apple store employees seeking compensation under California law for time spent waiting for their bags to be searched before they left the stores where they worked.  Granting summary judgment to Apple, the Court concluded that the time was not “hours worked” because the searches were peripheral to the employees’ job duties and could be avoided if the employees chose not to bring bags to work.

The history of Frlekin largely describes the development of the law on “bag checks” this decade. The Frlekin plaintiffs initially pursued their “bag check” claims under the FLSA and various states laws, including California law.  The FLSA and non-California claims were dismissed following the Supreme Court’s decision in Busk, leaving just the California claims.

On those California claims, the District Court explained that, to prove that they were subject to the control of Apple during the bag checks, the plaintiffs had to show that:

  • Apple restrained their actions during the bag checks; and
  • the plaintiffs could not choose to avoid the activity.

The District Court found that the first element was met because, once a worker wished to leave with a bag, the worker was required to stand in line for the security screening. However, the District Court found that the second element was not met because a plaintiff could choose not to bring bags to work and thereby avoid the “bag check” altogether.  Distinguishing cases cited by the plaintiffs, the District Court further held that “employee choice” is a dispositive element in determining whether an employee is subject to the control of the employer.

The District Court then addressed whether the employees were “suffered or permitted to work” during the time they were awaiting security screenings.  The Court stated that liability arises when an employer knows that someone is performing work for its benefit, and allows that work to proceed.  Therefore, “the touchstone is the failure to prevent work.

On this issue, the District Court then held that time spent waiting for security screenings was not “work” because it had no relationship to plaintiffs’ job responsibilities; the plaintiffs merely waited passively as managers or security guards conducted the searches.  Accordingly, time spent waiting for bag checks was not time during which the plaintiffs were “suffered or permitted to work.”

In light of its conclusions that the time spent in security screenings was not time during which the plaintiffs were “subject to the control” of Apple or “suffered or permitted to work,” the District Court held that the time was not compensable under California law and granted summary judgment to Apple.

While the District Court’s ruling is, of course, a significant victory for Apple and for employers in California, it does not necessarily spell the end of class actions in California alleging that employees are entitled to compensation for time spent in security screenings.

First, the Frlekin plaintiffs are likely to appeal this decision.  It would be surprising if they did not.

Second, the decision is not binding on other courts, and in particular is not binding on California state courts.

Third, the decision will not be helpful to those employers who require all employees to undergo screenings regardless of whether they brought a bag or a coat.

For these reasons, it is too early to declare “bag check” lawsuits dead.

But, based on this decision, plaintiffs’ lawyers may think twice about bringing “bag check” class actions, and employers that have security screenings similar to Apple’s can take comfort that the first court to address the practice in a published decision has found that time spent in “bag checks” is not compensable time.

In Jones-Turner v. Yellow Enterprise Systems, LLC, the Sixth Circuit recently upheld summary judgment in favor of an ambulance company in a collective action filed by three EMTs, finding that the plaintiffs’ meal and rest breaks were not compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and Kentucky law.  The Court analyzed whether the ambulance company’s policy of having “on-call” lunch periods required EMTs to be compensated for that time.

According to the “on-call” lunch period policy, EMTs in the field were not allotted a specific time period for lunch but were instructed to take advantage of down time between ambulance runs to eat a meal.  The EMT crews  were required to radio the dispatcher to request a lunch break.  During their lunch break, the crews were subject to various restrictions.  For instance, the crews had to eat within one mile of an assigned stand-by location.  If the crews were out of their unit, they had to maintain radio contact, they were expected to answer the radio after the first call and they were subject to any available run.  If an employee was unable to take a lunch break due to call volume, the company required the employee to submit a missed lunch form.

The Court noted that there did not appear to be any evidence that employees were frequently interrupted by radio contact.  Likewise, there was no evidence that crews could only eat in their ambulances.  To the contrary, the evidence showed that they could leave the ambulance so long as they maintained radio contact.   The Court explained that it may have reached a different conclusion if EMTs were required to stay in their ambulances or if they had to drive or perform other duties.

The decision is helpful to employers as it clarifies that merely carrying a radio or monitoring a radio during lunch does not result in the meal period being compensable under the FLSA.  Although employers must be careful that they do not require employees to perform work during their meal periods, being subject to an emergency call does not transform meal periods into compensable time under the FLSA.

Our colleague Stuart M. Gerson at Epstein Becker Green wrote a new blog post that discusses the Supreme Court’s recent Dart decision: “Supreme Court Lowers the Bar for Class Action Removal.”

Following is an excerpt:

On December 15, 2014, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Dart Cherokee Basin Operating Co. v. Owens, a class action removal case.

 In short, the Dart case is welcome news to employers. Standards for removing a case from state to federal court have been an abiding point of concern for employers faced with “home town” class actions. In more recent times, this problem has become a point of interest to employers in health care and other industries that are beset by cybersecurity and data breach cases originating in state courts but calling for the application of federal privacy standards. Dart should help them substantially.

 Read the full post here.

By Jill Barbarino

On October 28 a three-member majority of the National Labor Relations Board in Murphy Oil revisited and reaffirmed its position that employers violate the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) by requiring employees covered by the Act (virtually allnonsupervisory and non-managerial employees of most private sector employees, whether unionized or not) to waive, as a condition of their employment, participation in class or collective actions.

As previously reported in an Act Now Advisory, in 2012 the NLRB held in D.R. Horton that the home builder unlawfully interfered with employees’ Section 7 right to engage in concerted activity by requiring them to sign an arbitration agreement prohibiting class or collective claims in any judicial or arbitral forum.  As we have also previously reported, however, on December 3, 2013, the Fifth Circuit rejected the NLRB’s position and held that the Act does not prohibit employers from requiring employees to sign class or collective action waivers.  The Second Circuit and the Eighth Circuit have likewise rejected the Board’s position.

Notwithstanding having “no illusions” that the Board’s decision would be the “last word on the subject”, in a 59-page decision, it reiterated and endorsed its prior position and addressed its critics head on, including the two lengthy dissents from Members Harry Johnson and Philip Miscimarra.

The Decision

Murphy Oil is the owner and operator of over 1,000 retail fueling stations.  Prior to March 6, 2012, Murphy Oil required all job applicants and current employees to execute a “Binding Arbitration Agreement and Waiver of Jury Trial,” which provided in pertinent part that all disputes related to an individual’s employment shall be resolved by binding arbitration and that the parties to the agreement “waive their right to commence or be a party to any group, class or collective action claim in arbitration or any other forum.”  The Charging Party, Sheila Hobson, signed this Agreement when she applied for employment in 2008.  Two years later, Hobson filed a collective action pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act alleging that Murphy Oil failed to pay her and others for work-related activities performed off the clock.  Murphy Oil moved to compel arbitration and to dismiss the FLSA claims based on the plaintiffs having signed the Agreement.  Hobson, thereafter, filed an unfair labor practice charge and the NLRB’s General Counsel issued a complaint, alleging that Murphy Oil had violated Section 8(a)(1) of the Act.

At the heart of the dispute between the Board and its critics is the interpretation of Section 7 and 8(a)(1) of the Act as well as the application of the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) and Supreme Court jurisprudence interpreting same.

Section 8(a)(1) of the Act states that it “shall be an unfair labor practice for an employer . . . to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees” in the exercise of their Section 7 rights.  Section 7 of the Act states that employees shall have the right to “engage in . . . concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection[.]”  

The Supreme Court, on the other hand, in CompuCredit Corp. v. Greenwood, 132 S.Ct. 665, 673 (2012), held that where there is no specific “contrary congressional command” as to whether a claim can be arbitrated, the FAA “requires the arbitration agreement to be enforced according to its terms.”   The CompuCredit decision, however, only addressed the enforcement of an arbitration clause that barred access to courts, not a waiver of class or collection actions.  Moreover, the CompuCredit decision was not an employment-related dispute and did not involve the NLRA.  Thus, the specific issue at play in D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil remains unaddressed by the Supreme Court.

The Board’s rationale for upholding D.R. Horton is as follows:

(1)   Section 7 of the Act grants employees the  substantive right to act “concertedly for mutual aid or protection” and mandatory arbitration agreements that bar an employee’s ability to bring join, class, or collective workplace claims restrict this substantive right.

(2)   The conclusion that mandatory class action waivers are unlawful under the Act does not conflict with the FAA or its underlying policies because:

(a)    such a finding treats arbitration agreements no less favorably than any other private contract that conflicts with federal law;

(b)   Section 7 rights are substantive, which means that they cannot be waived under the FAA like procedural rights found in other statutes;

(c)    the “savings clause” in the FAA affirmatively provides that an arbitration agreement’s conflict with federal law is grounds for invalidating an agreement;

(d)   if there is a direct conflict between the NLRA and the FAA, the Norris-LaGuardia Act – which prevents private agreements that are inconsistent with the statutory policy of protecting employees’ rights to engage in concerted activity – requires the FAA to yield to the NLRA as necessary to accommodate Section 7 rights.

The Board criticized the Fifth Circuit’s decision for, among other things, giving too little weight to the “crucial point” that “the Board, like the courts, must carefully accommodate both the NLRA and the FAA” and not treat the FAA and its policies as “sweeping far more broadly than the statute or the Supreme Court’s decisions warrant.”

As to Member Johnson’s argument in his dissent that “there was no such thing as a class or collective action in any modern sense when the Act was passed in 1935” the Board majority found this point to be irrelevant because the language of “Section 7 is general and broad.”  As an example, the Board stated that the pursuit of unionization is “obviously protected” through the use of “modern communication technologies such as social media . . . regardless of whether workers during the Depression had access to Facebook.”

The Board also stated that contrary to the suggestion in Member Miscimarra’s dissent, it has not taken the position that the Act creates a guarantee to class certification or the equivalent; it does, however, create a right to “pursue joint, class or collective claims if and as available, without the interference of an employer-imposed restraint.”

What Does This Mean for Employers

After Murphy Oil, it is clear that the Board’s position and the position of at least some federal courts on this issue remain at odds.  If employers require employees covered by the Act to sign class action waivers, they should be aware that it could take significant time and money to ultimately have such an agreement upheld in federal court.  Clearly the last word on this issue will come only when the Supreme Court, as it is likely to do, considers the issue.  Until then employers that require such waivers should recognize that challenges through unfair labor practice charges will remain a fact of life.

By Michael Kun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this mean?

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

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

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

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

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

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

By: Kara M. Maciel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Federal Court Strikes Down DOL Tip Pooling Rule

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Take Preventative Steps When Facing WHD Audits

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

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

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

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

by John F. Fullerton III

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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