In November 2017, four convenience store franchisees brought suit in federal court against 7-Eleven, Inc., alleging that they and all other franchisees were employees of 7-Eleven. The case was filed in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, entitled Haitayan, et al. v. 7-Eleven, Inc., case no. CV 17-7454-JFW (JPRx).

In alleging that they were 7-Eleven’s employees, the franchisees brought claims for violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the California Labor Code, alleging overtime and expense reimbursement violations. The trial court granted judgment in 7-Eleven’s favor, concluding that 7-Eleven was not the four franchisees’ employer under California law or federal law.

The court noted that the franchisees’ “basic legal theory underlying [their] claims [wa]s that 7-Eleven’s restrictive policies and practices created an employment relationship between the parties.” The court concluded that because the franchisees could not establish an employment relationship, each of their claims failed.

For example, while 7-Eleven required the franchisees to keep their stores open 24 hours per day, 364 days per year, the court was persuaded by the fact that the franchisees themselves were not “actually required to work at the stores a particular number of hours or on particular days” – they could hire employees to meet these requirements. And while the franchisees argued that 7-Eleven controls the payment of all wages and instructs franchisee on pay practices, performance appraisals, and disciplinary actions, including worker terminations, that did not persuade the court because “the fact that a franchisor pays a franchisees’ employees’ wages does not create an employment relationship,” and the franchisees admitted that they have unfettered discretion to hire and fire employees and set wages.

Because the franchise agreements explicitly provided that franchisees “control the manner and means of the operation” of their stores and “exercise complete control over and all responsibility for all labor relations and the conduct of [franchisees’] agents and employees, including the day-to-day operations” of franchisees’ stores and employees, the court concluded that such minimal control was insufficient to make franchisees common law employees of 7-Eleven.

The federal court’s decision is a welcome one for franchisors that have sound franchise agreements and practices in place. It is certainly possible that the court would have reached a different conclusion had 7-Eleven’s franchise agreement or practices provided for 7-Eleven to have a greater right to exercise control over franchisees.  In light of this decision, franchisors should review their agreements and practices to ensure they do not have a right to control the wages, hours, or working conditions of franchisees.

For more than 70 years, the Supreme Court has construed exemptions to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) narrowly. In A.H. Phillips, Inc. v. Walling, for example, the Court stated that “[t]o extend an exemption to other than those plainly and unmistakably within its terms and spirit is to abuse the interpretative process and to frustrate the announced will of the people.”  324 U.S. 490, 493 (1945).  The Supreme Court has restated this rule many times in the intervening years, and the lower courts have followed, citing this principle in virtually every significant case involving overtime exemptions.

On April 2,2018, the Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated ruling in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro.  Marking the second time that the case has gone to the high court, the ruling held that the specific employees at issue—service advisors at an automobile dealership—are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirement.  What people will long remember the 5-4 ruling for, however, is not the exempt status of the particular plaintiffs in that case, but rather the Court’s rejection of the principle that courts construe FLSA exemptions narrowly.  By removing a heavy judicial thumb from the workers’ side of the scales in FLSA exemption litigation, Encino Motorcars is likely to figure prominently in many pending and future exemption cases.

Background

In one of the law’s lesser-known subsections, FLSA section 13(b)(10)(A) exempts from the federal overtime requirement “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements, if he is employed by a nonmanufacturing establishment primarily engaged in the business of selling such vehicles or implements to ultimate purchasers[.]” 29 U.S.C. § 213(b)(10)(A).  In the early 1970s, the U.S. Department of Labor originally interpreted this language as not applying to so-called “service advisors,” whom the Court described as “employees at car dealerships who consult with customers about their servicing needs and sell them servicing solutions.”  (Opinion at 1-2.)  Courts took a different view, and from 1978 to 2011 the Department accepted the view that service advisors are exempt.  (Id. at 2.)  In 2011, the Department changed course again, issuing a regulation stating that service advisors are not “salesmen” and thus are not within the scope of the exemption.  (Id. at 3.)

In 2012, current and former service advisors sued a California car dealership, asserting that they are non-exempt and entitled to overtime. The dealership moved to dismiss the complaint, arguing that the section 13(b)(10)(A) exemption applies.  The district court agreed and dismissed the case, but on appeal the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.  In April 2016, the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit, concluding in a 6-2 ruling that the Department’s 2011 regulation is invalid and entitled to no deference, and remanding the matter to the Ninth Circuit to consider the meaning of the statutory language without the regulation.  (Opinion at 3-4 (discussing Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, 579 U.S. — (2016)).)  On remand, the Ninth Circuit again held that the service advisors are not exempt, and the case went back up to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

The meaning of the words in the statute

Noting the parties’ agreement that certain language in the exemption either does not apply or is not at issue, Justice Thomas, writing for the Court, distilled the legal question to whether service advisors are “salesm[e]n . . . primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles” for purposes of the statute’s overtime exemption. (Opinion at 5.)  The Court began its analysis by observing that “[a] service advisor is obviously a ‘salesman.’”  (Id. at 6.)  The Court looked to dictionary definitions of “salesman,” concluding that the term means “someone who sells goods or services.”  (Id.)  The Court stated that “[s]ervice advisors do precisely that.”  (Id.)

The Court then held that “[s]ervice advisors are also ‘primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles.’” (Opinion at 6.)  Once again turning to dictionaries, the Court observed that [t]he word ‘servicing’ in this context can mean either ‘the action of maintaining or repairing a motor vehicle’ or ‘[t]he action of providing a service.’”  (Id.)  To the Court, “[s]ervice advisors satisfy both definitions.  Service advisors are integral to the servicing process.”  (Id.)  Although they “do not spend most of their time physically repairing automobiles[,]” neither do “partsmen,” another category of employees whom “[a]ll agree . . . are primarily engaged in . . . servicing automobiles.”  (Id.)  Thus, “the phrase ‘primarily engage in . . . servicing automobiles’ must include some individuals who do not physically repair automobiles themselves”; and the verbiage “applies to partsmen and service advisors alike.”  (Id.)

The inapplicability of an arcane rule of statutory construction

The Court then rejected the Ninth Circuit’s use of the so-called “distributive canon,” a principle of statutory construction whereby courts may interpret a statute in a manner other than indicated by its plain language, and instead relate certain words back only to particular words appearing earlier in the statute. Here, the exemption uses the expansive, disjunctive word “or” three times, but the Ninth Circuit declined to read “or” in its usual sense, instead interpreting “any salesman, partsman, or mechanic primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements” as meaning “any salesman . . . primarily engaged in selling” and “any . . . partsman[] or mechanic primarily engaged in . . . servicing[.]”  (Opinion at 4, 7.)  The Court gave three reasons for declining to apply the distributive canon to FLSA section 13(b)(10)(A): (1) the absence of one-to-one matching, as the Ninth Circuit’s reading requires pairing one category of employees with “selling” but two categories of employees with “servicing”; (2) the possibility, and indeed reasonableness, of construing the statute as written; and (3) the inconsistency of using the narrowing canon in light of the exemption’s overall broad language.  (Id. at 8.)

Rejection of the narrow construction rule

The most significant aspect of the Court’s ruling is its rejection of the Ninth Circuit’s use of the “narrow construction” principle for FLSA exemptions:

The Ninth Circuit also invoked the principle that exemptions to the FLSA should be construed narrowly. We reject this principle as a useful guidepost for interpreting the FLSA.

(Opinion at 9 (emphasis added, citation omitted).) The Court observed that “[b]ecause the FLSA gives no ‘textual indication’ that its exemptions should be construed narrowly, ‘there is no reason to give [them] anything other than a fair (rather than a “narrow”) interpretation.’”  (Id. (citation omitted).)  The Court remarked that “exemptions are as much a part of the FLSA’s purpose as the overtime-pay requirement.  We thus have no license to give the exemption anything but a fair reading.”  (Id. (citation omitted).)

The Court also rejected the Ninth Circuit’s reliance on a 1966-67 Handbook from the Department, as well as legislative history that was silent on the issue of service advisors. (Opinion at 9-11.)

The Dissent

Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. They disagreed with the Court’s linguistic construction of the exemption, while arguing that the regular schedules worked by service advisors render overtime exemption unnecessary.  (Dissent at 3-7.)  The dissent rejected the car dealership’s asserted reliance interest and concern for retroactive liability, noting the potential availability of the FLSA’s good faith defense.  (Id. at 7-8).  Finally, the dissent criticized the Court for rejecting the narrow construction principle for FLSA exemptions “[i]n a single paragraph . . . without even acknowledging that it unsettles more than half a century of our precedent.”  (Id. at 9 n.7.)

What The Decision Means For Employers

Most immediately, Encino Motorcars affects car dealerships by concluding that service advisors are exempt from the federal overtime requirement.  The decision, however, will reach far more broadly than just this one industry.  Since the 1940s, courts grappling with the meaning of ambiguously-worded FLSA exemptions have invoked the narrow construction rule as an often outcome-determinative facet of their decisions.  It served as much more than a tie-breaker, instead creating a very strong presumption of non-exempt status unless an employer could demonstrate that an exemption “plainly and unmistakably” applies.  In light of Encino Motorcars, that rule no longer has any place in interpreting FLSA exemptions.

What this means for employers is that it should now be easier than before for employers to persuade courts that employees fall within overtime exemptions. Now, employers must merely show that their reading of the exemption is more consistent with the statutory and regulatory text, rather than showing that there is little or no doubt about the matter.

At the same time, courts may find themselves tempted to resist this development, especially when construing exemptions under state law. It would not be surprising, for example, to see some courts begin to construe state-law exemptions differently from their FLSA counterparts, even when the wording of the exemptions is identical.

Depending on the jurisdictions within which they operate, certain employers and their counsel will soon see a significant change in early mandatory discovery requirements in individual wage-hour cases brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).

A new set of initial discovery protocols recently published by the Federal Judicial Center (“FJC”), entitled Initial Discovery Protocols For Fair Labor Standards Act Cases Not Pleaded As Collective Actions (“FLSA Protocols”), available here, expands a party’s initial disclosure requirements to include additional documents and information relevant to FLSA cases. These Protocols apply, however, only to FLSA lawsuits that have been filed in participating courts that have implemented the Protocols by local rule or by standing, general, or individual case order. (At least one court has already adopted the Initial FLSA Protocols — the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division.) Also, as the title of this initiative makes clear, these protocols do not apply to FLSA actions styled as collective actions.

The goal of the FLSA Protocols in requiring an up-front exchange of information is to help frame issues to be resolved in the case, minimize potential opportunities for gamesmanship, and enable the court and parties to plan for more efficient and targeted discovery.  To that end, the Protocols focus on the type of information that is most likely to be useful in narrowing the issues in such cases.

Specifically, both parties must produce materials such as employment agreements, compensation agreements, and offer letters; documents recording the plaintiff’s wages and/or hours worked; written complaints from the plaintiff regarding the wages or overtime and any response; and documents showing the defendant’s good faith or willfulness.  The employer must also produce its wage and hour-related policies, procedures, or guidelines, as well as relevant portions of any employee handbook.  Additionally, both parties must identify the plaintiff’s start and end dates of employment, job title and duties, supervisors and managers, and any individuals having knowledge of the relevant facts.  The relevant time period for the FLSA Protocols mirrors the FLSA’s statute of limitations, which is two years before the date the Complaint was filed, or three years if the plaintiff’s complaint alleges a willful violation.

If adopted by a court, the FLSA Protocols will supersede the initial disclosure requirements set forth in Rule 26(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”); however, they will not supplant parties’ subsequent discovery obligations under the FRCP.   To address potential concerns by either party regarding the confidentiality of any documents or information to be exchanged, the FLSA Protocols include a model interim protective order allowing a party to designate documents or information as “confidential,” limiting their use to the particular case.

The FLSA Protocols are the second set of case-specific discovery protocols to be developed and implemented in the federal courts.  The FJC published the first set of protocols, the Initial Discovery Protocols for Employment Cases Alleging Adverse Action (“Employment Protocols”), in November 2011, and they have since been adopted by over 50 judges and on a district-wide basis in multiple jurisdictions around the country.

According to a FJC report issued in October 2015, cases filed in courts that adopted the Employment Protocols had less motion practice (both discovery-related and dispositive motions) than comparison cases, and they were more likely to settle. In a follow-up memorandum published a year later, the FJC found that the Employment Protocols had been more widely accepted by the federal judiciary than expected, despite the fact they specifically carve out from their application specific employment-related cases such as those arising under the FLSA and Family Medical Leave Act.

Like the Employment Protocols, the FLSA Protocols may very well become a helpful tool for employers being sued in FLSA litigations because they require early disclosure of relevant information that will help the parties to a litigation assess the strength of the plaintiff’s claims and employer’s defenses quickly and allow them to make informed decisions as to best strategies, including whether potential early resolution is appropriate.  Query, however, whether such potential early disclosure could alternatively be achieved by requiring federal district courts to maintain more rigorous case management plan deadlines.

Whether the FLSA Protocols will ultimately result in greater efficiency in the discovery process or an increase in early case resolution remains to be seen.  The FJC has announced that it will monitor their use, including by evaluating cases conducted in accordance with the Protocols’ early discovery requirements. Because many plaintiff-employees and their counsel file lawsuits as a collective action, rather than on an individual basis, as a matter of course, it is unclear how big of an impact the FLSA Protocols will actually have on non-collective FLSA litigation.  In fact, it is possible the FLSA Protocols could actually incentivize plaintiff’s counsel to file actions on a collective basis, rather than as individual plaintiff lawsuits, in order to avoid the additional work at the outset of a case.  If so, then expanding the Protocols to include collective actions would likely have a more resounding impact.  Should the Protocols find success with the participating federal judiciary, then perhaps they will be expanded, in both jurisdiction and scope, to include collective actions.  Only time will tell, and we will be sure to keep you apprised of all developments with this new initiative.

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.

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.

On September 5, 2017, the Department of Labor filed with the Fifth Circuit an unopposed motion asking the court to dismiss its appeal of the nationwide preliminary injunction ruling issued last November by a Judge Amos Mazzant in the Eastern District of Texas.  The motion states that DOL’s appeal is moot in light of Judge Mazzant’s entry of final judgment on August 31, 2017.  Barring any unusual further developments, we anticipate that the Fifth Circuit will dismiss the appeal promptly.

By withdrawing the appeal, the Department is signaling that it intends to abandon the 2016 Final rule and, instead, to proceed with a new rulemaking in line with the Request for Information (“RFI”) the Department issued on July 26, 2017.  That RFI seeks public input regarding what salary level or levels, if any, the Department should use in place of the 2016 figures in order to update the $455 weekly / $23,660 annual salary requirement for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions implemented in the Department’s 2004 rulemaking, as well as the $100,000 annual compensation threshold for the highly-compensated variant of these exemptions.

The comment period for the RFI currently ends on September 25, 2017.  To date, regulations.gov has received more than 138,000 comments in response to the RFI, though most of the comments appear to be identical submissions by numerous different commenters, as is common for this type of rulemaking.  Watch for a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking announcing a new salary level for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions in the next few months.

 

Since last November, much of the discussion regarding the Obama-era overtime regulations that, among other things, more than doubled the minimum salary threshold for executive, administrative, and professional employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) has focused on the Department of Labor’s appeal of the nationwide preliminary injunction barring implementation and enforcement of the rule.

While everyone is awaiting the oral argument before the Fifth Circuit, currently scheduled for October 3, 2017, Judge Amos Mazzant of the Eastern District of Texas once again issued a bold ruling sure to grab the public’s attention.

On August 31, 2017, Judge Mazzant granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs in the two consolidated cases challenging the overtime rule, holding that the salary level the Department selected in 2016 conflicts with the FLSA, Nevada v. U.S. Department of Labor and Plano Chamber of Commerce, E.D. Tex. No. 4:16-CV-731.

After dealing with preliminary procedural issues including standing, ripeness, and the applicability of the FLSA to the States, Judge Mazzant focused on the substance of the 2016 rule.  Applying the legal framework set forth in Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837, 842-43 (1984), the Court determined that the statutory language establishing the exemptions, section 13(a)(1) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1), “is unambiguous because the plain meanings of the words in the statute indicate Congress’s intent for employees doing ‘bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ duties to be exempt from overtime pay.”  (Slip Op. at 13.)

In the Court’s words, “the Department does not have the authority to use a salary-level test that will effectively eliminate the duties test as prescribed by” the FLSA.  (Slip Op. at 14.)  “Nor does the Department have the authority to categorically exclude those who perform ‘bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ duties based on salary level alone.”  (Id.)

In short, “[t]he updated salary-level test under the Final Rule does not give effect to Congress’s unambiguous intent.”  (Slip Op. at 14.)  The Court noted that “[t]he Department estimates 4.2 million workers currently ineligible for overtime, and who fall below the minimum salary level, will automatically become eligible under the Final Rule without a change to their duties.”  (Id. at 16.)

The Court held that “the Department’s Final Rule is not ‘based on a permissible construction’ of Section 213(a)(1)” because by “doubl[ing] the previous minimum salary level” the regulation “eliminates a consideration of whether an employee performs ‘bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity’ duties.”  (Slip Op. at 16-17.)  For Judge Mazzant, “[t]he Department has exceeded its authority and gone too far with the Final Rule.  Nothing in Section 213(a)(1) allows the Department to make salary rather than an employee’s duties determinative of whether” an employee “should be exempt from overtime pay.  Accordingly, the Final Rule is not a reasonable interpretation of Section 213(a)(1) and thus is not entitled to Chevron deference.”  (Id. at 17.)

The Court also struck down the regulation’s mechanism for automatically updating the minimum salary threshold every three years.  (Slip Op. at 17.)

In a portion of the decision that may have a direct effect on the pending appeal, the Court “acknowledges its injunction order might have been confusing” insofar as some have read that decision as “invalidat[ing] all versions of the salary-level test that the Department has used for the last seventy-five years.”  (Slip Op. at 4 n.1.)

The Court clarified that “the Department has the authority to implement a salary-level test” and that the summary judgment ruling “is not making any assessments regarding the general lawfulness of the salary-level test or the Department’s authority to implement such a test.  Instead, the Court is evaluating only the salary-level test as amended by the Department’s Final Rule, which is invalid under both steps of Chevron.”  (Id. at 13 n.5.)

As a result of Judge Mazzant’s ruling, the pending appeal may be moot.  The Department’s reply brief before the Fifth Circuit expressly disavowed a defense of the salary level selected in the Final Rule, instead asking the Fifth Circuit to rule only on the question of whether the Department has the authority to implement a salary-level test at all.  Judge Mazzant’s decision acknowledges that the Department has that authority, which appears to address the Department’s concern. In light of the decision, the Department may well withdraw its appeal.

In Moon et al v. Breathless, Inc., the Third Circuit reviewed the dismissal of a class and collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the New Jersey Wage and Hour Law and the New Jersey Wage Payment Law.  The District Court for the District of New Jersey had dismissed the named plaintiff’s claims based on an arbitration clause in the written agreement between the her and Breathless, the club where she worked as a dancer.

In her lawsuit, the plaintiff alleged that she and other dancers were misclassified as independent contractors, and that Breathless unlawfully failed to pay them minimum wages and overtime pay.

In response, Breathless pointed to an agreement signed by the plaintiff stating that she was an independent contractor and not an employee. Breathless moved for summary judgment based on language in the agreement stating: “In a dispute between [the plaintiff and Breathless] under this Agreement, either may request to resolve the dispute by binding arbitration.”

The Third Circuit noted that, under New Jersey law, there is a presumption that a court will decide any issues concerning arbitrability. Finding no evidence to overcome that presumption, the Circuit Court proceeded to decide whether the plaintiff was required to submit her class and collective action claims to arbitration.

The New Jersey Supreme Court’s decisions in Garfinkel v. Morristown Obstetrics & Gynecology Assocs. and Atalese v. U.S. Legal Servs. Grp. were determinative of the scope of the arbitration agreement in this case, concluded the Third Circuit.

In Garfinkel, the arbitration provision in a contract stated it applied to “any controversy or claim arising out of, or relating to, this Agreement or the breach thereof.”  That language that suggested that the parties intended to arbitrate only those disputes “involving a contract term, a condition of employment, or some other element of the contract itself.”  Accordingly, the plaintiff in Garfinkel was not compelled to arbitrate his statutory claims.

In Atalese, the arbitration provision in a service agreement covered “any claim or dispute … related to this Agreement or related to any performance of any services related to this Agreement.”  That language “did not clearly and unambiguously signal to plaintiff that she was surrendering her right to pursue her statutory claims in court,” and therefore the plaintiff was not required to arbitrate those claims.

By contrast, the New Jersey Supreme Court required the arbitration of statutory claims in Martindale v. Sandvik, Inc., where the arbitration clause in an employment agreement stated that plaintiff agreed to waive her “right to a jury trial in any action or proceeding related to [her] employment…”

Because the arbitration agreement in the plaintiff’s agreement with Breathless applied to disputes “under this Agreement,” without reference to statutory wage claims, the Third Circuit applied Garfinkel and Atalese to conclude that Moon was not required to arbitrate her statutory claims under the FLSA and New Jersey law.

The award of summary judgment in favor of Breathless was therefore reversed, and the case was remanded to the District Court.

While the laws of other states may vary, the Third Circuit’s decision suggests that, at the very least, employers in New Jersey should expressly reference statutory wage claims in arbitration provisions if they intend to have statutory wage claims arbitrated.

In a much anticipated filing with the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal in State of Nevada, et a. v. United States Department of Labor, et al, the United States Department of Labor has made clear that it is not defending the Obama Administration’s overtime rule that would more than double the threshold for employees to qualify for most overtime exemptions. However, the Department has taken up the appeal filed by the previous Administration to reverse the preliminary injunction issued blocking implementation of the rule, requesting that the Court overturn as erroneous the Eastern District of Texas’ finding, and reaffirm the Department’s authority to establish a salary level test. And the Department has requested that the Court not address the validity of the specific salary level set by the 2016 final rule because the Department intends to revisit the salary level threshold through new rulemaking.

The litigation stems from action taken by the Department in May 2016 to issue a final rule that would have increased the minimum salary threshold for most overtime exemptions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) from $23,660 per year to $47,476 per year. The rule was scheduled to become effective on December 1, 2016, but a federal judge issued a temporary injunction blocking its implementation just days beforehand.

Section 13(a) of the FLSA exempts from the Act’s minimum wage and overtime pay requirements “any employee employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional [(“EAP”)] capacity * * * [specifically providing,] as such terms are defined and delimited from time to time by regulations of the Secretary [of Labor].” 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1). To be subject to this exemption, a worker must (1) be paid on a salary basis; (2) earn a specified salary level; and (3) satisfy a duties test.  In enjoining the 2016 rule, the District Court for the Eastern District of Texas reasoned that the salary-level component of this three-part test is unlawful, concluding that “Congress defined the EAP exemption with regard to duties, which does not include a minimum salary level,” and that the statute “does not grant the Department the authority to utilize a salary-level test.”

In seeking reversal of the preliminary injunction, the Department has argued that the Fifth Circuit expressly rejected the claim that the salary-level test is unlawful in Wirtz v. Mississippi Publishers Corp. In Wirtz, the Court reasoned that “[t]he statute gives the Secretary broad latitude to ‘define and delimit’ the meaning of the term ‘bona fide executive * * * capacity,” and he rejected the contention that “the minimum salary requirement is arbitrary or capricious.”  Further, the Department argues that every circuit to consider the issue has upheld the salary-level test as a permissible component of the EAP regulations.

By many accounts, the Department’s recently-appointed Labor Secretary, Alexander Acosta, has made clear that he does not think the salary level should be at $47,476 per year, but rather set at a more reasonable level between $30,000 and $35,000 per year. While Secretary Acosta may disagree with the salary level of the 2016 rule, the Department’s brief seems to make clear that he wants to ensure that he has the authority to set any salary threshold.

In issuing the preliminary injunction, the District Court did not address the validity of the salary level threshold set by the 2016 rule. Because the injunction rested on the legal conclusion that the Department lacks authority to set a salary level, it may be reversed on the ground that the legal ruling was erroneous. As a result, by requesting that the Fifth Circuit not address the validity of the salary level set by the 2016 rule, should the Court reverse the preliminary injunction without ruling on the salary level’s validity, it is unclear whether the 2016 rule will immediately go into effect pending new rulemaking. Employers need to stay tuned.

Since 2000, the number of wage and hour cases filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) has increased by more than 450 percent, with the vast majority of those cases being filed as putative collective actions.  Under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), employees may pursue FLSA claims on behalf of “themselves and other employees similarly situated,” provided that “[n]o employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.”  Despite the prevalence of FLSA collective actions, the legal implications and consequences of being a “party plaintiff” in such an action continue to be addressed.  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently examined this issue, in an opinion that may prove useful to defendants seeking to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a putative collective action.

In Halle v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, Inc. et al., the named plaintiff filed a putative collective action alleging defendants violated the FLSA by failing to properly pay employees for work performed during meal breaks.  The district court dismissed the collective action allegations based on a related case that had previously been decided, and dismissed the opt-in plaintiffs’ claims without prejudice to re-filing individual actions.  After the named plaintiff subsequently settled his individual claim, three opt-in plaintiffs sought to appeal the district court’s decision.

The Third Circuit held the opt-in plaintiffs lacked the right to appeal, because they were no longer “parties” after the collective action claims were dismissed. The opt-in plaintiffs retained the right to pursue their own individual claims, but they had no right to pursue an appeal from the named plaintiff’s individual final judgment.  The court held that, “[b]y consenting to join Halle’s collective action, these opt-in plaintiffs ceded to Halle the ability to act on their behalf in all matters, including the ability to pursue this appeal.”

In reaching this decision, the Third Circuit engaged in an extensive analysis of the “fundamental question arising from the procedural history of this case: just what is a ‘collective action’ under the FLSA?” Unlike a class action brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, where all putative class members are bound by the court’s ruling unless they affirmatively “opt out” of the case, “the existence of a collective action depends upon the affirmative participation of opt-in plaintiffs.”  As the Third Circuit noted, “[t]his difference means that every plaintiff who opts in to a collective action has party status, whereas unnamed class members in Rule 23 class actions do not,” prompting “the as-yet unanswered question of what ‘party status’ means in a collective action.”

The court’s analysis of this issue, while tangential to Halle’s holding, highlights the tension inherent in the language of FLSA § 216(b), which, according to the Third Circuit, “raises more questions than it provides answers.  While the first sentence [of § 216(b)] sounds in representational terms (to proceed ‘in behalf of’ others ‘similarly situated’), the second sentence refers to those who file consents as ‘party plaintiffs,’ seeming to imply that all who affirmatively choose to become participants have an equal, individual stake in the proceeding.”  This tension is particularly significant with regard to defendants’ discovery rights in a collective action.

Under Rule 33 and Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, in the absence of any court-imposed limits, a party may serve interrogatories and document requests “on any other party.”  Based on this language, and FLSA § 216(b)’s designation of individuals who opt in to a collective action as “party plaintiffs,” arguably a defendant in a collective action should be entitled to serve discovery requests on each individual who opts in to the litigation, unless the court orders otherwise.  Despite this fact, the Third Circuit noted that, “[f]requently,” discovery in collective actions “focuses on the named plaintiffs and a subset of the collective group,” a limitation that may hinder defendants’ ability to present individualized defenses that may not be applicable to all opt-in plaintiffs.

While the Third Circuit did not fully resolve the question of what it means to be a “party plaintiff,” two aspects of the Halle decision may prove helpful to defendants seeking to assert their right to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a collective action.  First, as noted above, the Third Circuit emphasized that each opt-in plaintiff “has party status.”  This language, when read in conjunction with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding the scope of discovery, should support defendants’ right to seek discovery from “any other party,” including all opt-in plaintiffs.

Second, in holding that the opt-in plaintiffs had no right to appeal a final judgment involving the named plaintiff, the court emphasized the importance of “the language of their opt-in consent forms, which handed over all litigation authority to named plaintiff.” The Third Circuit noted that courts often rely on the language of the opt-in consent form “to determine which rights opt-in plaintiffs delegated to the named plaintiffs.”  Based on this guidance, defendants may wish to propose including language in the opt-in consent form stating that individuals who join the collective action may be required to provide documents and information, sit for depositions, and/or testify at trial.  Such language may help demonstrate that the opt-in plaintiffs were meant to be treated as active parties to the litigation, with the same rights and obligations as named plaintiffs.

While a court may ultimately exercise its discretion to impose limits on the scope of discovery, particularly in collective actions with a large putative class, the Third Circuit’s analysis in Halle may prove useful to defendants seeking support for their argument that they should be entitled to obtain discovery from each opt-in plaintiff.