Wage and Hour Policies

On December 12, 2018, in Furry v. East Bay Publishing, LLC, the California Court of Appeal held that if an employer fails to keep accurate records of an employee’s work hours, even “imprecise evidence” by the employee “can provide a sufficient basis for damages.”

In the case, not only did the employer in Furry not keep accurate records of the employee’s time, but only the amount of damages, and not the fact of the underlying violation, was in dispute. Under those circumstances, the Court held that the employee’s “imprecise evidence” of the unpaid hours that he worked was permissible to establish the amount of unpaid overtime.

The Court found that the level of detail that the employee advanced regarding his uncompensated hours was sufficient to shift the burden of proof to the employer to either give specific evidence of the hours actually worked or disprove the employee’s recollection. The Court stated that the fact “[t]hat [the employee] had to draw his time estimates from memory was no basis to completely deny him relief,” overruling the trial court’s complete denial of damages for the employee’s overtime claim.

In reaching reversing the trial court’s ruling on this issue, the Court rejected the employer’s argument that the trial court’s ruling was merely a credibility determination that was entitled to deference. Instead, the Court held that the trial court had a duty to draw “reasonable inferences” from the employee’s evidence – and had failed to do so.

Notably, the Court expressly distinguished this case from one where the underlying violation was in dispute. Therefore, this decision should only apply to disputes regarding damages.

While it reversed the trial court’s finding on that issue, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s denial of relief on the employee’s meal period claim. The employee argued that although he was provided the opportunity to take off-duty meal periods and chose to take them at his desk, he was still entitled to regular compensation for time and meal period premiums when he worked through his meal periods. The Court held that the employee failed to show that the employer “knew or reasonably should have known” that he was working through his meal periods. Therefore, he was not entitled to relief on his meal period claim.

This decision reinforces for employers the importance of keeping and maintaining accurate time and payroll records. Of course, this decision is not binding on other Courts of Appeal, and it is possible that the California Supreme Court would reach a different conclusion, should it hear this case.

True to its promise last year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (the “WHD”) continues to issue a steady stream of opinion letters designed to offer practical guidance to employers on specific wage and hour issues solicited by employers. This past week, the WHD issued two new opinion letters concerning the Fair Labor and Standards Act (“FLSA”), where one addresses an employer’s hourly pay methodology vis-à-vis the FLSA’s minimum wage requirement, and the other the ministerial exception to the FLSA. While not universally applicable, employers should consider the general principles set forth in these opinion letters, and then further research the underlying relevant regulations and the DOL’s interpretive guidance to more fully understand the basic requirements to ensure legal compliance.

Varying Average Hourly Rate:

In Opinion Letter FLSA2018-28, the WHD examined a compensation plan in which a home-health aide employer paid employee aides on an hourly basis for each of their client appointments. While the employer did not specifically pay aides for their travel time between client locations, the hourly rate they received for the client appointments was sufficiently large enough when averaged among all hours worked, including travel time, to satisfy the minimum wage requirements of the FLSA. Specifically, the employer multiplied each employee’s time with clients by his or her hourly pay rate (typically $10 per hour) and then divided the product by the employee’s total hours worked (which includes both the client time and the travel time). Employees who work over 40 hours (including travel time) in any given workweek are paid time and one-half for all time over 40 hours based on a regular rate of $10.00.

Based on these facts, the WHD concluded that this payment scheme complies with the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements, reaffirming the principle that an employee’s average hourly rate can vary from workweek to workweek as long as it exceeds the FLSA’s minimum wage requirements for all hours worked. On the issue of overtime pay, however, the WHD cautioned that the employer’s compensation plan may not comply with the FLSA because the employer assumed a regular rate of $10 when, in fact, certain of its employees have actual regular rates of pay greater than $10. In other words, the regular rate cannot be arbitrarily selected; it must be based on an actual “mathematical computation.”

Ministerial Exception:

In Opinion Letter FLSA2018-29, the WHD advised that members of a Christian cooperative who share all personal property and funds and work for the organization, either in the schools, kitchens, or laundries or for two onsite non-profits that generate income for the organization, are not “employees” under the FLSA. As a preliminary matter, the WHD emphasized that the members of the cooperative do not expect to receive compensation for their services, which is the hallmark of an employment relationship.   The WHD further reasoned that the organization’s members are similar to nuns, priests, and other members of a religious order who work for church-affiliated entities, who typically fall within the FLSA’s ministerial exception. The WHD reasoned that like priests and nuns, the members of the religious cooperative share resources, gather for communal meals and worship, and provide for their own education, healthcare, and other necessities. In light of these similarities and the absence of any expectation of compensation, the WHD determined that the members of the cooperative were not employees for purposes of the FLSA.

The Opinion Letter further noted that the fact that some members work for non-profit, income-generating ventures did not alter the WHD’s conclusion. Relying on U.S. Supreme Court precedent exempting religious activities from the FLSA’s reach, the WHD explained that the members consider the work indivisible from prayer and reiterated that individuals can work for entities covered by the FLSA without being deemed employees under the FLSA.

Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), employers can satisfy their minimum wage obligations to tipped employees by paying them a tipped wage of as low as $2.13 per hour, so long as the employees earn enough in tips to make up the difference between the tipped wage and the full minimum wage. (Other conditions apply that are not important here.) Back in 1988, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division amended its Field Operations Handbook, the agency’s internal guidance manual for investigators, to include a new requirement the agency sought to apply to restaurants. Under that then-new guidance, when tipped employees spend more than 20% of their working time on tasks that do not specifically generate tips—tasks such as wiping down tables, filling salt and pepper shakers, and rolling silverware into napkins, duties generally referred to in the industry as “side work”—the employer must pay full minimum wage, rather than the lesser tipped wage, for the side work.

This provision of the Handbook flew largely under the radar for years. This was partly because the Department did not publicize the contents of the Handbook, and party because the Department did not bring enforcement actions premised on a violation of this 20% standard. And historically, virtually nobody in the restaurant industry maintained records specifically segregating hours and minutes spent on tip-generating tasks as compared to side work.

In 2007, a federal district court in Missouri issued a ruling in a class action upholding the validity of the 20% standard, and that decision received an enormous amount of attention and publicity. In the years that followed, a wave of class actions against restaurants flooded the courts across the country, all contending that the restaurants owe the tipped employees extra money because of the Department’s 20% standard in the Handbook.

In January of 2009, in the waning days of the George W. Bush Administration, the Department issued an opinion letter rejecting the 20% standard, superseding the Handbook provision, and stating that there is no limit on the amount of time a tipped employee can spend on side work. Six weeks later, however, in March of 2009, the Obama Administration withdrew that opinion letter. In subsequent years, the Department filed several amicus curiae briefs in pending court cases endorsing the 20% standard, and the Department even modified the Handbook provision to make the requirements even more difficult for employers to satisfy.

In late 2017, a divided three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit concluded, in nine consolidated appeals presenting the same issue, that the Department’s 20% standard is not consistent with the FLSA and thus was unlawful. A few months later, however, a divided 11-judge en banc panel of the same court reached the opposite conclusion, ruling by an 8-3 vote that the 20% standard is worthy of deference.

In July of 2018, the Restaurant Law Center, represented by Epstein Becker Green, filed a declaratory judgment action against the Department in federal court in Texas challenging the validity of the 20% standard under the FLSA, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the U.S. Constitution. Roughly a month before the employers’ deadline to file a certiorari petition with the Supreme Court regarding the en banc Ninth Circuit ruling, and just days before the government’s response is due in the Texas litigation, the Department reissued the 2009 opinion letter.

This opinion letter, now designated as FLSA2018-27, once again rejects the 20% standard and clarifies that employers may pay a tipped wage when employees engage in side work so long as the side work occurs contemporaneously with, or in close proximity to, the employees’ normal tip-generating activity. This opinion letter should put an end to the many pending cases, including numerous class actions, that depend on the 20% standard.

The overall take-away for employers is that at least under federal law, side work performed during an employee’s shift, in between tip-generating tasks, should present no concern. The same should be true of side work performed at the start or end of an employee’s shift, so long as the side work does not take too long. An employee coming in fifteen or thirty minutes before the restaurant is open to help get the restaurant ready for the day, followed by the remainder of the shift in which the employee generates tips, seems to be consistent with the new opinion letter. Likewise for employees who spend some time at the end of the shift helping to close the restaurant for the day. But employers should use common sense and good judgment, as having tipped employees spend hours and hours performing side work may still give rise to risks. And it remains important to be aware of any state or local law requirements that may differ from federal law.

On July 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, ostensibly clarifying the application of the widely adopted de minimis doctrine to California’s wage-hour laws. But while the Court rejected the application of the de minimis rule under the facts presented to it, the Court did not reject the doctrine outright. Instead, it left many questions unanswered.

And even while it rejected the application of the rule under the facts presented, it did not address a much larger question – whether the highly individualized issues regarding small increments of time allegedly worked “off the clock” could justify certification of a class on those claims.

For more than 70 years, federal courts have regularly applied the de minimis doctrine in certain “circumstances to excuse the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time upon a showing that the bits of time are administratively difficult to record.” Those courts have concluded that as much as 15 minutes per day could be considered de minimis and, therefore, noncompensable.

In Troester, the California Supreme Court concluded that most of California’s wage and hour laws have not in fact adopted the de minimis doctrine found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). However, the Court did not go so far as to reject the application in all instances. Indeed, the Court specifically declined to “decide whether there are circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.” (Emphasis added.)

The key words in that sentence appear to be “minute” and “irregular.”

The Court declined to do so “given the wide range of scenarios in which this issue arises,” proffering what appear to be examples where the de minimis rule could apply – e.g., “paperwork involving a minute or less of an employee’s time” or “an employee reading an e-mail notification of a shift change during off-work hours.”

Under the facts presented to it, where the employer allegedly required employees to “work ‘off the clock’ several minutes per shift,” the Court found that the relevant statute and regulations did not permit application of the de minimis rule.

Specifically, it apparently was undisputed that the plaintiff “had various duties related to closing the store after he clocked out, and the parties [had] agree[d] for purposes of [the California Supreme Court] resolving the issue . . . that the time spent on these duties is compensable.” It also apparently was undisputed that these tasks took the plaintiff as few as 4 minutes and as much as 10 minutes each shift that he worked. Given those specific facts, the Court found that the de minimis rule would not be applicable, holding that, under California law generally, an “employer that requires its employees to work minutes off the clock on a regular basis or as a regular feature of the job may not evade the obligation to compensate the employee for that time by invoking the de minimis doctrine.” (Emphasis added.)

Consistent with prior language in the opinion, the key words in that conclusion appear to be “minutes” and “regular.”

In other words, while significant, regular time would not be de minimis, insignificant and irregular time could be.

And how that issue could be addressed on a classwide basis seems questionable, at best, given that the very nature of “off the clock” work is that there are no records of it. Individualized inquiries apparently would need to be conducted person-by-person, day-by-day, to determine if an individual in fact worked “minutes” off-the-clock on a “regular” basis.

Not unimportantly, in addition to the Court’s majority opinion, Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger wrote separate concurring opinions, each offering some additional support for employers.

Justice Cuéllar noted that while the Court’s majority opinion “protects workers from being denied compensation for minutes they regularly spend on work-related tasks,” it “does not consign employers or their workers to measure every last morsel of employees’ time.”

Justice Kruger also offered some examples where she opined that the de minimis rule could apply:

  • An employer requires workers to turn on their computers and log in to an application in order to start their shifts. Ordinarily this process takes employees no more than a minute (and often far less, depending on the employee’s typing speed), but on rare and unpredictable occasions a software glitch delays workers’ log-ins for as long as two to three minutes.
  • An employer ordinarily distributes work schedules and schedule changes during working hours at the place of employment. But occasionally employees are notified of schedule changes by e-mail or text message during their off hours and are expected to read and acknowledge the messages.
  • After their shifts have ended, employees in a retail store sometimes remain in the store for several minutes waiting for transportation. On occasion, a customer will ask a waiting employee a question, not realizing the employee is off duty. The employee – with the employer’s knowledge – spends a minute or two helping the customer.

Justice Kruger wrote that “a requirement that the employer accurately account for every second spent on work tasks may well be impractical and unreasonable” in the situations above.

Following Troester, entities doing business in California will want to review their practices and their timekeeping systems.

And while Troester certainly suggests that employers in California will face an increased number of class actions alleging that certain insignificant amounts of time should have been compensated, plaintiffs’ difficulty in actually getting classes certified on such claims appears relatively unchanged.

Our colleagues , Eric I. Emanuelson, Jr. at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to our readers: “Massachusetts “Grand Bargain” Makes Changes to Blue Laws for Retailers.”

Following is an excerpt:

A legislative bargain requires give-and-take from all stakeholders. On June 28, 2018, Massachusetts Governor Baker signed House Bill 4640, “An Act Relative to Minimum Wage, Paid Family Medical Leave, and the Sales Tax Holiday” (the “Act”). This “grand bargain” gradually raises the minimum wage, provides for paid family and medical leave, makes permanent the Commonwealth’s annual tax holiday, and phases out Sunday and holiday premium pay requirements. While Massachusetts employers must now adjust to an increased minimum wage and new paid family medical leave program, retailers with eight or more employees may see those costs mitigated by the gradual elimination of Sunday and holiday premium pay mandates. …

Read the full post here.

*Eric I. Emanuelson, Jr., is a 2018 Summer Associate at Epstein Becker Green.

Last Friday, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-4 to help guide the DOL Wage and Hour Division field staff as to the correct classification of home care, nurse, or caregiver registries under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). This is the most recent piece of guidance on a topic first addressed by the DOL in a 1975 Opinion Letter. The bulletin is noteworthy in two respects. First, it confirms that the DOL continues to view a registry that simply refers caregivers to clients but controls no terms or conditions of the caregiver’s employment activities as outside the purview of the FLSA. Second, and most helpfully, the bulletin provides specific examples of common registry business practices that may establish the existence of an employment relationship under the FLSA.

The following chart summarizes the DOL’s position on a number of common registry business practices, with the caveat that no one factor is dispositive to determining whether a registry is an employer of a caregiver under the FLSA.

Indicative of Employment Relationship Not Indicative of Employment Relationship
Background

Checks

Interviewing the prospective caregiver or the caregiver’s references to evaluate subjective criteria of interest to the registry Performing basic background checks of caregivers (e.g., collecting the caregiver’s criminal history, credit report, licensing, and other credentials)
Hiring and Firing Controlling hiring and firing decisions by, e.g., interviewing or selecting the caregiver or firing the caregiver for failing to meet the standards of the registry or industry Inability to hire or fire employees
Scheduling/

Assigning Work

Scheduling and assigning work to specific caregivers (i.e., a subset of qualified caregivers) based on the registry’s own discretion and judgment rather than the client’s Providing client access to vetted caregivers who meet client’s stated criteria; requesting all qualified caregivers contact a particular client if they are interested in working for the client
Scope of Caregiver’s Work Controlling the caregiver’s services/behavior, including but not limited to restricting a caregiver’s ability to work with other referral services or work directly with clients outside the registry Seeking information concerning the type of care needed by the client for matching purposes
Caregiver’s Pay Rate Receiving fees from a client on an on-going basis based on the numbers of hours that a caregiver works for the client or some other arrangement Receiving a one-time referral fee
Fees for Caregiver Services Directly setting the caregiver’s pay rate Communicating general market/typical pay rates or relaying offers/counteroffers to the client
Caregiver Wages Paying the caregiver directly Performing payroll services, provided that the client provides funds directly or via an escrow account
Tracking of Caregiver Hours Actively creating and verifying time records Performing payroll services after client/caregiver submits time records
Caregiver Equipment/

Supplies

Investing in equipment or supplies for a caregiver or the caregiver’s training or licenses Investing in office space, payroll software, timekeeping systems, and other products to operate a registry business; providing caregivers the option to purchase discounted equipment or supplies from either the registry or a third party
Receipt of EINs or 1099s N/A Requiring an Employment Identification Number or issuing a caregiver an IRS 1099 form

The issuance of this field assistance bulletin indicates a commitment by the DOL to clarify the employment relationship between caregivers and home care, nurse, or caregiver registries, which is a positive development from the perspective of the registries. However, registries should promptly review their business practices, as the Wage and Hour Division, now armed with this guidance, may be more inclined to fight misclassification in this industry.

In our June 28, 2018 post on District of Columbia voters approving Initiative 77, which would incrementally increase the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $15.00 per hour by July 1, 2025, and effectively eliminate the tip credit staring July 1, 2026, we noted the possibility of action by the D.C. Council to amend or overturn it. Consistent with the opposition to the initiative previously expressed by a majority of the Council, on July 9, 2018, a seven-member majority of the Council introduced a bill (Tipped Wage Workers Fairness Amendment Act of 2018) to repeal Initiative 77. As the Council is now on a two-month summer recess, no further formal action will occur until the fall. Furthermore, considerable publicly expressed opposition to repealing a voter-approved initiative may lead to a compromise that extends the phase-in period or otherwise modifies the terms of the initiative, rather than a complete repeal. Meanwhile, two federal Congressmen have sponsored a budget rider barring spending funds to implement the initiative, although such efforts often fail. In short, it appears the future effectiveness of the initiative will remain in doubt for some time.

Voters in the District of Columbia on June 19, 2018 approved an initiative (Initiative 77) that would incrementally increase the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $15.00 per hour by July 1, 2025, and starting July 1, 2026 to the same amount as the then-minimum wage for all other workers, effectively eliminating the tip credit. If the initiative takes effect, the District would join seven states that do not have a separate minimum wage for tipped workers, i.e., Alaska, California, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington.

The D.C. Council previously enacted legislation raising the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $3.33 on July 1, 2017; $3.89 on July 1, 2018; $4.45 on July 1, 2019; and $5.00 on July 1, 2020, consistent with increases in the general minimum wage to $12.50, $13.25, $14.00, and $15.00 that will take effect on the same dates. Each year thereafter, the minimum wage will increase in proportion to the annual average increase in the CPI-U for the Washington area. D.C. Code §32-10003.

The voter initiative would change the minimum cash wage for tipped workers to $4.50 on July 1, 2018; $6.00 on July 1, 2019; $7.50 on July 1, 2020; $9.00 on July 1, 2021; $10.50 on July 1, 2022; $12.00 on July 1, 2023; $13.50 on July 1, 2024; $15.00 on July 1, 2025; and to whatever the minimum wage then is for other workers on July 1, 2026. These provisions will not apply to employees of the District of Columbia, or employees performing services under contracts with the District of Columbia.

It is not yet clear whether the initiative will become law, at least it its present form. It passed by only 55 percent in an election in which turnout was only 16.7 percent. Before it becomes law, it must clear review by the D.C. Council, which could amend or overturn it. So far, the measure has faced public opposition from Mayor Muriel Bowser and a majority (eight) of the D.C. Council, as well as many restaurant owners, wait staff and bartenders, who fear it will increase direct labor costs, force staffing reductions, and significantly reduce the amount of tips received. Both the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington and the separate “Save our Tips” campaign already have stated that they will take their fight to the Council. If the Council approves the measure, it must then clear a thirty-legislative-day review period by the Congress. At best, the initiative is not likely to take effect until sometime in the fall of 2018.

In the meantime, employers currently taking the tip credit should note the increase in the minimum for tipped employees to $3.89 (and for all other employees to $13.25) taking effect on July 1, 2018. Notably, supporters of the initiative have stated that they will not seek retroactive effect of the initiative’s July 1, 2018 increase to $4.50.

[Read the update—July 16, 2018—“Proposed D.C. Council Legislation Puts Voter-Approved Elimination of Tip Credit Into Question.”]

In most wage and hour cases, each workweek gives rise to a separate claim, at least for statute of limitations purposes. Thus, an employee seeking payment for alleged off-the-clock work or an independent contractor claiming misclassification and entitlement to overtime ordinarily may seek back wages and related recovery only for work performed within a set amount of time—usually two to six years preceding the filing of the complaint, depending on the jurisdiction—preceding the filing of the complaint. But what happens to the statute of limitations when a plaintiff tries to bring a class action under state law, the court denies class certification, and a new plaintiff seeks to bring a subsequent class action presenting the same claims?

On June 11, 2018, the Supreme Court provided the answer in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh. In short, the Court held that although a class action suspends the running of the limitations period for individual potential class members who subsequently seek to join a suit or to file their own individual case, the class action does not permit the filing of subsequent time-barred class actions.

American Pipe Tolling

The Supreme Court first addressed the interplay of class actions and statutes of limitations more than four decades ago. In American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, the Court concluded that a timely-filed complaint seeking relief on behalf of a class under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure suspends the running of the statute of limitations for potential class members, and that, upon the denial of class certification, members of the unsuccessful class may intervene in the original case without erosion of their claims to the statute of limitations. 414 U.S. 538, 544, 552-53 (1974).

Nine years later, the Court concluded that so-called American Pipe tolling applies not only when members of the pleaded class intervene in the original suit, but also when they file their own individual cases. Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 350, 353-54 (1983). An open question following American Pipe and Crown, Cork is whether these tolling principles also apply to subsequent class actions.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

In China Agritech, a company’s stock price dropped following public disclosure of allegedly fraudulent conduct by the company. Claims accrued on February 3, 2011, and on February 11, 2011, a plaintiff filed a putative class action under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which provides for a two-year statute of limitations. The court denied class certification in May of 2012, and the original case settled in September 2012, leading to dismissal.

The following month, the same counsel filed a second putative class action against the company alleging the same claims on behalf of a new named plaintiff. The court again denied class certification, leading to another settlement and dismissal.

On June 30, 2014—more than two years after the February 3, 2011 accrual of the claims—yet another plaintiff, represented by new counsel, commenced a third putative class action, which made its way to the Supreme Court. The district court dismissed the complaint as untimely, holding that the first two class complaints did not toll the time to bring further class claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a three-way split among the federal appellate courts on the tolling issue. The Court framed the question presented as follows: “Upon denial of class certification, may a putative class member, in lieu of promptly joining an existing suit or promptly filing an individual action, commence a class action anew beyond the time allowed by the applicable statute of limitations?” (Slip Op. at 2.) Justice Ginsburg’s answer, in a decision joined by seven other justices, was that “American Pipe does not permit the maintenance of a follow-on class action past expiration of the statute of limitations.” (Id.)

The Court noted that the reason for American Pipe tolling for individual claims is that “economy of litigation favors delaying those claims until after a class-certification denial. If class certification is granted, the claims will proceed as a class and there would be no need for the assertion of any claim individually.” (Slip Op. at 6.) If a court denies class certification, “only then would it be necessary to pursue claims individually.” (Id.)

But when a case involves class claims, “efficiency favors early assertion of competing class representative claims. If class treatment is appropriate, and all would-be representatives have come forward, the district court can select the best plaintiff with knowledge of the full array of potential class representatives and class counsel.” (Slip Op. at 7.) In cases in which “the class mechanism is not a viable option for the claims, the decision denying certification will be made at the outset of the case, litigated once for all would-be class representatives.” (Id.)

The Court cautioned that the plaintiffs’ “proposed reading would allow the statute of limitations to be extended time and again; as each class is denied certification, a new named plaintiff could file a class complaint that resuscitates the litigation.” (Slip Op. at 10.) The Court observed that although “[t]he Federal Rules [of Civil Procedure] provide a range of options to aid courts” in managing complex litigation, “[w]hat the Rules do not offer is a reason to permit plaintiffs to exhume failed class actions by filing new, untimely class actions.” (Id. at 14-15.)

The Concurrence

Concurring in the judgment only, Justice Sotomayor took issue with the Court’s holding as applied to cases outside the securities context. She addressed several differences between the procedures required by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, including publication of notice of the filing of a putative securities class action, designed to encourage active participation early in the case by other potential lead plaintiffs and counsel, not required for other class actions under Rule 23. (Concurrence at 2-4.) Justice Sotomayor agreed with the denial of tolling in the case before the Court, but she would have limited the ruling to cases subject to these additional procedural requirements and would not have issued a decision applicable to all Rule 23 cases. (Id. at 1, 7.)

What the Decision Means for Employers

In light of China Agritech, employers should expect courts to reject the use of American Pipe tolling to allow plaintiffs in wage and hour putative class actions to seek relief for workweeks that are outside the applicable limitations period. Courts will likely continue to allow individual claims for those otherwise time-barred workweeks when supported by American Pipe tolling. In addition, courts may continue to allow subsequent class actions by members of previously denied classes, but without the benefit of tolling. As always, employers faced with a wage and hour putative class action should carefully consider all available defenses, including the statute of limitations as to individual and class claims.

More than 7 months after hearing oral argument on an issue that will affect countless employers across the country – whether employers may implement arbitration agreements with class action waivers — the United States Supreme Court has issued what is bound to be considered a landmark decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis (a companion case to National Labor Relations Board v. Murphy Oil USA and Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris), approving the use of such agreements.

The decision will certainly have a tremendous impact upon pending wage-hour class and collective actions, many of which had been stayed while the courts and parties awaited the Supreme Court’s decision.  And it is likely to lead many more employers to implement arbitration agreements with class action waivers going forward, if only to avoid the in terrorem effect of those types actions.

In a 5-4 vote along the very lines that many commentators had predicted, with newest Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch penning the majority opinion, the Supreme Court determined that the law is “clear” that class action waivers are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) – and that they are not prohibited by the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”), as several Circuit Courts had concluded following the National Labor Relations Board’s (“NLRB”) DL Horton decision.

In reaching this decision, the Court took great pains to address – and reject – the various arguments presented by the former NLRB General Counsel, the related labor union and various amicus briefs submitted by the plaintiffs’ bar.  In so doing, the Court noted that for the first 77 years of the NLRA, the NLRB had never argued that class action waivers violated the Act; instead, the FAA and the NLRA had coexisted peacefully.  In fact, as the Court pointed out, as recently as 2010 the NLRB’s General Counsel had asserted that class action waivers did not violate the NLRA.

The decision is an unqualified victory for employers, particularly those who already have such arbitration agreements in place.  Given the prevalence of wage-hour class and collective actions, and the potential exposure in even the most baseless of suits, other employers would be wise to consider whether they, too, wish to implement such agreements.

Not unimportantly, the decision might give employers new grounds to argue that employees who sign such agreements are prohibited from pursuing representative claims under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”).  Even if those new arguments prove to be unavailing – to date, the California state courts have held that such claims cannot be compelled to arbitration because they belong to the state, not the employee –the Supreme Court’s decision could be used to require that an individual arbitrate his or her individual claims first such that he or she would not have standing to pursue the PAGA claims if the employer prevailed in arbitration.

And employers should be mindful that in some states (California again), an employer must pay virtually all of the costs of the arbitration process, a reality that has led more than a few plaintiffs’ lawyers to file multiple individual arbitrations in order to drive up employers’ costs to try to force them to the settlement table.