Wage-hour class actions

The question whether an individual may be held liable for alleged wage-hour violations is one that occasionally arises in class action litigation – and, for obvious reasons, it is one that is particularly important to individuals who own entities or who are responsible for overseeing wage-hour compliance.

In Atempa v. Pedrazzani, the California Court of Appeal held that persons responsible for overtime and/or minimum wage violations in fact can be held personally liable for civil penalties, regardless of whether they were the employer or the employer is a limited liability entity. And the Court concluded that private plaintiffs may pursue and collect these penalties for “aggrieved employees” on behalf of the state of California through the Private Attorneys’ General Act (“PAGA”).

Defendant Paolo Pedrazzani was the owner, president, director, and secretary of Pama, Inc.. Two former employees filed a variety of wage-hour claims against Pedrazzani and Pama in July 2013, including claims for civil penalties on the basis of unpaid minimum wages (Cal. Lab. Code 1197.1) and unpaid overtime (Cal. Lab. Code 558). Following a judgment in favor of the employees that Pedrazzani and Pama were jointly and severally liable for the civil penalties, Pedrazzani appealed and Pama filed for bankruptcy.

The Court of Appeal held that Pedrazzani was personally liable for the civil penalties because “the Legislature has decided that both the employer and any ‘other person’ who causes a violation of the overtime pay or minimum wage laws are subject to specified civil penalties.” (italics original). And because neither statute mentions corporate structure, corporate form, or suggests that the same has any bearing on liability, it concluded that “the business structure of the employer is irrelevant.”

The Court also held that personal liability can attach even if a person has no formal relationship with the corporate employer (e.g., employee, manager, officer). Rather, for overtime violations, it is sufficient that that the “other person” was “acting on behalf of the employer”; and for minimum wage violations, it is sufficient that the “other person” “pays or causes to be paid less than the prescribed minimum wage.” Summarizing, the Court held that the statutes at issue “provide for an award of civil penalties against the person who committed the underlying statutory violations.”

After establishing the basis for Pedrazzani’s personal liability, the Court went onto explain that the former employees had standing to seek and collect the penalties under PAGA, and that such penalties are subject to the standard division between the aggrieved employees and the State (25% to the former; 75% to the latter).

Unfortunately, the Court did not address the standard or evidentiary showing needed to establish that someone is an “other person” who can be held personally liable for the civil penalties.

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.

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.

When: Thursday, September 14, 2017 8:00 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Immigration
  • Global Executive Compensation
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Internal Cyber Threats
  • Pay Equity
  • People Analytics in Hiring
  • Gig Economy
  • Wage and Hour
  • Paid and Unpaid Leave
  • Trade Secret Misappropriation
  • Ethics

We will start the day with two morning Plenary Sessions. The first session is kicked off with Philip A. Miscimarra, Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

We are thrilled to welcome back speakers from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc Freedman and Katie Mahoney will speak on the latest policy developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide during the second plenary session.

Morning and afternoon breakout workshop sessions are being led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! Commissioner of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chai R. Feldblum, will be making remarks in the afternoon before attendees break into their afternoon workshops. We are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Bret Baier, Chief Political Anchor of FOX News Channel and Anchor of Special Report with Bret Baier.

View the full briefing agenda and workshop descriptions here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

On April 3, 2017, a federal district court in New Jersey rejected the National Labor Relation Board’s (“NLRB”) D.R. Horton and Murphy Oil holdings and upheld employee waivers of class and collective arbitration. In dismissing wage and overtime claims brought by an employee of Chili’s Grill & Bar, District Judge Noel Hillman ruled that such mandatory arbitration agreements do not violate the National Labor Relations Act. Cicero v. Quality Dining, Inc., et al, 1:16-cv-05806 (April 3, 2017).

Judge Hillman noted the issue was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, and that the Third Circuit had yet to rule on the issue. However, he also noted a related action, Joseph v. Quality Dining, in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and a similar case decided by another federal district judge in New Jersey in Kobren v. A-1 Limousine Inc., both of which also rejected the NLRB’s position.

The NLRB has acquiesced in employers requiring employees to waive court action and agree to submit to arbitration wage and overtime and other employment related claims. However the Board has insisted that employees may not be required to arbitrate each employee’s claims separately, in individual arbitration. This, the Board contends, interferes with employees’ rights to participate in concerted activities for their mutual aid and benefit, otherwise protected under Sections 7 and 8 (a) (1) of the NLRA. In making this argument, commentators point out that the Board appears to be neglecting the second part of Section 7 which expressly reserves to employees the right to refrain from participating in any and all concerted activity.   NLRB opponents contend that waivers of class and collective arbitration are an exercise of that right.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Fall in Murphy Oil and consolidated cases as to whether the NLRA prohibits an employer from requiring employees to agree to waive their rights to arbitrate employment disputes on a class or collective basis, or whether the Federal Arbitration Act favoring arbitration controls. Conservative Judge Neil Gorsuch of the Tenth Circuit has recently been sworn in as a Justice of the United States Supreme Court and will take the seat of Justice Scalia, who passed away a year ago. It remains to be seen how the Court will rule on this very important employment law issue.

Our colleague Adriana S. Kosovych, associate at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Hospitality Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Chipotle Exploits Wide Variation Among Plaintiffs to Defeat Class and Collective Certification.

Following is an excerpt:

A New York federal court recently declined to certify under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 23”) six classes of salaried “apprentices” at Chipotle restaurants asserting claims for overtime pay under New York Labor Law (“NYLL”) and parallel state laws in Missouri, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina, on the theory that they were misclassified as exempt executives in Scott et al. v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. et al., Case No. 12-CV-8333 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2017).  The Court also granted Chipotle’s motion to decertify the plaintiffs’ conditionally certified collective action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), resulting in the dismissal without prejudice of the claims of 516 plaintiffs who had opted in since June 2013.

The putative class and collective action of apprentices working in certain of Chipotle’s 2,000-plus restaurants nationwide were provisionally employed while being trained to become general managers of new Chipotle locations. The Scott action challenged Chipotle’s blanket exempt classification of the apprentice position, claiming that the duties plaintiffs actually performed during the majority of their working time were not managerial, and therefore, as non-exempt employees they were entitled to receive overtime pay. …

Read the full post here.

Featured on Employment Law This Week – “For Want of a Comma.” It seems that punctuation was a key factor in a recent class action suit from a group of dairy delivery drivers in Maine.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled that an exemption in the states overtime law is ambiguous enough to support the drivers’ overtime claim. The drivers argued that the exemption applies only to workers who pack perishable food products for distribution—and not those who actually distribute the products. On appeal, the First Circuit agreed that a missing “Oxford” comma makes the drivers’ reading of the exemption a reasonable one.

Watch the segment below and see our recent post.

Kevin SullivanOn February 28, 2017, the California Court of Appeal issued its opinion in Vaquero v. Stoneledge Furniture, LLC. The opinion provides guidance to California employers who pay their hourly employees on a commission basis but do not pay separate compensation for time spent during rest periods.

In the case, the employer kept track of hours worked and paid hourly sales associates on a commission basis where, if an employee failed to earn a minimum amount in commissions – comprising of at least $12.01 per hour in commission pay in any pay period – then the employee was paid a “draw” against future advanced commissions. The commission agreement explained: “The amount of the draw will be deducted from future Advanced Commissions, but an employee will always receive at least $12.01 per hour for every hour worked.” In other words, for hourly sales associates whose commissions did not exceed the minimum rate in a given week, the employer clawed back (by deducting from future paychecks) wages advanced to compensate employees for hours worked, including rest periods. The commission agreement did not provide separate compensation for any non-selling time, such as time spent in meetings, on certain types of training, and during rest periods. Although employees clocked out for meal periods, they did not clock out for rest periods.

Two former employees brought suit, alleging, among other things, that the employer did not pay all wages earned during rest periods. The employer filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that “the rest period claim failed as a matter of law because Stoneledge paid its sales associates a guaranteed minimum for all hours worked, including rest periods.” The trial court granted the employer’s motion, finding that, under the employer’s system, “there was no possibility that the employees’ rest period time would not be captured in the total amount paid each pay period.” The employees appealed.

The California Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s decision, starting with the premise that the “plain language of Wage Order No. 7 requires employers to count ‘rest period time’ as ‘hours worked for which there shall be no deduction from wages.’” (Italics added by the Court.) The Vaquero Court relied on a 2013 decision in Bluford v. Safeway, Inc., where a sister court had held that this language in Wage Order 7 requires employers to “separately compensate[]” hourly employees for rest periods where the employer uses an “activity based compensation system” that does not directly compensate for rest periods.

Finding that “nothing about commission compensation plans justifies treating commissioned employees differently from other [hourly] employees,” the Vaquero Court agreed with the Bluford Court’s holding that “Wage Order No. 7 requires employers to separately compensate employees for rest periods if an employer’s compensation plan does not already include a minimum hourly wage for such time.” And because the Vaquero employer did not separately compensate its sales associates for rest periods, the Court of Appeal reversed summary judgment.

As had been the case for employers with piece-rate compensation plans, the Vaquero decision makes clear that commission-based compensation plans must separately account for – and pay for rest periods – to comply with California law.

Supreme Court Set To Resolve Class Action Waiver DisputeOn January 13, 2017, the United States Supreme Court granted certiorari to hear three cases involving the enforceability of arbitration agreements that contain class action waivers.

Whether such agreements are enforceable has been a hotly contested issue for several years now, particularly in cases involving wage-hour disputes.

The Fifth Circuit has held that such waivers can be enforceable (NLRB v. Murphy Oil, Inc.), joining the Second and Eighth Circuits in that conclusion. The Seventh (Epic Systems, Inc. v. Lewis) and Ninth Circuits (Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris) have held that they are not, determining that they violate employees’ rights to engage in collective activities under the National Labor Relations Act.

Barring the failure to confirm a new Supreme Court Justice to fill the vacant seat before the cases are argued — which could well result in a 4-4 tie — the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the Murphy Oil, Epic Systems and Ernst & Young cases would seem likely to resolve the current dispute between the Circuits regarding the enforceability of those waivers. And it would provide some much-needed guidance to employers across the country.

Whether a ninth Supreme Court Justice will be seated in time to hear the cases is questionable, though. It is possible that the case could be held over until the next term, when a full Court presumably will be seated. If that does not occur, and if a 4-4 tie resulted, the split among the Circuits would remain.

Of course, there are many cases across the country in which parties are currently debating whether class action waivers are enforceable. One would think that most, if not all, of those cases will now be stayed while the courts await the Supreme Court’s ruling.