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.

In a move allowing increased flexibility for employers and greater opportunity for unpaid interns to gain valuable industry experience, the United States Department of Labor (“DOL”) recently issued Field Assistance Bulletin No. 2018-2, adopting the “primary beneficiary” test used by several federal appellate courts to determine whether unpaid interns at for-profit employers are employees for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act. If interns are, indeed, deemed employees, they must be paid minimum wage and overtime, and cannot serve as interns without pay. The “primary beneficiary” test adopted by the DOL examines the economic reality of the relationship between the unpaid intern and the employer to determine which party is the primary beneficiary of the relationship. Unlike the DOL’s previous test, the “primary beneficiary” test allows for greater flexibility because no single factor is determinative.

Along with its announcement of this change, the DOL also issued a new Fact Sheet which sets forth the following seven factors that make up the “primary beneficiary” test:

  1. The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  2. The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  3. The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  5. The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  6. The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  7. The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

For more information on the DOL’s adoption of the “primary beneficiary” test and actions employers may want to take given this change, go to our Act Now Advisory on this topic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This decision provides several lessons for employers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Earlier today, the Ninth Circuit issued its opinion in cases involving the Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) “80/20 Rule” regarding what is commonly referred to as “sidework” in the restaurant industry.  Agreeing with the arguments made by our new colleague Paul DeCamp, among others, the Ninth Circuit issued a decidedly employer-friendly decision.  In so doing, it disagreed with the Eighth Circuit, potentially setting the issue up for resolution by the United States Supreme Court.

As those in the restaurant industry are aware, restaurant workers and other tipped employees often perform a mix of activities in the course of carrying out their jobs.  Some tasks, such as taking a customers’ orders or delivering their food, may contribute directly to generating tips.  Other tasks, such as clearing tables, rolling silverware, and refilling salt and pepper shakers—activity generally known in the industry as “sidework”— arguably generate tips indirectly.

In 1988, the DOL issued internal agency guidance purporting to impose limits on an employer’s ability to pay employees at a tipped wage, which under federal law can be as low as $2.13 per hour, if employees spend more than 20% of their working time on sidework.  This guidance, commonly known as the “80/20 Rule,” has led to a wave of class and collective action litigation across the country, including a 2011 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit deferring to the Department’s guidance as a reasonable interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and its regulations.

Today, the Ninth Circuit issued a 2-1 decision in Marsh v. J. Alexander’s LLC, concluding that the Department’s attempt to put time limitations on how much sidework an employee can perform at a tipped wage is contrary to the FLSA and its regulations and thus unworthy of deference by the courts.

The Department adopted the 20% limitation as a purported clarification of the Department’s “dual jobs” regulation, which addresses employees who work in separate tipped and non-tipped jobs for the same employer.  The Ninth Circuit explained, however, that the 20% limitation on sidework was inconsistent with the statutory notion of an “occupation,” as well as the regulation’s focus on two distinct jobs.

Because the 80/20 Rule did not in reality stem from the statute or the regulations, the Court determined that it constitutes “an alternative regulatory approach with new substantive rules that regulate how employees spend their time” and thus amounts to a “‘new regulation’ masquerading as an interpretation.”

In reaching this conclusion, the Court disagreed with the Eighth Circuit’s analysis and conclusion, noting that “the Eighth Circuit failed to consider the regulatory scheme as a whole, and it therefore missed the threshold question whether it is reasonable to determine that an employee is engaged in a second ‘job’ by time-tracking an employee’s discrete tasks, categorizing them, and accounting for minutes spent in various activities.”

The plaintiffs in these cases may well seek rehearing en banc, and it remains to be seen what approach the Department will take regarding the 80/20 Rule in response to today’s decision. And the split between the circuits certainly suggests that this is an issue that may well be resolved by the Supreme Court.

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.

In a move likely to impact employers in a variety of industries, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced on June 7, 2017 that the Department of Labor has withdrawn the Administrator’s Interpretations (“AIs”) on independent contractor status and joint employment, which had been issued in 2015 and 2016, respectively, during the tenure of former President Barack Obama.

The DOL advised that the withdrawal of the two AIs “does not change the legal responsibilities of employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act . . . , as reflected in the department’s long-standing regulations and case law.” As discussed below, however, this announcement may reflect both a change in the DOL’s enforcement priorities going forward, and a return to the traditional standards regarding independent contractor and joint employment status that had been relied on by federal courts prior to the issuance of the AIs.

Independent Contractor Status

In determining whether a worker is properly classified as an independent contractor under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), courts have historically relied on the six-factor “economic realities test,” which considered: (1) the extent to which the work performed is an integral part of the employer’s business; (2) the worker’s opportunity for profit or loss; (3) the nature and extent of the worker’s investment in his/her business; (4) whether the work performed requires special skills and initiative; (5) the permanency of the relationship; and (6) the degree of control exercised or retained by the employer. While no single factor was meant to be determinative, courts typically placed primary emphasis on the degree of control exercised by the putative employer.

Under the Obama administration, the DOL increased its emphasis on the potential misclassification of workers as independent contractors. As part of this initiative, the agency issued Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2015-1 on July 15, 2015.  While this guidance nominally reaffirmed DOL’s support for use of the “economic realities test” to determine independent contractor status, it reflected a far more aggressive interpretation of several of the six “economic realities” factors than that historically used by courts, and emphasized the agency’s position that most workers should be classified as employees under the FLSA.

The 2015 AI rejected courts’ historical emphasis on the “control” factor, and focused instead on workers’ entrepreneurial activities, and whether they were “economically dependent” on the putative employer or actually in business for themselves. For example, while courts had merely considered whether a worker had an opportunity for profit or loss, the AI emphasized that the critical inquiry should be whether the worker had the ability to make decisions and use his/her managerial skill and initiative to affect the opportunity for profit or loss.  Similarly, while courts focused on the nature and extent of a worker’s investment in his/her business, the AI stated that a worker’s investment must be significant in magnitude when compared to the employer’s investment in its overall business, in order for the worker to properly be classified as an independent businessperson.  The AI further indicated that courts had been focusing on the wrong criteria when evaluating whether workers possessed “special skills,” stating that only business skills, judgment, and initiative, not specialized technical skills, were relevant to the independent contractor inquiry.

With the withdrawal of the 2015 AI, one may reasonably assume that the DOL has chosen to reject this more aggressive interpretation of the “economic realities test,” and return to the traditional independent contractor analysis used by courts before the AI was issued. If this is the case, employers may expect to see a decreased emphasis on workers’ entrepreneurial activities in DOL enforcement proceedings, and a return to the previous emphasis on the degree of control exerted by the putative employer over workers.

It remains to be seen whether this withdrawal indicates that the current administration views potential misclassification of independent contractors as less of a priority than the previous administration did. A key barometer will be the level of DOL activity in agency audits or enforcement actions related to independent contractor status.  Any change in the DOL’s focus, however, will likely not impact the spread of misclassification litigation (including class and collective actions), which has continued to increase in recent years.

Joint Employment

With the recent growth of the “fissured workplace” or “gig economy,” the Obama administration also directed significant attention to the concept of joint employment.  In light of this development, the former Administrator of the DOL’s Wage and Hour Division issued Administrator’s Interpretation No. 2016-1 on January 20, 2016, to clarify DOL’s position on the increasing number of circumstances under which two or more entities may be deemed joint employers.

In its August 2015 decision in Browning-Ferris Industries of California, Inc., the National Labor Relations Board expanded the concept of joint employment under the National Labor Relations Act, holding that two entities may be joint employers if one exercises either direct or indirect control over the terms and conditions of the other’s employees or reserves the right to do so.  The 2016 AI similarly expanded the circumstances under which the DOL would deem two entities to be joint employers under the FLSA.

For the first time, the AI differentiated between two different types of joint employment. The existing joint employment regulations were deemed to apply to “horizontal joint employment,” a situation where a worker has an employment relationship with two or more related or commonly owned business entities.  “Vertical joint employment,” on the other hand, would exist where an individual performed work for an intermediary employer, but was also economically dependent on another employer, such as a staffing agency.  The AI stated that, in horizontal joint employment scenarios, the DOL would apply the FLSA regulations to assess whether a joint employment relationship existed between the two business entities.  In a vertical joint employment scenario, however, DOL would focus on the relationship between the worker and each business entity, applying the “economic realities test” to determine whether the worker was economically dependent on the potential joint employer(s).

The AI made it clear that the purpose of this revised analysis was to expand the number of businesses deemed employers under the FLSA, stating that “[t]he concept of joint employment, like employment generally, should be defined expansively under the FLSA . . . .” This would, in turn, increase the number of entities potentially liable for wage and hour violations, allowing employees and the DOL to pursue claims against multiple potential employers simultaneously.

With the withdrawal of the 2016 AI, presumably the DOL has chosen to reject the more expansive horizontal/vertical joint employment analysis, and the agency’s stated intent to rely on the “economic realities test” in the joint employment context. Instead, the agency will likely rely on the existing regulations regarding joint employment, which state that a joint employment relationship may exist where: (1) there is an arrangement between employers to share an employee’s services; (2) one employer is acting directly or indirectly in the interest of the other employer(s) in relation to an employee; or (3) multiple employers are not completely disassociated with respect to the employment of a particular employee, and may be deemed to share direct or indirect control of the employee by virtue of the fact that one employer controls, is controlled by, or is under common control with the other employer(s).

Similarly, as with the independent contractor scenario, the DOL’s withdrawal of the 2016 AI may reflect a change in DOL’s enforcement priorities with regard to joint employment. As noted above, however, any such change in administrative priorities will likely not affect the scope of private litigation in this area.

Impact on Employers

While the DOL’s action does not impact employers’ legal responsibilities under the FLSA, this change presumably reflects a reversion to the traditional independent contractor and joint employment standards that were in effect prior to the issuance of the AIs. The withdrawal of the AIs may reflect a shift in the DOL’s enforcement priorities, but private litigation regarding independent contractor and joint employment status remains prevalent.