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.

Recently, a number of proposed class and collective action lawsuits have been filed on behalf of so-called “gig economy” workers, alleging that such workers have been misclassified as independent contractors. How these workers are classified is critical not only for workers seeking wage, injury and discrimination protections only available to employees, but also to employers desiring to avoid legal risks and costs conferred by employee status.  While a number of cases have been tried regarding other types of independent contractor arrangements (e.g., taxi drivers, insurance agents, etc.), few, if any, of these types of cases have made it through a trial on the merits – until now.

In Lawson v. GrubHub, Inc., the plaintiff, Raef Lawson, a GrubHub restaurant delivery driver, alleged that GrubHub misclassified him as an independent contractor in violation of California’s minimum wage, overtime, and expense reimbursement laws.  In September and October 2017, Lawson tried his claims before a federal magistrate judge in San Francisco.  After considering the evidence and the relevant law, on February 8, 2018, the magistrate judge found that, while some factors weighed in favor of concluding that Lawson was an employee of GrubHub, the balance of factors weighed against an employment relationship, concluding that he was an independent contractor.

The court’s decision was guided by the California Supreme Court’s multi-factor test set forth in S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, 48 Cal.3d 341 (1989), which focuses on “whether the person to whom service is rendered has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired.”  There are also a number of secondary factors.

Among other things, the court found that Grubhub did not control how Lawson made deliveries or what his appearance was during deliveries. GrubHub also did not require Lawson to undergo any training or control when or where Lawson worked – that is, Lawson had complete control of his schedule and territory.  And, Grubhub did not control how or when Lawson delivered the restaurant orders he chose to accept.  Whereas GrubHub controlled some aspects of Lawson’s work, such as determining the rates he would be paid, the court gave those minimal weight.  On balance, the court concluded that “the right to control factor weighs strongly in favor of finding that Mr. Lawson was an independent contractor.”

The court also considered the secondary factors under the Borello test.  Some secondary factors weighed in favor of an employment relationship – for example, Lawson’s delivery work was part of GrubHub’s regular business, the type of work did not require a significant amount of skill, and Lawson was not engaged in a distinct delivery business such that GrubHub was just one of his clients.  Yet, weighing all of the factors above, the court found that “Grubhub’s lack of all necessary control over [] Lawson’s work, including how he performed deliveries and even whether or for how long,” was paramount.

Lawson is certainly a welcome decision for companies hiring independent contractors to perform a part of their regular business.  Nevertheless, the court’s emphasis on the particulars of GrubHub’s relationship with Lawson, issues regarding Lawson’s credibility and the possibility that the California Supreme Court may moot this decision in Dynamex Operations West Inc. v. Superior Court (considering whether to replace Borello with a test that would make it easier for workers to show they are employees rather than independent contractors), argued just two days before the Lawson decision, mean that such companies should continue closely examining the manner in which they classify their workers.  Moreover, although Lawson should provide some support to relationships governed by California law, its impact in other jurisdictions may be negligible.  For now, employers should continue to keep in mind that there is no one deciding factor to determine whether someone performing work for a company is an employee or an independent contractor.  A number of factors must be considered.

Our colleagues , at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Retail Labor and Employment Law blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “New Jersey’s Appellate Division Finds Part C of the “ABC” Independent Contractor Test Does Not Require an Independent Business

Following is an excerpt:

In a potentially significant decision following the New Jersey Supreme Court’s ruling in Hargrove v. Sleepy’s, LLC, 220 N.J. 289 (2015), a New Jersey appellate panel held, in Garden State Fireworks, Inc. v. New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development (“Sleepy’s”), Docket No. A-1581-15T2, 2017 N.J. Super. Unpub. LEXIS 2468 (App. Div. Sept. 29, 2017), that part C of the “ABC” test does not require an individual to operate an independent business engaged in the same services as that provided to the putative employer to be considered an independent contractor. Rather, the key inquiry for part C of the “ABC” test is whether the worker will “join the ranks of the unemployed” when the business relationship ends. …

Read the full post here.

By Frederick Dawkins and Douglas Weiner

Earlier this month, at the ABA Labor and Employment Law Conference, Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith reaffirmed that investigating independent contractors as misclassified remains a top priority of the U.S. Department of Labor’s (“DOL”) enforcement initiatives.  The DOL will continue to work with other federal and state agencies, including the IRS, to share information and jointly investigate claims of worker misclassification.  The joint enforcement effort is certainly driven by, among other things, an interest in collecting unpaid tax revenue, and could result in significant liability to employers.

In addition to potential liability resulting from strengthened federal enforcement initiatives, in previous blog posts, we have emphasized that misclassification could become the subject of the next wave of class and collective actions, particularly in view of states enacting new legislation providing for higher penalties.  Further, the re-election of President Obama may augur the re-emergence of the Employee Misclassification Prevention Act, would require employers to keep records of all workers performing labor or services for them, and to notify each worker of their classification and exemption status.  Finally, the Affordable Care Act (“ACA”) adds yet another challenge to employee misclassifications as the reclassification of workers from independent contractors to employees could push an employer over the 50 full-time employee threshold for ACA coverage.

The expenses of  misclassification are often significant – including calculations of unpaid overtime wages, back employment taxes, income tax withholdings, unpaid workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance premiums, contributions to Social Security and Medicare, and perhaps 401K matching and pension contributions.

In short, over the next four years of the Obama Administration, which will continue to fund the DOL’s aggressive enforcement efforts, it is undeniable that contractor misclassification investigations will continue to increase in volume and strength.  Employers are best advised to scrutinize their own independent contractor classifications in self-audits before federal and state investigators, or perhaps even worse, plaintiffs’ class action lawyers target what had been common practices.

On September 19, 2012, several members of EBG’s Wage and Hour practice group will be presenting a briefing and webinar on FLSA compliance.  In 2012, a record number of federal wage and hour lawsuits were filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), demonstrating that there is no end in sight to the number of class and collective actions filed against employers. Claims continue to be filed, raising issues of misclassification of employees, alleged uncompensated "work" performed off the clock, and miscalculation of overtime pay for non-exempt workers.

In this interactive briefing and live webinar, we will discuss the recent trend in enforcement and class action lawsuits, as well as highlight several common mistakes that managers make when trying comply with the ever-changing and confusing area of the FLSA. Specifically, this briefing will teach you how to:  

  • Determine overtime eligibility
  • Determine whether an employee is exempt
  • Calculate overtime compensation correctly
  • Avoid unauthorized overtime
  • Navigate tip credits, tip pooling, and overtime calculation for wait staff
  • Understand what constitutes off-the-clock work and other traps
  • Develop strategies for avoiding additional wage and hour risks 

You can register for the complimentary briefing here.

By Michael Kun

Last week, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and the California Secretary of Labor announced that they were teaming up to crack down on employers who classify workers as independent contractors.  http://www.dol.gov/opa/media/press/whd/WHD20120257.htm

The announcement that the two groups would work together on such an initiative should not come as much of a surprise to employers.  Shortly after Hilda Solis took office as the U.S. Secretary of Labor, the Wage and Hour Division announced that it would be focusing on this issue.  And California has enacted a new statute that provides additional penalties in cases where workers are found to have been misclassified as independent contractors.  Simply put, the classification of workers as independent contractors is today’s “hot issue.”

While last week’s announcement may not be a surprise, it serves as a valuable reminder to employers that contract out services that they should review those relationships closely to ensure that workers are properly classified as independent contractors – and to make careful changes to the relationship should they not be.  Why must those changes be careful?  Because in some jurisdictions, including California, changes to practices can be construed as evidence that the past practice was unlawful.  In this way, seeking to correct a problem can lead to the very lawsuit you were seeking to avoid.

Unfortunately, there is not a single, universally accepted definition of “independent contractor.”  The IRS has one definition.  The DOL has another.  Various federal and state agencies have their own definitions, and the courts have crafted even more definitions in the tort and employment contexts. What the various definitions all have in common is the element of control.  To the extent an employer controls the manner in which a worker provides services – setting hours of work, providing the tools for the work, directing the manner in which the work is performed, or otherwise controlling the worker’s activities – those could all be indicia of an employment relationship, rather than an independent contractor relationship.  Similarly, if the worker wears the employer’s uniform, wears a badge with the employer’s name on it, or provides the worker with business cards bearing the company’s name, that could also suggest that the worker in fact is an employee, not an independent contractor.  The fact that you may call the worker an “independent contractor,” or that you have a contract using that term, ultimately means little.  It’s the actual relationship that will govern in any analysis.

Employers who have independent contractors performing the same work as their employees should be particularly concerned about these issues.  And those who reacted to the recession by laying off employees, only to bring back those same persons to perform the same job as independent contractors – without benefits, payroll withholdings and workers’ compensation – are squarely within the crosshairs of federal and state agencies.  And plaintiffs’ lawyers.

But they are not the only ones who should review their relationships with persons or companies with which they contract for the provisions of services.  Employers who contract with janitorial services — or office management services, or catering services — should also review those relationships, particularly if they are with companies whose funding is suspect.  If the employees of those companies don’t get paid, or don’t get paid properly, it’s not unusual for them to claim that they in fact were employed not just by that company, but you.  And if you give directions to that janitor – or office services person, or server – don’t be surprised if the DOL claims that he or she is your employee.