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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Evan J. Spelfogel

In recent years employees have asserted claims for time allegedly worked away from their normal worksites, on their Blackberries, iPhones or personal home computers.  Until now, employers have been faced with the nearly impossible task of proving that their employees did not perform the alleged work.  The US Department of Labor and plaintiffs’ attorneys have taken advantage of the well-established obligation of employers to make and maintain accurate records of the hours worked by their non-exempt employees, and to pay for all work “suffered or permitted” to be performed.

Now, the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit has issued a decision holding that an employer is shielded from an employee’s FLSA overtime claim where it has an automated time keeping system that the employee failed to utilize, to report the hours allegedly worked at home.  Frank Brown v. ScriptPro LLC, Case No. 11-3293 (10th Cir. Nov. 27, 2012).

The three judge panel held that a plaintiff has the burden of proving that he performed work for which he was not properly compensated, citing earlier Tenth Circuit and US Supreme Court precedent:  Baker v. Barnard Construction Co., Inc., 146 F 3d. 214, 220 (10th Cir. 1998); Anderson v. Mt. Clements Pottery Co., 328 US 680, 687 (1946).  It was plaintiff’s burden, the Tenth Circuit held, to produce evidence to show the actual amount and extent of his work.

Here, the Court held, plaintiff had failed to set forth the specific facts showing there was a genuine issue for trial, and granted the company’s summary judgment motion. 

In so doing, the Tenth Circuit acknowledged that plaintiff had produced to the district court in opposition to the company’s motion for summary judgment, “uncontroverted evidence that he actually worked overtime.”  This evidence, the Appeals Court said, included plaintiffs own testimony, his wife’s testimony and certain discussions between plaintiff and one of his supervisors concerning plaintiff’s work at home. 

However, plaintiff failed to show the actual amount of overtime by any justifiable or reasonable inference. 

The key to the Tenth Circuit’s decision was that ScriptPro kept accurate records of employees’ time worked, and had installed an automated recordkeeping system that allowed employees to access the timekeeping system from home and enter their daily time onto that system.  The burden on individual employees to show the amount of overtime worked is only relaxed, the Tenth Circuit held, where an employer fails to keep accurate records. 

In this case, the Court held, there was no failure by ScriptPro to keep accurate records, only a failure by plaintiff to comply with ScriptPro’s timekeeping system.  In summary, the Court concluded, where the employee fails to report time to the employer through the established overtime recordkeeping system, the failure by an employer to pay overtime is not an FLSA violation. 

In view of the Tenth Circuit’s ScriptPro decision, employers should review their recordkeeping and timekeeping systems, and may be well advised to implement systems that allow employees to enter asserted home work time into the systems directly.  Of course, this will require monitoring by employers to ensure employee accuracy and honesty in time reporting. 

Many employers utilize employee time recording systems for employees who spend significant amounts of their workdays away from a centralized jobsite.  Such a system could be easily be adapted to include time reporting for employees who legitimately spend time working from home or at other remote jobsite locations. 

The remedy historically available to employers where employees assert they are working unauthorized overtime hours (against company policy or in direct and flagrant disregard of orders from supervisors) has been to discipline the employee and, if necessary, terminate the employment relationship – but the employer has always been required to pay for the asserted overtime work. 

The Tenth Circuit’s ScriptPro decision is a wakeup call to employers to review their timekeeping systems and, where appropriate, to implement new techniques that would apply to employees allegedly working at home.