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 2012, we were proud to introduce our free wage and hour app.  Over the years, thousands of clients and potential clients have downloaded the app on their mobile phones and tablets.

For 2018, we are pleased to introduce a brand-new version of the app, available without charge for iPhoneiPad, and Android devices. See our press release here.

Importantly, the 2012 and 2014 versions of the app have been retired.  If you had downloaded them, you will need to download the new version.

The new version of the app includes wage-hour summaries for all 50 states, as well as D.C. and Puerto Rico.  And it includes updates for 2018, including new state minimum wages and tipped employee rates.

Now more than ever, we can say that the app truly makes nationwide wage-hour information available in seconds. At a time when wage-hour litigation and agency investigations are at an all-time high, we believe the app offers an invaluable resource for employers, human resources personnel, and in-house counsel.

Key features of the updated app include:

  • Summaries of wage and hour laws and regulations, including 53 jurisdictions (federal, all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico)
  • Available without charge for iPhoneiPad, and Android devices
  • Quick access to, and a direct feed of, Epstein Becker Green’s award-winning Wage and Hour Defense Blog, which provides up-to-date commentary on wage and hour developments
  • Social media feeds from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube
  • Quick links to Epstein Becker Green’s attorneys and practices – and more!

If you haven’t done so already, we hope you will download the free app soon.  To do so, you can use these links for iPhoneiPad, and Android.

On April 12, 2018, the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued the first Opinion Letters since the Bush administration, as well as a new Fact Sheet.  The Obama administration formally abandoned Opinion Letters in 2010, but Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta has restored the practice of issuing these guidance documents.  Opinion Letters, as Secretary Acosta states in the DOL’s April 12 press release, are meant to explain “how an agency will apply the law to a particular set of facts,” with the goal of increasing employer compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and other laws.  Not only do Opinion Letters clarify the law, but pursuant to Section 10 of the Portal-to-Portal Act, they provide a complete affirmative defense to all monetary liability if an employer can plead and prove it acted “in good faith in conformity with and in reliance on” an Opinion Letter.  29 U.S.C. § 259; see also 29 C.F.R. Part 790.  For these reasons, employers should study these and all forthcoming Opinion Letters closely.

Opinion Letter FLSA2018-18 addresses the compensability of travel time under the FLSA, considering the case of hourly-paid employees with irregular work hours who travel in company-provided vehicles to different locations each day and are occasionally required to travel on Sundays to the corporate office for Monday trainings.  The Opinion Letter reaffirms the following guiding principles: First, as a general matter, time is compensable if it constitutes “work” (a term not defined by the FLSA).  Second, “compensable worktime generally does not include time spent commuting to or from work.”  Third, travel away from the employee’s home community is worktime if it cuts across the employee’s regular workday.  Fourth, “time spent in travel away from home outside of regular working hours as a passenger on an airplane, train, boat, bus, or automobile” is not worktime.

With these principles in mind, this letter provides two non-exclusive methods to reasonably determine normal work hours for employees with irregular schedules in order to make an ultimate judgment call on the compensability of travel time.  Under the first method, if a review of an employee’s hours during the most recent month of regular employment reveals typical work hours, the employer can consider those the normal hours going forward.  Under the second method, if an employee’s records do not show typical work hours, the employer can select the average start and end times for the employee’s work days.  Alternatively, where “employees truly have no normal work hours, the employer and employee … may negotiate … a reasonable amount of time or timeframe in which travel outside the employees’ home communities is compensable.”  Crucially, an employer that uses any of these methods to determine compensable travel time is entitled to limit such time to that accrued during normal work hours.

Opinion Letter FLSA2018-19 addresses the compensability of 15-minute rest breaks required every hour by an employee’s serious health condition (i.e., protected leave under the FMLA).  Adopting the test articulated by the Supreme Court in the Armourdecision—whether the break primarily benefits the employer (compensable) or the employee (non-compensable)—the letter advises that short breaks required solely to accommodate the employee’s serious health condition, unlike short, ordinary rest breaks, are not compensable because they predominantly benefit the employee.  The letter cautions, however, that employers must provide employees who take FMLA-protected breaks with as many compensable rest breakers as their coworkers, if any.

Opinion Letter CCPA2018-1NA addresses whether certain lump-sum payments from employers to employees are considered “earnings” for garnishment purposes under Title III of the Consumer Credit Protection Act (the “CCPA”).  The letter articulates the central inquiry as whether the lump-sum payment is compensation “for the employee’s services.” The letter then analyzes 18 types of lump-sum payments, concluding that commissions, bonuses, incentive payments, retroactive merit increases, termination pay, and severance pay, inter alia, are earnings under the CPA, butlump-sum payments for workers’ compensation, insurance settlements for wrongful termination, and buybacks of company shares are not.

Finally, Fact Sheet #17S addresses the FLSA’s minimum wage and overtime requirement exemptions for employees who perform bona fide executive, administrative, professional, and outside sales duties (known as the “white collar exemptions”) in the context of higher education institutions.  Specifically, the letter provides guidance as to the exempt status of faculty members, including coaches, non-teacher learned professionals (e.g., CPAs, psychologists, certified athletic trainers, librarians, and postdoctoral fellows), administrative employees (e.g., admissions counselors and student financial aid officers), executive employees (e.g., department heads, deans, and directors), and student-employees (i.e., graduate teaching assistants, research assistants, and student residential assistants).  Of note, the letter confirms that the DOL is undertaking rulemaking to revise the regulations that govern the white collar exemptions.

Featured on Employment Law This Week:  The Ninth Circuit held that certain auto service advisors were not exempt because their position is not specifically listed in the FLSA auto dealership exemption.

The 9th relied on the principle that such exemptions should be interpreted narrowly. In a 5-4 decision last week, the Supreme Court found no “textual indication” in the FLSA for narrow construction. Applying a “fair interpretation” standard instead, the Court ruled that the exemption applies to service advisors because of the nature of the work.

Watch the segment below and read our recent post.

In Tze-Kit Mui v. Massachusetts Port Authority, Massachusetts’ highest court held that Massachusetts law does not require employers to pay departing employees for accrued, unused sick time within the timeframe prescribed for “wages,” as the term is defined by the Massachusetts Wage Act.

In reaching its decision, the Court analyzed the plain meaning of “wages” under the Act and concluded that the legislature did not intend that “wages” would include sick time. The decision removes a significant concern for Massachusetts employers who are strictly liable for treble damages — and can face criminal liability —  for failing to pay wages in a timely manner.

The case involved an employee Massachusetts Port Authority (“Massport”), who retired while disciplinary charges were pending against him.  Massport discharged the plaintiff for cause weeks after his retirement.  Following a grievance procedure, his discharge was overturned by an arbitrator who found that the plaintiff could not have been discharged because he had already retired.

The plaintiff had 2,232 hours of unused sick time at retirement. Since a discharged employee is not eligible for sick pay under Massport’s sick time policy, Massport did not pay the plaintiff for his unused sick time until after the arbitrator’s decision finding that he had retired prior to being discharged.  The payment occurred more than one year after the plaintiff’s retirement.

The plaintiff filed suit, seeking treble damages for alleged violations of the Massachusetts Wage Act. Under the act, an employer must pay wages or salary earned by a departing employee “in full on the following regular pay day.”  A discharged employee must be paid wages or salary earned “in full on the day of his [or her] discharge.”

The plaintiff argued that Massport had violated the act by failing to timely compensate him for his unused sick pay. The plaintiff’s motion for judgment on the pleadings in the Superior Court was granted.  Massport appealed, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court transferred the case from the Appeals Court.

In evaluating whether sick pay qualifies as wages under Massachusetts law, the Court looked to the plain language of the Act to discern legislative intent. The act defines “wages” to include “any holiday or vacation payments due an employee under an oral or written agreement,” but does not reference sick pay.  The Court declined to read sick pay into the definition where it had not been expressly included by the legislature.

In addition, the Court explained that vacation time is different from sick time. The crucial distinction is that sick time, as defined by Massachusetts law, can only be used if the employee or a family member is ill, whereas vacation time can be used for any reason.  The Court reasoned that, because employees do not have an absolute right to use sick time, Massachusetts law does not require employers to compensate employees for accrued, unused sick time, and employers can adopt “use it or lose it” sick time policies.  Since employers are not required by law compensate employees for unused sick time, the court concluded “such time is clearly not a wage under the act.”

Under its policy, Massport agreed to pay departing employees for accrued, unused sick time as long as the employee had worked at Massport for two years and had not been terminated for cause. The Court characterized this arrangement as a “contingent bonus.”  Commissions are the only contingent compensation considered wages under the act provided that they “ha[ve] been definitely determined and due and ha[ve] become payable to [the] employee.”  The Court declined to extend the definition of “wages” to include other types of contingent compensation.

Finally, the Court concluded that, under the circumstances of the case, it would have been impossible for Massport to comply with the Act. The issue of the plaintiff’s separation date was not resolved until the payment deadline provided by the Act had lapsed.  Because compliance would not have been possible in this case, interpreting the act to include sick pay as wages would lead to an absurd result.

While the decision is a favorable one for employers who do business in Massachusetts, given the significant liability that employers may incur for failing to comply with the Act, Massachusetts employers should confer with counsel when wage payment issues arise.

As 2017 comes to a close, recent headlines have underscored the importance of compliance and training. In this Take 5, we review major workforce management issues in 2017, and their impact, and offer critical actions that employers should consider to minimize exposure:

  1. Addressing Workplace Sexual Harassment in the Wake of #MeToo
  2. A Busy 2017 Sets the Stage for Further Wage-Hour Developments
  3. Your “Top Ten” Cybersecurity Vulnerabilities
  4. 2017: The Year of the Comprehensive Paid Leave Laws
  5. Efforts Continue to Strengthen Equal Pay Laws in 2017

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF.

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.

As courts continue to address whether and when employers can compel employees to arbitrate their wage-hour claims, the California Court of Appeal has issued a decision in Cortez v. Doty Bros. Equipment Company, No. B275255, ___ Cal. App. 5th ___ (2017), that should be of great help to many California employers with collective bargaining agreements (“CBAs”) that include arbitration provisions.

The United States Supreme Court and multiple California courts have held that a CBA may require arbitration of an employee’s statutory claims only if the CBA includes a “clear and unmistakable” waiver of the right to bring those statutory claims in a judicial forum. What constitutes a “clear and unmistakable” waiver has been a fact-based issue resolved on a case-by-case basis, often in favor of allowing employees to avoid arbitration of their wage-hour claims.

The Cortez Court reached a different, employer-friendly conclusion.

The CBA at issue in Cortez provided that “[a]ny dispute or grievance arising from … Wage Order 16[] shall be processed under and in accordance with” the arbitration procedure outlined in the CBA.  The plaintiff brought claims under not only Wage Order 16, but also under the California Labor Code.  For this reason, the plaintiff argued that the CBA did not apply to his Labor Code claims.  But there was no dispute that the agreement to arbitrate claims “arising under” Wage Order 16 was clear and unmistakable.  For this reason, the Court concluded, it could not “disregard the reality that an employee may enforce the protections of the wage order in court only by bringing a claim under the Labor Code,” and that “[t]o hold that wage and hour disputes arising under Wage Order 16 are arbitrable under the CBA only in theory, but not in practice because they are, by necessity, brought under the Labor Code, would result in the very absurdity courts are required to avoid.”  As a result, the Court concluded that those Labor Code claims that arise under Wage Order 16 must be arbitrated.

However, the Cortez Court did not compel arbitration of those Labor Code claims that did not arise under Wage Order 16 – in this case, claims that concerned the timely payment of all wages due upon termination – because there is no reference to such a requirement in Wage Order 16.  The Cortez Court concluded that the plaintiff’s claim for failure to pay all wages due upon termination “is based on a statute that is not informed by, referenced in, or even relevant to, the wage order disputes they clearly and unmistakably agreed to arbitrate.”

The plaintiff may well seek California Supreme Court review of Cortez.  Whether that happens or not, employers in California negotiating CBAs will want to keep the “clear and unmistakable” standard in mind if they want arbitration to be the sole and exclusive forum for employees to resolve any statutory claims they may have.

Featured on Employment Law This Week: The U.S. Supreme Court takes on class action waivers.

In 2012, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that class action waivers in arbitration agreements violate employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second, Fifth, and Eighth Circuits disagreed, finding that these waivers do not violate the NLRA and are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act. More recently, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits sided with the NLRB on the issue. The Supreme Court will consider three cases in order to resolve this split, but any resolution could depend on the timing of the hearing. If the case is heard this term, before President Trump’s nominee for the vacancy on the Supreme Court is confirmed, it could end in a 4-4 tie. That would leave the law as it stands, and the split would continue.

Watch the segment below and see our recent blog post by Michael Kun.