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Tenth Circuit holds that FLSA’ anti-retaliation provision reaches farther than its other clauses

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s leading wage-hour law. Most notably it includes requirements such as minimum wage, overtime and child labor laws. Those provisions apply onto to an “enterprise” that is engaged in interstate commerce. It also prohibits retaliation against workers who exercise FLSA rights. In a recent case, the Tenth Circuit held that the anti-retaliation provisions apply more broadly than the rest of FLSA.

As the Court explained the bulk of FLSA applies only to “‘an enterprise engaged in commerce.’ 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). ”Commerce’ means trade, commerce, transportation, transmission, or communication among the several States or between any State and any place outside thereof.’ § 203(b).”

However, the anti-retaliation provision of FLSA does not refer to an enterprise engaged in commerce. It states that “it shall be unlawful for any person . . . to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such
employee has filed any complaint . . . related to [FLSA].” § 215(a)(3) (emphasis added). A person is defined as “an individual, partnership, association, corporation, business trust, legal representative, or any organized group of persons.” § 203(a).

Accordingly, the Tenth Circuit held that the anti-retaliation provision in FLSA reaches farther than its other protections to apply to any “person,” not just an “enterprise,” that engages in retaliatory conduct.

Source: Acosta v. Foreclosure Connection, Inc., — F.3d —, case no. 2:15-CV-00653-DAK (10th Cir. 8/15/18).

Supreme Court’s new expansive reading of FLSA is applied for first time by a Circuit Court

The Supreme Court held earlier this year in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) should no longer be construed narrowly in favor of employees but should, instead, be given a “fair” reading based on its own language. The Supreme Court’s ruling has just seen its first application in a Circuit Court case, entitled Mosquera v. MTI Retreading Co., decided by the Sixth Circuit.

In Mosquera, the employee held an engineering degree but argued he spent less than 50% of his time doing work that required an engineering degree and should, therefore, not have been classified as a professional employee exempt from overtime. The Sixth Circuit disagreed. The Sixth Circuit noted the evidence that had been submitted in support of the employer’s summary judgment motion and dismissed the plaintiff’s own affidavit to the contrary, saying it was “unsubstantiated” and “self-serving.” The Sixth Circuit noted that, prior to Encino Motorcars, it would have looked on the plaintiff’s claim more favorably, interpreting the professional exemption “narrowly,” but under the Supreme Court’s new ruling, it was required to give the law a broader “fair” reading instead. Under the new approach to FLSA, the Sixth Circuit held the employer’s motion for summary judgment was “compelling” and as such, it held, the employee was properly characterized as a professional who was exempt from overtime.

Mosquera is no doubt the first in a long line of cases to come that will take a less “narrow” approach to interpreting FLSA.

Source:  Mosquera v. MTI Retreading Co. (6th Cir. 8/14/18).

California Court of Appeals rejects double-dipping for penalties in certain wage-hour cases

California state law provides for penalties and other liability under California’s Private Attorney Generals Act when an employer fails to provide an accurate, itemized wage statement (which statements must contain certain types of information further specified under California law). But what if the statement was correct when issued but later the employer is held liable for additional amounts, such as overtime or minimum wage amounts? Do otherwise correct wage statements become retroactively inaccurate because the employer is later held liable for additional amounts like overtime or minimum wage? Contending that it does, it has not been uncommon in California for plaintiffs in wage-hour casesto file wage-statement claims demanding the extra penalties.

A division of the California Court of Appeals recently rejected double-dipping, holding that, no, the wages statement do not become retroactively inaccurate, such that an employer becomes liable for extra wage-statement related penalties when they are found liable for amounts like overtime and minimum wage.

Source: Maldonado v. Epsilon Plastics, case no. B278022 (Cal.App. 4/18/18).

Religious accommodation need not preserve overtime opportunities

The Tenth Circuit recently decided a case where the plaintiff’s requested religious accommodation gave him the time he needed off for religious reasons but meant losing overtime. The Court held the employer did not have to allow him to work more later in the week to make up for the lost overtime.

The worker had asked for Saturdays off as a religious accommodation. The employer agreed. However, because Saturdays were the day of the week when the worker (and the other workers apparently) worked overtime, it left him with no overtime opportunity. Wanting to keep his Saturdays off, he asked to be allowed to make up the lost hours by working overtime on Sundays. The employer refused.

The Tenth Circuit recognized that granting the worker his requested accommodation of Saturdays off had cost him his overtime opportunities but held that the company was not required to allow him to work make up hours on Sundays. The Court held that an accommodation is reasonable if it allows the plaintiff “to engage in his religious practice despite the employer’s normal rules to the contrary.” Here letting him take Saturdays off allowed him to engage in his religious practices. The Court rejected the argument that Title VII required the company to then allow him to work make-up overtime on Sundays.

Though (the plaintiff) may have requested an opportunity to make up his overtime hours on Sunday, Title VII did not require (the company) to offer (his) preferred accommodation.

The case illustrates Title VII’s basic principle that a worker may be entitled to a reasonable accommodation of his religious practices, and so long as it is effective at allowing him to engage in his religious beliefs, it need not be his preferred accommodation, even where the difference means lost pay opportunities.

Source: Christmon v. B&B Airparts, Inc., case no. 17-3209 (10th Cir. 5/24/18).

Supreme Court upholds mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements, even when they bar class/collective actions

In a 5-4 decision the Supreme Court may have given employers — at least in some states — to block class and collective actions. The Court ruled that mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements are enforceable under the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), even in employment cases, and even as a block against class/collective actions. The Court had previously so ruled in the context of consumer contracts. In this case, the Supreme Court extended that ruling to employment agreements.

This ruling means companies can now lawfully require — at least under federal law — both consumers (as a condition of buying their product or service) and now employees (as a condition of working for the company) to agree,

  • Before any dispute ever arises,
  • To submit any future possible disputes to arbitration,
  • Instead of litigating them in court, and
  • Unless otherwise spelled out in the arbitration agreement, to waive any future rights to participate in class or collective actions.

In extending its ruling to employment cases, the Court rejected the argument that the National Labor Relations Act protects an employee’s right to join class/collective actions.

Perhaps of greatest importance the Court signaled a sharp curtailing of precedent holding that courts must defer to administrative agencies. That principle is called Chevron deference (after the Supreme Court’s 1984 decision in Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc.). Chevron deference has become highly controversial and is seen by conservative legal theorists as the chief vehicle for creation of the so-called administrative state. Here the issue of Chevron deference was raised because the National Labor Relations Board had held that the statute it oversees, the National Labor Relations Act, does include protection for class/collective actions and therefore should have rendered illegal the agreement at-issue. Over a heated dissent, the Supreme Court rejected the argument that the Board’s interpretation of the NLRA was entitled to deference. Whether this portends an end to Chevron deference or will prove an isolated ruling remains to be seen.

A “collective” action is like a class action. Some laws, notably, some wage-hour laws (such as minimum wage and overtime laws) permit “collective” actions instead of class actions. Simply put, the difference is that in a class action, the judge declares the existence of a class, and class members opt out of the class if they do not wish to participate; whereas, in a collective action, members must opt in to join the class.

Employers that have previously been concerned about stepping into the waters of mandatory pre-dispute arbitration agreements may now wish to consult with counsel about doing so. Employers should remember that, although this is a strong case for employers, it does not necessarily apply to claims brought under state laws, and some states, notably both New York and California, have taken strong positions against this type of agreement.

Source: Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, case no. 16-285 (5/21/18)

“Spiritual coercion,” “volunteers” and children under federal wage laws

Two recent decisions by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals address the applicability of federal labor laws to church volunteers. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is the nation’s leading wage-hour law. FLSA requires a minimum wage, overtime pay and prohibits child labor. FLSA applies only to “employees.” Volunteers are generally not considered to be “employees;” therefore, FLSA generally does not apply to volunteers. These two recent cases addressed these concepts in the context of church volunteers.

One case was decided by the Sixth Circuit, Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc. It involved a restaurant, operated by a church, on the church’s campus, that was open to the public and staffed in part by church volunteers.

The other case was decided by the Tenth Circuit, Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp. It involved a pecan ranch, at which church members, including children, harvested pecans.

In both cases, the Courts held the businesses were commercial enterprises subject to FLSA, and that the church members were doing work. Thus both courts were called to decide if the church members were truly volunteering their time, such that FLSA did not apply to their work. Both courts looked to a 1985 Supreme Court decision, Alamo Foundation, where the Supreme Court held that a volunteer is, among other things, someone who works “without promise or expectation of compensation” and “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” And, there, the Courts split. The Sixth Circuit held that the church members were volunteers, and the Tenth Circuit held they were not.

Why did the Courts split? The Sixth Circuit decided its case after the Tenth Circuit, and it held that the difference was because (a) the Tenth Circuit case involved children and (b) the Tenth Circuit case involved more than “spiritual coercion.”

Under Alamo Foundation, a worker cannot be held a “volunteer” if his work is coerced. A person who is coerced into working is not working purely “for his own personal purpose or pleasure.” The Sixth Circuit held that, in the Cathedral Buffet case, the workers, who were adults, were working because they felt it was expected of them to be “faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” The Sixth Circuit held that, even if such religious dogma was considered to be coercive, it is “spiritual coercion,” and as such insufficient to transform a volunteer into an “employee” under FLSA. However, the Court held that in the Tenth Circuit’s case, the workers were children and, further, in its own case, the Tenth Circuit highlighted facts suggesting more than mere spiritual coercion. For example, the Tenth Circuit pointed to evidence, including “one child (who) stated that if she had not worked, she would have lost her family and been kicked out of the community.”

Non-profits that benefit from the work of volunteers, especially church-related non-profits, should carefully review these two new cases.

Source: Acosta v. Cathedral Buffet, Inc.case no. 17–3427 (6th Cir. 4/16/18); Acosta v. Paragon Contractors Corp., case no. 17-4025 (10th Cir. 5/13/18).

When an “interstate” driver isn’t, but is …

Both federal law (the Fair Labor Standards Act, “FLSA”) and Colorado law (the Colorado Minimum Wage Act, the Colorado Wage Claim Act, and the Colorado Minimum Wage Order) exempt “interstate drivers.” Under FLSA, a driver can be considered “interstate” if she, like taxi drivers, is subject to the federal Motor Carrier Act, even where she drives only within the state. This means taxi drivers are not entitled to overtime under federal law.

In this case, the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s view that Colorado intended a stricter approach. According to the Court and the DOLE, Colorado’s overtime exemption does require that a driver actually drive across state lines as part of their job. Accordingly, the Court held, Colorado taxi drivers are entitled to overtime under state law, even though they would not be under federal law. As the Court explained, FLSA permits states to adopt stronger protections for employees than federal law. Here, the Court held Colorado did so because Colorado’s overtime exemption is worded slightly differently than FLSA’s.

Remaining issues include the applicability of this ruling to “gig” drivers, like those who drive through Uber or Lyft. Also, while this case has held that taxi drivers who don’t actually drive in and outside the state are entitled to overtime, it did not address whether other parts of Colorado wage law, including minimum wage requirements, also apply to such drivers.

Source: Brunson v. Colorado Cab Company, LLC, case no. 16CA1864 (1/8/18).

DOL revives self-reporting program

The United States Department of Labor (DOL) has revived its Payroll Audit Independent Determination (PAID) program, which is designed to allow employers who suspect they have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to self-report the suspected violation and get the DOL’s take on the situation. Unfortunately that’s about all an employer gets.

The program is open to employers who suspect they’ve underpaid workers, unless the employer is already involved in an audit, litigation or has received a demand from an employee or their attorney. Unfortunately the DOL doesn’t say what happens if the employer self-reports and then receives the demand, does that kick the employer out of the PAID program?

We aren’t likely to find out because the PAID program offers very little real benefit to a self-reporting employer. On its face, it is supposed to allow an employer to self-report and, in doing so, self-identify their own calculations of backpay owed. If the DOL agrees, it will then process the payments to workers. Although that is likely helpful to mitigate against penalties — especially in cases that involve a large total amount at-issue, consisting of small payments to individual workers, incurred as a result of an inadvertent violation — participation in the program doesn’t result in either the employees or the DOL waiving future claims, audits, litigation, etc.

Participating in the program comes with an especially high price. In order to be eligible, the employer must effectively lay out a plaintiff’s case, by submitting the following information to the DOL (quoting the DOL):

  1. specifically identify the potential violations,

  2. identify which employees were affected,

  3. identify the timeframes in which each employee was affected, and

  4. calculate the amount of back wages the employer believes are owed to each employee.

Source: US DOL PAID program.

Under the Supreme Court’s new “fair reading” doctrine, will FLSA exemptions be interpreted more broadly?

Historically courts have interpreted the overtime exemptions in FLSA (the Fair Labor Standards Act) narrowly in favor of employees. This “narrow construction” doctrine has made it difficult to treat employees who may be exempt as such unless they clearly fit an exemption. Now, the Supreme Court has rejected the “narrow construction” doctrine, ruling that it has not been “a useful guidepost for interpreting FLSA.”

The Supreme Court held that FLSA’s overtime obligations consist of two basic chunks of statutory language: The first requires employees to be paid overtime; the second chunk of language is a series of exemptions from that general rule. The Supreme Court held that FLSA provided courts with no basis for giving the first chunk of language any greater significance than the second chunk, in other words, to read the overtime requirement broadly at the expense of having to read the exemptions narrowly. Instead the Supreme Court held, both chunks of language should be given equal importance. The Supreme Court called this a “fair reading.”

Those exemptions are as much a part of theFLSA’s purpose as the overtime-pay requirement. See id., at ___ (slip op., at 9) (“Legislation is, after all, the art of compromise, the limitations expressed in statutory terms often the price of passage”). We thus have no license to give the exemption anything but a fair reading.

Having rejected the narrow-construction doctrine, and instead applying its fair-reading doctrine, the Supreme Court then held that, in this case, service advisors at the car dealership in question qualified for an overtime exemption under FLSA’s special exemption for salesmen at car dealerships.

It is likely this ruling will have substantial impact in all FLSA overtime cases. It will not be limited to the FLSA’s exemption for salesmen at car dealerships. Rather the fair-reading doctrine will substantially expand the reach of all of FLSA’s overtime exemptions.

Source: Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro, case no. 16-1362 (2018).

California is at it again, this time, how to calculate overtime

Under federal law (the Fair Labor Standards Act, “FLSA”), a non-exempt employee’s regular rate of pay is calculated, for overtime purposes, for each workweek, by totaling their compensation that week (excluding only certain limited things likely discretionary bonuses) then dividing by their total hours worked that week. They receive half that on top of the pay they’ve already received as compensation for overtime hours worked (in excess of 40).

Under a recent California case, California has decided, yet again, to be the odd jurisdiction out and, now, mandates that the denominator is only non-overtime hours.

What’s the difference? Here’s a simple hypothetical to illustrate. Assume in Week-1 of the year, John works 42 hours at a rate of $10 per hour. He gets paid $420 for that straight time (42x$10). That same week, John also receives an attendance bonus of $42. So far, his pay that week totals $462 ($420+$42). His regular rate is therefore, under FLSA, $11 ($462/42). He still hasn’t been overtime, so for overtime, he gets paid half that regular rate $5.50 ($11/2) for the 2 hours he worked overtime, in other words, an extra $11. His total pay that week, under FLSA, is $473.

Under the California approach, when it comes to calculating the regular rate, the company can only divide by 40. So his regular rate of pay is $11.55 ($462/40), nearly a 10% increase. That means his overtime rate is half that, making his total pay that week is $473.50 ($420+$42+$11.50).

Source: Alvarado v. Dart Container Corp. of Calif., case no. S232607 (Cal. 3/5/18).

DOL adopts Primary Beneficiary test for interns under FLSA

The U.S. Department of Labor has adopted the Primary Beneficiary test for deciding whether an intern must be paid as an employee or can be treated instead as an unpaid intern. This brings the DOL into alignment with a number of circuit courts, including the Sixth, Ninth and Eleventh. The Primary Beneficiary test is generally seen as more favorable towards employers and students who wish to be treated as unpaid interns.

The Primary Beneficiary test asks, given the “economic reality” of the relationship, whether the putative intern or the company is the real “primary beneficiary” of the relationship. When asking that question, the DOL and courts that follow this test consider the following seven factors (quoting new DOL Fact Sheet #71):

  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.

Wonder what a wage-hour class (collective) action complaint looks like?

A group of employees recently filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Denver, Colorado, against DaVita Healthcare Partners, Inc., and Total Renal Care, Inc. Their complaint, which is publicly available in court records, lays out their claims and provides HR professionals with a chance to see what this kind of lawsuit can look like. Reminder as you review, the defendants have yet to respond to the complaint; therefore, the plaintiffs’ allegations are merely, just that, at this time, allegations, which are unproven. The plaintiffs’ allegations have yet to even be tested in litigation.

The complaint alleges violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which is the nation’s leading, federal wage-hour law.

It was filed as a class action, more specifically, a collective action. Simply put, the difference between a class action and a wage-hour collective action is this: In a class action, representatives can sue on behalf of a group of similarly situated individuals, who can then opt out of the class if they choose not to be involved. FLSA provides for “collective” actions, in which individuals have to opt in to join the class. Either way court approval is required to proceed as a class/collective action, and this Complaint signals the plaintiffs’ intent to seek such approval.

Here the plaintiffs describe their alleged class as a group called the “Trailblazers,” which they describe, as follows:

2. Plaintiffs and those similarly situated are non-exempt hourly employees of Defendants. Plaintiffs and those similarly situated are all located within a geographic area designated and defined by Defendants as encompassing the states of Tennessee and Mississippi, and parts of Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Alabama, and Georgia, and are collectively referred to by Defendants as the “Trailblazers.”

3. Plaintiffs and those similarly situated in the “Trailblazers” zone are subject to the same illegal policy and practice of failing to pay workers for all time worked and failing to pay overtime wages. That policy and practice is based, in part, on direct patient care hours per treatment and the calculation of direct patient care hours for each facility established by corporate DaVita that reduces Defendants’ patient to staff ratios and require Plaintiffs and those similarly situated to work more hours for which they are not properly compensated.

They allege, as follows, that wages were not paid for all hours worked and, as a result, overtime is also claimed:

6. Defendants required Plaintiffs and those similarly situated to clock out for
their meal breaks. Plaintiffs and those similarly situated were/are required to perform work-related duties during meal breaks. Plaintiffs and those similarly situated were/are not paid for work-related interruptions that occurred/occur during meal breaks during their shifts wherein they worked more than five consecutive hours. Defendants failed to change Plaintiffs’, and those similarly situateds’, time records to reflect the additional time worked on behalf of the employer even when Plaintiffs and those similarly situated requested that their time records be corrected by management.

7. Plaintiffs and those similarly situated were/are not properly paid for other work-related duties which occurred outside of their scheduled shift hours and/or on weekends. Defendants failed to change Plaintiffs’, and those similarly situateds’, time records to reflect the additional time worked on behalf of the employer even when Plaintiffs and those similarly situated requested that their time records be corrected by management.

Allegedly compounding their claim for failure to pay, they also claim the employer “failed to properly maintain accurate daily records of all hours worked by Plaintiffs and those similarly situated as required by federal law because Defendants are not properly recording all hours worked, including overtime.”

What is sought in a class (collective) action like this under FLSA? These Plaintiffs claim “unpaid wages, overtime compensation, a declaratory judgment, liquidated damages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, costs and attorneys’ fees and pre and post judgment interest associated with the bringing of this action, plus any additional relief that is just and proper for Plaintiffs and those similarly situated under federal law.”

Again, it is emphasized these are merely unproven allegations at this point. Still, the complaint itself, being public, provides HR professionals an opportunity to see what this kind of case can look like.

Court strikes Obama-era DOL overtime rules

After issuing a preliminary injunction freezing the Obama-DOL overtime rules in 2016 before they took effect, the same court struck them on August 31, 2017 as unconstitutional, and in so doing expressly held the DOL had acted outside even Chevron authority. The decision, for now, seems to bring an end to the rules, as it seems unlikely the Trump-DOL will re-visit them.

Source: Nevada v. U.S. D.O.L., — F.Supp.3d —, case no. 4:16-cv-00731-ALM (D.E.D.Tex. 8/31/17).