Posts

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).

California adopts ABC Test for gauging independent contractor classification

The California Supreme Court announced a new test for determining whether a worker is truly an independent contractor or an employee under California’s wage orders (regulating wages, hours and working conditions).

(I)n determining whether, under the suffer or permit to work definition, a worker is properly considered the type of independent contractor to whom the wage order does not apply, it is appropriate to look to a standard, commonly referred to as the “ABC” test, that is utilized in other jurisdictions in a variety of contexts to distinguish employees from independent contractors. Under this test, a worker is properly considered an independent contractor to whom a wage order does not apply only if the hiring entity establishes:

(A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact;

(B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and

(C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.

This new test continues California’s approach to scrutinizing whether the relationship includes a right to control and direct the work (test A) and whether the worker is engaged in an independent trade (test C), but adds a focus on whether the worker is doing “work that is outside the usual course” of the company’s own business (test B).

Companies that use independent contractors to do work that is within the company’s own “usual course” of work, much less that is being done by its own employees, should take special care to review this new test and determine if they are in compliance.

Source: Dynamex Operations v. Superior Court, case no. S222732 (Cal. 4/30/18).

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).

Individual liability possible for wage claims, in Colorado

In a 2003 decision, Leonard v. McMorris, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the Colorado Wage Claim Act does not itself create statutory liability for individuals who own or manage a company. But what about other theories?

In a recent decision, Paradine v. Goei, the Colorado Court of Appeals held that Leonard does not foreclose personal liability. Rather, it simply held that the Colorado Wage Claim Act itself cannot be a vehicle for imposing personal liability. The Colorado Court of Appeals held in this case that there are, at least, two other “well-established” theories for holding an individual liable for the acts of a company: “peircing the corporate veil, and when an officer acts on behalf of an undisclosed principal.” Oversimplifying these two principles, (1) the first allows a person to be held liable for the acts of his entity if, in running that entity, he has not obeyed corporate formalities and ignored the distinction between the entity and himself; (2) the latter allows a person to be held liable when he seems to have acted on his own behalf but later wishes to claim, unbeknownst to the plaintiff, that he was actually acting behind an entity.

In this case the Court of Appeals held the plaintiff had adequately pled a case to pierce the corporate veil and was, therefore, entitled to seek discovery in pursuit of his allegations. In particular the court noted the plaintiff alleged that the individual collected the company’s money to be used to pay wages, used the company’s revenues for “his own personal use” and “diverted corporate funds” to pay his own expenses, including his “apartment lease” and “vehicle payments,” treating the company as his “alter ego” while commingling bank accounts and credit cards.”

Paradine will no doubt stimulate the filing of individual liability claims in Colorado wage cases.

Source: Paradine v. Goei, case no. 16CA1909 (Colo.App. 4/19/18).

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.

Colorado Supreme Court holds statute of limitations on wage claims runs from pay period following its due date

The Colorado Supreme Court held that the statute of limitations under the Colorado’s Wage Claim Act, CRS. 8-4-101 to -123, begins to run from the pay period when the wage first becomes due and is unpaid.

The facts of the case illustrate the importance of this holding. Like many states, Colorado’s wage claim laws permit an employee to sue at the time of termination for any unpaid wages. Most commonly wage claims involve amounts that are claimed due in that final paycheck, for example, vacation pay, but what about wages that were claimed due in prior periods? This case involved a group of workers who sought wages “as far back as 1992.” Colorado’s wage laws, like federal law (Fair Labor Standards Act, FLSA), set a 2-year statute of limitations on wage claims, or 3 years if the violation is deemed wilful. The plaintiffs argued that the Act allowed them to seek all of their claimed wages, going back decades. In contrast, the company argued that they could seek only wages that came due in their final paycheck, nothing earlier.

The Colorado Supreme Court disagreed with both parties, holding that the plaintiffs can seek any wages that came due in their final paychecks plus any that came due in the 2 years preceding their termination (or 3 if the claim is deemed wilful), but that they cannot seek wages going back farther than that.

We conclude that under section 109, terminated employees may seek wages or compensation that had been earned in prior pay periods but remain unpaid at  termination. This right, however, is subject to the statute of limitations in section 122, which runs from the date when the wages first became due and payable—the payday following the pay period in which they were earned. A terminated employee is thus limited to claims for the two (or three) years immediately preceding termination.

It is noted that the Court there said plaintiffs could seek claims for 2 (or 3) years “immediately preceding termination;” however, it would seem from the language of the Act and the Court’s own reasoning that the Court meant “immediately preceding (the filing of their lawsuit seeking wages upon) termination.” That issue is likely to be litigated in future cases.

Source: Hernandez v. Ray Domenico Farms, Inc., case no. 17SZ77 (Colo. 3/5/18).