Authored by Robert S. Whitman and Howard M. Wexler

Amid the uncertainty concerning the DOL’s enjoined overtime exemption rules and similar state-led efforts to increase the salary threshold, such as in New York, the Second Circuit recently gave employers an early holiday present when it resolved a long-standing split among New York federal courts and held that “New York’s law does not call for an award of New York liquidated damages over and above a like award of FLSA liquidated damages.”

Under the FLSA, an employer that underpays an employee is liable in the amount of those unpaid wages “and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages” if it did not act in good faith.  Similarly, under the NYLL, liquidated damages in the amount of 100% total wages due are mandatory unless the employer proves its good faith.  The NYLL is silent as to whether it provides for liquidated damages in cases where liquidated damages are also awarded under the FLSA.

In Chowdury v. Hamza Express Food Corp. et al., an employee challenged the damages award he received after his former employer defaulted in his lawsuit for unpaid wages under the FLSA and New York Labor Law.  The employee sought two discrete liquidated damages awards: one under the FLSA and one under the NYLL.  Noting a split among district courts as to whether such “cumulative” or “stacked” liquidated damages awards are available, the Magistrate Judge recommended denial of a cumulative award, concluding that it would be an unfair double recovery.  The District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s recommended ruling.

The Second Circuit affirmed.  It held that “double recovery” of liquidated damages under the FLSA and NYLL was unwarranted. “Had the New York State legislature intended to provide a cumulative liquidated damages award under the NYLL, we think it would have done so explicitly in view of the fact that double recovery is generally disfavored where another source of damages already remedies the same injury for the same purpose.”  Accordingly, the court held, “In the absence of any indication otherwise, we interpret the New York statute’s provision for liquidated damages as satisfied by a similar award of liquidated damages under the federal statute.”

The decision is a big win for employers as it resolves what has frequently been a bone of contention between parties litigating (and trying to resolve) wage and hour lawsuit in New York brought under the FLSA and NYLL, and potentially could be used in other states where penalties under wage-and-hour laws serve the same purpose as the FLSA’s liquidated damages provision.  The potential exposure in New York cases is already high enough to give employers the holiday blahs:  back wages, 100% liquidated damages, 9% pre-judgment interest, a 6-year limitations period, and attorneys’ fees.  This decision at least removes the possibility that plaintiffs will claim, like George Costanza, an entitlement to “double dip.”

Happy Holidays!

NYDOLAuthored by Robert S. Whitman and Howard M. Wexler

As we all know, the revisions to the FLSA’s “white collar” exemptions will take effect December 1 and will increase the salary level required for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions to $913 per week (or $47,476 per year).  Avid wage and hour practitioners in New York have been waiting to see if the State DOL would propose a similar increase for exempt status under the NY Labor Law.

The wait is over.

On October 19, State DOL proposed amendments to its existing wage orders that would increase the salary threshold from the current $675 per week.  In keeping with the upcoming gradual increase in the State’s minimum wage levels, the proposal would raise the salary threshold in tiers:

Large Employers (11 or more employees) in New York City

  • $825.00 per week on and after 12/31/16;
  • $975.00 per week on and after 12/31/17; and
  • $1,125.00 per week on and after 12/31/18;

Small Employers (10 or fewer employees) in New York City

  • $787.50 per week on and after 12/31/16;
  • $900.00 per week on and after 12/31/17;
  • $1,012.50 per week on and after 12/31/18; and
  • $1,125.00 per week on and after 12/31/19;

Employers in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

  • $750.00 per week on and after 12/31/16;
  • $825.00 per week on and after 12/31/17;
  • $900.00 per week on and after 12/31/18;
  • $975.00 per week on and after 12/31/19;
  • $1,050.00 per week on and after 12/31/20; and
  • $1,125.00 per week on and after 12/31/21;

Employers Outside of New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

  • $727.50 per week on and after 12/31/16;
  • $780.00 per week on and after 12/31/17;
  • $832.00 per week on and after 12/31/18;
  • $885.00 per week on and after 12/31/19;
  • $937.50 per week on and after 12/31/20

If these salary thresholds are adopted, the minimum requirement for exempt employees in New York will surpass the federal threshold of $973 at various points in time, the earliest on December 31, 2017 for “large” New York City employers.  However, the FLSA salary levels are subject to automatic revision every three years, beginning in 2020, based on the 40th percentile of full-time salaried workers in the region in which the salary level is lowest (historically, the South).

In addition to the increased salary threshold, the proposed Wage Orders also adjusts the amount employers can deduct for a uniform allowance and claim as a meal and tip credit in line with the gradual increase of the minimum wage toward $15.

While these are proposed amendments, we expect they will be implemented given that they track the forthcoming minimum wage increases.  The Department of Labor will receive public comments until December 3, 2016.  We will update you once the regulations become effective.

 

Authored by Simon L. Yang

Seyfarth Synopsis: When the California Supreme Court said no to PAGA waivers in its 2014 Iskanian ruling, we asked whether employers would boldly go where few have gone before and implement arbitration agreements requiring arbitration of PAGA claims. A recent California Court of Appeal decision issued in Perez v. U-Haul Company of California warrants revisiting that question.

Many employers stayed the course in 2014 and continued including PAGA waivers within their arbitration agreements, since numerous federal district courts continued disagreeing with and refusing to apply Iskanian’s logic.

And even when in 2015 the Ninth Circuit instructed federal district courts to apply Iskanian, many employers continued using arbitration agreements with PAGA waivers, since PAGA litigation could be severed and stayed while a plaintiff’s individual claims were arbitrated. If the employer prevailed on the individual claims in arbitration, the plaintiff would not be an aggrieved employee, would not have standing under PAGA, and would thus be unable to pursue mooted PAGA claims.

By 2016 plaintiffs have made the availability of that option scarcer. To avoid having to prove standing by prevailing on their individual claims before pursuing otherwise stayed PAGA claims, plaintiffs now commonly prefer to file PAGA-only lawsuits, without alleging individual claims.

The two putative Perez class representatives, however, had pursued both individual and PAGA claims. Predicting and seeking to avoid a stay of their PAGA claims, the Perez plaintiffs hopped onto the PAGA-only bandwagon by amending their complaints to allege a PAGA cause of action only—abandoning their individual claims, their roles as potential class representatives, and putative class members’ individual rights.

U-Haul fought back and sought to require arbitration of the predicate issue of whether the plaintiffs themselves had been subject to any Labor Code violations. Even though U-Haul was not seeking to preclude the PAGA cause of action but only to arbitrate the individual issues determinative of plaintiffs’ standing for their PAGA claims, the Court of Appeal rejected U-Haul’s argument. It reasoned that no individual issues remained at issue and that U-Haul’s arbitration agreement explicitly precluded arbitration of any representative issues.

Though Iskanian explicitly acknowledged that PAGA claims might be arbitrated, the Perez court then went full dictum. It opined that even if U-Haul’s arbitration agreement did not preclude its argument for arbitrating the plaintiff-specific issues determinative of PAGA standing, the PAGA cause of action could not be split between arbitration and litigation. But Iskanian doesn’t preclude this. What it precluded was the waiver of the right to pursue PAGA claims at all.

While it may be the case that an arbitration agreement cannot specify that an individual claim be created in a PAGA-only lawsuit, an arbitration agreement should be able to specify that representative claims be arbitrated—and specify that streamlined procedures be applied. Once again, will some enterprising employers consider going boldly where few have gone before?

Authored by Christopher A. Crosman

We are excited to announce the 16th edition of Seyfarth Shaw’s publication Litigating California Wage & Hour and Labor Code Class ActionsAs in previous editions, this publication reviews the most commonly filed wage and hour and Labor Code class and representative claims and the development of the law over the last several years, and discusses and analyzes the various types of wage & hour class actions that affect many California employers. This new edition has been updated to reflect the latest developments in the law and promises to delight.

Download the publication using this convenient link today!

Authored by Daniel C. Whang and Simon L. Yang

Seyfarth Synopsis: When an allegedly aggrieved employee attempts both to seek compensatory relief as an individual and to impose penalties as a proxy for the California Labor Commissioner under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”), the resulting comingling of the plaintiff’s interests as an individual and as a representative in the shoes of the State of California is another unsurprising byproduct of the PAGA statutory scheme. Some plaintiffs try to argue that results in one role don’t affect the other, but another court recently reminded plaintiffs that resolving their individual claims also resolves their ability to pursue representative PAGA claims.

Judge Kenneth Freeman recently confirmed that a representative plaintiff’s role as a proxy for the State of California is not unconditional and requires that the plaintiff be an “aggrieved employee.” In the recent case, the plaintiff had originally filed both class action claims as well as a representative PAGA claim alleging exempt misclassification against his employer. After being compelled to arbitrate individual wage and hour claims while the representative PAGA claim was stayed, the plaintiff accepted a statutory offer to compromise under California Code of Civil Procedure Section 998, which dismissed all but his PAGA claim with prejudice.

In refusing to dismiss his PAGA claim, the plaintiff argued that his dual role as an individual and representative of the State of California meant that the dismissal of his individual claims had no impact on his ability to continue as a PAGA representative. The defendant disagreed and filed a motion for summary adjudication. Judge Freeman sided with the employer and made clear that once the plaintiff settled his individual claims, he was no longer an “aggrieved employee” under PAGA and, therefore, no longer had standing to bring a representative claim.

Judge Freeman is not alone in his view. The California Court of Appeal has previously concluded that a plaintiff who released any individual wage and hour claims he may have against his employer as part of a class action settlement cannot subsequently bring a PAGA claim based on the same alleged violations.

Since a PAGA claim can only be brought by and on behalf of “aggrieved employees,” Judge Freeman’s decision is helpful beyond just resolving claims with a PAGA representative. It also suggests “Pick Up Stix” campaigns—where an employer settles claims with individual putative class members to reduce the potential liability in the class action itself—should also be viable in PAGA lawsuits. Settling non-parties’ underlying wage and hour claims should mean that current or former employees who have chosen to participate in the campaign would no longer be “aggrieved employees” for purposes of PAGA.

Considering that PAGA claims cannot be waived in arbitration agreements and are not subject to class certification requirements, employers facing PAGA claims may feel that the courts stack the odds against them. But the recent decision from Judge Freeman provides an encouraging reminder that employers may be able to use settlements as an effective litigation strategy in PAGA actions.

Authored by Rob Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: Unpaid interns for Hearst magazines have been rebuffed again in their effort to be declared eligible to receive wages under the FLSA and the New York Labor Law.

In an August 24, 2016 ruling, Judge J. Paul Oetken of the Southern District of New York held that six interns, who worked for Marie Claire, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and Harper’s Bazaar, were not employees as a matter of law and granted summary judgment to Hearst. After reviewing each of their circumstances individually, the court held:

These interns worked at Hearst magazines for academic credit, around academic schedules if they had them, with the understanding that they would be unpaid and were not guaranteed an offer of paid employment at the end of the internships. They learned practical skills and gained the benefit of job references, hands-on training, and exposure to the inner workings of industries in which they had each expressed an interest.

The six named plaintiffs were the only ones remaining after the Second Circuit, in July 2015, denied their bid for class and collective certification. The court in that decision also articulated a new set of factors for determining whether unpaid interns at for-profit companies are “trainees” (who are not entitled to compensation) or “employees” (who must receive minimum wage and overtime premiums).

The Second Circuit’s decision adopted the “primary beneficiary” test to determine internship status—i.e., whether the “tangible and intangible benefits provided to the intern are greater than the intern’s contribution to the employer’s operation.” Applying that test to the Hearst interns, Judge Oetken concluded, “[w]hile [the six plaintiffs’] internships involved varying amounts of rote work and could have been more ideally structured to maximize their educational potential, each Plaintiff benefited in tangible and intangible ways from his or her internship, and some continue to do so today as they seek jobs in fashion and publishing.”

Among the factors he relied on: the relatively brief duration of the internships, typically limited to college semesters or summer breaks; the interns’ opportunities for observation and learning, such as “Cosmo U,” a program in which senior editors spoke about their career paths; and the receipt of or opportunity for academic credit.

Aside from its detailed discussion of the facts of the plaintiffs’ internships, the court’s decision, Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, is notable for two reasons:

  1. It shows the practical impact of a denial of class and collective certification. Although the court addressed the six named plaintiffs’ claims in a single opinion, it was effectively a series of rulings on each intern’s individualized circumstances. As the court noted, some of the factors—such as the receipt of college credit for the internships—weighed differently for the different plaintiffs. But in the end, the result for each of them, given the “totality of the circumstances” in their particular cases, was the same.
  2. The court’s decision applied equally to the plaintiffs’ claims under the FLSA and the NY Labor Law. This issue was left somewhat unsettled after the Second Circuit’s 2015 decision, which noted the similarities in the definitions of “employee” under the two statutes but did not explicitly say that the ruling pertained to both. Judge Oetken, following the earlier lead of a Southern District colleague, held that his ruling decided the claims under federal and NY law.

The Hearst decision is not the first to grant summary judgment under the Second Circuit’s factors. In March 2016, a Southern District Judge found that an intern for the now-late Gawker website was properly treated as such and was not entitled to wages. Despite the positive trend, these cases are highly fact-driven and do not foreclose the possibility that interns will be deemed to be employees, nor should they make for-profit employers complacent about not paying interns. But they signal that, where interns have a bona fide learning experience in coordination with their academic pursuits, they need not be paid as a matter of law.

Co-authored by Monica Rodriguez and Justin Curley

Seyfarth Synopsis: The California Supreme Court holds that employers must promptly pay final wages owed to employees who quit, including those who retire, or risk paying steep statutory penalties under California Labor Code section 203.

What Were the Plaintiff’s Claims?

Janis McLean worked as deputy attorney general for the California Department of Justice. In November 2010, McLean retired and filed suit in an individual and representative capacity against the State of California shortly thereafter. She alleged that the State Controller’s Office failed to pay her final wages on her last day of employment or within 72 hours of her last day after she retired.

What Do California Labor Code Sections 201 and 202 Require of Employers?

California Labor Code sections 201 and 202 require employers to pay final wages owed to employees who are fired or quit. Depending on how the employment comes to an end, final wages are due immediately or within 72 hours after the last day of employment. Failure to timely pay final wages subjects employers to penalties of up to 30 days’ wages.

What Did the California Supreme Court Decide?

The California Supreme Court agreed with McLean that the prompt payment provisions of California Labor Code sections 201 and 201 included protections for employees who retire. The State had demurred to the complaint, arguing that because McLean had retired from her job, she had not stated a claim for statutory penalties which applies only when employees “quit” or are “discharged.” While the trial court sustained the demurrer, the California Court of Appeal and California Supreme Court disagreed.

The California Supreme Court looked to the legislative purpose of the statute and noted that the statute is meant to be “liberally construed with an eye to promoting such protection” of employees. The court also considered the ordinary meaning of the word “quit” to determine whether it encompasses the word “retire,” and concluded that the word “quit” is broad enough to cover a voluntary departure through retirement.

Lessons Learned for Employers?

This decision serves as a reminder to California employers to promptly pay wages owed to their employees after termination, regardless of the method in which the employment ends–through discharge, retirement, or resignation. For those who are interested, a more in-depth review of the case is available here.

Authored by Simon L. Yang

Seyfarth Synopsis: PAGA was amended earlier this week, in connection with the California legislature’s approval of the state’s annual budget. The legislation did not implement any of the more substantive changes that Governor Brown’s proposed budget had previously suggested—e.g., requiring PAGA plaintiffs to provide additional information when submitting pre-filing written notice to the LWDA or permitting the LWDA an opportunity to object to PAGA settlements. While some procedural changes are worth noting, they don’t alleviate any of employers’ main concerns with PAGA.

And that’s to be expected, since the Legislative Analyst’s Office previously recommended rejecting any substantive changes. In its view, such amendments should be considered only after (i) requiring additional information be provided to the LWDA about the actual results of PAGA litigation and (ii) increasing funding to the LWDA so that it could actually fulfill its role in PAGA enforcement. This week’s alterations to PAGA procedure attempt to address these two preliminary objectives.

First, California employees used to be able to threaten employers with the prospect of PAGA litigation for the mere $3 cost of sending a written notice via certified mail. Effective today, hopeful PAGA plaintiffs must now pay a $75 filing fee and submit written notice via online filing. The filing fee and online system aim to assist the LWDA manage its PAGA burdens. But the 25x filing-fee increase likely won’t curb employers’ PAGA burdens, since employees often demand PAGA settlements that are 2,500x greater than even the new filing fee.

Second, courts now have to approve all settlements in PAGA actions—and not just settlements involving PAGA penalties. Contrary to some rumors, the amendments do not provide the LWDA an opportunity to object to PAGA settlements. The amendments do require PAGA plaintiffs to provide the LWDA with copies of any filed PAGA complaint, proposed settlements, and final judgments, but this week’s revisions merely assist the LWDA in being informed of PAGA litigation.

Third, employees also now have to wait 65 (as opposed to 33) days after sending their written notice before filing suit, as the LWDA has 60 (instead of 30) days to potentially respond. Both employees and the LWDA generally do nothing during this period, so employers may be further annoyed that they still have but 33 days to potentially cure certain Labor Code violations.

Still, maybe the LWDA will become more involved in PAGA enforcement. The LWDA has launched a new PAGA website, though it notes that the statutorily required online filing system is not yet developed. It also notes the prior reality about the LWDA’s role in PAGA enforcement—that employees and employers ordinarily won’t hear anything from the LWDA.

Only time will tell if the LWDA is ready to become more involved. What remains certain—and what the PAGA amendments do not alter—is that California employers will continue to face an abundance of PAGA litigation.

 

Authored by Simon L. Yang

When PAGA—California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004—was first enacted, we knew it would take years to see how it would be applied. Twelve years (and over $30 million in penalties paid to the state) later, we thought we’d have more answers. But many California employers, attorneys, and judges, now all too familiar with PAGA, still are uncertain how to manage and litigate PAGA claims and continue to await guidance.

But we’re tired of waiting. And we might be waiting for Godot (since California legislators have those more than 30 million reasons to like the PAGA status quo). Nor can we expect California executives and agencies to assist, since they largely ignore their roles for overseeing and authorizing PAGA claims (as less than 1% of received PAGA notices are even reviewed in practice).

So the joy of addressing the uncertainty of PAGA is left for litigants and courts. Of course, courts can’t really be blamed for furthering confusion with inconsistent and contradictory rulings, since one of the few certainties is that the bounty hunter statute simply isn’t the California legislature’s finest work—meaning only that the statute’s text is the source of much PAGA confusion.

But wait no more, and add this to the list of certainties: The California Wage & Hour Series will include “PAGA Primer” posts returning to the basics, starting with the statute, and seeking to defuse PAGA misconceptions. It’s time to ask the stupid questions: What does PAGA actually say? When does PAGA create penalties? Does PAGA permit recovery of two penalties for a single violation? Does PAGA create substantive or procedural rights? Does Rule 23’s applicability to a PAGA claim vary on a case-by-case basis? Does PAGA exempt claims from manageability requirements? Does a right to a jury trial exist for PAGA claims? Asking stupid questions is the way to avoid stupid answers.

We’ll still blog on PAGA developments—including the California legislature’s response to the governor’s proposed amendments, the California Supreme Court’s ruling on the standard for and scope of PAGA discovery, and maybe even a final disposition in a case permitting the United States Supreme Court to weigh in on the Iskanian rule. And we’ll not only wait for answers but also take the proactive approach by addressing a series of basic but necessary questions.

If you have other PAGA questions that you want answered, well, good luck—you’re not alone. Joking aside, feel free to reach out to the author or any of the other 50+ members of Seyfarth’s California Wage & Hour Litigation team if you need assistance with PAGA, want to suggest questions, or just want to talk PAGA.

Authored by Hillary J. Massey

Employers have a new tool for opposing conditional and class certification of overtime claims by financial advisors and other exempt employees—last week, a judge in the District of New Jersey denied conditional and class certification of such claims because the plaintiffs failed to show that common issues predominated. The court, pointing to other decisions denying class status to financial advisors in recent years, concluded that the advisors’ duties varied significantly and required individual treatment. While recent headlines have announced large settlements of class claims by financial advisors, this decision bolsters employers’ opposition to those and other purported wage and hour class and collective claims.

The four named plaintiffs brought suit under the FLSA and the laws of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, claiming that they and the purported class members were entitled to overtime pay and business expenses, and proposing three classes and an opt-in federal collective. Plaintiffs contended the bank’s uniform categorization of financial advisors as exempt was improper because the advisors regularly made sales “cold calls,” regularly attended networking events to attract new clients, were paid based on their ability to generate sales, were heavily supervised, and had no role in managerial decisions affecting the bank’s business.

Denying plaintiffs’ motions, the judge first concluded that plaintiffs failed to establish their claims were typical and they were adequate representatives of the class because, unlike the plaintiffs, many proposed class members had signed releases of all claims.  The court explained it was unclear how the class representatives would challenge releases they did not sign.

On predominance, the judge concluded that the bank’s policies, plaintiffs’ depositions, and the declarations submitted with the bank’s opposition demonstrated that financial advisors varied in:

  • how often they sold financial products;
  • how they were supervised;
  • how they were paid;
  • what types of clients they served; and
  • how much autonomy they enjoyed.

For example, one plaintiff testified that some advisors did cold calling while others did not, and plaintiffs testified that as their business became more established, they spent less time generating sales.  The record also showed that some managers were involved in the day-to-day work of their financial advisors, but others were more hands off.  Thus the court concluded that common questions did not predominate.

As in another case we recently discussed, where the Sixth Circuit upheld the dismissal of a proposed collective action of bank loan underwriters, the court here also rejected plaintiffs’ heavy reliance on the DOL’s 2010 Administrative Interpretation concerning mortgage loan officers’ non-exempt status, noting that that the Interpretation did not apply to financial advisors.

Finally, despite a “lenient standard,” the judge denied plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification under the FLSA.  Plaintiffs could not meet their burden by merely showing that the bank had a uniform policy of treating financial advisors as exempt, and the significant class discovery record revealed that financial advisors’ duties varied greatly.

The case will now proceed on the merits of the claims of the four individual plaintiffs only.