Authored by Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Department of Labor has scrapped its 2010 Fact Sheet on internship status and adopted the more flexible and employer-friendly test devised by Second Circuit.

In a decision that surprised no one who has followed the litigation of wage hour claims by interns, the US Department of Labor has abandoned its ill-fated six-part test for intern status in for-profit companies and replaced it with a more nuanced set of factors first articulated by the Second Circuit in 2015. The move officially eliminates agency guidance that several appellate courts had explicitly rejected as inconsistent with the FLSA.

The DOL announced the move with little fanfare. In a brief statement posted on its website on January 5, it said:

On Dec. 19, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit became the fourth federal appellate court to expressly reject the U.S. Department of Labor’s six-part test for determining whether interns and students are employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

The Department of Labor today clarified that going forward, the Department will conform to these appellate court rulings by using the same “primary beneficiary” test that these courts use to determine whether interns are employees under the FLSA. The Wage and Hour Division will update its enforcement policies to align with recent case law, eliminate unnecessary confusion among the regulated community, and provide the Division’s investigators with increased flexibility to holistically analyze internships on a case-by-case basis.

The DOL rolled out the six-part test in 2010 in a Fact Sheet issued by the Wage and Hour Division. The test provided that an unpaid intern at a for-profit company would be deemed an employee under the FLSA unless all six factors—requiring in essence that the internship mirror the type of instruction received in a classroom setting and that the employer “derive[] no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern”—were met. The upshot of the test was that if the company received any economic benefit from the intern’s services, the intern was an employee and therefore entitled to minimum wage, overtime, and other protections of the FLSA.

Spurred by the DOL’s guidance, plaintiffs filed a flurry of lawsuits, especially in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York. But despite some initial success, their claims were not well received. The critical blow came in 2015 from the Second Circuit, which in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Picture Searchlight emphatically rejected the DOL’s test, stating, “[W]e do not find it persuasive, and we will not defer to it.” Instead, it said, courts should examine the internship relationship as a whole and determine the “primary beneficiary.” It crafted its own list of seven non-exhaustive factors designed to answer that question. Other courts soon followed the Second Circuit’s lead, capped off by the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in late December.

For the new leadership at the DOL, that was the final blow. In the wake of the Ninth Circuit’s decision, the agency not only scrapped the six-factor test entirely, but adopted the seven-factor Glatt test verbatim in a new Fact Sheet.

While the DOL’s action marks the official end of the short-lived six factors, the history books will note that the Glatt decision itself was the more significant event in the brief shelf-life of internship litigation. As we have noted previously in this space, the Glatt court not only adopted a more employer-friendly test than the DOL and the plaintiffs’ bar had advocated; it also expressed grave doubts about whether lawsuits by interns would be suitable for class or collective action treatment. The DOL’s new Fact Sheet reiterates those doubts, stating, “Courts have described the ‘primary beneficiary test’ as a flexible test, and no single factor is determinative. Accordingly, whether an intern or student is an employee under the FLSA necessarily depends on the unique circumstances of each case.”

That aspect of the ruling, more than its resolution of the merits, was likely the beginning of the end for internship lawsuits. In the months and years since Glatt was decided, the number of internship lawsuits has dropped precipitously.

At this point, only the college student depicted recently in The Onion  seems to be holding out hope. But as we’ve advised many times, employers should not get complacent. Unpaid interns, no matter how willing they are to work for free, are not a substitute for paid employees and should not be treated as glorified volunteer coffee-fetchers. As the new DOL factors make clear, internship experiences still must be predominantly educational in character. If not, it will be the interns (and their lawyers) giving employers a harsh lesson in wage and hour compliance.

Authored by Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit has upheld summary judgment against magazine interns seeking payment as “employees” under the FLSA.

In an end-of-semester decision that may represent the final grade for unpaid interns seeking minimum wage and overtime pay under the FLSA, the Second Circuit has firmly rejected claims by Hearst magazine interns challenging their unpaid status.

The interns served on an unpaid basis for various magazines published by Hearst Corporation, either during college or for a few months between college and graduate school. They sued, claiming they were employees because they provided work of value to Hearst and received little professional benefit in return.

Following discovery, District Judge J. Paul Oetken rejected the interns’ claim of employee status and granted summary judgment to Hearst. On appeal, the Second Circuit framed the question succinctly: “whether Hearst furnishes bona fide for‐credit internships or whether it exploits student‐interns to avoid hiring and compensating entry‐level employees.” If the former were true, the interns would be deemed trainees, who could permissibly be unpaid; if the latter were true, the interns would be entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay.

In support of their appeal, the interns argued that many of the tasks they performed were “menial and repetitive,” that they received “little formal training,” and that they “mastered their tasks within a couple weeks, but did the same work for the duration of the internship.” These points, they contended, outweighed their receipt of college credit and other indicia of an academic flavor to their experience.

The appeals court, in Wang v. Hearst Corp., appeared to have little trouble upholding the grant of summary judgment in favor of Hearst. Applying its test for assessing whether interns are employees or trainees, the court held that the factual record favored non-employee status on six of the seven pertinent factors, enough to sustain the judgment in the company’s favor.

Those seven factors, as loyal blog readers will recall from prior posts, first appeared in the court’s 2016 decision in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight, in which the court held that the “primary beneficiary” test governed whether interns were considered employees or trainees. The Glatt court rejected the Department of Labor’s multi-factor test and devised its own:

  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 internʹs formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit;
  4. The extent to which the internship accommodates the internʹs academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar;
  5. The extent to which the internshipʹs duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning;
  6. The extent to which the internʹs 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.

The factors are non-exhaustive, and as the Second Circuit reiterated in the current case, need not all point in the same direction to support a conclusion of non-employee status.

The “heart of the dispute on appeal” was factor two — whether the interns received “training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment.” The plaintiffs argued that, in order for this factor to weigh in favor of non-employee status, the internships would have to provide “education that resembles university pedagogy to the exclusion of tasks that apply specific skills to the professional environment.”

The court was not convinced. It recognized that the Hearst internships varied in many respects from classroom learning. But as it had said earlier in Glatt, this was precisely the point. “The [plaintiffs’] tacit assumption is that professions, trades, and arts are or should be just like school; but many useful internships are designed to correct that impression…. [P]ractical skill may entail practice, and an intern gains familiarity with an industry by day to day professional experience.”

Perhaps the most significant part of the ruling comes at the end, where the court discusses the propriety of summary judgment. The interns, and various amici curiae (unions, advocacy groups, and professors) who advocated on their behalf, argued strenuously that various “mixed inferences” on the seven internship factors precluded a grant of summary judgment. While acknowledging that application of the factors required some weighing of evidence, the court nonetheless said this did not mean the case required a trial.

“Status as an ‘employee’ for the purposes of the FLSA is a matter of law,” the court said, “and under our summary judgment standard, a district court can strike a balance on the totality of the circumstances to rule for one side or the other.” It continued: “Many of our FLSA tests that are fact‐sensitive and require the judge to assign weight are routinely disposed of on summary judgment [citing cases]. The amici contend that summary judgment is inapposite in all unpaid intern cases that turn on competing factors. Such a rule would foreclose weighing of undisputed facts in this commonplace fashion.”

In many ways, the Wang decision may be the epilogue to a textbook that has already been written. After the Glatt decision in 2016, the number of lawsuits filed by interns seeking unpaid compensation dropped precipitously. That may have been due to Glatt’s highly-employer-friendly resolution, both as to the merits of the employee-or-intern question and its pronouncements on the high threshold for collective/class certification on the question. Or perhaps it was due to the decisions by employers, reacting to the onslaught of intern lawsuits seeking pay under the FLSA and state law, to curtail or limit their internship programs or to pay interns compensation at or above minimum wage. Whatever the reason, the Wang decision cannot be heartening for plaintiffs’ lawyers, and the days of widespread lawsuits by interns are likely over.

Still, companies who remain interested in sponsoring unpaid interns should not get complacent. Paying minimum wage, of course, remains a fail proof antidote to the possibility of FLSA claims by these individuals. But if that is not an option, companies should take care to ensure that their programs have primarily educational aims and coordinate wherever possible with the interns’ educational institutions to ensure they meet the factors articulated by the court. Otherwise, the interns may be the ones teaching them a lesson.

Authored By Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit will soon decide key issues for FLSA practitioners: whether settlements pursuant to an Offer of Judgment are subject to court review and approval, and whether the standards for final collective certification of FLSA claims are different from those for class certification of state law wage claims under Rule 23.

Two cases now before the Second Circuit, one involving a small Japanese restaurant, the other involving Mexican fast-casual chain Chipotle, offer the court the opportunity to experience the gustatory pleasures of two prime cuts of FLSA procedural law: enforceability of settlements and the standards for collective certification. It is a veritable feast for wage and hour geeks in the New York metropolitan area and beyond.

In Yu v. Hasaki, the court on October 23 accepted for interlocutory review the question of whether a district court must approve the settlement of FLSA claims when the settlement is procured through an Offer of Judgment under FRCP 68.

Yu involves FLSA and New York Labor Law claims by a sushi chef. To settle the case, the defendants made an offer of judgment, which the plaintiff accepted. After the parties advised the court, Judge Jesse Furman ordered them to submit their agreement for his approval, along with letters explaining why the settlement is fair and reasonable. The defendants objected, arguing that, under Rule 68, court approval of an accepted offer of judgment is mandatory, leaving no role for the judge in reviewing the agreement’s terms. They based their argument on the language in Rule 68 that, if a plaintiff accepts an offer, the clerk “must then enter judgment.”

In effect, the defendants contended that Rule 68 creates an exception to the Second Circuit’s decision in Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, in which the court held that judicial approval of settlement terms is mandatory for dismissal of FLSA claims with prejudice and that many otherwise-customary settlement provisions, such as confidentiality and general releases, are not permissible. The U.S. Department of Labor weighed in as an amicus curiae, arguing that judicial approval is required, even when the settlement arises out of an accepted Rule 68 offer.

Judge Furman agreed, holding that the concerns articulated in Cheeks apply equally under Rule 68 as they do in standard FLSA settlements. But because other district judges had held differently, he certified his order for interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), holding, among other things, that there was a substantial basis for disagreement on the issue. The Second Circuit accepted the case for review, stating that the decision “clearly merits interlocutory review under section 1292(b), as Judge Furman sensibly recognized.”

In Scott v. Chipotle, the appeals court is considering whether to address an issue that has long vexed FLSA litigators: whether the standard for final collective action certification under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) differs from the standard for class certification under Rule 23.

The plaintiffs in Scott are apprentices – managerial trainees – at Chipotle restaurants in several states. They sued under the FLSA and state law, claiming they were misclassified as exempt managers because they spent most of their time filling orders and operating cash registers. District Judge Andrew Carter granted conditional FLSA certification, and 516 employees opted in. But after discovery, the court refused to grant final FLSA certification, and likewise denied Rule 23 class certification of the state law claims, holding that the responsibilities of the seven named plaintiffs did not match those of the putative class or collective.

The plaintiffs appealed the state law class certification decision as of right under Rule 23(f). They also sought permission from Judge Carter to take an interlocutory appeal of his FLSA final certification ruling, contending that the court’s twin rulings highlighted a “rift” between the certification standards for FLSA and non-FLSA wage and hour claims that the Second Circuit could resolve. While disagreeing with the plaintiffs’ argument, Judge Carter nonetheless observed that they had indeed “point[ed] to controlling questions of law which may have substantial grounds for a difference of opinion,” and granted permission.

It is now up to the Second Circuit whether to allow the interlocutory appeal. If it takes the case, it will have the opportunity to issue a combined opinion, addressing both Rule 23 and section 216(b), that clarifies the standards for final certification under both regimes.

Whether one’s preferences run to wasabi or jalapeno, these cases are sure to satisfy even the hungriest of wage and hour lawyers.

 

Co-authored by John Giovannone, Kyle Petersen, and Noah Finkel

Seyfarth Synopsis: Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit chose to side with the Second Circuit, and not the Sixth Circuit, to opine that mortgage underwriters fail to meet the FLSA’s administrative exemption from overtime test because underwriting duties “go to the heart of… marketplace offerings, not to the internal administration of” the mortgage banking “business.” That is, their duties were found to fall on the “production side” of the tortuous, judicially created “administrative/production” dichotomy.

Selling loans is not a duty that satisfies the FLSA’s administrative exemption test. But loan underwriters do not sell or even drive sales of loans. If anything, they apply the brakes after a loan officer has made the pitch and obtained a loan application from a prospective borrower.

Underwriters perform a distinct back-office role. They apply a multitude of factors to decide whether their employers should extend credit—after the application has been completed and the loan has been sold pending approval. We only have to look back about a decade to this country’s housing credit crisis to appreciate the central importance to a lender of a high-functioning and discerning underwriting team.

Historically, Underwriters Have Been Found Exempt Under The Administrative Exemption

Particularly now, given the odor that still wafts from the bursting of the housing bubble, one would think the modern judiciary would readily view underwriters as primarily providing a centrally important variety of “office or non-manual work related to the management or general operations of the employer” lender—work that thus satisfies this requirement of the administrative exemption test.

And in 2015, consistent with this common-sensical assessment of underwriting, the Sixth Circuit in Lutz v. Huntington Bank concluded that mortgage underwriters were administrative exempt precisely because they “assist in the running and servicing of the Bank’s business by making decisions about when [the Bank] should take on certain kinds of credit risk, something that is ancillary to the Bank’s principal production of selling loans.”

Ninth Circuit Denies Underwriters’ Administrative Exemption

Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit, in McKeen-Chaplin v. Provident Bank deviated from the Sixth Circuit’s sound decision in Lutz. In assessing whether mortgage underwriters’ work is “related to the management or general operations” of the bank, examined a judicially created “framework for understanding whether employees satisfy [this] requirement [called] the ‘administrative-production dichotomy.’”

The dichotomy’s purpose, Provident Bank explained, “is to distinguish between the goods and services which constitute the business’ marketplace offerings” (so-called non-exempt production work), “and work which contributes to ‘running the business itself’” (so-called exempt administrative work).

          Provident Bank’s Labored Discussion of The Administrative/Production Dichotomy And The Circuit Split.  Provident Bank applied its strained view of administrative/production dichotomy by first observing that, “in the last decade, two of our sister Circuits have assessed whether mortgage underwriters qualify for the FLSA’s administrative exemption and have come to opposite conclusions. The Second Circuit held in Davis v. J.P. Morgan Chase [in] 2009.. that ‘the job of an underwriter… falls into the category of production rather than administrative work.’ … In contrast, the Sixth Circuit held recently that mortgage underwriters are exempt administrators, explaining that they ‘perform work that services the Bank’s business, something ancillary to [the Bank’s] principal production activity’… . [W]e conclude the Second Circuit’s analysis in Davis should apply.”

Having voiced a preference for the Second Circuit’s more restrictive application of the administrative/production dichotomy (which had, perhaps erroneously, assumed that underwriters were involved in the sale of mortgages), Provident Bank applied the dichotomy to hold that the mortgage underwriters were production workers, even while conceding a number of non-production components of mortgage underwriter work.

Provident Bank observed, for example, that mortgage underwriters “do review factual information and evaluate the loan product and information and … assess liability in the form of risk,” but then immediately dismissed this important role by concluding that the bank’s promulgation of underwriter “guidelines that [the underwriters] do not formulate,” somehow reduced the administrative quality of the work.

Provident Bank even went on to acknowledge the existence of significant differentiation between non-exempt “loan offers in the mortgage production process [and mortgage underwriters]—most significantly [the distinguishing fact that underwriters’] primary duty is not making sales on Provident’s behalf.”

          A “Not So Distinct From Production” Standard?  Despite these factual findings, the Provident Bank court still applied the administrative/production dichotomy to invalidate the bank’s determination of exempt status. To accomplish this goal, Provident Bank articulated a “not so distinct from production” standard, explaining that the mortgage underwriters were still not administrative exempt because their duties “are not so distinct” from loan officers’ role in the “mortgage production process” so “as to be lifted from the production side [of the dichotomy] to the ranks of administrators.” The Ninth Circuit then ratcheted the standard up by explaining that “the question is not whether an employee is essential to the business, but rather whether her primary duty goes to the heart of internal administration — rather than marketplace offerings” (emphasis added).

This “not so distinct from production” standard highlights the limitations of the administrative/production dichotomy and runs afoul of its intended purpose. For example, the Department of Labor’s 2004 regulations, and case law, have made clear that this “dichotomy has always been illustrative – but not dispositive – of exempt status.” The dichotomy “is only determinative if the work ‘falls squarely’ on the production side of the line.”

Certainly, work that “is not so distinct” from the production side of the line is a far cry from work that “falls squarely” on the production side of the line. But a finding that work is not so distinct from production, though virtually meaningless, is all that Provident Bank seems to require.

The Administrative-Production Dichotomy Has Been Stretched Beyond Its Utility, Resulting In A Circuit Split And Confusion

Provident Bank’s finding that underwriting work “is not so distinct from production” work has little to do with the test for administrative exemption or the Department of Labor’s explanation of the limitations of the administrative/production dichotomy. Yet Provident Bank threatens to flip the dichotomy on its head, as it could be read to require an employer to show that that the work “falls squarely” off “the production side of the line” rather than establishing merely what the FLSA requires: that the employee performed office or non-manual work related to the management or general operations of the employer.

Sometimes, work such as underwriting does not obviously fall squarely on one side of the administrative/production dichotomy line or the other. That is why, for example, even the historically exemption-resistant California Supreme Court in Harris v. Superior Court (2011) observed “the limitations of the administrative/production worker dichotomy itself as an analytical tool” and thus reversed a decision that “improperly applied the administrative/production worker dichotomy as a dispositive test” with respect to insurance claims adjusters.  Harris explained that since “the dichotomy suggests a distinction between the administration of a business on the one hand, and the ‘production’ end on the other, courts often strain to fit the operations of modern-day post-industrial service-oriented businesses into the analytical framework formulated in the industrial climate of the late 1940’s’” when they should not force a strained application of the dichotomy, which is just an illustrative tool. Indeed, the Seventh Circuit of Appeals similarly reasoned in Roe-Midgett v. CC Services, Inc., (7th Cir. 2008) that the “typical example” of the dichotomy is a factory setting, an analogy that is “not terribly useful” in the service context.

Two Circuits have now built the administrative/production dichotomy into something larger than it was ever intended to be. The focus on the administrative/production dichotomy has overshadowed and confused focus on the actual rules and regulations intended to be assessed in considering the administrative exemption.

Provident Bank creates more questions than answers for employers seeking to classify their workforce, and calls out for Supreme Court review, or for Department of Labor clarification on how courts are supposed to apply the administrative-production dichotomy.

Co-authored by Robert S. Whitman and Howard M. Wexler

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The majority of courts have held that releases of FLSA rights require approval by a court or the US Department of Labor.  A recent case in the Southern District of New York highlights a dilemma employers face when seeking “finality” through DOL-approved settlements.

In Wai Hung Chan v. A Taste of Mao, Inc., five employees asserted FLSA claims for unpaid minimum wage and overtime.  Before the lawsuit was filed, the employer agreed with the DOL to pay back wages of $38,883.80 to 19 of its employees, including four of the five plaintiffs in the lawsuit.  During negotiations on that agreement, the DOL confirmed that it had the authority to represent and resolve all of the employees’ claims, and it subsequently mailed WH-60 forms notifying them of the settlement and their right to a share of it.  Meanwhile, the employer transmitted the settlement funds to the DOL for distribution to the employees.

The five Chan Plaintiffs did not sign the WH-60 forms and instead commenced the lawsuit, seeking back pay for a period exceeding that covered by the DOL settlement.  The employer sought summary judgment on grounds that the DOL still possessed the settlement funds that it remitted on behalf of the plaintiffs, even though they did not sign the WH-60 forms.

District Judge William H. Pauley, III rejected the employer’s argument that the plaintiffs “constructively accepted the funds when the DOL, as their authorized representative, took possession of such funds.” He held that the plaintiffs’ refusal to sign the WH-60 forms was “tantamount to a rejection” of the settlement offer, invoking a presumption that “employees do not have to take the settlement unless they specifically opt into it.”  The court held that the employer expressly acknowledged this possibility as part of its settlement with the DOL by agreeing that any unclaimed funds would be disbursed to the U.S. Treasury.

Judge Pauley also rejected the employer’s argument that the plaintiffs should be bound to the agreement on grounds that “employers who in good faith strive to settle claims should be afforded the benefit of knowing that they will not face liability in the future.” Although he was sympathetic to the employer’s predicament, he stated that “it is Congress – not this Court – which must force a solution to that quandary…even if it means compelling an outcome that forces [the employer] to address the same allegations it believed were resolved through the DOL Settlement.”

The Chan decision highlights yet another potential hurdle to complete and binding settlements of employee wage claims.  In the Second Circuit  and elsewhere, releases of FLSA rights require approval, and agreements submitted for judicial approval are subjected to close scrutiny that is difficult to bypass.  In light of Chan, DOL approval doesn’t make the process any easier.  The circumstances described in Chan demonstrate that employers may not be able to obtain true finality in such settlements and may still face the risk of subsequent litigation.

Co-authored by Kyle A. Petersen and Molly C. Mooney

Seyfarth Synopsis:  The Second Circuit recently upheld a district court order denying a bid for class certification by personal bankers claiming their managers refused to approve timesheets with overtime hours, shaved reported overtime hours, and pressured them to work off the clock. Because the company’s policy governing (and limiting) overtime work was lawful on its face, the bankers’ claims hinged on the exercise of managerial discretion in applying those policies. The district court concluded that the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate sufficient uniformity in the exercise of managerial discretion, and the Second Circuit affirmed.

As noted earlier, the trial court’s decision reflects reluctance by some trial courts to certify nationwide class actions based on local or even regionalized evidence of rogue managers deviating from company policy. The Court of Appeals has now given its seal of approval to that approach.

In Ruiz v. Citibank, N.A., personal bankers from several states alleged that Citibank had a strict policy limiting overtime hours while also setting rigorous sales goals and quotas for the bankers that could not be achieved in a forty-hour workweek. The bankers also alleged that branch managers refused to approve timesheets with overtime hours, or shaved overtime hours off of the bankers’ timesheets.

The bankers sought certification of a class consisting of bankers with claims under New York, Illinois, and District of Columbia law. Their attempt to establish commonality — primarily through anecdotal evidence of pressure to work off the clock and a not uncommon and entirely legal goal of reducing overtime work — fell short and was rebutted by putative class member testimony of variations across branches. For example, putative class members testified that individual branch managers had differing management styles for incentivizing and motivating employees to meet their sales goals — some plaintiffs were rewarded for positive sales performance, with no reference to overtime hours they worked in doing so, while others failed to achieve sales goals with no admonition. This, said the court, showed that the pressure to work off the clock was not uniformly felt and precluded the case from proceeding as a class. On appeal, the Second Circuit wholeheartedly agreed with the district court’s “lucid and accurate analysis” and affirmed denial of class certification.

While not a game changer, this decision reaffirms the need for plaintiffs to come up with more than anecdotal evidence of allegedly systemic problems, and highlights how employers can use class member depositions to defeat class certification.

Co-authored by Brett C. Bartlett and Samuel Sverdlov

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Southern District of New York recently held that parties may not settle FLSA claims without court approval through an offer of judgment pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Background: Rule 68

Under Rule 68, a party defending a claim can make an “offer of judgment” to the other party. If the other party accepts the offer, the clerk must enter judgment pursuant to the offer’s terms. However, if the offered party rejects the offer and obtains a less favorable judgment at trial, that party must then pay the costs incurred by the offering party after the offer was made. Courts have explained that the purpose of Rule 68 is to prompt parties to evaluate the risks and costs of litigation and to balance those risks against the likelihood of success.

Cheeks Decision

As we have previously discussed, in Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, Inc., a landmark decision of the Second Circuit, the court held that absent approval by either the district court or the DOL, parties “cannot” settle FLSA claims with prejudice. The Cheeks decision has made it increasingly difficult for parties to reach a settlement of FLSA claims in the Second Circuit, and accordingly, litigants have increasingly tried to avoid the requirement for judicial or DOL approval by entering into settlements pursuant to Rule 68.

Recent SDNY Decision

In the recent case of Mei Xing Yu v. Hasaki Restaurant, Inc., et al., the parties attempted to do just this — bypass judicial scrutiny of an FLSA settlement by settling their claims pursuant to a Rule 68 offer of judgment. The parties in Hasaki argued that the language of Rule 68 provides that the clerk “must” enter judgment of an accepted offer of judgment. The SDNY, however, held “that parties may not circumvent judicial scrutiny of an FLSA settlement via Rule 68.” Judge Furman reasoned that FLSA settlements are ripe for abuse by defendant employers, and that there are a number of scenarios where a settlement must pass judicial scrutiny, even where there is a Rule 68 offer of judgment. For instance, among other examples, judicial scrutiny is required in qui tam actions under the False Claims Act, settlements on behalf of a minor, and in cases where injunctive relief is sought.

The majority of district courts in the Second Circuit disagree with Judge Furman, and have held that Rule 68 offers of judgment in FLSA cases do not need to undergo judicial scrutiny. Given the split in authority on this issue within the Second Circuit, Judge Furman certified the decision for interlocutory appeal, noting an immediate appeal would “materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation.” Further, the court held that “resolution [of this issue] by the Second Circuit is plainly desirable, if not necessary.”

Outlook for Employers

Until there is resolution of this issue, employers in the Second Circuit should carefully consider whether a Rule 68 offer of judgment in an FLSA case is worth the risk that the district court would nonetheless require scrutiny of the settlement. Given that Hasaki has been certified for appeal to the Second Circuit, we hope to have clarity on whether settlement of an FLSA case pursuant to Rule 68 requires judicial approval.

coins-currency-investment-insurance-128867Co-authored by Robert S. Whitman and Howard M. Wexler

With employers about to ring in 2017, the New York State Department of Labor—with only two days to spare—has finalized regulations to increase the salary threshold for exempt status. The regulations, originally introduced on October 19, 2016, take effect on December 31, 2016.

Employers were hopeful that the State would abandon (or delay) these regulations given the now-enjoined U.S. Department of Labor’s overtime exemption rules that were set to go into effect on December 1, 2016. In response to such concern, however, the State DOL noted, “this rulemaking is not based on, or related to, the federal rulemaking concerning salary thresholds…this rulemaking is required by law and non-discretionary. Its purpose and effect is to maintain the longstanding historical relationship between minimum wage and salary threshold amounts…”

In keeping with the upcoming gradual increase in the State’s minimum wage levels, the new tiered salary thresholds for exempt status across the state will be:

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

  • $825.00 per week on and after December 31, 2016;
  • $975.00 per week on and after December 31, 2017; and
  • $1,125.00 per week on and after December 31, 2018.

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

  • $787.50 per week on and after December 31, 2016;
  • $900.00 per week on and after December 31, 2017;
  • $1,012.50 per week on and after December 31, 2018; and
  • $1,125.00 per week on and after December 31, 2019.

Employers in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties

  • $750.00 per week on and after December 31, 2016;
  • $825.00 per week on and after December 31, 2017;
  • $900.00 per week on and after December 31, 2018;
  • $975.00 per week on and after December 31, 2019;
  • $1,050.00 per week on and after December 31, 2020; and
  • $1,125.00 per week on and after December 31, 2021.

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

  • $727.50 per week on and after December 31, 2016;
  • $780.00 per week on and after December 31, 2017;
  • $832.00 per week on and after December 31, 2018;
  • $885.00 per week on and after December 31, 2019; and
  • $937.50 per week on and after December 31, 2020.

In addition to the increased salary levels, the new regulations adjust the amount employers can deduct for employees’ uniforms and claim as a meal and tip credit in line with the gradual increase of the minimum wage toward $15. There is a tiered system for these changes as well depending on the employer’s location.

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 Robert Whitman and Adam J. Smiley

Seyfarth Synopsis: Fox Searchlight and Fox Entertainment Group have reached a preliminary settlement with a group of former unpaid interns, possibly resolving the lawsuit that resulted in a Second Circuit decision that redefined the test used to evaluate whether interns are properly classified under the FLSA.

As this blog has previously reported [here, here], former unpaid interns who worked on Fox film productions sued the studio in 2010, alleging that they were misclassified and entitled to minimum wage and overtime compensation. In a 2013 decision, Judge William Pauley of the Southern District of New York granted summary judgment to two of the interns, holding that they should have been treated as employees, and held that a third intern could pursue his related claims as a class and collective action under the FLSA and New York Labor Law. Fox appealed to the Second Circuit, which in July 2015 held that that the “primary beneficiary” test, rather than the Department of Labor’s stricter six-factor test, should be used to evaluate the classification of unpaid interns. The court sent the case back to Judge Pauley for resolution under its newly articulated standard.

Under the proposed agreement, any intern who served for at least two weeks from 2005-2010 will be entitled to a $495 payment. That amount is within the payout range that we’ve seen in other internship lawsuits. Three of the lead plaintiffs, Erik Glatt, Alexander Footman, and Eden Antalik, will receive service awards of $7,500, $6,000, and $3,500, respectively.

The settlement would resolve claims in two lawsuits before Judge Pauley: Glatt v. Fox Searchlight, which concerns New York interns, and Mackown v. Fox Entertainment Group, which concerns California interns. The total monetary value of the settlement, covering both lawsuits, is approximately $600,000, of which $260,000 is for attorneys’ fees.

In papers supporting the proposed settlement, the plaintiffs noted that the Second Circuit’s ruling presented “significant risk to [them] on the merits and with regard to certification.” They also acknowledged their “extreme challenge” in obtaining class and collective action certification, especially given that the interns “were engaged in various divisions, performing different duties, and reporting to different supervisors,” such that the Court “could conclude that [their differences] exceed their similarities.” While still professing the strength of their case, the plaintiffs admitted that they faced litigation risks because the Second Circuit’s standard was “largely untested.”

The deal is not final: it still must be preliminarily approved by Judge Pauley, which will trigger the issuance of a notice informing class and collective members of their rights under the settlement. Putative class members will then have an opportunity to object to the settlement or opt out, and the deal must be finally approved by the Court after conducting a fairness hearing.

We’ll keep you posted as the settlement approval process moves forward, as well as any developments regarding the motion for summary judgment filed by the Hearst Corporation in a similar lawsuit, currently pending before Judge J. Paul Oetken, also in the Southern District of New York.

On a related note, the Wall Street Journal recently reported on a study conducted by the National Associate of Colleges and Employers, which found that paid interns are more likely to receive a job offer after graduation—and earn more money—then their fellow students who had an unpaid internship. The article also discusses important issues regarding income inequality and diversity between paid and unpaid interns, and employers may be well-served by reviewing the cited data when contemplating whether to offer paid or unpaid internship programs.