In the Second Circuit, Unpaid Overtime Claims Must Allege Specifics

By: William R. Horwitz

Earlier this month, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in Dejesus v. HF Management Services, 2013 U.S.App.LEXIS 16105 (2d Cir. August 5, 2013), held that plaintiffs cannot rely solely on vague allegations in asserting claims for unpaid overtime.  In this case, the plaintiff alleged that her former employer had failed to pay her overtime, but her Complaint lacked details such as the amount of overtime she had allegedly worked.  Instead, it simply parroted the language of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Affirming dismissal of the Complaint, the Second Circuit agreed with the district court that the allegations failed to state a claim.  This decision makes it more difficult for plaintiffs who lack a basis for an unpaid overtime claim to file a lawsuit in the hope of finding one during discovery.

Ramona Dejesus (“Dejesus”) worked for HF Management Services, LLC (“Healthfirst”), a company providing administrative and support services to healthcare organizations.  Dejesus alleged that she had worked more than forty hours per week for “some or all weeks” of her employment, but that Healthfirst had failed to pay her time and a half for the hours she worked over forty.  The Complaint did not indicate the number of overtime hours Dejesus had worked, her rate of pay or an estimate of the unpaid wages.

Dejesus filed the lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleging violations of the FLSA and the New York Labor Law (“NYLL”).  Both the FLSA and NYLL require an employer to pay non-exempt employees at an hourly rate of at least one and a half times their regular rate for each hour that the employees work in excess of forty hours in a workweek.  Healthfirst filed a Motion to Dismiss the Complaint arguing, among other things, that the vague allegations in the Complaint failed to state a claim for unpaid overtime.  The district court granted the motion.  Dejesus appealed and the Second Circuit affirmed.

In reaching its decision, the Second Circuit quoted the U.S. Supreme Court, which stated in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009), that, in order to state a claim, a Complaint must contain more than “‘[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action … supported by mere conclusory statements.’”  According to the Second Circuit, a plaintiff asserting an overtime claim must allege that he or she worked more than forty hours in a week without receiving the required compensation.  The Court indicated that “an approximation of overtime hours” is helpful, but not necessarily required in every case.  The Court further indicated that courts should consider the allegations in context and on a case by case basis to determine if they are sufficient.

The Second Circuit concluded that the allegations in Dejesus’ Complaint “did not plausibly allege that she worked overtime without proper compensation.”  The Court observed that Dejesus “did not estimate her hours in any or all weeks or provide any other factual context or content.”  The Court further observed that her Complaint “was devoid of any numbers to consider beyond those plucked from the [FLSA].”  According to the Court, Dejesus “was required to do more than repeat the language of the statute.”  The Court explained that the Complaint “tracked the statutory language of the FLSA, lifting its numbers and rehashing its formulation, but alleging no particular facts sufficient to raise a plausible inference of an FLSA overtime violation.”

The Court emphasized that plaintiffs are not required to “keep careful records and plead their hours with mathematical precision.”  However, the Court explained, plaintiffs must “draw on” their “memories and experience” in order to provide “complaints with sufficiently developed factual allegations.”  The Court affirmed the dismissal of Dejesus’ Complaint.

In recent years, employers have faced a wave of wage and hour lawsuits.  In many instances, it seems that plaintiffs pursue these actions – particularly class or collective actions – without any real knowledge of wage and hour violations but in the hope of finding them during the litigation.  The Dejesus decision is a welcome development for employers in the Second Circuit, because it requires plaintiffs, before filing a lawsuit, to at least come up with factual allegations supporting their claims.

Unpaid Internships – Training Programs or a Lesson in Class Actions?

By: Kate S. Gold and Elena S. Min

Summer is quickly approaching, and eager students are lining up for internship opportunities, some of which may be unpaid.  The whole topic has caused a firestorm of news stories lately – including an NYU students’ petition to remove unpaid internship postings from the campus career center, and an auction by an on-line charity website for a six week unpaid internship at the UN NGO Committee on Human Rights (the current bid is $26,000).  Do unpaid internships run afoul of federal and state minimum wage laws?  The answer potentially is yes, but given recent successful challenges to class certification, employers now have useful guidance in developing defense strategies against such claims.

Last week, in Wang v. The Hearst Corporation, U.S.D.C. S.D.N.Y. Case No. 12-CV-00793, the court denied class certification in a case brought by interns at various Hearst-owned magazines.  The interns challenged Hearst’s practice of classifying them as unpaid interns, allegedly to avoid minimum wage and overtime laws under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and New York state law.  The court found that the plaintiffs could not satisfy the commonality requirement for class certification.  While plaintiffs could demonstrate a corporate-wide policy of classifying proposed class members as unpaid interns, the nature of the internships varied greatly from magazine to magazine.  The court noted there was no evidence of a uniform policy among the magazines regarding the interns’ specific duties, training, or supervision.

Days later, attorneys for the defendant in Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc., U.S.D.C. S.D.N.Y. Case No. 11-CV-06784, made a similar argument to defeat class certification in a case in which Fox interns challenged their unpaid status under federal and New York state minimum wage and overtime laws.  In that case, the interns worked on the sets of different films or were based out of corporate offices, and weren’t governed by a centralized policy or procedure.  The defendant in Glatt argued that class certification should be denied because of the lack of a uniform policy.  While the court in Glatt has not yet ruled, these two cases suggest that, although claims by unpaid interns may persist, plaintiffs may find it increasingly difficult to sustain them as class actions.

In light of these cases, now is a good time to review the rules for internships.  According to the Department of Labor, internships in the for-profit private sector will be viewed as employment relationships for which the FLSA minimum wage and overtime rules will apply, unless the intern is truly receiving training which meets six criteria:  (1) the internship is similar to training that would be given in an educational environment; (2) the internship experience is for the benefit of the intern; (3) the intern is not replacing employees and works under close supervision; (4) the sponsor of the intern does not derive immediate benefit from intern’s activities and at times, its operations may actually be impeded; (5) the intern is not entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and (6) the sponsor and the intern understand the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.  As of 2010, the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) relaxed the multi-factor test it previously applied and now uses the same criteria as the DOL.

While the Hearst ruling is good news for employers, the case did not address the merits of the interns’ claims and does not mean employers can relax their compliance efforts.  If an employer improperly classifies an internship as “unpaid,” the employer could be liable for failure to pay minimum wage and overtime, penalties for failure to provide meal and rest breaks, as well as potential liability for violations of anti-discrimination and anti-harassment laws that apply to employees.  The bottom line is that employers should apply the DOL/DLSE six-factor test and if their internships do not meet the criteria, the interns should be paid at least minimum wage.

Editors note: Be sure to check out Kate’s guest blog post for thewrap.com on the use of interns by entertainment and media companies.

Supreme Court Ducks Mootness Question In Genesis

By: Jerrold J. Wohlgemuth

Does an unaccepted offer of judgment for full relief made prior to a motion to certify moot the plaintiff’s claim in an FLSA collective action?  That was the question we hoped the Supreme Court would answer in Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk.  Unfortunately, the majority in the 5-4 opinion issued April 16 refused to decide that question, finding that the issue was not properly before the Court because the plaintiff had conceded her claim was moot in the district court and Third Circuit, and had not contested the issue in her opposition to the petition for certiorari.  While we now know from the dissent that Justices Kagan, Breyer, Sotomayor and Ginsburg would find that an unaccepted offer of judgment has no impact on the validity of the underlying claim, the majority opinion leaves unresolved a split among the Circuits.  The Seventh Circuit accepts the argument that a claim must be dismissed as moot when an offer of judgment for full relief is made prior to a motion to certify, while the Third, Fifth and Ninth Circuits allow plaintiffs to circumvent mootness by immediately filing a motion to certify (the Second and Sixth Circuits accept mootness but reject the argument that the case should be dismissed, finding instead that judgment should be entered for the plaintiff in the amount offered by the defendant).  Because the issue remains in doubt, Defendants in FLSA collective actions may prefer to pursue settlement with the individual plaintiff  before a motion to certify has been filed to end the claim, rather than make an offer of judgment, in order to avoid endless litigation over the impact of the offer.

To read our client alert for this case click here.

Former Employee Fails To Convince Court Of Underpayment In First And Last Weeks Of Employment

By: Gregory W. Homer and Marion B. Cooper

Methodically navigating the arcane maze of regulations surrounding the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), the Court in Kirchoff v. Wipro, Inc., W.D. Wash., No. 2:11-cv-00568, 10/2/12, held that a technology consulting company (“Wipro”) did not violate the FLSA or Washington law by using the “Pay Period” – rather than the “Work Week” – method to calculate a fired senior manager’s salary for the first and last weeks of his employment.

Wipro provides consulting services to technology companies such as Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems, Inc. and AT&T, Inc.  Wipro employed Kirchoff as a Senior Manager at an annual salary of $140,000 from July 26, 2010 to January 27, 2011, when Wipro terminated his employment.  Kirchoff then sued Wipro, claiming that he and other employees had been underpaid because Wipro used the “Pay Period” method to determine their pay for the first and last weeks of their employment.

An employer must generally pay an exempt employee his or her full salary for any workweek in which the employee works at all, regardless of the number of hours.  However, Department of Labor (“DOL”) regulations provide that “[a]n employer is not required to pay the full salary in the initial or terminal week of employment.  Rather an employer may pay a proportionate part of an employee’s full salary for the time actually worked in the first and last week of employment.  In such weeks, the payment of an hourly or daily equivalent of the employee’s full salary for the time actually worked will meet the requirement.”  29 C.F.R. §541.602(b)(6).  Additionally, “[w]hen calculating the amount of a deduction from pay allowed under paragraph (b) of this section, the employer may use the hourly or daily equivalent of the employee’s full weekly salary or any other amount proportional to the time actually missed by the employee.”  29 C.F.R. §541.602(c).

Under the “Pay Period” method of calculating an exempt employee’s pay for a partial first or last week of employment, the employer divides the employee’s annual salary into twenty-four semi-monthly pay periods to obtain a semi-monthly rate, which the employer then divides by the number of working days in the semi-monthly pay period to yield a daily rate for the pay period.  The employer then multiplies the daily rate by the number of days actually worked by the employee to determine the final compensation for the first and last weeks of employment.

Under the “Work Week” method, the employer divides the employee’s annual salary by fifty-two to calculate the weekly rate and then divides that rate by five, the number of working days in a week, to determine the daily rate.  The employer then determines the employee’s final pay by multiplying the daily rate by the number of days that the employee actually worked.

Kirchoff argued that 29 C.F.R. §778.113(b) requires employers to use the “Work Week” method.  While acknowledging that the approach specified in this regulation “matches” the “Work Week” method, the Court rejected Kirchoff’s argument.  According to the Court, Part 778, of which this regulation is a subpart, deals with Overtime Compensation, and Kirchoff’s dispute did not involve overtime, nor does the applicable regulation, 29 C.F.R. §541.602, incorporate or reference the overtime regulation.  The Court further noted that Section 541.602(c) permits the employer to use “any amount proportional to the time actually missed by the employee.”  The Court explained that Kirchoff’s interpretation that only the “Work Week” method is permitted would render the remaining language of the regulation meaningless, which runs counter to basic rules of statutory construction that presume that every word has some effect.

Focusing on Section 541.602(c), the Court found that Wipro’s method based on the percentage of days worked in the pay period was mathematically correct as a “proportionate part” of Kirchoff’s full salary.  The Court granted summary judgment to Wipro on Kirchoff’s FLSA and state law claims.

Employers must be careful when addressing application of FLSA regulations and be aware that the FLSA provides employers with multiple options for calculating employees’ pay for the first and last weeks of work.

Would Your Wage and Hour Practices Withstand Scrutiny?

By: Laurie A. Holmes

These are real headlines from the last four days:

  • Holiday Inn at LA Airport Hit with Wage Class Action
  • Bath & Body Works Will Pay $1.3M to End Managers’ Wage Suit
  • Texas Sales Managers Hit Gold’s Gym with Overtime Suit
  • FedEx to Pay $10M to Settle OT, Meal Break Suit
  • Kraft Paying $1.75M to Settle Sales Workers’ OT Suits
  • ZipRealty Pays $5M to Settle California Agents’ Wage Claims

Similar headlines from the last two weeks would fill this screen.  And these headlines do not reflect a new trend – rather, they are just examples of the many similar headlines featured almost daily in Labor and Employment publications.  In fact, a record number of wage and hour lawsuits have been filed in the last 18 months.  And there’s no sign that they will be dwindling any time soon.

Why are these suits here to stay?  For one, with the availability of attorneys’ fees and liquidated damages, they’re a boon for plaintiffs and their lawyers.  For another, given economy-driven layoffs, potential plaintiffs may end up in lawyers’ offices more often, looking for ways to strike back.  And don’t think you’re protected just because the former employee signed a severance agreement.  Employees cannot release wage and hour claims, even if your agreement says otherwise.  Perhaps most compellingly, the Fair Labor Standards Act is not the easiest law to comply with.  Ever try to compute the regular rate when non-discretionary bonuses are paid every week and the amount varies?  Do you really know what “independent discretion and judgment” is?  Do you know if you need to count the time employees spend at home checking their email as “time worked”?

What are the most popular practices targeted by plaintiffs?

  • Failure to pay overtime – either because the employer doesn’t like paying overtime or because employees are misclassified as exempt.
  • Failure to pay overtime at the proper rate.
  • Paying workers less than the minimum wage, especially tipped workers.
  • Failure to provide uninterrupted meal breaks of the appropriate length.
  • Retaliation against workers who complain.

What should you do?  Short of making everyone non-exempt and prohibiting overtime, ask yourself how confident you are that your classifications are correct.  If you’re not confident, call your lawyer and schedule an audit.  Review a sampling of time and pay records to ensure that overtime was properly calculated and paid.  Not sure?  Call your lawyer.  Don’t have time records?  Groan.

Finally, don’t think you’re safe because your company is not big enough to be on anyone’s radar screen.  Ever heard of 888 Consulting Group?  Savvy Car Wash?  Geosite Inc.?  Quicksilver Express Courier Inc.?  ZipRealty?  Me either.  But all of these companies have been hit with wage and hour suits.  You may not be able to avoid being sued, but an FLSA audit before that happens could help you minimize the damages.

Federal Court Holds that FLSA’s “Fluctuating Workweek” Method Violates Pennsylvania Law

A recent decision out of the Western District of Pennsylvania, Foster v. Kraft Foods Global, Inc., Civ. No. 09-453 (W.D.Pa. August 27, 2012), highlights the challenges employers face in simultaneously complying with both local and national wage and hour regulations.  In Foster, the court held that the “fluctuating workweek” method of overtime compensation – which is expressly permitted by the FLSA – is not permitted under Pennsylvania law.

Under the fluctuating workweek method, an employer pays a nonexempt employee a fixed weekly salary, regardless of the number of non-overtime hours worked.  This method is generally used in industries in which an employee’s hours change unpredictably from week to week based on factors such as customer demand or seasonal variation – e.g., lawn maintenance companies, golf courses, or the travel industry.  In using this method, the employer benefits from significant cost savings over traditional methods of overtime calculation and the employee benefits from the stability of a fixed weekly salary.

There are five requirements for using the fluctuating workweek method.  The employee’s hours must fluctuate from week to week; the employee must receive a fixed salary that does not vary with the number of hours worked (excluding overtime); the salary must be high enough that the employee’s regular rate of pay is at least the minimum wage; the employer and employee must have a clear mutual understanding that the salary is fixed; and the employee must receive overtime compensation equal to at least one-half the regular rate for all hours worked over forty.

In Foster, the court’s analysis focused on this last requirement.  The court held that “the payment of overtime under the FWW method, at any rate less than one and one-half times the ‘regular’ or ‘basic’ rate,” is impermissible under the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Law.  We’ll be watching this decision (if appealed) and subsequent cases closely, because if this interpretation of the Minimum Wage Act is upheld, the primary advantage to the employer in utilizing the fluctuating workweek method is eliminated.  In the meantime, Pennsylvania employers who use this method to compensate nonexempt employees should reconsider their policies, given that it may no longer result in cost savings.  Moreover, this case should serve as a reminder that, although many local wage and hour regulations are modeled after (and in some respects identical to) the FLSA, compliance with the FLSA does not guarantee compliance with local statutes.