Resolving Split, Second Circuit Denies FLSA-NYLL Liquidated Damages Double Recovery

By William R. Horwitz

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit resolved a split among the four New York district courts regarding whether a plaintiff can recover cumulative liquidated damages awards under both the Fair Labor Standards Act (federal law) and the New York Labor Law (state law) for the same wage and hour violation.  In Chowdhury v. Hamza Express Food Corp., 2016 WL 7131854 (2d Cir. Dec. 7, 2016), the Court held that a plaintiff cannot receive double recovery.  The decision will have a significant practical impact on wage and hour litigation.

The Facts

In Chowdhury, the plaintiff, a deli worker, filed a lawsuit against his employer for, among other things, allegedly failing to pay him for overtime work in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and the New York Labor Law (“NYLL”).  During the litigation, the employer repeatedly failed to comply with the district court’s orders, prompting the court to strike the Answer, enter default judgment against the employer, and proceed to an evidentiary hearing to calculate the plaintiff’s damages award.  After the hearing, the court awarded plaintiff $42,997.50 ($21,498.75 for unpaid overtime wages and $21,498.75 for liquidated damages).  Plaintiff appealed, arguing that he was entitled to an additional $21,298.75 in liquidated damages, because he was entitled to recover liquidated damages under both the FLSA and the NYLL.

The Law

Under both the FLSA and the NYLL, non-exempt (hourly) employees are generally entitled to receive pay at the rate of time-and-a-half for each hour they work over 40 hours in a week.  A plaintiff who succeeds on a claim under either statute typically recovers compensatory damages (unpaid wages) and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.

Under the FLSA and the NYLL, a successful plaintiff may also recover liquidated damages.  Specifically, the FLSA entitles a successful plaintiff to liquidated damages in an amount equal to 100% of unpaid wages, unless the employer demonstrates “that the act or omission giving rise to such action was in good faith” and that the employer “had reasonable grounds for believing that [such] act or omission was not a violation of the [FLSA].”  29 U.S.C. § 260.  Similarly, the NYLL entitles a successful plaintiff to liquidated damages in an amount equal to 100% of unpaid wages, “unless the employer proves a good faith basis to believe that its underpayment of wages was in compliance with the law.”  N.Y. Lab. Law § 198.

The Decision

In Chowdhury, the Second Circuit observed that “[t]he NYLL is silent as to whether it provides for liquidated damages in cases where liquidated damages are also awarded under the FLSA.”  The Court considered the fact that permitting cumulative liquidated damages under the FLSA and the NYLL would permit an award of “200 percent in liquidated damages in addition to any underlying wage liability.”  The Court reasoned that, “[h]ad the New York State legislature intended to provide a cumulative liquidated damages award under the NYLL, … 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.”

The Court explained that the legislative history of the NYLL supports this reasoning.  According to the Court, the legislature recently amended the statute twice (in 2009 and 2010) to align it with the FLSA.  Now, the liquidated damages provisions of the FLSA and NYLL are “identical in all material respects, serve the same functions, and redress the same injuries.”  As a result, absent any indication to the contrary, the Court held that it interprets the NYLL’s liquidated damages provision “as satisfied by a similar award of liquidated damages under the federal statute.”

The Court affirmed the district court’s liquidated damages award.

Conclusion

Under both the FLSA and the NYLL, liquidated damages awards can substantially increase a plaintiff’s recovery.  However, the Chowdhury decision definitively limits an employer’s exposure, clarifying that liquidated damages should equal 100% – not 200% – of unpaid wages.  The difference is large in a single plaintiff case, and may be staggering in a case involving multiple plaintiffs or, even worse, a hybrid class and collective action.  Also, by resolving this unsettled question, the Chowdhury decision enables parties to calculate potential damages and exposure more accurately, which should help them make better settlement and strategy decisions.

In FLSA Settlements, the Permissible Scope of Releases and Confidentiality Provisions May Be Broader Than You Think

By William R. Horwitz

Courts and the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) often refuse to approve Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) settlements: (1) in which the employee’s release of claims is not narrowly limited to wage claims; or (2) that seek to restrict public disclosure of the settlement terms. Because FLSA settlements are arguably only enforceable if approved by a court or the DOL, these conditions sometimes impede the ability of parties to resolve FLSA disputes. A recent court decision may offer a solution. In Lola v. Skadden, Arps, Meagher, Slate & Flom LLP, 2016 BL 29709 (S.D.N.Y. Feb. 3, 2016), the Honorable Richard J. Sullivan, U.S.D.J., allowed the parties more leeway in resolving FLSA claims, adopting an approach likely to facilitate settlements.

Case Background

Plaintiff David Lola, an attorney, worked for a staffing agency that placed him at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, where he performed document review work for 15 months. He later filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York against the staffing agency and the law firm (as joint employers), alleging that they had misclassified him as exempt under the FLSA and failed to pay him overtime when he worked more than 40 hours a week. He filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself and as a putative collective action on behalf of other, “similarly-situated,” contract attorneys.

The parties ultimately negotiated a settlement agreement and submitted it to the Court for approval. The agreement provided that Lola and two other individuals who opted into the lawsuit (and plaintiffs’ attorneys) would receive a total of $75,000 in exchange for, among other things, dismissing the lawsuit, releasing claims against the defendants and limiting disclosure of the terms of the settlement.

Judge Sullivan approved the settlement, issuing a written decision to address the release of claims and confidentiality provisions of the parties’ agreement.

Release of Claims

Under the settlement, the plaintiffs agreed to waive both FLSA and non-FLSA claims against the defendants. Judge Sullivan observed that some courts “have refused to approve [FLSA] settlements with broad releases of claims, concluding that they conflict with the FLSA’s remedial purposes.” However, Judge Sullivan explained, “there is nothing inherently unfair about a release of claims in an FLSA settlement.” The Court concluded that the release of claims in this case “was the fair result of a balanced negotiation, in which Plaintiffs were represented by able counsel.” In reaching this conclusion, the Court highlighted these facts: (1) the release was mutual; (2) plaintiffs were not aware of any “actual, existing, or meritorious claims” that they were waiving; and (3) plaintiffs were not waiving any future claims. Under these circumstances, the Court determined that plaintiffs “could reasonably conclude that the provisions releasing claims were an acceptable compromise.”

Non-Disclosure of Settlement Terms

Judge Sullivan also observed that several courts have “rejected FLSA settlements containing confidentiality provisions that restrict plaintiffs’ ability to talk about the settlement.” The Court acknowledged that, “in certain cases, confidentiality provisions may excessively restrict plaintiffs’ ability to discuss settlements” and, therefore, undermine the purposes of the FLSA and the public interest in assuring that employees receive fair wages. According to the Court, however, the FLSA “imposes no per se bar on confidentiality provisions in settlements.” Instead, “the fairness of restrictions on the parties’ ability to disclose details of a settlement depends on the particular circumstances of any given case.” Under the circumstances in this case, the Court ruled that the restrictions were fair. Here, the agreement stated that plaintiffs and their counsel: “will not contact the media or utilize any social media regarding this Settlement or its terms” and, if contacted, they will respond, “no comment” or “[t]he matter has been resolved.”

Judge Sullivan reasoned that, in the absence of the non-disclosure provision, “Plaintiffs would be free to decline commenting on the case in response to any future inquiries by the press or otherwise” and, therefore, “it is difficult to see why they should be barred from adopting such a posture in advance of settling the matter.” The Court explained that, “since no one can force Plaintiffs to opine on the case in the future anyway, it is by no means irrational or improper for Plaintiffs to compromise words for dollars as part of a global, arms-length settlement” (emphasis in original). Given that a plaintiff is “allowed to accept less than the maximum potential recovery on the basis of litigation risk,” the Court explained that a plaintiff should also be permitted “to make nonmonetary concessions, such as minor restrictions on his right to comment on the case.” Again, the Court stressed, “this provision is the result of fair bargaining between well-represented parties and embodies a reasonable compromise that does not conflict with the FLSA’s purpose of protecting against employer abuses.” Notably, the settlement agreement was publicly-filed, so anyone interested in discovering its terms was free to do so. The parties simply limited the ability of plaintiffs to disclose them.

Conclusion

Employers sometimes litigate FLSA cases that they would rather settle, because they are concerned that a settlement will not ensure finality. Employers worry that a narrow release will not bar the plaintiff from filing another lawsuit after collecting the settlement payment or that the plaintiff may publicize the settlement, thereby encouraging copycat lawsuits. Judge Sullivan’s decision in Lola offers a potential solution for employers. Under the right circumstances, a settlement agreement can include a broad release of claims and the parties can agree to limit disclosure of the settlement terms.