As Fall Approaches, WARN Act Lawsuits Likely to Heat Up

The global COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact businesses with no clear end in sight. While the prospect of a functioning vaccine may have a while to go, a spike in Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act litigation may be on the horizon. Furloughs and workforce reductions have been prevalent since mid-March, leaving millions of employees without jobs or on extended leaves while they wait (and hope) to be recalled to work. While only about a dozen WARN Act lawsuits have been filed to date, as layoffs extend beyond six months, new workforce reductions occur, and more plaintiffs’ attorneys shift their attention to WARN Act claims, the remainder of 2020 may become a hurricane season of sorts as WARN Act litigation could flood the courts. And as the days and weeks go by, an employer’s ability to successfully assert the “unforeseeable business circumstances” defense to providing less than 60 days’ notice of a “mass layoff” or “plant closing” has diminished and will only become more challenging for employers to assert.

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Pandemic Furloughs in Place? Time to Assess Your WARN Obligations

The Coronavirus pandemic business closings started in mid-March by orders of the governors of many states. Some closings were a consequence of customer demand suddenly drying up. It has now been over two months since some of those closings began, and almost every state in the United States is now fully allowing the reopening of businesses. It is time to assess: is there to be a reopening? If yes, please view our extensive alert regarding Return to Work issues. If not, or if you are considering a reopening with less than a full complement of the workforce that was in place in early March, it is time to start assessing compliance with the federal Workers Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2101 et seq, (FED WARN) and its states’ counterpart laws, or “mini-WARN” laws.

To read the full alert, please visit the Faegre Drinker website.

Coronavirus Lawsuits on the Horizon: Termination and Discrimination

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the country, many employers responded to this unprecedented and uncertain situation by furloughing and laying off some or all of their workforce. These actions already have spurred labor and employment lawsuits. And more are likely on the horizon, including as employees start returning to work.

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New Jersey Delays Amendments to the New Jersey WARN Act and Provides Relief to Employers Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

New Jersey employers facing difficult decisions given business challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have been hoping for some relief from the amendments to New Jersey’s Millville Dallas Airmotive Plant Job Loss Notification Act (NJ WARN Act), set to take effect on July 19, 2020. Simply put, those amendments will lower the bar such that the NJ WARN Act will be triggered by reductions in force that impact 50 or more employees (either full-time or part-time) at or reporting to an establishment (a single location or group of locations within the state) during any 30-day period. In addition, the amendments require employers who lay off employees on or after July 19, 2020, to give employees 90 days’ notice, rather than the 60 days previously required by state law and by the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act.

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Complying With WARN Act Requirements During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, major retail chains, manufacturers, hospitality providers and other employers have been reducing hours/pay or closing employment sites. For many employers, these layoffs are expected to be temporary while the virus runs its course, but economic challenges could turn short-term layoffs into events that trigger notice obligations under the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act or state “mini-WARN” Acts. This article answers employers’ common wage and hour and WARN Act questions caused by the coronavirus.

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WARN Act Liability And Private Equity Firms

Last month’s decision out of the Delaware District Court in Woolery, et al. v. Matlin Patterson Global Advisers, LLC, et al. was an eye opener for private equity firms and other entities owning a controlling stake in a faltering business.  Breaking from the norm, the Court refused to dismiss private equity firm MatlinPatterson Global Advisers, LLC (“MatlinPatterson”) and affiliated entities from a class action WARN Act suit alleging that the 400-plus employees of Premium Protein Products, LLC (“Premium”), a Nebraska-based meat processer and MatlinPatterson portfolio company, hadn’t received the statutorily-mandated 60 days advance notice of layoffs.

According to the plaintiffs, Premium’s performance began to decline in 2008 and, upon the downturn, the defendants became more and more involved in Premium’s day-to-day operations, including by making business strategy decisions (e.g., to enter the kosher food market), terminating Premium’s existing President, and installing a new company President.  Things got bad enough that, in June 2009, the defendants decided to “furlough” all of Premium’s employees with virtually no notice and close the plant.  The defendants then, in November 2009, converted the furlough to layoffs, and Premium filed for bankruptcy.  According to the plaintiffs, Premium’s head of HR raised WARN Act concerns back in June, when the decision to close the plant and furlough the employees was made, and the defendants ignored the issue.

With Premium in bankruptcy, the plaintiffs, unsurprisingly, turned to MatlinPatterson and the other defendants as the targets of their WARN Act claim, asserting that they and Premium were a “single employer.”  The Court then applied the Department of Labor’s five-factor balancing test, namely (1) whether the entities share common ownership, (2) whether the entities share common directors or officers, (3) the existence of de facto exercise of control by the parent over the subsidiary, (4) the existence of a unity of personnel policies emanating from a common source, and (5) the dependency of operations between the two entities.  This test often favors private equity firms, and on balance it did so in Woolery too, with the Court finding that the plaintiffs had made no showing as to three of the five factors.  The Court nevertheless refused to grant the defendants’ motion to dismiss, holding that the complaint alleged that the defendants had exercised de facto control over Premium and then essentially giving that factor determinative weight.

No one should be surprised by the decision given the plaintiffs’ allegations, which had to be accepted as true at the motion to dismiss stage.  They presented an ugly picture of a private equity firm dictating the most critical decisions (to close plant, layoff employees) and then attempting to duck the WARN Act’s dictates. The decision is nevertheless a cautionary tale for private equity firms and at first blush it presents a catch 22: (a) do nothing and watch your investment sink or (b) get involved and risk WARN Act liability.

So what is a private equity firm, lender or majority investor to do?  Obviously, the best scenario is to build in the required 60-day notice period or, if applicable, utilize WARN Act exceptions, including the “faltering company” and “unforeseen business circumstances” exceptions.  Even where that’s not possible, private equity firms and other controlling investors need not take a completely hands off approach.  They would, however, be best-served (at least for WARN Act purposes) to do the following:

  • Provide only customary board-level oversight and allow the employer’s officers and management team to run the employer’s day-to-day operations
  • Although Board oversight and input can occur, continue to work through the management team on major decisions, including layoffs and potential facility closures
  • Avoid placing private equity firm or lender employees or representatives on the employer’s management team
  • Have the employer’s management team execute employment contracts with the employer, not the private equity firm or lender, and have the contracts, for the most part, create obligations only to the employer
  • Allow the employer to maintain its own personnel policies and practices, as well as HR oversight and function

What the courts are primarily concerned with in these cases are (a) a high degree of integration between the private equity firm or lender and the actual employer, particularly as to day-to-day operations, and (b) who the decision-maker was with regard to the employment practice giving rise to the litigation (typically the layoff or plant closure decision).  Private equity firms and lenders that have refrained from this level of integration have had, and should continue to have, success in avoiding WARN Act liability and returning the focus of the WARN Act discussion to the actual employer.

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