Wage & Hour, Individual & Collective Actions

Since 2000, the number of wage and hour cases filed under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) has increased by more than 450 percent, with the vast majority of those cases being filed as putative collective actions.  Under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), employees may pursue FLSA claims on behalf of “themselves and other employees similarly situated,” provided that “[n]o employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.”  Despite the prevalence of FLSA collective actions, the legal implications and consequences of being a “party plaintiff” in such an action continue to be addressed.  The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently examined this issue, in an opinion that may prove useful to defendants seeking to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a putative collective action.

In Halle v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, Inc. et al., the named plaintiff filed a putative collective action alleging defendants violated the FLSA by failing to properly pay employees for work performed during meal breaks.  The district court dismissed the collective action allegations based on a related case that had previously been decided, and dismissed the opt-in plaintiffs’ claims without prejudice to re-filing individual actions.  After the named plaintiff subsequently settled his individual claim, three opt-in plaintiffs sought to appeal the district court’s decision.

The Third Circuit held the opt-in plaintiffs lacked the right to appeal, because they were no longer “parties” after the collective action claims were dismissed. The opt-in plaintiffs retained the right to pursue their own individual claims, but they had no right to pursue an appeal from the named plaintiff’s individual final judgment.  The court held that, “[b]y consenting to join Halle’s collective action, these opt-in plaintiffs ceded to Halle the ability to act on their behalf in all matters, including the ability to pursue this appeal.”

In reaching this decision, the Third Circuit engaged in an extensive analysis of the “fundamental question arising from the procedural history of this case: just what is a ‘collective action’ under the FLSA?” Unlike a class action brought under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23, where all putative class members are bound by the court’s ruling unless they affirmatively “opt out” of the case, “the existence of a collective action depends upon the affirmative participation of opt-in plaintiffs.”  As the Third Circuit noted, “[t]his difference means that every plaintiff who opts in to a collective action has party status, whereas unnamed class members in Rule 23 class actions do not,” prompting “the as-yet unanswered question of what ‘party status’ means in a collective action.”

The court’s analysis of this issue, while tangential to Halle’s holding, highlights the tension inherent in the language of FLSA § 216(b), which, according to the Third Circuit, “raises more questions than it provides answers.  While the first sentence [of § 216(b)] sounds in representational terms (to proceed ‘in behalf of’ others ‘similarly situated’), the second sentence refers to those who file consents as ‘party plaintiffs,’ seeming to imply that all who affirmatively choose to become participants have an equal, individual stake in the proceeding.”  This tension is particularly significant with regard to defendants’ discovery rights in a collective action.

Under Rule 33 and Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, in the absence of any court-imposed limits, a party may serve interrogatories and document requests “on any other party.”  Based on this language, and FLSA § 216(b)’s designation of individuals who opt in to a collective action as “party plaintiffs,” arguably a defendant in a collective action should be entitled to serve discovery requests on each individual who opts in to the litigation, unless the court orders otherwise.  Despite this fact, the Third Circuit noted that, “[f]requently,” discovery in collective actions “focuses on the named plaintiffs and a subset of the collective group,” a limitation that may hinder defendants’ ability to present individualized defenses that may not be applicable to all opt-in plaintiffs.

While the Third Circuit did not fully resolve the question of what it means to be a “party plaintiff,” two aspects of the Halle decision may prove helpful to defendants seeking to assert their right to obtain discovery from all opt-in plaintiffs in a collective action.  First, as noted above, the Third Circuit emphasized that each opt-in plaintiff “has party status.”  This language, when read in conjunction with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure regarding the scope of discovery, should support defendants’ right to seek discovery from “any other party,” including all opt-in plaintiffs.

Second, in holding that the opt-in plaintiffs had no right to appeal a final judgment involving the named plaintiff, the court emphasized the importance of “the language of their opt-in consent forms, which handed over all litigation authority to named plaintiff.” The Third Circuit noted that courts often rely on the language of the opt-in consent form “to determine which rights opt-in plaintiffs delegated to the named plaintiffs.”  Based on this guidance, defendants may wish to propose including language in the opt-in consent form stating that individuals who join the collective action may be required to provide documents and information, sit for depositions, and/or testify at trial.  Such language may help demonstrate that the opt-in plaintiffs were meant to be treated as active parties to the litigation, with the same rights and obligations as named plaintiffs.

While a court may ultimately exercise its discretion to impose limits on the scope of discovery, particularly in collective actions with a large putative class, the Third Circuit’s analysis in Halle may prove useful to defendants seeking support for their argument that they should be entitled to obtain discovery from each opt-in plaintiff.

Paid Leave_shutterstock_371740363The state of Maryland appears poised to join seven other states and various local jurisdictions (including Montgomery County, Maryland) already requiring employers to provide paid sick and save leave. On April 5, 2017, the Maryland House of Delegates approved a bill previously passed by the Maryland Senate that would require most employers with at least 15 employees to provide up to five paid sick and safe leave days per year to their employees, and smaller employers to provide up to five unpaid sick and safe leave days. Although the bill contains an effective date of January 1, 2018, the actual effective date will depend on action by Governor Larry Hogan.

The following employees are not covered by the bill:

  • Employees who regularly work less than 12 hours a week;
  • Employees who are employed in the construction industry;
  • Employees who are covered by a collective-bargaining agreement that expressly waives the requirements of the law;
  • Certain “as-needed” employees in the health or human services industry.

Under the bill, an employer may not be required to allow an employee to:

(1) earn more than 40 hours of earned sick and safe leave in a year;
(2) use more than 64 hours of earned sick and safe leave in a year;
(3) accrue a total of more than 64 hours at any time;
(4) use earned sick and safe leave during the first 106 calendar days the employee works for the employer.

The bill also preempts local jurisdictions from enacting new sick and safe leave laws except for amending existing laws enacted before January 1, 2017, i.e. the existing law in Montgomery County.

The bill passed with enough support in both chambers to survive a promised veto by Governor Hogan, who favored an alternative that would require the benefit only for companies with at least 50 workers and make tax incentives available for smaller companies that offered the leave. However, if he still vetoes the bill, lawmakers will not have an opportunity to override the veto until next year’s legislative session beginning on January 10, 2018, which means the bill would not take effect until after January 1, 2018, and could possibly be subject to amendment in the next session.

*Marc-Joseph Gansah, a Law Clerk – Admission Pending in the firm’s New York office, contributed to the preparation of this blog post.

Two stories on the new episode of Employment Law This Week will be of particular interest to our readers in the health care industry:

California Health Care Workers Can Waive Breaks

California health care workers can still waive some breaks. In February 2015, a California appeals court invalidated an order from the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) that allowed health care workers to waive certain meal breaks. The court found the order, which allowed the workers to miss one of their two meal periods when working over eight hours, was in direct conflict with the California Labor Code. The state legislature then passed a new law giving the IWC authority to craft exceptions going forward for health care workers. This month, the appeals court concluded that its 2015 decision was based on a misreading of the statute and that even waivers occurring before the new law are valid.

Transgender Guidance Withdrawal Impacts the Courts

A multistate lawsuit against the Obama administration’s transgender guidance is coming to an end. The states, led by Texas, have dropped their suit in light of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw that guidance. The Obama-era guidance allowed students to use the bathrooms of the gender they identify with. The withdrawal has also prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to return a case that it was scheduled to hear on transgender rights in public schools. The appeals court, which based its original decision on the guidance, will now consider the case solely based on the statutory requirements of Title IX.

These stories are featured in the first and third segments of the show – see below:

A New Year and a New Administration: Five Employment, Labor & Workforce Management Issues That Employers Should MonitorIn the new issue of Take 5, our colleagues examine five employment, labor, and workforce management issues that will continue to be reviewed and remain top of mind for employers under the Trump administration:

Read the full Take 5 online or download the PDF. Also, keep track of developments with Epstein Becker Green’s new microsite, The New Administration: Insights and Strategies.

Our colleagues Judah L. Rosenblatt, Jeffrey H. Ruzal, and Susan Gross Sholinsky, at Epstein Becker Green, have a post on the Hospitality Labor and Employment Law Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Where Federal Expectations Are Low Governor Cuomo Introduces Employee Protective Mandates in New York.”

Following is an excerpt:

Earlier this week New York Governor Andrew D. Cuomo (D) signed two executive orders and announced a series of legislative proposals specifically aimed at eliminating the wage gap in gender, among other workers and strengthening equal pay protection in New York State. The Governor’s actions are seen by many as an alternative to employer-focused federal policies anticipated once President-elect Donald J. Trump (R) takes office. …

According to the Governor’s Press Release, the Governor will seek to amend State law to hold the top 10 members of out-of-state limited liability companies (“LLC”) personally financially liable for unsatisfied judgments for unpaid wages. This law already exists with respect to in-state and out-of-state corporations, as well as in-state LLCs. The Governor is also seeking to empower the Labor Commissioner to pursue judgments against the top 10 owners of any corporations or domestic or foreign LLCs for wage liabilities on behalf of workers with unpaid wage claims. …

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Michael S. Kun, national Chairperson of the Wage and Hour practice group at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Wage & Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Stop! Texas Federal Court Enjoins New FLSA Overtime Rules.”

Following is an excerpt:

The injunction could leave employers in a state of limbo for weeks, months and perhaps longer as injunctions often do not resolve cases and, instead, lead to lengthy appeals. Here, though, the injunction could spell the quick death to the new rules should the Department choose not to appeal the decision in light of the impending Donald Trump presidency. We will continue to monitor this matter as it develops.

To the extent that employers have not already increased exempt employees’ salaries or converted them to non-exempt positions, the injunction will at the very least allow employers to postpone those changes. And, depending on the final resolution of this issue, it is possible they may never need to implement them.

The last-minute injunction puts some employers in a difficult position, though — those that already implemented changes in anticipation of the new rules or that informed employees that they will receive salary increases or will be converted to non-exempt status effective December 1, 2016. …

Read the full post here.

Our colleague Jeffrey H. Ruzal, Senior Counsel at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Wage & Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “Decision Enjoining Federal Overtime Rule Changes Will Not Affect Proposed Increases Under New York State’s Overtime Laws.”

Following is an excerpt:

As we recently reported on our Wage & Hour Defense Blog, on November 22, 2016, a federal judge in the Eastern District of Texas issued a nationwide preliminary injunction enjoining the U.S. Department of Labor from implementing its new overtime exemption rule that would have more than doubled the current salary threshold for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions and was scheduled to take effect on December 1, 2016. To the extent employers have not already increased exempt employees’ salaries or converted them to non-exempt positions, the injunction will, at the very least, appear to allow many employers to postpone those changes—but likely not in the case of employees who work in New York State.

On October 19, 2016, the New York State Department of Labor (“NYSDOL”) announced proposed amendments to the state’s minimum wage orders (“Proposed Amendments”) to increase the salary basis threshold for executive and administrative employees under the state’s wage and hour laws (New York does not impose a minimum salary threshold for exempt “professional” employees).  The current salary threshold for the administrative and executive exemptions under New York law is $675 per week ($35,100 annually) throughout the state.  The NYSDOL has proposed the following increases to New York’s salary threshold for the executive and administrative exemptions …

Read the full post here.

Employers Under the Microscope: Is Change on the Horizon?

When: Tuesday, October 18, 2016 8:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.

Where: New York Hilton Midtown, 1335 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10019

Epstein Becker Green’s Annual Workforce Management Briefing will focus on the latest developments in labor and employment law, including:

  • Latest Developments from the NLRB
  • Attracting and Retaining a Diverse Workforce
  • ADA Website Compliance
  • Trade Secrets and Non-Competes
  • Managing and Administering Leave Policies
  • New Overtime Rules
  • Workplace Violence and Active-Shooter Situations
  • Recordings in the Workplace
  • Instilling Corporate Ethics

This year, we welcome Marc Freedman and Jim Plunkett from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Marc and Jim will speak at the first plenary session on the latest developments in Washington, D.C., that impact employers nationwide.

We are also excited to have Dr. David Weil, Administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, serve as the guest speaker at the second plenary session. David will discuss the areas on which the Wage and Hour Division is focusing, including the new overtime rules.

In addition to workshop sessions led by attorneys at Epstein Becker Green – including some contributors to this blog! – we are also looking forward to hearing from our keynote speaker, Former New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton.

View the full briefing agenda here.

Visit the briefing website for more information and to register, and contact Sylwia Faszczewska or Elizabeth Gannon with questions. Seating is limited.

Our colleagues Jeffrey Ruzal and Michael Kun at Epstein Becker Green have a post on the Wage & Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the health care industry: “DOL Final White Collar Exemption Rule to Take Effect on December 1, 2016.”

Following is an excerpt:

Nearly a year after the Department of Labor (“DOL”) issued its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to address an increase in the minimum salary for white collar exemptions, the DOL has announced its final rule, to take effect on December 1, 2016. …

According to the DOL’s Fact Sheet, the final rule will also do the following:

  • The total annual compensation requirement for “highly compensated employees” subject to a minimal duties test will increase from the current level of $100,000 to $134,004, which represents the 90th percentile of full-time salaried workers nationally.
  • The salary threshold for the executive, administrative, professional, and highly compensated employee exemptions will automatically update every three years to “ensure that they continue to provide useful and effective tests for exemption.”
  • The salary basis test will be amended to allow employers to use non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments, such as commissions, to satisfy up to 10 percent of the salary threshold.
  • The final rule does not in any way change the current duties tests. …

With the benefit of more than six months until the final rule takes effect, employers should not delay in auditing their workforces to identify any employees currently treated as exempt who will not meet the new salary threshold. For such persons, employers will need to determine whether to increase workers’ salaries or convert them to non-exempt.

Read the full post here.

Nathaniel M. Glasser
Nathaniel M. Glasser

In case you missed it, last week the U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) blogged about the misclassification of workers in the home care industry.  As a reminder, on October 1, 2013, the DOL issued its home care final rule, which (1) more narrowly defines the tasks that comprise exempt “companionship service” and (2) limits the exemptions for companionship services and live-in domestic service employees to individuals, families, or households using the service, and no longer extends such exemptions to third-party employers such as home health care agencies.  As of January 1, 2016, the DOL began to fully enforce this rule.

The DOL touts its “unprecedented efforts” to assist employers in preparing for compliance with its home care final rule and refers employers to the administrator’s interpretation issued last summer that distinguishes “independent contractors” from “employees” and broadly defines the latter term.  Home care agencies should be aware that the DOL has targeted enforcement in the industry and will expect employers to be fully conversant in the new rule.

In a briefing on March 1, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Sharon Block, said that the DOL hopes to put “more cops on the beat” (by hiring 300 more wage and hour investigators) to fight alleged wage theft.  Given the DOL’s increased emphasis on enforcement of its final rule, employers in the home care industry should audit their workforce now to ensure that workers are properly classified and that any non-exempt employees are being paid minimum wage and overtime.