Virginia Federal Court Authorizes $2.4 Million Award For ERISA Severance Plan Benefits In WARN Act Class Action

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Kathryn Brown

Duane Morris Takeaways: On January 16 and 17, 2024, in Messer v. Bristol Compressors International, LLC, No. 1:18-CV-00040 (W.D. Va.), on remand from a Fourth Circuit decision, Judge James P. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia issued an opinion and order entering judgment in the amount of $2,407,471.90 for severance pay benefits owed under an ERISA employee benefits plan based on violations of the 60-day notice requirement of the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN Act), 29 U.S.C. § 2102(a)(1). The multi-million dollar ruling stems from a 2018 WARN-covered “plant closing” and follows an earlier award on November 23, 2021 of $1.39 million to certain class members for damages including back pay and interest owed pursuant to the WARN Act for the same notice violation underlying the recent ruling.

The decision highlights the extremely technical nature and high stakes of WARN Act litigation in the class action context.

Case Background

On July 31, 2018, Bristol Compressors International (BCI) notified employees that it would close its manufacturing facility in Bristol, Virginia, and their employment would terminate on or before September 30, 2018. BCI implemented several rounds of terminations over the next three and a half months, beyond the originally anticipated date of September 30, 2018 for the final terminations. However, BCI did not issue additional notice under the WARN to those whose employment ended after September 30, 2018.  The manufacturing facility ultimately closed on November 16, 2018.

On October 19, 2018, a group of former employees sued BCI- under the WARN Act.  The plaintiffs alleged that the company failed to provide 60 days’ notice of their terminations in accordance with the specific requirements of the WARN Act.

On June 20, 2019, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for certification of three sub-classes of former employees terminated due to the plant closing under Rules 23(a) and 23(b)(3). Sub-class One included employees involuntarily terminated between July 31, 2018 and August 31, 2018. Sub-class Two included employees involuntarily terminated after August 31, 2018 who signed a stay bonus agreement that included an express waiver of claims under the WARN Act. Sub-class Three included employees involuntarily terminated after August 31, 2018 who had not signed a stay bonus agreement.

Following a bench trial, the Court in 2020 granted summary judgment to BCI on the plaintiffs’ claim for benefits owed under a company severance pay plan. The Court found that BCI validly terminated its severance pay plan before the employment terminations.  In a separate 2020 opinion, the Court dismissed upon summary judgment the WARN Act claims of four class members whose employment ended on October 19, 2018. The Court reasoned that BCI’s July 31, 2018 notification was adequate to prepare them for their later job losses. The plaintiffs appealed those prior rulings to the Fourth Circuit.

The Fourth Circuit’s Ruling

On April 3, 2023, the Fourth Circuit, in an unpublished opinion, reversed and remanded parts of the 2020 rulings.  Messer v. Bristol Compressors International, LLC, 2023 U.S. App. LEXIS 7826 (4th Cir. Apr. 3, 2023) (per curiam).

The Fourth Circuit reversed the denial of severance pay benefits to the class, concluding the company did not terminate the severance pay plan in accordance with the ERISA’s requirements for modifying or terminating an ERISA-governed benefits plan.  As a result, the severance pay plan was in effect when the employment terminations occurred.

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the decision upholding the release of claims under the WARN Act to members of Sub-class Two. However, because the release of claims in the stay bonus agreements those class members signed explicitly carved out claims for vested benefits under the company’s “written benefit plans,” members of Sub-class Two did not waive their claims for severance pay benefits owed to them under the ERISA-governed employee benefit plan.

The Fourth Circuit also vacated the grant of summary judgment to BCI on the WARN Act claims of the four plaintiffs whose employment ended on October 19, 2018.  The Fourth Circuit pointed to the regulation under the WARN Act providing that, if an employer postpones a covered plant closure for 60 days or more, additional 60 days’ notice under the WARN Act is owed to affected employees.  See 20 C.F.R. § 639.10. Because the company issued no additional notice to those four individuals after July 31, 2018, but terminated their employment after September 30, 2018, the Fourth Circuit opined that a WARN Act violation was established.

The District Court’s Decision

On remand, the Court granted the plaintiffs’ unopposed motion for summary judgment on the two issues on which the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded. Consistent with the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, the Court held that all class members were entitled to severance pay benefits under the severance pay plan, plus interest, and the four plaintiffs whose employment ended on October 19, 2018 were in addition owed back pay and prejudgment interest for a 60-day period.

On January 17, 2014, the Court ordered the case closed, with leave granted to class counsel to file a supplemental motion for attorneys’ fees and costs within 30 days.

Implications For Employers

The Messer case is illustrative of the many decisions in recent years in which plaintiffs have recovered multi-million dollar judgments following class certification of WARN Act claims. Employers should remain vigilant to the WARN Act, and the potential exposure to 60 days’ worth of back pay, lost benefits and prejudgment interest in the event of violations, well before implementing any mass layoff or plant closure that may trigger its strict notification requirements.

Michigan Federal Court Sets Scope Of Discovery Relevant For FLSA Certification Motions In The Sixth Circuit

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Kathryn Brown

Duane Morris Takeaways: In Stewart v. Epitec, Inc., No. 2:22-CV-12857 (E.D. Mich. Jan. 9, 2024), Judge Stephen J. Murphy of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan ordered the parties in an FLSA misclassification lawsuit to commence discovery under the Sixth Circuit’s standard for determining notice to potential plaintiffs announced in Clark v. A&L Homecare and Training Center, LLC, 68 F.4th 1003 (6th Cir. 2023).  As one of the first FLSA discovery rulings under the new Clark standard, the decision is required reading for companies defending wage & hour claims in courts within the Sixth Circuit.

Case Background

On November 23, 2022, the plaintiff in Stewart filed a Complaint against his former employer, Epitec, Inc., alleging willful violations of the FLSA on behalf of over 100 similarly situated individuals who worked as recruiters for the company. The plaintiff sought unpaid overtime wages for a three-year lookback period based on his key contentions that the company misclassified his position as a recruiter as exempt and that he regularly worked 45 to 50 hours per workweek, but was not paid for work beyond 40 hours in a workweek.

On April 18, 2023, the plaintiff filed a motion seeking conditional certification, expedited opt-in discovery, and notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs.  Before the company had the opportunity to oppose the motion, the Court stayed the case on April 25, 2023 in anticipation of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in Clark.

On May 19, 2023, the Sixth Circuit published its decision in Clark, announcing a new test for facilitating notice under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) of the FLSA.  In a watershed ruling, Clark instructs district courts to authorize notice to potential plaintiffs only after the named plaintiff demonstrates a “strong likelihood” that other similarly situated employees exist.  Under the prior test used in the Sixth Circuit, a plaintiff could obtain court-sanctioned notice to others by making only a “modest” factual showing that other employees are “similarly situated.”  Because notice to others who may join the lawsuit has the practical effect of increasing sharply the settlement pressure on the defendant, the new test shifts the leverage significantly in defendants’ favor in FLSA litigation.

In light of the Clark standard, the Judge in Stewart ordered the parties to submit a joint discovery plan.  In supplemental briefing filed in August 2023, the parties articulated their opposing views of the type and scope of discovery that should proceed under the Clark standard.

The Court’s Decision

The Judge in Stewart ordered discovery both on the issue of similarly-situated status and on the defendant’s need for information to test the merits of the named plaintiff’s claims. In so ordering, the Court emphasized that “balance is key” when it comes to the parties’ respective, and contemporaneous, needs for discovery in a post-Clark landscape.

On the issue of whether a “strong likelihood” exists that other similarly-situated employees exist, the Court ordered the plaintiff and the existing opt-in plaintiffs to produce communications among themselves regarding any of the matters at issue in the litigation, excluding any communications shielded by the attorney-client privilege or attorney work product doctrines.  As the Sixth Circuit instructed in Clark, whether the potential other plaintiffs are subject to individualized defenses is one of the factors district courts ought to consider in evaluating whether to sanction notice of the FLSA lawsuit. The Court agreed that the defendant was entitled to discovery of such communications because may be probative of individualized defenses that disfavor notification under Clark.

The Court rejected the plaintiff’s request for discovery of the list of putative collective action members The Court reasoned that the names and contact information of all recruiters within a three-year lookback period is precisely the type of information disclosure of which Clark cautioned is tantamount to “solicitation of claims” before the Court authorizes notice.

The Court ordered discovery for a three-year lookback period, consistent with the three-year statute of limitations for “willful” violations of the FLSA, over the defendant’s objection that the standard statute of limitations period of two years for FLSA claims should dictate the time frame of discovery.  The Court explained that the parties’ dispute over the existence of willful violations “exemplifies the need for broader discovery.”

The Court permitted the company to proceed with depositions of the named plaintiff and all existing opt-in plaintiffs but rejected the company’s request to depose potential opt-in plaintiffs.  The Court reasoned that depositions of individuals who had not yet filed consents to join the lawsuit were not necessary to determine similarly-situated status under Clark.  The Court left for another day the defendant’s request for leave to exceed the ten depositions permitted under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

The Court resolved the parties’ dispute over the equitable tolling period in favor of the plaintiff’s request for a broad interpretation of tolling to preserve the ability of would-be plaintiffs to recover on their FLSA claims.  Noting that two of the three Sixth Circuit panel judges in Clark endorsed broad equitable tolling in FLSA collective actions, Judge Murphy tolled the limitations period from April 25, 2023 through the resolution of the plaintiff’s forthcoming motion for notice under Clark.

The Court ordered the parties to conduct discovery on the permitted topics within 90 days of the issuance of its January 9, 2024 order.  The Court set a date 120 days from the issuance of its order for the plaintiff to file a motion for notice to potential plaintiffs.

Implications For Employers

The Court’s ruling in Stewart is significant in that it is one of the first rulings to define the scope of pre-notification discovery under Clark.  The Court interpreted the Sixth Circuit’s ruling to give both sides in the litigation the right to discovery relevant to their respective positions on notice, and the right to do so simultaneously.  Likewise, the ruling is important in identifying topics, including contact information of putative class members, unnecessary to the notice determination under Clark and therefore, premature for discovery before notice is issued.  The opinion in Stewart has persuasive value to other district courts in Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee and Kentucky and may well influence the discovery landscape for litigants in the post-Clark world.

 

In The Latest Application of the Sixth Circuit’s Novel “Strong Likelihood” Standard, Ohio District Court Denies Plaintiffs’ Motion to Issue Notice of FLSA Overtime Lawsuit

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Kathryn Brown

Duane Morris Takeaways: On September 27, 2023, District Court Judge Charles E. Fleming in Woods et al. v. First Transit, Inc., et al., 21-cv-739 (N.D. Ohio Sept. 27, 2023) denied plaintiffs’ motion for court-authorized notice of bus drivers’ claims of alleged unpaid overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).  The district court applied the Sixth Circuit’s newly-minted standard to conclude the plaintiffs failed to demonstrate a “strong likelihood” exists that they are similarly situated in relevant respects to other employees of the defendant transportation company.  The court’s rejection of the plaintiffs’ “self-serving declarations” and consideration of the defendants’ competing evidence illustrates how the Sixth Circuit’s new standard is a game changer for FLSA litigants in Ohio, Michigan, Tennessee and Kentucky.

Case Background

On April 6, 2021, three named plaintiffs filed a class and collective action lawsuit asserting claims of unpaid overtime in violation of the FLSA and Ohio, California and New York state laws.  The plaintiffs alleged that the defendant failed to pay overtime wages to fixed-route bus drivers for work performed before and after their shifts.  The plaintiffs also alleged the defendant deducted 30 minutes’ worth of time from their pay for unpaid meal breaks even when they did not receive uninterrupted break time.  After the district granted the defendant’s partial motion to dismiss the New York and California state law claims, only the Ohio state law claims survived.  Additionally, only two named plaintiffs remained after one of the named plaintiff s was shown never to have worked as a fixed-route bus driver.

Two individuals filed consents to join the lawsuit as opt-in plaintiffs in October 2021 and a third joined the lawsuit in February 2022.

After approximately six months of fact discovery solely on the issue of conditional certification, the named plaintiffs moved for conditional certification of their claims under the FLSA on June 29, 2022.  If granted, the plaintiffs would have authority to issue notice to a collective including any person who drove a fixed bus route for the defendant in any week during the prior three years.

In support of their motion, the plaintiffs submitted sworn declarations of the two named plaintiffs and three putative opt-in plaintiffs, job descriptions, an employee handbook and a user guide for time entry.  In opposition to the motion, the defendant submitted sworn declarations of managers at the locations at which the named or opt-in plaintiffs had worked, declarations of corporate human resources and payroll staff and collective bargaining agreements governing fixed-route bus drivers at various locations.

After the parties fully briefed the motion, the district court deferred ruling on the motion until the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its anticipated decision on the standard for conditional certification in FLSA cases.

On May 19, 2023, the Sixth Circuit in Clark v. A&L Homecare and Training Center, LLC, 68 F.4th 1003 (6th Cir. 2023), announced a new standard for determining whether FLSA plaintiffs may issue court-sanctioned notice to other employees.  Rejecting the prior standard in which a plaintiff need only make a “modest factual showing” to win court-authorized notice, the Sixth Circuit held that plaintiffs must put forth sufficient evidence to demonstrate a “strong likelihood” exists that they are similarly situated to other employees.  Factors relevant to the analysis include whether the potential other plaintiffs performed the same tasks and were subject to the same timekeeping and pay policies as the named plaintiffs.  After Clark, the parties submitted supplemental briefs arguing how the new standard applied to the plaintiffs’ pending motion.

The Court’s Decision

Upon weighing the parties’ competing evidence, the district court answered “no” to the question whether a strong likelihood exists that the named plaintiffs experienced the same policies of unpaid overtime wages as other employees of the defendant.

The district court concluded that the plaintiffs did not introduce any evidence of a “company-wide policy” binding on all fixed-route bus drivers that potentially violates the FLSA.  The court stated that the only evidence of the alleged unlawful overtime pay practices came in the form of “self-serving declarations” of doubtful credibility.  For example, an opt-in plaintiff declared that she worked as a fixed-route bus driver until December 2020.  However, the manager who oversaw the opt-in plaintiff’s location declared that no driver at that location drove a fixed bus route.  The court reasoned no “strong likelihood” exists that the opt-in plaintiff is similarly situated to the named plaintiffs given that the opt-in plaintiff could not be in the proposed collective of fixed-route bus drivers.

The court also considered the evidence of written policies regarding meal breaks, or the lack thereof, for fixed-route bus drivers.  Contrary to the plaintiffs’ allegation of company-wide automatic pay deductions for meal break time, the manager of the location at which one of the named plaintiffs had worked declared that drivers at that location did not even receive meal breaks.

The collective bargaining agreements in evidence showed that different locations of work had different policies governing time entry and breaks for fixed-route bus drivers.  For example, a collective bargaining agreement for one location stated that the defendant paid drivers for 15 minutes of time prior to their route to perform pre-shift work.  A collective bargaining agreement for another location said the defendant paid drivers 20 minutes for pre-shift work.

In sum, the court reasoned that the evidence revealed dissimilarity in policies and practices concerning compensation for the company’s fixed-route bus drivers.  Because the evidence showed employees were subject to different policies concerning key issues such as how they report time, how schedules are set, what period of time is compensable, whether they receive a meal break and how meal breaks are paid, the court concluded the plaintiffs did not satisfy the “strong likelihood” standard announced in Clark to obtain court-authorized notice of their FLSA claims.

Implications For Employers

The district court’s ruling in Woods leaves no doubt that FLSA plaintiffs in the Sixth Circuit face a heightened evidentiary burden to obtain court-authorized notice in the wake of the Sixth Circuit’s new standard in Clark.  The district court clarified that the “strong likelihood” standard in Clark is an evidentiary standard, not a pleading standard.  The court’s analysis in Woods shows defendants have a genuine opportunity to present evidence to attack the plaintiffs’ efforts to show a common policy of FLSA-violating conduct and thereby block notice to other employees who may expand the scope of the lawsuit exponentially.  Employers with operations in the Sixth Circuit ought to use Clark as an opportunity to look anew at their wage and hour policies and practices to guard against the risk of costly and time-consuming FLSA litigation.

Ohio Federal District Court Authorizes Notice Of FLSA Claims In Step One Of The Two-Step “Strong Likelihood” Test And Certifies Rule 23 Class

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Kathryn Brown

Duane Morris Takeaways: In Hogan v. Cleveland Ave Restaurant, Inc. d/b/a Sirens, et al., 15-CV-2883 (S.D. Ohio Sept. 6, 2023), Chief Judge Algenon L. Marbley of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio authorized notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs and conditionally certified a collective action of thousands of adult club dancers in a case asserting violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) and Ohio law, including claims of unpaid minimum wages, unlawfully withheld tips, and unlawful deductions and/or kickbacks. For good measure, the Court also granted class certification on the plaintiffs’ state law claims. The opinion is a must-read for employers in the Sixth Circuit facing — or hoping to avoid facing — class and collective wage & hour claims.

Case Background

On October 6, 2015, the named plaintiff Hogan filed the lawsuit as a class and collective action asserting violations of the FLSA and Ohio law. After amending the complaint in May 2017 to add additional defendants, on May 14, 2020, Hogan filed a Second Amended Class and Collective Action Complaint, the operative complaint, with a second named plaintiff, Valentine.

In the operative complaint, the named plaintiffs asserted claims against seven adult entertainment clubs and their owners and managers as well as two club associations and an individual defendant with which the clubs were associated. The plaintiffs later settled their claims against one of the seven clubs.

The allegations in the operative complaint center on the clubs’ use of a landlord-tenant system by which the defendant clubs charged dancers “rent” to perform at the clubs for tips from customers in lieu of paying them wages for hours worked.

On September 26, 2022, the plaintiffs moved for certification of their claims as a class and collective action. The parties concluded briefing on the motion five months before May 2023, when the Sixth Circuit issued its pivotal decision in Clark v. A&L Homecare and Training Center, LLC, 68 F.4th 1003 (6th Cir. 2023). In Clark, the Sixth Circuit ushered in a new, more employer-favorable standard for deciding motions for conditional certification pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) of the FLSA.

The District Court’s Decision

First, the court articulated the standard by which it would decide the plaintiffs’ motion for court-supervised notice of their FLSA claims.  The court described the Sixth Circuit’s opinion in Clark as “maintain[ing] the two-step process for FLSA collective actions but alter[ing] the calculus.” Slip Op. at 7. Whereas pre-Clark case law authorized notice at step one of the two-step process after only a modest showing of similarly-situated status, the standard post-Clark demands that plaintiffs show a “strong likelihood” exists that there are others similarly situated to the named plaintiffs with respect to the defendants’ alleged violations of the FLSA prior to authorizing notice.  Defendants after Clark retain the ability, after fact discovery concludes, to demonstrate that the named plaintiffs in fact are not similarly- situated to any individual who files a consent to join the lawsuit as a so-called opt-in plaintiff. Also unchanged by Clark is the standard for determining similarly-situated status for FLSA purposes.

The court in Hogan concluded that the plaintiffs adequately demonstrated a “strong likelihood” that they are in fact similar to the proposed group of dancers who too were classified as “tenants” of the six defendant clubs who paid rent to lease space at the clubs to earn tips from customers without receiving any wages from the defendant clubs.

In support of their motion, the plaintiffs submitted sworn declarations, deposition testimony, and documentary evidence of the defendants’ policies and practices with respect to dancers. The court found that the plaintiffs showed that the clubs maintained a system in which the defendants acted together to require dancers to pay rent for leasing space, often documented in lease agreements, instead of being paid as employees for performing work.

Among the defendants’ arguments opposing the plaintiff’s motion, the court considered, but ultimately rejected, the defendants’ argument that arbitration provisions in the lease agreements should preclude court-authorized notice of the FLSA claims. The court cited Clark for the proposition that it may consider as a relevant factor the defense of mandatory arbitration agreements in deciding whether to authorize notice of FLSA claims. Homing in on the facts, the court reasoned that members of the potential collective action did not all sign the lease agreements and that those who signed the lease agreements had the option to agree to forgo arbitration of their claims.  According to the court, the defendants would have a stronger basis to defeat court-authorized notice if they could show that all dancers had to sign the lease agreement and the lease agreement made arbitration mandatory.

In addition, the court evaluated whether the plaintiffs satisfied the Rule 23 standards for seeking to certify a class of dancers on their state law claims. The court concluded that the plaintiffs met the requirements for class certification under Rule 23(b)(3), because questions of law or fact common to class members predominated over any questions affecting only individual members (the predominance inquiry), and that a class action was superior to other available methods for fairly and efficiently adjudicating the case (the superiority inquiry).

As to predominance, the court reasoned that the issue of the defendants’ alleged unlawful system of treating dancers as tenants rather than paying them wages predominated over individualized issues such as whether a particular dancer signed a lease agreement. As to superiority, the court concluded that the relatively small size of each dancer’s wage claim demonstrated that individuals would have little incentive to pursue their claims alone.  Finding no factors pointing against class treatment of the claims, the court concluded that treating the claims as a class action was the superior method for adjudicating liability efficiently.

Implications For Employers

Hogan is the latest in a series of opinions applying the Sixth Circuit’s novel “strong likelihood” standard to plaintiffs’ efforts to expand the scope of their FLSA claims to potential opt-in plaintiffs. The developing case law in this area reflects a highly fact-specific approach to deciding whether plaintiffs have made the necessary showing to unlock court-authorized notice of their claims to potential opt-in plaintiffs.  The opinion in Hogan is significant in that it grapples with the “strong likelihood” standard alongside the well-established test for certifying a class pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Ohio Federal Court Grants Conditional Certification In Wage & Hour Collective Action Under The Sixth Circuit’s New “Strong Likelihood” Standard

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Jennifer A. Riley, and Kathryn Brown

Duane Morris Takeaways: In Gifford v. Northwood Healthcare Group LLC et al., No. 22-CV-04389 (S.D. Ohio Aug. 21, 2023), Judge Sarah D. Morrison of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio granted plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification of a wage & hour collective action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Through sworn declarations and documentary evidence of defendants’ meal break policy, the Court found plaintiff showed a “strong likelihood” that she was similarly-situated to potential collective action members who may elect to join the lawsuit.  The ruling adds to the body of case law applying the Sixth Circuit’s new standard for notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs in putative FLSA collective actions announced in Clark v. A&L Homecare and Training Center, LLC, 68 F.4th 1003 (6th Cir. 2023), and ought to be required reading for any employers involved in wage & hour litigation.

Case Background

On December 15, 2022, plaintiff filed a Complaint against Northwood Healthcare Group, LLC and Garden Healthcare Group, LLC, two entities operating healthcare facilities in Ohio.  Plaintiff allegedly worked at two such facilities as a non-exempt Licensed Practical Nurse.  The lawsuit targeted the defendants’ meal break practices.  Plaintiff contended that due to staffing shortages and the demands of patient care, she did not receive a full, uninterrupted 30-minute (“bona fide”) meal break on a regular basis.  As alleged in the Complaint, defendants automatically deducted 30 minutes of time from her hours worked even when she did not receive a bona fide meal break, resulting in unpaid overtime compensation.  On behalf of herself and similarly situated other employees, Plaintiff brought claims asserting failure to pay overtime wages under the FLSA, failure to pay overtime wages under the Ohio Minimum Fair Wage Standards Act (“OMFWSA”), failure to keep accurate payroll records under the OMFWSA and failure to pay wages timely under the Ohio Prompt Pay Act.

On March 15, 2023, plaintiff filed a motion for conditional certification of a collective action.  On May 15, 2023, defendants opposed the motion on the merits and urged the Court to delay ruling until the Sixth Circuit issued its opinion in Clark.

On May 19, 2023, the Sixth Circuit in Clark announced a more rigorous standard for authorizing notice of an FLSA lawsuit to other employees.  Abandoning the prior standard of a “modest factual showing” of similarly situated status, the standard in Clark requires plaintiffs to establish a “strong likelihood” that they are similarly situated to potential other plaintiffs.

Days later, in her reply brief filed on May 23, 2023, plaintiff argued that the evidence she presented in her motion satisfied the new standard in Clark.

The Court’s Decision

The Court determined that the evidence provided in support of plaintiff’s motion satisfied the “substantial likelihood” standard announced in Clark.

Specifically, plaintiff provided her own sworn declaration and the sworn declarations of six individuals who had filed consents to join the lawsuit as opt-in plaintiffs.  Together, plaintiff and the other declarants worked at six of the 14 facilities plaintiff sought to include in her lawsuit.  The Court found the declarations told a consistent story of employees not receiving overtime pay for those occasions when patient care needs required employees to skip or cut short their designated 30 minutes for a meal break, even after employees complained to management about being undercompensated.

Plaintiff also submitted evidence of employee handbooks in effect at the six facilities at which the declarants had worked for the defendants.  The Court found that the handbooks reflected nearly identical policies on overtime compensation and meal breaks.  For example, the meal break policy in the various employee handbooks stated that employees who worked through their meal breaks would receive pay for their time, whether the work was authorized or not. Defendants argued that plaintiff’s evidence fell short of identifying a “companywide” policy.  Defendants pointed out that the declarants had no personal knowledge of the meal break practices in effect at facilities operated by defendants at which they had not worked.  The Court disagreed. It opined that plaintiff presented enough evidence of a unified theory of conduct by defendants, notwithstanding that the declarants did not represent former employees at all of the facilities the plaintiff sought to include in the lawsuit.

The Court concluded that the evidence “establishes to a certain degree of probability” that the plaintiff, the individuals who had already filed consents to become opt-in plaintiffs, and the other potential plaintiffs performed the same tasks, were subject to the same policies and were unified by a common theory underlying their causes of action. Id. at 8.

In so ruling, the Court authorized plaintiff to send notice to all current and former hourly, non-exempt direct care employees of defendants who had a meal break deduction applied to their hours worked in any workweek in which they were paid for at least 40 hours of work during a three-year lookback period and through the final disposition of the case.

Implications For Employers

The Court’s ruling in Gifford demonstrates that application of the Sixth Circuit’s “strong likelihood” standard is highly dependent on the evidence presented by a plaintiff.  By contrast, under the prior standard, courts routinely granted plaintiffs’ motions to authorize notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs.

Employers with operations in Ohio, Tennessee, Michigan and/or Kentucky should keep a close watch on Gifford and other cases applying the Sixth Circuit’s new standard in FLSA litigation.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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