By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., Gregory Tsonis, Shaina Wolfe
Duane Morris Synopsis- In Roberts, et al. v. One Off Hospitality Group, Ltd., Case No. 21-CV-05868 (N.D. Ill. Nov. 10, 2022), a group of restaurants successfully defended against the proposed conditional certification of a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) in a lawsuit brought by a bartender. In a win for the defense at a stage where plaintiffs generally have a low evidentiary burden, the Court determined that barebones affidavits fall short of what a Plaintiff must show in terms of proof to anchor a conditional certification order. While Plaintiff alleged that the restaurants’ policy off-the-clock work and overtime policies violated the FLSA, Judge Virginia M. Kendall of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois determined that Plaintiff did not make the “modest factual showing” that other similarly situated employees experienced the allegedly common, unlawful policy. The decision demonstrates the importance and value in maintaining up-to-date lawful employee handbooks, and specifically, policies on wages and overtime.
Plaintiff, an hourly non-exempt bartender, filed lawsuit alleging that One Off Hospitality Group — the owner and operator of several popular restaurants including Publican and Big Star — and several executives (“Defendants”) violated the FLSA and other Illinois wage and hour laws. She alleged that Defendants failed to properly pay her by requiring her to clock-in and clock-out at the times of her scheduled shift, regardless of the time she actually worked, to avoid paying overtime compensation. She further alleged that Defendants did not pay their employees for performing off-the-clock work and/or offered gift cards as compensation instead of cash. When she recorded her overtime work, Plaintiff claimed that management reprimanded her for violating internal company policy.
On July 14, 2022, Plaintiff moved, pursuant to § 216(b) of the FLSA, for conditional certification of a collective action of all current and former hourly non-exempt employees who worked within Defendants’ restaurants. In support of her motion, Plaintiff attached only two sworn declarations. Plaintiff’s declaration focused on her unique experience, and detailed the compensation structure and missed overtime hours she experienced. Plaintiff also included a declaration from a former Floor Supervisor and Assistant General Manager that worked in Defendants’ restaurants, which focused on the company’s policy of requiring employees to work off the clock. In opposition, Defendants put forth their Employee Handbook and emphasized that their written, uniform policy at every location prohibited off-the-clock work. Defendants also included sworn declarations from employees and managers stating the company policy and the repercussions for engaging in off the clock work.
The Court’s Ruling Denying Conditional Certification
The Court denied Plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. It found that Plaintiff had not made a “modest factual showing” that she and other employees were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law. Id. at 3.
After analyzing the evidence, the Court held that Plaintiffs’ sworn declarations were insufficient and that she needed other corroborative evidence. Notably, Court emphasized that, “[c]ritically absent are affidavits from any other similarly situated employees who worked at the defendants’ restaurants.” Id. at 4. Significantly, the Court explained that “[t]he need for additional support is particularly pronounced where, as here, the defendants maintained a facially lawful policy.” Id. The Court held that “‘modest factual support’ demands more than the barebones affidavits provided.” Id.
Implications for Employers
The Court’s decision in denying conditional certification is not an outlier, but over the past several years, nearly 80 percent of such motions have been granted in federal court due to the low burden applicable to § 216(b) of the FLSA.
Judge Kendall’s decision underscores the value of generally maintaining Employee Handbooks and, specifically, policies regarding wages and overtime. In addition to providing clear guidelines to employees on what is allowed, these policies provide the first line of defense in FLSA lawsuits seeking to groups of allegedly similarly situated employees, particularly where plaintiffs marshal minimal evidence that certification of a collective action is appropriate.