New York City Expands Paid Sick Leave Law

On November 6, 2017, the New York City Council passed Int. 1313-2016 that amends the Paid Sick Leave Law.  Don’t panic, employers.

The law does not require additional leave. It merely adds another covered reason that employees may use earned paid time off.  New York City’s paid sick leave law will now be entitled the “Earned Safe and Sick Time Act.”

Employees will be able to use earned safe/sick time for the following reasons if the employee or the employee’s family member has been the victim of a “family offense matter”, sexual offense, or human trafficking:

  1. to obtain services from a domestic violence shelter, rape crisis center, or other shelter or services program for relief from a family offense matter, sexual offense, stalking, or human trafficking;
  2. to participate in safety planning, temporarily or permanently relocate, or take other actions to increase the safety of the employee or employee’s family members from future family offense matters, sexual offenses, stalking, or human trafficking;
  3. to meet with a civil attorney or other social service provider to obtain information and advice on, and prepare for or participate in any criminal or civil proceeding, including but not limited to, matters related to a family offense matter, sexual offense, stalking, human trafficking, custody, visitation, matrimonial issues, orders of protection, immigration, housing, discrimination in employment, housing or consumer credit;
  4. to file a complaint or domestic incident report with law enforcement;
  5. to meet with a district attorney’s office;
  6. to enroll children in a new school; or to take other actions necessary to maintain, improve, or restore the physical, psychological, or economic health or safety of the employee or the employee’s family member or to protect those who associate or work with the employee.

Employers should update policies to make sure they are compliant with the new law as the law is effective May 5, 2018.

Employers will also be required to issue to all employees a Notice of Employee Rights notice to employees no later than June 4, 2018.  New hires hired on or after May 5, 2018 should be given a copy of the revised Notice of Employee Rights as well.  The DCA will be issuing a revised Notice of Employee.  We will update you when that is issued.

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M.D.Fla.: Plaintiffs Entitled to Irrebuttable Presumption That Their Damage Calculations Are Correct Where Defendant Spoliated Payroll Records

Sec’y of Labor v. Caring First, Inc.

This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions.  Specifically, plaintiffs sought sanctions as a result of the defendant-employers intentional destruction of the relevant payroll records pertaining to plaintiffs’ employment.  While the court denied plaintiffs’ motion to the extent that it sought a default judgment, the court ordered that—to the extent plaintiffs prevailed on liability at trial—their calculation based on payroll records available from a third-party would be deemed irrebuttably correct, subject to the court’s approval.

The court provided the following history of the defendants’ egregious discovery misconduct:

This case arises under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA“), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants mischaracterized their licensed practical nurse and registered nurse employees as independent contractors. (Compl., Doc. 1, at 3). On December 3, 2015, this Court entered a scheduling order directing the parties to exchange all documents germane to this case by January 15, 2016. (FLSA Scheduling Order, Doc. 29, ¶ 1). Defendants failed to timely comply with the disclosure of documents and, as a result, an Order to Show Cause why sanctions should not be imposed was issued. (Feb. 25, 2016 Order, Doc. 32, at 1-2). After a hearing on the matter, this Court found that sanctions were warranted against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel for their failure to comply with the Court’s order, but held the sanctions in abeyance so long as Defendants produced all relevant documents in their possession, custody, or control by March 21, 2016. (Mar. 7, 2016 Order, Doc. 37, ¶¶ 1-3).

On March 11, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions against Defendants. (Mot. for Sanctions, Doc. 38). Therein, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants willfully destroyed, or negligently allowed to be destroyed, payroll records prior to May 2015, despite an ongoing investigation by the Department of Labor (“Department”). (Id. at 12-13). Additionally, Plaintiff asserted that since May 2015, an administrative employee had been deleting payroll records on a weekly basis by writing [*3]  over them at the end of each work week. (Id. at 15-16). Defendants acknowledged that an employee was writing over the payroll week-to-week but claimed that the records prior to May 2015 were destroyed by a disgruntled former employee, Karen Reyes. (Id. at 7). On September 22, 2016, this Court entered an order denying the motion for sanctions because there was a factual dispute regarding whether Reyes deleted the payroll records and because Plaintiff had not yet determined what, if any, prejudice Plaintiff had suffered. (Sept. 22, 2016 Order, Doc. 55, at 6-7, 9). Nevertheless, the Court was troubled by Defendants’ actions and ordered Defendants to “immediately halt the destruction of any Current Payroll Records” and produce all payroll records to Plaintiff on a bi-weekly basis. (Id. at 10). Now, Plaintiff again seeks sanctions against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b), 28 U.S.C. § 1927, and this Court’s inherent authority.

Following a discussion of the relevant standards for sanctions under Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 37, the court determined that the appropriate “punishment to fit the crime” in this case was to order that plaintiffs’ damages calculations would be subject to an irrebuttable presumption of correctness.  Specifically, the court explained that plaintiffs could not show the extreme prejudice to warrant a default judgment, because they were apparently ultimately able to obtain the payroll records at issue from defendants third-party payroll company, notwithstanding defendants’ destruction of the copies in defendants’ possession.

Thus, the court held:

Plaintiff represented at the evidentiary hearing that he was able to obtain a sampling of nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. From these paychecks, which contain the hours worked by the nurses and their pay rate, Plaintiff claims he will be able to accurately calculate back wages. Therefore, as a sanction the Court will order the production of the nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. In addition, the Court will allow Plaintiff to recalculate potential back wages based on these paychecks. If Plaintiff prevails as to liability at trial, this calculation will be irrebuttably presumed to be correct, subject to Court approval.

This is definitely a case for all wage and hour practitioners to hold on to, because the circumstances of this case are unfortunately far from unique.

Click Sec’y of Labor v. Caring First, Inc. to read the entire Opinion of the court.

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Proposed PHRC Guidance Would Protect LGBTQ Employees in Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (“PHRC”), which enforces Pennsylvania’s state law prohibiting discrimination, has made a bit of splash in 2017.  How, you ask?  Well – that requires a bit of explanation.

One of the hottest topics of debate in employment law in the past few years relates to legal protections for LGBTQ employees.  While some states and municipalities expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, this isn’t the case everywhere.  Indeed, only 20 states and the District of Columbia protect these characteristics in all employment.  That leaves 30 states that lack comprehensive state law protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, including 17 states who have zero express protections at all.  Similarly, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which establishes protected characteristics and prohibits employment discrimination based on those characteristics, does not expressly cover sexual orientation or gender identity — despite a long history of Congressional efforts to amend Title VII to do so.

Nevertheless, both state and federal law prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sex.  Regular readers of our humble blog will recall a growing trend from courts around the country holding that sexual orientation/gender identity discrimination constitutes sex discrimination as a matter of law.  Moreover, the EEOC has adopted this position and taken enforcement action accordingly.  The EEOC has argued that sexual orientation discrimination is sex discrimination under three separate legal theories: (1) a traditional “but-for” analysis, (2) an associational discrimination analysis, and (3) a sex stereotyping analysis.  You can read at greater length about these three theories here.

The PHRC’s proposed guidance focuses on the third of these: sex stereotyping.  This argument proceeds roughly as follows:  (1) sex discrimination in employment is prohibited;  (2) sex discrimination includes discriminating against employees because they fail to align with stereotypical male or female appearance, mannerisms, behaviors, etc.;  (3) the “default” assumption that an employee is or should be heterosexual and cisgender represents one of the preeminent kinds of sex stereotypes;  and therefore, (4) discrimination on the basis of an employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity is impermissible sex stereotyping that constitutes sex discrimination as a matter of law.  While the nuances of this argument tend to vary with the facts of each individual case, this outline provides a 30,000 foot view of the sex stereotyping theory.

In late April 2017, the PHRC issued proposed guidance stating it would investigate complaints of discrimination by LGBTQ individuals, including claims of employment discrimination, as prohibit sex stereotyping.  Specifically, the proposed PHRC guidance states as follows:

The gist of these claims is that LGBTQ individuals do not comply with sexual stereotypes and that adverse action(s) against an LGBTQ individual due to that person’s failure to comply with sexual stereotypes amounts to discrimination based on sex. Accordingly, it is the position of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission that it will take and investigate sex stereotyping claims filed by LGBTQ individuals.

The PHRC has received extensive public comment on this proposal, and it is expected that the Commissioners will review the public comments at their November commission meeting.  Pending further action by the commission, this guidance remains proposed guidance.  Nevertheless, the PHRC’s action reveals a growing enforcement trend in this area of law.  Stay tuned for the PHRC’s final decision regarding what, if any, guidance on this topic it will issue.

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M.D.Fla.: Plaintiffs Entitled to Irrebuttable Presumption That Their Damage Calculations Are Correct Where Defendant Spoliated Payroll Records

Sec’y of Labor v. Caring First, Inc.

This case was before the court on the plaintiffs’ motion for sanctions.  Specifically, plaintiffs sought sanctions as a result of the defendant-employers intentional destruction of the relevant payroll records pertaining to plaintiffs’ employment.  While the court denied plaintiffs’ motion to the extent that it sought a default judgment, the court ordered that—to the extent plaintiffs prevailed on liability at trial—their calculation based on payroll records available from a third-party would be deemed irrebuttably correct, subject to the court’s approval.

The court provided the following history of the defendants’ egregious discovery misconduct:

This case arises under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA“), as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants mischaracterized their licensed practical nurse and registered nurse employees as independent contractors. (Compl., Doc. 1, at 3). On December 3, 2015, this Court entered a scheduling order directing the parties to exchange all documents germane to this case by January 15, 2016. (FLSA Scheduling Order, Doc. 29, ¶ 1). Defendants failed to timely comply with the disclosure of documents and, as a result, an Order to Show Cause why sanctions should not be imposed was issued. (Feb. 25, 2016 Order, Doc. 32, at 1-2). After a hearing on the matter, this Court found that sanctions were warranted against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel for their failure to comply with the Court’s order, but held the sanctions in abeyance so long as Defendants produced all relevant documents in their possession, custody, or control by March 21, 2016. (Mar. 7, 2016 Order, Doc. 37, ¶¶ 1-3).

On March 11, 2016, Plaintiff filed a motion for sanctions against Defendants. (Mot. for Sanctions, Doc. 38). Therein, Plaintiff alleged that Defendants willfully destroyed, or negligently allowed to be destroyed, payroll records prior to May 2015, despite an ongoing investigation by the Department of Labor (“Department”). (Id. at 12-13). Additionally, Plaintiff asserted that since May 2015, an administrative employee had been deleting payroll records on a weekly basis by writing [*3]  over them at the end of each work week. (Id. at 15-16). Defendants acknowledged that an employee was writing over the payroll week-to-week but claimed that the records prior to May 2015 were destroyed by a disgruntled former employee, Karen Reyes. (Id. at 7). On September 22, 2016, this Court entered an order denying the motion for sanctions because there was a factual dispute regarding whether Reyes deleted the payroll records and because Plaintiff had not yet determined what, if any, prejudice Plaintiff had suffered. (Sept. 22, 2016 Order, Doc. 55, at 6-7, 9). Nevertheless, the Court was troubled by Defendants’ actions and ordered Defendants to “immediately halt the destruction of any Current Payroll Records” and produce all payroll records to Plaintiff on a bi-weekly basis. (Id. at 10). Now, Plaintiff again seeks sanctions against Defendants and Defendants’ counsel pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 37(b), 28 U.S.C. § 1927, and this Court’s inherent authority.

Following a discussion of the relevant standards for sanctions under Fed. R. Civ. Proc. 37, the court determined that the appropriate “punishment to fit the crime” in this case was to order that plaintiffs’ damages calculations would be subject to an irrebuttable presumption of correctness.  Specifically, the court explained that plaintiffs could not show the extreme prejudice to warrant a default judgment, because they were apparently ultimately able to obtain the payroll records at issue from defendants third-party payroll company, notwithstanding defendants’ destruction of the copies in defendants’ possession.

Thus, the court held:

Plaintiff represented at the evidentiary hearing that he was able to obtain a sampling of nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. From these paychecks, which contain the hours worked by the nurses and their pay rate, Plaintiff claims he will be able to accurately calculate back wages. Therefore, as a sanction the Court will order the production of the nurses’ paychecks from Caring First’s bank. In addition, the Court will allow Plaintiff to recalculate potential back wages based on these paychecks. If Plaintiff prevails as to liability at trial, this calculation will be irrebuttably presumed to be correct, subject to Court approval.

This is definitely a case for all wage and hour practitioners to hold on to, because the circumstances of this case are unfortunately far from unique.

Click Sec’y of Labor v. Caring First, Inc. to read the entire Opinion of the court.

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3d Cir.: Employer Must Pay for All Breaks Shorter Than 20 Minutes Notwithstanding “Flex Time” Policy

Secretary United States Department of Labor v. American Future Systems, Inc.

This case was before the Third Circuit on appeal by the employer.  The district court granted the DOL’s motion for summary judgment, holding that the employer’s policy of excluding time for breaks less than 20 minutes long violated the FLSA.  The Third Circuit agreed and affirmed, holding that the Fair Labor Standards Act requires employers to compensate employees for breaks of 20 minutes or less during which they are free of any work related duties.

The court summarized the relevant facts as follows:

American Future Systems, d/b/a Progressive Business Publications, publishes and distributes business publications and sells them through its sales representatives. Edward Satell is the President, CEO, and owner of the company. Sales representatives are paid an hourly wage and receive bonuses based on the number of sales per hour while they are logged onto the computer at their workstation. They also receive extra compensation if they maintain a certain sales-per-hour level over a given two-week period.

Progressive previously had a policy that gave employees two fifteen-minute paid breaks per day. In 2009, Progressive changed its policy by eliminating paid breaks but allowing employees to log off of their computers at any time. However, employees are only paid for time they are logged on. Progressive refers to this as “flexible time” or “flex time” and explains that it “arises out of an employer’s policy that maximizes its employees’ ability to take breaks from work at any time, for any reason, and for any duration.”

Furthermore, under this policy, every two weeks, sales representatives estimate the total number of hours that they expect to work during the upcoming two-week pay period. They are subject to discipline, including termination, for failing to work the number of hours they commit to. Progressive also sends representatives home for the day if their sales are not high enough and sets fixed work schedules or daily requirements for representatives when that is deemed necessary.

Apart from those requirements, representatives can decide when they will work between the hours of 8:30 AM and 5:00 PM from Monday to Friday, so long as they do not work more than forty hours each week. As noted above, during the work day, they can log off of their computers at any time, for any reason, and for any length of time and may leave the office when they are logged off. Employees choose their start and end time and can take as many breaks as they please. However, Progressive only pays sales representatives for time they are logged off of their computers if they are logged off for less than ninety seconds. This includes time they are logged off to use the bathroom or get coffee. The policy also applies to any break an employee may decide to take after a particularly difficult sales call to get ready for the next call. On average, representatives are each paid for just over five hours per day at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

On appeal, the defendant-employer raised three arguments: (1) that time spent logged off under its flexible break policy categorically does not constitute work; (2) that the District Court erred in finding that WHD’s interpretive regulation on breaks less than twenty minutes long, 29 C.F.R § 785.18, is entitled to substantial deference; and (3) that the District Court erred in adopting the bright-line rule embodied in 29 C.F.R. § 785.18 rather than using a fact-specific analysis. The Third Circuit rejected each of these arguments.

The court rejected the defendant’s that their defendant’s “flex time” policy was not a break policy within the meaning of the FLSA, reasoning that labeling its policy as “flex time” was simply a means to attempt to illegally circumvent the requirements of the FLSA.

The court next held that the DOL’s break time regulation, codified in 29 C.F.R. § 785.18 is entitled to Skidmore deference, the highest level of deference given to an administrative regulation.  The court reasoned that the regulation was due Skidmore deference because: (1) the former FLSA specifically empowered the DOL to promulgate such regulations; (2) the DOL’s interpretation of the break time regulations has been consistent throughout the various opinion letters the DOL has issued to address this issue; and (3) the DOL’s interpretation is reasonable given the language and purpose of the FLSA.

Having determined that the regulation is entitled to deference, the court held that the regulation must be read to create a bright line rule and concluded that it does.  The court explained that “the restrictions endemic in the limited duration of twenty minutes or less illustrate the wisdom of concluding that the Secretary intended a bright line rule under the applicable regulations.”  As such, the court affirmed the decision below and held that defendant’s break policy which excluded time for breaks less than 20 minutes long violated the FLSA.

Click Secretary United States Department of Labor v. American Future Systems, Inc. to read the entire Opinion of the Court.

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USDOL Announces the Reinstatement of Issuance of Opinion Letters

The U.S. Department of Labor announced today that it will reinstate the issuance of opinion letters, a practice that was widespread under some prior administrations, but which it elected to forego during the Obama administration.  In an email announcement sent out today, the Department of Labor announced:

The U.S. Department of Labor will reinstate the issuance of opinion letters, U.S. Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta announced today. The action allows the department’s Wage and Hour Division to use opinion letters as one of its methods for providing guidance to covered employers and employees.

An opinion letter is an official, written opinion by the Wage and Hour Division of how a particular law applies in specific circumstances presented by an employer, employee or other entity requesting the opinion. The letters were a division practice for more than 70 years until being stopped and replaced by general guidance in 2010.

“Reinstating opinion letters will benefit employees and employers as they provide a means by which both can develop a clearer understanding of the Fair Labor Standards Act and other statutes,” said Secretary Acosta. “The U.S. Department of Labor is committed to helping employers and employees clearly understand their labor responsibilities so employers can concentrate on doing what they do best: growing their businesses and creating jobs.”

The division has established a webpage where the public can see if existing agency guidance already addresses their questions or submit a request for an opinion letter. The webpage explains what to include in the request, where to submit the request, and where to review existing guidance. The division will exercise discretion in determining which requests for opinion letters will be responded to, and the appropriate form of guidance to be issued.

  

In the past, Republican administrations have often used the issuance of opinion letters to skirt the normal approval process for administrative regulation, which requires public comment.  It remains to be seen, but this will likely be a boon for employers and another setback for employees under the Trump administration.

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9th Cir.: Employer’s Attorney Can Be Sued for Retaliation as a “Person Acting Directly or Indirectly” in Employer’s Interest

Arias v. Raimondo

This case presented an issue of first impression: Can an employer’s attorney be held liable for retaliating against his client’s employee because the employee sued his client for violations of workplace laws? The district court held that he could not and dismissed the claim. On appeal the Ninth Circuit disagreed and reversed.  Specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that as a “person acting directly or indirectly” in the employer’s interest, the employer’s attorney could be subject to liability under 29 U.S.C. § 215.

In the case, the defendant-employers had hired the plaintiff-employee, an undocumented immigrant without verifying his immigration status or his right to work in the United States.  Although not explicitly stated, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion strongly implies that the defendants intentionally neglected to complete an I-9 form or verify plaintiff’s status because it knew he was not legally permitted to work in the United States.

After working for defendants for 11 years, in 2006, plaintiff filed suit in California state court against defendants, alleging that defendants violated a multitude of employment laws, and alleged among other things that defendants failed to provide him with legally mandated rest breaks and failed to pay him legally mandated overtime premiums.

The Ninth Circuit recited the following facts regarding the alleged retaliation, all taken from plaintiffs subsequent lawsuit alleging illegal retaliation that was the subject of the Ninth Circuit’s opinion:

On June 1, 2011, ten weeks before the state court trial, the Angelos’ attorney, Anthony Raimondo, set in motion an underhanded plan to derail Arias’s lawsuit. Raimondo’s plan involved enlisting the services of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) to take Arias into custody at a scheduled deposition and then to remove him from the United States. A second part of Raimondo’s plan was to block Arias’s California Rural Legal Assistance attorney from representing him. This double barrel plan was captured in email messages back and forth between Raimondo, Joe Angelo, and ICE’s forensic auditor Kulwinder Brar.

On May 8, 2013, Arias filed this lawsuit against Angelo Dairy, the Angelos, and Raimondo in the Eastern District of California. Arias alleged that the defendants violated section 215(a)(3) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.

Arias’s theory of his case is that Raimondo, acting as the Angelos’ agent, retaliated against him in violation of section 215(a)(3) for filing his original case against Raimondo’s clients in state court . Raimondo’s sole legal defense is that because he was never Arias’s actual employer, he cannot be held liable under the FLSA for retaliation against someone who was never his employee.

As noted by the court, Angelo Dairy and its owners settled their part of this case at the early stages of its existence.

The district court dismissed plaintiff’s claims against the defendants’ attorney holding that he was not covered under the FLSA’s retaliation provisions because he was not plaintiff’s employer.  Noting that the FLSA’s retaliation provision defines those subject to liability in a much broader way than the underlying definition of employer (which is broad to begin with) the Ninth Circuit reversed.

Discussing the issue before it the court explained:

Notwithstanding section 215(a)(3)’s reference to “any person,” section 203(a)’ s inclusion of a legal representative as a “person,” and section 203(d)’s plain language defining “employer,” the district court granted Raimondo’s motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The court did so without the benefit of oral argument, concluding that because Arias “ha[d] not alleged that [Raimondo] exercised any control over [his] employment relationship,” Raimondo as a matter of law could not be Arias’s employer.

The Ninth Circuit rejected this reasoning noting that the statutory definition of those who may be subject to liability under the FLSA’s retaliation provision include a broader spectrum of people:

Section 215(a)(3), an anti-retaliation provision, makes it unlawful “for any person … to discharge or in any other manner discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint … under or related to this chapter.” The FLSA defines the term “person” to include a “legal representative.” Id. § 203(a). Section 216(b) in turn creates a private right of action against any “employer” who violates section 215(a)(3); and the FLSA defines “employer” to include “any person acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee.” Id. §§ 203(d), 216(b).

Controversies under FLSA sections 206 and 207 that require a determination of primary workplace liability for wage and hour responsibilities and violations, on one hand, and controversies arising from retaliation against employees for asserting their legal rights, on the other, are as different as chalk is from cheese. Each category has a different purpose. It stands to reason that the former relies in application on tests involving economic control and economic realities to determine who is an employer, because by definition it is the actual employer who controls substantive wage and hours issues.

Retaliation is a different animal altogether. Its purpose is to enable workers to avail themselves of their statutory rights in court by invoking the legal process designed by Congress to protect them. Robinson v. Shell Oil Co., 519 U.S. 337, 346 (1997) (the “primary purpose of antiretaliation provisions” is to “[m]aintai[n] unfettered access to statutory remedial mechanisms”).

This distctive purpose is not served by importing an “economic control” or an “economic realities” test as a line of demarcation into the issue of who may be held liable for retaliation. To the contrary, the FLSA itself recognizes this sensible distinction in section 215(a)(3) by prohibiting “any person” –not just an actual employer – from engaging in retaliatory conduct. By contrast, the FLSA’s primary wage and hour obligations are unambiguously imposed only on an employee’s de facto “employer,” as that term is defined in the statute. Treating “any person” who was not a worker’s actual employer as primarily responsible for wage and hour violations would be nonsensical…

Congress made it illegal for any person, not just an “employer” as defined under the statute, to retaliate against any employee for reporting conduct “under” or “related to” violations of the federal minimum wage or maximum hour laws, whether or not the employer’s conduct does in fact violate those laws. … Moreover, “the remedial nature of the statute further warrants an expansive interpretation of its provisions. …”  Id. at 857 (second omission in original) (quoting Herman v. RSR Sec. Servs., 172 F.3d 132, 139 (2d Cir. 1999)).

In line with this reasoning, the court concluded:

The FLSA is “remedial and humanitarian in purpose. We are not here dealing with mere chattels or articles of trade but with the rights of those who toil, of those who sacrifice a full measure of their freedom and talents to the use and profit of others …. Such a statute must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.” Tenn. Coal, Iron & R.R. Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 597 (1944).

Accordingly, we conclude that Arias may proceed with this retaliation action against Raimondo under FLSA sections 215(a)(3) and 216(b). Raimondo’s behavior as alleged in Arias’s complaint manifestly falls within the purview, the purpose, and the plain language of FLSA sections 203(a)203(d), and 215(a)(3).

Our interpretation of these provisions is limited to retaliation claims. It does not make non-actual employers like Raimondo liable in the first instance for any of the substantive wage and hour economic provisions listed in the FLSA. As illustrated by the Court’s opinion in Burlington, the substantive provisions of statutes like Title VII and the FLSA, and their respective anti-retaliation provisions, stand on distinctive grounds and shall be treated differently in interpretation and application. Ultimately a retaliator like Raimondo may become secondarily liable pursuant to section 216(b) for economic reparations, but only as a measure of penalties for his transgressions.

Click Arias v. Raimondo to read the entire opinion.

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3d Cir.: Paid Meal Breaks Included as Hours Worked Are Not an Offset to Unpaid Overtime

Smiley v. E.I. Dupont De Nemours and Co., et al.

This case was before the Third Circuit on the plaintiffs-employees’ appeal of the district court’s order granting the defendants-employers summary judgment.  Plaintiffs sought unpaid overtime wages for time they spent donning and doffing their uniforms and protective gear and performing “shift relief” before and after their regularly-scheduled shifts. Defendant contended that it could offset compensation it gave Plaintiffs for meal breaks during their shift—for which defendant was not required to provide compensation under the FLSA—against such required overtime. The District Court agreed with defendant and granted defendant summary judgment. On appeal the Third Circuit concluded that the FLSA compelled the opposite result and reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment.

The Third Circuit summarized the relevant facts as follows:

Appellants worked twelve-hour shifts at DuPont’s manufacturing plant in Towanda, Pennsylvania.  In addition to working their twelve-hour shifts, Plaintiffs had to be on-site before and after their shifts to “don and doff” uniforms and protective gear. DuPont also required them to participate in “shift relief,” which involved employees from the outgoing shift sharing information about the status of work with incoming shift employees. The time spent donning, doffing, and providing shift relief varied, but ranged from approximately thirty to sixty minutes a day.

DuPont chose to compensate Plaintiffs for meal breaks—despite no FLSA requirement to do so—during their twelve-hour shifts. The employee handbook set forth DuPont’s company policy for compensating meal breaks, stating that “[e]mployees working in areas requiring 24 hour per day staffing and [who] are required to make shift relief will be paid for their lunch time as part of their scheduled work shift.” Employees who worked twelve-hour, four-shift schedules, as did Plaintiffs in this case, were entitled to one thirty minute paid lunch break per shift, in addition to two non-consecutive thirty minute breaks. The paid break time always exceeded the amount of time Plaintiffs spent donning and doffing and providing shift relief.

The court then began its analysis of the issue at bar, with an analysis of why the paid breaks constituted “hours worked” under the FLSA and explained:

“Hours worked” includes all hours worked “under [an employee’s] contract (express or implied) or under any applicable statute.” 29 C.F.R. § 778.315. In general, “hours worked” includes time when an employee is required to be on duty, but it is not limited to “active productive labor” and may include circumstances that are not productive work time. See 29 C.F.R. § 778.223. Employers have a measure of flexibility in determining whether otherwise non-productive work time will be considered “hours worked” under the FLSA. For instance, meal periods—while not necessarily productive work time—may nevertheless be considered “hours worked” under the Act. Id. (“Some of the hours spent by employees … in meal periods … are regarded as working time and some are not. … To the extent that those hours are regarded as working time, payment made as compensation for these hours obviously cannot be characterized as ‘payments not for hours worked.’ ”). The decision to treat otherwise non-productive work time as “hours worked” is fact dependent. Relevant here, the regulations provide that “[p]reliminary and postliminary activities and time spent in eating meals between working hours fall into this category [of work that an employer may compensate his employees for even though he is not obligated to do so under the FLSA.] The agreement of the parties to provide compensation for such hours may or may not convert them into hours worked, depending on whether or not it appears from all the pertinent facts that the parties have agreed to treat such time as hours worked.” 29 C.F.R. § 778.320.

Thus, if the time at issue is considered hours worked under the Act, the corresponding compensation is included in the regular rate of pay. 29 C.F.R. § 778.223. Whether or not the time is considered hours worked under the Act, however, if the time is regarded by the parties as working time, “the payment is nevertheless included in the regular rate of pay unless it qualifies for exclusion from the regular rate as one of a type of ‘payments made for occasional periods when no work is performed due to failure of the employer to provide sufficient work, or other similar cause’ as discussed in § 778.218 or is excludable on some other basis under section 7(e)(2).” Id.

After discussing the limits on permissible overtime offsets contained within 207(h), the court held that the paid breaks were not such a permissible offset under its own prior jurisprudence or otherwise:

Nothing in the FLSA authorizes the type of offsetting DuPont advances here, where an employer seeks to credit compensation that it included in calculating an employee’s regular rate of pay against its overtime liability. Rather, the statute only provides for an offset of an employer’s overtime liability using other compensation excluded from the regular rate pursuant to sections 207(e)(5)-(7) and paid to an employee at a premium rate.

In Wheeler, as here, the employer, Hampton Township, had voluntarily included non-work pay—which did not need to be included in the regular rate under the Act—in the regular rate calculation. It sought to offset compensation it was required to include in the regular rate, but did not, with compensation it voluntarily chose to include in the regular rate. Wheeler, 399 F.3d at 243. We held that this was not permitted. We could not find any “textual reason to ‘credit’ the Township for including such pay in its regular rate.” Id. at 244. We explained that “while § 207(e) protects the Township from having to include non-work pay in the regular rate, it does not authorize the Township now to require such augments to be stripped out, or to take a credit for including such augments.” Id. In essence, at the point at which compensation is included in the regular rate (regardless of whether the Act required it be included), an employer may not use that compensation to offset other compensation owed under the Act. We determined that “[w]here a credit is allowed, the statute says so.” Id. at 245. The Township was not entitled to a credit under the explicit offset contemplated by section 207(h), so we concluded that the FLSA did not permit the offset. Id. (“The Township seeks a credit for allegedly including non-work pay—presumably at a non-premium rate—in the CBA’s basic annual salary. The FLSA does not provide for such an offset.”).

We based our conclusion that offsetting was limited to the type addressed by section 207(h) on our recognition that Section 207(h) offsetting pertained only to “extra compensation,” which is distinct from regular straight time pay. Wheeler, 399 F.3d at 245. Indeed, “such ‘extra compensation’ is a kind of overtime compensation, and thus need not be added to the regular rate. Likewise, such compensation may be credited against the Act’s required overtime pay.” Id. Courts have widely recognized that an employer may offset its overtime liability with accumulated premium pay given to employees under sections 207(e)(5)-(7). See, e.g., Singer v. City of Waco, 324 F.3d 813, 828 (5th Cir. 2003); Kohlheim v. Glynn Cty, 915 F.2d 1473, 1481 (11th Cir. 1990). The offset created by section 207(h) is logical because it authorizes employers to apply one type of premium pay to offset another, both of which are excluded from the regular rate. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(e). It is undisputed that the compensation paid for meal breaks was included in plaintiffs’ regular rate of pay, and thus could not qualify as “extra compensation.” Accordingly, DuPont may not avail itself of the offset provisions explicitly allowed by § 207(h)(2).

Addressing/rejecting the defendant’s argument that regular rate compensation may be used as an offset to overtime compensation under the FLSA, the court explained:

DuPont argues that the FLSA’s failure to expressly prohibit offsetting where the compensation used to offset is included in the regular rate indicates that offsetting is allowed. We disagree with DuPont’s notion that the FLSA’s silence indicates permission. While it is true that the statute does not explicitly set forth this prohibition, the policy rationales underlying the FLSA do not permit crediting compensation used in calculating an employee’s regular rate of pay because it would allow employers to double-count the compensation. The DOL convincingly urges this viewpoint. It observes that “[t]here is no authority for the proposition that compensation already paid for hours of work can be used as an offset and thereby be counted a second time as statutorily required compensation for other hours of work.” DOL Letter Br. 6. Further, “there is no reason to distinguish between compensation for productive work time and compensation for bona fide meal breaks.” Id. Compensation included in, and used in calculating, the regular rate of pay is reflective of the first forty hours worked. We agree with the reasoning of the DOL that allowing employers to then credit that compensation against overtime would necessarily shortchange employees.

The statutory scheme that limits crediting to the three types of “extra compensation” excluded from the regular rate against overtime obligations makes sense. “To permit overtime premium to enter into the computation of the regular rate would be to allow overtime premium on overtime premium—a pyramiding that Congress could not have intended.” Bay Ridge Operating Co. v. Aaron, 334 U.S. 446, 464 (1948). Excludable premium compensation may offset other excludable premium compensation. To allow compensation included in the regular rate to offset premium-rate pay, however, would facilitate a “pyramiding” in the opposite direction by allowing employers to pay straight time and overtime together. This approach fundamentally conflicts with the FLSA’s concern that employees be compensated for all hours worked. As the Ninth Circuit observed in Ballaris, “it would undermine the purpose of the FLSA if an employer could use agreed-upon compensation for non-work time (or work time) as a credit so as to avoid paying compensation required by the FLSA.” Ballaris, 370 F.3d at 914.

While Ballaris is distinguishable because the employer in that case excluded meal break compensation when calculating the employee’s regular rate and the parties agreed that the meal break period was excluded from each employee’s hours worked, its reasoning nonetheless applies here. The Ninth Circuit concluded that “[c]rediting money already due an employee for some other reason against the wage he is owed is not paying that employee the compensation to which he is entitled by statute. It is, instead, false and deceptive ‘creative’ bookkeeping that, if tolerated, would frustrate the goals and purposes of the FLSA.” 370 F.3d at 914 (internal footnote omitted). Here, permitting DuPont to use pay given for straight time—and included in the regular rate of pay—as an offset against overtime pay is precisely the type of “creative bookkeeping” that the Ninth Circuit cautioned against and the FLSA sought to eradicate.

The court concluded that the district court had not properly applied these concepts, and that the district court erred by concluding that regular rate compensation may be used as an offset to unpaid overtime compensation:

While the District Court cited Wheeler in passing, it did not apply our holding but, instead, looked at the two circumstances that the statute expressly states preclude offsetting by an employer:

First, employers cannot use paid non-work time to offset unpaid work time when the paid non-work time is excluded from the regular rate of pay. Second, if the parties agree to treat paid non-work time as “hours worked,” and this time is included in the regular rate of pay, the employer cannot offset.

App. 12. The District Court concluded that because neither of these circumstances was present in this case, the FLSA does not expressly prohibit an offset. It recited the prohibition set forth in 29 U.S.C. § 207(h)(1), which generally bars employers from offsetting incurred overtime liability with sums excluded from the regular rate of pay. The District Court observed that “defendants cannot offset if the FLSA expressly excludes plaintiffs meal periods—non-work time—from plaintiffs’ regular rate of pay.” App. 12-13. After reviewing section 207(e)’s list of mandatory exclusions from the regular rate of pay, it concluded that the one category of exclusions that was arguably implicated by the facts, 29 U.S.C. § 207(e)(2), was not applicable because the meal periods were not the type of absences covered by the exclusion. “Accordingly, section 207(e)(2) does not prohibit defendants from including plaintiffs’ meal period time in their regular rate of pay, rendering section 207(h)’s prohibition against an offset inapplicable.” App. 14. Thus, like DuPont, the District Court focused on the lack of express prohibition. In light of our holding in Wheeler that offsetting is limited to circumstances where an employer is paying “extra compensation” at a premium rate, we reject the District Court’s reasoning that the absence of a direct prohibition controls the analysis of the offset issue.

Moreover, we do not accept the significance that the District Court and DuPont place on two lingering issues: first, whether the parties had an agreement to treat the breaks in question as hours worked, and second, whether the FLSA required DuPont to compensate the employees for the breaks in question. With respect to the former, both the Ninth Circuit in Ballaris and the FLSA’s implementing regulations advance the notion that employers may not offset if there is an agreement to treat otherwise uncompensable time as “hours worked,” and the compensation at issue is included in the regular rate. But inclusion in the regular rate is sufficient for our purposes, as noted above, so the existence of an agreement is beside the point.8 As to the latter, 29 C.F.R § 785.19 simply states that employers are not required by the FLSA to treat meal breaks as hours worked, but it does not prohibit them from doing so. Indeed, section 778.320 expressly contemplates that an employer may agree to treat non-work time, including meal breaks, as compensable hours worked.

The District Court relied on the Seventh Circuit’s opinion in Barefield v…

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5th Cir.: Restaurant Cannot Take Tip Credit Where Retained Portion of Tips to Offset Credit Card Processing Costs in Excess of Its Direct Costs of Collecting Credit Card Tips

Steele v. Leasing Enterprises, Limited

This case was before the Fifth Circuit on the parties’ cross-appeals.  As discussed here, the case concerned an employer’s ability to withhold a percentage of an employee’s tips received by credit card to offset the fees associated with collecting credit card tips under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  Specifically, the issue was whether the 3.25% that the defendant-restaurant admittedly retained of all credit card tips exceeded its actual costs of processing same, such that the employer forfeited any entitlement to take the tip credit with regard to its tipped employees.  The district court held that the defendant was not entitled to take the tip credit because this deduction exceeded the direct costs of collecting credit card tips for Perry’s’ tipped employees.  The Fifth Circuit affirmed the finding and held that the retention of tips in excess of the actual cost of collecting those tips violated 29 U.S.C. § 203(m).  As such, the employer was not entitled to benefit from the tip credit and was instead required to pay all tipped employees the regular minimum wage for all hours worked.

Describing the relevant facts, the court explained:

Instead of paying servers their charged tips through their bi-weekly pay checks, Perry’s chose to pay its servers their charged tips in cash on a daily basis. Perry’s voluntarily started this practice in response to servers’ requests. In order to pay its servers their charged tips in cash on a daily basis, Perry’s arranged for armored vehicles to deliver cash to each of its restaurants three times per week. Perry’s’ Chief Operating Officer testified that such frequent deliveries were necessary due to security concerns associated with keeping a large amount of cash on its premises.

In August 2009, Plaintiffs initiated this collective action. In their third amended complaint, they alleged that Perry’s had violated the FLSA by charging its servers the 3.25% offset fee. On August 31, 2010, the district court entered a partial interlocutory judgment, holding that Perry’s may offset credit card issuer fees, but not other costs associated with computers, labor, or cash delivery…

Following a bench trial, the district court issued findings of fact and conclusions of law, holding that Perry’s’ 3.25% offset violated the FLSA because the offset exceeded Perry’s’ credit card issuer fees. The court also held that Perry’s’ cash-delivery expenses could not be included in the offset amount because “[t]he restaurant’s decision to pay it[s] servers in cash is a business decision, not a fee directly attributable to its cost of dealing in credit” and that Perry’s had failed to prove fees related to cancellation of transactions and manual entry of credit card numbers, and therefore could not rely on these amounts to justify the amount of its offset. Finally, the court held that Perry’s may not include other expenses, such as costs associated with bookkeeping and reconciliation of cash tips, in the offset amount because those costs are incurred as a result of ordinary operations only indirectly related to Perry’s’ tip policy. The court concluded that even if it included all of Perry’s’ indirect costs, the 3.25% offset fee exceeded Perry’s’ total costs.

After discussing the law regarding the tip credit generally, the Fifth Circuit framed the issue before it as follows:

In this case we must determine whether an employer may offset employees’ tips that a customer charges on a credit card to recover the costs associated with collecting credit card tips without violating § 203(m)’s requirement that the employee retains all the tips that the employee receives. Specifically, we must determine if the employer violates that requirement when it offsets credit tips to recover costs that exceed the direct fees charged by the credit card companies. Perry’s contends that it may offset both credit card issuer fees and its own cash-delivery expenses and still claim a tip credit under 29 U.S.C. § 203(m). Plaintiffs assert that Perry’s may offset only an amount no greater than the total amount of credit card issuer fees.

The court then discussed the only prior circuit court decision to discuss this issue at length, and relevant DOL regulations and guidance:

Both parties rely on the only circuit court decision to address this issue, Myers v. Copper Cellar Corp., 192 F.3d 546 (6th Cir. 1999). In Myers, the employer deducted a fixed 3% service charge from employee tips whenever a customer tipped by credit card to account for the discount rate charged by credit card issuers. Id. at 552. Because the employer always deducted a fixed percentage, the deduction sometimes rose above or fell below the fee charged on a particular transaction. Id. at 553. The employees challenged this deduction, arguing that any withholding of tips violates § 203(m). The Sixth Circuit disagreed, holding that “an employer may subtract a sum from an employee’s charged gratuity which reasonably compensates it for its outlays sustained in clearing that tip, without surrendering its section 203(m) [tip credit].” Id. The Sixth Circuit determined that an employee does not “receive” a charged tip under § 203(m) until the “debited obligation [is] converted into cash.” Id. The court noted that this conversion is predicated on the “payment of a handling fee to the credit card issuer.” Id. at 554.

To reach that conclusion, the Sixth Circuit relied on 29 C.F.R. §§ 531.52 and 531.53. Section 531.52 defines tip as “a sum presented by a customer as a gift or gratuity in recognition of some service performed for him.” Section 531.53 further clarifies that tips include “amounts transferred by the employer to the employee pursuant to directions from credit customers who designate amounts to be added to their bills as tips.” The Sixth Circuit held that these two regulations make it clear “that a charged gratuity becomes a ‘tip’ only after the employer has liquidated it and transferred the proceeds to the tipped employee; prior to that transfer, the employer has an obvious legal right to deduct the cost of converting the credited tip to cash.” Myers, 192 F.3d at 554. The court noted that “payment of a handling fee to the credit card issuer” is “required” for that liquidation. Id. at 553–54.

As recognized by the Sixth Circuit, the Department of Labor has long interpreted its regulations to permit employers to deduct credit card issuer fees. U.S. Dept. of Labor Field Operations Handbook § 30d05(a) (Dec. 9, 1988).  In Myers, the Sixth Circuit added that such a deduction is allowed under the statute even if, as a consequence, some deductions will exceed the expense actually incurred in collecting the subject gratuity, as long as the employer proves by a preponderance of the evidence that, in the aggregate, the amounts collected from its employees, over a definable time period, have reasonably reimbursed it for no more than its total expenditures associated with credit card tip collections.

Myers, 192 F.3d at 554. Following Myers, the Department of Labor amended its position to allow employers to deduct an average offset for credit card issuer fees as long as “the employer reduces the amount of credit card tips paid to the employee by an amount no greater than the amount charged to the employer by the credit card company.” See U.S. Dept. of Labor Wage and Hour Division Opinion Letter FLSA2006-1.5 The parties do not contest that an employer may deduct a fixed composite amount from credit card tips, so long as that composite does not exceed the total expenditures on credit card issuer fees, and still maintain a tip credit. We agree. Credit card fees are a compulsory cost of collecting credit card tips. As a result, an employer may offset credit card tips for credit card issuer fees and still satisfy the requirements of § 203(m).  However, our inquiry does not end with this holding.

Applying the law to the facts at bar, the court concluded that the employer’s 3.25% chargeback was an impermissible offset, because here the defendant-employer was seeking an offset for costs above and beyond their actual direct cost of collecting credit card tips.  In so doing, the Fifth Circuit like the court below rejected the employer’s argument that it should be entitled to build its indirect costs of processing the credit card tips (that it voluntarily incurred based on its business decision) in addition to the direct cost of processing the credit card tips.  The court reasoned:

Perry’s concedes that its 3.25% offset always exceeded the total credit card issuer fees, including swipe fees, charge backs, void fees, and manual-entry fees. Perry’s submitted demonstrative exhibits which showed that the total offset for each restaurant exceeded all credit card issuer fees by at least $7,500 a year, and by as much as $39,000 in 2012. As a result, Perry’s argues that an employer may also deduct an average of additional expenditures associated with credit card tips and still maintain a tip credit under § 203(m). Although Perry’s justified its 3.25% offset based on a number of other expenses before the district court, Perry’s now maintains that credit card issuer fees and its cash-delivery expenses alone justify the 3.25% offset. In support, Perry’s shows that on an aggregate basis (and across all restaurants), Perry’s’ expenses for collecting and distributing credit card tips to cash—including both credit card issuer fees and expenses for cash-delivery services—always exceeded the offset amount. We must determine whether deducting additional amounts for cash-delivery services violates § 203’s requirement that the employee must keep all of his or her tips.

A Perry’s corporate executive testified that it made a “business decision” to receive cash deliveries three times a week in order to cash out servers’ tips each day and to decrease security concerns associated with keeping too much cash in the register. Importantly, this executive testified that it was only necessary to cash out servers each night because of employee demand, and that if it instead transferred the tips to the servers in their bi-weekly pay checks, the extra cash deliveries would not be necessary. The district court found that Perry’s’ cash-delivery system was “a business decision, not a fee directly attributable to its cost of dealing in credit.” We agree.

In Myers, the Sixth Circuit allowed the employer to offset tips to cover reasonable reimbursement for costs “associated with credit card tip collections” and highlighted that credit card fees were “required” to transfer credit to cash.9 192 F.3d at 554–55 (emphasis added). That court emphasized that the employer’s deductions were acceptable because “[t]he liquidation of the restaurant patron’s paper debt to the table server required the predicate payment of a handling fee to the credit card issuer.” Id. at 553–54. The Department of Labor incorporated a reading of Myers in an opinion letter:

The employer’s deduction from tips for the cost imposed by the credit card company reflects a charge by an entity outside the relationship of employer and tipped employee. However, it is the Wage and Hour Division’s position that the other costs that [an employer] wishes the tipped employees to bear must be considered the normal administrative costs of [the employer’s] restaurant operations. For example, time spent by servers processing credit card sales represents an activity that generates revenue for the restaurant, not an activity primarily associated with collecting tips.

U.S. Dept. of Labor Wage and Hour Division Opinion Letter FLSA2006-1. While it is unnecessary to opine whether any costs, other than the fees charged directly by a credit card company, associated with collecting credit card tips can ever be deducted by an employer, we conclude that an employer only has a legal right to deduct those costs that are required to make such a collection.

Perry’s made two internal business decisions that were not required to collect credit card tips: (1) Perry’s responded to its employees’ demand to be tipped out in cash each night, instead of transferring their tips in their bi-weekly pay checks, and (2) Perry’s elected to have cash delivered three times a week to address security concerns.11 Unlike credit card issuer fees, which every employer accepting credit card tips must pay, the cost of cash delivery three times a week is an indirect and discretionary cost associated with accepting credit card tips. As the district court noted, this cash delivery was “a business decision, not a fee directly attributable to its cost of dealing in credit.” Moreover, Perry’s deducted an amount that exceeded these total costs—credit card issuer fees and cash-delivery expenses—in nine of the relevant restaurant-years.

Thus, the court concluded that:

Allowing Perry’s to offset employees’ tips to cover discretionary costs of cash delivery would conflict with § 203(m)’s requirement that “all tips received by such employee have been retained by the employee” for employers to maintain a statutory tip credit. Perry’s has not pointed to any additional expenses that are the direct and unavoidable consequence of accepting credit card tips. Because Perry’s offset always exceeded the direct costs required to convert credit card tips to cash, as contemplated in § 203(m) and interpreted by the Sixth Circuit, we hold that Perry’s’ 3.25% offset violated § 203(m) of the FLSA, and therefore Perry’s must be divested of its statutory tip credit for the relevant time period.

Click Steele v. Leasing Enterprises, Limited to read the entire Fifth Circuit decision.

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4th Cir.: Strippers Are Employees NOT Independent Contractors; Trial Court Properly Applied the Economic Reality Test

McFeeley v. Jackson Street Entertainment, LLC

In this case, multiple exotic dancers sued their dance clubs for failure to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act and corresponding Maryland wage and hour laws. The district court held that plaintiffs were employees of the defendant companies and not independent contractors as the clubs contended. Following a damages-only trial and judgment on behalf of the dancers, the Defendant-clubs appealed the court’s finding that the dancers were employees and not independent contractors.  The Fourth Circuit held that the court properly captured the economic reality of the relationship here, and thus affirmed the judgment.

The Fourth Circuit summarized the salient facts regarding the dancers’ relationship with the defendant-clubs as follows:

Anyone wishing to dance at either club was required to fill out a form and perform an audition. Defendants asked all hired dancers to sign agreements titled “Space/Lease Rental Agreement of Business Space” that explicitly categorized dancers as independent contractors. The clubs began using these agreements after being sued in 2011 by dancers who claimed, as plaintiffs do here, to have been employees rather than independent contractors. Defendant Offiah thereafter consulted an attorney, who drafted the agreement containing the “independent contractor” language.

Plaintiffs’ duties at Fuego and Extasy primarily involved dancing on stage and in certain other areas of the two clubs. At no point did the clubs pay the dancers an hourly wage or any other form of compensation. Rather, plaintiffs’ compensation was limited to performance fees and tips received directly from patrons. The clubs also collected a “tip-in” fee from everyone who entered either dance club, patrons and dancers alike. The dancers and clubs dispute other aspects of their working relationship, including work schedules and policies.

After discussing the traditional elements of the economic reality test, the Fourth Circuit discussed each element and concluded that, overall, they supported the district court’s holding that the dancers were employees and not independent contractors.

Here, as in so many FLSA disputes, plaintiffs and defendants offer competing narratives of their working relationship. The exotic dancers claim that all aspects of their work at Fuego and Extasy were closely regulated by defendants, from their hours to their earnings to their workplace conduct. The clubs, not surprisingly, portray the dancers as free agents that came and went as they pleased and used the clubs as nothing but a rented space in which to perform. The dueling depictions serve to remind us that the employee/independentcontractor distinction is not a bright line but a spectrum, and that courts must struggle with matters of degree rather than issue categorical pronouncements.

Based on the totality of the circumstances presented here, the relationship between plaintiffs and defendants falls on the employee side of the spectrum. Even given that we must view the facts in the light most favorable to defendants, see Ctr. for Individual Freedom, Inc. v. Tennant, 706 F.3d 270, 279 (4th Cir. 2013), we cannot accept defendants’ contrary characterization, which cherry-picks a few facts that supposedly tilt in their favor and downplays the weightier and more numerous factors indicative of an employment relationship. Most critical on the facts of this case is the first factor of the “economic realities” test: the degree of control that the putative employer has over the manner in which the work is performed.

The clubs insist they had very little control over the dancers. Plaintiffs were allegedly free in the clubs’ view to determine their own work schedules, how and when they performed, and whether they danced at clubs other than Fuego and Extasy. But the relaxed working relationship represented by defendants—the kind that perhaps every worker dreams about—finds little support in the record.

To the contrary, plaintiffs described and the district court found the following plain manifestations of defendants’ control over the dancers:

  • Dancers were required to sign in upon arriving at the club and to pay the “tip-in” or entrance fee required of both dancers and patrons.

  • The clubs dictated each dancer’s work schedule. As plaintiff Danielle Everett testified, “I ended up having a set schedule once I started at Fuego’s. Tuesdays and Thursdays there, and Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at Extasy.” J.A. 578 (Everett’s deposition). This was typical of the deposition testimony submitted in the summary judgment record.

  • The clubs imposed written guidelines that all dancers had to obey during working hours. J.A. 769-77 (clubs’ rulebook). These rules went into considerable detail, banning drinking while working, smoking in the clubs’ bathroom, and loitering in the parking lot after business hours. They prohibited dancers from leaving the club and returning later in the night. Dancers were required to wear dance shoes at all times and could not bring family or friends to the clubs during working hours. Violations of the clubs’ guidelines carried penalties such as suspension or dismissal. Although the defendants claimed not to enforce the rules, as the district court put it, “[a]n employer’s ‘potential power’ to enforce its rules and manage dancers’ conduct is a form of control.” J.A. 997 (quoting Hart v. Rick’s Cabaret Int’l, Inc., 967 F.Supp.2d 901, 918 (S.D.N.Y. 2013)).

  • The clubs set the fees that dancers were supposed to charge patrons for private dances and dictated how tips and fees were handled. The guidelines explicitly state: “[D]o not [overcharge] our customers. If you do, you will be kicked out of the club.” J.A. 771.

  • Defendants personally instructed dancers on their behavior and conduct at work. For example, one manager stated that he “ ‘coached’ dancers whom he believed did not have the right attitude or were not behaving properly.” J.A. 997.

  • Defendants managed the clubs’ atmosphere and clientele by making all decisions regarding advertising, hours of operation, and the types of food and beverages sold, as well as handling lighting and music for the dancers. Id.

Reviewing the above factual circumstances into account the Fourth Circuit held that the district court was correct to conclude that the dancers were employees of the clubs under the FLSA and not independent contractors.  The Court reasoned:

Taking the above circumstances into account, the district court found that the clubs’ “significant control” over how plaintiffs performed their work bore little resemblance to the latitude normally afforded to independent contractors. J.A. 997. We agree. The many ways in which defendants directed the dancers rose to the level of control that an employer would typically exercise over an employee. To conclude otherwise would unduly downgrade the factor of employer control and exclude workers that the FLSA was designed to embrace.

None of this is to suggest that a worker automatically becomes an employee covered by the FLSA the moment a company exercises any control over him. After all, a company that engages an independent contractor seeks to exert some control, whether expressed orally or in writing, over the performance of the contractor’s duties and over his conduct on the company’s premises. It is rather hard to imagine a party contracting for needed services with an insouciant “Do whatever you want, wherever you want, and however you please.” A company that leases space or otherwise invites independent contractors onto its property might at a minimum wish to prohibit smoking and littering or to set the hours of use in order to keep the premises in good shape. Such conditions, along with the terms of performance and compensation, are part and parcel of bargaining between parties whose independent contractual status is not in dispute.

If any sign of control or any restriction on use of space could convert an independent contractor into an employee, there would soon be nothing left of the former category. Workers and managers alike might sorely miss the flexibility and freedom that independent-contractor status confers. But the degree of control the clubs exercised here over all aspects of the individual dancers’ work and of the clubs’ operation argues in favor of an employment relationship. Each of the other five factors of the “economic realities” test is either neutral or leads us in the same direction.

Two of those factors relate logically to one other: “the worker’s opportunities for profit or loss dependent on his managerial skill” and “the worker’s investment in equipment or material, or his employment of other workers.” Schultz, 466 F.3d at 305. The relevance of these two factors is intuitive. The more the worker’s earnings depend on his own managerial capacity rather than the company’s, and the more he is personally invested in the capital and labor of the enterprise, the less the worker is “economically dependent on the business” and the more he is “in business for himself” and hence an independent contractor. Id. at 304 (quoting Henderson v. Inter-Chem Coal Co., Inc., 41 F.3d 567, 570 (10th Cir. 1994)).

The clubs attempt to capitalize on these two factors by highlighting that dancers relied on their own skill and ability to attract clients. They further contend that dancers sold tickets for entrance to the two clubs, distributed promotional flyers, and put their own photos on the flyers. As the district court noted, however, “[t]his argument—that dancers can ‘hustle’ to increase their profits—has been almost universally rejected.” J.A. 999 (collecting cases). It is natural for an employee to do his part in drumming up business for his employer, especially if the employee’s earnings depend on it. An obvious example might be a salesperson in a retail store who works hard at drawing foot traffic into the store. The skill that the employee exercises in that context is not managerial but simply good salesmanship.

Here, the lion’s share of the managerial skill and investment normally expected of employers came from the defendants. The district court found that the clubs’ managers “controlled the stream of clientele that appeared at the clubs by setting the clubs’ hours, coordinating and paying for all advertising, and managing the atmosphere within the clubs.” J.A. 1001. They “ultimately controlled a key determinant—pricing—affecting [p]laintiffs’ ability to make a profit.” Id. In terms of investment, defendants paid “rent for both clubs; the clubs’ bills such as water and electric; business liability insurance; and for radio and print advertising,” as well as wages for all non-performing staff. Id. at 1002. The dancers’ investment was limited to their own apparel and, on occasion, food and decorations they brought to the clubs. Id. at 1002-03.

On balance then, plaintiffs’ opportunities for profit or loss depended far more on defendants’ management and decision-making than on their own, and defendants’ investment in the clubs’ operation far exceeded the plaintiffs’. These two factors thus fail to tip the scales in favor of classifying the dancers as independent contractors.

As with the control factor, however, neither of these two elements should be overstated. Those who engage independent contractorsare often themselves companies or small businesses with employees of their own. Therefore, they have most likely invested in the labor and capital necessary to operate the business, taken on overhead costs, and exercised their managerial skill in ways that affect the opportunities for profit of their workers. Those fundamental components of running a company, however, hardly render anyone with whom the company transacts business an “employee” under the FLSA. The focus, as suggested by the wording of these two factors, should remain on the worker’s contribution to managerial decision-making and investment relative to the company’s. In this case, the ratio of managerial skill and operational support tilts too heavily towards the clubs to support an independent-contractor classification for the dancers.

The final three factors are more peripheral to the dispute here and will be discussed only briefly: the degree of skill required for the work; the permanence of the working relationship; and the degree to which the services rendered are an integral part of the putative employer’s business. As to the degree of skill required, the clubs conceded that they did not require dancers to have prior dancing experience. The district court properly found that “the minimal degree of skill required for exotic dancing at these clubs” supported anemployee classification. J.A. 1003-04. Moreover, even the skill displayed by the most accomplished dancers in a ballet company would hardly by itself be sufficient to denote an independent contractor designation.

As to the permanence of the working relationship, courts have generally accorded this factor little weight in challenges brought by exotic dancers given the inherently “itinerant” nature of their work. J.A. 1004-05; see also Harrell v. Diamond A Entm’t, Inc., 992 F.Supp. 1343, 1352 (M.D. Fla. 1997). In this case, defendants and plaintiffs had “an at-will arrangement that could be terminated by either party at any time.” J.A. 1005. Because this type of agreement could characterize either an employee or an independent contractor depending on the other circumstances of the working relationship, we agree with the district court that this temporal element does not affect the outcome here.

Finally, as to the importance of the services rendered to the company’s business, even the clubs had to concede the point that an “exotic dance club could [not] function, much less be profitable, without exotic dancers.” Secretary of Labor’s Amicus Br. in Supp. of Appellees 24. Indeed, “the exotic dancers were the only source of entertainment for customers …. especially considering that neither club served alcohol or food.” J.A. 1006. Considering all six factors together, particularly the defendants’ high degree of control over the dancers, the totality of circumstances speak clearly to an employer-employee relationship between plaintiffs and defendants. The trial court was right to term it such.

Significantly, the Fourth Circuit also affirmed the trial court’s holding that the performance fees collected by the dancers directly from the clubs’ patrons were not wages, and that the clubs were not entitled to claim same as an offset in an effort to meet their minimum wage wage obligations.  Discussing this issue, the Court explained:

Appellants’ second attack on their liability for damages targets the district court’s alleged error in excluding from trial evidence regarding plaintiffs’ income tax returns, performance fees, and tips. The clubs contend that fees and tips kept by the dancers would have reduced any compensation that defendants owed plaintiffs under the FLSA and MWHL. According to defendants, the fees and tips dancers received directly from patrons exceeded the minimum wage mandated by federal and state law. Had the evidence been admitted, the argument goes, the jury may have awarded plaintiffs less in unpaid wages.

We disagree. The district court found that evidence related to plaintiffs’ earnings was irrelevant or, if relevant, posed a danger of confusing the issues and misleading the jury. See Fed. R. Evid. 403. Proof of tips and fees received was irrelevant here because theFLSA precludes defendants from using tips or fees to offset the minimum wage they were required to pay plaintiffs. To be eligible for the “tip credit” under the FLSA and corresponding Maryland law, defendants were required to pay dancers the minimum wage set for those receiving tip income and to notify employees of the “tip credit” provision. 29 U.S.C. 203(m)Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 3-419 (West 2014). The clubs paid the dancers no compensation of any kind and afforded them no notice. They cannot therefore claim the “tip credit.”

The clubs are likewise ineligible to use performance fees paid by patrons to the dancers to reduce their liability. Appellants appear to distinguish performance fees from tips in their argument, without providing much analysis in their briefs on a question that has occupied other courts. See, e.g.Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 926-34 (discussing how performance fees received by exotic dancers relate to minimum wage obligations). If performance fees do constitute tips, defendants would certainly be entitled to no offset because, as noted above, they cannot claim any “tip credit.” For the sake of argument, however, we treat performance fees as a possible separate offset within the FLSA’s “service charge” category. Even with this benefit of the doubt, defendants come up short.

For purposes of the FLSA, a “service charge” is a “compulsory charge for service … imposed on a customer by an employer’s establishment.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55(a). There are at least two prerequisites to counting “service charges” as an offset to an employer’s minimum-wage liability. The service charge “must have been included in the establishment’s gross receipts,” Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 929, and it must have been “distributed by the employer to its employees,” 29 C.F.R. § 531.55(b). These requirements are necessary to ensure that employees actually received the service charges as part of their compensation as opposed to relying on the employer’s assertion or say-so. See Hart, 967 F.Supp.2d at 930. We do not minimize the recordkeeping burdens of the FLSA, especially on small businesses, but some such obligations have been regarded as necessary to ensure compliance with the statute.

Neither condition for applying the service-charge offset is met here. As conceded by defendant Offiah, the dance clubs never recorded or included as part of the dance clubs’ gross receipts any payments that patrons paid directly to dancers. J.A. 491-97 (Offiah’s deposition). When asked about performance fees during his deposition, defendant Offiah repeatedly stressed that fees belong solely to the dancers. Id. Since none of those payments ever went to the clubs’ proprietors, defendants also could not have distributed any part of those service charges to the dancers. As a result, the “service charge” offset is unavailable to defendants. Accordingly, the trial court correctly excluded evidence showing plaintiffs’ earnings in the form of tips and performance fees.

This case is significant because, while many district courts have reached the same conclusions, this is the first Circuit Court decision to affirm same.

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