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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