By David M. Whitaker

In May the United States Supreme Court issued a long-awaited decision in a trio of cases that concerned whether employers can lawfully use mandatory arbitration agreements containing provisions that preclude employees from pursuing employment claims on a class action basis – and instead require them to pursue their claims in an individual private arbitration proceeding against the employer.  In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court decided that such provisions are legal and do not violate the provisions of the National Labor Relations Act, which provide non-management employees with the right to take collective action (including, but not limited to the formation of a union) with respect the terms and conditions of their employment.  See Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, Docket No. 16-285 (decided May 21, 2018).

The Epic Systems decision has paved the way for employers to use of such agreements to bar employees from participating in collective action lawsuit under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, in which a single employee can file suit on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated employees to recover unpaid overtime or to recover for violation of the law’s minimum wage payment requirements.  In these cases, one employee is often able to certify a collective action, and the employer is then required to provide the names and mailing addresses of all similarly situated current and former employees to facilitate the Plaintiff’s attorney solicitation for these employees to join (opt in) the collective action lawsuit.  FLSA collective actions involving relatively small amounts of unpaid wages can result in significant liability, including liquidated (double) damages and an award of attorney fees to the Plaintiff’s counsel.  FLSA collective actions have grown increasingly popular with the Plaintiff’s bar due to the relative ease of certification of a collective action and the availability of statutory attorney fees, which can often dwarf the amount of the wages actually owed.

With the benefit of the Epic decision, it is now clear that a well-drafted mandatory arbitration agreement can be used to prevent employees from pursuing collective action litigation in this manner.  As the dust settles on this important decision, employers should take the opportunity to revisit whether or not mandatory arbitration agreements are appropriate for use with their workforce.

There are certainly benefits that may result from the use of employment arbitration agreements, including:

  • Avoidance of collective and class action lawsuits brought by employees under the FLSA and other state and federal statutes.
  • The employment dispute will be decided by an arbitrator (likely an attorney) who is well-versed in the law and on the average less likely to render a volatile decision than a jury.
  • Arbitration proceedings are private.
  • Discovery (depositions and document requests) is typically more streamlined in arbitration.
  • Arbitration proceedings can be resolved more quickly than some judicial proceedings.

But employers should also consider certain drawbacks presented by the arbitration process:

  • Arbitration of employment disputes are subject to certain “due process” considerations to make the process fair to employees – including the requirement that the employer pay the arbitrator’s fee (in court litigation neither party pays the judge’s salary).
  • Arbitrators are less likely to consider prehearing motions for summary judgment to dismiss the employee’s claims prior to an arbitration hearing. Although the likelihood for success varies with the judicial forum, employers generally have a good success rate on pretrial motions.
  • Some arbitrators have a propensity to try to reach a “fair” result, rather than the correct legal result. In these cases, an arbitrator may decide to “split the baby” and award something to an employee who was treated “unfairly,” even though the claim has no legal merit.
  • As a general matter, there is no right to appeal a bad arbitration award, even when it is clear that the arbitrator’s decision is factually or legally incorrect.

Also, employers should be aware that arbitration agreements will not be effective in preventing government agencies, such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or the Department of Labor, from pursuing enforcement actions on behalf of its employees on a class-wide basis, as the Supreme Court has previously held that government agencies are not bound by the terms of private arbitration agreements.

The Supreme Court’s recent decision certainly provides another reason (avoidance of employee class action lawsuits) for employer’s to reconsider the benefits of mandatory arbitration agreements.  But employers should carefully weigh the costs and benefits unique to their workforce, employment claims experience, the court system in which employment claims are typically brought against the company and other factors before deciding.  Employers who decide to establish an arbitration program for use with employees should also work closely with counsel to ensure that the agreement is tailored to meet the employer’s needs and to ensure that the agreement is drafted in a manner that will be enforceable.

By A. Edward Hardin, Jr.

A recent story from New Orleans demonstrates that overtime violations can be costly.  In the case of a New Orleans bakery that paid employees for overtime at their straight time rate and paid some workers in cash, the issue cost the employer over $125,000 in back wages alone.  Pursuant to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, non-exempt employees are entitled to a half-time premium for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek (i.e., employees must receive “time and a half” for overtime hours).  In the case of the New Orleans bakery, the employees were paid their regular rate of pay for the hours worked, but were not paid the half-time premium for their overtime hours, a major issue under the FLSA.  For more on the story, click here and here.

By Ed Hardin

On April 2, 2018, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Encino Motorcars, LLC v. Navarro.  In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that automobile service advisors are not entitled to overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  In the Encino Motorcars case, the Court was asked to decide whether automobile dealership service advisors were exempt from federal overtime requirements based on an FLSA exemption for salesmen, partsmen, or mechanics primarily engaged in selling or servicing automobiles, trucks, or farm implements.  The Supreme Court held that the service advisors in question were exempt employees under the FLSA.  As Fox Business reported, the decision affects more than 18,000 dealerships and more than 100,000 service advisors.  However, the case has much broader implications, well beyond automobile dealerships.  In its decision, the five justice majority stated that pursuant to “a fair reading” of the exemption in question, service advisors were exempt from overtime because the service advisors sell goods or services.  Although the Court’s specific holding is somewhat narrow (applying to automobile service advisors), how the Court arrived at the holding represents a major shift in interpretation of the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division’s regulations on the FLSA exemptions.  For decades, exemptions from overtime requirements were narrowly construed to provide overtime coverage under the FLSA.  In the Encino Motorcars case, the Supreme Court expressly rejected a narrow construction of the exemption “as a useful guidepost for interpreting the FLSA” in favor of a fair reading.  As the Court remarked, “We have no license to give the exemption anything but a fair reading.”  The door may now be open for employers and the courts to give less restrictive readings to FLSA exemptions in favor of a more “fair reading” of those exemptions, which may in turn lead to fewer employees being entitled to overtime, but may also certainly lead to more litigation.  For more on the decision see: https://www.foxbusiness.com/markets/supreme-court-rules-for-car-dealerships-in-overtime-case or http://www.latimes.com/politics/la-na-pol-court-autos-overtime-20180402-story.html

 

 

 

By Chelsea Gomez Caswell

Yesterday, the Department of Labor (“DOL”) Wage and Hour Division released a preview copy of a request for information (“RFI”) before issuing revised proposed overtime exemption regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The RFI is scheduled for publication in the Federal Register today, July 26, 2017, which will start a 60-day public comment period.

According to the DOL’s news release, the RFI solicits feedback on questions related to the salary level test, the duties test, various cost-of-living information, inclusion of non-discretionary bonuses and incentive payments to satisfy a portion of the salary test for highly compensated employees, and automatic updating of the salary level test. Instructions for submitting comments and additional contact information are found in the RFI. A preview copy of the RFI, released by the DOL, is available online here.

The regulations at issue (often referred to as the “white collar” exemptions) apply to workers employed in an executive, administrative, or professional capacity that also meet certain criteria relating to salary basis, salary level, and job duties. The DOL released the RFI in contemplation of revising the final rule released by the DOL during the Obama administration  (“2016 Final Rule”), which attempted to raise the minimum salary required to be exempt from the FLSA’s overtime pay requirements, from $455 per week to $913 per week. The 2016 Federal Rule was enjoined by a federal district judge in Texas in November 2016  and remains in limbo. In fact, in briefing to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal recently filed last month, the DOL acknowledged that it intends to undertake steps and further rulemaking to determine what the salary level should be. It is now clear that these steps include the release of the RFI. The RFI states that in light of the pending litigation, the DOL decided to issue the RFI, rather than immediately proceed to a notice of proposed rulemaking (“NRPM”), in order to gather public input and aid in the development of a NRPM. The DOL expressly recognized that it released the RFI to address stakeholder concerns, including concerns that the standard salary level set in the 2016 Final Rule was too high and to address the Rule’s potential adverse impact on low-wage regions and industries.

Some of the specific questions posed in the RFI include but are not limited to the following:

  • Whether updating the prior 2004 salary level for inflation would be an appropriate basis for setting the standard salary level and, if so, what measure of inflation should be used;
  • Whether the regulations should contain multiple standard salary levels and, if so, how they should be set;
  • Whether different standard salary levels should be set for the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions;
  • Whether the standard salary level set in the 2016 Final Rule works effectively with the standard duties test;
  • To what extent employers increased salaries of exempt employee to retain exempt status, or otherwise altered employees’ hours or pay, in anticipation of the 2016 Final Rule’s effective date;
  • Whether small businesses or entities encountered any unique challenges in preparing for the 2016 Final Rule’s effective date;
  • Whether a test for exemption relying solely on duties performed, without regard to the amount of salary paid, would be preferable;
  • Whether the salary level set in the 2016 Final Rule excluded from exemption particular occupations traditionally covered by the exemption; (
  • Whether there should be multiple total compensation levels for the highly compensated employee exemption; and
  • Whether the standard salary level and highly compensated employee total annual compensation level should be automatically updated on a periodic basis.

Although the future of the FLSA overtime regulations is still uncertain, for employers the key takeaway is that, for the time being, nothing has changed. The RFI suggests that changes are on the horizon, but for now, the 2016 Final Rule is still enjoined, and the DOL will not issue any revised rules until after the 60-day public comment period lapses and an NRPM is issued. Until further notice, the minimum salary threshold remains at $23,660 a year ($455 per week), but it is important for employers to continually monitor this ever-changing issue.

For additional information, see the DOL’s July 25, 2017 news release, available here.

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By Zoe Vermeulen

In the recent case of Halle v. Galliano Marine Service, L.L.C., No. 16-30558, 2017 WL 1399697 (5th Cir. Apr. 19, 2017) the U.S. Fifth Circuit addressed for the first time whether ROV technicians, who are traditionally Jones Act seamen, qualify as seamen under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The Court found that the plaintiff, an ROV technician assigned to an ROV support vessel, was not an FLSA seaman. In reaching its decision, the Court reiterated the important difference between a Jones Act seaman and a seaman for purposes of the FLSA.

Under the Jones Act, the term “seaman” is construed broadly to provide protection for a larger group of individuals. Seamen are exempt from the FLSA, so the term is construed narrowly, to ensure that more workers enjoy the benefits granted by the FLSA. The Court was clear that “the definition of ‘seaman’ in the Jones Act is not equivalent to that in the FLSA.”

The FLSA requires employers to provide overtime pay to any employee who works more than forty (40) hours in a workweek, unless the employee is subject to an exemption. Again, “seamen” are exempt from the FLSA’s overtime requirements. Under the FLSA, an employee is a “seaman” if: (1) the employee is subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master; and (2) the employee’s service is primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation, provided that the employee does not perform a substantial amount of different work. These criteria are very fact specific.

In Halle, there was a dispute as to whether the plaintiff was subject to the authority, direction, and control of the master of the ROV support vessel. Thus, the first factor was not dispositive. In analyzing the second factor, the Court found that the ROV technician plaintiff lived on the ROV support vessel and operated the ROV, which was attached to the support vessel, to perform industrial tasks in the water. He occasionally communicated GPS coordinates to the captain of the support vessel, but did not otherwise help ensure that the support vessel navigated safely or in any particular manner from point A to point B. The plaintiff did not control the vessel’s path to its intended target, steer, anchor, make any navigational decisions, or take any navigational actions. The plaintiff, and other ROV technicians, could not even see if there were navigational issues affecting the support vessel. Under these facts, the Court found that the plaintiff’s service was not “primarily offered to aid the vessel as a means of transportation.” As the plaintiff – a Jones Act seaman – could not meet the second prong of the test, he could not be a seaman for FLSA purposes.

This case provides valuable guidance to maritime employers in classifying employees for FLSA purposes. Employers should never assume that because a worker qualifies as a Jones Act seaman, he or she will automatically be exempt from the overtime requirements of the FLSA. While both the Jones Act and the FLSA employ the term “seaman,” Halle underscores the different tests for seaman status under these Acts. Litigants are cautioned not to borrow an analysis of this term under one Act for use in the other.

Misclassifying an employee as “exempt” can expose employers to back pay, liquidated damages, and attorneys’ fees. And with a recent increase in FLSA claims, correct employee classification is as critical now as ever.

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By A. Edward Hardin, Jr.

Under the federal Fair Labor Standard Act, employees are entitled to be paid time and a half their regular rate of pay for all hours worked over 40 in a workweek.  Private employees cannot elect, nor can private employers offer, “comp time” in lieu of overtime pay.  Private employers can offer (or may be able to require) time off within a single workweek to offset longer-than-normal hours or to prevent an employee from exceeding the 40-hour threshold in a single workweek, but private employers cannot not offer true comp time to employees to offset overtime.  Unlike the private sector, under some circumstances, public sector employees can elect “comp time” in lieu of overtime pay.  On May 2, in a vote along party lines, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to extend to private employers the ability to offer employees the option to elect comp time in lieu of overtime, something that has been in place for a number of years for public employers.  The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the White House both support the bill, but the bill may face a filibuster by Democrats in the Senate.   Here are links to an article from SHRM and an article from CNN on the bill and the House action.

Man's Hands Signing Document --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

By Scott Huffstetler

Today, the United States Supreme Court decided to consider three decisions involving class-action waivers in employee arbitration agreements.  As background, many employers require employees to sign arbitration agreements.  In these agreements, employees give up the right to sue their employer and agree that all employment related claims will be subject to arbitration.  Many of these agreements contain class-action waivers, in which employees will agree only to bring employment related claims against the employer individually.  Essentially, by signing these agreements, employees waive their right to start or join class or collective actions.  These waivers are particularly important given the recent increase in class or collective employment suits brought against employers under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and anti-discrimination laws.  These suits can be very costly and frustrating for employers.  The federal Fifth Circuit, which is the appeals court for federal courts in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, upheld such a class-action waiver in NLRB v. Murphy Oil.  However, in two separate cases, the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, which are the appeals courts for federal courts in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, held that such waivers violate the National Labor Relations Act’s (NLRA) protection of concerted activity.  The inconsistent law in this area has been troubling for employers with arbitration agreements, especially those operating in multiple jurisdictions.  Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s decision will provide needed clarity for employers who opt to have these agreements.

 

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By Scott Huffstetler and Ed Hardin

In the wake of yesterday’s news that a Texas federal judge issued a nationwide injunction halting the FLSA overtime regulations, scheduled to become effective December 1, 2016, many employers are asking “what now.”  The answer will continue to develop.  For now, though, here are some initial things to keep in mind:

  1. Realize that the regulations scheduled to go into effect on December 1, 2016 are now halted nationwide.  This means that for the time being, the minimum salary threshold remains at $23,660 a year ($455 per week).
  2. Realize that this decision is not final and is subject to change.  The federal court only issued a preliminary injunction.  The next procedural step (if the parties choose to continue) is for discovery to be conducted, a trial on the merits, and a decision on whether a permanent injunction should be issued.  It is possible the judge could change his decision at the permanent injunction stage of the case.  Regardless of the outcome at that stage, appeals will be available to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and the U.S. Supreme Court.  Although this scenario is less likely in the Fifth Circuit, with the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, it is possible that the U.S. Supreme Court could ultimately rule in the U.S. Department of Labor’s favor.  Of course, that assumes the Department continues to pursue this matter and continues to pursue official enactment of the regulations.  Recall that the Department is an executive agency, which after January, will be under President-Elect Donald Trump.  Given the differences between President Barack Obama and President Trump’s labor initiatives, it is possible that President-Elect Trump will instruct the Department not to continue pursuing this case.  There are many variables and all of these scenarios will take months, or even years, to play out.  The point is the case needs to be monitored and employers need to be prepared for the different scenarios.
  3. Realize that not all the changes that may have been made in response to the new regulations related to the salary basis test.  Many employers used the change in the regulations to address other components of the FLSA that were not affected by the ruling, such as classifications.  To the extent changes like this were made, they were not altered by the ruling.

As is easily seen, the outcome of this saga remains to be seen.  For now, employers can be thankful this Thanksgiving for a reprieve from what was about to become a major change in the FLSA.

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By Erin Kilgore, Ed Hardin, and Brian Carnie

A federal district judge in Texas has entered a nationwide injunction which prevents the U.S. Department of Labor’s new FLSA minimum salary level rule from going into effect on December 1, 2016.  Prior to today, the DOL’s new rule would have nearly doubled the minimum weekly salary required in order to be exempt under the so-called white collar exemptions (the executive, administrative and professional employee exemptions).

The court found that the Department of Labor exceeded its authority when it issued the final rule in May 2016.   The court also found that the Department of Labor ignored Congress’s intent by raising the minimum salary level such that it supplants the duties test.  The court’s preliminary injunction ruling will preserve the status quo until the court makes additional determinations related to the Department of Labor’s authority and the final rule’s validity.

Until further notice, the minimum salary threshold remains at $23,660 a year ($455 per week).  Stay tuned for further analysis.

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By Erin Kilgore, Ed Hardin and Brian Carnie

Could a decision on the challenge to the U.S. Department of Labor’s new salary basis rule be coming soon? Employment Law360, a national, daily legal news service, reported this morning that a Texas Federal Judge would decide by Tuesday, November 22, whether to stop the new overtime rules from taking effect on December 1.

The Judge is hearing a suit by several states and business groups who are collectively trying to stop the new rule that raises the minimum salary to qualify for the exemption from the Federal minimum wage and overtime requirements. Stay tuned.