Legal Extortion of Employers With the FLSA

Posted by Molly DiBiancaOn August 20, 2012In: Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), Union and Labor Issues, Wages and Benefits

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Continuing the FLSA theme from last week, today's post is about the impact of a recent decision by the 5th Circuit in Martin v. Spring Break Productions, LLC, No. 11-30671 (5th Cir. July 24, 2012). The relevant facts of the Martin decision are very simple. Employees filed a grievance with their Union, in which they alleged that they had not been paid for all time worked. The Union investigated the claims but concluded that it could not determine whether or not the employees had worked on the days alleged. The Union and the employer entered into a settlement agreement to resolve the dispute.

The agreement recognized that "disputes remain[ed] between the parties as to the amounts that may be due." Despite the disputes, the agreement prohibited the employees from pursuing future legal action against the employer after receiving their settlement payments. The agreement was not signed by, nor was it intended to be signed by the employees themselves but, instead, by the Union on the employees' behalf. The agreement expressly provided that the Union had the full power and authority to enter into the settlement on the employees' behalf.

Before the agreement was signed by the Union, the employees filed suit in California state court. The employer removed the suit to federal court. The court dismissed the claims based on the settlement agreement. The employees appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, where they made two arguments with respect to the settlement agreement.

First, the employees argued that the agreement was not enforceable against them because they had not signed it and never agreed to it. The employees did not dispute that they'd received "full payment" for their claims pursuant to the agreement or that they'd cashed the checks they'd received pursuant to the agreement. The 5th Circuit quickly rejected this part of the employee's argument and found, instead, that they were bound by the decision of its Union, which had been recognized as the exclusive representative of the bargaining unit.

Second, the employees argued that, even if the agreement was binding on them, the release that it contained was invalid because individuals may not privately settle FLSA claims. This argument was predicated on a decision by the 11th Circuit in 1982, Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. United States. In that decision, the court held that FLSA claims may not be settled without the approval of the Department of Labor or a court. The dispute arose as a result of a U.S. DOL investigation and the employees, who did not speak English and who had not consulted with an attorney, did not know that the DOL had determined they were owed back wages.

The 5th Circuit held that the rationale of Lynn's Food Stores did not apply to the facts before them. Instead, the court held, a private compromise of claims under the FLSA is permissible where there exists a bona fide dispute as to the hours worked or compensation due. In that context, a release of party's rights under the FLSA is enforceable.

The potential impact of the Martin decision is expansive, particularly in light of the Third Circuit's holding in Genesis Health Care (which currently is on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court), that an FLSA collective action is not mooted when an employer pays the full amount claimed. Now, it seems that there is at least the possibility that an employer can prevent a collective action altogether if it tenders a payment to the employee pursuant to a settlement agreement, provided the amount of wages owed is a bona fide issue of dispute and that the employee is represented by counsel.

This is particularly important when an employer receives a demand letter from an employee's lawyer, threatening suit unless the employer agrees to pay the employee an amount of allegedly unpaid wages. Previously, the employer could (and often times would) pay the employee at least some portion of the demand and the parties would memorialize their agreement in writing. The employer would then keep its proverbial fingers crossed in the hopes that the employee would not file a lawsuit seeking the remaining amount of claimed wages. If, however, the employee did later sue, the employer would not have had much hope of having the suit dismissed due to the settlement agreement. In other words, the Martin decision, at least potentially, helps to remove one way in which employees (and employees' lawyers) use the courts as a way to exact legal extortion to receive as much money as they want to claim they are owed.

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