Class Action Litigation

supreme court sealBy Christopher M. Cascino and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A bankruptcy court overseeing an employer’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding allowed the employer to pay certain unsecured creditors before paying Worker Adjustment And Retraining Notification Act (“WARN”) creditors – workers who had sued the company – monies owed pursuant to a judgment, even though the bulk of the WARN monies owed were for back wages that hold priority over other unsecured claims under the Bankruptcy Code.  The bankruptcy court allowed the employer to pay the other unsecured creditors pursuant to a settlement agreement between the other unsecured creditors, the secured creditors, and the employer because, according to the bankruptcy court, the other unsecured creditors would not receive any monies absent the settlement, while the WARN creditors would not recover any compensation under or absent the settlement.  Both the district court and U.S. Court Of Appeals For The Third Circuit agreed with the bankruptcy court. In Czyzewski v. Jevic Holding Corp., No. 15-649, 2017 U.S. LEXIS 2024 (U.S. Mar. 22, 2017), the U.S. Supreme Court reversed, finding that the bankruptcy court’s conclusion that the WARN plaintiffs could not recover was questionable and, more significantly, that the bankruptcy court could not alter the Bankruptcy Code’s distribution scheme at the expense of the WARN creditors absent their consent.

Employers undergoing Chapter 11 bankruptcy and WARN litigation should take note that unpaid wage claims will take priority over the claims of other unsecured creditors absent the consent of WARN creditors.

Case Background

Sun Capital Partners (“Sun”), a private equity firm, purchased Jevic Transportation Corp. (“Jevic”), an employer, in a leveraged buyout using monies borrowed from third-party CIT Group (“CIT”).  In the buyout, both Sun and CIT used Jevic’s stock as collateral to finance the purchase.

Two years after the buyout, Jevic declared bankruptcy under Chapter 11.  Immediately prior to filing for bankruptcy, Jevic, without the notice required under WARN, told its employees that it was terminating their employment.  During the bankruptcy, these employees sued, and the bankruptcy court entered a $12.4 million judgment in their favor, making them creditors of Jevic.  The bankruptcy court determined that $8.3 million of this $12.4 million was owed for priority wage claims.  While the WARN creditors argued that Sun was also liable for this judgment as a joint employer with Jevic, the bankruptcy court ultimately ruled against them, finding that Sun was not their employer.

Also during the bankruptcy, other unsecured creditors sued Sun and CIT, arguing that they were the beneficiaries of preferential transfers of Jevic’s assets.  While this lawsuit was pending, Jevic’s assets were depleted to $1.7 million in cash, subject to a lien by Sun, and the preferential transfer lawsuit.

Sun, CIT, Jevic, and the other unsecured creditors decided to settle the fraudulent transfer lawsuit.  At the time the case was settled, the WARN creditors’ joint employer case was still pending, so Sun insisted that any settlement could not include a payment to the WARN creditors or their counsel, as Sun feared the WARN creditors’ counsel would use such payments to fund litigation against Sun.  Under the settlement agreement, CIT agreed to pay $2 million to cover the legal fees and administrative expenses of the other unsecured creditors, while giving Jevic’s remaining $1.7 million to pay taxes, administrative expenses, and pro rata distributions to the other unsecured creditors.  Also pursuant to the settlement, Jevic agreed to dismiss its Chapter 11 bankruptcy case.

Sun, CIT, Jevic, and the unsecured creditors petitioned the bankruptcy court to approve the settlement and dismiss the Chapter 11 case.  The WARN creditors opposed, arguing that the settlement violated the normal priority rules by giving other unsecured creditors priority over the WARN creditors.

While the bankruptcy court agreed that the settlement violated standard priority rules, it found that, because it was dismissing the Chapter 11 case rather than approving a Chapter 11 plan, it did not have to follow the priority rules contained in Chapter 11.  It found authority to do so in Chapter 11’s dismissal provision, § 349(b)(1), which provides that, with dismissal, parties are restored to the status quo ante unless a bankruptcy judge, “for cause, orders otherwise.”  Further, it found that, regardless of the settlement, the WARN creditors would not receive any distributions, while the settlement left the other unsecured creditors in a better position than they would be absent the settlement.  Both the district court and Third Circuit agreed.  The WARN creditors sought certiorari, which the Supreme Court granted.

The Court’s Decision

In a March 22, 2017 opinion authored by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court reversed.  The Supreme Court began its analysis by considering Jevic’s argument that the WARN creditors lacked standing because they would not have recovered anything if the settlement was not approved.  The Supreme Court found this argument unpersuasive because it relied on two questionable propositions: first, that without violation of the ordinary priority rules, there would be no settlement and, second, that the fraudulent conveyance lawsuit had no value.  2017 U.S. LEXIS 2024, at *19.  With respect to the  first argument, the Supreme Court found it unpersuasive given that Sun ultimately won on the joint employer issue.  Id. at *19-20.  With respect to the second, the Supreme Court found the assumption that the fraudulent conveyance lawsuit had no value questionable in light of the fact it settled for $3.7 million.  Id. at *20.  The Supreme Court thus concluded that the WARN creditors had something to lose if the settlement was approved, and therefore had standing to challenge it.  Id. at *21.

The Supreme Court then turned to the question of whether a bankruptcy court can dismiss a Chapter 11 plan in a way that does not follow the ordinary priority rules without the affected creditors’ consent.  Id.  It decided that it cannot for several reasons.

First, the Supreme Court observed that the distribution scheme contained in the Bankruptcy Code is “fundamental to the Bankruptcy Code’s operation,” and that one would expect more than “statutory silence” to authorize departures from the scheme.  Id. at *22-23.  Second, the Supreme Court concluded that Chapter 11 § 349(b)(1), in providing that the parties are restored to the status quo ante in a dismissal unless a bankruptcy judge, “for cause, orders otherwise,” only allows a bankruptcy judge to “make appropriate orders to protect rights acquired in reliance on the bankruptcy case,” which approval of the settlement did not do.  Id. at *24-25.  Finally, the court concluded that the consequences of allowing a departure from the normal distribution scheme were “potentially serious,” including “changing the bargaining power of different classes of creditors” and “risks of collusion.”  Id. at *30-31.

For these reasons, the Supreme Court reversed the bankruptcy court’s approval of a settlement that, as part of the dismissal of a Chapter 11 case, allowed payment to general unsecured creditors while skipping the higher priority claims of the WARN creditors.

Implications For Employers

Financially distressed employers who are the subject of potential WARN litigation should be aware that, as a result of this decision, they will not be able to pay the claims of general unsecured creditors during bankruptcy absent the consent of WARN creditors.  The case has special implications for employers who own distressed employers, as was the case with Sun in Czyzewski, who want to avoid funding litigation against themselves under a joint employer theory.

washington-monument-754745_960_720Seyfarth Synopsis: Governmental enforcement litigation was a mixed bag in 2016. The U.S. Department of Labor (“DOL”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”) continued their aggressive enforcement programs, but their effectiveness was down “by the numbers” as compared to previous years. What does this mean for 2017?  In the 6th and final installment in our series of blog postings on workplace class action trends, we examine what employers are likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front.

Introduction

Government enforcement lawsuits brought by the DOL and EEOC continued the aggressive litigation programs of both agencies, but by sheer numbers of cases, their enforcement activities were arguably limited in their effectiveness, at least when measured by lawsuit filings and recoveries compared to previous years. Settlement numbers for government enforcement litigation in 2016 decreased substantially as compared to 2015, as did the litigation dockets of the DOL and the EEOC. This trends is aptly illustrated by a comparison of settlement recoveries over the past 7 years. Settlement recoveries in 2016 were the second lowest of any year during that period.

Top 10 Government Enforcement

This trend is critical to employers, as both agencies have a focus on “big impact” lawsuits against companies and “lead by example” in terms of areas that the private plaintiffs’ bar aims to pursue. The content and scope of enforcement litigation undertaken by the DOL and the EEOC in the Trump Administration remains to be seen; most believe there will be wholesale changes, which may well prompt the private plaintiffs’ class action bar to “fill the void” and expand the volume of litigation pursued against employers over the coming year.

Governmental Enforcement Litigation Trends In 2016

On the governmental enforcement front, both the EEOC and the DOL intensified the focus of their administrative enforcement activities and litigation filings in 2016.  At the same time, the number of lawsuits filed and the resulting recoveries by settlement – measured by aggregate litigation filings and the top 10 settlements in government enforcement litigation – were less than half of what the EEOC and DOL achieved in 2015.

The EEOC’s lawsuit count dropped precipitously. By continuing to follow through on the systemic enforcement and litigation strategy plan it announced in April of 2006 (that centers on the government bringing more systemic discrimination cases affecting large numbers of workers), the EEOC filed less cases overall but more systemic lawsuits. This manifested the notion that the Commission’s limited budget and bandwidth are best deployed to matters where a systemic focus is most needed and the largest numbers of alleged victims are at issue.  As 2016 demonstrated, the EEOC’s prosecution of pattern or practice lawsuits is now an agency-wide priority backed up by the numbers.  Many of the high-level investigations started in the last three years mushroomed into the institution of EEOC pattern or practice lawsuits in 2016. These numbers are shown by the following chart:

EEOC Systemic Cases: Filed, Resolved, And On Active Docket
FY 2013 – 2016

Cases Filed

The Commission’s 2016 Annual Report also announced that it expects to continue the dramatic shift in the composition of its litigation docket from small individual cases to systemic pattern or practice lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers.  The EEOC’s FY 2016 Annual Report detailed the EEOC’s activities from October 1, 2015 to September 30, 2016.  The EEOC’s Report indicated that:

  • The Commission completed work on 273 systemic investigations in FY 2016, which resulted in 21 settlements or conciliation agreements that yielded a total recovery of $20.5 million for systemic claims; six of the settlements involved 50 alleged victims or more, and 13 settlements included 20 or more alleged victims. The FY 2016 recoveries represent a decrease of systemic recoveries in FY 2015 when the Commission netted $33 million based on resolution of systemic investigations.
  • The EEOC recovered $347.9 million for alleged victims of employment discrimination in FY 2016 through mediation, conciliation, and settlements. This represented a decrease of $10.4 million as compared to FY 2015, when the Commission garnered $356.6 million for its enforcement efforts.
  • For its lawsuits, the EEOC secured $58.3 million in recoveries in FY 2016.  This figure was down $7 million as compared to the FY 2015 recoveries of $65.3 million. However, the EEOC resolved fewer lawsuits than it did last year, and recovered less money from those cases.  Specifically, the EEOC resolved 139 lawsuits during FY 2016 for a total recovery of $52.2 million; by comparison, the EEOC resolved 155 lawsuits in FY 2015 for a total recovery of $65.3 million.
  • The EEOC filed only 86 lawsuits in 2016 (down significantly from the 139 lawsuits it filed in 2015), of which 31 were “multiple victim” lawsuits, with 18 cases involved claims of systemic discrimination on behalf of 20 or more workers, and 13 cases involved multiple alleged discrimination victims of up to 20 individuals.  The EEOC had 165 cases on its active lawsuit docket by year end (down from FY 2015, when it had 218 cases on its docket, of which 48% involved multiple aggrieved parties and 28.5% involved challenges to alleged systemic discrimination).  Overall, this represented increases in these categories in terms of the make-up of the Commission’s litigation being tilted more heavily toward systemic cases.
  • The EEOC also received 91,503 administrative charges of discrimination, which was slightly up from the FY 2015 total of 89,385 charges and the FY 2014 total of 88,778 charges. Thus, charge activity was one of the heaviest in the 52 year history of the Commission.
  • The EEOC also encountered significant criticism in the manner in which it enforced anti-discrimination laws.  This criticism took various forms in terms of judicial sanctions, suits against the Commission by private litigants and States, and questioning by Congress over the EEOC’s alleged lack of transparency.

While the inevitable by-product of these governmental enforcement efforts is that employers are likely to face bigger lawsuits on behalf of larger groups of workers in 2017, the EEOC’s systemic litigation program is not without its detractors.  Several federal judges entered significant sanctions against the EEOC – some in excess of seven figures – for its pursuit of pattern or practice cases that were deemed to be without a good faith basis in fact or law. The U.S. Supreme Court in EEOC v. CRST Van Expedited, Inc., 136 S. Ct. 1642 (2016), examined the propriety of the $4.7 million fee sanction, the largest fee sanction ever leveled against the Commission; while the EEOC had been successful in its initial appeal in reversing the sanction before the Eighth Circuit, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the EEOC’s position, remanded the fee sanction issue for review, and gave new life to the employer’s efforts to recoup millions of dollars against the Commission.

Fiscal year 2016 also marked another year in the EEOC’s 2012-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan (“SEP”).  The SEP was created in 2012 as a blueprint to guide the EEOC’s enforcement activity.  Its most controversial and perhaps most far-reaching effect on the agency’s activity is the priority it gives to systemic cases: those pattern or practice, policy, or class-like cases where the alleged discrimination has a broad impact on an industry, profession, company, or geographic area.  Systemic cases have been the main driver of EEOC litigation over the past few years, and likely will be well into the future.  The EEOC is now fighting challenges to its power to bring those cases on a number of fronts.  Among other things, it is aggressively challenging any court’s ability to review how it conducts certain statutorily-mandated procedures before bringing suit, including how it investigates its cases and tries to conciliate those cases with employers.  If successful in those efforts, the EEOC will have greatly eased its path to pursuing systemic cases.

The EEOC is not only expanding its reach in procedural terms, but also it is attempting to broaden the scope of its authority through an expansion of the scope of anti-discrimination laws themselves.  In a number of recent cases, the EEOC has advanced novel legal theories that would, among other things, expand anti-discrimination protections to cover transgender employees and require employers to reasonably accommodate pregnant employees, even those who are experiencing normal pregnancies.  The EEOC continued to push the edge of the legal envelope in 2016, viewing itself as an agency that not only enforces the law, but also one that expands the scope of those laws as it deems appropriate.

For this and other reasons, the agency has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism by Republican members of Congress, business groups, and critics of an allegedly activist agency wasting the taxpayers’ dollars.  Such criticism is unlikely to stem the tide of systemic cases or deter the EEOC from continuing to try to expand its enforcement powers.  Subject to policy-directed changes mandated by the Trump Administration, employers can expect the EEOC will use the next year to continue to push for expansion of its procedural and substantive limits.

The DOL also undertook aggressive enforcement activities in 2016.

The Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”) kept up its aggressive enforcement actions in 2016, particularly in the hotel, restaurant, and retail industries.  Much of WHD’s enforcement and other activities took place under the umbrella of “fissured industries” initiatives, which focus on industries with high usage of franchising, sub-contracting, and independent contractors.  At the conclusion of those enforcement actions, WHD continued to increase its use of civil money penalties, liquidated damages, and enhanced compliance agreements.

Legislatures and government agencies in various states and municipalities also increased their activities on the wage & hour front.  Whether increasing the minimum or living wage, enacting scheduling laws and ordinances, implementing wage theft prohibitions, or increasing the minimum salary level required for exemption, many have already revised or are actively planning to revise laws and rules governing how businesses pay employees in 2017.

With the approaching ten-year anniversary of the last time Congress enacted a minimum wage increase (2007), advocates of a minimum wage increase are likely to turn up the volume on their requests for an increase to the federal minimum wage in 2017.  This may well depend on the politics of the debate, for the incoming Republican Administration appears opposed to such an increase.

Finally, if history is a guide, the incoming Administration is likely to return to the decades-old practice of issuing opinion letters in response to specific requests, which had been abandoned by the Obama Administration’s decision-makers at the DOL.

Over the past several years, the DOL’s Wage & Hour Division (“WHD”) fundamentally changed the way in which it pursues its investigations.  Suffice to say, the investigations are more searching and extensive, and often result in higher monetary penalties for employers. According to the DOL, since early 2009, the WHD has closed 200,000 cases nationwide, resulting in more than $1.8 billion in back wages for over 2 million workers.  In FY 2016, the WHD collected more than $266.5 million in back pay wages, an increase of $20.5 million over the past year. Hence, in 2016, employers finally saw the impact of these changes on the WHD’s enforcement priorities, and 2017 is apt to bring much of the same absent a stark change in priorities under the Trump Administration.

The DOL also focused its activities in 2016 on wage & hour enforcement on what it terms “24/7.” The WHD’s Administrator, Dr. David Weil, was an architect of the WHD’s fissured industry initiative.  This initiative focuses on several priority industries, including food services (both limited service/full service establishments), hotel/motel, residential construction, janitorial services, moving companies/logistics providers, agricultural products, landscaping/horticultural services, healthcare services, home healthcare services, grocery stores, and retail trade.  In FY 2016, the WHD reported recoveries of $143,274,845 for nearly 19,000 workers within these fissured industries.

Not to be outdone, the National Labor Relations Board (“NLRB”) undertook an ambitious agenda in 2016 too.  It reconsidered well-settled NLRB principles on joint employer rules and representative elections, entertained the possibility of extending the protections of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”) to college athletes, and litigated novel claims seeking to hold franchisors liable for the personnel decisions of franchisees. More than any other area impacting workplace litigation, the NLRB also remained steadfast in its view that workplace arbitration agreements limiting class or collective claims are void under § 7 of the NLRA. It pursued a myriad of unfair labor practice charges against employers for alleged violation of the NLRA for use of arbitration agreements with class action and collective action waivers.

Implications For Employers In 2017?

So what are employers likely to see in 2017 on the government enforcement litigation front? In the early days of the Trump Administration, clear direction on litigation policy remain unclear. Most pundits believe that employers can expect less litigation and less regulation than during the Obama Administration. Furthermore, the phenomenon of “regulation by enforcement litigation” is likely no longer the by-product of the DOL and the EEOC’s enforcement litigation programs. Most likely, control of agency budgets may well provide the lever that the Trump White House may use to force its policy choices upon the government enforcement litigation programs of the DOL and the EEOC.

FLSA 3 year graphicWage & hour litigation is a “hot button” issue for employers around the country. In our fifth installment video detailing the six key findings of the Workplace Class Action Report, we look at the numbers and implications behind wage & hour class action certification rulings in 2016 and discuss the FLSA regulations that impact employers in our current economy which has substantially changed since its inception in the 1930s.

As we previously discussed on our blog (here and here), and as profiled in our Workplace Class Action Report for 2017, wage & hour litigation filings decreased for the first time in over a decade in 2016. Nonetheless, wage & hour class action and collective action certification decisions outstripped all other types of certification orders over the past year. Of the 224 wage & hour certification decisions in 2016, there were 195 conditional certification rulings and 29 decertification rulings. In contrast, in 2015, there were 175 wage & hour certification decisions, including 153 conditional certification rulings and 22 decertification rulings. While plaintiffs’ lawyers won more conditional certification motions than compared to prior years, employers also won decertification motions at higher rates than as compared to 2015.

all cert graphic

FLSA 3 year graphic

 

Additional factors set to coalesce in 2017 – including litigation over the new FLSA regulations and the direction of wage & hour enforcement under the Trump Administration – are apt to drive these exposures for Corporate America. To the extent that government enforcement of wage & hour laws is ratcheted down, the private plaintiffs’ bar likely will “fill the void” and again increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings. This is especially relevant to the extent that litigation of class actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers are viewed as an investment. Prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment without significant barriers to entry relative to other types of workplace class action litigation.

Top 10 Wage & Hour

Because the majority of wage & hour lawsuits are collective or class actions, and because the plaintiffs’ bar has shown increasing activity with regard to this type of litigation, employers can expect wage & hour litigation to have a substantial impact on their litigation exposures in 2017 and in years to come.

 

#16-3836 2017 WCAR Front Cover for WordSeyfarth Synopsis: This is the fifth installment of our blog series on key trends for workplace class action litigation in 2016. In terms of the sheer number of rulings, a significant trend saw wage & hour class action and collective action certification decisions outstripping all other types of certification orders over the past year. This reflects the simple truism that with more wage & hour litigation case filings over the last 36 months than all other varieties of workplace class actions, there have been more conditional certification and decertification decisions in that space than in any other area of workplace class action litigation. The takeaway for employers is that the tidal wave of this type of workplace class action claim is not ending anytime soon.

Introduction

An undeniable fact of litigation statistics is that wage & hour certification decisions in 2016 increased geometrically as compared to last year. Of the 224 wage & hour certification decisions in 2016, there were 195 conditional certification rulings and 29 decertification rulings. In contrast, in 2015, there were 175 wage & hour certification decisions, including 153 conditional certification rulings and 22 decertification rulings. While plaintiffs’ lawyers won more conditional certification motions than compared to prior years, employers also won decertification motions at higher rates than as compared to 2015. At the same time, that led to a more rapid and robust development of case law on conditional certification and decertification issues in the wage & hour context.

The Story Behind The Numbers

While shareholder and securities class action filings witnessed an increase in 2016, employment-related class action filings remained relatively flat.

By the numbers, filings for employment discrimination and ERISA claims were basically flat over the past year, while the volume of wage & hour cases decreased for the first time in over a decade.

By the close of the year, ERISA lawsuits totaled 6,530 filings (down slightly as compared to 6,925 in 2015 and 7,163 in 2014), FLSA lawsuits totaled 8,308 filings (down as compared to 8,954 in 2015 and up from 8,066 in 2014), and employment discrimination lawsuits totaled 11,593 filings (an increase from 11,550 in 2015 and a decrease from 11,867 in 2014).

In terms of employment discrimination cases, however, the potential exists for a significant jump in case filings in the coming year, as the charge number totals at the EEOC in 2015 and 2016 reached record levels in the 52-year history of the Commission; due to the time-lag in the period from the filing of a charge to the filing of a subsequent lawsuit, the charges in the EEOC’s inventory will become ripe for the initiation of lawsuits in 2017.

By the numbers, FLSA collective action litigation filings in 2016 far outpaced other types of employment-related class action filings; virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed and litigated as collective actions.  Up until 2015, lawsuit filings reflected year-after-year increases in the volume of wage & hour litigation pursued in federal courts since 2000; statistically, wage & hour filings have increased by over 450% in the last 15 years.

The fact of the first decrease in FLSA lawsuit filings in 15 years is noteworthy in and of itself. However, a peek behind these numbers confirms that with 8,308 lawsuit filings, 2016 was the second highest year ever in the filing of such cases (only eclipsed by 2015, when 8,954 lawsuits were commenced).

Given this trend, employers may well see record-breaking numbers of FLSA filings in 2017.  Various factors are contributing to the fueling of these lawsuits, including: (i) new FLSA regulations on overtime exemptions in 2016, which have been delayed in terms of their implementation due to legal challenges by 13 states; (ii) minimum wage hikes in 21 states and 22 major cities set to take effect in 2017; and (iii) the intense focus on independent contractor classification and joint employer status, especially in the franchisor-franchisee context. Layered on top of those issues is the difficulty of applying a New Deal piece of legislation to the realities of the digital workplace that no lawmakers could have contemplated in 1938. The compromises that led to the passage of the legislation in the New Deal meant that ambiguities, omitted terms, and unanswered questions abound under the FLSA (something as basic as the definition of the word “work” does not exist in the statute), and the plaintiffs’ bar is suing over those issues at a record pace.

Virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed as collective actions; therefore, these filings represent the most significant exposure to employers in terms of any workplace laws.  By industry, retail and hospitality companies experienced a deluge of wage & hour class actions in 2016.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart:

FLSA filings

What The Numbers Should Mean To Employers

The story behind these numbers is indicative of how the plaintiffs’ class action bar chooses cases to litigate. It has a diminished appetite to invest in long-term cases that are fought for years, and where the chance of a plaintiffs’ victory is fraught with challenges either as to certification or on the merits. Hence, this reflects the various differences in success factors in bringing employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, as compared to FLSA collective actions.

Obtaining a “first stage” conditional certification order is possible without a “front end” investment in the case (e.g., no expert is needed unlike the situation when certification is sought in an ERISA or employment discrimination class action) and without conducting significant discovery due to the certification standards under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).  Certification can be achieved in a shorter period of time (in 2 to 6 months after the filing of the lawsuit) and with little expenditure of attorneys’ efforts on time-consuming discovery or with the costs of an expert. As a result, to the extent that litigation of class actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers are viewed as an investment, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment without significant barriers to entry relative to other types of workplace class action litigation. As compared to ERISA and employment discrimination class actions, FLSA litigation is less difficult or protracted, and more cost-effective and predictable. In terms of their “rate of return,” the plaintiffs’ bar can convert their case filings more readily into certification orders, and create the conditions for opportunistic settlements over shorter periods of time. The certification statistics for 2016 confirm these factors.

An increasing phenomenon in the growth of wage & hour litigation is worker awareness. Wage & hour laws are usually the domain of specialists, but in 2016 wage & hour issues made front-page news.  The widespread public attention to how employees are paid almost certainly contributed to the sheer number of suits.  Big verdicts and record settlements also played a part, as success typically begets copy-cats and litigation is no exception. Yet, the pervasive influence of technology is also helping to fuel this litigation trend. Technology has opened the doors for unprecedented levels of marketing and advertising by the plaintiffs’ bar – either through direct soliciting of putative class members or in advancing the overall cause of lawsuits. Technology allows for the virtual commercialization of wage & hour cases through the Internet and social media.

Against this backdrop, wage & hour class actions filed in state court also represented an increasingly important part of this trend.  Most pronounced in this respect were filings in the state courts of California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In particular, California continued its status in 2016 as a breeding ground for wage & hour class action litigation due to laxer class certification standards under state law, exceedingly generous damages remedies for workers, and more plaintiff-friendly approaches to class certification as well as wage & hour issues under the California Labor Code.  For the fourth year out of the last five, the American Tort Reform Association (“ATRA”) selected California as one of the nation’s worst “judicial hellholes” as measured by the systematic application of laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner.  Calling California one of the worst of the worst jurisdictions, the ATRA described the Golden State as indeed that for plaintiffs’ lawyers “seeking riches and the expense of employers …” and where “lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges have long aided and abetted this massive redistribution of wealth.”

#16-3836 2017 WCAR Front Cover for WordBy Lorie Almon, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Ian Morrison

Seyfarth’s Annual Workplace Class Action Report Webinar is next Tuesday, February 21, 2017. Click here to register and attend. It’s free!

As we face a new year, Seyfarth is pleased to offer strategic guidance through our 13th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report. Across all varieties of workplace litigation, class action dynamics increasingly have been shaped and influenced by recent rulings in the U.S. Supreme Court. This past year the Supreme Court issued several key decisions on complex employment litigation issues and accepted more cases for review that are posed for rulings this coming year. Some decisions may be viewed as hostile to the expansive use of Rule 23, while others are hospitable and strengthen the availability of class actions against employers.

For an interactive analysis of 2016 decisions and emerging trends, please join us for our annual webinar. The Report’s author, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., along with Lorie Almon, chair of our wage & hour group, and Ian Morrison, co-chair of our ERISA class action group, will cover a changed national landscape in workplace class action litigation.   In our workplace class action webinar, highlights from the Report will outline a number of key trends for employers in 2017, including:

  • The implications and fall-out from the Supreme Court’s key decisions on complex employment litigation and class action issues of 2016, and discussion of the cases accepted for review that are posed for rulings in 2017.
  • Lessons to be learned from the monetary value of the top employment-related class action settlements and why they declined significantly in 2016 after they reached all-time highs in 2014 and 2015.
  • The background on why more favorable class certification rulings for the plaintiffs’ bar were issued in 2016 than in past years.
  • How the private plaintiffs’ bar is likely to “fill the void” after the Trump inauguration and increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings in 2017, following case filing statistics reflecting that wage & hour litigation filings decreased over the past year for the first time in a decade.
  • Why there were more conditional certification and decertification decisions in the wage & hour space than in any other area of workplace class action litigation.
  • The dynamics behind the U.S. Department of Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s continued aggressive litigation approaches in 2016 and what is in store for government enforcement litigation under the Trump Administration.

The date and time of the webinar is February 21, 2017:

1:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. Eastern Time

12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Central Time

11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Mountain Time

10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Pacific Time

Speakers: Lorie Almon, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Ian Morrison

 

 

#16-3881 2016 WCAR Infographics - FLSA Filings In Federal Court R3As profiled in our Workplace Class Action Report for 2017, overall complex employment-related litigation filings increased in 2016 insofar as employment discrimination cases were concerned, but decreased in the areas of ERISA class actions, governmental enforcement litigation, and wage & hour collective actions and class actions. For the past decade, wage & hour class actions and collective actions have been the leading type of “high stakes” lawsuits being pursued by the plaintiffs’ bar. Each year the number of such case filings increased. However, for the first time in over a decade, case filing statistics for 2016 reflected that wage & hour litigation decreased over the past year. Additional factors set to coalesce in 2017 – including litigation over the new FLSA regulations and the direction of wage & hour enforcement under the Trump Administration – are apt to drive these exposures for Corporate America. To the extent that government enforcement of wage & hour laws is ratcheted down, the private plaintiffs’ bar likely will “fill the void” and again increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings.

Workplace class action filing trends can inform and shape employers’ efforts towards the most effective ways to avoid lawsuits from being filed in the first place. Employers looking to ward off workplace class action lawsuits can garner a great deal of information from studying the number of lawsuits filed annually and the types of lawsuits employees are most likely to file.

In our fourth installment video detailing the six key findings of the Workplace Class Action Report, we look at the numbers behind the workplace class action filings of 2016 and offer insights on the areas in which employers might focus their efforts to avoid workplace class action lawsuits in 2017.

 

Order the Workplace Class Action Report here.

Sign up for the Workplace Class Action Webinar here.

Sign up for email updates of new WCAB posts here.

Follow our twitter for blog updates here.

 

 

#16-3836 2017 WCAR Front Cover for WordSeyfarth Shaw is pleased to present an exclusive discussion tomorrow, February 9th, between Victoria Lipnic, newly Trump-Appointed U.S. EEOC Acting Chair, and Gerald Maatman, the Editor of Seyfarth’s 13th Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report. There is still time to sign up to attend the discussion via live webcast. Click here to join now!

As we move into a shifting policy landscape, employers are seeking insight to prepare for the challenges of the future workplace.  At this important presentation, Acting Chair Lipnic will provide insights into the EEOC initiatives in 2016 and a look ahead to the agenda for 2017. Jerry will discuss the top class action rulings in 2016 and hot topics for 2017, including key trends in workplace class action and government enforcement litigation.      

Thursday, February 9th
12:00 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. Eastern
11:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m. Central
10:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. Mountain
9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. Pacific


There will be a question and answer portion at the end of the program; we encourage you to submit an advance question when you register for the program.

estSeyfarth Synopsis: Workplace class action filings were flat overall and even decreased as compared to levels in 2015. However, that is apt to change in 2017. In the 4th in a series of blog postings on workplace class action trends, we examine what employers are likely to see in 2017.

Introduction

Overall complex employment-related litigation filings increased in 2016 insofar as employment discrimination cases were concerned, but decreased in the areas of ERISA class actions, governmental enforcement litigation, and wage & hour collective actions and class actions. For the past decade, wage & hour class actions and collective actions have been the leading type of “high stakes” lawsuits being pursued by the plaintiffs’ bar. Each year the number of such case filings increased. However, for the first time in over a decade, case filing statistics for 2016 reflected that wage & hour litigation decreased over the past year.

Additional factors set to coalesce in 2017 – including litigation over the new FLSA regulations and the direction of wage & hour enforcement under the Trump Administration – are apt to drive these exposures for Corporate America. To the extent that government enforcement of wage & hour laws is ratcheted down, the private plaintiffs’ bar likely will “fill the void” and again increase the number of wage & hour lawsuit filings.

Complex Employment-Related Litigation Filing Trends In 2016

While shareholder and securities class action filings witnessed an increase in 2016, employment-related class action filings remained relatively flat.

By the numbers, filings for employment discrimination and ERISA claims were basically flat over the past year, while the volume of wage & hour cases decreased for the first time in over a decade.

By the close of the year, ERISA lawsuits totaled 6,530 filings (down slightly as compared to 6,925 in 2015 and 7,163 in 2014), FLSA lawsuits totaled 8,308 filings (down as compared to 8,954 in 2015 and up from 8,066 in 2014), and employment discrimination lawsuits totaled 11,593 filings (an increase from 11,550 in 2015 and a decrease from 11,867 in 2014).

In terms of employment discrimination cases, however, the potential exists for a significant jump in case filings in the coming year, as the charge number totals at the EEOC in 2015 and 2016 reached record levels in the 52-year history of the Commission; due to the time-lag in the period from the filing of a charge to the filing of a subsequent lawsuit, the charges in the EEOC’s inventory will become ripe for the initiation of lawsuits in 2017.

The Wave Of FLSA Case Filings Finally Crested

By the numbers, FLSA collective action litigation filings in 2016 far outpaced other types of employment-related class action filings; virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed and litigated as collective actions.  Up until 2015, lawsuit filings reflected year-after-year increases in the volume of wage & hour litigation pursued in federal courts since 2000; statistically, wage & hour filings have increased by over 450% in the last 15 years.

The fact of the first decrease in FLSA lawsuit filings in 15 years is noteworthy in and of itself. However, a peek behind these numbers confirms that with 8,308 lawsuit filings, 2016 was the second highest year ever in the filing of such cases (only eclipsed by 2015, when 8,954 lawsuits were commenced).

Given this trend, employers may well see record-breaking numbers of FLSA filings in 2017.  Various factors are contributing to the fueling of these lawsuits, including: (i) new FLSA regulations on overtime exemptions in 2016, which have been delayed in terms of their implementation due to legal challenges by 13 states; (ii) minimum wage hikes in 21 states and 22 major cities set to take effect in 2017; and (iii) the intense focus on independent contractor classification and joint employer status, especially in the franchisor-franchisee context. Layered on top of those issues is the difficulty of applying a New Deal piece of legislation to the realities of the digital workplace that no lawmakers could have contemplated in 1938. The compromises that led to the passage of the legislation in the New Deal meant that ambiguities, omitted terms, and unanswered questions abound under the FLSA (something as basic as the definition of the word “work” does not exist in the statute), and the plaintiffs’ bar is suing over those issues at a record pace.

Virtually all FLSA lawsuits are filed as collective actions; therefore, these filings represent the most significant exposure to employers in terms of any workplace laws.  By industry, retail and hospitality companies experienced a deluge of wage & hour class actions in 2016.

This trend is illustrated by the following chart:

 FLSA filings

The Dynamics Of Wage & Hour Litigation – Low Investment / High Return

The story behind these numbers is indicative of how the plaintiffs’ class action bar chooses cases to litigate. It has a diminished appetite to invest in long-term cases that are fought for years, and where the chance of a plaintiffs’ victory is fraught with challenges either as to certification or on the merits. Hence, this reflects the various differences in success factors in bringing employment discrimination and ERISA class actions, as compared to FLSA collective actions.

Obtaining a “first stage” conditional certification order is possible without a “front end” investment in the case (e.g., no expert is needed unlike the situation when certification is sought in an ERISA or employment discrimination class action) and without conducting significant discovery due to the certification standards under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).  Certification can be achieved in a shorter period of time (in 2 to 6 months after the filing of the lawsuit) and with little expenditure of attorneys’ efforts on time-consuming discovery or with the costs of an expert. As a result, to the extent that litigation of class actions by plaintiffs’ lawyers are viewed as an investment, prosecution of wage & hour lawsuits is a relatively low cost investment without significant barriers to entry relative to other types of workplace class action litigation. As compared to ERISA and employment discrimination class actions, FLSA litigation is less difficult or protracted, and more cost-effective and predictable. In terms of their “rate of return,” the plaintiffs’ bar can convert their case filings more readily into certification orders, and create the conditions for opportunistic settlements over shorter periods of time. The certification statistics for 2016 confirm these factors.

What Is In Store For 2017

Has the wage & hour litigation crested for good, or will 2017 see more case filing? My bet is that employers will see more case filings.

An increasing phenomenon in the growth of wage & hour litigation is worker awareness. Wage & hour laws are usually the domain of specialists, but in 2016 wage & hour issues made front-page news.  The widespread public attention to how employees are paid almost certainly contributed to the sheer number of suits.  Big verdicts and record settlements also played a part, as success typically begets copy-cats and litigation is no exception. Yet, the pervasive influence of technology is also helping to fuel this litigation trend. Technology has opened the doors for unprecedented levels of marketing and advertising by the plaintiffs’ bar – either through direct soliciting of putative class members or in advancing the overall cause of lawsuits. Technology allows for the virtual commercialization of wage & hour cases through the Internet and social media. These factors all suggest that 2017 will see an increase in wage & hour lawsuit filings.

And state court cases are not to be forgotten. In 2016, wage & hour class actions filed in state court also represented an increasingly important part of this trend.  Most pronounced in this respect were filings in the state courts of California, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.  In particular, California continued its status in 2016 as a breeding ground for wage & hour class action litigation due to laxer class certification standards under state law, exceedingly generous damages remedies for workers, and more plaintiff-friendly approaches to class certification as well as wage & hour issues under the California Labor Code.  For the fourth year out of the last five, the American Tort Reform Association (“ATRA”) selected California as one of the nation’s worst “judicial hellholes” as measured by the systematic application of laws and court procedures in an unfair and unbalanced manner. Calling California one of the worst of the worst jurisdictions, the ATRA described the Golden State as indeed that for plaintiffs’ lawyers “seeking riches and the expense of employers …” and where “lawmakers, prosecutors, and judges have long aided and abetted this massive redistribution of wealth.”

 

supreme-court-546279_960_720On Tuesday, February 1, 2017, President Trump announced the selection of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Judge Gorsuch sits on the U.S. Court of Appeal for the 10th Circuit. If confirmed by the Senate, Judge Gorsuch would fill the vacancy to replace Justice Scalia.

We’ve analyzed Judge Gorsuch’s rulings and his approach to workplace issues, and what this may mean for employers.

In this Supreme Court video update, Jerry Maatman discusses Judge Gorsuch’s background and legal philosophy, his prior rulings, and the ways in which he is similar to Justice Scalia.

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