By Christopher M. Cascino and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: At the start of this week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh, No. 17-432 (U.S. June 11, 2018), which has important implications for employers because it will limit their exposure to successive class actions.  Specifically, the Supreme Court held that, while the individual claims of putative class members are tolled during pending class actions, their class claims are not. 

Case Background

The China Agritech case was the third putative shareholder class action brought against China Agritech alleging fraud and misleading business practices.  The first such action was brought by Theodore Dean on February 11, 2011. On May 3, 2012, the court in Dean denied class certification, and Theodore Dean then settled his individual claim.

On October 4, 2012, a new set of plaintiffs brought the second putative class action, the Smyth action, against China Agritech. The district court again denied class certification, after which the Smyth plaintiffs settled with China Agritech.

On June 30, 2014, Michael Resh filed a third putative class action against China Agritech. China Agritech argued that Resh’s class claims expired on February 3, 2013 under the applicable two-year statute of limitations.  Resh argued that his class claims were tolled during the Dean and Smyth actions under the principles of American Pipe & Constr. Co. v. Utah, 414 U.S. 538 (1974), in which the Supreme Court held that the filing of a class action tolls the applicable statute of limitations for all putative class members.

The district court found that American Pipe tolling did not apply to class claims, and thus dismissed Resh’s class claims as untimely.  The Ninth Circuit reversed.  To resolve a circuit split, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

In an opinion by Justice Ginsburg, the Supreme Court began by considering the rationale behind its decision in American Pipe.  Specifically, the Supreme Court observed that the purpose of American Pipe tolling is to avoid putative class members filing motions to intervene or separate, individual suits to protect their claims in the event class certification was denied.  China Agritech, No. 14-432 at *5-6.  The Supreme Court further noted that the efficiency and economy purposes of Rule 23 would be undermined if putative class members needed to file motions to intervene and individual actions to preserve their individual claims while putative class actions were pending.  Id. at *6-*7.

The Supreme Court observed that Rule 23 favors early resolution of class certification questions, in that it Rule 23 states that class certification should be decided at “‘an early practicable time.’” Id. at *7 (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 23(c)).

The Supreme Court also considered the basis for allowing equitable tolling. Specifically, the Supreme Court pointed out that, to receive equitable tolling, plaintiffs must demonstrate that they have “been diligent in the pursuit of their claims.” China Agritech, No. 14-432 at *9. The Supreme Court found that “[a] would-be class representative who commences suit after expiration of the limitation period . . . can hardly qualify as diligent in asserting claims and pursuing relief.” Id.

Finally, the Supreme Court found that the problem with allowing American Pipe tolling to apply to class claims is that “the time for filing successive class suits . . . could be limitless.” Id. at *10. It held that “[e]ndless tolling of a statute of limitations is not a result envisioned by American Pipe.” Id. at *11. Accordingly, the Supreme Court held that “[t]ime to file a class action falls outside the bounds of American Pipe.” Id. at *15.

Implications For Employers

While China Agritech is not an employment case, it nonetheless represents an important win for employers because it limits the ability of employees to bring successive class actions on the same claims. If the Supreme Court had ruled that American Pipe tolling applied to class claims, employers who won on class certification in one case could then face successive putative class actions asserting the same claims for an indefinite period of time. Since the Supreme Court ruled that American Pipe tolling does not apply to class claims, employers can now have the certainty of knowing the date on which particular class claims expire.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: A federal district court in Maryland recently denied in part an employer’s motion to dismiss a race discrimination action brought on behalf of African-born security guards by the EEOC, and instead granted the EEOC’s motion to stay so that the Commission could amend its deficient pre-suit letters of determination that were the subject of the employer’s motion to dismiss.

This is an important ruling for employers facing systemic EEOC actions, particularly regarding the strategy to challenge whether the EEOC has satisfied its Title VII pre-suit obligations.

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Case Background

In EEOC v. MVM, Inc., No. 17-CV-2864, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 81268 (D. Md. May 14, 2018), the EEOC alleged that MVM subjected a group of African-born employees to national origin discrimination, consisting of disparate treatment, a hostile work environment, and unlawful retaliation. Id. at *1. In October 2013, MVM hired a new project manager to oversee 400 security personnel, approximately half of whom were “African or foreign-born blacks.” Id. at *2. Within weeks of his hire, the project manager allegedly began complaining that there were “too many Africans” on the contract, that he was not comfortable working with foreigners, that he “couldn’t understand their accents.” Id.

During the project manager’s tenure, MVM also allegedly engaged in a variety of negative actions against African and foreign-born black security personnel, including denying them leave, forcing them to work on their scheduled days off, forcing them to work extra hours beyond their scheduled shifts, assigning them to undesirable posts, subjecting them to heightened scrutiny, disciplining them more harshly than called for by its discipline policy, intimidating and threatening them with termination, and denying them union representation so as to facilitate the imposition of discipline, suspensions, and termination without cause. Id. at *2-3.

Nine terminated employees filed charges with the EEOC. After the EEOC investigated the Charging Parties’ complaints, it issued Letters of Determination (“LODs”) on November 3, 2016, finding that there was reasonable cause to believe MVM had violated Title VII by discriminating against the Charging Parties through “unequal, terms, conditions, and privileges of … employment because of … national origin,” and/or had retaliated against the Charging Parties for engaging in protected activity. Id.

Following unsuccessful conciliation, on September 27, 2017, the EEOC brought suit on behalf of the Charging Parties and a group of allegedly aggrieved individuals. As amended, the complaint alleged five counts of violations of Title VII, consisting of: (I) a pattern or practice of discriminatory treatment based on national origin; (II) disparate terms and conditions of employment based on national origin; (III) a hostile work environment based on national origin; (IV) discharge and constructive discharge based on national origin; and (V) unlawful retaliation.

In its motion to dismiss, MVM primarily argued that the amended complaint contained claims of disparate treatment on behalf of a group of aggrieved individuals, including claims of discriminatory termination and constructive discharge, which went beyond the scope of the underlying LODs. MVM also argued: (i) discrimination based on “perceived” national origin was not cognizable; (ii) that certain allegations in the amended complaint were based on incidents that do not rise to the level of “adverse employment actions”; (iii) that the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim for constructive discharge; and (iv) that the EEOC failed to state a plausible claim of retaliation arising from the termination of one employee. Id. at *10. In its motion to stay, the EEOC requested that the Court stay the proceedings for 45 days to afford it an opportunity to amend its LODs and engage in conciliation efforts based on the amended LODs.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the EEOC’s motion to stay, and denied most of MVM’s motion to dismiss. First, in addressing the EEOC’s motion to stay, the Court noted that in the absence of a stay, either the Court would have to engage in detailed, fact-based analysis of the adequacy of the LODs, or the EEOC would dismiss and re-file the case. Id. at *14. In support of staying the case, the Court noted that its conclusion was supported by Mach Mining v. EEOC, 135 S. Ct. 645 (2015). Specifically, the Court held that “MVM’s rigid position that the EEOC may have only one opportunity to provide notice of charges through its LOD is inconsistent with … Mach Mining … to allow additional opportunities to provide notice of charges and engage in conciliation, precisely the steps that the EEOC seeks to accomplish through its proposed stay.” Id. at *13. Accordingly, the Court granted the EEOC’s motion to stay.

Next, having granted the motion to stay in order to permit the EEOC to amend the LODs, the Court held that MVM’s request for dismissal of claims that were not specifically identified in the LODs, such as discriminatory termination, was now moot. Id. at *16. Turning to MVM’s motion to dismiss claims alleging discrimination on the basis of “perceived” national origin, the Court likewise denied MVM’s motion, holding that “[t]o conclude otherwise would be to allow discrimination to go unchecked where the perpetrator is too ignorant to understand the difference between individuals from different countries or regions, and to provide causes of action against only those knowledgeable enough to target only those from the specific country against which they harbor discriminatory animus.” Id. at *17, 21. 

The Court next addressed MVM’s motion to dismiss any disparate treatment claims based on allegedly discriminatory actions other than suspension or termination. MVM asserted that any freestanding claims of disparate treatment in other specific matters, such as denying leave to African employees, forcing them to work on their scheduled days off, or assigning them to undesirable posts, necessarily failed because those actions did not constitute adverse employment actions for purposes of Title VII. The EEOC argued that it was making no such discrete claims, but rather, that the various discriminatory acts short of suspension and termination that were referenced in the amended complaint were offered collectively to establish a hostile work environment. Id. at *25. The Court rejected the EEOC’s argument and granted MVM’s motion to dismiss the nation origin disparate treatment claim, noting that hostile work environment, discriminatory termination, and retaliation claims were separately plead in other counts. The Court also denied MVM’s motion to dismiss constructive discharge and retaliation claims, holding that the EEOC plausibly stated claims for both. Accordingly, the Court denied in part and granted in part MVM’s motion to dismiss, and granted the EEOC’s motion to stay.

Implications For Employers

Since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in the Mach Mining case in 2015, whether the EEOC has fulfilled its pre-suit obligations under Title VII has become a major area of focus for employers EEOC lawsuits. Here, although the Court generally acknowledged that the LODs were deficient, it avoided closely scrutinizing these pre-suit letters and allowed the EEOC to amend any deficiencies. Accordingly, while employers should not let one district court’s opinion deter them from challenging whether the EEOC fulfilled its pre-suit obligations, they should be cognizant that some courts will be more forgiving in allowing the EEOC to revisit failures to meet these obligations, as opposed to outright dismissing EEOC lawsuits.

 

 

By Christopher M. Cascino and Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In Sali v. Corona Regional Medical Center, No. 15-5640, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 11497 (9th Cir. May 3, 2018), a three judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a district court’s decision to deny class certification to a group of nurses.  The Ninth Circuit did so based on its holding that the district court should have considered evidence that would be inadmissible at trial under the Federal Rules of Evidence when it decided class certification.  This decision, which is at odds with precedent from the Fifth and Seventh Circuits, will make it more difficult for employers in the Ninth Circuit to resist class certification on evidentiary grounds. As a result, employers in the Ninth Circuit will need to emphasize other arguments in resisting class certification. Further, the plaintiffs’ class action bar is apt to press similar arguments in other circuits based on the holding in Sali.

Case Background

Plaintiffs Marlyn Sali and Deborah Spriggs (“Plaintiffs”) brought suit against their employer, Corona Regional Medical Center (“Corona”), alleging that Corona underpaid them and other nurses employed by Corona in violation of California law.  Most significant to the Ninth Circuit’s decision, Plaintiffs claimed that Corona improperly rounded the time of nurses employed by Corona, thereby resulting in lost wages.  Plaintiffs sought to certify seven classes, most of them derivative of Plaintiffs’ improper rounding claim.

In support of class certification, Plaintiffs submitted a declaration from a paralegal at the firm of Plaintiffs’ attorneys that attempted to show that Plaintiffs were injured by Corona’s rounding policy.  The paralegal “used Excel spreadsheets to compare [Plaintiffs’] rounded times with their actual clock-in and clock-out times using a random sampling of timesheets” and declared that, based on this comparison, Plaintiffs lost an average of between six and eight minutes per shift as a result of the rounding. Id. at *4.

The district court denied certification on multiple grounds.  The district court held that the typicality requirement of Rule 23(a) was not satisfied for any of the proposed classes because Plaintiffs failed to submit admissible evidence of their alleged injuries.  Specifically, the district court held that the declaration from the paralegal was inadmissible because: (i) the paralegal could not authenticate the documents he used to perform this analysis; (ii) the declaration was an inadmissible lay opinion; and (iii) the manipulation of the data done by the paralegal required an expert.

The district court also held that Spriggs was not an adequate class representative because she was not a member of any of the proposed classes.  It also held that Plaintiffs’ attorneys had not demonstrated that they could adequately serve as class counsel.  Finally, it concluded that Plaintiffs failed to meet the predominance requirement of Rule 26(b)(3) for four of their proposed classes.

Plaintiffs appealed the denial of class certification.

Ninth Circuit’s Decision

The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s denial of class certification.  The Ninth Circuit began its analysis by pointing out that, while class certification requires a “rigorous analysis,” it does not require “a mini-trial.”  Id. at *13-14.  It observed that “applying the formal strictures of trial to such an early stage of litigation makes little common sense” because “a class certification decision is far from a conclusive judgment on the merits of the case.”  Id. at *14.

The Ninth Circuit proceeded to hold that the district court abused its discretion when it concluded it could not consider inadmissible evidence at the class certification stage.  It came to this conclusion on two grounds.  First, the Ninth Circuit found that not allowing inadmissible evidence at the class certification stage would put plaintiffs at an unfair disadvantage because “the evidence needed to prove a class’s case often lies in a defendant’s possession and may be obtained only through discovery” and so “[l]imiting class-certification-stage proof to admissible evidence risks terminating actions before a putative class may gather crucial admissible evidence.”  Id. at *14-15.  Second, the Ninth Circuit concluded that “a court’s inquiry on a motion for class certification is tentative, preliminary, and limited” and thus that “there is bound to be some evidentiary uncertainty.”  Id. at *17.

The Ninth Circuit admitted that its decision conflicted with the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Unger v. Amedisys Inc., 401 F.3d 316, 319 (5th Cir. 2005), in which the Fifth Circuit held that a court’s “findings must be made based on adequate admissible evidence to justify class certification.”  Sali, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 11497, at *16.  The Ninth Circuit observed that its decision also may conflict with the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Messner v. Northshore Univ. Health Sys., 669 F.3d 802, 812 (7th Cir. 2012), and of the Third Circuit’s ruling of In Re Blood Reagents Antitrust Litig., 783 F.3d 183, 187 (3d Cir. 2015), both of which suggest that class certification evidence must be admissible.  Sali, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 11497, at *16.  The Ninth Circuit pointed out that the Eighth Circuit, in contrast, agreed that district courts should consider inadmissible evidence in deciding class certification in In Re Zurn Pex Plumbing Prod. Liab. Litig., 644 F.3d 604, 613 (8th Cir. 2011).

While holding that district courts should not automatically exclude inadmissible evidence in deciding class certification, the Ninth Circuit stated that it was not “dispens[ing] with the standards of admissibility entirely” at the certification stage.  Id. at *19.  Rather, the Ninth Circuit stated that courts “may consider whether the plaintiff’s proof is, or will likely lead to, admissible evidence” in deciding “the weight that evidence is given at the class certification stage.”  Id. at *20.

The Ninth Circuit also reversed the district court’s other justifications for declining certification.  The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district court that Plaintiff Spriggs was not a part of the class and thus not an adequate class representative, but held that Plaintiff Sali was part of the class and was an adequate class representative.  Id. at *20-21.  It held that the district court erred in finding class counsel inadequate because Plaintiffs’ counsel had “incurred thousands of dollars in costs and invested significant time in th[e] matter.”  Id. at *23.  Finally, the Ninth Circuit determined that Plaintiffs had met the predominance requirement because they raised common questions capable of class-wide resolution.

Implications For Employers

This decision is important for employers in the Ninth Circuit, not only because it will make it easier for plaintiffs to achieve class certification, but also because employers faced with class certification will need to adjust their defenses to account for the decision.  While employers should still raise admissibility concerns in opposing class certification to attack the weight of a plaintiff’s evidence, they must not hang their entire opposition on the inadmissibility of evidence because, in light of this decision, courts cannot simply ignore inadmissible evidence at the class certification stage.

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: On April 30, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a writ of certiorari in Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela, No. 17-988. This matter, which involves the interpretation of workplace arbitration agreements, has the potential to significantly impact class action litigation. In today’s video, Partner Jerry Maatman of Seyfarth Shaw explains the legal framework of this case, as well as its importance for employers.

Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela began as a putative class action filed in 2016 after a phishing incident at Lamps Plus. Specifically, Plaintiff Frank Varela’s tax information was compromised when an unknown individual posed as a company executive and gained access to confidential employee data. However, Lamps Plus argued that the company’s arbitration agreement signed by Varela mandated that his claims be handled through arbitration on an individual basis, thereby precluding his class action. Both the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with Varela’s argument that the arbitration agreement allowed for class arbitration.

The major question in this case regards the circumstances in which class arbitration can be compelled under the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”). Though the Supreme Court agreed to review this question in the near future, it answered nearly the same question in 2010 in a case entitled Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds International Corp., in which it held that class arbitration is authorized only when all parties specifically agree to it. Within the next 6-12 months, we can expect the Supreme Court to again a decision on this important class action topic.

Implications For Employers

Employers and human resources personnel who handle employment contracts should keep a close eye on this case. The decision in Lamps Plus Inc. v. Varela may very well impact an employer’s process in drafting arbitration clauses.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court’s decision to review this matter, while also considering Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, No. 16-285, indicates a significant interest in class action issues. Both of these matters have the potential to greatly impact employment class action litigation. Make sure to watch the video above for a detailed explanation of the Varela debate, and stay tuned to our blog for the latest updates!

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Alex W. Karasik

Seyfarth Synopsis: In an Equal Pay Act collective action lawsuit brought by female school crossing guards against the City of New York, who alleged they were paid less than male traffic enforcement agents, a federal district court in New York recently granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment, finding that significant differences between the two positions warranted the pay differential.

For employers facing Equal Pay Act claims relative to compensation differences for two similar but unique positions, this ruling provides a blueprint for attacking such claims.

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Case Background

In Miller v. City of New York, No. 15 Civ. 7563, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 73238 (S.D.N.Y. May 1, 2018), female New York City school crossing guards alleged violations of the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), New York State Human Rights Law (“NYSHRL”), and New York City Human Rights Law (“NYCHRL”), arguing they were paid less than traffic enforcement agents, even though they claimed to do substantially the same work. Id. at *1-3. Approximately 96% of the school crossing guards are female, while 56% of the traffic enforcement agents are male.

At the time that the case was filed, school crossing guards were paid at an hourly rate ranging between $11.79 and $14.40 per hour, while traffic enforcement agents received an annual salary ranging from $33,751 to $40,930 per year, or approximately $16.16 to $19.60 per hour. Id. at *4. School crossing guards do not sit for a civil service examination or undergo psychological testing, do not have an educational requirement or need to possess a driver’s license, do not enforce traffic regulations, do not issue tickets or carry radios, and undergo one week of training. Traffic enforcement agents direct traffic, prepare and issue paper and electronic summonses, testify at administrative hearings and in court, and operate radios and other electronic equipment.

In October 2016, the Court conditionally certified a collective action on Plaintiffs’ EPA claim and also certified class claims under Rule 23  on Plaintiffs’ NYSHRL and NYCHRL claims. Id. at *1. Both classes were defined as female employees who are or were employed as school crossing guards from September 2012 through December 2016. Approximately 1,600 school crossing guards opted-in to the EPA collective action, and the NYSHRL and NYCHRL classes consisted of over 2,000 individuals. Thereafter, the City for New York moved for summary judgment on all claims.

The Court’s Decision

The Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment on all of the claims. First, regarding the EPA claim, the Court held that the stark differences in training, job requirements, and job responsibilities between traffic enforcement agents school crossing guards warranted summary judgment. Id. at *8. In support of its finding, the Court noted that traffic enforcement agents receive nearly ten times more training than school crossing guards, strongly suggesting the two positions require divergent skill levels. Further, traffic enforcement agents are full-time employees that can be required to work nights, weekends, and overtime, while school crossing guards are part-time employees who work no more than five hours per day, primarily during school hours. Plaintiffs argued that that both school crossing guards and traffic enforcement agents direct the flow of pedestrians and traffic, but the Court rejected this assertion as overly broad and not indicative of the actual job content. Accordingly, the Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment on the EPA claim.

Turning to the New York State Law Human Rights claim, the Court explained that discrimination claims under the NYSHRL are analyzed identically to claims brought under Title VII. Id. at *12. To establish a case of disparate pay under Title VII, a plaintiff must show: (1) she was a member of a protected class; (2) she was paid less than similarly situated non-members of her protected class; and (3) evidence of discriminatory animus. Id. (citation omitted). The Court found that Plaintiffs failed to meet the second element since female school crossing guards and male traffic enforcement agents were not similarly situated due to a myriad of factors, such as education, training, job requirements, job responsibilities, hours worked, and working conditions. Id. at *13. Accordingly, since no reasonable jury could find that Plaintiffs established a prima facie case under the NYSHRL, the Court granted summary judgment for the employer.

Finally, the Court analyzed Plaintiffs’ New York City Human Rights claim, noting that under New York City law, an employer may not discriminate in terms of compensation based on an employee’s gender. The Court explained that in order to succeed on their claim, Plaintiffs must identify appropriate comparators and present a sufficiently developed record from which a jury could conclude that the comparators received preferential treatment. Id. at *15 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). The Court held that Plaintiffs failed to offer any proof of discriminatory animus, and there was no evidence in the record of a discriminatory motive underlying the disparate pay rates. Plaintiffs also argued there was a discriminatory impact, but the Court noted that Plaintiffs failed to allege this theory in their First Amended Complaint. Accordingly, the Court granted the City of New York’s motion for summary judgment.

Implications For Employers

Equal Pay Act collective actions and state law class claims relative to gender pay are on the rise, and employers absolutely need to take notice. For employers who are confronted with gender pay class actions involving wage comparisons for similar but unique positions, this ruling provides an excellent framework on how to defeat such claims by highlighting differences in areas such as job duties, education and training requirements. Nonetheless, the best way to avoid gender pay claims is to implement non-discriminatory pay practices, and make efforts to ensure that women and other members of protected classes are fairly and equally compensated.

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Jr.

Seyfarth Synopsis: In its recent review of Seyfarth’s 2018 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report, EPLiC called it the “bible” for class action legal practitioners, corporate counsel, employment practices liability insurers, and anyone who works in related areas.

We are humbled and honored by the recent review of our 2018 Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report by Employment Practices Liability Consultant Magazine (“EPLiC”) – the review is here.

EPLiC said: “The Report is a must-have resource for legal research and in-depth analysis of employment-related class action litigation. Anyone who practices in this area, whether as a corporate counsel, a private attorney, a business execu­tive, a risk manager, an underwriter, a consul­tant, or a broker, cannot afford to be without it. Importantly, the Report is the only publica­tion of its kind in the United States. It is the sole compendium that analyzes workplace class actions from ‘A to Z.’”

We are often asked – “How does it happen – how do you produce your Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report”?

The answer is pretty simple – we live, eat, and breathe workplace class action law 24/7.

Each and every morning we check the previous day’s filings of EEOC lawsuits and workplace class actions relative to employment discrimination, ERISA, and wage & hour claims. We do so on a national basis, both in federal courts and all 50 states. Then we check, log, and analyze every ruling on Rule 23 certification motions and subsidiary issues throughout federal and state trial and appellate courts. This is also done on a national basis.  We put this information in our customized database; we analyze and compare the rulings on class action issues and Rule 23 topics, and then we prepare an analysis of each and every decision.

Our class action practitioners – a group of over 175 Seyfarth lawyers – contribute to the process of building the database and analyzing decisional law on a daily basis.

We have been doing this on a 24/7 basis for over 14 years, and publishing the Annual Workplace Class Action Litigation Report in the first week of January of each calendar year.

The result is a compendium of workplace class action law that is unique in its analysis, scope, and comprehensiveness.

We are particularly proud that EPLiC recognized our Report as the “state-of-the-art report” on workplace class action litigation.

Thanks EPLiC. We sincerely appreciate the kudos.

Now, even less than half way through the year, we have tracked and analyzed more class action decisions to this point in 2018 than at the halfway point in past years. On this pace, our 2019 Report will cover more decisions than ever before.

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. and Mark W. Wallin

Seyfarth Synopsis:  A Maryland federal district court recently found that a successor employer could be liable in an EEOC lawsuit for its predecessor’s alleged employment discrimination.  For employers, this decision is a cautionary tale — the lesson being that liability for claims of employment discrimination can extend beyond the entity alleged to have been responsible for the conduct to reach a successor entity that played no role in the alleged bad acts.  In light of this decision, due diligence in corporate acquisitions is more important than ever.  An entity acquiring not only assets but also employees must understand the risks of liability regarding the workforce it is inheriting.  As the Court decided here, no matter how explicit the disclaimer of liability, a successor may still be liable in an EEOC lawsuit for the discriminatory acts of its predecessor.

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In EEOC v. Phase 2 Invs. Inc., Case No. 17-CV-2463, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 65719 (D. Md. April 17, 2018), a Maryland district court denied motions to dismiss and for summary judgment brought by a successor employer and the predecessor employer, finding that the Court not only had jurisdiction over the claims against the successor employer, but also that the successor employer could be held liable for the discrimination allegations levied against its predecessor.  What’s more, the Court found that although the charging parties were undocumented workers, such status did not prevent the EEOC from pursuing Title VII claims on their behalf, contrary to the argument advanced by the predecessor employer. However, the Court recognized the precarious nature of the relief it could grant under such circumstances, as back pay and injunctive relief (i.e., re-hiring) are unavailable.  Nevertheless, the Court stated that the Defendants would not get off “scot-free” if the allegations were proven true.

Case Background

In EEOC v. Phase 2, Invs., Inc., the employee charging parties worked for Maritime Autowash, Inc. (“Maritime,” and later became Phase 2 Investments).  Maritime operated a car wash in Edgewater, Maryland.  The charging parties alleged that they and other Hispanic employees were subject to harassment and discrimination while working for Maritime, and that they were fired after they complained to management about the alleged mistreatment.  Notably, several months prior to their termination, an audit by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement revealed that thirty-nine Maritime employees, including the charging parties, were not authorized to work in the United States.  According to the charging parties, Maritime management gave each of these employees money “so that they could obtain new papers and be re-hired . . . under new names.”  Upon their termination, in July 2013, the charging parties contacted the EEOC and eventually signed formal charges of discrimination against Maritime in February 2014.

In January 2015, after many months of negotiation, Maritime sold its assets including the Edgewater car wash to CWP West Corp. t/a Mister Car Wash (“Mister”).  According to Mister, the deal was structured as an asset purchase agreement, in order to avoid assuming Maritime’s existing liabilities other than those expressly stated in the agreement — which did not include employment discrimination liability.  However, as part of the purchase, Maritime did disclose to Mister its responses to the charges of discrimination filed by the charging parties with the EEOC.

In August 2017, after more than three years of investigation, litigation regarding EEOC subpoenas, and failed conciliation (including Mister), the EEOC filed suit against Maritime and Mister.  In its lawsuit, the EEOC alleged, pursuant to Title VII, race discrimination in the form of harassment, intimidation, unequal terms and conditions of employment, lower wages, denial of promotional opportunities, disparate discipline and discharge because of their race and in retaliation for engaging in protected activity.  Moreover, although the charging parties never worked for Mister, the EEOC alleged that Mister could be liable as a successor in interest.

On this record, Maritime and Mister moved for dismissal and summary judgment.  After considering Maritime and Mister’s arguments, the Court issued a thorough opinion rejecting them in total.

Jurisdiction

Mister first challenged the Court’s jurisdiction over it as a successor entity.  Although neither the charging parties nor the EEOC brought administrative charges against Mister — which is a jurisdictional requirement under Title VII — the Court found that it had jurisdiction over the claims.  Id. at *21.  To reach this conclusion, the Court drew a distinction between successor jurisdiction, and the more substantive inquiry regarding successor liability.  Id. at *26.  The former, it found, could be satisfied as long as the jurisdictional requirements were satisfied for the predecessor company, and the successor had notice of the charge and an opportunity to voluntarily comply.  Id. at *26.  Specifically, “[a] federal court has jurisdiction over a Title VII claim against a defendant-employer who was not named in an administrative charge of discrimination when the theory of liability rests on the actions of a different employer who was named in the charge of discrimination, and the defendant-employer had notice of the charge and an opportunity to voluntarily comply prior to the plaintiff bringing the claim in court.” Id. at *26 (emphasis in original).

Because Mister had notice of the charges prior to filing of the lawsuit, and even had the opportunity to conciliate with the EEOC, the Court found that Mister need not actually be named in a charge.  Id. at *27.  The Court rejected a formalistic approach that would require the refiling of the exact same charges against Mister.  Id.

Successor Liability And The Applicability Of Title VII To Undocumented Workers

Satisfied that it had jurisdiction over the claims, the Court moved on to address Mister and Maritime’s substantive arguments.  Maritime argued that because it never employed the charging parties, it should not be treated as successor for liability purposes under Title VII.  Further, Maritime argued that the charging parties’ status as undocumented workers required the lawsuit to be dismissed.

The Court held that as Maritime’s successor, Mister could be found liable under Title VII, despite the charging parties having never worked for Mister.  The Court stated that successor liability under Title VII was equitable in nature, and that the Court should thus “balance the needs of discriminatees and the national policy against discrimination . . . against the unfairness of holding an innocent purchaser liable for another’s misdeed . . .”  Id. at *39.  Specifically, the Court looked to three primary factors: “whether a successor had notice, whether a predecessor had the ability to provide relief, and the continuity of the business.”  Id. at *40-41.

As to notice, the Court distinguished successor liability notice from successor jurisdiction, stating that for liability purposes, Mister needed to have actual or constructive notice of the charges prior to purchasing Maritime’s assets.  Id. at *41.  While Mister’s knowledge as to the full extent of the charges was unclear, the Court found that Mister had at least constructive knowledge that Maritime faced some potential employment discrimination liability prior to purchase.  Id. at *41-42.  Indeed, the Court found it persuasive that Mister was a relatively sophisticated consumer that could have acted upon the red flags it uncovered during its due diligence.  Id. at *42.  Moreover, the Court noted that in the event the EEOC prevails and Mister suffers economic liability as a result, then Mister may look to the asset purchase agreement for recourse against Maritime, but that potential recourse against Maritime did not absolve Mister from liability “vis a vis the EEOC.”  Id. at *42-43.

The Court next found that as the former employer, Maritime would not be able to provide relief, because the EEOC sought injunctive relief that Maritime could no longer provide at this juncture.  Id. at *44.  As to the continuity factor, the Court held that because Mister continued to run essentially the same business, a car wash, this factor also weighed in favor of finding that Mister may be liable as a successor.  Id. at *45.  Accordingly, under these three factors, the Court determined that it would be equitable to hold Mister jointly and severally liability for any liability that Maritime incurred.  Id. at *46.

Finally, the Court addressed the thorny issue of whether discrimination against an undocumented worker was an unlawful employment action under Title VII.  Id. at *54.  After analyzing Title VII itself, along with Supreme Court and Fourth Circuit precedent, the Court found that “discrimination against an employee on the basis of his race, national origin, or participation in EEOC investigations is an unlawful employment practice under Title VII even if that employee is an undocumented alien, and the EEOC may therefore pursue its claim here.”  Id. at *65.  Among other things, the Court noted that finding otherwise would essentially give Maritime and other employers the ability to both hire undocumented workers and then unlawfully discriminate against those it unlawfully hired.  Id. at *64.  It further reasoned that “[e]ven if Maritime was unaware of the Charging Parties’ immigration status when it hired them, if the Court were to ‘sanction the formation of [that] statutorily declared illegal relationship’ by shielding Maritime (and its successors) from Title VII scrutiny, other employers may well find an incentive to look the other way when potential employees are unable to provide proper documentation.”  Id.

Nevertheless, the Court noted that as a result of the charging parties’ undocumented status, the nature of relief that could be sought was limited.  For instance, the Court found that it could not require Mister to re-hire the charging parties or award back pay.  Id. at *66.  Instead, the Court found that if the EEOC proves that Maritime discriminated against the charging parties, Title VII grants the Court broad discretion in fashioning relief and that the public interest would be best served through some monetary penalty.  Id.

Implications For Employers

This opinion should be required reading for any employer contemplating an acquisition of another company.  Indeed, the Court provided a detailed road map for when employment discrimination claims may be maintained against successor employers, even if such employees never worked for the successor and never named it in the charging documents.  Based on this decision, merely disclaiming the liability of a predecessor entity through an asset purchase agreement is not enough to shield a successor employer from the EEOC’s pursuit of employment discrimination liability — although such disclaimers are still useful for recouping any monetary loss against the predecessor entity.  Accordingly, through due diligence, employers must be sure to seek information regarding this potential employment liability, and understand the risks acquiring a company that has received charges of discrimination against it before deciding to proceed.  Willful ignorance is unlikely to be a fruitful defense to such claims.

By: Gerald L. Maatman, Jr. & Michael L. DeMarino

Seyfarth Synopsis:  In September 2017, our blog posted a video highlighting an emerging class action litigation risk for employers – the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy, commonly known as “BIPA.”  Since this time, class action filings under BIPA have exploded, including a potentially-landmark case against social media giant Facebook.  Today, Seyfarth Shaw Associate Mike DeMarino discusses the Facebook case, as well as its potential impact on employers, with Partner Jerry Maatman.

The BIPA statute was enacted by the Illinois legislature in 2008 in an effort to keep up with various industries’ use of employees’ biometric data.  In this context, biometric data refers to a number of measurements of individual biological patterns that can be used to identify individuals.  Examples we have seen cited in BIPA litigation include retina/iris scans, fingerprints, voiceprints, and scans of hand/face geometry.

Though the BIPA statute was enacted in Illinois ten years ago, employers and litigators are still waiting to see how certain aspects of the law will be interpreted.  A recent class action, entitled In Re Facebook Biometric Information Privacy Litigation, Case No. 15-CV-3747 (N.D. Cal.), may provide some important answers.  This matter, filed by three Facebook users in Illinois, involves allegations that Facebook violated users’ rights to privacy under BIPA through its automatic face-tagging feature.  On April 16, 2018, a federal judge in California certified (see order here) the class as all “Facebook users located in Illinois for whom Facebook created and stored a face template after June 7, 2011.”  The case is set for trial in June 2018.

As Jerry explains in the video, employers should keep a close eye on the outcome of this class action.  The key debate, centered around the concept of “standing” under Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins 136 S. Ct. 1540 (2016), has the potential to significantly impact future BIPA litigation.  For a full explanation of this case and employer class action litigation risk under BIPA, make sure to watch the video above!

By Gerald L. Maatman, Timothy F. Haley, and Ashley K. Laken

Seyfarth Synopsis: There are currently pending at least four class actions claiming that provisions contained in franchise agreements prohibiting the hiring of employees of other intrabrand franchisees without the consent of their employer violate the antitrust laws.  That being said, in 1993 the Ninth Circuit affirmed summary judgment in favor of a franchisor in a similar “no-hire” case.  It reasoned that due to the control the franchisor exercised over its franchisees, the franchisor and its franchisees were incapable of conspiring in violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act. While the so-called “single enterprise” defense is potentially available, franchisors should be cognizant that in developing that defense, they may create evidence or admissions that would support a subsequent claim that the franchisors are joint employers of their franchisees’ employees.  In light of the availability of other defenses, franchisor employers should assess whether the joint employer risk is worth accepting in order to pursue the single enterprise defense. 

Introduction

“No-hire” (sometimes referred to as “no-switching”) agreements are contracts between or among employers not to hire each other’s employees.  A “no-poaching” agreement is different but similar.  It prevents the solicitation of another employers’ employees, but does not prevent their hire, so long as there was no solicitation.  The franchise no-hire agreements typically are limited in duration.  For example, in pending litigation against Pizza Hut,  it is alleged that the challenged agreement only prohibits hiring anyone who was in a managerial position at another Pizza Hut restaurant at any time during the previous six months.  Ion v. Pizza Hut, LLC, Case No. 4:17-cv-00788, Complaint at ¶ 4, available at https://www.classaction.org/media/ion-v-pizza-hut-llc.pdf (last visited on 4/10/2018).

In 2017, at least three class action cases were brought against separate franchisors alleging that the organizations’ “no-hire” agreements suppress wages and violate antitrust laws.  And a fourth was filed in January 2018.  There may be more to come.  In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions dated November 21, 2017, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker inquired as to whether DOJ was “currently investigating the use of no-poach agreements in the franchise industry.”  In that correspondence, Senators Warren and Booker cited to a study by Princeton economists that found that “fully 58% of the 156 largest franchisors operating around 340,000 franchise units used some form of anti-competitive ‘no-poach’ agreements.”  See https://www.warren.senate.gov./files/documents/2017_11_21_No_Poach.pdf (last visited on 4/10/2018).

To prove a violation of Section 1 of the Sherman Act, the plaintiff must show an agreement between or among two or more persons or entities.  Monsanto Co. v. Spray-Rite Service Corp., 465 U.S. 752, 761 (1984).  In 1993, a Jack-in-the-Box franchisor successfully defended a challenge to its no-switching agreement on the grounds that the franchisor and its franchisees were a single enterprise and incapable of conspiring in violation of Section 1.  Williams v. I.B. Fischer Nevada, 999 F.2d 445, 447-48 (9th Cir. 1993) (per curiam).

That defense is premised upon the control that a franchisor has over the operations of its franchisees.  And the question then is whether developing that defense creates an unacceptable risk of creating evidence or admissions supporting joint employer status.

The Single Enterprise Defense

In the franchise no-hire context, usually there is little dispute that an agreement exists.  It is typically contained in the franchise agreements between the franchisor and each of its franchisees.  But the parties to the alleged unlawful agreement must also be legally capable of conspiring.  In Copperweld Corp. v. Independence Tube Corp., 467 U.S. 752, 771 (1984), the U.S. Supreme Court held that a parent and its wholly owned subsidiary were incapable of conspiring in violation of Section 1 because their conduct must be viewed as that of a single enterprise.  The Supreme Court reasoned that “[a] parent and its wholly owned subsidiary have a complete unity of interest.  The objectives are common, not disparate; the general corporate actions are guided or determined not by two separate corporate consciousnesses, but one.”  Id.  It therefore reversed the decision of the Seventh Circuit which had affirmed a jury verdict in favor of the plaintiff.

In 1993, without mentioning Copperweld, the Ninth Circuit extended this single enterprise concept to the franchise environment in a no-hire case.  Williams, 999 F.2d at 447-48.  Other courts have also found that franchisors were incapable of conspiring with their franchisees within the meaning of the Sherman Act.  See Danforth & Associates, Inc.,  v. Coldwell Banker Real Estate, LLC, Case No. C10-1621, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 10882, *6-7 (W.D. Wash. Feb. 2, 2011) (franchisor and franchisee cannot conspire within the meaning of the Sherman Act); Search International, Inc. v. Snelling and Snelling, Inc., 168 F. Supp. 2d 621, 626-27 (N.D. Tex. 2001) (unity of interest between franchisor and its franchisees made them incapable of conspiring in violation of the Sherman Act); Hall v. Burger King Corporation, 912 F. Supp. 1509, 1548 (S.D. Fla. 1995) (franchisor and franchisee were incapable of conspiring under the Sherman Act).

But the authorities cited above do not stand for the broad proposition that franchisors, in general, cannot unlawfully conspire with their franchisees.  The district court in Williams itself acknowledged that the issue required an examination of the particular facts.  Williams v. I.B. Fischer Nevada, 794 F. Supp. 1026, 1030 (D. Nev. 1992).  Likewise, some have opined that the Supreme Court’s subsequent decision in American Needle v. National Football League, 560 U.S. 183 (2010), makes it more difficult for franchisors to argue that the franchise system is a single economic enterprise.  See B. Block & M. Ridings, Antitrust Conspiracies in Franchise Systems After American Needle, Franchise L.J., Vol. 30, No. 4 (Spring 2011).  In American Needle, the Supreme Court held that the National Football League was not a single enterprise for antitrust purposes regarding certain licensing activities.  Id. at 186.

Thus, while certainly authority exists to support the argument that franchisors cannot conspire with their franchisees in violation of Section 1, the defense may not be successful in every case.  And as noted, developing that defense may create evidence or admissions that could be used to support a joint employer argument that could create legal risks for franchisors in other contexts.

Potential Joint Employer Liability

There are numerous laws that recognize that an employee can be simultaneously employed by more than one employer.  This is referred to as joint or co-employment.  If a franchisor is found to be the joint employer of the employees of its franchisee, it could be exposed to liability for, among other things: benefits under the franchisor’s benefit plans; Occupational Safety and Health Act (“OSHA”) violations; violations of the National Labor Relations Act (“NLRA”); violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”); violations of state and federal employment practices statutes; and violations of numerous state laws, depending upon the state.

Franchisors have had notable success in defeating claims that they are a joint employer of their franchisees’ employees.  For example, in Pope v. Espeseth, Inc., 228 F. Supp. 3d 884, 889‑91 (W.D. Wis. 2017), the court held that the franchisor was not a joint employer of the franchisees’ employees under the FLSA.  The court found, among other things, that the franchisor did not exercise control over the franchisees’ employees’ working conditions.  See also Ochoa v. McDonald’s Corp., 133 F. Supp. 3d 1228, 1235-38 (N.D. Cal. 2015) (franchisor was not joint employer of franchisees’ employees because, among other things, it did not exercise requisite control of their wages, hours or working conditions).

But it is difficult to predict whether a joint employer relationship exists.  First, the tests vary depending upon the law or statute at issue.  Compare Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB No. 156, slip op. at 6 (Dec. 14, 2017), vacated on other grounds by Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 366 NLRB No. 26 (Feb. 26, 2018) (applying common law agency principles) with Barfield v. New York City Health and Hospitals, 537 F.3d 132, 141‑43 (2d Cir. 2008) (applying an economic realities test under the FLSA).  And even under the same law, the courts sometimes apply different tests depending upon the jurisdiction.  See Hall v. DirecTV, LLC, 846 F.3d 757, 766 (4th Cir. 2017) (noting that “courts in various jurisdictions within this Circuit and throughout the country [apply] numerous, distinct, multifactor joint employment tests” under the FLSA).  Likewise, even under the NLRA, the law has fluctuated between a direct and indirect control test.  See Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB No. 156, slip op. at 1-8 (Feb. 26, 2018).

The joint employer tests are also ambiguous.  Most of the tests require consideration of multiple factors, no one of which is controlling, and require the decision-maker to consider the “totality of circumstances.”  See, e.g., Barfield, 537 F.3d at 141-42 (noting that the FLSA multifactor test considers the totality of the circumstances).  The courts recognize that this is an inherently ambiguous test that at times leads to arbitrary results.  See Salinas v. Commercial Interiors, Inc., 848 F.3d at 137 ( “[L]ike other open-ended balancing tests,” this universe of nebulous factors test has “yield[ed] unpredictable and at times arbitrary results”) (internal citations and quotations omitted).

But in all of these multifactor tests, one of the factors considered is whether the potential joint employer has the right to, or exercises, “control.”  See, e.g., Hy-Brand Industrial Contractors, Ltd., 365 NLRB 156, slip op. at 35  (“requires proof that the alleged joint-employer entities have actually exercised joint control over essential employment terms”) (emphasis in original); Zheng v Liberty Apparel Co., 355 F.3d 61, 72 (2d Cir. 2003) (listing factors to consider to ascertain whether alleged joint employer has “functional control over workers” for purposes of the FLSA).

Certainly, the case can be made that the control necessary to establish the single enterprise defense is not the type of control necessary to support a joint employer finding.  For example, a parent-subsidiary relationship is sufficient to establish the single enterprise defense, see, e.g., Copperweld, 467 U.S. at 777, but insufficient to show a joint employer relationship, see Anwar v. Dow Chemical Co., 876 F.3d 841, 852-53 (6th Cir. 2017) (parent company not joint employer of subsidiary’s employees).  To establish the single enterprise defense in the franchise context, the franchisor will have to show that it has substantial control over the franchisees’ operations.  For example, in Williams, the court found that the franchisor exercised “almost complete control” over all decisions affecting the operation of the restaurants.  794 F. Supp. at 1032.  Whether a franchisor can make a similar showing without creating evidence of joint employment is not risk free.

Other Defenses To The Antitrust No-Hire Claims May Be Strong

Normally, an agreement will violate Section 1 of the Sherman Act only if it has an unreasonably adverse effect on competition.  The so-called “rule of reason” standard requires courts, in most cases, to analyze the effect of the agreement on competition in a relevant market and determine whether its anticompetitive effects outweigh its procompetitive benefits in that market.  See generally Atlantic Richfield Co. v. U.S.A. Petroleum Co., 495 U.S. 328, 342 (1990).  Judicial experience with certain types of agreements, however, has demonstrated that such agreements are so plainly or manifestly anticompetitive that no elaborate study is necessary.  Such agreements are conclusively presumed to be unreasonable and are deemed unlawful per seSee, e.g., Business Electronics Corp. v. Sharp Electronics, Corp., 485 U.S. 717, 723-24 (1988).

Rule Of Reason Analysis Should Apply

The rule of reason should apply in determining the antitrust legality of no-hire agreements in the franchise setting.  First, the restraint is not naked but rather ancillary to the franchise agreement.  In Williams. the agreement’s purpose was to prevent raiding after time and expense had been invested in training.  794 F. Supp. at 1092.  Ancillary restraints are judged under the rule of reason.  See generally Eichorn v. AT&T Corp., 248 F.3d 131, 142-46 (3d Cir. 2001) (ancillary agreements are judged under the rule of reason).

Second, since the agreements are limited to a single brand, they should be viewed as an intrabrand restraint imposed vertically by the franchisor to encourage training by franchisees to assist in competing against other franchise brands.  Interbrand, as opposed to intrabrand, competition is “the primary concern of antitrust law.”  Continental T.V. v. GTE Sylvania Inc., 433 U.S. 36, 52 n.19 (1977).  And nonprice vertical restraints that impose limitations on intrabrand competition are normally judged under the rule of reason.  See generally ABA Section of Antitrust Law, Antitrust Law Developments, 152-57 (8th ed. 2017) (“Developments”); see also Bogan v. Hodgkins, 166 F.3d 509, 515 (2d Cir. 1999) (refusing to apply per se rule to antitrust challenge to no-switching agreement).

Individual Franchisors Do Not Have the Power To Suppress
Wages In The Market For Restaurant Manager Jobs

Under the rule of reason, courts usually require “proof of a defendant’s market power as a prerequisite for a plaintiff seeking to satisfy its burden of proving likely anticompetitive effect.”  Developments at 71.  Market power is defined as the ability to raise prices above those that would be charged in a competitive market.  Id. at 70-71.  In the wage suppression context, that translates into the capability of a defendant to lower wages below those that would be paid in a competitive market.  Courts rarely find that market power exists if a defendant’s market share is under 30 percent.  Id. at 71.

To prove that a defendant has market power, the plaintiff must normally establish a relevant market, both in terms of the product involved and the geographic scope.  The product market must include all products that are reasonably interchangeable.  See generally id. at 583‑88.  Significantly, “relevant markets generally cannot be limited to a single manufacturer’s products.”  Id. at 591.  In the franchise no-hire cases, that means that the product market must include jobs provided by all employers who offer positions that are reasonable substitutes for one another.

The plaintiffs in the pending franchise no-hire cases claim that specialized training renders jobs at other franchises unreasonable substitutes.  E.g., Ion v. Pizza Hut, LLC, Case No. 4:17‑cv‑00788, Complaint at ¶¶ 80-81, available at https://www.classaction.org/media/ion-v-pizza-hut-llc.pdf (last visited on 4/10/2018).  Thus, the plaintiffs are necessarily contending that the relevant product market is limited only to jobs at the defendant franchisor’s franchisees.  But to accept this argument the court would have to adopt the disfavored single brand market, and plaintiffs have failed to prevail on similar arguments in at least three other no-hire cases.  See Eichorn, 248 F.3d at 148 (rejecting argument that relevant market was limited to jobs at AT&T and its affiliates); Bogan, 166 F.3d at 516 (affirming summary judgment in a no-switching agreement case because plaintiffs were unable to show that the “specialized training and expertise” was sufficient to create an antitrust submarket consisting of agent positions provided by a single insurance company); CMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63633 at *29‑31 (granting summary judgment to defendants because plaintiffs had not shown that the relevant market was limited to jobs in the oil and petrochemical industry).

It is also highly unlikely that a plaintiff can show that any single franchisor possesses market power (i.e., the ability to suppress wages) in the market for supervisor jobs, or even for manager or supervisor positions limited to such establishments..  Certainly, no franchisor possesses 30 percent or more of either of those markets.

Plaintiffs may try to avoid this outcome by arguing that they can demonstrate actual anticompetitive effects resulting from the no-hire agreements with direct evidence, making a showing of market power unnecessary.  See generally Developments at 68-70 (noting that some cases have acknowledged that proof of actual competitive harm can obviate the need to show market power even when restraints are not naked restrictions on price or output).  But such a showing is difficult to make and has been rejected in at least one wage suppression case involving the exchange of wage information because the plaintiffs were unable to show that the relevant market was limited to jobs in the oil and petrochemical industry.  See CMT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 63633 at *23‑26; see also Developments at 68‑70 (“attempts to prove substantial, actual anticompetitive effects have often been unsuccessful,” citing cases).

For these reasons, franchisors have very strong arguments that no-hire agreements limited to their own franchisees that are limited in duration and designed to create incentives for franchisees to provide training do not violate the antitrust laws.  Thus, franchisor defendants in these cases should carefully consider whether it is necessary to pursue the single enterprise defense and risk creating evidence that could support a joint employer argument in other contexts.

Conclusion

While each case will turn on its own facts, franchisors may have strong defenses available to them to resist antitrust challenges to their no-hire agreements.  One of those defenses is the single enterprise defense, but pursuing that defense may create evidence that could be used against the franchisor in a subsequent joint employer claim.  And, it is difficult to predict the potential adverse effects of creating that evidence given the current ambiguity and evolving nature of the joint employer doctrine.  Thus, before raising the single enterprise defense, franchisors should carefully analyze the strength of that and other available defenses to the no-hire claim and weigh that against the risk of a joint employer claim.

 

By Gerald L. Maatman, Timothy F. Haley, and Ashley K. Laken

Seyfarth Synopsis: True to his word, the Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice has announced the first of a number of anticipated no-poach enforcement actions.  While this was a civil proceeding, the Department of Justice has said that in some cases it may treat the conduct as criminal.  Many executives and HR professionals are unaware that the antitrust laws apply to the employment marketplace.  Thus, if they have not done so already, employers should consider the implementation of compliance programs to make sure that appropriate employees are aware of these developments and risks.

In January 2018, Makan Delrahim, the Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division, said that the Department Of Justice (“DOJ”) had been very active in reviewing potential antitrust violations resulting from agreements among employers not to compete for workers.  (We previously reported on this announcement here.)  He said that he was “shocked” at how many there were and that in the coming months there would be announcements of enforcement actions.  He also mentioned that if the conduct occurred or continued after issuance of the October 2016 joint DOJ and Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) Antitrust Guidance for Human Resource Professionals (the “Joint Guidance”), the DOJ may treat those agreements as criminal.

On April 3, 2018, the first of these announcements was made.  See “Justice Department Requires Knorr and Wabtec to Terminate Unlawful Agreements Not to Compete for Employees,” available at (“News Release”).  The DOJ advised that it filed a complaint in which it alleged that Knorr-Bremse AG (“Knorr”), Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies Corporation (“Wabtec”) and Faiveley Transport S.A., before it was acquired by Wabtec, entered into agreements not to compete for each other’s employees (“no-poach” agreements).  The DOJ contends that these were naked agreements – i.e., not reasonably necessary for a separate, legitimate business transaction or collaboration – and amounted to per se violations of Section 1 of the Sherman Act.  With the Complaint DOJ also filed a Competitive Impact Statement; Explanation of Consent Decree; and Stipulation and Proposed Final Judgment.  (See News Release.)

As noted, Mr. Delrahim stated that there were a number of these investigations ongoing, and in the News Release said that this Complaint was “part of a broader investigation by the Antitrust Division into naked agreements not to compete for employees.”  So more of these announcements can be expected, and some may be announcements of criminal prosecutions.

Many Employees Are Unaware That the Antitrust Laws Apply to the Employment Market

Often some business executives and human resource professionals are unaware that the antitrust laws apply to the workplace.  Executives who would never consider discussing prices with their competitors are unaware that discussing wages or salaries could have antitrust risks.  Similarly, employee covenants not to compete are commonplace and many executives have them in their own employment contracts.  So unless they have received specific training, an executive may be unaware of the antitrust risks associated with no-poaching agreements.  And up until recently even the most elaborate and detailed antitrust compliance policies that strictly prohibited discussing prices rarely addressed the exchange of wage and salary information or prohibited no-poaching agreements.

But the DOJ and FTC have now greatly ratcheted up their enforcement efforts with respect to alleged restraints in the employment market.  And with the DOJ and FTC taking the position that naked no-poaching agreements are per se unlawful and subject to criminal prosecution, the antitrust risks have been greatly increased — not to mention the costly class actions that are likely to follow any settlement with the DOJ.

Employers Should Investigate and Implement Compliance Programs

Thus, employers can no longer ignore the risk.  If they have not already done so, employers should consider:

  1. Conducting an internal investigation to determine whether the company is engaging in the informal gathering of wage, salary or benefit information; or whether it has entered into any no-poach agreements.  The investigation should be conducted or closely supervised by counsel with steps taken to preserve the attorney-client privilege.  Also, if it is discovered that the company has engaged in any “naked” wage-fixing or no-poaching agreements on or after October 25, 2016, then criminal counsel should be consulted as DOJ may treat such conduct as criminal.
  2. Implementing an antitrust compliance program that ensures that all management and human resources personnel are aware that they cannot: (1) engage in a naked wage, salary or benefits-fixing agreement with any other unrelated employer; (2) engage in the gathering or exchange of wage, salary or benefits information without full compliance with the Joint Guidance; or (3) enter into any no-poach agreement without prior approval of counsel.  Such individuals should, on an annual basis, be required to acknowledge in writing that they are aware of these prohibitions.  Also, anyone hired or transferred into any of these positions should be made aware of these prohibitions at the time they are hired or transferred.  These employees should also be advised that the DOJ is likely to treat naked wage/salary/benefit-fixing and no-poaching agreements as criminal and employees could be sentenced to prison for engaging in such conduct.