Worth the Fight: Conditional Certification of FLSA Collective Actions is Not Automatic
Conventional wisdom holds that courts reflexively grant motions for conditional certification in Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) collective actions. As a result, some employers do not even oppose these motions. They are making a mistake. As two recent decisions demonstrate, an employer that opposes these motions has a chance to defeat them or, at least, narrow the scope of the collective.
Earlier this month, judges in the U.S. District Courts for the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York issued decisions on motions for conditional certification in Mata v. Foodbridge LLC, 2015 WL 3457293 (S.D.N.Y. June 1, 2015), and Anjum v. J.C. Penney Co., 2015 WL 3603973 (E.D.N.Y. June 5, 2015). The plaintiffs in both cases were non-exempt employees asserting claims for violations of the FLSA and New York Labor Law, alleging (among other things) that their employers failed to pay them overtime when they worked over 40 hours per week. In Mata, the defendants operated two restaurants and the plaintiff was a pizza counter worker. In Anjum, the defendants operated numerous department stores and the plaintiffs were former sales associates in a store in Staten Island.
In order to obtain conditional certification, plaintiffs must establish that they and the putative collective action members are “similarly situated” with respect to an alleged violation of the FLSA. In both Mata and Anjum, the courts discussed the “lenient standard” that courts apply to this analysis, indicating that it requires only a “modest factual showing.”
The Mata Conditional Certification Motion
In Mata, the plaintiff filed a motion to conditionally certify a collective action of all non-exempt employees working at the defendants’ restaurants including “cooks, line-cooks, dishwashers, food preparers, cashiers, delivery persons, and counter persons.” In support of the motion, the plaintiff only submitted his own declaration, in which he described his employment and compensation at the defendants’ restaurants and further alleged that, “through observations of and conversations with other employees, he learned that they were subject to similar violations.”
In deciding the motion, the Mata court acknowledged that a single declaration may provide enough evidence for a court to grant a motion for conditional certification. In this case, however, the court determined that “the declaration actually submitted by Plaintiff in support of his motion does not suffice.” According to the court, the plaintiff attested that he observed other employees working, but provided “no actual support demonstrating knowledge of a common scheme impacting the diverse array of employees” he sought to include. Nor did the plaintiff include sufficiently detailed descriptions of his observations of and discussions with co-workers. Thus, the court concluded that “conditional certification would be inappropriate at this juncture.”
The Anjum Conditional Certification Motion
In Anjum, the plaintiffs filed a motion to conditionally certify a collective action of sales associates in all 47 of defendants’ New York State department stores. In support of the motion, the four plaintiffs and five additional opt-ins submitted declarations detailing their experiences working off-the-clock.
With regard to the declarations, the Anjum court explained that “each of the four Named Plaintiffs has personally attested to the violations they claim occurred during their employment as Sales Associates at the Staten Island Store, and they have identified by name similarly situated employees at both the Staten Island Store and the Manhattan Store, at least some of whom have since opted-in to the collective action.” The court concluded that the plaintiffs satisfied their burden to demonstrate that sales associates in the Staten Island and Manhattan stores were similarly situated. However, according to the court, the plaintiffs presented “no firsthand evidence” of violations at any other stores, relying instead on hearsay and their “belief” that the thousands of employees in the defendants’ other New York stores were subject to the same unlawful policies. Therefore, the court certified the collective action, but limited its scope to sales associates working in the Staten Island and Manhattan stores, excluding thousands of employees working in the employer’s other 45 locations.
Courts plainly grant more FLSA motions for conditional certification than they deny. Nonetheless, this first step in the two-step procedure that plaintiffs must follow in FLSA cases is not automatic. As courts often state, the plaintiff’s burden of proof at this stage is low, but “it is not non-existent.” Accordingly, employers should rarely, if ever, consent to conditional certification. As the Mata and Anjum cases demonstrate, employers have a real opportunity to defeat these motions or narrow the scope of the collective.