Yesterday, I had the opportunity to talk at the Connecticut Legal Conference about employment law issues. My talk focused on free speech rights in the workplace — a topic I’ve covered well in some prior posts here and here, for example.
One of the other topics of our discussion was the Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House case — a recent case by the Second Circuit discussing wage & hour claim settlements under the Fair Labor Standards Act.
I’ve talked about this issue in prior posts as well but the general takeaway from the discussion yesterday was a renewed emphasis on receiving approval from either a federal court or the U.S. Department of Labor on any wage/hour claim settlements.
In most employment law cases filed in federal court, when a settlement is reached, the parties typically stipulate to the dismissal of the claim under a rule of civil procedure (Rule 41).
In Cheeks, the Second Circuit said that wasn’t good enough due to the unique nature of wage/hour claims and that employees were particularly susceptible to bad settlements:
We conclude that the cases discussed above, read in light of the unique policy considerations underlying the FLSA, place the FLSA within Rule 41’s “applicable federal statute” exception. Thus, Rule 41(a)(1)(A)(ii) stipulated dismissals settling FLSA claims with prejudice require the approval of the district court or the DOL to take effect. Requiring judicial or DOL approval of such settlements is consistent with what both the Supreme Court and our Court have long recognized as the FLSA’s underlying purpose: “to extend the frontiers of social progress by insuring to all our able-bodied working men and women a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.”
The Court pointed out settlements in other cases which might be troubling.
In [one case], the proposed settlement agreement included (1) “a battery of highly restrictive confidentiality provisions ․ in strong tension with the remedial purposes of the FLSA;” (2) an overbroad release that would “waive practically any possible claim against the defendants, including unknown claims and claims that have no relationship whatsoever to wage-and-hour issues;” and (3) a provision that would set the fee for plaintiff’s attorney at “between 40 and 43.6 percent of the total settlement payment” without adequate documentation to support such a fee award….. In [another case], the district court rejected a proposed FLSA settlement in part because it contained a pledge by plaintiff’s attorney not to “represent any person bringing similar claims against Defendants.” … “Such a provision raises the specter of defendants settling FLSA claims with plaintiffs, perhaps at a premium, in order to avoid a collective action or individual lawsuits from other employees whose rights have been similarly violated.”
Would these apply to claims that were not filed in federal court to begin with? The speakers said the decision left that open a bit but still recommended that parties seek USDOL approval or even file the suit in federal court and seek judicial approval at the same time.
While the court noted that this might be difficult, “the burdens…must be balanced against the FLSA’s primary remedial purpose: to prevent abuses by unscrupulous employers, and remedy the disparate bargaining power between employers and employees.”
Note: These same rules do not apply to settlements under the state wage/hour laws and if you’re not covered by the FLSA, there isn’t much of a need to follow that — at least until the issue is raised in state courts.
But suffice to say that if you get a claim by a current or former employee regarding, say, past overtime wages, be wary of settling the claim without receiving outside approval.