Tag Archives: retaliatory termination

Boston Furs Sued For $1M For Violations of Fair Labor Standards Act

Citing “knowing, deliberate and intentional” violations of federal wage and hour law, the Labor Department is suing Boston Hides and Furs Ltd. and company officials seeking at least $500,000 in back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages for allegedly underpaying employees of the Chelsea wholesale animal hide business. See Solis v. Boston Hides & Furs Ltd., Anthony Andreottola, Angelo Andreottola and Antoinetta Andreottola Parisi, CV-1:12-CV-11997-MLW. The suit illustrates the significant liability that companies or their owners or management risk by failing to properly pay workers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act and meet other Fair Labor Standards Act requirements.

Fair Labor Standards Act Wage & Hour Laws Big Business Responsibility
The Fair Labor Standards Act generally requires that an employer pay each covered employee at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour as well as time and one-half their regular rates for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. When the state minimum wage is higher than the federally mandated wage, and employees work more than 40 hours in a week calculated in accordance with applicable state laws, employees paid at the minimum permissible level are entitled to overtime compensation based on the higher state minimum wage. Time credited may be determined differently under state law versus the Fair Labor Standards Act. Employers must ensure proper crediting, recordkeeping and payment in time to meet both applicable requirements.

The Fair Labor Standards Act also requires employers to maintain accurate records of covered employees’ wages, hours and other conditions of employment and prohibits employers from retaliating against employees who exercise their rights under the law. Special rules also may apply to the employment of children or other special populations.

The rules generally establish a legal presumption that a worker performing services is working as a covered employee of the recipient. Unfortunately, many businesses that receive services often unintentionally incur liability because they ill-advisedly misclassify workers as performing services as independent contractors, salaried employees or otherwise exempt by failing to recognize the implications of this presumption. The presumption that a worker is a covered employee generally means that an employer that treats a worker as exempt bears the burden of proving that a worker is not a covered employee and of keeping accurate records to show that it has properly tracked the hours of and paid each covered employee.

The Fair Labor Standards Act provides that employers who violate the law are, as a general rule, liable to employees for back wages and an equal amount in liquidated damages. State wage and hour laws also typically provide for back pay and liquidated damage awards. Attorneys’ fees and other costs often also are recoverable. In certain instances where the violations are knowing, deliberate and intentional, violators often may risk criminal as well as civil liability.

Labor Department Sues Boston Hides and Furs Ltd For Knowing, Deliberate & Willful Fair Labor Standards Act Violations
The Labor Department lawsuit seeks to recover more than $1 million from Boston Hides and Furs Ltd and various company officials for allegedly engaging in knowing and deliberate violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act minimum wage, overtime and retaliation rules.

The Labor Department filed the lawsuit in federal court in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts after a Labor Department Wage & Hour Division investigation found the employer committed willful and repeated violations of the minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act including offering for shipment or sale “hot goods” produced in violation of the law during a period spanning at least three years. The suit also asserts that the company unlawfully retaliated against several workers by firing them after they cooperated with the federal investigation.

In its complaint, the Labor Department claims the investigation found that 14 Boston Hides & Furs employees worked approximately 10 hours per day, six days per week processing hides and furs for shipping to tanneries. These workers were paid a daily cash wage of $50 to $70, which amounted to an hourly pay rate far below the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. The employees also were not paid time and one-half the required state minimum wage of $8 applicable for those hours worked above 40 in a week. Additionally, the defendants failed to keep adequate records of the workers’ employment, work hours and pay rates, and a representative of the defendants falsely told investigators that the company’s payroll records included all employees.

The lawsuit also charges that the defendants ordered employees to hide in a nearby house when Labor Department Wage and Hour Division investigators first arrived at Boston Hides & Furs so they could not be interviewed. Two days after investigators subsequently interviewed the workers, the defendants fired the workers. During their employment, Labor Department claims the workers were threatened and subjected to verbally abusive treatment on an ongoing basis, particularly when they asked about their pay rates.

In addition to back wages and liquidated damages, the Labor Department lawsuit seeks to permanently prohibit the defendants from future Fair Labor Standards Act violations — including a prohibition against shipping any goods handled by workers who were paid in violation of the law — and compensatory and punitive damages for the workers on account of their unlawful firing. The Wage and Hour Division also has assessed $100,000 in civil money penalties against Boston Hides & Furs Ltd. for willful violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Overtime & Other Wage & Hour Enforcement Risks Rising
Employers increasingly risk triggering significant liability by failing to properly characterize, track and pay workers for compensable time in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act or other laws. Unfortunately, many employers often are overly optimistic or otherwise fail to properly understand and apply Fair Labor Standards Act rules for characterizing on-call or other time, classifying workers as exempt versus non-exempt or making other key determinations.

Employers wearing rose tinted glasses when making wage and hour worker classification or compensable time determinations tend to overlook the significance of the burden of proof they can expect to bear should their classification be challenged. These mistakes can be very costly. Employers that fail to properly pay employees under Federal and state wage and hour regulations face substantial risk. In addition to liability for back pay awards, violation of wage and hour mandates carries substantial civil — and in the case of willful violations, even criminal — liability exposure. Civil awards commonly include back pay, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

The potential that noncompliant employers will incur these liabilities has risen significantly in recent years.

Under the Obama Administration, Labor Department officials have made it a priority to enforce overtime, recordkeeping, worker classification and other wage and hour law requirements. While all employers face heightened prosecution risks, federal officials specifically are targeting government contractors, health care, technology and certain other industry employers for special scrutiny. The Labor Department is also using smart phone applications, social media and a host of other new tools to educate and recruit workers in its effort to find and prosecute violators. See, e.g. New Employee Smart Phone App New Tool In Labor Department’s Aggressive Wage & Hour Law Enforcement Campaign Against Restaurant & Other Employers.

Meanwhile, private enforcement of these requirements has also soared following the highly-publicized implementation of updated Fair Labor Standards Act regulations regarding the classification of workers during the last Bush Administration. See Texas Landscaper’s $106,000 In Minimum Wage & Overtime Settlement Reminds Employers To Prepare For FLSA Enforcement, Minimum Wage, Overtime Risks Highlighted By Labor Department Strike Force Targeting Residential Care & Group Homes, Review & Strengthen Defensibility of Existing Worker Classification Practices In Light of Rising Congressional & Regulatory Scrutiny, 250 New Investigators, Renewed DOL Enforcement Emphasis Signal Rising Wage & Hour Risks For Employers, and Quest Diagnostics, Inc. To Pay $688,000 In Overtime Backpay.

Employers Should Strengthen Practices For Defensibility
To minimize exposure under the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers should review and document the defensibility of their existing practices for classifying and compensating workers under existing Federal and state wage and hour laws and take appropriate steps to minimize their potential liability under applicable wages and hour laws. Steps advisable as part of this process include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Audit of each position currently classified as exempt to assess its continued sustainability and to develop documentation justifying that characterization;
  • Audit characterization of workers obtained from staffing, employee leasing, independent contractor and other arrangements and implement contractual and other oversight arrangements to minimize risks that these relationships could create if workers are recharacterized as employed by the employer receiving these services;
  • Review the characterization of on-call and other time demands placed on employees to confirm that all compensable time is properly identified, tracked, documented, compensated and reported;
  • Review of existing practices for tracking compensable hours and paying non-exempt employees for compliance with applicable regulations and to identify opportunities to minimize costs and liabilities arising out of the regulatory mandates;
  • If the audit raises questions about the appropriateness of the classification of an employee as exempt, self-initiation of appropriate corrective action after consultation with qualified legal counsel;
  • Review of existing documentation and recordkeeping practices for hourly employees;
  • Exploration of available options and alternatives for calculating required wage payments to non-exempt employees; and
  • Reengineering of work rules and other practices to minimize costs and liabilities as appropriate in light of the regulations.

Because of the potentially significant liability exposure, employers generally will want to consult with qualified legal counsel prior to the commencement of their assessment and to conduct the assessment within the scope of attorney-client privilege to minimize risks that might arise out of communications made in the course of conducting this sensitive investigation.

Performance Evaluations Without Pain … And Without Lawsuits

As the current business culture evolves into one riddled with legal battles and threats of lawsuits coming from discharged employees, many managers and supervisors feel cornered when addressing employee performance evaluations. Even those employers who follow stringent documentation guidelines often feel pressured into keeping unproductive employees in their positions or giving ambiguous performance feedback, due to their fear of employees taking legal action against the company.

Lawsuits charging discrimination typically are a result of negative evaluations or adverse employment actions. Much to their leaders’ dismay, the employees they fired for valid reasons can win such cases thanks in part to their very own performance evaluation procedures. Using subjective performance standards, failing to effectively address performance problems and not clearly warning employees about the consequences of unsatisfactory performance are the three most common reasons why jurors award damages and appeals courts uphold those judgments. While employers do have the right to insist on quality and productivity from every employee, they must also make legally defensible decisions when it’s time to reprimand or terminate an employee.

For any viable evaluation and disciplinary system to work fairly, evaluators must have proper qualifications and training. The more specific their evaluation procedure, the less likely supervisors are to make a costly legal error. Therefore, employers should supply managers with specific guidelines for acceptable supervisory actions. Additionally, companies should build in a level of higher authority for senior management when they must make close judgment calls, analyze unique problems, or terminate an employee for which the prior documentation is less complete.

Good documentation of evaluations and disciplinary action is critically important, as it provides credible evidence to help verify whether an employee has received prior notice concerning a particular rule or deviation from acceptable job performance. It also provides a record of whether an employee has previously been disciplined and, if so, the appropriate form of discipline for subsequent misconduct. In addition, it creates a vehicle for examining precedents when one employee engages in the same or similar conduct that has resulted in discipline of other employees.

When designing a performance appraisal process, managers must be careful to appraise employees based on job-related criteria and maintain adequate documentation. Develop a consistent appraisal process for all company employees. Any deviation from these objectives could result in costly legal battles.

Managers and supervisors can take several concrete steps to ensure consistency, objectivity, accuracy, and fairness throughout the performance appraisal process. Use the following guidelines to manage employees within legal limits, without paralysis.

1. Clearly Communicate Expectations. Managers must consistently communicate standards or expectations to employees and clearly identify each aspect of the required performance. If an employee fails to meet expectations, address the deficiency immediately (or as soon as reasonably practical) and specify where the employee’s performance requires improvement. When employees don’t know their assessment criteria, they can win a legal battle by simply stating, “I didn’t know what was expected of me.” Be sure to specify objectively measurable performance, such as quality, quantity, and timeliness of work, as well as important soft skills, such as teamwork, initiative, judgment, integrity, and leadership.

2. Perform Candid Appraisals. Rather than let a fear of lawsuits affect your ability to conduct performance ratings, address performance issues consistently for all employees on a timely basis. Be accurate and objective in your performance ratings, and remember to always rate poor performance as well as good performance. When you fail to point out poor performance, the problem continues, as employees cannot correct problems they are unaware of. Additionally, failure to document poor performance is legally risky should the employee later be discharged and sue for wrongful (or retaliatory) termination. Consistently addressing issues of concern with employees defends against the “I didn’t know I wasn’t meeting performance expectations” claim.

3. Maintain Objectivity At All Times. Focus the performance evaluations on objective job-related criteria. Examples of objective criteria that courts have upheld include quantity, quality, or timeliness of work and specifically articulated expectations for interpersonal skills, teamwork, exercise of judgment, and displays of initiative. You can establish objective expectations even with subjective standards when you articulate what you consider acceptable behavior. For example, you may say, “You will exercise better judgment if you come to me early and let me know you can’t meet a deadline so that I can help you prioritize your workload.”

4. Stick To Job-Based Criteria. Always relate the appraisal to the employee’s particular job. If an item on the evaluation form is not relevant to an employee, indicate “not applicable” in the appropriate space. Also be sure to consider the full rating period. Avoid the tendency to let recent performance events cloud what may have happened months earlier. Finally, compare the employee’s performance to a norm or performance standard rather than the performance of other employees.

5. Record And Memorialize. Put all evaluations in writing and document any verbal feedback made during the meeting. Keep the language in written proposals simple and as easy to understand as possible.

6. Be Specific. Review appraisals to ensure that both high and low ratings have sufficient documentation and anecdotal information that details what the employee did or did not do to earn the rating. Avoid vague or descriptive personal criteria that others could misinterpret.

7. Address Performance Problems Promptly. Discuss and/or deal with performance problems at the time they occur. If the employee’s performance is unsatisfactory, immediately counsel the employee on deficiencies and suggest concrete ways to improve performance. The courts may question your motive in a poor performance discharge if the incident prompting the discharge occurred substantially prior to the time of the discharge.

8. Specify the Consequences Of Non-Performance. Clearly specify a final warning on the performance appraisal if the employee’s performance is so poor that a demotion, change in assignment, or discharge may occur. This will help defend against the single most common legal deficiency in the performance management process: the employee’s truthful claim that “I didn’t know this adverse action would occur if I didn’t improve or correct my performance.” Employees routinely win lawsuits with such a claim because supervisors often don’t like to give negative feedback due to concerns about defensive confrontations, a desire not to hurt a likeable employee’s feelings, or worst of all, the fear of drawing a lawsuit that alleges discrimination or harassment.

9. Maintain Consistency. Be consistent with performance appraisals and any corresponding pay adjustments. Document poor performance if it is a basis to delay or deny a pay adjustment just as you would document good performance to substantiate a pay raise. Inconsistency will reflect poorly in any subsequent legal proceeding, especially when the employee claims that he or she was singled out for negative action. Consistency further enhances your ability to defend against discrimination claims, as it demonstrates that the needs of the particular job consistently required adherence to concrete, well-articulated performance expectations, and that all similarly situated employees are held to the same standards.

10. Plan Your Documentation. Contrary to popular belief, poor documentation techniques actually increase your chances of liability in a lawsuit. Avoid making any notes on appraisal forms that the courts could view as discriminatory or that reflect a “mixed motive.” Avoid contrived or pre-textual statements such as “the chemistry isn’t right.” Also, minimize your use of labels, such as “self starter,” unless you tie it to a measurable performance standard, in this case “initiative.” When in doubt, have a jury who doesn’t know you or the employee review the appraisal. Can they misinterpret it? Above all else, never backdate appraisals and never attempt to document something that did not occur. Always document events as they occur to assure that your memory is fresh and your examples are relevant.

11. Be Careful When Referring To Job Protected Leave In Performance Evaluations. Front-line leaders often don’t realize that comments they make on performance evaluations can come back to haunt them. That’s especially true when those comments relate to absences that are covered by job-protected leave, such as the Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Several recent FMLA cases have concluded that commenting upon an employee’s absence due to authorized FMLA leave is the legal equivalent of interfering with the right to take such leave, giving rise to substantial damages against the employers.

In Goelzer v. Sheboygan County, An Administrative Assistant got consistently good performance evaluations for 20 years. She took FMLA leave for her own serious health condition and to care for her ill mother. On her performance appraisal, her supervisor wrote, “[Y]ou were out of the office having eye surgery. In the past two years, using sick leave and vacation, you were out of the office 113 days. As the only support person in the office, this has presented challenges in the functionality and duties associated with the office.” When she was terminated on performance grounds, she sued. A Federal Appeals Court concluded that Goelzer presented compelling evidence for a jury to believe that she was fired for taking FMLA leave. The Court emphasized the supervisor’s evaluation language, which expressed frustration with her use of FMLA leave, the total absence of documentation supporting any concern with her deficient skill set, and her consistent good performance ratings prior to her FMLA leave.

Employers cannot interfere with or discriminate against an employee who exercises FMLA rights. Taking FMLA or other job-protected leave does not insulate an employee from performance-based adverse actions. But, in order to effectively establish that the adverse action is due to performance deficiencies and not the exercise of FMLA rights, the facts must support and document an appropriate, job-related and non-discriminatory explanation.

When you know, understand, and implement the criteria for lawful performance management, you enable your company to operate at peak efficiency while you stay within specific legal parameters. The more proactive steps you take to reduce your chances of a wrongful termination lawsuit, the more successful and lawful your company becomes.