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Senior v. Robert Newlin Airport, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

September 9, 2019

BRUCE A. SENIOR, Plaintiff,
v.
ROBERT NEWLIN AIRPORT, INC. and CARL BAILEY, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. CHAMBERS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Bruce A. Senior instituted this action on October 24, 2018, raising claims against Defendants Robert Newlon[1] Airport, Inc. (“RNA”) and Carl Bailey for unpaid wages and unpaid overtime wages. See generally Compl., ECF No. 1. Count One of Plaintiff' Complaint alleges violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., while Count Two alleges violations of the West Virginia Minimum Wage and Maximum Hours Act (“WVMWMHA”), W.Va. Code § 21-5C-1 et seq. Id. at 4-5. On August 19, 2019, Plaintiff and Defendants indicated they had reached a settlement on both claims. See Joint Mot. for Court Approval of Settlement, ECF No. 16. Upon review of the agreement provided by both parties, the Court APPROVES the proposed Release and Settlement Agreement, GRANTS the Joint Motion for Court Approval of Settlement, and DISMISSES this action WITH PREJUDICE for the reasons explained below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was hired by Defendants in October 2015 as a bartender at the Fly In Café, a restaurant located on the grounds of a small airfield owned and operated by Defendant RNA in Lesage, West Virginia. Compl., at 2-3. In addition to bartending, Plaintiff performed “other miscellaneous tasks such as serving customers, preparing the restaurant before opening, and cleaning the restaurant after closing.” Id. at 3. Plaintiff alleges that he worked approximately thirty-five hours per week at the Fly In Café, but that he was paid no hourly wages until a time clock was installed for employees in March 2017. Id. At this point, Plaintiff claims he began receiving the tipped employee minimum wage of $2.13 but that he still “continued to earn less than the lawfully required minimum wage.” Id. Plaintiff also estimates that he worked approximately five hours of unpaid overtime over the course of ten assorted weeks. Id. at 4. Plaintiff's employment with Defendant RNA was terminated in May 2018. Id.

         In October 2018, Plaintiff initiated an action to recover unpaid wages and overtime wages against Defendant RNA and Defendant Carl Bailey, the President and principal owner of RNA. See generally Compl. Invoking this Court's federal question jurisdiction, Plaintiff raised claims under the FLSA. Id. at 4. Drawing upon the same set of facts, Plaintiff also asserted claims under the WVMWMHA pursuant to this Court's supplemental jurisdiction. Id. at 5. Following the filing of Defendants' Answer, “the parties engaged in both formal and informal discovery and a substantial amount of information was exchanged” between them. Joint Mem. in Support of Joint Mot. for Court Approval of Settlement, ECF No. 17, at 2. In February 2019, Defendants filed a Motion for Partial Dismissal and for Partial Summary Judgment that argued “a significant portion of [Plaintiff's] unpaid wages fell outside of the two-year statute of limitations provided by” the FLSA and WVMWMHA. Id. In his Response, Plaintiff asserted that Defendants' “actions were ‘willful' and therefore subject to the three-year statute of limitations under” the FLSA. Id. Defendants also argued that FLSA coverage was not established, a contention Plaintiff countered by arguing that “material issues of facts currently preclude[d] a definitive determination as to whether . . . coverage existed.” Id. While Defendants' dispositive motion was still pending, the parties reached a settlement agreement and filed a Joint Motion for Court Approval of Settlement. See Joint Mot. for Court Approval of Settlement, at 1. The motion is ripe for review, and a hearing is unnecessary because the issues have been squarely presented in the filings. See generally Joint Mem. in Support of Joint Mot. for Court Approval of Settlement. As such, the Court will consider the parties' settlement agreement below.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         The FLSA was enacted, in part, to “protect certain groups of the population from substandard wages and excessive hours which endangered the national health and well-being and the free flow of goods in interstate commerce.” Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O'Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 706 (1945). Consequently, “the statute's provisions are mandatory and generally are not subject to bargaining, waiver, or modification by contract or settlement.” Duprey v. Scotts Co. LLC, 30 F.Supp.3d 404, 407 (D. Md. 2014). The FLSA therefore represents a departure from the general “public policy favoring voluntary resolution of disputes, ” which typically permits private parties to settle claims without court approval. Digital Equip. Corp. v. Desktop Direct, Inc., 511 U.S. 863, 881 (1994).

         Courts should approve joint settlement agreements of FLSA claims “if a proposed settlement reflects a reasonable compromise over contested issues.” Lomascolo v. Parsons Brinckerhoff, Inc., No. 1:08cv1210, 2009 WL 3094955, at *8 (E.D. Va. Sept. 28, 2009) (internal quotations omitted). More to the point, “where there is an assurance of an adversarial context and where [an] employee is represented by an attorney who can protect [his] rights under the statute, [a] settlement will be approved.” Brockman v. Keystone Newport News, LLC, No. 4:15-CV-74, 2018 WL 4956514, at *2 (E.D. Va. Oct. 12, 2018) (citing Duprey, 30 F.Supp.3d at 408) (internal quotations omitted). This relatively forgiving standard recognizes the uncertainty of the litigation process, as well as factual disagreements over “the number of hours worked by the plaintiff, the plaintiff's status as an exempt employee, or the defendant's status as a covered employer.” See Lopez v. NTI, LLC, 784 F.Supp.2d 471, 478 (D. Md. 2010) (quoting Bonetti v. Embarq Mgmt. Co., 715 F.Supp.2d 1222, 1227 (M.D. Fla. 2009)).

         The Fourth Circuit has not yet addressed whether district courts should employ a particular set of factors in analyzing the content of FLSA settlement agreements. See Duprey, 30 F.Supp.3d at 407-08. Nevertheless, “district courts in this circuit typically employ the considerations set forth by the Eleventh Circuit in Lynn's Food Stores.” Saman v. LBDP, Inc., No. DKC-12-1083, 2013 WL 2949047, at *3 (D. Md. June 13, 2013). Under Lynn's Food Stores, a court must determine whether a joint settlement of FLSA claims “is a fair and reasonable resolution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions.” Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350, 1355 (11th Cir. 1982). If an agreement contains a clause on attorney's fees, courts will also consider whether the award is reasonable. See Brockman, 2018 WL 4956514, at *2. The Court will consider these factors separately below.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Bona Fide Dispute

         The existence of a bona fide dispute under the FLSA may be discerned from a review of the parties' filings, paying particular attention to the Complaint, Answer, and factual and legal assertions contained in the parties' Joint Motion for Court Approval of Settlement. See Saman v. LBDP, Inc., No. DKC 12-1083, 2013 WL 949047, at *3 (D. Md. June 13, 2013) (citing Lomascolo, 2009 WL 3094955, at *16-17). A brief review of relevant provisions of the FLSA makes plain the existence of several bona fide disputes. The FLSA requires employers to pay covered workers a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(C). An exception for “tipped” employees permits employers to pay wages of $2.13 per hour to workers who regularly earn more than $30 in tips each month, so long as the balance of tips raises their total pay to at least $7.25 per hour. See 29 U.S.C. § 203(m). Furthermore, the FLSA requires that covered employees be paid “at a rate not less than one and one-half times [their] regular rate” for any hours over forty hours in a given workweek. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1).

         Here, the parties' filings leave little doubt that these provisions of the FLSA are in dispute. Plaintiff squarely alleges that Defendants failed to pay him “the legally required hourly minimum wage for all hours worked” for a period of two years, and that they also failed to pay overtime wages “at a rate of one and one-half times [his] regular rate for all hours worked in excess of [forty] hours in a work week pursuant to the FLSA.” Compl., at 4. Defendants, on the other hand, assert several defenses to the applicability of the FLSA to the instant case. See Answer, at 7 (“Defendants are not subject to the provisions of FLSA because RNA is not a commercial enterprise as contemplated by the FLSA . . . . FLSA is inapplicable because Plaintiff was not an employee whose work affects interstate commerce.”). In addition to their legal contention over FLSA coverage, Defendants argue that a significant portion of Plaintiff's factual claims is time-barred by the FLSA's two-year statute of limitations. See Joint Mem. in Support of Joint Mot. for Court Approval of Settlement, at 4. In response, Plaintiff argues that Defendants' alleged violations of the FLSA were “willful” and thus subject to a three-year statute of limitations that would preserve many of his claims. Id. at 2. In light of these evident disagreements, the Court finds that several bona fide disputes exist under the FLSA.

         B. Fair and ...


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