Wake Forest Law Review

By Cole Tipton

SummitBridge National v. Faison

In this bankruptcy action, SummitBridge National (“National”) appeals the district court’s holding that it is barred from claiming attorney’s fees incurred after a bankruptcy petition was filed.  The contract between National and Ollie Faison (“Faison”) stated that Faison would pay “all costs of collection, including but not limited to reasonable attorneys’ fees.”  The Fourth Circuit reversed the district court’s holding and stated that the Bankruptcy Code does not preclude contractual claims to attorney’s fees that were guaranteed by a pre-bankruptcy contract.  The determination of the district court was reversed and remanded for further proceedings.

US v. Pratt

In this criminal action, Samual Pratt (“Pratt”) appeals his conviction of various counts of sex trafficking and child pornography due to evidentiary errors.  Pratt contends the district court should have suppressed evidence from his cellphone and should not have admitted certain hearsay statements.  First, the Fourth Circuit held that it was reversible error to admit evidence from Pratt’s cellphone because the phone was seized without consent and the government waited thirty-one days before obtaining a search warrant.  The Court stated that such a delay was unreasonable.  Second, the Fourth Circuit held that an unavailable witness’s hearsay statements were admissible because Pratt had procured the witness’s unavailability through phone calls and threats.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit vacated Pratt’s convictions on the two counts prejudiced by the cell phone evidence, vacated his sentence, and remanded.

Parker v. Reema Consulting Services, Inc 

In this civil action, Evangeline Parker (“Parker”) appeals the district court’s dismissal of her complaint against her employer, Reema Consulting Services, Inc. (“Reema”).  The central issue of the appeal was whether a false rumor circulated by Reema that Parker slept with her boss for a raise could give rise to liability under Title VII for discrimination “because of sex.”  The Fourth Circuit held that because the complaint alleged Reema spread the rumor and acted on it by penalizing the employee, a cognizable claim for discrimination “because of sex” was alleged.  The district court’s dismissal was reversed.

US Dep’t of Labor v. Fire & Safety Investigation

In this civil action, Fire & Safety Investigation Consulting Services, LLC (“Fire & Safety”) appealed the district court’s determination that they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) for failing to pay overtime compensation.  Fire & Safety uses an alternative work schedule for its employees in which an employee works 12 hours per day for 14 days and then receives 14 days off.  Because employees under this plan will work 88 hours in one work week, Fire & Safety pays its employees a blended rate for all 88 hours that is supposed to account for the 48 hours of overtime worked, rather than paying 40 hours of standard pay plus 48 hours of overtime.  The Fourth Circuit held that this blended rate fails to observe the formalities required by the FLSA which requires all overtime hours be recorded and paid at one and one-half times the standard rate of pay for all hours worked over 40.  Accordingly, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, including over $1.5 million in back wages and liquidated damages.

Trana Discovery, Inc. v. S. Research Inst.

In this civil action, Trana Discovery, Inc. (“Trana”) brought a fraud and negligent misrepresentation action against Southern Research Institute (“Southern”).  Trana alleged that Southern had provided false data in research reports of a new HIV medication it was researching.  The district court granted summary judgment for Southern on both claims.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the grant of summary judgement, stating that there was no genuine dispute of material fact due to an insufficiency of evidence regarding damages and the standard of care Southern was exacted to.  Accordingly, summary judgement was affirmed.

Jesus Christ is the Answer v. Baltimore County, Maryland

In this civil action, Jesus Christ is the Answer Church (“Church”) brought an action alleging violation of the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, the Maryland Declaration of Rights, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act.  Church alleged that Baltimore County, Maryland (“Baltimore”) had infringed upon their State and Federal rights by denying their modified petition for zoning variances to establish a church.  Several neighbors, who had expressed open hostility towards Church, opposed the petition.  After the petition was denied, Church filed an action in district court which was dismissed for failure to state a claim.  On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded because Church’s complaint contained facts sufficient to state a claim that was “plausible on its face.”  The Fourth Circuit held that the neighbors apparent religious bias towards Church was sufficient to plead a plausible Constitutional claim and violation of the Religious Land Use Act. 

Curtis v. Propel Property Tax Funding

In this civil action, Garry Curtis (“Curtis”) brought a suit on behalf of himself and similarly situated individuals against Propel Property Tax Funding (“Propel”), alleging violations of the Truth in Lending Act, the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, and the Virginia Consumer Protection Act.  Propel was engaged in the practice of lending to third parties to finance payment of local taxes.  The district court denied Propel’s motion to dismiss and certified two interlocutory questions.  Propel appealed, asserting that Curtis did not have standing and that he failed to state a claim for relief.  The Fourth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling, finding that: 1) Curtis had standing because he was personally subject to the harms these consumer protection statutes were designed to protect against; and 2) Curtis had sufficiently pled violations of the lending acts because Propel was conducting consumer credit transactions.

US v. Charboneau

In this civil action, Blake Charboneau (“Charboneau”) challenges the determination that he is a “sexually dangerous person” under the civil commitment provisions of the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006.  The district court held that Charboneau was a “sexually dangerous person” within the meaning of the act and committed him to the custody of the Attorney General.  On appeal, Charboneau raised two issues: 1) whether he must be diagnosed with a paraphilic disorder to be committed under the act; and 2) if the record supported the district court’s findings.  The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment, holding that an actual diagnosis was not necessary under the act and the record was sufficient under a clear error standard of review.

US v. Johnson

In this criminal action, Willie Johnson (“Johnson”) appealed a district court’s order to resentence him for bank robbery under the sentencing recommendation in his original plea agreement.  Johnson argued that the government’s original agreement not to seek a mandatory life sentence under the federal three-strikes law was not beneficial because his prior state crimes should not be counted for federal three-strikes treatment.  The Fourth Circuit held that state crimes are encompassed by the three-strikes program and the district court’s decision to honor the original sentencing recommendation was affirmed.

Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC v. 6.56 Acres of Land

In this civil action, owners of 6.56 acres of land appealed a district court judgement granted Mountain Valley Pipeline, LLC (“Pipeline”) a preliminary injunction for access and possession of property it was acquiring through eminent domain.  The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s application of the test set forth in Winter v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 555 U.S. 7, 20 (2008) for preliminary injunctions.  In doing so, the Court found that Pipeline had established it was likely to succeed on the merits, would suffer irreparable harm, the balance of equities was in its favor, and that an injunction served the public interest.  Accordingly, the district court was affirmed.

Booking.com B.V. v. US Patent & Trademark

In this civil action, Booking.com and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) appeal the district court’s grant of summary judgment protecting the trademark BOOKING.COM.  Booking.com appeals the district court’s grant of attorney’s fees to the USPTO, and the USPTO appeals the court’s decision that BOOKING.COM is protectable.  The Fourth Circuit held that BOOKING.COM is not generic and can be registered as a descriptive mark with secondary meaning.  Moreover, the Court upheld the grant of USPTO’s expenses because the Lanham Act requires a party to pay “all the expenses of the proceeding” when a USPTO decision is appealed to the district court.  Thus, the district court’s judgment was affirmed.

US v. Jones

In this criminal action, James Eric Jones (“Jones”) appeals the district court’s denial of a motion to vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence.  Jones was originally sentenced under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) which requires a mandatory fifteen-year minimum sentence for defendants with at least three prior violent felony convictions.  However, Jones claims that he does not qualify for sentencing under the act because his South Carolina conviction for assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer is not a violent conviction as defined by the ACCA.  The Fourth Circuit held that assaulting, beating, or wounding a police officer does not qualify under the ACCA because it includes conduct that does not involve violent physical force. Therefore, the district court’s judgment was vacated and remanded.

By Katie Baiocchi

On January 25, 2017, the Fourth Circuit published Marlon Hall v. DIRECTV, LLC, a civil case. Plaintiffs Marlon Hall, John Wood, Alix Pierre, Kashi Walker and John Albrecht (“Plaintiffs”) appealed the order granting defendants’ DIRECTV, LLC, DIRECTSAT USA, LLC and DIRECTV, INC. (“Defendants”) motion to dismiss under Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Plaintiffs alleged that defendants were joint employers and therefore are jointly and severally liable for any violations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The Fourth Circuit found the district court relied on out-of-circuit authority that has been rejected in the Fourth Circuit in analyzing the relationship between the parties. The district court also failed to construe plaintiffs’ allegations liberally as required by a motion to dismiss. Accordingly the Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the case.

Facts and Procedural History

Defendant DIRECTV employs technicians through the DIRECTV “Provider Network.” Each plaintiff alleged that between 2007 to 2014 they worked as a technician for defendant, an intermediary provider, a subcontractor, or a combination of all three. Defendant DIRECTSAT enforced the hiring criteria of DIRECTV for technicians. DIRECTV also provided a centralized work-assignment system, and regulated and audited personnel files. Plaintiffs were required to wear DIRECTV uniforms, carry DIRECTV identification cards, and display the DIRECTV logo on their vehicles. Technicians who did not meet DIRECTV hiring criteria could not install or repair DIRECTV equipment. Plaintiffs claim that they each regularly worked in excess of forty hours per week without receiving overtime pay while working as technicians. Plaintiffs specifically allege that the defendants qualify as joint employers and their failure to provide overtime pay violated FLSA overtime and minimum wage requirements. Defendants each moved to dismiss plaintiffs’ complaint pursuant to F.R.C.P. 12(b)(6). The district court granted this motion in its entirety because they concluded that the Complaint did not allege facts sufficient to establish that defendant DIRECTV jointly employed plaintiffs.

The Fourth Circuit reviewed the district court’s dismissal de novo and accepted as true all the factual allegations contained in the complaint and drew all reasonable inference in favor of plaintiffs.

The District Court Applied an Improper Legal Test for Determining Joint Employment Under the FLSA

Under the FLSA, 29 C.F.R. § 791.2(a), “joint employment” exists when “employment by one employer is not completely disassociated from employment by the other employer(s).” Courts are split on the appropriate test for distinguishing separate employment from joint employment in relation to the FLSA. The district court’s analysis was flawed because it concluded that a worker must be an employee as to each putative joint employer when considered separately for the entities to constitute joint employment under the FLSA. Additionally, the district court relied on the test no longer employed by the Fourth Circuit in determining joint employment of the plaintiffs.

Under the Fourth Circuit two-step framework for determining whether a defendant may be liable for an alleged FLSA violation under the joint employment theory the court must first determine whether the defendant and one or more entities shared, agreed to allocate responsibility for, or otherwise co-determined the key terms and conditions of plaintiffs’ work. The second step relies heavily upon the answer to the first part of the analysis and asks whether a worker was an employee or independent contractor under FLSA. The district court erred in considering the second step before the first.

The Fourth Circuit determined that under the first part of the two-part framework that the allegations sufficiently demonstrate defendants were not completely disassociated. The district court erred by failing to follow the new standard employed by the Fourth Circuit to determine joint employment. The Fourth Circuit has held that the fundamental question is whether the entities are “not completely disassociated” with respect to the worker. The Fourth Circuit identified a non-exhaustive list of six factors to assist lower courts in determining if joint employment exists. The court emphasized that no single factor is determinative.

The Fourth Circuit also found that under the second part of the two-part framework the plaintiffs were employees rather than independent contractors. In focusing on the economic realities of the relationship between the defendants and plaintiffs the Fourth Circuit found that the plaintiffs were economically dependent on the defendants.

The District Court Misapplied the Plausibility Standard by Subjecting Plaintiffs to Evidentiary Burdens Inapplicable at the Pleading Stage

Plaintiffs’ factual allegations establish that defendants jointly determined the key terms of plaintiffs’ conditions of employment. Per the complaint defendant DIRECTV was the principal client of the other defendants. Defendant DIRECTV had the authority to direct, control and supervise the plaintiff’s day-to-day job duties. Defendant DIRECTV had specific installation procedures implemented and controlled the uniforms and identification of technicians. The complaint is also replete with allegations that DIRECTV had control over hiring, firing and compensation. The Fourth Circuit found that at this stage of litigation the allegations are sufficient to make a plausible claim that defendants were not completely disassociated.

Conclusion

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded the consolidated cases for further proceedings consistent with the opinion because the district court relied on out-of-circuit authority that had been rejected in the Fourth Circuit. Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit found the district court failed to construe plaintiffs’ allegations liberally as a motion to dismiss requires.

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By Kayleigh Butterfield

On July 29, 2015, the Fourth Circuit issued its published opinion in the civil case, Jahir v. Ryman Hospitality Properties, Inc. In Jahir, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ FLSA claim seeking lost tips from Ryman Hospitality Properties, Inc. and Marriott International, Inc. (collectively, Defendants).

Alleged Facts and District Court’s Dismissal

Plaintiffs Mohammad Sazzad Jahir and Anthony Gomes worked as servers for hotels and restaurants owned by Defendants. Plaintiffs were also members of the UNITE HERE, Local 25 union.

According to the facts alleged in Plaintiffs’ complaint, Defendants took a portion of Plaintiffs’ tips every day and redistributed them to bartenders, server assistants, busboys, and food runners, all of whom would not normally receive tips. Plaintiffs did not voluntarily agree to such a tip-pooling arrangement, and eventually asked a union official if the arrangement was legal. The official told Plaintiffs that it was not.

Plaintiffs then filed a complaint alleging that Defendants’ tip-pooling arrangement violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 203(m), the 2009 Collective Bargaining Agreement between UNITE HERE and Defendants, and the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law. The district court granted the Defendants’ Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss each claim. Plaintiffs appealed only the dismissal of the FLSA claim, which the Fourth Circuit reviews de novo.

Background of the FLSA

The FLSA is known as the “minimum wage/maximum hour law.” It is intended to protect covered employees from low wages and oppressive working hours. Section 203(m) addresses “tip credits,” and allows employers to credit against the minimum wage they must pay employees by classifying tips as “wages.”

Section 203(m) Does Not Apply to Plaintiffs’ Claim

The Fourth Circuit examined the plain language of § 203 and determined that it does not apply to the Plaintiffs’ situation. Plaintiffs conceded that they were paid a full minimum wage without including tips. However, they argued that § 203(m) required Defendants to inform them of FLSA’s tip-credit provision and the tip-pooling arrangement before redistributing the tips. The Fourth Circuit rejected Plaintiffs’ argument by reading the plain language of § 203(m) in the broader context of the FLSA as a whole, which clearly aims to establish fair minimum and overtime wage laws. The Fourth Circuit concluded that § 203(m) did not apply where employees are paid a full minimum wage without tip.

Dismissal Affirmed

For the foregoing reasons, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiffs’ claims. Judge Harris concurred, stating that plaintiffs have no cause of private action under any FLSA section except § 216(b), which is not what Plaintiffs’ brought this action under.