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Archive for June, 2018

Arbitration Agreement Litigation Wins Continue to Fall Like Dominoes for Pizza Hut

Posted on: June 26th, 2018

By: Tim Holdsworth

Following the Supreme Court’s opinion in Epic Systems that class and collective actions waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable, a federal court recently granted a motion to compel arbitration to one of the nation’s largest Pizza Hut franchisees in a lawsuit in Illinois.

In Collins et al. v. NPC International Inc., case number 3:17-cv-00312, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Illinois, drivers from Illinois, Florida, and Missouri filed a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act asserting that their employer had failed to reimburse them for vehicle expenses. In May 2017, the judge stayed the franchisee’s motion to compel individual arbitration pending the Supreme Court’s ruling in Epic Systems. The franchisee renewed that motion after the Supreme Court’s ruling, and the judge granted it.

The drivers will now have to bring their claims individually against the franchisee in arbitration, likely saving the franchisee expenses and time.

Epic Systems gave credence to arbitration agreements containing class and collective action waivers, and employers using them continue to reap the benefits. If you have any questions about the issues above or want to learn more about implementing arbitration agreements, please contact me at [email protected], or any of Freeman, Mathis & Gary’s experienced labor and employment law attorneys.

Georgia Supreme Court Grants Certiorari In Failure to Settle Case

Posted on: June 25th, 2018

By: Bill Buechner

The Georgia Supreme Court recently granted an insurer’s petition for certiorari in a bad faith failure to settle case to consider what constitutes an offer to settle a claim within policy limits and whether an insurer’s duty to settle arises only when the claimant presents a valid offer to settle within policy limits.  First Acceptance Ins. Co. of Georgia, Inc. v. Hughes, 2018 Ga. LEXIS 407 (June 4, 2018).

In Hughes, the insured caused an automobile accident that resulted in his death and injured others, including the claimants (a mother and her minor child, who sustained a traumatic brain injury).   The limits on the policy were $25,000 per person and $50,000 per accident.   After the insurer sent a letter to the claimants’ counsel (and other injured parties) requesting a settlement conference, the claimants’ counsel sent a response letter to the insurer on June 2, 2009 stating that they were “interested in having their claims resolved within your insured’s policy limits and in attending a settlement conference[.]”  The 6/2/09 letter from the claimants’ counsel also explained that the claimants had uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage in the amounts of $100,000 per person and $300,000 per accident.  The 6/2/09 letter continued:

Of course, the exact amount of UM benefits available to my clients depends upon the amount paid to them from the available liability coverage.  Once that is determined, a release of your insured from all personal liability except to the extent other insurance coverage is available will be necessary in order to preserve my clients’ rights to recover under the UM coverage and any other insurance policies.  In fact, if you would rather settle within your insured’s policy limits now, you can do that by providing that release document with all the insurance information as requested in the attached, along with your insured’s available bodily injury liability insurance proceeds.

The accompanying letter from the claimants’ counsel, also dated June 2, 2009, requested various insurance information within 30 days and stated that “[a]ny settlement will be conditioned upon [the] receipt of all the requested insurance information.”

Counsel for the insurer did not consider the letter from the claimants’ counsel as an offer to settle within policy limits and thus did not respond to the letter.   On July 10, 2009 (38 days later), the claimants filed a lawsuit.  On July 13, 2009 ( 41 days later), counsel for the claimants sent a letter to the insurer stating that the 6/2/09 offer to settle within policy limits was withdrawn.  The claimants thereafter obtained a jury verdict in July 2012 awarding $5,334,220 in favor of the minor child.

An administrator for the insured’s estate filed a lawsuit against the insurer asserting that the insurer negligently or in bad faith had failed to settle the minor child’s claim within policy limits.   The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the insurer, but the Court of Appeals reversed and concluded that there were material issues of fact as to whether the 6/2/09 letters from the claimants’ counsel offered to settle the minor child’s claims within policy limits and whether the offer included a 30-day deadline for a response.  Hughes v. First Acceptance Ins. Co. of Ga., Inc., 343 Ga.App. 693, 697, 808 S.E.2d 103 (2017).

The Georgia Supreme Court granted the insurer’s petition for certiorari and stated that it was particularly concerned with (1) whether there were material issues of fact as to whether the 6/2/09 letter from the claimants’ counsel offered to settle the minor child’s claim within the policy limits and established a 30-day deadline to accept the offer; and (2) whether the insurer’s duty to settle arises “when it knows or reasonably should know settlement within the insured’s policy limits is possible with an injured party or only when the injured party presents a valid offer to settle within the insured’s policy limits?”

The Georgia Supreme Court’s rulings on these issues likely will have a significant impact on Georgia insurers and their exposure to negligent or bad faith failure to settle claims.  Oral argument has been scheduled for September.

If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Bill Buechner at [email protected].

New York High Court Narrows Statute of Limitations Under Martin Act

Posted on: June 22nd, 2018

By: Ali Sabzevari

New York’s primary weapon aimed at fraud entitled the Martin Act was drastically hindered by New York’s high court, which found that the law’s statute of limitations was three years, not six years.  The case is People v. Credit Suisse Sec. (USA) LLC, 2018 NY Slip Op 04272, ¶ 1 (New York State Court of Appeals).

The Martin Act has been used to police the securities markets since the 1920s. This Act regulates the advertisement, issuance, exchange, purchase or sale of securities, commodities and certain other investments within or from New York.  It is one of the country’s oldest anti-fraud laws and is used by the New York Attorney General to file both civil suits and criminal charges against alleged violators of the Act.

In the Credit Suisse Sec. (USA) LLC opinion, the Court of Appeals noted that it had never before considered the law’s statute of limitations. Contemplating whether claims were governed by a three-year period or a six-year period, the Court ultimately held that the three-year term applies because of the fraudulent nature of the claims brought under the Martin Act.

This decision will have a big impact on claims brought under the Martin Act as well as the defense of such claims.  If you have any questions or would like more information, please contact Ali Sabzevari at [email protected].

Little Miller, Big Implications

Posted on: June 20th, 2018

By: Samantha Skolnick

In Georgia, when an individual performs work on a state construction project, they can file a lien for non-payment.  The lien is against the project through Georgia’s Little Miller Act. The claim itself is not against the state or county’s actual property. The claim is against a posted bond, and is a “Bond Claim” or “Little Miller Act Claim.”

In a recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit, the Court affirmed summary judgment for the surety based on Georgia’s one-year statute of limitations for little miller act claims. Strickland v. Arch Ins. Co., No. 17-106102018 WL 327443 (11th Cir. Jan. 9, 2018) (rehearing denied Apr. 4, 2018).

Strickland was tasked with providing sand to a paving company (“Douglas”) for the Georgia Department of Transportation (“GDOT”) as they worked on a road improvement project (the “Project”).  Arch Insurance Company (“Arch”) was the surety who issued payment and performance bonds for Douglas.  In 2007, GDOT declared Douglas in default and they were removed from the Project.  The surety brought in another company to complete the work on the Project. Strickland did not supply any sand after Douglas was removed from the Project.

GDOT determined that the Project was substantially complete in August of 2010 and in September 2010 made its punch list. The new contractor brought on by the surety finished the punch list in September 2011.  In March 2012, GDOT accepted Project maintenance responsibilities and made semi-final payment to Arch in July 2012.

In September 2012, Strickland directed a demand for payment on Arch’s payment bond.  Arch acknowledged the claim but requested additional documentation, which was not provided by Strickland.  In 2014, Strickland filed a lawsuit against Arch. The trial court concluded that there was no dispute that the project was completed and accepted in September 2011.  With that ruling, Georgia’s one-year statute of limitations on payment bond claims barred Strickland’s action and consequently Strickland appealed.

The Appellate Court rejected Strickland’s arguments, holding that “completion” and “acceptance” used in the statute relate to the actual work on the project and are not dependent on the ending of future contractual duties or on the public owner’s internal policies and procedures.

The main takeaway: under Georgia law, the date a public owner states that the project is “completed” or “accepted” does not dictate whether the statute of limitation is running.  Georgia’s one-year statute of limitations under Georgia’s Little Miller Act begins when the actual work is substantially completed. Punch list items do not need to be finished.

If you have any questions, please contact Samantha Skolnick at [email protected].

 

Coffee, Water, Less Than 20 Minutes

Posted on: June 19th, 2018

SCOTUS KICKS THE CAN ON SHORT BREAKS COMPENSATION

By: John McAvoy

On June 11, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to entertain the appeal of a Pennsylvania employer that could have resolved the emerging split of authority between the federal appellate courts and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) as to the compensability of employees’ short rest breaks.

In American Future Systems, Inc. d/b/a Progressive Business Publications v. R. Alexander Acosta, Secretary, U.S. Department of Labor, the Secretary of Labor filed suit against Progressive Business Publications, a company that publishes and distributes business publications and sells them through its sales representatives, as well as the company’s owner, alleging they violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by paying their salespeople an hourly wage and bonuses based on their number of sales per hour while they were logged onto the computer at their workstations, and by not paying them if they were logged off for more than 90 seconds.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania previously found that the employer’s policy had violated the FLSA, relying on a DOL regulation which states that “[r]est periods of short duration, running from 5 minutes to about 20 minutes, are common in industry.  They promote the efficiency of the employee and are customarily paid for as working time.  They must be counted as hours worked.”  In so holding, the District Court found that the employer was liable for at least $1.75 million in back wages and damages.

On appeal to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, the employer argued that that it provided “flex time” rather than “breaks,” which allowed workers to clock out whenever they wanted, for any reason.  In other words, that the employees were not “working” after they logged off of their computers since they could do anything they wanted, including leaving the office.  The appellate court rejected this argument, reasoning that to dock the pay of employees who can’t manage a bathroom sprint is “absolutely contrary to the FLSA,” and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Third Circuit’s reliance on DOL regulation was contrary to the holdings of some of the other circuit courts which opted to assess the circumstances of the break in lieu of interpreting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule that fails to take into consideration the facts of a particular situation.

The employer asked the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify how compensability for breaks should be determined.  Citing the circuit split, the employer posited that the question of break pay should be determined by assessing the circumstances of the break, rather than adopting the DOL regulation as a bright-line rule.  In its reply brief, the DOL fervently defended its regulations and denied the existence of the alleged circuit split, arguing that “hours worked [are] not limited to the time an employee actually performs his or her job duties.”  Unfortunately, this remains an issue for another day as the Supreme Court refused to hear the case and/or resolve the alleged split.

Absent a decision from the Supreme Court to the contrary, employers in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware are bound by the Third Circuit’s decision. As such, employers in these states must continue to comply with DOL regulations with respect to the compensability of short breaks.

Fortunately, the applicable DOL regulations are designed to protect employers’ rights. For starters, the regulations recognize that meal periods serve a different purpose than coffee or snack breaks and, as such, are not compensable.  Second, an employer need not count an employee’s unauthorized extensions of authorized work breaks as hours worked when the employer has expressly and unambiguously communicated to the employee that the authorized break may only last for a specific length of time, that any extension of the break is contrary to the employer’s rules, and any extension of the break will be punished.

Although an employer will have to compensate an employee who repeatedly takes unauthorized breaks lasting less than 20 minutes in order to comply with the Third Circuit’s ruling and the applicable DOL regulations, the employer is nevertheless free to discipline the employee for such indiscretions by whatever means the employer deems appropriate, including termination.

Prudent employers should prepare themselves to address such issues through smart planning and proper training of employees, including managers, supervisors and HR personnel to ensure the employer’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with all applicable DOL regulations.

Want to know whether your company’s break, discipline, and termination policies and procedures comply with DOL regulations? Let me help. Please call or email me (215.789.4919; [email protected]).