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Lear v. Hitachi Automotive Systems, Americas, Inc.

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

March 26, 2018

CAROL LEAR and JAMES TINCHER, On behalf of themselves & all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
HITACHI AUTOMOTIVE SYSTEMS, AMERICAS, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JOSEPH M. HOOD, SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This case is before the Court upon various motions of both parties [DE 20, 32, 46, 48, 51, 56, and 63]. All of the motions are either ripe or moot. The substantive motions which require analysis are the Plaintiffs' Motion to Certify Class [DE 32] and Motion to Modify the Scope of the Collective Class [DE 48].

         I. FACTS

         This is an action for unpaid overtime wages brought by Plaintiffs Carol Lear and James Tincher (“Plaintiffs”) on behalf of themselves and other similarly situated employees, including without limitation, Production Supervisors employed by Defendant Hitachi Automotive Systems Americas, Inc. (“Defendant” or “Hitachi”) at its Berea, Kentucky manufacturing facilities. This collective action challenges Defendant's policy of failing to pay Plaintiffs and other similarly situated employees overtime pay for hours over 40 worked in a workweek in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq. and the Kentucky Wage and Hour Act, KRS § 337.010, et seq. To date, more than 40 current and former supervisors from Defendant's Berea, Kentucky manufacturing facilities, including Production Supervisors, Quality Supervisors, and Warehouse Supervisors, have filed consent forms to join this action and recover unpaid overtime wages that they are owed. Plaintiffs allege the putative class and opt-in plaintiffs are current or former employees of Defendant with the job title of supervisor who work or worked at one or more of Defendant's Berea, Kentucky manufacturing facilities (referred to herein as the “BK” and “BM North” facilities; the parties agreed to exclude “BM South”). According to the Complaint, Plaintiffs and other supervisors routinely work in excess of 40 hours per workweek, sometimes as much as 60 or more hours per workweek, but are not compensated at the required time-and-a-half rates for the hours over 40. The supervisors are instead paid their “straight time” or regular hourly wage. Plaintiffs allege they did not receive a salary, only hourly wages, and that their pay was reduced if they missed worktime, including partial days. Plaintiffs admit Hitachi told them they were paid a salary and were classified as exempt workers, but aver that this is untrue. Plaintiffs support their claims with several sworn statements from Hitachi supervisors. Hitachi responded that Plaintiffs and other supervisors are, in fact, paid a salary and properly classified as exempt employees under federal and state laws, and supported this contention with a sworn statement from Hitachi's human resources director.

         Procedurally, Plaintiffs initially moved the Court to certify a collective action pursuant to FLSA. Pursuant to the Kentucky Supreme Court's August 24, 2017 decision in McCann v. Sullivan Univ. Sys. Inc., 528 S.W.3d 331 (Ky. Aug. 2017), Plaintiffs filed a motion to modify the scope of the collective class [DE 48] to include supplemental state law claims. In McCann, the Kentucky Supreme Court reversed the Kentucky Court of Appeals and held that it is permissible to bring KWHA claims on a representative basis.

         Defendants vehemently oppose the motion to modify the scope of the putative class because the statute of limitations for KWHA claims is five years and the FLSA statute of limitations is three years. Plaintiffs ask the Court to apply the five-year limitations period set forth under the KWHA and conditionally certify a FLSA collective class of supervisors who worked at BK and BM North between April 24, 2012 and present. In addition, the standard for class certification pursuant to Rule 23's one-step process is substantially more onerous than the standard for conditional certification as an FLSA collective action (step one of two in FLSA certification), and Defendant argues Plaintiffs attempt to circumvent the more stringent standard by notifying the FLSA and KWHA putative class members during this stage of the litigation.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         “Congress enacted the FLSA in 1938 with the goal of ‘protect[ing] all covered workers from substandard wages and oppressive working hours.'” Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 32 S.Ct. 2156');">132 S.Ct. 2156, 2162 (2012) (quoting Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight Sys., Inc., 450 U.S. 728, 739 (1981)); see also 29 U.S.C. § 202(a). Chief among the FLSA's provisions is the overtime wage requirement, which generally obligates “employers to compensate employees for hours in excess of 40 per week at a rate of 1½ times the employees' regular wages.” Id.; see also 29 U.S.C. § 207(a).

         “[A]ny one or more employees” may seek redress for violations of the FLSA by initiating a collective action “on behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Similarly situated employees may “opt-into” such suits by “signal[ing] in writing their affirmative consent to participate in the action.” Comer v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 454 F.3d 544, 546 (6th Cir. 2006) (noting that this type of suit “is distinguished from the opt-out approach utilized in class actions under Fed.R.Civ.P. 23”).

         Certification of FLSA collective actions typically proceeds in two phases. Comer, 454 F.3d at 546-47. “[A]t the notice stage, the certification is conditional and by no means final.” Id. (internal quotations omitted). “The plaintiff must show only that his position is similar, not identical, to the positions held by the putative class members.” Id. (internal quotations omitted) (emphasis added). “[T]his determination is made using a fairly lenient standard, and typically results in conditional certification of a representative class.” Id. (stating further that “authorization of notice need only be based on a modest factual showing”) (internal quotations omitted).

         “At the second stage, following discovery, trial courts examine more closely the question of whether particular members of the class are, in fact, similarly situated.” Id. at 547. The final-certification decision depends upon “a variety of factors, including the factual and employment settings of the individual[] plaintiffs, the different defenses to which the plaintiffs may be subject on an individual basis, [and] the degree of fairness and procedural impact of certifying the action as a collective action.” O'Brien v. Ed Donnelly Enter., Inc., 575 F.3d 567, 584 (6th Cir. 2009) (internal quotations omitted), overruled on other grounds by Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez, 136 S.Ct. 663 (2016).

         The FLSA “grant[s] the court the requisite procedural authority to manage the process of joining multiple parties in a manner that is orderly, sensible and not otherwise contrary to the statutory commands or the provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.” Hoffman-LaRoche v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 171 (1989) (discussing 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), the FLSA's enforcement provision, as incorporated into the ADEA). Thus, “district courts have discretion, in appropriate cases, to implement 29 U.S.C. 216(b) … by facilitating notice to potential plaintiffs.” Id. “Court authorization of notice serves the legitimate goal of avoiding a multiplicity of duplicative suits and setting cutoff dates to expedite disposition of the action.” Id.

         III. ANALYSIS

         1) FLSA Claims

         This case sits at the notice stage of the bifurcated-certification process. Plaintiffs ask the Court to conditionally certify their FLSA claim for unpaid overtime wages as a ...


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