Employment Law Daily FLSA claim of RV tech who allegedly worked years in exchange for promise of a home will get trial
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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

FLSA claim of RV tech who allegedly worked years in exchange for promise of a home will get trial

By Lorene D. Park, J.D.

A federal district court in Colorado denied a trailer sales company’s motion for partial summary judgment against an FLSA minimum wage claim by an employee who allegedly worked, unpaid, for six years in exchange for the promise she claimed the owner made to transfer title to a home. The court rejected the defendants’ argument that her lack of employment records precluded a showing that the company was her employer and, looking to the economic realities of the relationship, found triable questions on that issue. The court also rejected the defendants’ procedural challenge to her state-law wage claim (Lopez v. Edwards, May 15, Arguello, C.).

According to the employee, she began working for Casper Trailer Sales in 2009, quickly learning to be an RV technician by observing other techs. She allegedly worked as a technician from 2009 until 2015, without cash wages, in reliance on the company owner’s promise to transfer title to a home to her in exchange for her work. She also received room and board for part of this time. The employee also alleged that, throughout most of her employment, she worked no fewer than 10 hours a day and as many as 70 hours a week. She received her first paycheck in May 2015 but was allegedly not paid for all of her hours worked in 2015 and 2016. The employee was fired in November 2016, allegedly because she was harassed at work and because the owner refused to pay her. She sued under the FLSA and the Colorado Wage Act (CWA).

FLSA claim heads to trial. Denying all alleged misconduct, including that the owner ever promised to transfer title to a house in exchange for the employee’s work, the defendants moved for partial summary judgment on the claims for unpaid wages for the period before May 24, 2015 (the point when she became a payroll employee of Casper). They argued that, because the employee cannot produce records of her employment before that date, her claim for unpaid wages could only extend to the owner individually (not the company). They also argued that, because the FLSA only covers employees engaged in interstate commerce, the owner was not an employer as defined by the Act.

On the latter issue, the court found that the defendant company was certainly an enterprise engaged in commerce. Its receipts were in excess of $500,000 and it had “employees handling, selling, or otherwise working on goods or materials that have been moved in . . . commerce . . . .”

Considering the economic realities of the relationship, the court also found triable issues on whether the employee was employed by Casper before her first cash payment for wages. When asked in an interrogatory to describe her duties as an employee of Casper, the employee provided a detailed list of duties, including: sweeping the shop; moving trailers with a forklift; running errands; repairing roofs; changing vents, fans, water pumps, and other parts; and maintaining the exterior property by mending fences, among other tasks. The employee also supported her claim that she worked for the company before May 24, 2015 by using several of the owner’s documented statements, including one that said the employee “works for me” and was stamped with Casper’s dba, “JDL Trailer Sales . . . .” This was enough to avoid summary judgment.

CWA claim also proceeds. The defendants also sought summary judgment on the employee’s claim for wages under the CWA. Under Colo. Rev. Stat. § 8-4-109(a): “[w]hen an interruption in the employer-employee relationship by volition of the employer occurs, the wages or compensation for labor or service earned, vested, determinable, and unpaid at the time of such discharge is due and payable immediately.” Under Section 122, the employee has two years from that date to bring a claim for non-willful violations and three years for willful violations.

In their motion, the defendants relied on Hernandez v. Ray Domenico Farms, Inc., in which the federal court issued a certified question to the Colorado Supreme Court requesting clarification between the overlap of covered wages in CWA Section 103 and CWA Section 109, which in effect revives all past actionable claims upon an employee’s termination, even if the limitations period has run for unpaid wages under Section 103. According to the defendants, the employee’s claim should be limited to only unpaid final wages and penalties related to final wages unless or until the state high court rules otherwise.

Sidestepping that question, the court found Hernandez inapplicable here because the employee made a demand for payment of wages on November 11, 2016, including unpaid wages for all hours worked in 2013 and 2014, as well as unpaid wages for some hours in 2015 and 2016. When her demand went unanswered, she filed suit in January 2017. Because the operative complaint implied a willful violation, concluded the court, the three-year limitations period applied and the employee’s claims for unpaid wages dating back to 2013 would be timely.

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