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Barton v. House of Raeford Farms

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

March 11, 2014

CALVIN BARTON; SHAMIKA CURETON; LATOYA JAMISON; LISA JAMISON; TERRANCE JOHNSON; KELLY PARDUE; PAULINE WARREN; ANNA EDENS; ANTONIO MILLER; STACEY JOHNSON; SHERRY PERALTA; NATASHA ATKINSON; PAMELA VAUGHN; QUASHONDA CHAPMAN; SHIRLEY BAISEY; BILLY HARRIS; CONSTANCE NEAL, Plaintiffs - Appellees,
v.
HOUSE OF RAEFORD FARMS, INCORPORATED, d/b/a Columbia Farms, Incorporated, Defendant - Appellant. and JORGE CASTELLANOS; DENISE BLACKWELL; BRIAN BROWNLEE; JOSEPH HOPKINS; TERESA HARRIS, Plaintiffs, SHIREN JOHNSON; SAMANTHA EARL, Plaintiffs - Appellees, and TAWANA BLANDIN; TERESA CALIXTO; ELODIA CARRERA; ERNADID GARRIBO CASTILLO; LORENA CASTILLO CORRALE; NATALIE DORANTES; RUFFINA FELIPE; MARIA DOMINGO GOMEZ; SILVIA HERNANDEZ; LUCIANO HERNANDEZ LEMOS; MATEO FRANCISCO LORENZO; ANGEL RODRIGUEZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
HOUSE OF RAEFORD FARMS, INCORPORATED, d/b/a Columbia Farms, Incorporated, Defendant - Appellant. JACKIE BLAND; TAMORTHA BRUSTER; MYRTLE BRYSON; ANTONIO BURTS, a/k/a Antonio Burch; STEVEN CASE, Plaintiffs - Appellees,
v.
HOUSE OF RAEFORD FARMS, INCORPORATED, d/b/a Columbia Farms, Incorporated, Defendant - Appellant

Argued September 18, 2013.

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Appeals from the United States District Court for the District of South Carolina, at Greenville. (6:09-cv-01901-JMC; 6:09-cv-03137-JMC; 6:10-cv-00928-JMC). J. Michelle Childs, District Judge.

ARGUED:

James Larry Stine, WIMBERLY, LAWSON, STECKEL, SCHNEIDER & STINE, PC, Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.

Nancy B. Bloodgood, FOSTER LAW FIRM, LLC, Daniel Island, South Carolina, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Elizabeth K. Dorminey, WIMBERLY, LAWSON, STECKEL, SCHNEIDER & STINE, P.C., Atlanta, Georgia, for Appellant.

Lucy C. Sanders, FOSTER LAW FIRM, LLC, Charleston, South Carolina, for Appellees.

Before NIEMEYER, KING, and AGEE, Circuit Judges. Judge Niemeyer wrote the opinion, in which Judge Agee joined. Judge King wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

OPINION

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NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge:

Numerous former employees and some current employees of House of Raeford Farms, Inc., d/b/a Columbia Farms, Inc., (" Columbia Farms" ), a chicken processor in Greenville, South Carolina, commenced three separate actions against Columbia Farms, asserting two types of claims: first, for the payment of unpaid wages, withheld in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (" FLSA" ), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act (" S.C. Wages Act" ), S.C. Code Ann. § § 41-10-10 to -110, and second, for retaliating against them for instituting workers' compensation proceedings, in violation of S.C. Code Ann. § 41-1-80. The district court granted Columbia Farms' motion for summary judgment on the unpaid wages claims under the FLSA but denied it on the unpaid wages claims under the S.C. Wages Act and the retaliation claims. After the actions were consolidated, a jury returned a verdict in favor of 16 employees on the S.C. Wages Act claims, awarding them $16,583 in the aggregate, which the district court trebled to $49,749. The court also awarded attorneys' fees and costs on these claims in the amount of $227,640. Following a bench trial on the retaliation claims, the court found in favor of 8 employees, ordering that 5 be reinstated and awarding back pay in the aggregate amount of $131,742.

On Columbia Farms' appeal, we reverse the jury award on the S.C. Wages Act claims, concluding that those claims were preempted by § 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act (" LMRA" ), 29 U.S.C. § 185, and should have been dismissed. As to the retaliation claims under S.C. Code Ann. § 41-1-80, we reverse as to 6 employees because they failed to present evidence satisfying the governing legal standards for recovery under state law. As to the retaliation claims of the remaining two employees -- Billy Harris and Lisa Jamison -- we affirm.

I

S.C. Wages Act claims

The wages paid to the production and maintenance employees at Columbia Farms' plant in Greenville were governed by a collective bargaining agreement (" CBA" ) with the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, Local No. 1996, CLC (" the Union" ). Among other terms, the CBA provided that the basic work day was 8 hours and the basic work week was 40 hours, and it spelled out the hourly rates of pay for the different classes of employees. With respect to those rates, the CBA noted that in November 2004, Columbia Farms and the Union had negotiated a change to the company's " meal and rest policy" in exchange for a one-time 3.1% raise to the affected employees' hourly rate. Under the revised policy, instead of receiving " an unpaid lunch period and paid breaks," employees were to receive one " unpaid meal period and [one] unpaid rest period per day, totaling approximately sixty (60) minutes, [with] the allocation between the meal and rest periods to be allocated by the Company." The CBA

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also specified that Columbia Farms would maintain " [a] daily record... with the use of adequate time clocks at each plant" and that " [t]he Union [would] have the right to examine time sheets and any other records pertaining to the computation of compensation of any employee whose pay [was] in dispute." Columbia Farms further agreed " not to enter into any other Agreement or contract with its employees, individually or collectively, which in any way conflict[ed] with the terms and provisions of this Agreement." Finally, the agreement established a grievance procedure with respect to any dispute " aris[ing] over the interpretation" of the CBA and provided for arbitration for any grievance that could not be settled.

The CBA did not expressly specify how employees' compensable time would be calculated, but Columbia Farms had a long-standing practice of paying its production employees based on " line time" -- that is, the time actually spent by employees processing chickens on the production line. " Line time" did not include time spent donning and doffing protective gear, walking to and from the production area, or washing gear before and after work. Columbia Farms stopped the production line for two 30-minute periods per shift to provide employees with meal breaks, which, under the CBA, were not counted as compensable time.

When new employees were hired, they were given a form at orientation entitled " Terms of Employment," which indicated that its purpose was to notify employees " of the terms of employment," as required by South Carolina Code § 41-10-30. The form was filled out to specify each worker's hourly rate of pay and, in a blank next to " hours of work," the general hours for that worker's scheduled shift -- for example, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Columbia Farms also gave its new employees an Employee Handbook, which, in a section on " Time Card Administration," stated that " [t]he purpose of the time card is to insure an accurate record of all hours you work in order for you to receive correct payment of wages" ; that " [y]ou are required to punch in and out on your own time card according to your schedule" ; and that " [i]t is our policy that all work performed by you will be while you are 'on the clock.'" The Handbook further specified that " [y]ou must be dressed for work when punching in or out" ; that " [e]mployees are to be at their workstations ready and dressed for work at their scheduled starting time and are to remain at their workstations until the scheduled quitting time" ; and that " [y]ou will be paid for all time worked per your schedule." The Handbook also stated that employees would receive two 30-minute lunch breaks during each shift.

According to a number of former employees who testified at trial, Columbia Farms never informed them when they were hired that their hours would be based on " line time," as distinct from " clock time." These employees stated that, instead, they were told at orientation that they would be working a set nine-hour shift and that they would be paid based on when they clocked in and out for that shift. Although some acknowledged that they were also told that their two 30-minute lunch breaks would be unpaid, they estimated that they ended up having only 10 to 20 minutes in the break room during each break because of the time it took to walk to and from the break room, to don and doff protective clothing, and to wash up.

In 2009, a group of the Greenville plant's former employees, as well as a few of its current employees, all of whom were members of the bargaining unit covered by the

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CBA, sued Columbia Farms for wages due, based on the FLSA and the S.C. Wages Act, asserting that they should have been paid for the time they spent donning and doffing protective gear and preparing for work. They also asserted that because their actual break time was less than 20 minutes, Columbia Farms was required, in accordance with federal regulations, to compensate them for that time. Their claims under the S.C. Wages Act included allegations that Columbia Farms failed to notify them in writing as to the hours they would be working when they were hired.

The district court granted Columbia Farms' motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs' FLSA claims, based on Sepulveda v. Allen Family Foods, Inc., 591 F.3d 209 (4th Cir. 2009), which held that donning and doffing protective gear at a poultry processing plant constituted " changing clothes" within the meaning of 29 U.S.C. § 203(o) and that employers and unions could address whether such time would be compensated through collective bargaining. The district court in this case concluded that because Columbia Farms, like the employer in Sepulveda, had a long-standing practice under a bona fide collective bargaining agreement of paying its employees based on " line time," the plaintiffs were not entitled to compensation for the time spent donning and doffing protective gear. The court also granted Columbia Farms' motion for summary judgment on plaintiffs' similar claims under the S.C. Wages Act " [t]o the extent that those claims ar[o]se from Columbia Farms's failure to pay Plaintiffs for their time spent donning and doffing sanitary and protective gear." Atkinson v. House of Raeford Farms, Inc., No. 6:09-cv-01901-JMC, 2011 WL 1526605, at *5 (D.S.C. Apr. 20, 2011).

With respect to whether Columbia Farms had complied with the S.C. Wages Act in providing required written notices, giving adequate breaks, providing accurate pay statements, and paying full wages due when employees were terminated, the district court denied Columbia Farms' motion for summary judgment, concluding that " there appeared to be genuine issues of material fact regarding whether Columbia Farms complied with [the Act]." Atkinson, 2011 WL 1526605, at *5. Those claims, accordingly, were presented to a jury.

Before trial, Columbia Farms contended that the plaintiffs' S.C. Wages Act claims were preempted by § 301 of the LMRA, arguing that the plaintiffs' efforts to collect allegedly unpaid wages under the state statute necessarily implicated the CBA and therefore should have been dismissed. The district court rejected the argument, ruling that the plaintiffs could prevail on their S.C. Wages Act claims by proving (1) that they were not notified at the time of employment that they would be paid " line time" and were instead led to believe that they would be paid " clock time; " (2) that this understanding became part of the agreed-upon terms and conditions of their employment; and (3) that Columbia Farms had failed to honor this agreement and therefore owed them unpaid wages for the difference between " clock time" and " line time." The district court thus held that the S.C. Wages Act claims were not preempted because the plaintiffs' theory of recovery did not depend on the meaning of the CBA but on the alleged breach of separate agreements to pay " clock time."

The jury returned a verdict in favor of 16 plaintiffs, awarding them unpaid wages ranging from $53 to $2,433, for a total of $16,583. And the district court trebled the damages, as authorized by state law, to $49,749, finding that no bona fide dispute

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existed regarding the wages the plaintiffs were due. The court explained:

Columbia Farms had a practice of paying its employees according to line time; however, neither the CBA nor the terms of employment provided to Plaintiffs indicated that employees were to be paid according to line time. At trial, Plaintiffs presented evidence that Columbia Farms led them to believe that they would be paid based on the amount of hours that they were clocked-in at work.... Accordingly, to the extent the jury found that Columbia Farms did not pay all wages due to Plaintiffs, the court finds that no bona fide dispute existed as to the payment of those wages.

Atkinson v. House of Raeford Farms, Inc., No. 6:09-cv-01901-JMC, 2012 WL 2871747, at *3 (D.S.C. July 12, 2012). The court also awarded prejudgment interest, pursuant to S.C. Code Ann. ยง 34-31-20(A), and ...


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