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Cheek v. City of Greensboro

United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina

July 10, 2015

WENDY CHEEK, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF GREENSBORO, NC, Defendant. MICHAEL BROWNELL, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
CITY OF GREENSBORO, NC, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

CATHERINE C. EAGLES, District Judge.

These cases raise a number of issues related to compensation and benefits provided to plaintiff-firefighters by the defendant-employer, the City of Greensboro. Before the Court are cross-motions for summary judgment. This Order addresses claims that the City violated various provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act. To the extent the plaintiffs' claims are based on the City's failure to include certain longevity payments in calculating the plaintiffs' overtime compensation, the Court will deny both parties' motions. Otherwise, the Court will grant the City's motion and deny the plaintiffs' motion.

1. Overtime Back Pay Claims

As part of its benefits program for many years, the City operated a longevity program that offered annual payments to employees in recognition of their years of employment. ( See, e.g., Doc. 69-11 at 2; Doc. 81-5 at 6; see also Doc. 78-23.)[1] Sometime in 2011, several employees informed the City that they believed longevity pay should be included in the calculation of their overtime pay under the FLSA. ( See Doc. 68-8 at 31-34; see also Doc. 70-1 at 2.) From October 2011 through May 2012, the City investigated the employees' concerns and ultimately agreed with the employees, ( see, e.g., Docs. 70-1 to 70-5; see also Doc. 84-3 at ¶¶ 4-10); the City concluded that it owed $74, 320.43 in overtime back pay to 543 affected employees. ( See Doc. 70-4 at 2.)

In May and June 2012, the City offered overtime back pay to affected employees. ( See, e.g., Docs. 70-5, 70-6; Doc. 84-3 at ¶ 10.) Some employees accepted the amounts that the City initially offered them, and others eventually entered into a settlement agreement with the City. ( See, e.g., Doc. 68-8 at 48-54; Doc. 70-9.) The plaintiffs in these two cases did not accept the City's offers of overtime back pay and did not enter into a settlement agreement with the City.

The City does not dispute that its failure to include past years' longevity payments in the calculation of the plaintiffs' overtime compensation violated § 207 of the FLSA. ( See, e.g., Doc. 80 at 22-29); see also 29 U.S.C. § 207. Rather, the City contends that its 2012 offer of overtime back pay mooted the plaintiffs' claims because "the City offered to pay Plaintiffs the entirety of the amounts that Plaintiffs have now filed these lawsuits to obtain." ( See Doc. 80 at 23.) The plaintiffs contend the case is not moot because the City did not offer to pay the full amount to which each plaintiff claimed to be entitled. ( See Doc. 81 at 29-31.)

"A case is moot when the issues presented are no longer live or the parties lack a legally cognizable interest in the outcome." Simmons v. United Mortg. & Loan Inv., LLC, 634 F.3d 754, 763 (4th Cir. 2011) (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted). Generally, one "circumstance mooting a claim arises when the claimant receives the relief he or she sought to obtain through the claim." Id .; see also Warren v. Sessoms & Rogers, P.A., 676 F.3d 365, 370 (4th Cir. 2012) ("Accordingly, we have found there was no longer any case or controversy when defendants had offered a plaintiff the full amount of damages to which the plaintiff claimed entitlement." (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted)). The claimant need not accept the offer of relief, but rather "the case becomes moot... because the plaintiff could have obtained through acceptance of the offer all that he could have hoped to obtain through litigation." Amrhein v. Regency Mgmt. Servs., LLC, No. SKG-13-1114, 2014 WL 1155356, at *5 (D. Md. Mar. 20, 2014) (opinion of Gauvey, M.J.) (internal quotation marks omitted).

Here, the City's 2012 offer did not include the full relief to which each plaintiff claimed to be entitled. It is undisputed that the City offered to pay the plaintiffs overtime back pay for two years and did not offer to pay the plaintiffs liquidated damages, that in certain circumstances the FLSA authorizes back pay for three years and liquidated damages, see 29 U.S.C. §§ 216(b), 255(a), and that the plaintiffs contend they are entitled to back pay for three years and to liquidated damages. Because the City's 2012 offer did not offer to pay "the full amount of damages to which the plaintiff[s] claim[] entitlement, " Warren, 676 F.3d at 370, it did not moot the plaintiffs' claims.

The City contends that because the plaintiffs are not actually entitled to three years of back pay or to liquidated damages, the case is moot. ( See, e.g., Doc. 80 at 24-29.) They cite no case in support of this proposition, which is inconsistent with Fourth Circuit case law determining mootness in the context of settlement offers based on what the plaintiff claimed, not on what the plaintiff was later found to be entitled to recover. See, e.g., Warren, 676 F.3d at 370; Simmons, 634 F.3d at 763. Even if one assumes that the plaintiffs will ultimately lose on their claims for three years of back pay and for liquidated damages, that does not make their claims for such damages moot.

The City also contends that the plaintiffs cannot recover overtime back pay because they did not mitigate their damages when they did not accept the 2012 offer. ( See Doc. 80 at 30.) Because the City did not offer to pay the full amounts of the claimed damages, this argument fails for the same reasons that the City's mootness argument fails.

The City did not move for summary judgment on grounds other than mootness and the plaintiffs' failure to mitigate damages. ( See Doc. 80 at 22-30.) Because the plaintiffs' claims are not moot and because the City's failure to mitigate damages argument has no merit, the Court will deny the City's motions.

The plaintiffs did not contend in their summary judgment brief that they are entitled to summary judgment on any aspect of these claims. ( See Doc. 77 at 23-29.) As noted supra, the City did not contend that it is entitled to summary judgment on the merits. In the absence of summary judgment briefing on the issues of the City's liability to the plaintiffs for two years of overtime back pay, the amount of damages the plaintiffs are owed for this two-year period, whether the City is liable for a third year of overtime back pay based on a willful FLSA violation, the amount of damages that the plaintiffs would be owed if the City is liable for a third year, and whether the plaintiffs are entitled to liquidated damages, these aspects of the plaintiffs' FLSA claims will proceed to trial.

To narrow the issues and simplify the trial, the parties are directed to exchange (but not to file) proposed stipulations within 30 days from the date of this Order and to thereafter confer over any disagreements. The Court suggests that the parties consider including, at a minimum, background facts and amounts or calculations, as well as stipulations related to the admissibility of exhibits. If the parties are ...


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