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HUNTER v. SPRINT CORPORATION

November 16, 2004.

TERRANCE HUNTER, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
SPRINT CORPORATION, et al., Defendants.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JOHN BATES, District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

The named plaintiffs in this matter are nine network engineers who work for defendants Sprint Corporation and its subsidiaries (collectively "Sprint" or "defendants"). They have filed in this Court under the "collective action" provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), alleging that Sprint failed to pay them and similarly situated employees the overtime wages to which they are entitled under the Act. Presently before the Court is plaintiffs' motion to approve collective action notice, in which plaintiffs — each of them members of a work group at Sprint known as the Internet Protocol Core Group — ask the Court to designate all of the employees in the Internet Protocol Core Group, as well as all of the employees in a separate work group known as the Internet Services Assurance Group, as "similarly situated" to plaintiffs and therefore entitled to notice of the collective action. Plaintiffs also seek an order instructing defendants to provide plaintiffs with the names and addresses of class members, and approving their proposed form of the notice of the collective action. BACKGROUND

The nine named plaintiffs work as network engineers for Sprint. Each is a member of a work group known as the Internet Protocol Core Group. See Certification of David M. Ham ("Ham Cert.") ¶ 5. There are a total of fifteen employees in the Internet Protocol Core Group, and they all have roughly the same set of duties: to determine whether a problem with Sprint's computer networks is caused by software or hardware, and if the problem is caused by software, to fix the problem. See id.; Decl. of Terrance Hunter ("Hunter Decl.") ¶¶ 5-10; Decl. of Wesley George dated May 25, 2004 ("George Decl.") ¶¶ 6-11; Decl. of Stephen Plys ("Plys Decl.") ¶¶ 6-11.

  The employees in the Internet Protocol Core Group had once been members of a larger work group at Sprint known as Internet Backbone Operations. See Hunter Decl. ¶ 6; George Decl. ¶ 7; Plys Decl. ¶ 7. In early 2003, as part of a corporate reorganization, Internet Backbone Operations was divided into two separate groups: the Internet Protocol Core Group and the Internet Services Assurance Group. See Ham Decl. ¶ 3. As plaintiffs describe it, the members of the Internet Services Assurance Group "do basically the same job" as the members of the Internet Protocol Core Group, except that the Internet Services Assurance Group works on problems between the Sprint network and individual customers, whereas the Internet Protocol Core Group works on problems within the network that typically affect multiple customers. Decl. of Wesley George dated Aug. 23, 2004 ("Supp. George Decl.") ¶ 2.

  During 2003, defendants undertook an audit to determine whether many of the employees in the Internet Protocol Core Group and the Internet Services Assurance Group had appropriately been classified as exempt from the overtime requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). See Ham Cert. ¶ 7. As a result of the audit, defendants reclassified at least eleven members of the Internet Services Assurance Group to non-exempt status.*fn1 See id. ¶ 8. A few months later, defendants reclassified all fifteen employees of the Internet Protocol Core Group to non-exempt status as well. See id. ¶ 10. Defendants began paying overtime to all of the employees it reclassified as non-exempt. See Hunter Decl. ¶ 15; George Decl. ¶ 16; Plys Decl. ¶ 16. Defendants also say that they paid the reclassified employees back overtime wages at a rate of one-half of the employee's hourly rate for any "verifiable and/or reasonable" overtime hours the employees had worked during the previous two years. Ham Cert. ¶ 11-13.

  In addition to the employees in the Internet Protocol Core Group, and the employees in the Internet Services Assurance Group whom defendants reclassified as non-exempt, there are two other sets of employees relevant to this motion. First, there are several employees in the Internet Services Assurance Group whom defendants have always classified as non-exempt from the FLSA, and therefore eligible for overtime compensation. See id. ¶ 9; Supp. George Decl. ¶ 3. Second, there are anywhere between ten and twenty members of the Internet Services Assurance Group whom defendants have always classified as exempt and did not re-classify as non-exempt along with the other employees in 2003. Accordingly, defendants continue to treat these ten to twenty employees as ineligible for overtime pay. See Supp. George Decl. ¶ 5.

  On March 8, 2004, one of the employees in the Internet Protocol Core Group whom defendants reclassified as non-exempt commenced this "collective action" under the FLSA on behalf of himself and all similarly situated employees seeking back pay and liquidated damages for what he claims was the defendants' willful failure to pay the employees overtime wages. Complaint at 2, 4. Some time thereafter, plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint adding eight other employees as named plaintiffs. Each of the new plaintiffs is also a current or former member of the Internet Protocol Core Group. See Amended Complaint at 5; Ham Cert. ¶ 5

  Plaintiffs have now filed a motion asking the Court to designate as "similarly situated" to them all persons who are "part of what is called the Internet Protocol Core Group and the Internet Services Assurance Group," and to authorize the distribution of notice of the collective action to those employees. Pls'. Mot. to Approve Collective Action Notice ("Pl. Mem.") at 2. Plaintiffs also ask the Court to order defendants to provide the names and addresses of these similarly situated employees, and to approve plaintiffs' proposed form of notice to the class.

  ANALYSIS

  The FLSA authorizes a plaintiff to challenge the denial of overtime compensation on behalf of herself and any "other employees similarly situated." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). This unique cause of action, known as a "collective action," is not subject to the numerosity, commonality, and typicality rules of a class action under Rule 23. See Vengurlekar v. Silverline Techs., Ltd., 220 F.R.D. 222, 229 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); Morisky v. Pub. Serv. Elec. & Gas Co., 111 F. Supp. 2d 493, 496 (D.N.J. 2000). Instead, a collective action has only two threshold requirements: the plaintiff must show that she is similarly situated to the other members of the proposed class, and those other members must "opt in" to the proposed class. See McNeil v. Dist. of Columbia, 1999 WL 571004, at *1 (D.D.C. Aug. 5, 1999) (Facciola, M.J.); Vengurlekar, 220 F.R.D. at 229; Morisky, 111 F. Supp. 2d at 496.

  To determine whether a class should be certified under the FLSA, a court will usually proceed in two steps. At the first stage of the analysis, plaintiffs must make a "modest factual showing sufficient to demonstrate that they and potential plaintiffs together were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law." Flores v. Lifeway Foods, Inc., 289 F. Supp. 2d 1042, 1045 (N.D. Ill. 2003) (quotation omitted); see Cameron-Grant v. Maxim Healthcare Servs., 347 F.3d 1240, 1243 n. 2 (11th Cir. 2003); Mooney v. Aramco Servs. Co., 54 F.3d 1207, 1213-14 (5th Cir. 1995), overruled on other grounds by Desert Palace, Inc. v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90 (2003). If the plaintiff is able to make that showing, the class is "conditionally certified" and the members of the class are given notice of the collective action and an opportunity to "opt in" to the litigation. Cameron-Grant, 347 F.3d at 1243 n. 2; Flores, 289 F. Supp. 2d at 1045; Scott v. Aetna Servs., Inc., 210 F.R.D. 261, 264 (D. Conn. 2002). The action then proceeds as a representative action through the discovery period. Mooney, 54 F.3d at 1213-14; Scott, 210 F.R.D. at 264.

  The second step of the analysis occurs at the close of discovery, when the defendant may move to decertify the class in light of the record that was developed during the discovery period. See Cameron-Grant, 347 F.3d at 1243 n. 2; Flores, 289 F. Supp. 2d at 1045; Scott, 210 F.R.D. at 264. The court then makes a factual finding as to the whether the proposed class members are similarly situated. See Cameron-Grant, 347 F.3d at 1243 n. 2; Mooney, 54 F.3d at 1214; Scott, 210 F.R.D. at 264. If the court determines that the putative class is similarly situated, then the action proceeds to trial. If the court determines that the putative class is not similarly situated, then the class is de-certified, the opt-in plaintiffs are dismissed without prejudice, and the named plaintiffs proceed to trial in an individual capacity. See Mooney, 54 F.3d at 1214; Scott, 210 F.R.D. at 264. Plaintiffs are at the first stage of the certification analysis. They are asking the Court to designate a group of similarly situated employees for conditional certification, to facilitate the certifiation process by ordering defendants to produce the names and addresses of employees in the proposed class, and to approve the form of the notice to be distributed to the class.

  I. The Conditional Certification of Employees as "Similarly Situated"

  Plaintiffs in this case ask for conditional certification of all persons who are "part of what is called the Internet Protocol Core Group and the Internet Services Assurance Group." Mot. at 2.*fn2 It is useful to break down this proposed class into the four sets of employees it comprises: (i) the fifteen employees in the Internet Protocol Core Group whom defendants reclassified as non-exempt in 2003; (ii) the eleven to twenty-five employees in the Internet Services Assurance Group whom defendants reclassified as non-exempt in 2003; (iii) the employees in the Internet Services Assurance Group whom defendants have consistently classified as non-exempt; and (iv) the ten to twenty members of the Internet Services Assurance Group whom defendants have consistently classified as exempt and did not ...


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