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Hunter v. Sprint Corp.

September 22, 2006

TERRENCE HUNTER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
SPRINT CORPORATION, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Phillip Price II ("Price") is the sole remaining plaintiff in what had been a Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") collective action brought by more than two-dozen individuals for unpaid overtime arising out of their employment with Sprint/United Management Company ("Sprint"). After reaching a settlement agreement with all plaintiffs other than Price, Sprint filed a motion for summary judgment contending that the evidence cannot support a finding of liability against Sprint and that, even if it could, Price cannot establish damages because Sprint has paid him more than enough to compensate for any overtime he worked. For the reasons that follow, the Court will deny Sprint's motion.

BACKGROUND*fn1

Price earned a Bachelor of Science degree in computer information systems from Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University. He began working for Sprint in January of 2000 as a Network Technical Assistance Center ("NTAC") Engineer I. He subsequently obtained a promotion to the position of NTAC Engineer II, and later, following a reorganization, became a Managed Network Operations ("MNO") Engineer II. In those positions, Price functioned primarily as a customer service representative, responding to telephone inquiries from clients who were having technological difficulties with Sprint's Internet services. His role was as a second-tier responder -- that is, addressing questions or concerns that could not be handled by the person who fielded the initial call. In that role, he would attempt to diagnose the source of a particular client problem and would assist the client in resolving it. Often, he functioned as a liaison between the customer and higher-level Sprint technicians or outside vendors, for example when the problem appeared to require a modification of software code. In addition to those duties, Price occasionally updated the schedule for employees in his group, at his supervisor's request, and provided on-the-job training to many newly hired employees.

When he began working at Sprint, Price's annualized salary was approximately $51,300. Although he never specifically asked any of his supervisors about his eligibility for overtime pay, he believed he was not entitled to it. Price was, however, required to submit weekly time sheets indicating hours worked, vacation or medical leave taken, and holidays observed. He submitted those time reports using Sprint's computer-based program for time- and leave-management, which was known as the Distributed Time Entry ("DTE") system. For employees who were paid on a salary basis or who were deemed to be exempt from the FLSA's coverage, the DTE system automatically would enter forty work hours every week, but each employee could modify the default entries and was required to submit the resulting report. Such employees, however, were not expected to record overtime hours worked, even though the DTE system had a code for "exempt overtime." Except on three occasions in 2001 when Price recorded eight hours of "exempt overtime" (twenty-four hours total), Price never reported working more than forty hours in a week. His typical schedule was from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., which included a half-hour break for lunch. Price, however, contends that he actually worked an additional four to six hours each day -- usually working through his lunch and staying late. Price testified that, although his supervisors never specifically instructed him to work through lunch or to work past 3:30 p.m., he was not permitted to leave work until he had resolved any customer problem that he had been working on, and he also testified that his supervisors were aware of his presence at work beyond his scheduled hours.

Periodically, Sprint conducted internal audits of FLSA compliance, which involved an analysis of employees' job descriptions to determine whether the employees should be designated as exempt from the FLSA's coverage. In 1998, prior to Price's arrival, Sprint conducted an FLSA compliance review of NTAC positions and determined that the jobs qualified as exempt under the law. This was consistent with the determination made during a previous review in 1995. Following the 1998 review, Sprint did not conduct another FLSA compliance audit of these positions until March 2003, at which time human resources personnel from Sprint interviewed a sampling of employees for purposes of assessing compensation levels and FLSA exemption status based on job functions. That review led to a determination by Sprint that Price and others in similar positions may have been performing a mix of exempt and non-exempt duties. In response, Sprint asked those employees, including Price, to complete a spreadsheet report that itemized the overtime hours they had worked from December 16, 2001, through March 1, 2003. Price's report indicated that he had worked 1,000 hours of overtime during that period. In his deposition, Price explained that he came up with that figure as a "best estimate" of the amount of time he had worked in excess of forty hours each week, based on his recollection, but he acknowledged that he may have inadvertently put in for overtime on days when he had taken bereavement or medical leave and was not at work.

Upon review of Price's submission and those of other employees in similar positions, Sprint concluded that the maximum amount of overtime hours that any of the employees could have worked during that period was 600 hours, and the company decided to cap backpay for overtime at that level. Sprint's evaluation of the overtime submissions included an examination of computer login records and security-pass time entry records, but no such information specific to Price has been presented as evidence in this litigation. Having decided to limit employees to 600 hours of overtime, Sprint informed Price that he would receive his "rate of pay multiplied by .5 times for 600 hours, resulting in a total of $8,229.26 overtime compensation." See Def.'s Ex. K. Price received that amount as a special disbursement in his August 13, 2004, paycheck.

In addition to the 1,000 hours of unpaid overtime that Price claims to have worked between December 16, 2001, and March 1, 2003, Price claims that he worked an additional 732 hours of unpaid overtime during the remaining nine months of 2003 and another 572 hours of unpaid overtime during the first eight months of 2004. In all, Price asserts that he is due overtime compensation for 2,304 hours (minus the $8,229.26 that he already has received).

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when the pleadings and the evidence demonstrate that "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The party seeking summary judgment bears the initial responsibility of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute of material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The moving party may successfully support its motion by "informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of 'the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any,' which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Id. (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)).

In determining whether there exists a genuine issue of material fact sufficient to preclude summary judgment, the court must regard the non-movant's statements as true and accept all evidence and make all inferences in the non-movant's favor. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). A non-moving party, however, must establish more than the "mere existence of a scintilla of evidence" in support of its position. Id. at 252. By pointing to the absence of evidence proffered by the non-moving party, a moving party may succeed on summary judgment. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322. "If the evidence is merely colorable, or is not significantly probative, summary judgment may be granted." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 249-50 (internal citations omitted). Summary judgment is appropriate if the non-movant fails to offer "evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for the [non-movant]." Id. at 252.

Where, as here, the Court would be the trier of fact on an issue if the case were to proceed to trial, the rules of summary judgment are altered.*fn2 "In such a case, the 'Court is not confined to deciding questions of law, but also may ... draw a derivative inference from undisputed subsidiary facts, even if those facts could support an inference to the contrary, so long as the inference does not depend upon an evaluation of witness credibility.'" OAO Alfa Bank v. Center for Public Integrity, 387 F. Supp. 2d 20, 39 (D.D.C. 2005) (quoting Cook v. Babbitt, 819 F. Supp. 1, 11 & n.11 (D.D.C. 1993)).

ANALYSIS

The maximum-hours provision of the FLSA requires employers to pay any employee who is covered by the Act "not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed" for all hours worked in excess of forty in a week. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1) (emphasis supplied). Employment is defined as work that is "suffered or permitted" by the employer, even if not requested. See 29 C.F.R. § 785.11. All hours of employment count for purposes of overtime calculation, so long as the "employer knows or has reason to believe that [the employee] is continuing to work." Id. An employer who violates the Act "shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their ... unpaid overtime compensation, ... and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).

Sprint has asserted several defenses to Price's claim that it is liable to him for violations of the FLSA's overtime requirement, including (1) that Price was exempt from the FLSA's coverage during the relevant period, (2) that Price has failed to establish by reliable evidence either that he worked any overtime hours for which he was not compensated or that Sprint had reason to know that Price was working overtime, and (3) that, even if Price can establish liability, he is not entitled to anything more than the $8,229.26 he already has received from Sprint. Hence, Sprint has moved for summary judgment. As the following discussion explains, however, the Court finds that there are genuine issues of material fact (regarding the applicability of statutory exemptions and the number of overtime hours Price actually worked), which, at this stage of the litigation, precludes judgment as a matter of law against plaintiff. The Court also concludes that, even if Price had worked only the 600 hours of overtime for which Sprint purported to compensate him, summary judgment still would be inappropriate because Sprint miscalculated Price's "regular rate" of pay.

I. Exemptions to FLSA Coverage

The FLSA exempts from its coverage several categories of employees. See 29 U.S.C. § 216. These exemptions are treated as affirmative defenses to liability under the Act, which means that the defendant-employer has the burden of proving that the exemption applies to the plaintiff-employee. See Danesh v. Rite Aid Corp., 39 F. Supp. 2d 7, 10 (D.D.C. 1999) (citing Corning Glass Work v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188, 196-97 (1974)). "[E]xemptions from the Act are narrowly construed against the employer in order to further Congress's goal of affording broad federal government protection." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Mitchell v. Ky. Fin. Co., 359 U.S. 290, 295 (1959) ("It is well settled that exemptions from the Fair Labor Standards Act are to be narrowly construed."). Sprint contends that the record evidence establishes that Price was exempt from the FLSA's coverage under either of two provisions of the Act: the exemption for certain computer professionals, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(17), and the exemption for administrative employees, 29 U.S.C. § 213(a)(1).*fn3 The Court, however, finds that Sprint has failed to carry its burden with respect to the claimed exemptions, particularly in light of the rule of narrow construction.

Since 1996, the FLSA has specifically exempted from its coverage:

any employee who is a computer systems analyst, computer programmer, software engineer, or other similarly skilled worker, whose primary duty is --

(A) the application of systems analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine hardware, software, or system functional specifications;

(B) the design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, or modification of computer systems or programs, including prototypes, based on and ...


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