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Ayala v. Tito Contrs., Inc.

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

March 4, 2015

ROBERTO AYALA, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
TITO CONTRACTORS, INC., et al., Defendants

For ROBERTO AYALA, MAURICIO BAUTISTA, GEREMIAS BERGANZA, HECTOR R. DELGADO, SABINO DIAZ, JOSE JIMENEZ, DOMINGO ZAMORA, Plaintiffs: Matthew K. Handley, LEAD ATTORNEY, Dennis A. Corkery, WASHINGTON LAWYERS' COMMITTEE FOR CIVIL RIGHTS & URBAN AFFAIRS, Washington, DC; Timothy J. O'Brien, LEAD ATTORNEY, LATHAM & WATKINS, Washington, DC; Maximilian Antony Grant, LATHAM & WATKINS, LLP, Washington, DC.

For TITO CONTRACTORS, INC., MAXIMO A. PIEROLA, Defendants: Jonathan Wolfe Greenbaum, LEAD ATTORNEY, Kimberly J. Jandrain, COBURN & GREENBAUM, PLLC, Washington, DC; Richard Alan Seligman, LEAD ATTORNEY, LAW OFFICE OF RICHARD SELIGMAN, Washington, DC.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

JAMES E. BOASBERG, United States District Judge.

Plaintiffs in this case are construction workers who were employed by Defendant Tito Contractors. They allege that Tito intentionally and systematically denied them overtime wages and, at times, even refused to compensate them for non-overtime hours. In suing Tito and its president, Maximo Pierola, Plaintiffs assert a number of causes of action, including violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act and the District of Columbia's Wage Payment and Collection Law.

They now move for partial summary judgment on their claims under the FLSA and DCWPCL. Defendants oppose and cross-move for summary judgment solely on the issue of the equitable tolling of certain statutes of limitations, which relates to the scope of Plaintiffs' potential recovery. Because there is no dispute that Defendants violated the relevant wage laws, the Court will grant Plaintiffs' Motion. As to tolling, determination of that issue requires the resolution of disputed facts, which is inappropriate on summary judgment. The Court will, accordingly, deny Defendants' Motion.

I. Background

Aside from certain tolling-related facts, much of what occurred here is not controverted, so the Court may draw its background from Plaintiffs' Statement of Undisputed Facts. Defendant Tito Contractors, Inc., a construction company owned and operated by Defendant Maximo Pierola, employed Plaintiffs as laborers at jobsites between October 2010 and October 2013. See PSOF, ¶ ¶ 2-3. During this time, Tito -- by its own admission -- engaged in an extensive scheme to deny Plaintiffs overtime compensation. Id., ¶ ¶ 7-9. Defendants' system differed based on the classification of employee. For " non-supervisors," Tito avoided paying required overtime rates by compensating employees only for a portion of overtime hours worked. Although it would pay these hours at an overtime rate, the net result was that employees were compensated for all hours worked (overtime or not) at roughly regular-wage rates. Id., ¶ ¶ 13-18. For " supervisors," Defendants denied overtime outright; they simply paid -- and recorded paying -- regular wages no matter how many hours the employees worked. Id., ¶ ¶ 19-22. At the time they employed this strategy, Tito and members of its management team were aware of federal overtime requirements. Id., ¶ ¶ 23-28. No one in particular, however, was in charge of compliance. Id., ¶ ¶ 29-30. And on at least one job, Defendants even refused to compensate employees for non-overtime hours. Id., ¶ ¶ 31-37.

On October 18, 2013, Roberto Ayala and other named Plaintiffs brought this suit as a class action against Tito and Maximo Pierola, alleging violations of the FLSA and D.C. and Maryland wage-and-payment laws, as well as claims for breach of oral employment contract and unjust enrichment. See ECF No. 1. The Court granted Plaintiffs' Motion for Conditional Class Certification under the FLSA's collective-action provision on February 6, 2014. See ECF Nos. 25-26. Plaintiffs now move for summary judgment on their claims under the FLSA and DCWPCL. See ECF No. 45. Defendants oppose and bring a Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment related only to the issue of equitable tolling. See ECF No. 54.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment may be granted if " the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); see also Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247--48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986); Holcomb v. Powell, 433 F.3d 889, 895, 369 U.S.App.D.C. 122 (D.C. Cir. 2006). A fact is " material" if it is capable of affecting the substantive outcome of the litigation. See Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. A dispute is " genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. See Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372, 380, 127 S.Ct. 1769, 167 L.Ed.2d 686 (2007); Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 248; Holcomb, 433 F.3d at 895. " A party asserting that a fact cannot be or is genuinely disputed must support the assertion" by " citing to particular parts of materials in the record" or " showing that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1).

When a motion for summary judgment is under consideration, " [t]he evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor." Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 255; see also Mastro v. PEPCO, 447 F.3d 843, 850, 371 U.S.App.D.C. 68 (D.C. Cir. 2006); Aka v. Wash. Hosp. Ctr., 156 F.3d 1284, 1288, 332 U.S.App.D.C. 256 (D.C. Cir. 1998) ( en banc ). On a motion for summary judgment, the Court must " eschew making credibility determinations or weighing the evidence." Czekalski v. Peters, 475 F.3d 360, 363, 374 U.S.App.D.C. 351 (D.C. Cir. 2007).

The nonmoving party's opposition, however, must consist of more than mere unsupported allegations or denials and must be supported by affidavits, declarations, or other competent evidence, setting forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The nonmovant is required to provide evidence that would permit a reasonable jury to find in its favor. See Laningham v. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1242, 259 U.S.App.D.C. 115 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

III. Analysis

Plaintiffs move for summary judgment on several aspects of their FLSA and DCWPCL claims. Along with a determination of liability, they seek rulings that: (1) they are entitled to liquidated damages under the FLSA; (2) Maximo Pierola is jointly liable as an " employer" ; (3) as the prevailing party, they are entitled to an award of attorney fees; and (4) because Tito willfully violated the FLSA, the statute of limitations under the Act should be extended from two to three years.

Defendants' Motion also concerns the limitations period, but a bit of background is helpful to fully understand their contentions. Throughout discovery, Plaintiffs have sought evidence of unfair wage practices stretching back further than even the longer limitations period would allow. See Order of Aug. 8, 2014 (denying protective order regarding out-of-time evidence). One of their rationales for seeking such evidence is that the limitations period should be equitably tolled under the FLSA due to Defendants' alleged failures to notify Plaintiffs of their rights under the Act. See id. at 1. In other words, Plaintiffs seek a recovery related to wrongdoing that would otherwise be time barred -- on the ground that Defendants kept them from timely filing suit regarding these violations. Defendants have previously asked the Court to disallow any tolling when making discovery rulings, which determination the Court deferred. Id. Defendants now renew their argument, contending that tolling is inappropriate as a matter of law, and seek an order so limiting Plaintiffs' recovery.

For ease of analysis, the Court will consider these issues in the following order: (1) liability, damages, and the statute of limitations for FLSA claims; (2) liability under the DCWPCL; (3) joint liability and attorney fees; and (4) the availability of equitable tolling.

A. FLSA

Plaintiffs first contend that Defendants' overtime-payment practices violated the FLSA, which requires covered employers to pay their employees at least " one and one-half times the regular rate" for all hours worked in excess of forty per week. See 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). Defendants, for their part, do not dispute the basis of this claim. Indeed, " [a]lthough [they] do not agree with certain facts set forth in Plaintiffs' Statement of Undisputed Material Facts, Defendants do not oppose Plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment under the FLSA." Def. Opp. at 2. They do, however, " deny that they acted in bad faith or that they engaged in any deceptive or misleading pay practices." Id. These caveats are not insignificant, as they affect two further aspects of this cause of action: damages and the appropriate statute of limitations.

As to damages, an FLSA violator is generally liable for all unpaid compensation as well as " an additional equal amount as liquidated damages." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The award of liquidated damages can be avoided only if " the employer shows to the satisfaction of the court that the act or omission giving rise [to the FLSA claim] was in good faith and that he had reasonable grounds for believing that his act or omission was not a violation of the [FLSA]." 29 U.S.C. § 260. The presumption in favor of awarding liquidated damages is strong. See Falica v. Advance Tenant Servs., Inc., No. 02-2463, 2005 WL 1522064, at *1 (D.D.C. June 27, 2005). A good-faith defense " requires 'an affirmative showing of a genuine attempt to ascertain what the law requires, not simply . . . a demonstration of the absence of bad faith.'" Danesh v. Rite Aid Corp.,39 F.Supp.2d 7, 13 (D.D.C. 1999) (quoting Dove v. Coupe,759 F.2d 167, 175-76, 245 U.S.App.D.C. 147 (D.C. Cir. 1985)). " In most instances," moreover, " an employer will be able to satisfy [the FLSA's] 'reasonable grounds' ...


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