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Benton v. Laborers' Joint Training Fund

United States District Court, D. Columbia.

August 10, 2015

ERIN BENTON, Plaintiff,
v.
LABORERS' JOINT TRAINING FUND, Defendant

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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          For ERIN BENTON, Plaintiff: Michael K. Amster, LEAD ATTORNEY, Jason D. Friedman, Philip B. Zipin, ZIPIN, AMSTER & GREENBERG, LLC, Silver Spring, MD.

         For LABORERS' JOINT TRAINING FUND, Defendant: Emily Seymour Costin, Jonathan G. Rose, LEAD ATTORNEYS, ALSTON & BIRD LLP, Washington, DC; Kandis Wood Jackson, LEAD ATTORNEY, PRO HAC VICE, ALSTON & BIRD LLP, Atlanta, GA.

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          Re Document Nos.: 14, 15

         MEMORANDUM OPINION

         Denying Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, Granting in Part and Denying in Part Defendant's Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment

         RUDOLPH CONTRERAS, United States District Judge.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff Erica Benton (" Ms. Benton" ) alleges that her former employer, Defendant Laborers' Training Fund (" the Fund" ), failed to pay her more than $22,000 in overtime wages between 2008 and 2012 in violation of the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act (" FLSA" ) and the D.C. Minimum Wage Act (" DCMWA" ). She also alleges that the Fund violated the FLSA by retaliating against her for complaining about unpaid overtime, ultimately terminating her on May 16, 2014.

         Now before the Court are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. Ms. Benton seeks partial summary judgment as to a subset of unpaid overtime hours that she worked between June 25, 2011, and December 31, 2012. She asserts that she is owed $6,194.34 in unpaid wages for that time period, and she requests an equal amount in liquidated damages under the FLSA and DCMWA. The Fund has moved for summary judgment as to all claims, arguing first that the unpaid overtime claims fail as a matter of law because the overtime provisions of the FLSA do not apply to the Fund, which is a non-profit organization, or to Ms. Benton, who worked in an administrative position. The Fund also maintains that Ms. Benton has failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation, and that she was terminated for legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons. Upon consideration of the parties' motions, the memoranda in support thereof and opposition thereto, and the summary judgment record, the Court will deny Ms. Benton's motion for partial summary judgment as to her FLSA overtime claim, grant the Fund's cross-motion for summary judgment as to the FLSA overtime and retaliation claims, and dismiss without prejudice the DCMWA overtime claim.

         II. FACTUAL BACKGROUND

         The Fund is a non-profit 501(c)(5) organization " designed to provide labor training to members of two labor unions in

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the District of Columbia: Laborers' International Union of North America ('LIUNA') Local 657 and Local 11." Def.'s Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute ¶ ¶ 1, 4, ECF No. 15-2 (" Def.'s SOF" ). The training is limited to laborers' classification construction work, Guerrero Dep. 45:5-8, Dec. 8, 2014, ECF No. 15-5, and " the purpose of the Training Fund is to provide unique training to construction laborers who are members of LIUNA to help them qualify for work and to get better work." See Benton Dep. 18:13-17, Dec. 3, 2014, ECF No. 14-4. The organization is a third-party recipient of contributions made pursuant to collective bargaining agreements, and additional funding comes from federal, local, and union grants. Def.'s SOF at ¶ ¶ 5, 6; Meighan Dep. 6:14-16, Dec. 8, 2014, ECF No. 14-3.

         Ms. Benton was a full-time, salaried employee of the Fund from January 1, 2003, until her termination on May 16, 2014. Pl.'s Resp. to Def.'s Interrog. No. 7, ECF No. 14-5. The parties dispute whether Ms. Benton had an official job title, but she was at times called an " Administrative Assistant," Def.'s Ex. 12 at 6, ECF No. 15-14, and at other times referred to as the " Office Manager," Def.'s Ex. 13 at 2, ECF No. 15-15, or " Assistant to Director," Def.'s Ex. 15 at 2, ECF No. 15-17. When she was first hired, Ms. Benton's responsibilities included clerical duties, filing reports, implementing a database, assisting the director of the Fund, supporting the Fund's instructors, and providing customer service to the Fund's members. Benton Dep. 22:7-11. By 2006, Ms. Benton had gained experience at the Fund and the director had been replaced by an individual who was less familiar with the role, so Ms. Benton took on a greater role in assisting the director, communicating with the Fund's third-party administrator about the Fund's bills, and obtaining grants for the Fund. Id. at 26:2-36:12; 52:13-56:18. Among other things, Ms. Benton also reconciled the petty cash book, processed checks for stipends, ordered office supplies and meals for trainings, assisted in creating the Fund's training schedules, solicited bids for service providers and rental equipment, signed a $35,220 lease for a copier, and kept the office running while the director was out. Id. at 41:16-48:8; 58:18-59:13; 127:17-128:8; 137:19-143:13.

         On a number of occasions, Ms. Benton worked during Saturday training sessions put on by the Fund. See Progress Report, Def.'s Ex. 30, ECF No. 15-32. At the trainings, she processed classes and issued certificates and state licenses to attendees. Benton Dep. 267:13-15. She estimates that as a result, she worked 595.5 hours of overtime from 2008 through 2012. Pl.'s Suppl. Resp. to Interrog. No. 15, ECF No. 14-12. Her annual salary during that time ranged from $50,404 to $54,290, and she was not paid time-and-half for hours worked on Saturdays, regardless of whether it caused her to work over forty hours in a given week. Id.

         On December 31, 2012, the Fund terminated its relationship with the third-party administrator that had previously handled tasks like administering payroll, benefits, and cutting checks for vendors. Meighan Dep. 30:17-31:17. The decision to administer the Fund internally was made in an effort to reduce the organization's expenses. Benton Dep. at 62:2-63:12. As a result, Mary McNelis began handling the work related to administering the Fund as of January 1, 2013. Id. at 62:2-63:12; 227:5-10. Ms. McNelis " essentially took over a lot of [Ms. Benton's] responsibilities." Benton Dep. 227:5-18; see also McNelis Decl. ¶ 5, ECF No. 15-13.

         On April 26, 2013, Justin Meighan, the chairman of the Fund's Board of Trustees,

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sent a list of " action items" to Fund director Lou DeGraff requiring, among other things, confirmation that Ms. Benton would work only out of the Fund's Local 657 Office in DC during regular work hours and ordering that her work cell phone be cancelled, as she would not need the phone when working at a single site. Meighan e-mail, Def.'s Ex. 16, ECF No. 15-18. Those changes were implemented the following month. Benton Dep. at 260:5-261:9, 267:13-269:19.

         In May 2013, some of the Fund's instructors learned that other training funds were being audited in relation to Saturday training session hours worked by instructors. Benton Dep. 81:17-21; 83:4-13. Ms. Benton and the instructors mentioned to Mr. DeGraff what they had heard about the other funds. Id. at 84:2-88:13. Mr. DeGraff told them to " start looking for [their] original employment letters because if there was an issue, he was going to look into it and see what he could do to get [them] compensated." Id. at 85:10-13. The Fund subsequently investigated the overtime hours worked by employees in 2013, terminated Mr. DeGraff, and implemented a new employee handbook in July 2013 that required all overtime to be approved in writing in advance, but it did not investigate any overtime hours worked prior to 2013. Id. at 217:6-218:14.

         During a general staff meeting in June or July 2013, the Fund announced that Mr. DeGraff was no longer employed as the Fund's director and that there were going to be changes. See Benton Dep. 97:7-16. When someone brought up Saturdays during the staff meeting, Mr. Meighan " abruptly ended the meeting." Id. at 86:16-87:17; 97:7-98:2. Ms. Benton recalls that when she saw Mr. Meighan after the summer staff meeting, he greeted others but " barely acknowledged" her, id. 87:11-17, and she believes that the work " atmosphere changed" at the Fund " in the way that things were done more by the book," id. at 86:5-7, 91:21-92:10.

         As a consequence, Ms. Benton felt as if the Fund employees were " being treated as if they had done something wrong" simply because they had brought the potential overtime issue to the attention of the director. Benton Dep. 84:2-7. She believed management wanted to " take a closer look at what was going on," and there was more " micromanaging" in the office. Id. at 272:12-20. Making matters worse, the new director Jim Anastase was " a screamer and a yeller," and she found him " somewhat hard to deal with." Id. at 239:12-240:3. She complained to Anthony Frederick, who sat on the Fund's Board of Trustees, about the way that she and the instructors were treated by Mr. Anastase, and when she told Mr. Anastase that she expected to be treated with respect, he told her he would not change and she needed thicker skin. Id. at 241:11-24310. When Ms. Benton became ill and took sick leave between late December 2013 and mid-March 2014, she began to look for other employment " [b]ecause the environment was very hard to deal with . . . [b]ecause of the director . . . Jim Anastase." Id. at 238:10-239:5; 244:11-22. Ms. Benton " became discouraged when no one would basically hear what [she] had to say in regards to some complaints that [she] had with the treatment that [she] was receiving," and there was some " confusion as well regarding [her] performance" at work. Id. at 245:21-246:15.

         On May 12, 2014, Ms. Benton went to the Employment Justice Center (" EJC" ) in the District of Columbia to discuss her overtime concerns. Benton Dep. 284:13-285:4. But when she got to EJC, she filled out an intake form and spoke to a volunteer who told her that EJC had a conflict of interest and could not help her. Id. She

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never made a claim regarding unpaid overtime with any agency. Id. at 240:19-21.

         Ms. Benton was terminated on May 16, 2014. The Fund maintains that Ms. Benton was fired for performance issues, poor attitude, and failure to comply with Fund policies and procedures. Def.'s SOF ¶ 90; Meighan Dep. at 87:5-8. Ms. McNelis recalls that Ms. Benton seemed upset when she took over some of her prior administrative duties, that Ms. Benton was hostile under Mr. Anastase's leadership, and that she was argumentative about the Fund's new policies, McNelis Decl. ¶ 6, ECF No. 15-13, although Ms. Benton disputes these assertions. Ms. McNelis also recalls having to ask Ms. Benton repeatedly to stop using her personal e-mail to conduct Fund business and to provide account information and passwords for the Fund's service providers. Id. ¶ ¶ 8-9. According to Ms. McNelis, Ms. Benton incorrectly input information so that the January 2014 reports for the Board of Trustees were incorrect, and in the months prior to her termination, she failed to maintain the petty cash in an organized and timely fashion. Id. ¶ ¶ 9-11. Ms. Benton also worked unauthorized overtime on two occasions despite having been instructed not to do so, and she was formally reprimanded for the second offense. Def.'s Ex. 18, ECF No. 15-20; Def.'s Ex. 19, ECF No. 15-21.

         Ms. Benton initiated this action on June 25, 2014, alleging that she is entitled to unpaid overtime wages for hours worked between February 9, 2008 and April 13, 2013. Compl. ¶ ¶ 12, 40, ECF No. 1. Counts I and II of her complaint allege violations of the overtime provisions of the FLSA and the DCMWA, respectively. Id. ¶ ¶ 36-48. Count III of Ms. Benton's complaint alleges that after she and the instructors inquired about unpaid overtime in June 2013, she was unlawfully terminated on May 16, 2014, " in retaliation for complaining and asserting her rights to unpaid overtime wages under the FLSA." Id. ¶ ¶ 18-24, 49-56.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is appropriate " if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and [thus] the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); accord Talavera v. Shah, 638 F.3d 303, 308, 395 U.S. App.D.C. 7 (D.C. Cir. 2011). " A fact is material if it 'might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law,' and a dispute about a material fact is genuine 'if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.'" Steele v. Schafer, 535 F.3d 689, 692, 383 U.S. App.D.C. 74 (D.C. Cir. 2008) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986)). When Rule 56 is invoked, the moving party has the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to any material fact. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). When the moving party does not bear the burden of persuasion at trial, its burden " may be discharged by 'showing'--that is, pointing out to the district court--that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Id. at 325.

         Once the moving party has met its burden, to defeat the motion the nonmoving party must designate " specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. at 324 (citation omitted). Although the Court must view this evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor, see Grosdidier v. Broad. Bd. of Governors, Chairman, 709 F.3d 19, 23-24, 404 U.S. App.D.C. 189 (D.C. Cir. 2013), the nonmoving party must show more than " [t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence

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in support of" his position -- " there must be evidence on which the jury could reasonably find for [the nonmoving party]." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 252. Moreover, the nonmoving party " may not rest upon mere allegation or denials of his pleading but must present affirmative evidence showing a genuine issue for trial." Laningham v. U.S. Navy, 813 F.2d 1236, 1241, 259 U.S. App.D.C. 115 (D.C. Cir. 1987) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

         When both parties file cross-motions for summary judgment, " each must carry its own burden under the applicable legal standard." Ehrman v. United States, 429 F.Supp.2d 61, 67 (D.D.C. 2006); Nuzzo v. FBI, No. 95--CV-1708, 1996 WL 741587, at *1 (D.D.C. Oct. 8, 1996) (" When both parties in a cause of action move for summary judgment, each party must carry its own burden." ). Finally, the Court notes that " [c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge at summary judgment." Barnett v. PA Consulting Grp., Inc., 715 F.3d 354, 358, 404 U.S. App.D.C. 439 (D.C. Cir. 2013) (citation omitted). Indeed, a court's role in deciding a summary judgment motion is not to " determine the truth of the matter, but instead [to] decide only whether there is a genuine issue for trial." Id. (citation omitted).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         A. FLSA Overtime Claim

         Ms. Benton's first claim is that the Fund failed to pay her time-and-half for overtime hours worked during Saturday training sessions in violation of the FLSA. Compl. ¶ ¶ 36-42. She seeks partial summary judgment as to unpaid overtime wages for hours worked between June 25, 2011 and December 31, 2012.[1] Pl.'s Mem. Supp. Mot. Summ. J. at 2, ECF No. 14-2. The Fund, on the other hand, maintains that it is entitled to summary judgment as to the entirety of Ms. Benton's FLSA claim because she has not shown that the Fund is an " enterprise engaged in commerce" subject to coverage under the FLSA's overtime provision. Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. at 20-23, ECF No. 15-1.[2] The Court's analysis of Ms. Benton's FLSA overtime claim begins--and ends--with the threshold question of whether the Fund constitutes an " enterprise" covered by the FLSA.

         " Under the FLSA an employee is ordinarily entitled to pay equal to one and one-half times his normal hourly wage for all hours worked beyond forty per week." Robinson-Smith v. Gov't Emples. Ins. Co., 590 F.3d 886, 892, 389 U.S. App.D.C. 46 (D.C. Cir. 2010) (citing 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1)). While courts construe the FLSA " liberally to apply to the furthest reaches consistent with congressional direction," Tony & Susan Alamo Found. v. Sec'y of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 296, 105 S.Ct. 1953, 85 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985) (internal quotation marks omitted), the reach of the FLSA's overtime provision is expressly limited to those " employees who in any workweek [are] engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for

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commerce, or [are] employed in an enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce." 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). Accordingly, before an employee can recover overtime wages under the Act, she must first establish that her employment relationship is subject to coverage under the FLSA.[3] See D.A. Schulte, Inc., v. Gangi, 328 U.S. 108, 120, 66 S.Ct. 925, 90 L.Ed. 1114 (1946) (discussing plaintiff's burden of establishing individual FLSA coverage); Malloy v. Assoc. of State and Territorial Solid Waste Mgmt. Officials, 955 F.Supp.2d 50, 54 (D.D.C. 2013) (holding that " enterprise coverage [is] a substantive ingredient of the plaintiff's [FLSA] claim" ); Benitez v. F & V Car Wash, Inc., No. 11--CV-1857, 2012 WL 1414879, at *1 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 24, 2012) (holding that establishing enterprise coverage under the FLSA is an " element that a plaintiff must establish in order to prove liability" ) (collecting cases).

         FLSA coverage comes in two forms: " enterprise" and " individual." Tony & Susan Alamo Found. v. Sec'y of Labor, 471 U.S. 290, 295 n.10, 105 S.Ct. 1953, 85 L.Ed.2d 278 (1985). An employee with " enterprise" coverage works for an employer that is both " an enterprise" and " engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce." [4]See 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(1); see alsoMalloy, 955 F.Supp.2d at 55 (explaining that to establish enterprise coverage, an employee must first show that the employer is an " enterprise," and then show that the enterprise is " engaged in commerce" ). Alternatively, an employee is covered individually under the FLSA if she personally is " engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce." Id. Although a given employee may have coverage under either or both theories, Ms. Benton's complaint alleges only enterprise coverage, not individual coverage. See generally Compl. (alleging that the Fund " was engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce within the meaning of [29 U.S.C. § 203(s)(1)]," that its " gross revenue exceeded $500,000.00, and thus Defendant qualified as an 'enterprise' within the meaning of § 3(r) of ...


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