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Sierra v. New England Personnel of Hartford, LLC

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

August 28, 2017

KARÉON SIERRA, a/k/a Caron Sierra, Plaintiff,
v.
NEW ENGLAND PERSONNEL OF HARTFORD, LLC, et al., Defendants.

          RULING ON PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          JEFFREY ALKER MEYER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Karéon Sierra worked for several years for defendant New England Personnel (NEP). She has filed this lawsuit against NEP as well as two of its principals, claiming that defendants failed to pay her overtime in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the Connecticut Minimum Wage Act (CMWA). Plaintiff has now moved for partial summary judgment on various issues of liability and damages. For the reasons set forth below, I will grant in part and deny in part the motion for summary judgment.

         Background

         Plaintiff worked for defendant NEP from 2011 to 2014. NEP was in the business of the recruitment and placing of candidates in the management, healthcare, nursing, financial, construction, architecture, manufacturing, and legal fields. It was owned by defendant Thomas Melanson who also served as the company president. His spouse, defendant Kathryn Clark Melanson, was its chief operating officer. Because of significant medical issues, Thomas Melanson was far less involved in the business than Kathryn Melanson during the years that plaintiff worked there.

         As a recruiter, plaintiff was responsible for aggregating and pre-screening potential candidates that could fill jobs for NEP's clients. Plaintiff would be given a folder of resumes from Kathryn Melanson, as well as a set of criteria that potential candidates would have to meet to be eligible for a client's open position. From that folder, plaintiff would reach out to specific candidates she believed met the criteria, and she would inquire whether the potential candidate was interested in the potential job opening. Based on her conversations with a potential candidate, plaintiff would generate a written summary about each candidate on a template created by defendants, setting forth work histories and other pertinent information that would be used in turn by Kathryn Melanson to propose certain candidates to a client.

         Although Kathryn Melanson retained discretion to veto a candidate, she relied heavily on her recruiters' recommendations about whether a potential candidate should be recommended to a client, because only the recruiter would have had direct contact with a candidate during the initial stages. Using recruiter recommendations, Kathryn Melanson would speak to the client and propose candidates; she did not allow plaintiff to speak directly with clients. Afterwards and based on Kathryn Melanson's conversations with the client, plaintiff would contact selected candidates and schedule interview appointments. Plaintiff's annual salary was $47, 000, but if a candidate screened by plaintiff was placed with a client, plaintiff received payment of an additional commission that could range from hundreds of dollars to thousands of dollars per placed candidate. See Doc. #29-3 at 2-3.

         When she was hired, plaintiff was originally told to work a 40-hour work week. In fact, she worked more than 40 hours per week for at least some of her weeks of employement, and she was not paid overtime when she did. In justifying why NEP did not pay plaintiff overtime, Kathryn Melanson explained that she had relied on a labor lawyer's opinion from about 33 years ago. Doc. #29-2 at 18-19. Additionally, Kathryn Melanson was “updated” in “labor law” from her internet searches and her involvement in the National Association of Personnel Consultants. Doc. #29-2 at 20.

         Plaintiff's lawsuit alleges three causes of action. Count One of the complaint alleges that defendants failed to pay overtime in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Count Two alleges that defendants failed to pay overtime in violation of the Connecticut Minimum Wage Act (CMWA). Count Three alleges that defendants failed to pay commissions in violation of the CMWA.

         Plaintiff now moves for partial summary judgment on four diverse grounds. First, plaintiff moves for partial summary judgment as to her FLSA and CMWA overtime claims, contending that there is no genuine issue of fact that she worked more than 40 hours per week for at least some weeks of her employment, that she was eligible under both the FLSA and CMWA for overtime payments, and that she was not otherwise an exempt employee. Second, plaintiff moves for summary judgment on the applicable FLSA statute of limitations, contending that it should be longer because of defendant's willful conduct. Third, plaintiff moves for summary judgment on the issue of whether she is entitled to double damages, contending that such damages are warranted because defendants did not act in good faith. Lastly, plaintiff moves for summary judgment on the issue of whether the individual defendants-Kathryn and Thomas Melanson-are individually liable as “employers” for purposes of her federal and state overtime claims.

         Discussion

         The principles governing a motion for summary judgment are well established. Summary judgment may be granted only “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 Tolan v. Cotton, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014) (per curiam). “A genuine dispute of material fact ‘exists for summary judgment purposes where the evidence, viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, is such that a reasonable jury could decide in that party's favor.'” Zann Kwan v. Andalex Grp. LLC, 737 F.3d 834, 843 (2d Cir. 2013) (quoting Guilbert v. Gardner, 480 F.3d 140, 145 (2d Cir. 2007)). The evidence adduced at the summary judgment stage must be viewed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and with all ambiguities and reasonable inferences drawn against the moving party. See, e.g., Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866; Caronia v. Philip Morris USA, Inc., 715 F.3d 417, 427 (2d Cir. 2013). All in all, “a ‘judge's function' at summary judgment is not ‘to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Tolan, 134 S.Ct. at 1866 (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986)).

         Eligibility and Exemptions under the FLSA and CMWA

         The parties do not presently dispute that plaintiff worked more than 40 hours per week in at least some weeks of her employment.[1] The focus of their dispute is whether plaintiff qualified for one or more exemptions under the FLSA and the CMWA.

         Congress enacted the FLSA to eliminate “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.” 29 U.S.C. § 202(a). The FLSA imposes numerous “wage and hour” requirements, including that employers must pay an employee at a rate of “not less than one and one-half times the regular rate at which he is employed” for any hours worked in excess of forty hours in a given week. Id. § 207(a). The CMWA imposes similar obligations as the FLSA for the payment of overtime wages. See Arasimowicz v. All Panel Sys., LLC, 948 F.Supp.2d 211, 216 (D. Conn. 2013).

         The employer bears the burden of proving that an employee falls within one of the FLSA's exemptions. See Corning Glass Works v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188, 196-97 (1974). Because the FLSA is a remedial law, its exemptions are narrowly construed, and any exemption must be plainly and unmistakably within the terms and spirit of the FLSA. See Reiseck v. Universal Commc'ns of Miami, Inc., 591 F.3d 101, 104 (2d Cir. 2010); Bilyou v. Dutchess Beer Distributors, Inc., 300 F.3d 217, 222 (2d Cir. 2002). The parties have addressed three potential exemptions, and I will consider each of them in turn.

         1. Exemption for Employment in Bona Fide ...


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