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Strauch v. Computer Sciences Corp.

United States District Court, D. Connecticut

September 21, 2018

JOSEPH STRAUCH and TIMOTHY COLBY, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,
v.
COMPUTER SCIENCES CORPORATION, Defendant.

          RULING ON POST-TRIAL MOTIONS

          JANET BOND ARTERTON, U.S.D. JUDGE

         In this action, a 9-member jury found Defendant Computer Sciences Corporation (“CSC”) liable for overtime exemption misclassification of Plaintiffs, who are current and former Associate Professional and Professional System Administrators (collectively, “SAs”) employed by Defendant. Defendant now moves [Doc. # 446] for judgment as a matter of law and to decertify the certified Rule 23 California and Connecticut classes and Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) collective. Both parties have also briefed a number of legal disputes on the legal and equitable remedies to which Plaintiffs are entitled, which the Court will address in a subsequent ruling.

         I. Background

         The Court assumes the parties' familiarity with the procedural history of this action. In brief, Plaintiffs Joseph Strauch, Timothy Colby, Charles Turner, and Vernon Carre, current and former SAs at Defendant CSC, brought this overtime misclassification action under the FLSA and the state laws of California, Connecticut, and North Carolina, claiming that CSC wrongly classified them and fellow employees with the same job titles as exempt. On June 9, 2015, the Court granted [Doc. # 168] conditional certification of a FLSA collective action for a collective consisting of all SAs with the titles “Associate Professional System Administrator, ” “Professional System Administrator, ” or “Senior Professional System Administrator” (the bottom three tiers of CSC's five-tier system administrator hierarchy) who earned less than $100, 000 annually. Then, following oral argument held on May 10, 2017, [Doc. ## 326, 329], the Court granted in part and denied in part Plaintiffs' Motion [Doc. # 323] for Class Certification, certifying Connecticut and California Rule 23 subclasses of Professional and Associate Professional System Administrators. See Strauch v. Computer Scis. Corp., No. 3:14-CV-956 (JBA), 2017 WL 2829652, at *1 (D. Conn. June 30, 2017).

         On July 14, 2017, Defendant sought to appeal this class certification to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(f). (Petition for Permission to Appeal Pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(f) at 1, Strauch et al. v. Computer Sciences Corporation, No. 17-2185 (2d Cir. July 14, 2017).) Defendant asked the Court of Appeals to determine “[w]hether the District Court erred in certifying a class under Rule 23 by placing improper weight on the company's uniform job titling program where the record evidence clearly demonstrated wide variation among individuals in the actual job qualifications, characteristics, and duties.” (Id.) On November 21, 2017, the Court of Appeals denied Defendant's Rule 23(f) petition, finding that “an immediate appeal is unwarranted.” (Mandate Granting Mot. to File Reply and Denying Rule 23(f) Petition [Doc. # 410].)

         During the pendency of the petition for interlocutory review, Defendant moved to decertify the California class of Associate Professional and Professional System Administrators due to the purported inadequacy of Mr. Strauch as a class representative. (Mot. Decertification California Subclass [Doc. # 343].) The Court denied that Motion on October 18, 2017, leaving the California class intact. See Strauch v. Computer Scis. Corp., No. 3:14-CV-956 (JBA), 2017 WL 4683993, at *1 (D. Conn. Oct. 18, 2017). On October 27, 2017, Defendant filed their Second Motion to Decertify [Doc. # 373], arguing that the California and Connecticut classes should both be decertified due to a legally deficient trial plan put forward by Plaintiffs. The Court denied [Doc. # 412] that Motion on November 30, 2017. See Strauch v. Computer Scis. Corp., No. 3:14-CV-956 (JBA), 2017 WL 5972886, at *1 (D. Conn. Nov. 30, 2017).

         A 10-person jury was selected on December 5, 2017, and trial commenced on December 7, 2017. One juror was excused on the first day of trial. Defendant moved for a directed verdict at the close of Plaintiffs' evidence [Doc. # 424], and renewed the motion at the close of all evidence [Doc. # 435], which the Court denied without prejudice. ([Doc. # 438].) On December 20, 2017, the jury returned a verdict in Plaintiffs' favor on liability on Plaintiffs' claims under the FLSA and Connecticut and California wage and hour law, also finding that Defendant acted willfully in classifying Plaintiffs as exempt. ([Doc. # 442].) The jury found in CSC's favor on a third question, involving the application of the flexible work-week methodology of calculating overtime pay. ([Doc. # 442-1].) These Motions for Judgment as a Matter of Law and to Decertify-which the Court now considers-followed the verdict.

         II. Discussion

         1. Defendant's Renewed Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law

         Defendant renews its Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, contending that Plaintiffs (including the class and the collective) are exempt under one or more exemptions, and that a reasonable jury lacked a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to find in Plaintiffs' favor on liability. (Mem. Law. Supp. Def.'s Renewed JMOL [Doc. # 446-1] at 1.) Additionally, Defendant contends that “to the extent” any SAs “are non-exempt, liquidated damages and a three-year statute of limitations are inappropriate because CSC established that it acted in good faith as a matter of law.” (Id.)

         “To succeed on a Rule 50 motion, a movant must show that, after full hearing on an issue at trial, ‘there is no legally sufficient evidentiary basis for a reasonable jury' to resolve the issue in favor of the non-moving party. Cross v. New York City Transit Auth., 417 F.3d 241, 247-48 (2d Cir. 2005) (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 50(a)(1)). “In reviewing a Rule 50 motion, a court may consider all the record evidence, but in doing so it ‘must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the nonmoving party, and it may not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.' ” Id. (quoting Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000)) (other citations omitted).

         “A movant's burden in securing Rule 50 relief is particularly heavy after the jury has deliberated in the case and actually returned its verdict. Under such circumstances, the district court may set aside the verdict only where there is such a complete absence of evidence supporting the verdict that the jury's findings could only have been the result of sheer surmise and conjecture, or . . . [there is] such an overwhelming amount of evidence in favor of the movant that reasonable and fair minded men could not arrive at a verdict against him.” Id. at 248 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (alterations in original). “In other words, a Rule 50 motion must be denied unless the evidence is such that, without weighing the credibility of the witnesses or otherwise considering the weight of the evidence, there can be but one conclusion as to the verdict that reasonable men could have reached.” Id. (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

         a. The Computer Employee Exemption

         Defendant argues that the evidence at trial showed conclusively that Defendant carried its burden of establishing that SAs were properly classified as exempt computer employees under the FLSA. The parties agreed at trial that Plaintiffs met the salary threshold for this exemption; in dispute were two other requirements. First, the exemption only applies to “[c]omputer systems analysts, computer programmers, software engineers or other similarly skilled workers in the computer field.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.400. And second, the exemption only applies to computer employees whose primary duty consists of:

(1) The application of systems analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine hardware, software or system functional specifications;
(2) The design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing or modification of computer systems or programs, including prototypes, based on and related to user or system design specifications;
(3) The design, documentation, testing, creation or modification of computer programs related to machine operating systems; or
(4) A combination of the aforementioned duties, the performance of which requires the same level of skills.

Id.

         In its Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law, Defendant lists trial testimony and documentary evidence that Defendant claims shows that Plaintiffs' actual job duties included the exempt work of (1) applying systems analysis techniques and procedures to determine hardware, software, or system functional specifications and (2) the design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing or modification of computer systems or programs, based on and related to user or system design specification. Defendant does not, however, direct the Court to any dispositive evidence that Plaintiffs' primary duty consisted of these categories of exempt work. It is not enough, in the context of a Rule 50 motion, for Defendants to merely point to the parts of the record that might have supported a factual finding that some of Plaintiffs' actual job duties involved exempt work. And as Plaintiffs demonstrate in opposition, there was ample evidence in the trial record from which the jury could reasonably have concluded that Plaintiffs' primary duty consisted of non-exempt work. For example, even putting aside illustrative class member testimony, Plaintiffs relied on testimony from CSC supervisors who testified that SAs “aren't configuring” or “designing” systems from the ground up and are “not responsible for custom application code[, ]” (see infra at 10), in addition to testimony from CSC manager Mr. McKellar regarding the extent to which SA actual job duties matched SA job descriptions, (see infra at 29), and testimony from two supervisors describing the processes of change control, root cause analysis, and escalation, (see infra at 30).

         Defendant also attempts unconvincingly to re-characterize some of Plaintiffs' job duties as exempt work, but a reasonable jury could have concluded that those duties in fact constituted non-exempt work. For example, Defendant contends that Plaintiffs are responsible for the application of systems analysis techniques and procedures to determine hardware, software, or system functional specifications, and references class member Stephanie Saunders as a prime example, comparing her to the plaintiff in Clarke v. JP Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., No. 08 Civ. 2400 (CM)(DCF), 2010 WL 1379778 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 26, 2010). But while both Saunders and the plaintiff in Clarke worked on backup functionality, Saunders' actual testimony shows that the similarity stops there. In Clarke, the court found that one of the plaintiffs was an exempt computer employee where, “[a]s the employee responsible for capacity management in the Northeast region-about fifty to sixty physical servers and 1, 500 virtual servers affecting more than 10, 000 users-[he] analyzed computer systems based on and related to user or system specifications[, ]” and “regularly consulted with [JP Morgan's separate business units] about the impact that implementing a particular capacity remediation plan would have on the business.” Id. at 17. In effect, the plaintiff in Clarke worked as a high-level technical advisor to his employer, with a significant degree of operational responsibility, and the responsibility of tailoring backup solutions to the needs of large and complex individual business units at JP Morgan. By contrast, Saunders testified that while she spends “about four hours a day revamping the backup and recovery process for the PDC[, ]”[1] what this actually means is just that she maintains the existing system, “[s]o if there were too many servers scheduled at one time for backups, I would change the schedule to make them run smoother.” (Trial Joint Ex. 2, Ex. G to Def.'s Renewed JMOL [Doc. # 446-8] at 49.) Similarly, Saunders testified that the backup team of 12-15 people working on the Raytheon account, on which she served, was primarily responsible for ensuring the “maintenance and health of the backup systems and software.” (Id. at 17.) This maintenance work took up the majority of her time on the job. (Id. at 25.) While Saunders participated in teleconferences with Raytheon to discuss Raytheon's technical needs, she would do so together with other team members from CSC, and would herself only interact directly with Raytheon employees on those calls to provide them with “a yes or a no answer” on occasions on which they asked her whether “something is technically possible.” (Id. at 23-24.) Accordingly, the jury could have reasonably concluded that Saunders' primary duty consisted of routine maintenance work, and that rather than “consulting with users[] to determine hardware, software or system functional specifications[, ]” 29 C.F.R. § 541.400(b)(1), Saunders ‘consulted' with users only to answer their technical questions. (Ex. G to Def.'s Renewed JMOL [Doc. # 446-8] at 35.)

         Defendant also compares the plaintiff in Clark to Charles Turner and Derrick Rosborough. Turner testified that at one point in time, he was the “only remaining member” of his team “that had a detailed knowledge of message routing, ” and that as a result he “did most of the investiture projects.” (Trial Tr., Ex. A to Def.'s Renewed JMOL [Doc. # 446-2] at 731.) Rosborough testified that he “was kind of coming in as a subject matter expert for Citrix.” (Ex. H to Def.'s Renewed JMOL [Doc. # 446-9] at 18.) Defendant urges that Turner and Rosborough are analogous to the plaintiff in Clark because both were the “go-to” person for particular issues, but does not explain why their work in these areas was in fact exempt work. The mere fact that a technical employee is the “go-to person” for a given task does not answer the question of whether completing that task constitutes exempt work. Electricians, mechanics, and operating engineers, for example, might be considered the “go-to person[s]” for a wide range of technical work that is non-exempt. Cf. 29 C.F.R. § 541.3(a) (“blue-collar” non-management employees are not exempt from the FLSA's overtime pay requirements). The same is true for employees in non-technical fields. See Morgan v. Zieger Health Care Corp., No. 13-14809, 2015 WL 4040465, at *16 (E.D. Mich. June 5, 2015) (denying defendant's motion for summary judgment in FLSA case, noting that plaintiff “had some 25 years of experience in the field of pension plans” and “was the ‘go-to' person for any question relating to the terms of the” employer's pension plans but that her “knowledge of the Plan provisions and her ability to answer her superiors' questions regarding these Plans does not ipso facto transform her ‘advice' into an act of discretion or independent judgment.”)

         Finally, Defendant cites trial witness Norman Thatch as an example of an SA who applied systems analysis techniques and procedures to determine hardware, software, or system functional specifications. Thatch testified that he “moved into . . . building servers” as part of “the build team[]” but had no role in designing the host storage systems that he was building. (Trial Tr., Ex. A to Def.'s Renewed JMOL [Doc. # 446-2] at 622.) He testified that he worked on both “standard” builds and “nonstandard” builds, and that for the latter, he completed the work by following instructions provided to him by a Boeing system integrator, on direction of his manager. (Id. at 641.) So while Thatch worked with Boeing to determine how to create the nonstandard build, (id. at 641-42), he was “always given tickets with full information.” (Trial Tr., Ex. P to Pls.' Opp'n to Def.'s Renewed JMOL [Doc. # 457-16] at 621.) Thatch testified that “[t]hey had like a project manager who is responsible for speaking to the system integrator or the customer and working out the details as far as how the server should be upgraded, what should be upgraded on the server or . . . how the server should be installed.” (Id.) From the evidence, a reasonable jury could have found that Thatch himself did not apply systems analysis techniques and procedures to determine hardware, software, or system functional specifications, instead relying on the project manager, system integrator, and the customer to determine these specifications.

         Next, Defendant contends that “[t]he SAs testified consistently that they were responsible for the second and third categories of job duties contemplated by the computer employee exemption.”[2] (Mem. Law. Supp. Def.'s Renewed JMOL at 9.) Defendant argues that Plaintiffs' job duties are consistent with those of the plaintiff in Bobadilla v. MDRC, No. 03 Civ. 9217, 2005 WL 2044938 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 24, 2005), where the court found that the plaintiff was an exempt computer employee as a matter of law because that plaintiff “consistently made decisions regarding network modification and design, ” personally “redesigned and supplemented an enterprise-wide strategy to ensure that information housed in critical [employer] servers was backed-up properly[, ]” and “provided training to the rest of the Network Administrators on how to maintain the system that he had independently designed.” Id. at 8-9. Defendant also argues that Plaintiffs' job duties are consistent with those of the plaintiff in Olorode v. Streamingedge, Inc., No. 11 Civ. 6934 (GBD)(AJP), 2014 WL 1689039 (S.D.N.Y. Apr. 29, 2014), report and recommendation adopted, No. 11 Civ. 6934 (GBD)(AJP), 2014 WL 3974581 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 13, 2014). Olorode involved a plaintiff whose job duties included, among other things, “designing and maintaining the proper operation of the trading platform used by Streamingedge's investment brokers[, ]” and “help[ing] brokers tailor the operating system to meet their particular needs . . . .” Id. at 22 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted) (emphasis added).

         While Defendant highlights some testimony from SAs that according to Defendant shows that SAs were engaged in work comparable to Bobadilla and Olorode, Defendant addresses none of the extensive countervailing evidence in the trial record referenced in Plaintiffs' opposition brief. (See Pls.' Opp'n to Def.'s Renewed JMOL at 13-17.) For example, Defendant does not explain why the jury could not have credited the testimony of CSC supervisors Evan Milewski, who testified that SAs “aren't configuring” or “designing” systems from the ground up, (Ex. P to id. at 899), or Mitchell Favreau, who testified that SAs are “not responsible for custom application code[, ]” (id. at 933). And in the context of a Rule 50 motion, the question is not whether there was some evidence in the record from which a reasonable jury could have reached a different conclusion, but instead whether a reasonable jury lacked “a legally sufficient evidentiary basis to” make the finding that it did. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 50(a)(1). Similarly, while Defendant argues that Plaintiffs' characterization of their work does not change the “fact” that they performed exempt job duties, Defendant fails to explain why a reasonable jury would be required to credit some job characterization testimony over other job characterization testimony, especially where, as here, there was evidence that Plaintiffs performed some exempt work but a key question that the jury had to determine was whether that exempt work constituted Plaintiffs' primary duty or not. The trial record contains ample evidence from which reasonable jurors could conclude that Plaintiffs' primary duty did not consist of the type of exempt work that Bobadilla and Olorode performed, so Defendant's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law cannot be granted on this basis.

         As Defendant notes, “California law provides a similar exemption for computer employees” with a higher salary threshold and a primary duty test that explicitly requires that employees spend at least half of their time performing exempt work. (Mem. Law. Supp. Def.'s Renewed JMOL at 15 (citing Cal. Lab. Code § 515; Cal. Wage Order 4-2001).) But just as Defendant fails to establish that a reasonable jury would be compelled to find that Plaintiffs' primary duty consisted of exempt work under the FLSA, so too Defendant fails to direct the Court to any part of the trial record that would compel a reasonable jury to find that California class members spent at least half of their time performing exempt work. Accordingly, Defendant's Motion for Judgment as a Matter of Law as to the California class fails on this basis as well.[3]

b. The Administrative Exemption

         Next, Defendant argues that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because SAs are exempt administrative employees under the FLSA. In dispute at trial were two prongs of the exemption, both of which Defendant was required to establish: first, that Plaintiffs' “primary duty is the performance of office or non-manual work directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer or the employer's customers” and second, that their “primary duty includes the exercise of discretion and independent judgment with respect to matters of significance.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.200.

         “The phrase ‘directly related to the management or general business operations' refers to the type of work performed by the employee.” 29 C.F.R. § 541.201(a). “To meet this requirement, an employee must perform work directly related to assisting with the running or servicing of the business, as distinguished, for example, from working on a manufacturing production line or selling a product in a retail or service establishment.” Id. This work “includes, but is not limited to, work in functional areas such as tax; finance; accounting; budgeting; auditing; insurance; quality control; purchasing; procurement; advertising; marketing; research; safety and health; personnel management; human resources; employee benefits; labor relations; public relations, government relations; computer network, internet and database administration; legal and regulatory compliance; and similar activities.” Id. § 541.201(b). “Some of these activities may be performed by employees who also would qualify for another exemption.” Id.

         “An employee may qualify for the administrative exemption if the employee's primary duty is the performance of work directly related to the management or general business operations of the employer's customers.” Id. § 541.201(c) (emphasis added). “Thus, for example, employees acting as advisers or consultants to their employer's clients or customers (as tax experts or financial consultants, for example) may be exempt.” Id.

         “In general, the exercise of discretion and independent judgment involves the comparison and the evaluation of possible courses of conduct, and acting or making a decision after the various possibilities have been considered.” Id. § 541.202(a). “The term ‘matters of significance' refers to the level of importance or consequence of the work performed.” Id. “Factors to consider when determining whether an ...


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