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Do Union Employees Have to File a Grievance Before Filing a Lawsuit for Violations of the FLSA?

| Feb 22, 2013 | minimum wage violation, overtime time violation, Retaliation |

One of the attorneys at the Spitz Law Firm was recently confronted with an interesting question: does an employee belonging to a union need to first file a formal grievance for his or her employer’s violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) before bringing a private lawsuit against the employer? The answer, according to the U.S. Supreme Court and other lower courts, is no. In Barrentine v. Arkansas-Best Freight System, Inc., the issue before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether an employee may bring an action in federal district court, alleging a violation of the minimum wage provisions of the FLSA, after having unsuccessfully submitted a wage claim based on the same underlying facts to a joint grievance committee pursuant to the provisions of his union’s collective-bargaining agreement.

In that case, the union representing several truck drivers submitted a wage claim for the truck drivers’ pre-trip inspection and transportation time to a joint grievance committee pursuant to its collective-bargaining agreement with the truck drivers’ employer. The joint committee rejected the claim without explanation. The truck drivers then filed a lawsuit in federal district court, alleging that the pre-trip safety inspection and transportation time was compensable under § 6 of the FLSA. The Supreme Court held that the truck driverss claims under the FLSA were not barred by the prior submission of their grievances to the contractual dispute-resolution procedures.

The Court made clear that employees’ statutory rights to a minimum wage and overtime pay under the FLSA are separate and distinct from employees’ contractual rights arising out of an applicable collective-bargaining agreement: “The FLSA rights petitioners seek to assert are independent of the collective-bargaining process.  Such rights devolve on petitioners are individual works, not as members of the union, and are not waivable.”

Said the Court:

In submitting his grievance to arbitration, an employee seeks to vindicate his contractual right under a collective-bargaining agreement.  By contrast, in filing a lawsuit under [the statute], an employee asserts independent statutory rights accorded by Congress.  The distinctly separate nature of these contractual and statutory rights is not vitiated merely because both were violated as a result of the same factual occurrence.  And certainly no inconsistency results from permitting both rights to be enforced in their respectively appropriate forums.

In Andrako v. U.S. Steel Corp., the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, in interpreting Barrentine, held that “under Barrentine, there is no per se requirement that a union employee proceed through a collectively-bargained grievance and arbitration process prior to, or in lieu of, bringing a statutory claim for wages under the FLSA:

Although the employees in Barrentine had grieved their wage claim under the collective bargaining agreement prior to bringing their federal FLSA lawsuit, the Supreme Court did not hold that filing such a grievance was a prerequisite to an FLSA claim in federal court.  To the contrary, the Court stated that the FLSA’s “enforcement scheme grants individual employees broad access to the courts … No exhaustion requirement or other procedural barriers are set up, and no other forum for enforcement of statutory rights is referred to or created by the statute.”

Other courts have reached similar conclusions. For instance, in Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Prods., L.L.C., the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals made clear that employees’ FLSA rights may not be waived through the collective bargaining process. In that case, several filmmaking and video production industry technicians filed a grievance against their employer, Spring Break Louisiana, alleging that they had not been paid wages for work they performed. The technicians’ union and Spring Break Louisiana entered into a Settlement Agreement pertaining to the disputed hours allegedly worked by the technicians.  Before union representatives signed the Settlement Agreement, however, the technicians filed a lawsuit in California state court.

The Fifth Circuit drew a distinction between waiving FLSA rights and validating them through a settlement agreement, however: while FLSA substantive rights may not be waived in the collective bargaining process, in this instance, “FLSA rights were not waived, but instead, validated through a settlement of a bona fide dispute, which Appellants accepted and were compensated for.” Indeed, the technicians had accepted and cashed settlement payments – “Appellants’ FLSA rights were adhered to and addressed through the Settlement Agreement, not waived or bargained away.”

If you even think that your employment rights have been violated or that you might need an employment lawyer, then call the right attorney to schedule a free and confidential consultation at (216) 271-3742. The Spitz Law Firm is dedicated to protecting employees’ rights and solving employment disputes.

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