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A win for workers! Employer can’t mislead and coerce employees with unpaid overtime claims

A win for workers! Employer can’t mislead and coerce employees with unpaid overtime claims

By Claire Prestel, Staff Attorney

It’s hard enough for low-wage workers to stand up for their rights and take on a powerful employer who fails to pay overtime. But some employers make it even harder by adopting a troubling tactic — coercing workers to sign sworn statements that support the company’s defense and undermine the workers’ own claims. Now a federal district court in Los Angeles, confronted with clear evidence of this misconduct, has said enough is enough.

The case that prompted the district court’s ruling is called Quezada v. Schneider Logistics Transloading and Distribution. There are four named plaintiffs in the case — all current and former workers at Schneider warehouses in California’s Inland Empire. Schneider operates the warehouses for mega-retailer Wal-Mart. The plaintiffs claim that Schneider violates overtime and other wage-and-hour laws, and they sued on behalf of a class of Schneider’s low-wage workers to recover the wages they say the workers are owed. 

Here’s what happened next, according to the district court’s order:

Not long after the named plaintiffs filed suit, Schneider called other workers, one-by-one, into meetings with Schneider lawyers in a manager’s office during working hours. The workers were ordered to report to the meetings either over a loudspeaker or by having a supervisor escort them to the office. The workers called into the meetings were the potential class members in the case — the workers who stand to recover if the plaintiffs’ claims against Schneider are successful. 

http://Warehouse-FlickrCC-NickSaltmarshOnce the workers were inside the manager’s office, Schneider’s lawyers said their participation in the meetings was voluntary. But as the district court explained, that notice was “hardly sufficient” since the employees had been ordered to attend. And in fact, only five out of nearly 120 employees actually chose to leave. 

Schneider’s lawyers proceeded to ask the workers questions related to the claims in the lawsuit, and, at the end of the meetings, asked them to sign sworn statements that would help the company’s defense and undermine the employees’ claims. Employees were told it was a “consent form” saying they had voluntarily agreed to be interviewed. But according to the court, Schneider’s lawyers didn’t tell the workers — many of whom speak Spanish — that they were actually being asked to sign a declaration that could be used to limit their legal rights.

Schneider’s conduct was deceptive in another way as well: although the purpose of the meetings was to gather evidence that the company could use against the workers in court, Schneider’s lawyers didn’t tell the employees that. Instead, the lawyers described the meetings as “just an interview” related to the company’s own “internal investigation.” This led some of the workers to believe the conversation was informal and would be kept inside the company.

Taken together, the district court (Judge Christina A. Snyder) described all this as “clear” evidence of “improper” conduct by the employer — conduct that was “fundamentally misleading and deceptive” and “impermissibly coercive.” To remedy the problem and prevent future harm, the district court threw out the declarations Schneider had obtained, ordered the company not to engage in similar conduct, and said it would issue a curative notice to Schneider’s workers letting them know that the declarations would not be considered and that Schneider cannot retaliate against them for participating in the lawsuit.

The district court’s decision is well-grounded in existing law and ethical rules, and it’s a great win for Schneider’s workers. It takes an amazing amount of courage for low-wage workers to stand up for their rights and stand up to their employer, and this decision gives the Quezada plaintiffs a real shot at litigating their claims fairly and on the merits. Congratulations to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, Theresa M. Traber, Lauren Teukolsky, Rebecca Peterson-Fisher, and Marisa Hernandez-Stern of Traber & Voorhees in Pasadena, for this important victory!

Photo by Nick SaltmarshCC by 2.0