Ninth Circuit: Everyone's an Employer under FLSA

So, the FLSA's wage and hour provisions receive little attention in California. But with the bad economy and companies going bankrupt, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may have just given plaintiffs a reason to heart federal court.

Boucher and a couple of others worked for the Castaways Hotel in Nevada. The Castaways filed for Bankruptcy protection. Later, it fired the plaintiffs. Undeterred by their former employer's insolvency, they sued the CEO, CFO and a senior manager responsible for labor relations (hi, HR managers!).

The defendants asked the district court to dismiss the case because they were not the plaintiffs' employer - that was the Castaways' role. The district court obliged. But the Ninth Circuit reversed as to the federal claims. As to claims brought under Nevada's wage and hour laws, the Court of Appeals, relying on the Nevada Supreme Court's opinion, held that individuals cannot be held liable.

As to the FLSA claims, however, the Court decided that the individuals could be held liable as employers. They got no help from the defendants, who did not argue the point apparently. Here is the money quote:

In the case at bar, Ballard has alleged that Defendant Villamor was responsible for handling labor and employment matters at the Castaways; Defendant Shaw was chairman and chief executive officer of the Castaways; and Defendant Van Woerkom was the Castaways’ chief financial officer and had responsibility for supervision and oversight of the Castaways’ cash management. The plaintiff also alleges that Shaw held a 70 percent ownership interest in the Castaways, Villemor held a 30 percent ownership interest and all three defendants had “control and custody of the plaintiff class, their employment, and their place of employment.” (See Complaint ¶¶ 9-11.)
Accepting these allegations of material fact as true, Ballard’s claim withstands a motion to dismiss. . . .

The individuals spent their brief arguing that the bankruptcy proceedings by the Castaways insulated them from liability. Logically, if the individuals stand in the shoes as employers under FLSA, then they should be covered by the Castaways' bankruptcy too, right? Nope.

We have never addressed the question whether a company’s bankruptcy affects the
liability of its individual managers under the FLSA. But our case law regarding guarantors, sureties and other non-debtor parties who are liable for thedebts of the debtor leaves no doubt about the answer: the Castaways bankruptcy has no effect on the claims against the individual managers at issue here.

So, the plaintiffs could proceed against these senior managers who owned The Castaways by suing under the FLSA, even though the Castaways went bankrupt and eventually liquidated.

The case is Boucher v. Shaw and the opinion is here.