Ninth Circuit: WARN Act Opinion

The WARN Act requires companies to give at least 60 days' notice of shutdowns and mass layoffs that affect a certain number of people.  For example, to be covered, a "mass layoff" must involve an "employment loss" for a group comprised of at least 50 employees who constitute at least 1/3  of the workforce. 

The thing is, the law and regulations contain a number of exceptions and special definitions regarding who is an employee, who counts as a layoff, etc. There are so many moving definitions and exceptions, it is impossible (or maybe just dumb) to give WARN advice "off the cuff."

One of the key definitions is "employment loss" because that's how you tell how many employees are affected by a layoff or shutdown.  If < 50 employees have suffered an "employment loss" then federal WARN is not triggered.

So, in Collins v. Gee West, the employer was looking for a buyer and gave less than 60 days' notice of a shutdown.  Collins and other sued for the WARN damages due for failure to give 60 days' notice.
But the Company's notice was that the shutdown would occur on October 7. By that date, all the employees had quit for other employment.  The Company argued that these employees voluntarily departed before the October 7 shutdown date. Having voluntarily departed, they did not suffer an employment loss.

The district court bought that argument and granted the employer's motion for summary judgment. On appeal, not so much. The Ninth Circuit held that when folks leave employment after being told the business is going to shut down, that is not a "voluntary departure" exception to the "employment loss" definition. As the court pointed out, if that were the case, then the only way to tell whether a WARN notice was due would be after the fact.  So, the employer must reasonably calculate how many employees are anticipated to be affected by the employer's layoff or shutdown decision. The fact that an employee does not wait to the last day to leave does not eliminate the requirement of counting that employee as part of the layoff.

I figured there would be a discussion of the defenses to inadequate notice like the "faltering company" exception. Maybe next time.

The case is Collins v. Gee West and the opinion is here.