In a case we previously blogged about here where the Court refused to grant Plaintiffs’ request for equitable tolling on their claims under the Equal Pay Act (“EPA”), Magistrate Judge Michael Dolinger recently issued a decision granting Plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification of a collective action under the EPA to cover past/current female Sales Representatives who were employed between 2009 and 2014. The decision serves a primer as to the standard that courts in the Second Circuit utilize in deciding conditional certification motions brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (and the EPA, which was enacted as an amendment to the FLSA).
Background To The Case
Eleven current/former female employees brought individual and class claims under the EPA and Title VII alleging disparate pay based on their gender in July of 2012. Id. at 1. Ten of the Plaintiffs’ subsequently filed a motion for conditional certification of their EPA claims, as well as a proposed form of notice to be sent to potential opt-in plaintiffs. Id. 2
The Court’s Decision
The Court began by explaining the “two step method” adopted by the Second Circuit in deciding conditional certification motions under the FLSA (and EPA). Id. First, per that standard, Plaintiffs must make a “modest factual showing” that they and the potential opt-in plaintiffs, “together were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.” Id. at 3. If conditional certification is granted at the “first step,” then, following discovery, the Court – at the second step – will make a decision based “on a fuller record” as to whether the collective action may go forward by determining whether the plaintiffs who have opted-in are in fact “similarly situated” to the named plaintiffs. Id. The action may be decertified if the record reveals that the opt-in plaintiffs are not similarly situated to the named plaintiffs. Id.
In discussing the quantum of proof that must be established at “first step,” the Court noted that while the standard is a modest one, “unsupported assertions” of similarly situated employees are not enough. Id. at 4.
With respect to the pending motion, the Court reviewed certain pre-motion document production as well as an expert report offered by Plaintiffs, which allegedly demonstrated “a statistically significant difference between the pay of male and female Sales Representatives.” Id. at 4. Plaintiffs also presented a list of comparators for each named Plaintiff, which they argues as proof of the pay disparity between male/female Sales Representatives. Id.
Based on this evidence, the Court held that Plaintiffs met their modest burden. The Court, however, was sure to note that it was neither resolving any factual disputes nor deciding any substantive issues. To this end, the Court noted that “Plaintiffs’ own assertions of discrimination are conclusory…” Id. at 11. However, the Court held that what Plaintiffs presented to the Court was enough to satisfy their stage one burden, even though Defendant came forward with evidence rebuking many of Plaintiffs’ assertions as such merit-based determinations are not appropriate at this juncture of the case. Id. at 14-15.
Implication For Employers
Although the Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification, it is clear that even at this early juncture of the case, the record was developed through some limited discovery concerning the basis of Plaintiffs’ claims, as well as expert reports from both sides. Given the increasing number of EPA lawsuits, Plaintiffs are increasingly “jumping the gun” and trying to obtain conditional certification before any discovery has even taken place. This decision should be used as employers facing such “shot gun” motions to demonstrate why it is appropriate for courts to allow discovery, even limited discovery, to take place prior to an employer having to fend off a conditional certification motion as it will help crystalize the issues for the Court given that the requisite showing, while “modest” cannot be met by mere unsupported assertions.