In another welcome decision for employers, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York denied a motion to conditionally certify a nationwide class of sous chefs who alleged they were misclassified as exempt.
Immediately following the filing of the answer in Ikikhueme v. CulinArt, Inc., and before the initial status conference was held, the sole named plaintiff moved to conditionally certify a nationwide class of food-service workers – a class that could have numbered in the thousands. The plaintiff alleged that he and all other food-service workers did not receive overtime at time-and-one-half for hours worked in excess of 40 in a week. In response to CulinArt’s opposition, which, among other things, attacked the plaintiff’s vague and ambiguous class, the plaintiff then limited the nationwide class to individuals holding the title of sous chef.
The plaintiff supported his motion with his own pay stubs, which revealed he was paid straight time for hours worked in excess of 40 in a week, and two self-serving affidavits. While the plaintiff’s affidavit described his duties and the compensation he received, his references to the compensation and duties of other sous chefs were premised “upon information and belief” or his “understanding.” The plaintiff also failed to specifically identify any other sous chefs.
After noting that plaintiffs need only make a “modest factual showing” at the first stage of FLSA collective action certification (the notice or conditional certification stage), the court concluded that the plaintiff could not satisfy this low burden. The court focused on the fact that the plaintiff’s claims arose out of his employment at a single location where he was the only sous chef. The court also noted that the plaintiff failed to allege the responsibilities or pay practices applicable to the sous chefs that preceded or succeeded him at that location, beyond making general allegations founded upon his “understanding.” These general allegations, the court concluded, are “exactly the type of unsupported assertions that, according to the Second Circuit, cannot satisfy a plaintiff’s burden at the preliminary certification stage.”
This decision is important because it reaffirms that although a plaintiff’s burden is modest at the initial certification stage in an FLSA collective action, district courts in the Second Circuit “must nonetheless take a measured approach when addressing a request for collective action certification, mindful of the potential burden associated with defending against an FLSA claim involving a broadly defined collective group of plaintiffs.” The burden is not satisfied when a plaintiff offers nothing more than a complaint and an affidavit replete with conclusory assertions.