The Worker Adjustment Retraining and Notification Act (WARN Act) requires certain employers to give employees 60 days’ notice of plant closings and mass layoffs. The goal of the WARN Act is to “provide workers and their families transition time to adjust to the prospective loss of employment, to seek and obtain alternative jobs and, if necessary, to enter skill training or retraining that will allow these workers to successfully compete in the job market.” Employers who violate the WARN Act are liable to affected employees for up to 60 days of compensation and benefits.
On December 10, 2013, the Second Circuit in Guippone v. BH S&B Holdings LLC addressed whether a holding company (HoldCo) and certain investors (Investors) should be deemed “employers” under the WARN Act, and thus liable for violations thereof. The Investors created various entities to purchase and manage Steve & Barry’s Industries, Inc., which it acquired out of bankruptcy. HoldCo served as the holding company and sole managing member of another entity (Holdings), which employed the plaintiff and putative class members. After the acquisition, Holdings experienced its own financial issues and subsequently filed bankruptcy. On the same day of the bankruptcy filing, Holdings began sending WARN Act notices and termination to employees. The plaintiff in Guipponefiled a complaint against HoldCo and the Investors seeking damages on behalf of the terminated employees.
The Second Circuit adopted the following non-exclusive factors from the Department of Labor regulations to determine whether related entities are “single employers” under the WARN Act: (i) common ownership, (ii) common directors and/or officers, (iii) de facto exercise of control, (iv) unity of personnel policies emanating from a common source and (v) the dependency of operations. Although equity investors are typically shielded from WARN Act liability, the court held that these five factors should also be applied to determine whether equity investors who exercise control over an operating company’s decision to terminate employees should be subject to WARN Act liability. The court clarified that application of the five factors requires a fact-specific inquiry, no one factor is controlling, and all factors need not be present for liability to attach.
Ultimately, the court affirmed the district court’s order granting the Investors’ motion to dismiss, but reversed the district court’s order granting summary judgment in favor of HoldCo, instead finding that the evidence would have allowed a jury to conclude that Holdings was so controlled by HoldCo that it lacked the ability to make any decisions independently.
This case has important implications for private equity funds and other equity investors. Although the Second Circuit dismissed the case with respect to the Investors, it did so only because the plaintiff had not presented sufficient evidence to satisfy the five-factor test for determining single players. The implication that equity investors could find themselves liable for WARN Act claims serves as a reminder to current or future investors to ensure that legal separateness exists, is vigilantly enforced and that the company’s executives retain operational autonomy, especially with respect to closings and mass layoffs.