While most class actions, like most actions generally, tend to settle, they are on occasion tried. In the case of wage and hour litigation, employers can and have prevailed at trial as demonstrated by a case from the Sixth Circuit. In Henry v. Quicken Loans Inc.pdf, Case No. 11-2125 (6th Cir. Oct. 25, 2012), the plaintiffs brought a collective action against Quicken Loans, contending that it had misclassified its mortgage bankers as administrative exempt under the FLSA. Ultimately, 455 mortgage loan officers opted into the litigation and the case was tried to a jury, which returned a defense verdict.
The plaintiffs made three primary assertions. First, they argued that the mortgage loan officers were primarily salespeople, pointing to documents that, among other things, referred to them as a “sales force.” Second, they asserted that they exercised no discretion or independent judgment, but were, instead, found to follow a 10-step set of guidelines prepared by the employer. Lastly, they pointed to Department of Labor opinion letters expressing doubts over the exempt status of mortgage loan officers for other employers.
The jury, of course, rejected the two factual arguments but, instead, credited the testimony of several mortgage loan officers who denied that their primary duty was selling and admitted that their job required the use of discretion and judgment. The Sixth Circuit found that the jury could properly believe that testimony and found no basis to overturn its verdict. The court of appeals also rejected the plaintiffs’ legal arguments based on the DOL opinion letters, finding the letters non-binding and also questioning whether they even involved the same facts. Thus, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the jury verdict.
Henry itself stands for the largely unremarkable proposition that a jury may find an employee exempt if there is evidence to support the exemption. But underlying the holding is the fact that the employer won the case before the jury despite facing skilled plaintiffs’ counsel and unfavorable DOL guidance. This result is not unlike that in last month’s Eight Circuit decision in Lopez v. Tyson Foods, Inc., Case No. 11-2344 (8th Cir. Sept. 4, 2012), which we wrote about on September 17, and which similarly affirmed a jury verdict in a donning and doffing case.
The Bottom Line: While every case will turn on its facts, employers can prevail in collective action cases tried to a jury.