Plaintiff Adequately Alleged Overtime, Vacation Pay, Retaliation, and Civil Rights Conspiracy Allegations

The Eastern District of New York recently held, in Litras v PVM Intern. Corp., that plaintiff plausibly alleged various claims relating to non-payment of wages and retaliation.

Plaintiff – who was employed by PVM as an export manager – alleged that her employment was terminated because she testified against defendants (the Sabhnanis) in a federal criminal trial in which they were convicted of various charges, including the use of forced labor.

1. Willfulness

The court held that “[a]t this stage of litigation, plaintiff’s general averment of willfulness” was sufficient to plead a willful violation of the FLSA, so as to invoke its 3-year statute of limitations.

Specifically, plaintiff alleged that defendants’ failure to pay was “willful … since defendants had no regard whatsoever for legal requirements in connection with their wage policies.”

Plaintiff was therefore permitted o claim overtime wages for the three-year period extending back from the date she filed her complaint.

2. Overtime

The court then held that plaintiff plausibly alleged an FLSA overtime claim.  The court was particularly convinced by a chart attached to plaintiff’s complaint, which is “replete with specific dates and an estimation of the number of hours that she worked on each specific date[,] along with the start and end time of her work for each date listed” and a separate column that provides the number of overtime hours she worked in each week.

This case was therefore distinguishable from the Second Circuit’s recent Dejesus decision, which found inadequate a FLSA pleading that merely “tracked the statutory language of the FLSA”.

The court also rejected defendants’ challenge to the veracity of plaintiff’s chart, citing the rule that “a plaintiff is not required to keep perfect time records or to plead its hours worked with mathematical precision.”  It noted, however, that defendants will have an opportunity to challenge plaintiff’s calculations after the parties engaged in discovery.

3. Civil Rights Conspiracy

Plaintiff based her allegations under 42 U.S.C. § 1985, which bars conspiracies to violate civil rights, on the fact that defendants allegedly fired her because she testified in their criminal trial.

Section 1985 provides, in relevant part:

Obstructing justice; intimidating party, witness, or juror. If two or more persons in any State or Territory conspire to deter, by force, intimidation, or threat, any party or witness in any court of the United States from attending such court, or from testifying to any matter pending therein, freely, fully, and truthfully, or to injure such party or witness in his person or property on account of his having so attended or testified … the party so injured or deprived may have an action for the recovery of damages, occasioned by such injury or deprivation, against any one or more of the conspirators

Plaintiff alleged that the defendants were “conspirators” who “sought to injure her for having testified against them on behalf of the government.”  This was sufficient.

4. Vacation Pay

The court held that plaintiff adequately alleged that defendants failed to pay her accrued vacation time upon termination in accordance with New York Labor Law § 198–c(1).

It is well-established under New York law that:

[A]n employee has no inherent right to paid vacation and sick days, or payment for unused vacation and sick days, in the absence of an agreement, either express or implied. [NYLL § 198–c(1)] requires that “any employer who is a party to an agreement to pay or provide benefits or wage supplements to employees” pay the amounts owed within thirty days of the date due. This section codifies the general understanding that vacation and sick pay are purely matters of contract between an employer and employee. Accordingly, a plaintiff claiming that she is owed accrued vacation pay under the NYLL must plead the existence of an agreement entitling her to vacation pay upon termination.

Here, plaintiff sufficiently pled the existence of an agreement to provide accrued vacation pay upon termination.

In particular, the court pointed to the following information included with plaintiff’s complaint:

Appended to plaintiff’s amended complaint are three letters written by plaintiff during the course of 2008 regarding vacation compensation. In plaintiff’s first letter, she advises that she only took 3 of the 10 vacation days allotted to her for 2007. She indicates that the “arrangement in the past” has been to reimburse for unused vacation days. Plaintiff’s second letter … is a follow-up to her initial request for reimbursement for unused vacation days. Finally, plaintiff’s third letter … indicates that her “2007 vacation compensation for 7 vacation days not taken” was not included in the check she received earlier that week.

These letters, according to the court, “support a plausible claim for accrued vacation pay.”

5.  Retaliation

The court held that plaintiff sufficiently pled a violation of New York Labor Law § 215.  That section provides, in relevant part:

(a) No employer or his or her agent … shall discharge, threaten, penalize, or in any other manner discriminate or retaliate against any employee (i) because such employee has made a complaint to his or her employer, or to the commissioner or his or her authorized representative, or to the attorney general or any other person, that the employer has engaged in conduct that the employee, reasonably and in good faith, believes violates any provision of this chapter, or any order issued by the commissioner (ii) because such employer or person believes that such employee has made a complaint to his or her employer, or to the commissioner or his or her authorized representative, or to the attorney general, or to any other person that the employer has violated any provision of this chapter, or any order issued by the commissioner….

Defendants challenged this allegation on the ground that “although her amended complaint states that she was terminated for testifying at M. Sabhnani’s and V. Sabhnani’s criminal trial, plaintiff has failed to allege that the testimony she provided against those defendants pertained to a specific provision of the NYLL that they violated.”

The court disagreed, citing plaintiff’s testimony at trial concerning violations of the New York Labor Law’s prohibition on indentured servitude:

In her amended complaint, plaintiff alleges that, upon discovering that defendants were “harboring indentured servants or slaves at their residence/business location,” she was “compelled to testify against [them] in a criminal case in the Federal Court, Eastern District of New York.” Accepting these allegations as true, the reasonable inferences that can be drawn are that plaintiff complained to government officials and/or law enforcement officers about defendants’ harboring of indentured servants and testified, at the criminal trial, about defendants’ use of indentured servants. Indentured servitude is prohibited under the NYLL. … [P]laintiff’s failure to cite to the specific provision of the NYLL that prohibits indentured servitude is not a legal defect in this particular case; it is clear, even without reference to the particular statutory provision, that the violation of the NYLL that triggers plaintiff’s Section 215 claim is indentured servitude.

Accordingly, the court denied defendants’ motion to dismiss this claim.