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Thornton v. Charter Communications, LLC

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

September 25, 2014

BERNARD THORNTON, et al., Plaintiffs,


STEPHEN N. LIMBAUGH, Jr., District Judge.

This matter is before the Court on defendants Charter Communications, LLC and Charter Communications, Inc.'s motion for summary judgment. The motion has been fully briefed and is ready for disposition. For the following reasons, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

I. Background

Plaintiffs Bernard Thornton, Lejuan Wiley, and Tyrone Cameron ("plaintiffs") filed a multi-count complaint[1] against defendants Mainline Communications, LLC, Rodger Miller, Charter Communications, LLC, and Charter Communications, Inc. alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., and the Missouri Minimum Wage Law ("MMWL"), § 290.500 RSMo., et seq., as well as common law claims for breach of the covenant of good faith and fair dealing, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment. Plaintiffs allege that they were misclassified as independent contractors, denied overtime pay, and had amounts improperly deducted from their paychecks prior to July 2011, and continued to be paid improperly after they were reclassified as employees in July 2011. Plaintiffs allege they were jointly employed by the defendants. Charter Communications, LLC, and Charter Communications, Inc. ("Charter" or "defendants") filed this motion for summary judgment seeking a determination that plaintiffs were not Charter employees.

II. Facts

At the outset, the Court notes that the parties have alleged a substantial number of statements of undisputed material facts, with each side purporting to dispute a considerable number of the other's facts. Additionally, plaintiffs have recited numerous facts in their attempts to dispute defendants' facts. The parties' disputes, however, primarily pertain to the meaning or significance of the facts. Both parties are guilty of quibbling over perceived nuances within many of the statements of fact.

Further, the parties are guilty of making the process of determining which facts are properly supported and whether the facts are disputed or undisputed difficult. Defendants cited to the record by reference to the name of the document, i.e. Miller 2012 Dep. and Williams Decl., instead of referring to Exhibit C or Exhibit J. While defendants supplied an appendix with the exhibit letters and identification of the exhibit, it added an unnecessary and inconvenient step for the Court. Plaintiffs are guilty of alleging a fact is disputed and then reciting facts and citations to the record that are not responsive.[2] Plaintiffs are also guilty of unduly long responses to defendants' facts[3] and unnecessarily repeating the same facts and citations.[4]

The Court has reviewed the statements, the responses, and the supporting documentation, and, where appropriate, will accept facts as supported by appropriate admissible evidence. In accordance with Local Rule 4.01 (E), all matters set forth in the movants' statement of facts are deemed admitted unless specifically controverted by the opposing party. The following facts are undisputed or uncontroverted, except where indicated, and set forth in the light most favorable to plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs worked as technicians for Mainline Communications, Inc. ("Mainline") installing and repairing cable, internet, and telephone services. At all times relevant, Rodger Miller was the owner of Mainline. Mainline was a contracting company that performed services for Charter. Charter entered into a contract with Mainline in 2008, titled the Master Contractor Agreement (the "Agreement"). Charter and Mainline subsequently entered into amendments and addenda to the Agreement throughout the duration of their contractual relationship, including Scopes of Work ("SOW"), which described in detail the work to be completed under the Agreement.

Mainline was required to perform installation, disconnect, and repair services in the manner set forth in the SOW appended to the Agreement. The Agreement stated:

Independent Contractor Status. It is the intention of the parties that Contractor perform the Work as an independent contractor for Charter. Contractor, and not Charter, shall be responsible for the hiring, supervision, discipline and control of its employees, and in no event shall Contractor or its employees be considered or act as employees, agents, joint venturers, or partners of Charter. Nothing in this Agreement shall be interpreted or construed as creating or establishing the relationship of employer and employee between Charter and either Contractor or any employee or agent of Contractor. Contractor will be solely responsible at all times for its acts and omissions or the acts and omissions of its agents, employees and subcontractors.

Although the Agreement did not bar Mainline from contracting with other cable or satellite installation companies, Charter was Mainline's only customer. There is a dispute as to whether a Charter manager told Miller that Mainline could not perform services for competing cable companies while under contract with Charter.[5]

Prior to July 2011, Mainline treated its technicians as independent contractors.[6] In July 2011, Mainline reclassified its technicians from a 1099 workforce to a W-2 workforce. Miller of Mainline testified that that "in order [for Mainline] to continue doing work in the St. Louis market, we had to go from a contractor-based company to an employee-based company" and that the reason for the conversion to W-2 was so that Mainline could continue to be a contractor for Charter.

Plaintiffs applied for work and interviewed with Mainline. However, Charter had to approve a technician before the technician could work in its system. Additionally, under the Agreement, Charter required background checks and drug tests on all technicians who were going to perform Charter work. The vendor performing the background checks issued identification badges to Mainline, who issued eligible technicians badges identifying them as Charter authorized contractors. Charter employee Ron Williams's job duties as a Technical Operations Manager included managing the relationship with fulfillment contract partners such as Mainline. According to Williams, the purpose of requiring contractor technicians to be properly badged when going into a customer's home is to "give the customer comfort that that person was who they said they were." Additionally, each technician that Mainline used to perform Charter business was required to have a technician identification number ("tech number"). Charter reviewed Mainline's requests for tech numbers to determine whether a technician already had a Charter identification number with another one of Charter's contractors or whether there were other issues that would give cause for concern for Charter or its customers, including whether the technician had a history of security, service, or other customer impacting issues.

Charter would request that Mainline management pull certain technicians from Charter business while issues were investigated related to Charter customer safety and service. For example, by e-mail dated January 5, 2009, Williams wrote to Miller that Mark Raymond, a Mainline technician, needed "to be pulled from the field for running cable thru the window." By e-mail dated December 10, 2010, Williams requested that Mainline technician Fabian Williams be pulled from Charter business immediately. Plaintiff Cameron testified that Miller took him out of the field while a customer service issue was being investigated. Miller subsequently told him he was no longer permitted to work in the Charter system and terminated his employment.

According to Miller, Charter would tell Mainline if it no longer wanted a technician doing business for Charter and then Charter would shut down that technician's tech number. The parties agree that Charter could revoke the tech number and badge of a contractor technician but dispute how or why this might occur. Charter admits, however, that it could shut down a Mainline technician's tech number with or without a request from Mainline.

Pursuant to the Agreement, Mainline was required to "have requisite and appropriate manpower necessary to perform the Work in a safe and competent manner." Further, Mainline represented and warranted that "Contractor and its employees, agents, representatives and subcontractors have adequate skill, training, expertise, knowledge and experience to perform the Work in a competent and professional manner." Mainline requested that a new technician complete an informational sheet at the time the technician began working with Mainline, which contained information regarding the type of vehicle a technician would use to perform the work, how many years the technician had been installing residential cable services, and any prior installation companies with which he worked. Mainline trained new technicians by sending them out with experienced Mainline technicians and by providing classroom training. Plaintiffs testified that when they began their employment with Mainline, they received training from Mainline coworkers. Plaintiffs were also required to train other employees of Mainline while employed there.

Charter provided information and training to Mainline's management regarding new Charter products and the specifications for the installation of such products. Williams testified that Charter made certain training available to Mainline's management and supervisors "so they could better train their technicians." Charter made an IQ Manual available to Mainline's management that contained installation specifications for Charter's products. In 2011, Charter provided Customer Experience Training to contractors' management, supervisors and technicians, including Mainline technicians, regarding skills for interacting with Charter's customers in their homes. Pursuant to the Agreement, Charter had the right to, at any point, require plaintiffs and other Mainline technicians to attend one or more training sessions given by a Charter representative "for the purpose of learning and adhering to the required specifications set forth by Charter."

Plaintiffs testified that Williams would come to the Mainline offices to provide information about new equipment and technological changes in the system. Additionally, Charter would train Mainline supervisors and technicians on installation of new equipment. According to plaintiffs, at times technicians would go to a Charter office for meetings and training on new equipment.

The Charter-Mainline Agreement provided that "Contractor shall furnish all labor, transportation, incidental equipment, tools and all other materials necessary to complete the Work." Plaintiffs provided their own trucks or used trucks provided by Mainline; they were not provided trucks by Charter. Technicians purchased tools from commercial retailers or from Mainline. According to plaintiffs Thornton and Wiley, on at least one occasion, they attended a Charter training class during which Charter swapped out their older tools for new tools because their tools were not up to Charter code. Mainline technicians purchased signs for their vehicles from Mainline that said "Mainline Communications, " and also purchased uniforms from Mainline that said "Mainline" and "Authorized Contractor for Charter." Mainline technicians picked up and returned equipment from and to Mainline, not Charter. Charter provided Mainline with certain proprietary equipment such as cable boxes, modems, keys for lock boxes, fittings, ground blocks, and other items needed to perform the work under the Agreement. Charter required contractors to purchase carrying cases or totes for carrying Charter's proprietary equipment to protect the equipment. Also, by e-mail dated February 9, 2011, Williams informed Mainline that each Mainline technician was required to have leakage gear.

Mainline provided a truck count to Charter on a weekly basis with the number of trucks that Mainline planned to have in the field on a given day. At the beginning of each day, Charter gave work orders to Mainline in bulk based on the truck count. Mainline, in turn, routed and assigned the work orders to its technicians. Mainline dispatchers routed work to Mainline technicians via a program used by Charter known as Workforce Express ("WFX"). Once the Mainline technicians picked their route, Mainline would load it into the Charter WFX system and the technicians could access the information in WFX on their cell phones. Charter required that the Mainline technicians, including plaintiffs, use the WFX tool.

WFX was a paperless system that allowed Mainline technicians to use their phones to open and close jobs, make changes to jobs, and ensure that customers were receiving the correct services. Charter's WFX tool allows Charter representatives to "go in and look at whatever they may need to look at" on a daily basis with respect to contract technicians. Through its WFX tool, Charter could track time on a job (including when a tech arrives for and leaves a job), drive time between jobs, lunch breaks, routing, late appointments, and repeat service and installation call rates. The parties dispute whether Charter, in fact, tracked contractor technicians but it is undisputed that it had the capability to do so. The tool allowed Charter to see when a technician was on a job, when the job was completed, and when the technician was in route to another job. Plaintiffs and other Mainline technicians logged into the system by their tech number.

Mainline maintained its own dispatch department and Mainline technicians generally contacted Mainline's dispatch department first if they encountered any issues while out in the field. Mainline also asked its technicians to call into dispatch at the end of the day when they had completed their routes. Plaintiffs contacted Charter dispatch if Mainline's dispatch department was closed or its computers were down, if there was a more serious technical issue with the Charter equipment, or if they made a sale in a customer's home, because only Charter's dispatch had access to the customer account information. If a Mainline technician worked a telephone installation project, that technician had to contact Charter to activate the service. Plaintiff Terry Gear testified that Charter dispatchers would sometimes override decisions made by Mainline and he would be told to return to a customer's home. He also testified that Charter dispatchers would inquire about his estimated time of arrival to a customer's home or his time frame to complete an installation.

Under the Agreement and SOW, Charter required that Mainline complete work orders "within the On-Time Guarantee' period set forth for each such work order on the work order." Charter manager Don Brendel testified that Charter is accountable for its customer's appointments and "if I see my customer's appointments not being handled correctly or in jeopardy of being missed, then I'll escalate to [the contractor's] management so they can do whatever they needed to do on their side to supervise the situation."

Mainline held weekly meetings with its technicians during which Mainline would convey information passed down by Charter. Additionally, Williams testified that Charter provided performance data to management for Mainline and other contractors to facilitate improvement in their service of Charter's customers, including data related to repeats (whether Charter had to go back to a customer's home within seven days of service), non-responder equipment (which show equipment in customers' homes that is not working), on time arrivals, EQA results (measures whether a modem is performing properly), and video on demand ("VOD") welcome video usage. Williams testified that the performance information communicated to Mainline included data regarding Mainline's individual technicians because Charter "track[s] by contractor and then the techs are components of ...

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