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Murphy v. Ajinomoto Windsor, Inc.

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

March 30, 2017

JAMES S. MURPHY, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
AJINOMOTO WINDSOR, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          JOJIN A. ROSS, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Plaintiffs Motion to Conditionally Certify Collective Action Class and to Facilitate Class Notice (Doc. No. 49). The motion is fully briefed and ready for disposition. For the following reasons, the motion will be granted in part.

         Background

          This is an action for overtime pay under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219, and the Missouri Minimum Wage Law ("MMWL"), Mo. Rev. Stat. §§ 290.500 et seq. Defendant Ajinomoto Windsor, Inc. ("Ajinomoto") manufactures and markets specialty frozen foods for consumers, commercial restaurants, and food service operators. (Second Amended Complaint ("SAC"), Doc. No. 47 at ¶ 16, 17) Plaintiffs are current and former hourly production-floor employees of Ajinomoto at its production facilities in Piedmont and Carthage, Missouri. Count I is brought as an "opt-in" collective action under the FLSA, § 216(b), on behalf of "[a]ll persons who were employed by [A]inomoto] at their Carthage, Missouri, or Piedmont, Missouri, facilities as production-floor employees at any time from three years prior to June 26, 2015, through the present." (SAC at ¶ 51) Count II is brought under the MMWL as a Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 class action on behalf of Plaintiff and "[a] 11 persons who were employed by [A]inomoto] at their Carthage, Missouri, or Piedmont, Missouri, facilities as production-floor employees at any time from two years prior to the commencement of this lawsuit." (Id. at ¶ 52) Counts III, IV and V assert state law claims for breach of contract, quantum meruit, and unjust enrichment on behalf of a Missouri straight-wage class, defined as "[a]ll persons who were employed by [A]inomoto] at their Carthage, Missouri, or Piedmont, Missouri, facilities as production-floor employees at any time from five years prior to the commencement of this lawsuit." (Id. at ¶ 53)

         Plaintiff alleges that Ajinomoto's production-floor employees were required to don and doff protective gear and perform sanitary activities before and after leaving the production line and during their designated 30-minute lunch breaks. Plaintiff claims these requirements were integral and indispensable to the employees' work and, therefore, principal activities under the FLSA. Plaintiff further alleges that Ajinomoto's policy of not compensating employees for these activities denied them overtime compensation required by the FLSA. (Id. at ¶¶ 20-29) Ajinomoto denies the allegations. (Doc. No. 48)

         In his motion, Plaintiff requests the Court conditionally certify a collective action and authorize notice to the following class:

All persons who were employed by Ajinomoto Windsor, Inc. and/or Windsor Quality Foods at their Carthage, Missouri, or Piedmont, Missouri, facilities as production-floor employees at any time from three years prior to June 26, 2015, through the present, and who were not compensated at a rate of one and one half times their regular rate of pay for hours worked over forty (40) a week for time spent donning and doffing protective gear or equipment, performing sanitary activities such as washing hands and utilizing a foot sanitizer, and walking to or from these activities to the production-line floor.

         Ajinomoto opposes certification on the grounds that (1) Plaintiff has not demonstrated that he and the putative class members were subject to a common policy or plan to violate the FLSA (Doc. No. 50 at 3-6); (2) Plaintiff has not shown that the proposed class is comprised of similarly situated individuals (id. at 6-7); and (3) Plaintiff has not presented evidence that other similarly situated individuals desire to opt-in to this case (id. at 7-8). Alternatively, Defendants requests the Court narrow the proposed class to include only Piedmont line workers and amend Plaintiffs proposed notice. (Doc. No. 50 at 8-9)

         Legal Standard

         Section 7 of the FLSA mandates that an employer may not subject non-exempt employees to a work week in excess of forty hours, unless the employee is compensated for his or her overtime with additional pay of at least one and one-half times his or her regular hourly wage. 29 U.S.C. § 207. A collective action under the FLSA to recover overtime compensation and liquidated damages may be maintained, "by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Unlike a Rule 23 class action, a collective action under the FLSA is pursued on an "opt-in" basis, requiring employees to provide their consent in writing to join the action. Id; Ford v. Townsends of Arkansas. Inc., No. 4:08cv509, 2010 WL 1433455, at *8 (E.D. Ark. Apr. 9, 2010).

         The FLSA does not define the term "similarly situated." Kautsch v. Premier Communications, 504 F.Supp.2d 685, 689 (W.D. Mo. 2007). Moreover, the Eighth Circuit has not yet decided the standard for determining whether employees are "similarly situated." District courts in this circuit, however, consistently apply a two-step analysis to the question of conditional certification. See, e.g., Kennedy v. Boulevard Bank, No. 4:12CV40 JCH, 2012 WL 3637766, at *2 (E.D. Mo. August 22, 2012); Ondes v. Monsanto Co., No. 4:11CV197 JAR, 2011 WL 6152858, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Dec. 12, 2011); Perrin v. Papa John's Intern., Inc. . No. 4.-09CV1335 AGF, 2011 WL 4089251, at *2 (E.D. Mo. Sept. 14, 2011); Beasely v. GC Servs. LP, 270 F.R.D. 442, 444 (E.D. Mo. 2010); and Littlefield v. Dealer Warranty Servs.. LLC, 679 F.Supp.2d 1014, 1016 (E.D. Mo. 2010).

         Under this two-step process, the plaintiff first moves for class certification at an early stage in the litigation. Kautsch, 504 F.Supp.2d at 688. A plaintiffs burden when seeking conditional certification is not onerous and the merits of a plaintiffs claims are not considered. Id. Plaintiffs can meet this burden by making a modest factual showing, based upon the pleadings and affidavits, that the proposed class members were victims of a single decision, policy, or plan. Ondes, 2011 WL 6152858, at *3 (citations omitted). The plaintiff "need not show that members of the conditionally certified class are actually similarly situated." Dernovish v. AT&T Operations, Inc., No. 09-0015-CV-W-ODS, 2010 WL 143692, at *1 (W.D. Mo. Jan. 12, 2010) (internal quotations and citation omitted). The Court will not make any credibility determinations or findings of fact with respect to contradictory evidence presented by the parties at this initial stage. Perrin. 2011 WL 4089251, *3 (citing Luiken v. Domino's Pizza. LLC. No. 09-516 (DWF/AJB), 2010 WL 2545875, at *2 (D. Minn. June 21, 2010)). "Once the Court conditionally certifies the class, potential class members are given notice and the opportunity to opt-in." Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted).

         The second step of the process occurs when the defendant moves to decertify the class. Ford. 2010 WL 1433455, at *3; Beaslev, 270 F.R.D. at 444; Dernovish. 2010 WL 143692, at *1. This typically is done after the close of discovery, when the Court has much more information and is able to make a more informed decision. "If the claims are not similarly situated, the Court decertifies the class and the opt-in plaintiffs are dismissed without prejudice." Garner v. RegisCorp.. No. 03-5037, 2004 WL 5455905, at *2 (W.D. Mo. Aug. 5, 2004) ...


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