Three years ago, in Morgan v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 551 F.3d 1233 (11th Cir. 2008), the Eleventh Circuit affirmed a large jury verdict in a collective action against the Family Dollar Store retail chain challenging the exempt status of its store managers. That victory, however, proved to be no guarantee of success in later litigation against the same or even similar employers.
In In Re Family Dollar FLSA Litigation.pdf, Case No. 09-2029 (4th Cir. Mar. 22, 2011), the plaintiff (Irene Grace), like the plaintiff in Morgan, had been the manager of a Family Dollar Store location. She filed suit in 2004. She contended, again like the plaintiff in Morgan, that she spent most of her time on nonexempt duties and that she should have been paid overtime wages. She was also represented by the same lawyers who had brought the Morgan lawsuit, and she asserted the same class-wide allegations. So far, sounds good for the plaintiff, but there her claim starts to fall apart.
Although Grace filed her action in the Middle District of Georgia (which lies within the Eleventh Circuit), it was transferred to the Western District of North Carolina where other litigation against the company was pending. That court denied conditional certification under section 16(b) of the FLSA, but 74 plaintiffs still filed opt-in forms. Following Grace’s deposition, the employer moved for summary judgment as to her claim, a motion the court granted.
The Fourth Circuit affirmed. It noted Grace’s claim that she spent over 95 percent of her time performing nonexempt duties such as handling freight, running a cash register, and doing janitorial work. She also, however, interviewed and evaluated employees, assigned work, and was generally responsible for ensuring that the store was profitable. The court found that the amount of time she spent on the allegedly non-exempt duties was not the critical factor for the reason that even while she was performing them she was engaged in managing the store. Thus, her primary duties satisfied the executive exemption.
Interestingly, the court cited, but refused to recognize the Morgan case as controlling. It found that Grace’s testimony, not that in Morgan, governed the case. It refused to assume that the two cases were factually identical.
As to the class issues, the court found no abuse of discretion in the denial of conditional certification given the variation in store size and manager responsibilities.
Incidentally, a different district court recently granted summary judgment in a similar case against rival Dollar General Stores. See In Re Dollar General Stores FLSA Litigation.pdf, Case No. 5:09-MD-1500-JG (E.D. N.C., Jan. 19, 2011) (concluding that store managers were exempt).
The Bottom Line: Cases turn on their own merits. That plaintiffs prevail on the class and merits issues in one case is no guarantee of a similar outcome in another.