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Campbell v. System Dynamics International, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

September 5, 2018

JONATHAN CAMPBELL and EDGAR HERNANDEZ, Plaintiffs,
v.
SYSTEM DYNAMICS INTERNATIONAL, INC., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          R. DAVID PROCTOR, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter is before the court on Plaintiffs' amended motion to conditionally certify this case as a collective action. (Doc. # 21). Jonathan Campbell and Edgar Hernandez (“Plaintiffs”) claim their employer violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) by failing to pay them for overtime hours at the required time-and-a-half rate. They now seek to conditionally certify a collective action of other similarly situated employees pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Plaintiffs' employer, System Dynamics International, Inc. (“SDI”) agrees that conditional certification is appropriate but contests the scope of Plaintiffs' proposed class. After careful consideration, the court agrees with SDI that Plaintiffs' proposed class is too broad and that it should conditionally certify a narrower class of employees, as explained more fully below.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs are two former employees of SDI, a private military subcontractor that supplies drone pilots to fly Army drones. (Doc. # 1 at ¶¶ 16, 19; Doc. # 23 at 3). In military parlance, and within the nomenclature of SDI, drone pilots are known as Air Vehicle Operators (“AVOs”). (Doc. # 23 at 3). Their primary function is to operate military drones from a ground control station. (Id. at 4).

         Over the past three years, SDI has employed several dozen AVOs. (Doc. # 21 at 7; Doc. # 23 at 3). When AVOs are first hired by SDI, they undergo a training period of approximately 14 to 16 weeks at various sites throughout the United States. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 43). During stateside training, AVOs sometimes work more than 40 hours per week. (Doc. # 9 at ¶¶ 48, 49). After completing training, the AVOs are flown to the Continental United States Replacement Center (“CRC”) at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas for processing by the military before they deploy overseas. (Doc. # 1 at ¶ 61). Following the one-week processing at the CRC, the AVOs serve on deployments overseas. (Id. at ¶ 63). At the end of their deployments, the AVOs are flown back to the United States, where they undergo out-processing at the CRC. (Id. at ¶ 64).

         In this lawsuit, Plaintiffs claim that SDI violated the FLSA by misclassifying AVOs as exempt from the Act's overtime requirements and failing to pay its AVOs at the required time-and-a-half rate for overtime hours worked while stateside.[1] (Id. at ¶¶ 73, 78, 81). SDI acknowledges that, prior to January 1, 2017, it classified AVOs as exempt from the FLSA's overtime requirements. (Doc. # 23 at 5). It did so based on its belief that AVOs meet the “highly compensated employee” exemption of 29 C.F.R. § 541.601. (Id.). But in 2017, SDI changed its policy. Effective January 1, 2017, SDI classified AVOs as nonexempt and began paying them a time-and-a-half premium for overtime hours based on the Department of Labor's 2016 decision to raise the minimum compensation for a highly compensated employee. (Id.). Plaintiffs now move the court to conditionally certify a collective action consisting of all AVOs employed by SDI at any point during the FLSA's three-year limitations period for willful violations of the Act, 29 U.S.C. § 255(a). (Doc. # 25 at 9-10).

         II. Analysis

         The FLSA permits an employee to maintain a collective action against an employer on behalf of himself “and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Eleventh Circuit has structured a two-step process for determining whether an FLSA case may proceed as a collective action. See Hipp v. Liberty Nat. Life Ins. Co., 252 F.3d 1208, 1219 (11th Cir. 2001). The first step occurs early in the litigation and requires the district court to determine “whether notice of the action should be given to potential class members” so that they can decide whether to opt in to the lawsuit. Id. at 1218. Before facilitating notice, a district court must satisfy itself that there are other employees who (1) desire to opt in to the lawsuit and (2) are similarly situated with respect to both their job responsibilities and their pay provisions. Morgan v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 551 F.3d 1233, 1259 (11th Cir. 2008). The Eleventh Circuit has described the standard for determining whether employees are similarly situated at this stage as “fairly lenient, ” Anderson v. Cagle's, Inc., 488 F.3d 945, 953 (11th Cir. 2007), but has made clear that the determination must rest on more than “counsel's unsupported assertions, ” Morgan, 551 F.3d at 1261. Because the certification decision is made early in the litigation, it is “usually based only on the pleadings and any affidavits which have been submitted.” Hipp, 252 F.3d at 1218.

         The first step is known as “conditional certification” because the decision to certify a collective action can be reconsidered in the second step, after the close of discovery. See Morgan, 551 F.3d at 1261. This second step is “triggered by an employer's motion for decertification.” Id. Because discovery will have concluded by the time of the decertification motion, the district court is now better positioned to resolve any factual disputes concerning whether the class members are similarly situated. Id. Consequently, the second step is “less lenient, and the plaintiff bears a heavier burden” in showing that the class members are in fact similarly situated. Id.

         The parties agree that certification of a conditional class is appropriate in this case. (Doc. # 23 at 3). But they disagree about the scope of the class and the appropriate manner of providing notice to potential class members of their right to join this collective action. Accordingly, the court addresses each of these issues in turn.

         A. The Scope of the Class

         Plaintiffs contend that because SDI treats all AVOs similarly with respect to their job duties and pay practices, the conditional class should encompass all AVOs who worked for SDI at any point during the FLSA's three-year limitations period for willful violations. (Doc. # 25 at 4-5). SDI counters that the class should include only those AVOs who both worked for SDI during the three-year limitations period[2] and were hired before January 1, 2017, when SDI began paying AVOs time-and-a-half for any overtime worked. (Doc. # 23 at 8).

         At the conditional certification stage, Plaintiffs “bear the burden of demonstrating a reasonable basis” for their claim that AVOs were subject to a common illegal pay policy. Grayson v. K Mart Corp., 79 F.3d 1086, 1097 (11th Cir. 1996) (internal quotation marks omitted). That burden “is not heavy, ” and Plaintiffs may carry it by making “detailed allegations” that AVOs were subject to a common illegal pay policy. Id. Plaintiffs need not conclusively establish their allegations at this point; rather, their allegations need only be “supported by affidavits which successfully engage defendants' affidavits to the contrary.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

         The parties disagree about the scope of the proposed class in three ...


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