United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Statesboro Division
R. ALEXANDER ACOSTA, Secretary of Labor, United States Department of Labor, Plaintiff,
BLAND FARMS PRODUCTION & PACKAGING, LLC, Defendant.
RANDAL HALL, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT CHIEF JUDGE
case, Plaintiff, the United States Department of Labor
("DOL"), sued Bland Farms, alleging that Bland
Farms was not paying its packing-shed workers overtime wages
in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act
("FLSA"). This Court conducted a bench trial in
February of 2017, finding that the packing-shed workers did
not qualify as exempt employees and were therefore owed
overtime wages for the 2012 through 2017 seasons. This Court
also found that although Bland Farms reasonably relied on the
DOL's 1985 guidance regarding overtime payments, once the
DOL filed suit Bland Farms could no longer rely on the
DOL's prior advice. This Court therefore awarded
liquidated damages pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) in an
amount representing the time after the DOL sued during which
the workers were not paid overtime. Bland Farms appealed and
the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
affirmed this Court's finding that Bland Farms'
employees were not exempt from the FLSA's overtime rules
but vacated and remanded this Court's award of liquidated
damages. The Court of Appeals ruled that this Court should
have considered both Bland Farms' belief that it was in
compliance with the FLSA based on the DOL's initial
guidance and Bland Farms' separate belief that it was in
compliance with FLSA because of its control over the farmers
who grew the onions handled in the packing shed.
the foregoing, IT IS HEREBY ORDERED that the
mandate of the United States Court of Appeals for the
Eleventh Circuit is made the judgment of this Court. In
accordance therewith, the Court hereby
VACATES the portions of its prior Orders
(docs. 109, 119, 120) awarding liquidated damages. The
Court's analysis of Bland Farms' two good faith
belief arguments is set forth below.
U.S.C. § 216(b) requires courts to award liquidated
damages against employers who violate 29 U.S.C. § 207,
as Bland Farms did here. See Dybach v. Fla. Pep't of
Corr., 942 F.2d 1562, 1566-67 (11th Cir. 1991) (citing
EEOC v. First Citizens Bank, 758 F.2d 397, 403 (9th
Cir. 1985)). However, if the employer shows that it acted in
good faith and had reasonable grounds for believing it was
not violating the FLSA, the court has discretion to reduce
the amount of liquidated damages or award none at all. 29
U.S.C. § 260. "The employer bears the burden of
proof on this issue." Quarles v. Hamler, 652
Fed.Appx. 792, 794 (11th Cir. 2016).
issue of good faith and reasonable belief contains two
distinct parts: a subjective and an objective component.
Dybach, 942 F.2d at 1566. The subjective component
asks whether the employer honestly tried to ascertain what
the FLSA requires and to act in compliance with the
requirements. The objective component asks whether the
employer reasonably believed it complied with the FLSA. The
employer must establish both to succeed with a Section 260
defense. See Miller v. Garibaldi's Inc., No. CV
414-007, 2018 WL 1567856, at *5 (S.D. Ga. Mar. 30, 2018)
(citing Davila v. Menendez, 717 F.3d 1179, 1186
(11th Cir. 2013); Dybach, 942 F.2d at 1566).
Farms asserts two grounds in support of its good faith and
reasonable belief argument. First, it argues that it relied
on the DOI/ s letter. Second, it argues that it reasonably
believed it complied with the FLSA because of the control it
exercised over the contract farmers who grew the onions the
packing-shed employees handled.
the first argument, this Court earlier found that Bland Farms
acted in good faith and with reasonable belief that it
complied with the FLSA when it relied on the guidance letter
from the DOL, at least until the DOL filed the instant suit.
(Doc. 109, at 19-21.) At that point, Bland Farms'
reliance on the letter for assurance that it was in
compliance with the FLSA was no longer reasonable.
(Id. at 20.) This Court noted that Bland Farms
continued to believe that it complied with the FLSA
throughout the litigation. While this belief might satisfy
the subjective component, it could not satisfy the objective
component. Bland Farms should have known that the DOL no
longer agreed with the guidance in its 1985 letter, and
continued reliance thereon would not be objectively
reasonable. This Court awarded liquidated damages in an
amount representing the period that Bland Farms did not pay
overtime after the suit was filed because that was the time
that Bland Farms could no longer satisfy both the objective
and subjective components as required by 29 U.S.C. § 260
Court finds that the above rationale applies consonantly to
Bland Farms' second argument. Even assuming that Bland
Farms acted with subjective good faith and reasonable belief
that it was in compliance with the FLSA because it thought it
was the farmer of the onions, it could not satisfy the
objective component without further inquiry into the issue
once the DOL instituted this action.
good faith means the employer had reasonable grounds for
believing its conduct comported with the FLSA."
Friedman v. S. Fla. Psychiatric Assocs., Inc., 139
Fed.Appx. 183, 186 (11th Cir. 2005). Again, once the DOL
filed suit alleging that Bland Farms was not properly paying
overtime to its packing-shed workers, Bland Farms could no
longer reasonably believe that it was acting in compliance
with the FLSA without any renewed investigation into the
matter. One court has so found. In Johnson v. Big Lots
Stores, Inc., 604 F.Supp.2d 903, 926 (E.D. La. 2009),
the court found that the defendant had not demonstrated its
good faith in classifying the plaintiff as an exempt
employee. The court found that a lawsuit filed in another
district against the defendant put it "on notice"
that its classification of its employees may be incorrect.
Id. The Johnson defendant's failure to
investigate the accuracy of its classification once on notice
convinced the court that exempting the defendant from
liquidated damages was inappropriate. Id.; Cf.
Meeks v. Pasco Cty. Sheriff, 688 Fed.Appx. 714, 718
(11th Cir. 2017) (no good faith when "[defendant] (1)
was aware that the [DOL] was investigating [the] compensation
practice and (2) was familiar with a decision from [the
Eleventh Circuit] that called into question the legality of
the same reasoning to this case, Bland Farms was on notice
that its policy regarding its packing shed employees could be
incorrect and it should have at least reexamined the policy
once the DOL filed suit. There is nothing in the record to
indicate that it did so. Accordingly, the Court cannot find
that Bland Farms acted in good faith for the period following
the initiation of the suit. As to the period before suit was
filed, the Court has already found that Bland Farms acted
with subjective and objective good faith and reasonable
belief in its reliance on the 1985 letter, therefore the
Court need not consider these components with respect to
Bland Farms' independent belief that it complied with the
review, the Court reiterates its findings and conclusions
with respect to Bland Farms7 argument that it acted in good
faith and with reasonable belief in its reliance of the
DOL's 1985 letter. As to Bland Farms' argument that
it had a separate basis for believing it complied with FLSA,
the Court finds that regardless of what that basis was,
without reexamination thereof Bland Farms could not have
reasonably relied in objective good faith on that basis once
the DOL filed the instant suit alleging that the packing-shed
employees should be paid overtime. Because Bland Farms did
satisfy the objective and subjective components leading up to
the start of this lawsuit, the Court exercises its discretion
and awards no liquidated damages for the period before the
suit. Given the nature of the claims in the suit, once it was
filed, Bland Farms was aware that its overtime policies could
be incorrect. At that point, Bland Farms could no longer
justify its non-payment of overtime, be it in reliance on the
1985 letter or some other interpretation of the FLSA it had
formed prior to the notice.
even if Bland Farms had demonstrated its good faith under
Section 260, it would be within the Court's discretion to
award liquidated damages. See Quarles, 652 Fed.Appx.
at 7 95 ("Even if [defendant] had proved he acted in
good faith, the court still would have been within its
discretion to award liquidated damages."). Therefore,
the Court awards liquidated damages in the amounts listed
below, representing the period in which Bland Farms did not
satisfy the objective component of 29 U.S.C. § 260
following the institution of this suit.
light of the above findings and conclusions/ the amount of
liquidated damages awarded to Plaintiff should not change.
Therefore, the Court ORDERS as follows:
Clerk is instructed to ENTER JUDGMENT in
favor of Plaintiff and against Defendant Bland Farms in the
amount of $1, 480, 268.55, which represents the back wages
and liquidated damages owed for the ...