CALIFORNIA – Eleven workers of Field Asset Services (FAS) won an award of more than $2 million in total damages after the California federal jury decided Monday (July 17, 2017) on the first of multiple class action trials involving 200 workers. Each of the 11 workers will receive between $150,000 and $200,000 on average. The case arose from the property servicing company’s misclassification of these workers as independent contractors, thus it did not reimburse the workers’ expenses and pay their overtime for years. (Bowerman et al. v. Field Asset Services Inc., case number 3:13-cv-00057, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern California).
According to attorney Jason T. Brown of the JTB Law Group employers have a prevalent scheme to evade paying workers overtime under the FLSA (Fair Labor Standard Act) and sometimes resort to classifying them as independent contractors to avoid the overtime premium and short the workers in other ways as well. Mr. Brown stated, “This is a tremendous victory for the workers and the Courts look to economic realities to see whether the workers are employees or independent contractors. If classified improperly this can trigger double damages plus attorney fees as well as other remedies.” Mr. Brown went on to indicate that although this case was not handled by his firm, he and the JTB Law Group handle and have handled similar matters in the past.
The award will restore certain benefits to the workers. On top of the awarded amount, it’s also likely that the workers might get additional restitution owing to FAS’ violation of unfair competition laws. The verdict is a reminder that the California laws’ imbue workers with significant protections and employers must comply with these laws.
The class action lawsuit began in January 2013 against FAS, a company that maintains and repairs foreclosed and real-estate-owned properties. The workers alleged that the company failed to pay their overtime and reimburse their work-related expenses simply because FAS misidentified them as independent contractors when actually they were employees.
Two years later, in January 2015, U.S. District Judge William H. Orrick certified a class of FAS independent contractors. It certified those who have worked for the company in California from January 2009 and did not work elsewhere for more than 30 percent of the time.
Against FAS’ bid to decertify the said class, Judge Orrick maintained the certification. He asserted that there was enough information to believe the workers are not independent contractors. Further, In March, he granted the workers a partial summary judgment. He ruled that FAS is liable for having failed to pay the workers overtime and business expenses. However, he left to the jury the decision on how much the workers should get in damages. Instead of proceeding to hold a single trial usually held in class suits, individualized jury trials were decided for this one. Olivier said that FAS objected to holding a single trial citing there would likely be wide discrepancies in the amounts in overtime and business expenses sought by each class member.
The workers agreed to hold individualized jury trials to determine how much money each is entitled to. It’s not a common move but Olivier said it’s safe to say “it’s absolutely an accepted and appropriate procedure.”
The first trial involving 11 workers began July 5. The workers testified before a jury that FAS threatened to cut their work assignments if they will not work for seven days a week. After hearing testimonies for nearly two weeks, the jury issued a verdict awarding each of the 11 workers a specific amount of damages totaling more than $2 million.
With the conclusion of the first trial, Olivier said the parties will return to Judge Orrick. The judge will decide how the rest of the damages trials will proceed. She said the court also hasn’t determined yet if the workers can refer to the $2 million verdict in the upcoming trials.