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Chowdhury v. Duane Reade

October 2, 2007

ENAMUL CHOWDHURY, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFF,
v.
DUANE READE, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Gerard E. Lynch, District Judge

OPINION AND ORDER

In this action brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), plaintiff moves for court-authorized notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The motion will be granted.

BACKGROUND

On March 24, 2006, plaintiff Enamul Chowdury brought suit on behalf of himself and others similarly situated against his former employer, Duane Reade ("defendants" or "Duane Reade"), alleging principally that Duane Reade had failed to pay overtime wages to daytime and evening assistant store managers in accordance with the FLSA and New York State law. See 29 U.S.C. § 207; N.Y. Lab. Law § 650 et seq.*fn1 Plaintiff worked for approximately twenty months as an assistant daytime and evening store manager at one of Duane Reade's retail drugstores in the New York City metropolitan area. (Compl. ¶ 25.) Despite being designated an assistant "manager," plaintiff claims "[h]is duties did not include managerial responsibilities or the exercise of independent judgment" at the store (id. ¶ 27), and that Duane Reade employed the term "assistant manager" in an effort to evade overtime requirements under FLSA's "bona fide executive" exemption for salaried managerial employees. (Pl. Mem. 1.) See 29 U.S.C. § 213(a).

According to plaintiff, shortly after filing his complaint, he learned of another case pending before this Court alleging virtually identical claims against defendants. See Damassia v. Duane Reade, Inc., 04 Civ. 8819 (GEL). Like Chowdury, the Damassia plaintiffs allege that Duane Reade has failed to pay overtime wages to assistant store managers in accordance with FLSA and New York State law. Also like Chowdury, the Damassia plaintiffs allege that Duane Reade has relied on the "bona fide executive" exemption to justify that failure. The sole difference between the Damassia plaintiffs' claims and Chowdury's claims is that Chowdury alleges the denial of overtime pay to daytime and evening assistant store managers, while the Damassia plaintiffs allege the denial of overtime pay to overnight assistant store managers. In every other respect, the collective claims in the two cases are identical. (Compare Compl. ¶¶ 27-28, with Damassia v. Duane Reade, Inc., No. 04 Civ. 8819, 2006 WL 2853971, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 5, 2006).)

Considering the virtually identical nature of the collective claims, plaintiff moved to have his case transferred to this Court and consolidated with Damassia. The case was transferred to this Court, but finding consolidation to be premature, the Court denied plaintiff's motion to consolidate without prejudice to renewal in the future. (Order of the Court, Nov. 20, 2006, at 1.) However, considering the virtually identical nature of the collective claims in the two cases, the Court ordered that discovery and other pre-trial matters in the cases be conducted jointly. (Id. at 2.)

At approximately the same time plaintiff filed his complaint initiating this action, the Damassia plaintiffs moved for court-authorized notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs pursuant to § 216(b). On October 5, 2006, the Court granted the Damassia plaintiffs' motion. Damassia, 2006 WL 2853971, at *8. The Court found that "[p]laintiffs' affidavits and allegations, taken together with defendant's admissions, more than suffice[d]" to establish that the Damassia plaintiffs were similarly situated to each other for purposes of satisfying the "minimal" showing required by § 216(b). Id. at *4. In so finding, the Court rejected defendant's attempts to distinguish among the potential plaintiffs by drawing irrelevant distinctions between them with respect to their "abilities and competence." Id. at *6. The Court posited that "[o]n defendant's logic, no group of opt-in plaintiffs would ever be 'similarly situated' unless they were clones of one another working in completely identical stores, in identical neighborhoods, with identical clientele." Id.

Although they allege virtually identical collective claims, because Damassia and Chowdury remain technically separate cases, the opt-in notice approved by the Court in Damassia did not also result in the approval of opt-in notice to potential plaintiffs in this case. Thus, on April 16, 2007, plaintiff filed the instant motion seeking court-authorized notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs who qualify as daytime and evening assistant store managers, the same notice granted by the Court in Damassia with respect to overnight assistant store managers. Between April 11 and June 21, 2007, approximately thirteen individuals who had worked as assistant daytime and evening store managers filed forms with the Court consenting to be party plaintiffs pursuant to FLSA's opt-in provision.*fn2 Defendants responded to the motion on June 15, 2007; the motion was fully briefed as of July 6, 2007.

DISCUSSION

I. Collective Actions and Court-Authorized Notice

While an understanding of the "bona fide executive" exemption may be "helpful in analyzing plaintiff['s] motion for court-authorized notice," it is well-established that "the merits of plaintiff['s] claims need not be resolved at this stage." Damassia, 2006 WL 2853971, at *2. See Scholtisek v. Eldre Corp., 229 F.R.D. 381, 387 (W.D.N.Y. 2005); Gjurovich v. Emmanuel's Marketplace, Inc., 282 F. Supp. 2d 101, 103-04 (S.D.N.Y. 2003); Hoffman v. Sbarro, Inc., 982 F. Supp. 249, 260-61 (S.D.N.Y. 1997). Moreover, the elements of the exemption were carefully laid out in Damassia, and do not require repetition here. See Damassia, 2006 WL 2853971, at *2. The only relevant inquiry here is whether plaintiff is similarly situated to the potential opt-in plaintiffs.

The FLSA allows employees to sue on behalf of themselves and other employees who are "similarly situated." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The similarly-situated employees may "opt in" to the lawsuit and become party plaintiffs by filing a written consent with the court. See Masson v. Ecolab, Inc., No. 04 Civ. 4488, 2005 WL 2000133, at *13 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 17, 2005). In a collective action under FLSA - unlike in a class action under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 - only plaintiffs who affirmatively opt in can benefit from the judgment or be bound by it. Gjurovich, 282 F. Supp. 2d at 103-04; see Hoffman-La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165 (1989); Braunstein v. E. Photographic Labs., Inc., 600 F.2d 335 (2d Cir. 1979). When a court certifies a collective action, it may require an employer to disclose the names and addresses of potential plaintiffs. See Patton v. Thomson Corp., 364 F. Supp. 2d 263, 266 (E.D.N.Y. 2005).

"Courts in this circuit and elsewhere have held that a court may authorize notice - and certify a collective action - if the court makes a 'preliminary determination' that potential optin plaintiffs are 'similarly situated' to the named plaintiffs." Damassia, 2006 WL 2853971, at *3, citing Patton, 364 F. Supp. 2d at 267; see Trezvant v. Fidelity Employer Servs. Corp., 434 F. Supp. 2d 40, 43 (D. Mass. 2006); Sbarro, 982 F. Supp. at 261; cf. Hipp v. Liberty Nat. Life Ins. Co., 252 F.3d 1208, 1217 (11th Cir. 2001) ("[P]laintiffs need show only that their positions are similar, not identical, to the positions held by the putative class members.") (alteration in original) (citation and internal quotation marks omitted). See, e.g., Gjurovich, 282 F. Supp. 2d at 104 ("[I]t is 'well settled' that district courts have the power to authorize an FLSA plaintiff to send such notice."), quoting Sbarro, 982 F. Supp. at 260 (additional citations and internal quotation marks omitted). While this normally requires a "modest factual showing" that the plaintiff and the potential plaintiffs were victims of a common policy or plan violating FLSA, Gjurovich, 282 F. Supp. 2d at 104 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted), "it may be appropriate in some cases to find plaintiffs and potential plaintiffs similarly situated based simply on plaintiffs' 'substantial allegations' that they and potential plaintiffs were common victims of a FLSA violation, particularly where defendants have admitted that the actions challenged by plaintiffs reflect a company-wide policy." Damassia, 2006 WL 2853971, at *3, quoting Ayers v. SGS Control Servs., Inc., No. 03 Civ. 9078, 2004 WL 2978296, at *5 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 21, 2004); see Rodolico v. Unisys Corp., 199 F.R.D. 468, 480 (E.D.N.Y. 2001). In either case, a plaintiff's burden at this preliminary stage is "minimal." Damassia, 2006 WL 2853971, at *3; see id. (listing cases).

Defendants argue that, "[w]hen there has been substantial discovery prior to" the filing of a § 216(b) motion, a higher level of scrutiny should apply to the § 216(b) determination. (Defs. Mem. 5; see id. at 6, citing Torres v. Gristede's Operating Corp., No. 04 Civ. 3316, 2006 WL 2819730, at *6 (S.D.N.Y. Sept. 29, 2006).) Specifically, defendants argue that, because they have already deposed several of the opt-in plaintiffs, the Court should "conduct a detailed factual analysis of the individual duties and responsibilities of the Plaintiff and the potential opt-in plaintiffs to determine whether the action may proceed as a collective action." (Id. at 5 (emphasis added).) Defendants made a similar argument in Damassia, in which they argued that "the [C]court should skip the initial [§ 216(b)] inquiry, reasoning that discovery has already provided sufficient evidence to justify a final determination that plaintiffs are not similarly situated." 2006 WL 2853971, at *4. However, defendants disavow the notion that their argument in this case is identical to the one they made in Damassia, contending that, while in Damassia they argued that the Court should "skip" the § ...


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