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Christy Brown, Also Known As "Leah," Individually and On Behalf of Herself and v. Mustang Sally's Spirits and Grill

October 5, 2012

CHRISTY BROWN, ALSO KNOWN AS "LEAH," INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF HERSELF AND ALL OTHERS SIMILARLY SITUATED, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
MUSTANG SALLY'S SPIRITS AND GRILL, INC., D/B/A/ TIFFANY'S CABARET & STEAKHOUSE AND TIFFANY'S CABARET, DAVID SCRIVANI, DOMINIC L. SCRIVANI, AND JOHN DOES 1-10, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: William M. Skretny Chief Judge United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Christy Brown on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, commenced this collective action pursuant to the Federal Labor Standards Act ("FLSA") and putative class action pursuant to New York State Labor Law seeking damages due to Defendants' alleged failure to comply with these laws. Plaintiffs now move this Court for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction restraining Defendants from "making any further threats or other communications that risk chilling putative class members' participation in this action."*fn1 The Court has considered the parties' submissions and finds oral argument unnecessary. For the reasons that follow, Plaintiffs' motion is granted in part and otherwise denied.

II. BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Christy Brown commenced this action in June 2012 on behalf of herself and other similarly situated dancers who worked at Defendants' night clubs in the three years prior to the filing of the case. (Compl. ¶¶ 18, 32.) Defendants' alleged violations are based on their purported misclassification of employee dancers as non-employees in order to evade the minimum wage and similar requirements of FLSA and New York law. (Id. ¶ 1.) The complaint alleges that Defendants failed to pay dancers in compliance with minimum wage and overtime requirements; failed to reimburse dancers for the uniforms that they were required by Defendants to wear; and failed to keep accurate employment records in violation of both FLSA and New York Labor Law. (Id. ¶¶ 57-102, 117-130.) It is also alleged that Defendants further violated New York Labor Law by failing to pay dancers 'spread-of-hours' pay and by improperly retaining part of the gratuities received by dancers. (Id. 103-106.)

In compliance with FLSA's requirement that an employee wishing to join in a collective action give his or her consent in writing, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), Alicia Guastaferro filed her consent to become a party plaintiff on July 20, 2012. (Docket No. 12.) According to Guastaferro, she received a series of communications around that time from her estranged husband, purportedly at the behest of Defendant David Scrivani, which Plaintiffs interpret as an attempt to dissuade Guastaferro's participation in the lawsuit. (Decl. of Alicia Guastaferro ¶¶ 5, 8-17, Docket No. 18-4.) Plaintiffs' counsel asserts that during his discussion with defense counsel, he was informed that "if Plaintiffs recovered in this matter, Defendant would be required to report any tip income Plaintiffs had received to the tax authorities and that Plaintiffs could incur substantial tax liability." (Decl. of Michael J.D. Sweeney, Esq., ¶ 2, Docket No. 18-5.)

As a result of these communications, Plaintiffs now "seek an order restraining Defendants and their agents from making threats or any other communications designed to chill participation in this lawsuit." (Pls' Mem of Law, Docket No. 18-1 at 1.) Specifically, Plaintiffs request that this Court: (1) order expedited discovery regarding defendants' communication with putative or current class members; (2) order defense counsel to "fully disclose whether it had any role in [such] communications;" (3) "[e]njoin any effort by Defendants or their counsel to chill participation in this case, including prohibiting any further communication concerning joining the case, except as approved by the Court;" (4) and "[e]njoin retaliation by Defendants against any individual participating in this case." (Pls Mem of Law at 13-14.) Plaintiffs also make requests regarding the equitable tolling of the FLSA statute of limitations, the circumstances under which any putative class member excludes him- or herself from the class action, and the ability for individuals to join the action post-judgment. These last arguments are unsupported by legal argument, and will not be considered at this time.

III. DISCUSSION

Courts have the authority in both Rule 23 class actions and FLSA collective actions (29 U.S.C. § 216(b)) to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and parties. Hoffmann--La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170-71, 110 S. Ct. 482, 107 L. Ed. 2d 480 (1989); Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 99-100, 101 S. Ct. 2193, 68 L. Ed. 2d 693 (1981); Belt v. Emcare, Inc., 299 F. Supp. 2d 664, 667 (E.D.Tex. 2003). This supervisory authority exists even before a class is certified. In re Initial Public Offering Sec. Litig., 499 F. Supp. 2d 415, 418 n. 13 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) (citing In re Currency Conversion Fee Antitrust Litig., 361 F. Supp. 2d 237, 252-53 (S.D.N.Y. 2005)). The "primary purpose in supervising communications is . . . to ensure that potential members receive accurate and impartial information regarding the status, purposes and effects of the class action." Hinds County, Miss. v. Wachovia Bank N.A., 790 F. Supp. 2d 125, 134 (S.D.N.Y. 2011) (citing Kleiner v. First Nat'l Bank of Atlanta, 751 F.2d 1193, 1203 (11th Cir. 1985)).

Notably, "[u]pon class certification, the rules governing communications with class members are heightened because they apply as though each class member is a client of the class counsel." Gortat v. Capala Bros., Inc., No. 07-CV-3629, 2010 WL 1879922, *2 (E.D.N.Y. May 10, 2010)(quotation marks and citation omitted), objections overruled 2010 WL 3417847 (Aug. 27, 2010); see Tedesco v. Mishkin, 629 F. Supp. 1474, 1483 (S.D.N.Y. 1986). Contrary to Plaintiff's assertion, however, there is nothing inherently improper about a party's communication with potential class members prior to certification, as is the case here.*fn2

Both parties need to be able to communicate with putative class members-if only to engage in discovery regarding issues relevant to class certification-from the earliest stages of class litigation. Furthermore, named plaintiffs and their counsel do not always act in the best interests of absent class members, and not all defendants and defense counsel engage in abusive tactics. District courts thus must not interfere with any party's ability to communicate freely with putative class members, unless there is a specific reason to believe that such interference is necessary.

Austen v. Catterton Partners, 831 F.Supp.2d 559, 567 (D. Conn. 2011) (emphasis in original). Indeed, even "ex parte communications between defense counsel and putative class members-even ex parte settlement negotiations-are not abusive communications that warrant limitations absent indications in the record of the need for limitations." Austen, 831 F.Supp.2d at 565; see Christensen v. Kiewit-Murdock Inv. Corp., 815 F.2d 206, 213 (2d Cir. 1987), cert denied 484 U.S. 908 (1987) (no impropriety in defendants' negotiation of settlements with potential members of a class); Urtubia v. B.A. Victory Corp., -- F.Supp.2d --, 2012 WL 753760, *7 (S.D.N.Y. 2012)(noting "[d]efendants' right to communicate directly with current and former employees who are potential class members regarding this litigation and its subject matter").

Intervention is warranted, however, where such communications are found to be misleading or coercive, as such communication poses "a serious threat to the fairness of the litigation process, the adequacy of representation and the administration of justice generally." In re School Asbestol Litig., 842 F.2d 671, 680 (3d Cir. 1988). Where defendants are also the employers of potential class action plaintiffs, the "workplace relationship with current employees, and their knowledge of sensitive information about current and former employees, put them in a position to exercise strong coercion in connection with potential class members' decisions regarding participation in [the] litigation." Urtubia, 2012 WL 753760 at *7. Thus, "when a defendant is in an ongoing, current business relationship with members of a putative class, for ...


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