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Julian v. MetLife, Inc.

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 28, 2018

Debra Julian et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MetLife, Inc. et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION & ORDER

          ALISON J. NATHAN United States District Judge.

         Named Plaintiffs Debra Julian and Stephanie McKinney bring suit under the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-19, and the laws of Connecticut and New York, against their former employer, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. Currently before the Court is Plaintiffs' motion for conditional certification, disclosure of contact information, and court-authorized notice. Motion, Dkt. No. 34. Plaintiffs request that the Court conditionally certify a collective action comprising "all people employed by MetLife as Claim Specialists and Senior Claim Specialists who worked on long term disability insurance claims ('LTD Claim Specialists') at any time since February 8, 2014 (three years from the filing of the complaint in this action)." Memo, in Support of Motion ("Support"), Dkt. No. 39, at 3 (footnote omitted). For the following reasons, the Court grants the motion for conditional certification and orders the parties to confer and submit a joint proposed notice as described below.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Debra Julian and Stephanie McKinney formerly worked as LTD Claim Specialists for Metropolitan Life Insurance Company ("MetLife"). Second Amended Complaint ("SAC"), Dkt. No. 17, ¶¶ 1, 14-15. LTD Claim Specialists were tasked with gathering information from insured individuals claiming entitlement to long-term disability benefits and presenting this documentation to MetLife staff and supervisors to approve or deny the claims. SAC ¶ 26. Julian worked for MetLife in Oriskany, New York from 2004 to 2016 and served as an LTD Claim Specialist from 2011 through 2016. SAC ¶ 14. McKinney worked as an LTD Claim Specialist in MetLife's Bloomfield, Connecticut office from 2013 through 2016. SAC ¶ 15. Opt-in Plaintiff Tonya Gill worked as an LTD Claim Specialist from 2009 through 2014 out of MetLife's Chicago-area office. Gill Decl., Dkt. No. 37, ¶¶ 3-4.

         On February 8, 2017, Julian[1] filed a complaint against MetLife on behalf of herself and other current and former LTD Claim Specialists alleging that MetLife had improperly classified LTD Claim Specialists as exempt employees under the FLSA and had thus improperly denied LTD Claim Specialists overtime payments to which they were due. Complaint, Dkt. No. 1. Specifically, Plaintiffs point out that prior to November 2013, MetLife classified LTD Claim Specialists as hourly employees and paid them overtime under the FLSA. SAC ¶ 5. In November 2013, MetLife reclassified LTD Claim Specialists as "exempt" employees and ceased paying them overtime for hours they worked in excess of 40 hours per week. SAC ¶¶ 6-8. The Second Amended Complaint alleges that LTD Claim Specialists regularly work in excess of 40 hours (on average between 45 and 60 hours) without receiving overtime pay. SAC ¶¶ 28-32.

         On August 1, 2017, Plaintiffs moved for conditional certification of a collective action under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) and for court-approved distribution of notice. Motion. In support of their motion, the Plaintiffs each provided a declaration. See Julian Deck, Dkt. No. 35; McKinney Decl, Dkt. No. 36; Gill Decl. Plaintiffs also provided copies of certain MetLife documents, including sections of its Claims Management Guide, Dkt. Nos. 38-3, 38-8, 38-10, 38-11, 38-12, 38-13, 38-14, 38-15 (filed under seal); a training document for new hires, Dkt. No. 38-6 (filed under seal); a document entitled "Claim Review Milestones - Initial, " Dkt. No. 38-7 (filed under seal); documents regarding the long-term disability claim management process and decisional components, Dkt. No. 38-9 (filed under seal); and documents describing how long-term disability claims were transitioned to full disability, Dkt. No. 38-16 (filed under seal). Defendants opposed the motion for conditional certification, arguing that Plaintiffs have not established that they are "similarly situated" to members of the proposed class. See Memo, in Opp. ("Opp."), Dkt. No. 48, at 13-27. To support their opposition, Defendants filed numerous documents, including in part transcripts of depositions of the three Plaintiffs, Dkt. Nos. 49-2, 49-3, 49-4; a copy of MetLife's official job description for LTD Claim Specialists, Dkt. No. 49-5; several MetLife documents, Dkt. Nos. 49-11 to -20 (filed under seal); and declarations of 11 current MetLife LTD Claim Specialists attesting to their job duties, Dkt. Nos. 49-17 to -27.

         II. Legal Standard

         The FLSA authorizes workers to sue on behalf of both themselves and "other employees similarly situated." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). "District courts have discretion, in appropriate cases, to implement § 216(b) by facilitating notice to potential plaintiffs of the pendency of the action and of their opportunity to opt-in as represented plaintiffs." Vargas v. HSBC Bank USA, N.A., No. 11-cv-7887 (DAB), 2012 WL 10235792, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 9, 2012) (quoting Myers v. Hertz Corp., 624 F.3d 537, 554 (2d Cir. 2010)). Courts in this circuit apply a two-step method to determine whether a collective action should be certified. Myers, 624 F.3d at 554-55. "The first step involves the court making an initial determination to send notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs who may be 'similarly situated' to the named plaintiffs with respect to whether a FLSA violation has occurred." Id. at 555. At the second step, "the district court will, on a fuller record, determine whether a so-called 'collective action' may go forward by determining whether the plaintiffs who have opted in are in fact 'similarly situated' to the named plaintiffs." Id. If they are not, the action may be "de-certified, " and the opt-in plaintiffs' claims will be dismissed without prejudice. Id.

         At the first step, plaintiffs need only "make a 'modest factual showing' that they and potential opt-in plaintiffs 'together were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.'" Id. (quoting Hoffmann v. Sbarro, Inc., 982 F.Supp. 249, 261 (S.D.N.Y. 1997) (Sotomayor, J.)). While this showing "cannot be satisfied simply by 'unsupported assertions, '" it "should remain a low standard of proof because the purpose of the first stage is merely to determine whether 'similarly situated' plaintiffs do in fact exist." Id. (citation omitted); see also Lynch v. United Servs. Auto. Ass'n, 491 F.Supp.2d 357, 368 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) (describing plaintiffs' burden as "very low" and "minimal"). This standard is '"considerably less stringent' than the requirements for class certification under Rule 23." Poplawski v. Metroplex on the Ail., LLC, No. 11-cv-3765 (JBW), 2012 WL 1107711, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 2, 2012) (citation omitted). As a result, in a FLSA exemption case, plaintiffs need only make "some showing that 'there are other employees . . . who are similarly situated with respect to their job requirements and with regard to their pay provisions, ' on which the criteria for many FLSA exemptions are based, who are classified as exempt pursuant to a common policy or scheme." Myers, 624 F.3d at 555 (alteration in original) (citation omitted). In other words, "the Court must merely find some identifiable factual nexus which binds [Plaintiff] and potential class members together as victims of a particular practice." Alvarado Balderramo v. Taxi Tours Inc., No. 15-cv-2181 (ER), 2017 WL 2533508, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 9, 2017) (alteration in original) (citation omitted).

         To meet this low burden, "[t]he plaintiff may adduce evidence through its own pleadings, affidavits, and declarations, including any hearsay statements contained therein." Morris v. Lettire Constr. Corp., 896 F.Supp.2d 265, 269 (S.D.N.Y. 2012) (citation omitted). "[C]ourts in this circuit have routinely granted conditional collective certification based solely on the personal observations of one plaintiffs affidavit." Hernandez v. Bare Burger Dio Inc., No. 12-cv-7794 (RWS), 2013 WL 3199292, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. June 25, 2013) (collecting cases). At this initial stage, "the court does not resolve factual disputes, decide substantive issues going to the ultimate merits, or make credibility determinations." Cunningham v. Elec. Data Sys. Corp., 754 F.Supp.2d 638, 644 (S.D.N.Y. 2010) (quoting Lynch, 491 F.Supp.2d at 368). "Indeed, a court should not weigh the merits of the underlying claims in determining whether potential opt-in plaintiffs may be similarly situated." Lynch, 491 F.Supp.2d at 368; see also Hoffman, 982 F.Supp. at 262 ("[T]he Court need not evaluate the merits of plaintiffs' claims in order to determine that a definable group of 'similarly situated' plaintiffs can exist here."). As a result, "any factual variances that may exist between the plaintiff and the putative class do not defeat conditional class certification." Lynch, 491 F.Supp.2d at 369; see also Iglesias-Mendoza v. La Belle Farm, Inc., 239 F.R.D. 363, 368 (S.D.N.Y. 2007). Thus "courts in this Circuit routinely decline to consider . . . opposing declarations, because the issue for the Court is not whose evidence is more persuasive, but 'whether Plaintiffs have made the modest factual showing that they are required to make at this stage of the litigation.'" Vasto v. Credico (USA) LLC, No. 15-cv-9298 (PAE), 2016 WL 2658172, at *15 (S.D.N.Y. May 5, 2016) (citation omitted); see also Moore v. Publicis Groupe SA, No. 11-1279 (ALC), 2012 WL 2574742, at *11 (S.D.N.Y. June 28, 2012) ("While a large amount of discovery has been conducted, discovery remains incomplete. Defendants' arguments are more appropriate after discovery is finished.").

         III. Plaintiffs Have Sufficiently Shown That They Are "Similarly Situated" to the Proposed Class of Opt-In Plaintiffs

         The Court finds that the Plaintiffs have met their burden in showing that they are similarly situated to the proposed class of "all people employed by MetLife as Claim Specialists and Senior Claim Specialists who worked on long term disability insurance claims ... at any time since February 8, 2014." Support at 3. Through the robust evidence submitted with their motion, Plaintiffs have shown that LTD Claim Specialists performed similar job duties and were subject to the same policy reclassifying them in November 2013 as exempt from overtime payment under the FLSA as required by Myers. See 624 F.3d at 555.

         A. All LTD Claim Specialists Were Classified as Exempt from the FLSA Pursuant to a Common Policy

         It is undisputed that prior to November 2013, all LTD Claim Specialists were classified as hourly employees who were not exempt from overtime payment under the FLSA and that in November 2013, all LTD Claim Specialists were reclassified as exempt from the FLSA. See Support at 4 n.4, 9; Opp. at 15-16; see also Gill Decl. ¶¶ 8-13; Julian Decl. ¶¶ 8-13; McKinney Decl. ¶¶ 8-13. As a result, the Court finds that the Plaintiffs have demonstrated that the ...


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