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Caseres v. S&R Management Company, LLC

United States District Court, Fourth Circuit

October 24, 2013



JILLYN K. SCHULZE, Magistrate Judge.

Presently pending is Defendant's Motion for Sanctions. ECF No. 44. The issues have been fully briefed and no hearing is necessary. For the reasons stated below, Defendant's motion will be denied.

I. Background

The following facts are borrowed in part from the court's August 5, 2013 memorandum opinion. ECF No. 41. Defendant S&R Management Company, LLC (S&R) manages various apartment buildings in the Washington, D.C. area. Plaintiff Jaime Caseres began working for S&R as a maintenance worker around October 2006. His assigned work shift lasted from 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, with a half-hour unpaid lunch break. Plaintiff's direct supervisor was Mr. Bill Beavers. Beavers, in turn, reported to Ms. Jill Matthews, S&R's property manager. Beavers maintained the biweekly timesheets for S&R's maintenance workers, including Plaintiff, and submitted them to Matthews every two weeks.

According to Plaintiff, about three days a week, he worked at the properties until 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. However, no one at S&R ever told Plaintiff that he was required to work past 3:30 p.m., nor did Plaintiff ever directly or formally complain to Beavers or Matthews about the extra hours he allegedly worked.

Plaintiff often worked alongside Mr. German Villanueva. Plaintiff admits that Villanueva was a maintenance worker just like he was, but also claims that he was "in charge" and had a supervisory role. S&R acknowledges that prior to 2009, Villanueva would sometimes assist other maintenance workers with preparing timesheets, but this practice ceased in 2009. In 2007, Plaintiff raised the issue of overtime pay with Villanueva. Villanueva told Plaintiff that he had raised the issue with Matthews, who told Villanueva that Plaintiff would not be paid overtime. Plaintiff also alleges that on occasion Beavers worked with him past 3:30 p.m. to change water heaters at one of the properties. Plaintiff cannot recall the precise dates or the amount of overtime worked with Beavers, but believes this occurred in 2009 or 2010.

Plaintiff filed suit on May 3, 2012, alleging that Defendant failed to pay him overtime wages from 2006 through 2012 in violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Maryland Wage and Hour Law (MWHL), and the Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law (MWPCL). Because of the applicable statutes of limitations, any claims accruing prior to May 3, 2009 were time barred.

II. Standard of Review

Defendant seeks sanctions under 28 U.S.C. § 1927, which states:

Any attorney or other person admitted to conduct cases in any court of the United States or any Territory thereof who so multiplies the proceedings in any case unreasonably and vexatiously may be required by the court to satisfy personally the excess costs, expenses, and attorneys' fees reasonably incurred because of such conduct.

The Supreme Court has recognized that section 1927 "does not distinguish between winners and losers, or between plaintiffs and defendants." Roadway Express, Inc. v. Piper, 447 U.S. 752, 762 (1980). Moreover, "[t]he statute is indifferent to the equities of a dispute and to the values advanced by the substantive law." Id. Instead, the statute is "concerned only with limiting the abuse of court processes." Id. "For this reason, a court considering the propriety of a § 1927 award must focus on the conduct of the litigation and not on its merits.'" Salvin v. Am. Nat'l Ins. Co., 281 F.App'x 222, 225 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting DeBauche v. Trani, 191 F.3d 499, 511 (4th Cir. 1999)).

In the Fourth Circuit a court must find bad faith by counsel in order to impose sanctions under section 1927. E.E.O.C. v. Great Steaks, Inc., 667 F.3d 510, 522 (4th Cir. 2012). A district court may find bad faith "when the attorney's actions are so completely without merit as to require the conclusion that they must have been taken for some improper purpose such as delay." Shank v. Eagle Techs., Inc., No. RWT 10-2231, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 115454, 4-6 (D. Md. Aug. 15, 2013) (citations and quotation marks omitted). "Section 1927 was intended to sanction conduct Rule 11 does not reach; i.e., protracting or multiplying the litigation to run up the opposing party's costs, remedied by awarding excess attorneys' fees and costs." Bakker v. Grutman, 942 F.2d 236, 242 (4th Cir. 1991). Finally, a district court may not impose a monetary sanction, including under section 1927, without considering the attorney's ability to pay. Salvin, 281 F.App'x at 226.

Defendant also seeks sanctions under the court's inherent powers. "The district court has the inherent authority to impose sanctions against a party who has acted in bad faith, vexatiously, wantonly, or for oppressive reasons." Thomas v. Ford Motor Co., 244 F.App'x 535, 538 (4th Cir. 2007) (quotation marks and citation omitted). Thus, under either theory, counsel must have acted in bad faith.

III. Discussion

Defendant claims that sanctions are warranted because (1) it was clear at the end of Plaintiff's March 5, 2013 deposition that Plaintiff had no evidence to support his claim; (2) Plaintiff unnecessarily requested an extension of the discovery deadline; and (3) Plaintiff refused to tailor his claim to the applicable limitations period. ECF No. 44-1 at 9-11.

The FLSA requires employers to pay overtime at a rate not less than one and one-half times the regular rate if the employee works in excess of 40 hours in a workweek. 29 U.S.C. § 207(a)(2). "In order to be liable for overtime wages under the FLSA, an employer must have knowledge, either actual or constructive, of [that] overtime work.'" Bailey v. County of Georgetown, 94 F.3d 152, 157 (4th Cir. 1996) (quoting Davis v. Food Lion, 792 F.2d 1274, 1276 (4th Cir. 1986)). Thus, to pursue this claim in good faith, Plaintiff's counsel needed evidence that a supervisory agent at S&R had constructive knowledge of Plaintiff's overtime work after May 3, 2009. Again, Plaintiff's assigned work hours were Monday through Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., but according to Plaintiff, about three days a week, he stayed at the properties and worked until 5:00 or 5:30 p.m. ECF No. 46-1 at 16; Caseres Dep. 89:12-15, March 5, 2013. At Plaintiff's deposition, he gave the following testimony in response to defense counsel's questions:

Q: Did you tell any supervisors you were [working late]?
A: One time I tried to charge for it, and I was told that I was not ...

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