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Johnson v. Heartland Dental, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland

May 23, 2017

RONICA JOHNSON, et al., Plaintiffs
v.
HEARTLAND DENTAL, LLC Defendant

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          PETER J. MESSITTE, UNITED STATED DISTRTICT

         Ronica Johnson, Rachel Lockwood, and Shaketa Robinson (''Plaintiffs") have brought this suit against Heartland Dental. LLC ("Heartland"), alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201, et seq. Plaintiffs have each accepted offers of judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 68, which the parties now ask the Court to approve.[1]

         For the reasons that follow, the Court finds that the accepted offers of judgment constitute a fair and reasonable resolution of a bona fide dispute and the requested attorneys fees are reasonable. The Court therefore GRANTS the Joint Motion for Approval of the Acceptance of Offers of Judgment and Award of Attorney's Fees and Costs, ECF No. 27, and DISMISSES WITH PREJUDICE the Complaint, ECF No. 1.

         I. Factual and Procedural Background

         Heartland is a large dental support organization that provides staff and other services to dental offices in 33 states. ECF No. 12 ¶ 7. Johnson worked for Heartland as a salaried office manager and was assigned to a dental office in Mitchellville, Maryland from approximately June 2014 until May 2016. ECF No. 27-4 ¶ 4.

         Johnson filed a Complaint on June 16, 2016 that included a collective action claim under the FLSA on behalf of "[a] 11 individuals who worked as salaried Office Managers for Defendant and were classified as exempt from the FLSA since June 16, 2013, " id. ¶ 21, alleging that salaried office managers regularly worked more than 40 hours per week and were improperly classified as exempt from overtime premium payment, unlike hourly office managers who, she claims, performed essentially the same function. Id. ¶15, 16.

         Lockwood joined the suit on June 30, 2016, ECF No. 4, and Robinson joined the suit on October 3, 2016, ECF No. 13. On November 10, 2016, the parties notified the Court that Johnson had accepted an offer of judgment of $17, 382.00, ECF No. 17 at 3 and Lockwood had accepted an offer of judgment of $8, 208.13, id., pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 68. Parties notified the Court that Robinson had also accepted an offer of judgment of $2, 500.00 on November 23, 2016, ECF 20 at 1, after rejecting the first offer presented to her by Heartland. The offers of judgment did not contain any admissions of liability.

         On December 4, 2016, Heartland filed a Consent Motion to Enter Judgment Under Rule 68. ECF No. 21.[2]The Court responded in a Memorandum Order dated February 23, 2017, finding that in the FLSA context, Rule 68 offers of judgment must be reviewed as if they were settlements and asking the parties to submit the appropriate materials so that the Court could make an evaluation. ECF No. 25.

         On March 10, 2017, parties filed a Joint Motion for Approval of the Acceptance of Offers of Judgment and Award of Attorney's Fees and Costs. ECF No. 27.

         II. Standard of Review

         Congress enacted the FLSA to protect workers from the poor wages and long hours that may result from the significant inequalities in bargaining power between employers and employees. To that end, the statute's provisions are mandatory and generally not subject to bargaining, waiver, or modification by contract or settlement. See Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O'Neil. 324 U.S. 697, 706 (1945). Court-approved settlement is an exception to that rule, "provided that the settlement reflects a 'reasonable compromise of disputed issues' rather than 'a mere waiver of statutory rights brought about by an employer's overreaching.'" Saman v. LBDP, Inc., DKC-12-1083, 2013 WL 2949047, at *2 (D. Md. June 13, 2013) (quoting Lynn's Food Stores. Inc. v. United States, 679 F.2d 1350, 1354 (11th Cir. 1982)).

         In reviewing FLSA settlements for approval, "district courts in this circuit typically employ the considerations set forth by the Eleventh Circuit in Lynn's Food Stores." Beam v. Dillon's Bus Serv., Inc., No. DKC 14-3838, 2015 WL 4065036, at *3 (D. Md. July 1, 2015) (citing Hoffman v. First Student, Inc., No. WDQ-06-1882, 2010 WL 1176641, at *2 (D. Md. Mar. 23, 2010)); Lopez v. NTI, LLC, 748 F.Supp.2d 471, 478 (D. Md. 2010)). The settlement must reflect a "fair and reasonable resolution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions." Beam, 2015 WL 4065036, at *3 (quoting Lynn's Food Stores, Inc. v. U.S. By & Through U.S. Dep't of Labor, Employment Standards Admin., Wage & Hour Div., 679 F.2d 1350, 1355 (11th Cir. 1982)). The court considers (1) whether there are FLSA issues actually in dispute, (2) the fairness and reasonableness of the settlement, and (3) the reasonableness of the attorneys' fees, if included in the agreement. Id.

         III. Bona Fide Dispute

         In deciding whether a bona fide dispute exists as to a defendant's liability under the FLSA. the court examines the pleadings in the case, along with the representations and recitals in the proposed ...


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