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Morrison v. Crabs On Deck, LLC

United States District Court, D. Maryland, Southern Division

October 19, 2018

GERALD MORRISON, et al., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CRABS ON DECK, LLC, et al., DEFENDANTS.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          PAUL W. GRIMM UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Remaining Plaintiffs Gerald Morrison, Bradley Clark, and Vernon Koslow[1] claim that their former employers, Defendants Southern Maryland Baseball Club, LLC (the “Club”) and its successor Crabs on Deck, LLC d/b/a Southern Maryland Blue Crabs (“Crabs on Deck”), failed to pay them minimum wages, in violation of the Maryland Wage and Hour Law (“MWHL”), Md. Code Ann., Lab. & Empl. § 3-401 et seq., and the Maryland Wage Payment Collection Law (“MWPCL”), Lab. & Empl. § 3-501 et seq. Am. Compl. Counts I-III, ECF No. 6. Clark (in Count IV) and Morrison (in Count V) also claim that the Club retaliated against them, in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C § 201 et seq., and the MWHL by terminating their employment within two months after they complained about their underpayment. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 118-34. They assert that Crabs on Deck, as the Club's successor, is liable for the Club's statutory violations. Id. ¶¶ 126, 134.

         Crabs on Deck filed an Answer. ECF No. 16. The Club did not file an answer or otherwise respond to Plaintiffs' pleadings, and the Clerk entered an Order of Default (but not a default judgment) as to the Club. ECF No. 30.[2] Now, having completed limited discovery regarding successor liability, Crabs on Deck moves for judgment on the pleadings, [3] pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c), on the retaliation claims (Counts IV and V). ECF No. 39. It insists that, “regardless of whether . . . Defendant Crabs on Deck is the ‘successor' to Defendant Southern Maryland Baseball Club, LLC under the FLSA, ” Morrison and Clark, as exempt seasonal employees, cannot bring any FLSA claims and that there is not private cause of action for MWHL retaliation.[4] Pre-mot. Ltr. 3, ECF No. 35-1. Morrison and Clark concede that they are exempt employees and that they did not seek minimum wages pursuant to the FLSA. As explained below, in light of this concession they could not complain (either to the Club or Crabs on Deck) in good faith about their FLSA-protected rights, and therefore, they did not engage in protected activity under the FLSA. Accordingly, I will grant Crabs on Deck's motion and enter judgment in Defendants' favor as to the FLSA retaliation claims. Additionally, I will dismiss the FLSA retaliation claims against the Club, which fail to state a claim for the same reasons. And, while Plaintiffs cannot state a claim for MWHL retaliation, they do, however, state a claim for wrongful discharge, and Crabs on Deck's motion for judgment will be denied as to the state law claims in Counts IV and V. Therefore, this Court will continue to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remaining state law claims pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(a).

         Background

          The Club, which owned the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, a professional baseball team, hired Clark and Morrison in April 2014. Am. Compl. ¶ 22. Clark worked as a clubhouse manager for the Club's visiting team clubhouse, and Morrison worked as the Director of Clubhouse Operation. Id. ¶¶ 42, 50. They worked between April and October each year. Id. ¶¶ 43-44, 46, 53-54, 57-59, 61.

         Clark and Morrison complained to their general managers when the Club failed to reimburse them for their out-of-pocket expenses for food (and, in Clark's case, catering) in the clubhouses. Id. ¶¶ 45, 60, 119, 128. They claim that the effect of the Club's failure to reimburse them for “expenses for the benefit of the employer” was that they received less than minimum wage, in violation of the FLSA and MWHL, and their “complaint[s] put the [Club] on notice that [they] w[ere] making . . . good-faith assertion[s] of [their] rights under the FLSA and MWHL.” Id. ¶¶ 120-21, 129-30. Yet they concede that they “do not and have not claimed they are entitled to minimum wages under the FLSA, ” noting that they “[i]nstead . . . allege they are owed minimum wages at the Maryland minimum wage rate, not the FLSA rate.” Pls.' Opp'n 5 (citing Am. Compl. ¶¶ 1, 88, 95, 100, 104). The Club terminated Clark's employment within two months of his complaint, Am. Compl. ¶ 122; Morrison's employment was terminated within one month of his complaint, id. ¶ 131.

         Crabs on Deck purchased the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs from the Club in September 2016, “retain[ing] the [Club's] management, staff” and “continu[ing] to operate the team as the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.” Id. ¶¶ 23-25.

         Standard of Review

         The same standard applies to Rule 12(c) motions for judgment on the pleadings as to Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Massey v. Ojaniit, 759 F.3d 343, 347 (4th Cir. 2014). Thus, the Court determines “the sufficiency of a complaint” without “resolv[ing] contests surrounding the facts, the merits of a claim, or the applicability of defenses.” Velencia v. Drezhlo, No. RDB-12-237, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (D. Md. Dec. 13, 2012) (quoting Presley v. City of Charlottesville, 464 F.3d 480, 483 (4th Cir. 2006)). To that end, the Court bears in mind the requirements of Fed.R.Civ.P. 8, Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009), when considering the sufficiency of the pleadings. Specifically, a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must state “a plausible claim for relief, ” as “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice, ” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79; see also Velencia, 2012 WL 6562764, at *4 (discussing standard from Iqbal and Twombly). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         Discussion

         FLSA Retaliation Claims

         The FLSA requires that employees receive minimum wage, 29 U.S.C. § 206(a), and it creates a cause of action for retaliation for employees whose employment is terminated in response to their complaints about a failure to pay minimum wage, 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). Specifically, it is “unlawful for any person . . . to discharge . . . any employee because such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to th[e] [FLSA] . . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). To state a claim for FLSA retaliation, a plaintiff must allege that “(1) he engaged in an activity protected by the FLSA; (2) he suffered adverse action by the employer subsequent to or contemporaneous with such protected activity; and (3) a causal connection exists between the employee's activity and the employer's adverse action.” Darveau v. Detecon, Inc., 515 F.3d 334, 340 (4th Cir. 2008).

         This “retaliation provision . . . . effectuates enforcement of the Act's substantive provisions by removing ‘fear of economic retaliation' so that employees need not ‘quietly . . . accept substandard conditions.'” Id. (quoting Mitchell v. Robert De Mario Jewelry, Inc., 361 U.S. 288, 292 (1960)). Courts “must interpret the retaliation provision ‘bearing in mind the Supreme Court's admonition that the FLSA “must not be interpreted or applied in a narrow, grudging manner.”'” Id. (quoting Ball v. Memphis Bar-B-Q Co., 228 F.3d 360, 364 (4th Cir. 2000) (quoting Tenn. Coal, Iron & R.R. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 597 (1944))).

         That said, the FLSA does not apply to all employees, and one of the exemptions-for seasonal, recreational employees-applies to Morrison and Clark. Def.'s Mot. & Mem. 2; Pls.' Opp'n 5. Morrison and Clark neither allege nor argue that the FLSA's minimum wage laws apply to them. Pls.' Opp'n 5-6 (“Plaintiffs Do Not Assert They Are Owed Minimum Wages Under the FLSA.”); see Am. Compl. ¶¶ 83, 88, 95, 105 (referring to “the Maryland minimum wage rate” and alleging Crabs on Deck's liability for the Club's “violations of the MWHL and MWPCL”). Nonetheless, they insist that their complaints to their managers were protected activity under the FLSA, which, they contend, “protects ‘any person' from retaliation.” Pls.' Opp'n 6.

         Not quite. The FLSA protects “any employee” from retaliation by “any person, ” but only if “such employee has filed any complaint or instituted or caused to be instituted any proceeding under or related to th[e] [FLSA]. . . .” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). Significantly, not “every instance of an employee ‘letting off steam' to his employer constitutes protected activity”; rather, “‘the statute requires fair notice' to employers.” Minor v. Bostwick Labs., Inc., 669 F.3d 428, 439 (4th Cir. 2012) (discussing “‘degree of formality' . . . required for an employee complaint to constitute protected activity”) (quoting Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corp., 563 U.S. 1, 14 (2011)). The Court considers whether an employee's ‚Äúcomplaint to her [or his] employer was ...


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