Sonnier v. Recon Management Services Inc
MEMORANDUM RULING re 110 MOTION to Decertify FLSA Collective Action filed by Recon Management Services Inc. Signed by Judge James D Cain, Jr on 9/7/2021. (crt,Benoit, T)
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UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
WESTERN DISTRICT OF LOUISIANA
LAKE CHARLES DIVISION
CASE NO. 2:20-CV-00002
JUDGE JAMES D. CAIN, JR.
RECON MANAGEMENT SERVICES INC
MAGISTRATE JUDGE KAY
Before the Court is “Recon’s Motion to Decertify FLSA Collective Action” (Doc.
110) wherein Defendant Recon Management Services, Inc. (“ReCon”) moves to decertify
this conditionally certified collective action and dismiss the claims of the opt-in plaintiffs
This suit arises under the overtime payment provisions of the Fair Labor Standards
Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 207. Plaintiff Douglas Sonnier alleges that he was employed
by ReCon at its facility in Sulphur, Louisiana, and worked there as an electrical instrument
designer for around one year beginning in March 2017. 1 He further asserts that he
“regularly worked more than 40 hours a week” and “routinely worked 60 hours a week.” 2
He claims that he was paid the same hourly rate for all hours worked, on a “straight-timefor-overtime” basis with no additional compensation for overtime hours as required under
Doc. 1, ¶¶ 22–26.
Id. at ¶¶ 29–30.
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the FLSA.3 He also maintains that numerous other individuals performing similar work for
ReCon were subject to this pay scheme. 4
Lloyd Higginbotham and Scott Sandifer opted into the suit as Plaintiffs on June 10,
2020, and August 12, 2020, respectively.5 Pursuant to Plaintiffs’ motion, the action was
conditionally certified under the lenient step one “Lusardi” standard6 which has been
expressly rejected by the Fifth Circuit in Swales v. KLLM Transp. Servs., L.L.C., 985 F.3d
430 (5th Cir. 2021). The Swales Court announced a new framework pursuant to which
courts within the circuit must follow to determine whether plaintiffs have met their burden
that employees are “similarly situated” in deciding whether the case may proceed on a
LAW AND ANALYSIS
ReCon maintains that the Opt-in Plaintiffs are not similarly situated to Mr. Sonnier,
nor are they similarly situated to each other as required to proceed on a collective basis.
The FLSA generally provides that employers must pay their employees one and a
half times their regular rate of pay for all hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week. 29
U.S.C. § 207(a)(1). Section 216(b) provides employees who are improperly denied
overtime wages a cause of action to recoup unpaid wages, liquidated damages, and
attorney’s fees from their employers. But employers do not have to pay time-and-a-half to
individuals “employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity.”
Id. at ¶¶ 31–37.
Id. at ¶¶ 45–47.
Docs. 24 and 32.
Lusardi v. Xerox Corp., 118 F.R.D. 351 (D.N.J. 1987).
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Id. § 213(a)(1). The FLSA itself does not define what it means for an employee to fall
within one of these “white-collar” exemptions. Instead, it delegates authority to the
Secretary of Labor to promulgate rules that define these exemptions. Id. The white-collar
exemptions constitute affirmative defenses to overtime pay claims. The employer bears
the burden of proving that a plaintiff is properly classified as an exempt employee. See
Corning Glass Works, v. Brennan, 417 U.S. 188, 196-97, 94 S.Ct. 2223 (1974); Idaho
Sheet Metal Works, Inc. v. Wirtz, 383 U.S. 190, 206, 86 S.Ct. 737 (1966); Dalheim v.
KDFW-TV, 918 F.2d 1220, 1224 (5th Cir. 1990); Kastor v. Sam’s Wholesale Club, 131
F.Supp.2d 862, 865 (N.D.Tex. 2001).
To continue to proceed collectively under the FLSA, plaintiffs must show that they
are “similarly situated”7 to their fellow class members. See 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). “If the
claimants are not similarly situated, the district court decertifies the class, and the opt-in
plaintiffs are dismissed without prejudice.” Mooney v. Aramco Servs. Co., 54 F.3d 1207,
1214 (5th Cir. 1995). Decertification is necessary to ensure the applicable exemptions are
given the “fair (rather than a ‘narrow’) interpretation” mandated by the Supreme Court.
See Encino Motorcars, LLC v Navarro, 138 S.Ct. 1134 (2018).
At the decertification stage, the court decides based on the evidence developed
during discovery whether the conditionally certified class should be decertified. See Basco
v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 2004 WL 1497709, *3 (E.D.La. July 2, 2003). At this stage, a
much stricter standard applies for showing the plaintiffs are similarly situated. See Mooney,
The FLSA does not define “similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).
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54 F.3d at 1214. The consideration of merits questions could require highly individualized
inquiries into each potential opt-in plaintiff’s circumstances and preclude collective
treatment. Swales v. KLLM Transp. Servs., L.L.C., 985 F.3d 430 (5th Cir. 2021). A district
court may determine that the Plaintiffs and Opt-ins are too diverse a group to be “similarly
situated’, Swales, 985 F.3d at 443, and conclude that Plaintiffs have not met their burden
of establishing similarity. Id.
In deciding whether to decertify a conditionally certified collective action, the
Court considers the following factors: (1) the disparate factual and employment settings of
the individual plaintiffs; (2) the various defenses available to the defendant which appear
to be plaintiff-specific; and (3) fairness and procedural considerations. See Mooney, 54
F.3d at 1213, n.7.
ReCon has asserted that the Opt-In Plaintiffs meet the applicable tests for the
defined executive, administrative, and professional exemptions of the FLSA. Re-Con
maintains that the individualized defenses of the Opt-In Plaintiff prevent an efficient
proceeding with a representative class. See Reyes v. Texas Ezpawn, L.P., 2007 WL 101808,
at *5 (S.D. Tex. Jan. 8, 2007). The Court “has the discretion to determine whether the
potential defense would make the class unmanageable.” See, Id.
ReCon remarks that the Opt-in Plaintiffs work either “in-plant” or “in-house,” or
“in-plant” and “in-house.” “In-plant” employees’ whole workdays are generally spent onsite at ReCon’s clients’ facilities and answer client supervisor(s) on a daily basis. 8 ReCon
Steve Cating Affidavit, Doc. 88-15 ¶ ¶ 15 and 16.
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does not directly supervise the in-plant employees on a daily basis but is ultimately
responsible for the employees. Id. In-plant employees work at separate locations, for
separate entities, subject to separate rules and regulations promulgated by each respective
client. In-plant employees are subject to differing pay structures, schedules, and job duties
as per the client contract with ReCon.9 In-plant employees with similar qualifications at
the same location can be subject to different supervisors, work with different coworkers,
and have different job duties and responsibilities.
Recon contends that the Opt-in Plaintiffs are not similarly situated to Mr. Sonnier,
nor to each other. The Opt-In Plaintiffs held varying job titles, performed different job
duties, and had diverse experience and skill levels. They performed their duties in multiple
locations for various clients, each with their own unique organizational structures,
regulations, job requirements, and supervisors.
ReCon notes that some of the Opt-in Plaintiffs were “highly compensated” under
the law, and thus subject to a relaxed test to determine whether an overtime exemption
applies. Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp., 132 S.Ct. 2156, 2173 (2012).
Employees not “highly compensated” are subject to a more rigorous test. ReCon presents
limited evidence of some of the various dynamics as to each of the individual Opt-in
Plaintiffs to support its position that this lawsuit should be decertified. The table below
does not present all of the particularized facts of each individual Opt-in Plaintiff, but is a
sampling based on what ReCon has submitted to the Court.
Mark Pilley Affidavit, Doc. 88-12, ¶ 14.
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Warren Bailey, Electrical
In-house and Perform tasks and
Lance Hawkins Mechanical
Cost Control In-house and
Piping Design In-house21
Nick Cuccio, Senior Design In-house and Leading projects,
In-plant employees worked at different facility locations.
Mr. Higginbotham works in the Sulphur office.
Doc. 110-1, p. 18.
Defendant’s exhibit I.
Doc. 110-1, p. 18
Defendant’s exhibit A, Sterling Gill depo. p. 43
Doc. 110-1 p. 18.
Doc. 110-1, p. 18.
Ms. Johnson filed a Notice of Withdrawal of Consent on August 18, 2021. Doc. 127.
Doc. 110-1, p.19.
Mr. Wright worked in the Beaumont office. Defendant’s exhibit G.
Doc. 110-1, p. 19.
Defendant’s exhibit K.
Defendant’s exhibit J.
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In-house and Develop
design efforts for
ReCon argues that the overtime coverage and exemption issues in this case are
highly individualized and purely personal to each plaintiff which will necessarily require a
plaintiff-by-plaintiff analysis to determine whether any FLSA violation occurred and
whether an overtime exemption applies.
ReCon maintains that in order for the Court to determine whether an exemption
applies to a particular plaintiff, the Court must analyze each plaintiffs’ respective
compensation, job duties, classifications, levels of responsibility, and expertise. ReCon
asserts that these determinations will change within ReCon’s business structure, which will
be subject to the various business structures of each of ReCon’s multiple clients and the
various work sites of ReCon’s employees. Concerning work sites, ReCon’s Opt-in
Doc. 110-1, p. 19.
Defendant’s exhibit B, Michael Abshire depo. p. 63.
Defendant’s exhibit D, Responses to Defendant’s interrogatories.
Doc. 110-1, p. 19.
Doc. 110-1, p. 19.
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Plaintiffs work either at the Beaumont Office or the Sulphur Office, or both (“in-house”).
Some Opt-in Plaintiffs work both “in-house” and “in-plant;” Opt-in Plaintiffs who work
“in-plant” may work at various sites from Lake Charles, Louisiana to Houston, Texas.
ReCon asserts that even in-plant employees with similar qualifications at the same location
can be subject to different supervisors, work with different coworkers and have different
job duties and responsibilities. See depositions of Gill, Abshire,30 and Hawkins’ response
ReCon explains that for it to prove an administrative exemption, for an in-plant Optin Plaintiff, it would potentially have to call (i) a representative from each client to testify
as to what work the employee performed directly related to that respective client’s business
operations; (ii) client-employee(s) who were supervised by the Opt-in Plaintiff at each site
to testify regarding management and supervisory roles the Opt-in Plaintiff performed; (iii)
a representative from each client to testify regarding any exercise of discretion and
independent judgment the Opt-in Plaintiff performed; and (iv) a ReCon representative to
testify regarding the Opt-in Plaintiff’s level of compensation to determine whether the
relaxed test under the highly compensated employee exemption applies. ReCon asserts that
this process would have to repeat itself for the “in-house” Opt-in Plaintiff noting that “inhouse” employees have separate and different supervisors and work on discrete design
projects for different clients.32 ReCon submits a potential witness list for its defense which
Defendants’ exhibits A and B.
Defendant’s exhibit D, ¶ 4.
Steve Cating Affidavit, Doc. 88-15, ¶ 17.
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exceeds 70 witnesses for this jury trial.33 In addition, ReCon asserts that “in-house”
employees have different job duties and responsibilities from “in-plant” employees.34
ReCon also submits that individual determinations will have to be made based on
whether or not the Opt-in Plaintiffs are highly compensated and subject to a more relaxed
test as opposed to an Opt-in Plaintiff who is not highly compensated. The FLSA exempts
highly compensated employees who are paid an annual salary exceeding $100,000 and
customarily and regularly perform any one or more of the exempt duties or responsibilities
listed in the executive, administrative, or learned professional exemptions. 29 C.F.R. §
541.601. “[A] high level of compensation is a strong indicator of an employees’ exempt
status” such that the performance of any one of the exempt duties of the executive,
administrative or professional exemptions combined with the high level of compensation
will make the employee exempt. 29 C.F.R. § 541.601(c).
For those Opt-in Plaintiff that are highly compensated, their compensation level plus
any one of the following duties will make that plaintiff exempt:
• Management of the enterprise in which the employee is employed or of a
customarily recognized department or subdivision thereof;
• Customarily and regularly directing the work of two or more other employees;
• Authority to hire or fire other employees or whose suggestions and
recommendations as to the hiring, firing, advancement, promotion or any other
change of status of other employees are given particular weight;
Defendant’s Exhibit E; Defendants’ exhibit L.
Mark Pilley Affidavit, Doc. 88-12 ¶ ¶ 1-14.
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• The performance of office or non-manual work directly related to the
management or general business operations of the employer or the employer’s
• The performance of work requiring knowledge of an advanced type in a field of
science or learning customarily acquired by a prolonged course of specialized
29 C.F.R. § § 541.100, 200, 300 and 601. ReCon argues that whether a particular plaintiff
satisfies the highly compensated exemption will involve a highly individualized analysis
of the various duties as to each individual highly compensated employee and must be
adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. See e.g., Reyes, at *5 (noting the exempt or nonexempt status of any particular employee “must be determined on the basis of whether his
duties, responsibilities, and salary meet all the requirements of the appropriate exemption
criteria” and finding this “relevant statutory exemption criteria” would “require an
individual, fact-specific analysis of each [employee’s] job responsibilities) (citations
Opt-in Plaintiffs, through counsel, remarks that all ReCon is required to prove is
that its straight time for overtime pay scheme complies with the FLSA’s salary basis test,
and that the differences would not render the exemption defenses unmanageable. Opt-in
Plaintiffs contend that ReCon cannot satisfy this initial burden “since it paid Plaintiff on
an hourly—not salary—basis, and therefore nothing about ReCon’s exemption defenses
prevents collective treatment in this case.”35
Plaintiffs’ opposition brief, p. 4, Doc. 125.
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Opt-in Plaintiffs suggest that “Recon fabricates a scare-story about an imaginary,
never-ending mega-trial where it ‘would potentially be forced to call’ 70+ witnesses to
testify about Plaintiffs’ job duties to decide this single-issue case.36 Opt-in Plaintiffs
criticize ReCon’s “unconventional trial strategy” as being “for better or worse” in which
the “only thing making this case ‘unmanageable’ is ReCon.”37
As noted by Opt-in Plaintiffs, “the relevant inquiry is whether there is ‘a
demonstrated similarity among the individual situations … some factual nexus which binds
the named plaintiffs and the potential class members together as victims of a particular
alleged [policy or practice,]’ so that hearing the cases together furthers the purposes of
Section 17, is fair to both parties and does not result in an unmanageable trial.” Vanzzini
v. Action Meat Distributors, Inc., 995 F.Supp.2d 703, 720 (S.D. Tex. 2014) (citing Crain
v. Helmerich & Payne Int’l Drilling Co., 1992 WL 91946, at *2 (E.D. La. Apr. 16, 1992)),
“Party plaintiffs are similarly situated, and may proceed in a collective, to the extent they
share a similar issue of law or fact material to the disposition of their FLSA claims.”
Campbell v. City of Los Angeles, 903 F.3d 1090, 1117 (9th Cir. 2018).
Opt-in Plaintiffs maintain that nothing about Recon’s exemption defenses prevents
collective treatment in this case and argues that ReCon does not indicate how it claims all
Plaintiffs fall within the administrative, executive, professional, and combination
exemptions, or how these exemptions apply or how they cannot be tried collectively. Optin Plaintiffs assert that the “only thing left to Recon then is to show the HCE duties element
Id. p. 5.
Id. pp. 5-6.
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is ‘individual to each plaintiff.’ Even if Recon could make this showing (spoiler: it can’t)
the fact remains Recon is asking the Court to decertify a class because one part of one of
its many exemption defenses.”38
The Court respectfully disagrees with Opt-in Plaintiffs. ReCon will have to prove
that it paid a salary and that any deductions taken were permissible under the FLSA. 29
C.F.R. § 541.602. As noted by ReCon, Opt-in Plaintiffs have requested as relevant,
documents in excess of 70,000 pages. In their Motion to Compel, Opt-in Plaintiffs maintain
that these documents are relevant to show they were subject to improper deductions, or as
Opt-in Plaintiffs explain—“to test the merits of its [ReCon’s] pay practice against the salary
basis requirements of the FLSA.”39 This alone persuades the Court that there are significant
and highly individualized inquires as to each Opt-in Plaintiff’s salary and any alleged
Furthermore, and just as significant are the highly individualized inquiries into each
Opt-in Plaintiff’s job duties, responsibilities, disparate and factual employment settings,
and particular exemptions as to each individual Plaintiff. The Court is persuaded by the
fact that the Opt-in Plaintiffs each have various and different job titles, job descriptions,
job locations, and job duties which are all relevant for the trier of fact to determine if ReCon
is entitled to a specific exemption under the FLSA. In addition, the standard by which the
tried of fact will determine if a specific exemption applies, changes dependent upon
whether or nor the Opt-in Employee is highly compensated or not highly compensated. Not
Plaintiffs’ Opposition, p. 17, Doc. 125.
Plaintiffs’ Memorandum in Support of Motion to Compel Discovery and Request for Expedited Consideration, p.
1, Doc. 105-1.
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only will this cause probable jury confusion, the Opt-in Plaintiffs are dissimilar as to their
employment experiences and the nature of each Opt-in Plaintiff’s job duties. Consequently,
this Court has significant fairness and procedural concerns were it to try this case as a
collective action. Because the Court finds that the Opt-in Plaintiffs’ claims are highly factintensive and given the multiple exemptions that will be presented as to each individual
Opt-in Plaintiff, the Court finds that decertification of the lawsuit is warranted.
For the reasons set forth above, ReCon’s Motion to Decertify FLSA Collective
Action (Doc. 110) will be GRANTED, and the claims of the Opt-in Plaintiffs will be
dismissed without prejudice.
THUS DONE AND SIGNED in Chambers on this 7th day of September, 2021.
JAMES D. CAIN, JR.
UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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