In federal court, sanctions are a real possibility. A state court can also award sanctions if a lawsuit is found to be frivolous. But, state court judges are more reticent about awarding sanctions than federal judges. In federal court, sanctions rarely occur, but they do occur. The law firm representing the plaintiffs in Elfoulki v. Brannons Sandwich Shop, No. 14-cv-5964 (S.D.N.Y. 6/22/16), found that to be true. They filed the lawsuit alleging failure to pay minimum wage at a small sandwich shop. They filed suit on behalf of two named plaintiffs and sought collective action certification. The court approved the collective action. But, no other employees opted in to the lawsuit. So, the collective action was later decertified.
The employer then asked for sanctions. The employer did not actually gross more than $500,000 in sales and had not grossed more than $159,000 in sales since it opened about ten months before the lawsuit. Grossing more than $500,000 in one of the way a business qualifies for coverage under the FLSA. The employees would still be covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act if they could show the employees were directly involved in interstate commerce. But, the plaintiffs did not make such an allegation. In accordance with federal rules, the Defendant submitted a notice to the Plaintiffs declaring their gross revenues were way below the $500,000 threshold and invited the plaintiffs to dismiss their lawsuit. The plaintiffs did not respond. The Defendant moved for summary judgment.
To award sanctions, there must be a showing of “objective unreasonableness.” The court does not want to chill any future FLSA lawsuits. So, it asked the question, in a run-of-the-mill wage lawsuit, how would the plaintiffs find out how much the employer had in gross sales? The court suggested the plaintiff firm could have simply looked at the menu and interviewed customers. The law firm could also look at other shop locations, review court filings of similar businesses, review plans for expansion, etc. The court would not limit the inquiry and did not expect the investigation to be perfect. The plaintiff law firm explained various factors that the court found unpersuasive. The defendant had not submitted its “safe harbor” notice until a year into the lawsuit. The lawyers had assumed the employer was interested in settling. The two attorneys could not be sure the owner’s gross income was below $500,000 until he had been deposed. But, the court noted it was the pre-lawsuit investigation that was at issue, not what transpired after they filed the lawsuit.
So, the court sanctioned the law firm $4,000 under Fed.R.Civ.Pro. Rule 11. The defense attorneys had billed its client some $8,500. See decision here. There are some things every lawyer should be sure of before filing suit. Whether the lawsuit will survive a motion for summary judgment is critically important.