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Schumann v. Collier Anesthesia, P.A.

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Fort Myers Division

April 3, 2017

BILLY SCHUMANN, DUSTIN ABRAHAM, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, LAUREN TIDWELL, JEANIE HAKENEWERT, STEPHANIE ALANA MARIE BENJAMIN, CHRISTOPHER M. BOURN, DEREK WHITE, LAHOMA J. NACHTRAB, RICHARDO ROSADO, LANNETTE GIBSON, DANIEL PENTON, DENISE ARMINIO, OFELIA BIAGAN, SHEILA SMITH, CELINE VIDAURRI, CHRISTINA VINAS, RICARDO ROSADO, PATRICK C. HARRELL, RACHEL GOODE, JAMIESON WISHMAN, PAUL CALOIAN, STEVEN TODD LITTLE, JESSICA LINCOLN, and CHRISTOPHER JALACKI, Plaintiffs,
v.
COLLIER ANESTHESIA, P.A., a Florida corporation, WOLFORD COLLEGE, LLC, a Florida limited liability company, THOMAS L. COOK, an individual, and LYNDA M. WATERHOUSE, an individual, Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          JOHN E. STEELE SENIOR UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Bifurcate (Doc. #274) filed on December 20, 2016. Plaintiffs filed a response in Opposition (Doc. #276) on January 6, 2017. For the reasons set forth below, Defendants' Motion is denied.

         I.

         Plaintiffs are twenty-five former student registered nurse anesthetists (SRNAs) who enrolled in Defendant Wolford College, LLC's 28-month nurse anesthesia master's program seeking to become Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists. While students at Wolford, Plaintiffs participated as interns in a clinical training program supervised and subsidized by Defendant Collier Anesthesia, P.A. Though it is undisputed that Plaintiffs knew the internship was unpaid and that completing it was required to graduate, Plaintiffs now claim they functioned as “employees” while at the clinical sites and seek to recover minimum wage and overtime compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. The Court conditionally certified a collective action (Doc. #91), and twenty-three former SRNAs joined the two original plaintiffs. (Docs. ## 176, ¶ 6; 197, ¶ 1.)

         Each side filed motions for summary judgment. Finding no material disputed facts on the ultimate question of Plaintiffs' employment status, the Court concluded that “the economic realities of this case establish that Plaintiffs were not ‘employees' of any Defendant, and therefore are not entitled to wage and overtime compensation.” (Doc. #226, p. 14.) Accordingly, the Court issued an Opinion and Order (id.) on May 23, 2014 granting Defendants' motions for summary judgment (Docs. ## 174, 181) and denying Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. #173).

         On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit vacated the summary judgment and remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. (Doc. #245). Observing that “a determination of an individual's employment status under the FLSA is a question of law, ” the Eleventh Circuit conducted a de novo review of the undersigned's legal determination that no employment relationship existed between Plaintiffs and Defendants. Schumann v. Collier Anesthesia, P.A., 803 F.3d 1199, 1207 (11th Cir. 2015) (citation omitted). Recognizing that “[t]he tricky part” is determining who falls within the FLSA's definition of “employee, ” id., the Eleventh Circuit ultimately followed the “primary beneficiary” test of Walling v. Portland Terminal Co., 330 U.S. 148 (1947), but “specifically tailored” those factors to better “identify the primary beneficiary of a modern-day internship for academic credit and professional certification.”[1] Schumann, 803 F.3d at 1203. Rather than “take a position . . . regarding whether [Plaintiffs] were ‘employees' for purposes of the FLSA, ” id. at 1215, the Eleventh Circuit remanded the case to this Court “to apply this test in the first instance” when evaluating the cross motions for summary judgment and “to give the parties an opportunity to further develop the record to address the components of the test.”[2] Id. at 1203.

         The undersigned entered an Order (Doc. #247) vacating the May 23, 2014 Order (Doc. #226) and the Judgment (Doc. #227) and invited the parties to file supplemental cross-motions for summary judgment consistent with the Eleventh Circuit's decision. The parties did so. (Docs. # 248; 249; 251; 252; 253; 256; 257; 258; 259; 260; 264.)

         The Court denied (Doc. #269) the three supplemental motions for summary judgment. Although the first and seventh Glatt factors were undisputed and weighed in favor of a finding that Plaintiffs were students (id. p. 16), the Court found conflicting evidence as to the other factors, which precluded summary judgment, both as to those factors, and on the ultimate question of plaintiffs' employment status. (Id. pp. 16-38.) The undersigned observed in several places that resolution of these material evidentiary disputes will depend on the jury's weighing each side of the story and making credibility determinations. (Id. pp. 26, 34.)

         The Court then entered an Order (Doc. #270) reopening the case and directing the parties to file a new joint Case Management Report. On November 28, 2016, the parties submitted their joint Case Management Report (Doc. #271). Plaintiffs selected the jury trial option, but Defendants - for the first time - designated the trial as “non-jury” and “request[ed] briefing on this issue.” On December 6, 2016, the Court issued a Second Amended Case Management and Scheduling Order (Doc. #272). Noting that Defendants had not filed a motion to strike Plaintiffs' jury demand, the Court set a jury trial for the April 2017 term.

         Two weeks later, Defendants filed the instant Motion seeking to bifurcate trial pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 42(b). Defendants assert that because employment status under the FLSA presents a “question of law, ” the Court - not the jury -should first hold a bench trial to make that determination (and, presumably, to settle any outstanding factual disputes), before a jury is convened to resolve any remaining issues. Plaintiffs oppose bifurcation.

         II.

         Under Rule 42(b), a court has discretionary authority to bifurcate the resolution of certain issues or claims in a case. Allstate Ins. Co. v. Vizcay, 826 F.3d 1326, 1333 (11th Cir. 2016). Notwithstanding such discretion, a court may not grant bifurcation where doing so would infringe upon a party's Seventh Amendment right to have a jury decide a particular issue or to issue a final verdict. Fed.R.Civ.P. 42(b) (“[T]he court must preserve any federal right to a jury trial.”); Houseman v. U.S. Aviation Underwriters, 171 F.3d 1117, 1121 (7th Cir. 1999) (“[S]eparate trials must not be granted if doing so would violate the Seventh Amendment.).

         As an initial matter, the Court observes that there is a “well-established . . . right to a jury trial in private actions pursuant to the FLSA.” Lorillard v. Pons, 434 U.S. 575, 580 (1978). It is also well-established, however, that “a determination of an individual's employment status under the FLSA is a question of law.” Schumann, 803 F.3d at 1207 (citing Scantland v. Jeffry Knight, Inc., 721 F.3d 1308, 1310 (11th Cir. 2013)). In practice, this means that where the material facts are not disputed, the issue of employment status under the FLSA is treated as a pure “question of law” and is appropriately resolved by the judge. E.g., Martinez-Mendoza v. Champion Int'l. Corp., 340 F.3d 1200, 1215 (11th Cir. 2003) (affirming finding on summary judgment that paper manufacturer was not migrant farm workers' “joint employer” where undisputed facts showed that workers were not “economically dependent” on manufacturer); Aimable v. Long & Scott Farms, 20 F.3d 434, 445 (11th Cir. 1994) (same); Kaplan v. Code Blue Billing & Coding, Inc., 504 F. App'x 831, 835 (11th Cir. 2013) (per curiam) (affirming grant of summary judgment for defendants where no genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether medical billing students were employees); Freeman v. Key Largo Volunteer Fire and Rescue Dept. Inc., 494 F. App'x 940 (11th Cir. 2012) (affirming dismissal of FLSA claim where complaint did not allege facts sufficient to infer that employment relationship existed between volunteer firefighter and fire department).

         But this case presents a different scenario. Here, the Court has already found that material disputed facts do exist, preventing a finding on employment status as a matter of law. In this posture, Eleventh Circuit case law leaves clear that employment status becomes a mixed issue of law and fact to ...


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