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Brown v. Ansafone Contact Centers, LLC

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Ocala Division

September 18, 2019

LLOYD BROWN, on behalf of himself and all others similarly situated Plaintiff,
v.
ANSAFONE CONTACT CENTERS, LLC Defendant.

          REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION [[1]]

          PHILIP R. LAMMENS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Plaintiff filed this action against his former employer, Ansafone Contact Centers, LLC, on behalf of himself and similarly situated Ansafone employees for unpaid overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). On December 7, 2018, the Court conditionally certified a class of Ocala-based hourly paid customer service representatives who were employed on or after January 9, 2016. (Doc. 32). The Notice approved by the Court (Doc. 39) was mailed out on January 9, 2019 and the sixty-day opt-in period closed on approximately March 10, 2019. During that period, sixty-two people (including Plaintiff) joined the action. (Docs. 3-7, 18-23, 48, 51-109).

         Shortly before the approved notice was sent to prospective plaintiffs, Defendant conducted meetings with employees in its two Ocala locations regarding this FLSA action. Plaintiffs claim that these meetings were improper and prevented putative class members from joining the instant lawsuit. Accordingly, Plaintiffs have filed the current motion asking the Court to stay discovery, reopen the notice period, and issue a corrective notice. Because the parties offered conflicting declaration evidence regarding what happened at the meetings, the Court conducted an evidentiary hearing on August 23, 2019, the transcript of which is filed on the docket. (Doc. 131). Based on the evidence adduced at the hearing, as well as the papers filed by the parties, I submit that Plaintiffs' motion (Doc. 120) should be denied.

         I. Background

         After the Court conditionally certified a class, but before Notice was sent to putative class members, Defendant conducted a total of four staff meetings with all then-employed customer service representatives at Ansafone's two Ocala locations in groups of between 15-25 employees. The meetings were led by Lynda Owens, Operation Manager, and Dawn Johnson, HR Manager. The parties disagree about what happened at the meetings.

         Plaintiffs claim that during the meetings, the customer service representatives were discouraged from joining the lawsuit and told that they would suffer consequences if they did. In support, Plaintiffs submitted declarations and elicited testimony at the hearing, from two former employees who attended the meetings - Angel Maldonado (a supervisor) and Julie Moman (a customer service representative) - each of whom stated that the customer service representatives were threatened with retaliation, and that as a result of the meeting, they (and others), did not join the lawsuit.

         At the hearing, Mr. Maldonado, who attended both meetings at the 34th Avenue location, testified that Ms. Owens discussed the lawsuit and advised the attendees that they would be receiving a notice in the mail. According to him, Ms. Owens “basically was speaking to us in a very aggressive manner and tone” and “strongly discouraged that any of us get involved, as there could be consequences, basically insinuating that we could lose our jobs.” (Transcript at 14, 15). He testified that a few CSR's in attendance asked questions about the lawsuit and Ms. Owens said, “Don't participate.” (Transcript at 13, 16). On cross-examination, he testified that Ms. Owens said: “The company basically strongly discourages that anyone get involved, as there could be-as there-basically would be consequences.” (Transcript at 27). When asked by the Court to state “what words were used that made it clear to you that there would be consequences for joining the lawsuit, ” Mr. Maldonado testified: “[b]asically, when she had said that the company discourages that anyone get involved in the lawsuit and that should you get involved there would be consequences.” (Transcript at 57-58). According to Mr. Maldonado, Ms. Johnson did not address the group.

         Mr. Maldonado also testified that following the meeting, he briefly spoke with Ms. Owens about the lawsuit and she “was letting [him] know that - not to get involved, ” and that when he “basically” asked her, “Am I going to lose my job over this?”, she “looked at me and said, you know -- inferred that, yeah, I would lose my job.” (Transcript at 18, 27-28). Mr. Maldonado did not mention this conversation in his declaration; to the contrary, he stated, “I did not speak further with Ms. Owens or Dawn about the meetings or Mr. Brown's lawsuit against Defendant on the date of the meetings” or since then. (Doc. 120-1, Maldonado Declaration at ¶38).

         Julie Moman also testified that Ms. Owens told the attendees that they would be “getting some documentation in the mail, and to just, you know - you know, don't mind it, just don't pay attention to it.” (Transcript at 66). And that if the attendees joined the lawsuit, “there could be consequences, ” which she took to mean that they could lose their job. (Transcript at 66-67, 94). She testified that Ms. Owens' demeanor was “kind of like firm-not really loud . . . kind of like a warning type of tone.” (Transcript at 67).

         In contrast, Defendant contends that the information shared in the meetings mirrored the information in the Notice and that there were no threats of retaliation. Lynda Owens, the Director of Operations, welcomed employees and introduced Dawn Johnson, who was the new Human Resources Manager. Together, they covered the following points:

• A lawsuit had been filed by a former employee, Lloyd Brown, against Ansafone alleging that Ansafone failed to pay him and other employees like him overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
• Ansafone denies the allegations and maintains that its policies comply with the law.
• Employees were reminded that they are not permitted to work off the clock and if they have difficulty clocking in they can and should see their supervisors to get their time entries corrected.
• Ansafone provided CSR's contact information so they could receive a Notice in the mail about the lawsuit which would contain more information --they should read it carefully and make their own decisions.
• Ansafone has a strict no retaliation policy. If employees choose to join the lawsuit there will be no negative consequence to their jobs.
• The Notice will have the contact information for Mr. Brown's lawyers and Ansafone's lawyers. Employees can contact them.

(Doc. 121-2, Declaration of Randy Harmat at ¶10; Doc. 121-3, Declaration of Lynda Owens at ¶8; Doc. 121-4, Declaration of Dawn Johnson at ¶¶9-12; Transcript at 128).

         At the hearing, Ms. Owens and Ms. Johnson both confirmed that they discussed only the above information and said nothing to contradict the Notice (which they had reviewed prior to the meetings). (Tr. 99-100, 125-28, 135-36). Ms. Owens and Ms. Johnson specifically denied delivering any threats of retaliation against the customer service representatives, discouraging them from joining the lawsuit, or telling them that there would be consequences for joining the lawsuit. (Tr. 102-04, 136-37). Ms. Owens testified that no one, including Mr. Maldonado, asked her any questions after the meetings. (Tr. 103).

         Defendant also offered declarations from twenty-two customer service representatives, all of whom attended the meetings and averred that they were not threatened with loss of job, demotion, loss or hours or a schedule change, or any other threats of any kind to their jobs. (Docs. 121-7, 121-8).

         II. DISCUSSION

         As a starting point, there is no bright-line rule barring a defendant from speaking with putative class members. See Bobryk v. Durand Glass Mfg. Co., Inc., No. 12-cv-5360 (NLH/JS), 2013 WL 5574504, at *3 (D.N.J. Oct. 9, 2013); Longcrier v. HL-A Co., Inc., 595 F.Supp.2d 1218, 1225 (S.D. Ala. 2008) (noting “it is quite clear that a defendant in a § 216(b) action is not categorically forbidden from communicating with prospective opt-in plaintiffs.”). However, federal courts have exercised their discretion to correct the effects of communications with potential FLSA collective action members after misleading, coercive, or improper communications are made. See Billingsley v. Citi Trends, Inc., 560 Fed.Appx. 914, 922 (11th Cir. 2014).

         Here, Plaintiffs failed to offer compelling and credible evidence that the meetings were misleading, coercive, or otherwise abusive. As discussed above, the only evidence offered by Plaintiffs were the declarations and testimony of Mr. Maldonado and Ms. Moman, both of whom came forward after they were terminated from their employment with Ansafone.[2] I have no trouble finding that their vague testimony was not persuasive. Mr. Maldonado testified that Ms. Owens “basically” told the customer service representatives not to participate and that if they did there “basically” would be consequences. By qualifying much of his ...


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