The general rule regarding out-of-court settlements for claims brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) is that in order to be enforceable, the settlement agreement must be approved by the Department of Labor or by a court. This rule has long posed a burden on employers because unlike many other employment-related claims that could be resolved through a private settlement agreement, settlement agreements in FLSA claims need to be filed in the public record for necessary court approval.
A recent ruling out of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has provided a breath of fresh air for employers. In the case of Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, LLC, a group of film-industry technicians brought a claim under the FLSA for additional compensation for hours they allegedly worked. After an investigation, a union representative determined that it would be impossible to determine whether the technicians actually worked on the days they claimed. Subsequently, the union and employer entered into a private settlement agreement regarding the disputed hours. Though the settlement agreement was entered, the technicians filed suit seeking unpaid wages under the FLSA. The employer moved to dismiss due to the previous settlement agreement. The Fifth Circuit ultimately ruled that there existed a bona fide dispute as to the number of hours allegedly worked. Because of this, the court held that the settlement payment was “an enforceable resolution of those FLSA claims predicated on a bona fide dispute about time worked and not as a compromise of guaranteed FLSA substantive rights.”
Importantly, the court allowed this private settlement because it “resolve[d] a bona fide dispute as to the number of hours worked – not the rate at which [the technicians] would be paid for those hours.” Employers must take note that nothing in this opinion allows for employees to privately waive or release substantive rights provided under the FLSA. For example, nothing in this opinion would allow an employer to enter into a settlement agreement whereby the employer would settle to pay half of an employee’s claimed overtime compensation or where the employer negotiated to pay a higher rate of pay than allowed for hours worked in excess of 40 per workweek.
Although the Fifth Circuit came to this conclusion, other jurisdictions may not necessarily reach a similar conclusion. The Fifth Circuit is the appellate jurisdiction covering Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The Fourth Circuit covering Virginia and Maryland has not yet permitted a private settlement waiver of FLSA overtime claims. This decision calls into question the long standing principle that FLSA settlements must always be approved by a court or the Department of Labor to be valid. Employers should take note of this opinion and discuss with counsel its potential impact on any FLSA settlement.