Tuesday, September 14, 2010

We trust the jury on "joint employer" question

It's been said that you can only have one master. This means you have only one employer. But that's not really true. Under the labor laws, you can sue joint employers that are not bound by any official relationship so long as, among other things, the second company also controls your labor. This why many plaintiffs suing for minimum wage and overtime violations name more than one employer as defendants. The more the merrier.

The case is Zheng v. Liberty Apparel Company, decided on August 10. The case reaches the Court of Appeals because 25 Chinese garment workers prevailed at trial in alleging that their actual employer -- Lai Huen Yam -- and a joint employer -- Liberty Apparel -- basically ripped them off and denied them proper compensation. Liberty delivered partially-finished clothes to Yam's factory in Chinatown, and plaintiffs would finish the clothes by sewing the fabrics together and adding buttons, labels, cuffs and hems. The Liberty company regularly sent quality control people over to Yam's factory to supervise plaintiff's work. So, while Yam was technically plaintiff's official employer, it was as if they also worked for Liberty.

Liberty Apparel claims on appeal that the jury should not have decided whether Liberty was a joint employer, and that only the trial court should have made that decision. This is actually a mixed question of law and fact, as we apply the legal standard to a particular set of facts. Having lost at trial, this point was really one of Liberty's last non-frivolous arguments before they have to pay up in this protracted litigation. The Second Circuit (Jacobs, Parker and Hall) trusts the jury on these issues and affirms the verdict:

FLSA claims typically involve complex mixed questions of fact and law ... The jury’s role was to apply the facts bearing on the multi-factor joint employment inquiry to the legal definition of joint employer, as that term had been (properly) defined by the district court in the jury charge. “[M]ixed questions [of law and fact] are ‘especially well-suited for jury determination ...’”

While Liberty argued that the trial court should have given the jury a special verdict form "so that the jury could detail its factual findings regarding the various joint employment factors, and so that the district court could then have applied those findings to make the final determination as to joint employment," that would "distort" the jury's role of applying facts to law and, in any event, "appellate courts rarely--if ever--vacate for failure to use a special verdict form."

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