Appeals Court Criticizes Trial Judge for Improperly Dismissing Wage and Hour Case a Week Before Trial

Many New York workers, and especially immigrants, struggle to receive fair pay from their employers. Federal and state laws impose minimum wage and overtime requirements. When employers fail to follow the law, the burden is often on the employees to take action and file a lawsuit just to receive the money they are rightfully owed.

Employment litigation is usually not a quick process. It can take several months or years of pre-trial discovery before a case makes it to the inside of a courtroom. Even then, litigants need to contend with a number of procedural obstacles. Unfortunately, sometimes these obstacles include a trial judge whose decisions unfairly prejudice the rights of employees to a fair trial.

Employees Deprived of Rights Without Proper Notice, Hearing

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals here in New York City recently addressed such a case. This remarkable story involves a lawsuit that spent two years in pre-trial discovery, only to be thrown out of court a week before trial by a judge who, in the Second Circuit's words, “impugned” the motives of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. The appeals court held the trial judge was out of line, and returned the case back to the district court with directions to proceed.

Here is a brief explanation of what transpired. The plaintiffs are a group of immigrant laborers who worked in the defendants' laundromats. The plaintiffs allege the defendants failed to pay them required minimum wage and overtime wages. Initially, the plaintiffs brought their claims under both the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and the New York Labor Law (NYLL).

During the course of discovery, the Second Circuit issued an opinion in another case that said plaintiffs could not seek “liquidated damages” under both the FLSA and the NYLL, since the two laws effectively addressed the same misconduct. With this in mind, the plaintiffs noted in a pretrial motion that they “intend to pursue at trial only their NYLL claims since the NYLL provides all relief that the FLSA provides.”

The trial judge took this as a sign the plaintiffs had “expressly abandoned” their FLSA claims. Then, without notice to either side or a hearing, the judge canceled the trial–scheduled to begin a week later–and dismissed the NYLL claims. In legal terms, the judge declined to exercise “supplemental jurisdiction” over the NYLL claims, thereby forcing the plaintiffs to start their litigation all over again in state court.

The Second Circuit had a number of problems with this. First, the trial judge was simply wrong to dismiss the case on his own initiative “without affording the parties notice or any opportunity to be heard.” Second, the appeals court objected to the trial judge's implication that the plaintiffs' attorneys somehow engaged in “forum shopping”–i.e., their FLSA claim was simply a sham to invoke federal jurisdiction. As the Second Circuit pointed out, this case “was vigorously litigated for years” and ready for trial. It is not clear why any lawyer would have gone to such lengths merely as a “ploy to get into federal court.”

Finally, even assuming the plaintiffs abandoned their FLSA claims, the trial judge was still required to make a “discretionary inquiry” into whether to retain jurisdiction over the NYLL allegations. Among other factors, the judge needed to consider whether or not “judicial economy, convenience, fairness, or comity” would be served by requiring the plaintiffs to refile their case in state court. Here, the judge did not do that.

Contact a NYC Wage and Hour Lawyer Today

This is an unusual case, but it does illustrate the kinds of legal challenges faced by workers seeking to vindicate their rights in court. If you need help from a qualified New York employment attorney, contact the Law Offices of Nisar Law Group, P.C., today.


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