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McKnight v. Honeywell Safety Products USA, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

August 11, 2017



          WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief Judge.

         Plaintiffs Barbara McKnight and Sheila Anderson recently worked as buyers at Defendants' Cranston and Smithfield, Rhode Island facilities. (Second Am. Collective Action Compl. (“SAC”) ¶¶ 7, 8, ECF No. 28.) They are suing their former employer for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and Rhode Island's Minimum Wage Act and Payment of Wages Act for failure to pay overtime wages. (SAC ¶¶ 54, 64, 67.) Plaintiff McKnight, who initiated this lawsuit while she was still employed by Defendants, also alleges that Defendants retaliated against her for starting this litigation, which led to her constructive discharge. (Id. ¶¶ 76, 77.)

         Before the Court is Plaintiffs' Motion for Conditional Certification and Notice to be Issued to Similarly Situated Employees Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (ECF No. 18) (“Plaintiffs' Motion”). On June 13, 2017, Magistrate Judge Patricia A. Sullivan filed a Report and Recommendation (“R&R”), recommending that Plaintiffs' Motion be denied without prejudice because there was insufficient evidence from which she could conclude, even on the lenient standard applicable to a motion for conditional class certification, that other buyers employed by Defendants are similarly situated to Plaintiffs. (R&R 16, 21, ECF No. 49.) Magistrate Judge Sullivan suggested that Plaintiffs could renew their Motion if discovery reveals additional support for their claims that other buyers are similarly situated such that the alleged violations of employment law occurred to them as well. (Id. at 21.)

         Plaintiffs filed an objection to the R&R, arguing that the Magistrate Judge misstated and misapplied the applicable law, as well as failed to properly consider the evidence submitted by Plaintiffs in support of their motion. The Court reviews de novo the parts of the R&R to which an objection is made. 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1).

         After reviewing Plaintiffs' Motion, Defendants' objection, the exhibits submitted by both parties, the R&R, and Plaintiffs' objection thereto, the Court agrees with the Magistrate Judge's analysis and recommendation that Plaintiffs' Motion be denied without prejudice to refiling after further discovery has been completed. Plaintiffs' argument emphasizing the lenient standard for the preliminary showing required at this first tier of the two-tier approach to conditional class certification pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) is well-taken. But, the Court finds that Plaintiffs' objection simply re-summarizes the statements in their declarations and the substantive corporate policies submitted as exhibits and concludes that Plaintiffs have not yet shown that other “buyers” employed by Defendants are or were similarly situated to Plaintiffs.

         The R&R (ECF No. 49) is, therefore, ACCEPTED. Plaintiffs' Motion for Conditional Certification and Notice to be Issued to Similarly Situated Employees Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (ECF No. 18) is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE.

         IT IS SO ORDERED.


          PATRICIA A. SULLIVAN, United States Magistrate Judge.

         Before the Court for report and recommendation is the motion of Plaintiffs Barbara McKnight and Sheila Anderson for conditional certification and notice to be issued to similarly situated employees pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). Plaintiffs have sued their former employer, [1] Honeywell Safety Products USA, Inc. and Honey International, Inc., as well as three senior Honeywell managers (collectively, “Honeywell”). Plaintiffs allege that they and other non-management buyers and procurement personnel whose primary duty is to procure goods on behalf of Honeywell were misclassified as exempt from FLSA provisions, and were required to work in excess of forty hours per week without the overtime premium to which they were entitled. Claiming that they and the other members of the proposed collective are similarly situated, Plaintiffs ask the Court to conditionally certify this class as a FLSA collective action so that a Court-approved notice can be sent to the members of the collective.

         I. BACKGROUND[2]

         Named Plaintiffs were employed by Honeywell as buyers based in Rhode Island, McKnight from September 2013 until she resigned in September 2016, Anderson from January 2010 until May 2016. McKnight Aff. I ¶ 3; Compl. ¶ 76; Anderson Aff. ¶ 2. In the Complaint, they allege that they “and others similarly situated” had the primary duty of submitting orders to vendors for certain products listed in the purchase orders they received. Compl. ¶ 23.

         As described by McKnight and Anderson in their affidavits, their work was primarily data entry and routine clerical tasks, involving the entry of requests into an operating system that generated a purchase order, which was approved by one or more managers in accordance with Honeywell's policy. McKnight Aff. II ¶ 7; Anderson Aff. ¶¶ 10-11. Both aver that, towards the end of their tenure at Honeywell, there were changes; for example, Anderson described being required to ask vendors for a lower price, but still with no authority to actually negotiate, Anderson Aff. ¶ 13, while McKnight noted that much of the discretionary procurement work was outsourced to India, where procurement auctions were conducted. McKnight Aff. II ¶ 8. Both claim that their work as Honeywell buyers did not ever require any great skill or the exercise of independent judgment, did not include any managerial responsibilities, did not involve the hiring and firing of others, and did not involve any discretion regarding amounts purchased, purchase price or payment terms. Rather, they aver that procurement was strictly controlled by corporate-wide procurement policies and procedures that required management approval of any purchase, no matter how small. McKnight Aff. I ¶¶ 5, 7, 8; McKnight Aff. II ¶¶ 3, 5; Anderson Aff. ¶¶ 5-10, 12. Both allege that Honeywell paid them a salary and considered them FLSA-exempt, but that they were expected, indeed required, to work more than forty hours per week and never received overtime pay for work in excess of forty hours per week. McKnight Aff. I ¶ 9; McKnight Aff. II ¶¶ 3, 5; Anderson Aff. ¶¶ 2-3. Neither McKnight nor Anderson avers that she has personal knowledge of Honeywell procurement procedures beyond the confines of her own job.

         It is the unverified Complaint that adds the critical assertion that all of Honeywell's employees who are engaged in procurement, but are not managers, are “similarly situated” to Plaintiffs, in that they perform the same non-managerial routine clerical duties, such as data entry, and have no discretionary authority to deviate from Honeywell's policies and no authority to commit Honeywell in matters of significant financial impact. Compl. ¶¶ 22-33. Yet, as with Plaintiffs, Honeywell treats them all as exempt, pays them a salary, expects them to work more than forty hours per week, keeps no records of such extra work and pays no overtime. Compl. ¶¶ 25-28. The Complaint claims that Honeywell's procurement personnel have the following job titles: Buyer, Senior Buyer, Buyer I, Buyer II and Site Buyer.[3] Compl. ¶ 36. In the class certification record, there is no job description for any of these positions.

         To buttress the “similarly-situated” allegations in their Complaint, Plaintiffs submit three documents.

         The first is a form prepared by the insurance company, Cigna, acting as the manager of Honeywell's disability program. The version of the form in the record lists the “Job Requirements” for McKnight, based on her job title (listed as “Site Buyer”) as filled out by her supervisor, Lynn Sylvain, on September 29, 2015. ECF No. 37-1. The form requires the checking of boxes with respect to the physical requirements (such as the ability to lift, sit and stand), as well as the temperament and aptitudes needed for McKnight's position. As pertinent to the pending motion, the boxes checked seem inconsistent. For example, the completed form indicates that the position required such temperament characteristics as: “accept responsibility for control, direction, or planning of an activity”; “perform under stress when confronted with emergencies or unusual situation”; and “make generalizations, judgements, or decisions based on subjective or objective criteria such as with the five senses or factual data.” Yet, it also called for a worker able to “perform repetitive or continuous activity according to set procedures” and “perform without room for independent action or judgement.” ECF No. 37-1. The form describes a “Site Buyer” as a worker who is required to “provide administrative support services including: answering the phone, e-mails, computer data entry, report writing.” ECF No. 37-1. It states that the work hours for a “Site Buyer” are “typically 8:30 - 5:00, M-F.”[4] ECF No. 37-1.

         The second document establishes that Honeywell has company-wide human resource policies, which cover an array of matters such as workplace harassment and alcohol and drugs in the workplace. Plaintiffs attach the full text only of the policy for employees classified as non-exempt, which makes clear that all non-exempt time worked must be recorded and overtime must be paid for non-exempt work over forty hours per week. ECF No. 37-4.

         The third document is actually a set of documents. Collectively, they establish that Honeywell has company-wide procurement policies with strict protocols requiring that all purchases must be confirmed by a contract or purchase order signed by authorized personnel. ECF No. 37-3 (sealed). However, the submission provides no information regarding whether buyers may ever issue a purchase order without an approval, or what approvals are required for what dollar amount - in short, these policies establish only that there are policies in place and that buyers must adhere to them. In her third affidavit, with no indication of the scope of her personal knowledge, McKnight avers that buyers have no limit on the amount they may spend for the products or services they are authorized to purchase, but that all purchases, no matter how small, are required to be approved by management, and the higher the value, the more approvals are needed. McKnight Aff. III ¶¶ 1-2; accord Anderson ¶ 12.

         Honeywell counters Plaintiffs' factual proffer with nine declarations from Honeywell buyers and procurement managers from all over the United States. These declarations establish that Honeywell has many different business groups, each of which does its own procurement both for raw materials for its manufacturing sectors (called “direct” purchasing), and for items necessary to conduct its business, such as office supplies (“indirect” purchasing). See, e.g., Havlik Decl. ¶¶ 2-6; Barton Decl. ¶¶ 3-4; Marionneaux Decl. ¶¶ 3-7; Chapman Decl. ¶ 4. As described in these declarations, Honeywell's approach to procurement differs across business lines in part due to its acquisition of businesses that retained legacy procedures, and in part because different managers may adopt differing procedures depending on the skills of the employees who carry out these functions.

         For example, buyers in the Aerospace Group are expected to be “extremely strategic, ” to research, select and engage suppliers, and to negotiate both prices and terms. Barton Decl. ¶¶ 3-4. While some of the work is clerical, most is not and an employee who fails to exercise discretion and authority is subject to discipline. Barton Decl. ¶¶ 5-6. Audrey Koczan, an indirect buyer in Aerospace, confirmed that she has discretion to source suppliers and to decide on the method to solicit proposals (for example, by a request for quotations or by an auction); she is expected to use judgment to analyze proposals and to negotiate price and terms, as well as to negotiate collateral agreements addressing such issues as the need for a nondisclosure agreement. Koczan Decl. ¶¶ 5-6.[5] Similarly, Thang Ly, also an Aerospace indirect buyer, avers that he is tasked with the purchase of engineering services, including to ensure that the engineers engaged can timely provide the necessary expertise and quality. Ly Decl. ¶ 2. Ly decides whether to run auctions or to negotiate directly and chooses the most qualified supplier, which may not be the cheapest. He also negotiates terms and contract language, sometimes with the assistance of the legal department. Ly Decl. ¶¶ 2-6. Ly selects the engineering services necessary to allow Honeywell to satisfy the requirements in its contracts with commercial and governmental customers. Ly Decl. ¶¶ 2-6.

         In the Performance Materials & Technologies Group (“PMT”), managers have varying expectations and impose differing levels of responsibilities on buyers, some of whom are responsible for negotiation, procurement and execution of contracts worth up to several million dollars. Marionneaux Decl. ¶¶ 1-3. While there is some routine paperwork required of buyers in PMT, each position has savings goals and buyers have discretion and autonomy as to how to achieve the goals. Marionneaux Decl. ¶¶ 4-5. These buyers do not work a set schedule and are free to work at home or to leave during the work day; they are expected to manage the workload with little managerial oversight. Marionneaux Decl. ¶ 7. Toni Higgins, an indirect buyer who works in PMT, confirmed that she works independently and is allowed to use whatever means she chooses to select the best vendors able to make timely delivery at the most advantageous prices and terms. Higgins Decl. ¶¶ 2-5. She has the discretion to overrule a request from the business for a specific supplier and the responsibility to decide what to do if a chosen vendor fails to perform. Higgins Decl. ¶¶ 6-8.

         In the Automation and Control Solutions Group (“ACS”), declarations were submitted from managers in three separate business units, each with different approaches to procurement. For example, in Sensing and Productivity Solutions, direct buyers function as mini-program managers. They oversee sourcing of supplies for Honeywell operations with authority and discretion to arrange purchases in line with product forecasts and to ensure that operations proceed with a smooth flow of supplies; such purchases regularly exceed $1 million. Allen Decl. ¶¶ 2-3. Indirect Buyers vary widely in terms of the degree of discretion and authority they are permitted. Depending on the capacity of the individual, they are given discretion and authority to select suppliers and negotiate contracts up to $25, 000 per purchase order. Allen Decl. ¶¶ 4-6. Similarly, buyers in the ACS ...

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