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Owens v. Neovia Logistics, LLC

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

March 14, 2019

Sean Owens, Plaintiff,
v.
Neovia Logistics, LLC, Defendant.

          FINDINGS CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATION OF THE UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          RENEE HARRIS TOLIVER, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE

         Pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 636(b) and the District Judge's Standing Order of Reference, Doc. 64, this case has been referred to the United States Magistrate Judge for pretrial management. The Court now considers the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, Doc. 81 & Doc. 97. For the reasons discussed below, Plaintiff's summary judgment motion should be DENIED, and Defendant's summary judgment motion should be GRANTED.

         A. Procedural History

         In this case, brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), Plaintiff alleges that Defendant, his former employer, illegally misclassified him as an exempt employee not covered by FLSA and failed to pay him overtime wages.[1] Defendant takes the position that Plaintiff was an exempt administrative employee and thus not entitled to overtime pay. The parties cross-moved for summary judgment, Doc. 81 & Doc. 97, and, thereafter, Plaintiff filed a motion seeking Rule 11 sanctions against Defendant. Doc. 112.

         B. Factual Background

         Defendant is in the business of providing logistics services to its clients. Doc. 99 at 40 (Deft. Decl. of Maria Olson).[2] Specifically, Defendant markets “Continuous Improvement” solutions to its clients and potential clients to help them find cost savings in logistics operations, including through increased efficiency of facility operations and processes. Doc. 99 at 40-41 (Olson Decl.).

         In January 2015, Plaintiff began working for Defendant as a Continuous Improvement Supervisor. Doc. 99 at 41 (Olson Decl.). Defendant's description of the position noted that: (1) the job entailed functioning as a project leader who would lead Defendant's continuous improvement projects: (2) the essential functions of the job included being a subject matter expert, as well as training and leading workshops; (3) a bachelor's degree and management/supervisory experience were required; and (4) the position required travel 50 percent of the time, as well as frequent walking, carrying, reaching, standing, and stooping, in addition to lifting and moving items of various weight and working from a height of up to 20 feet. Doc. 99 at 51 (Deft. job description).

         Plaintiff's offer letter, which he signed, stated that his “base salary on an annualized basis will be $85, 000.” Doc. 99 at 46-49 (Offer Letter). Plaintiff testified in his deposition that when he started his job, he asked a human resources employee whether he qualified for overtime pay, and she said she “didn't think so.” Doc. 99 at 36 (Owens Dep.). Thereafter, he spoke to various managers and human resources employees about the possibility of getting overtime pay, and either the person did not know or said that he could not. Doc. 99 at 36-37 (Owens Dep.).

         When Plaintiff asked Ms. Olson in November 2015 whether he could get overtime pay, she told him that she could not grant that request but could “offer you some comp time or extra vacations days. I can also approve your vacation days to carry over into 2016.” Doc. 81-1 at 8-9 (Owens MSJ); Doc. 99 at 37 (Owens Dep.). In April 2016, Defendant raised Plaintiff's annual pay to $86, 275.00, noting that he was a salaried employee. Doc. 99 at 53 (Deft. Compensation Information). In January 2017, Ms. Olson became aware of irregularities in Plaintiff's expense reporting, and he was ultimately terminated for that reason. Doc. 99 at 42-43 (Olson Decl.). In the course of his termination proceedings, Defendant noted that Plaintiff was exempt from the FLSA. Doc. 99 at 55 (Deft. termination form).

         During his deposition, Plaintiff acknowledged that he received the same gross pay every week and whether he worked or took time off. Doc. 99 at 12 (Owens Dep.). Plaintiff said that the job posting for his position was not correct insofar as it classified the position as a “project leader, ” because he “did not have full autonomy and authority to delegate responsibilities of others as well as managing [his] own actions.” Doc. 99 at 14 (Owens Dep.). He did, however, act as a trainer, facilitated workshops, and had a college degree and prior supervisory/management experience. Doc. 99 at 14, 16 (Owens Dep.). Plaintiff also testified that he was knowledgeable about various logistics methodologies, having spent 25 years in the industry. Doc. 99 at 15 (Owens Dep.). Moreover, Plaintiff obtained a certification which demonstrated his mastery of these principles after successfully completing an 80-hour curriculum, passing a comprehensive test, and demonstrating high-quality execution of three projects yielding positive performance results. Doc. 99 at 41 (Olson Decl.).

         Plaintiff testified that part of his job was to analyze the operations of various clients' facilities and determine how to improve those operations, including changing morale, and reducing safety problems and costs, with efficiency being a “byproduct” of that process. Doc. 99 at 27 (Owens Dep.); see also Doc. 99 at 28 (Owens Dep.) (Plaintiff agreeing that his primary duties consisted of working with team members to improve operational standards and existing processes and involved in inspecting and auditing to determine if operational processes were in alignment with prescribed . . . certification standards, procedures and guidelines which were very strict and detail oriented.”); Doc. 99 at 30 (Owens Dep.) (Plaintiff testifying that his “primary duties consisted of working with team members to improve operational standards and existing processes”). In considering whether a particular client would be a good project for Defendant, Plaintiff would look at the compiled data and “let them know if this would make a good project, ” although the final decision was not up to him. Doc. 99 at 29 (Owens Dep.). Plaintiff also acknowledged that in training others, he selected which of Defendant's modules to use based on the nature of the job. Doc. 99 at 31 (Owens Dep.).

         Plaintiff also asserted that his job “required physical engagement to understand what people are doing.” Doc. 99 at 19 (Owens Dep.). As an example, Plaintiff testified that if he was tasked with modifying a standard work document, he would watch employees throughout the day to observe their pace, which he timed, ask questions about what they were doing, and then physically do the work himself so he could understand the process. Doc. 99 at 19-21 (Owens Dep.). During and after that process, Plaintiff would gather data and document it in a flowchart, for example, and ultimately send out a final report and team reports. Doc. 99 at 23-24 (Owens Dep.). He described his job as “an auditor or inspector.” Doc. 99 at 23 (Owens Dep.).

         When asked questions about his performance reviews during his tenure with Defendant, Plaintiff testified that he “pretty much” agreed with Ms. Olson's statements during his 2015 performance review that he sought creative ways to drive change and would “jump right in to thoroughly understand the root cause” of the issue and “identify improvement opportunities driving the company forward.” Doc. 99 at 32 (Owens Dep.); Doc. 99 at 61 (2015 Perf. Rev.). Plaintiff also agreed with his previous self-assessment that, “in order to successfully complete a project, I've had to deeply indulge in identifying leadership and associate gaps” to mentor, train and teach team members. Doc. 99 at 32 (Owens Dep.); Doc. 99 at 61 (2015 Perf. Rev.). Plaintiff additionally agreed with Ms. Olson's assessment that:

(1) “[Plaintiff] has a passion for delivering results. He is open to taking on new challenges and jumps right in when asked to engage in a project/tasks. When presented the challenge of taking a facility to ISO certification within four months, [Plaintiff] quickly engaged with the team, including other business areas, to create a detailed action plan aligned to [a] 4 month time frame”[3]; and
(2) As [Plaintiff] engages in various activities, he continually looks for opportunities to improve processes and services to the operations in effect to help them optimize, achieve goals, and strive for continuous improvement.”

Doc. 99 at 62 (2015 Perf. Rev.); Doc. 99 at 32-33 (Owens Dep.).

         Plaintiff's testimony regarding his role with Defendant largely mirrors Ms. Olson's declaration. Therein, she attests that she previously worked in Plaintiff's position and, based on that experience, her (and Defendant's) expectation and knowledge was that: (1) Plaintiff's “primary duty was to analyze the operations of various facilities belonging to [Defendant's] clients and determine how to improve those operations . . . by making them more efficient, ” enhancing cost-effectiveness, and reducing safety incidents; (2) Plaintiff would train employees, lead workshops, lead audits, recommend process improvements, and assist with the implementation of problem-solving methodologies; (3) Plaintiff's work also involved audits and quality control; (4) Plaintiff would rely on his experience and exercise his judgment in deciding the best way to improve client operations and processes; (5) Plaintiff “managed large, complicated projects with very little day-to-day oversight” and acted as a “point person” on those projects, updating Olson on a weekly basis; (6) as a project manager, Plaintiff “had substantial control over the improvement of operations of the facilities to which he was assigned, ” and he was expected to exercise that control and “run the projects”; and (7) Plaintiff would occasionally perform manual tasks as part of his inquiry into how a facility worked and how it could improve, but those tasks were collateral to his primary duty of making the facility more efficient. Doc. 99 at 41-42 (Olson Decl.).

         The other evidence of record also supports Ms. Olson's statements regarding the nature of Plaintiff's work. SeeDoc. 99 at 61 (2015 Perf. Rev.) (stating that, “depending on the needs of the project, [Plaintiff] can effectively play the role of both an executor and a mentor. His experience allows him the ability to make decisions and set priorities that align to the project team needs and overall goals.”); Doc. 99 at 62 (2015 Perf. Rev.) (stating that when tasked with the challenge on the Mercedes Benz job site, Plaintiff “quickly developed a solid action plan, ” and his dedication to the team allowed him to effectively lead execution efforts, such that the facility received the necessary certification “in record time.”); Doc. 99 at 64 (2015 Perf. Rev.) (Plaintiff stating that his target was to “[l]ead high-quality, strategically-aligned projects that have a sustainable impact on [his] department's business results.”); Doc. 99 at 64 (2015 Perf. Rev) (noting Plaintiff's list of the 12 projects he had completed in 2014, in which he referred to himself as a “project leader” for seven of those projects); Doc. 99 at 68 (2016 Perf. Rev.) (Plaintiff stating that based on his success and improvement in, inter alia, project completion, his influence had “a relatively significant impact on those around me and the environment.”); Doc. 99 at 69 (2016 Perf. Rev.) (Plaintiff stating that he “drove teams” to be informed regarding performance goals and “held teams accountable and on track.”); Doc. 99 at 70 (2016 Perf. Rev.) (supervisor noting that Plaintiff ...


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