In FLSA cases, plaintiff lawyers are always looking for a deep pocket and one of the avenues they use towards this “goal” is the joint employer doctrine. That doctrine allows more than one employer to be liable for employee damages (e.g. overtime, back wages) if the employers are found to co-determine employee terms and conditions of employment. In a recent Third Circuit case involving the health care industry, a panel has reversed a lower court ruling that found two entities were not a joint employer meaning that this company now has to defend the collective action allegations of unpaid overtime. The case is entitled Talarico v. Public Partnerships LLC and issued from the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
The Court found that Public Partnerships, LLC (PPL) set rules for a group of Direct Care Workers (DCWs), established their working conditions and maintained their employment records, all indicators of a joint employer relationship. In the end, it was a factual question for a jury. The Court observed that “whether PPL is Talarico’s employer is a genuine dispute as to a material fact because the evidence — viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, Talarico — does not so favor PPL that no reasonable juror could render a verdict against it.” PPL provided “financial management services” to entities who participated in Medicaid’s Home and Community-Based Services waiver program. It must be noted that the joint employer “problem” is prevalent in the health care industry, where many different agencies and entities work together to provide care.
The suit alleged that overtime was only paid to these direct care workers when they worked in excess of forty hours for a single client. When they worked for more than one client, and their hours added up to more than forty, they were only paid straight time. The lower court Judge applied the four-factor test adopted by the Third Circuit in 2012 decision and noted that the documents “all state that the [participant-employer] is the employer of the DCW, not PPL.” On appeal, the appellate panel that two of these factors militated a conclusion that the entities were a joint employer.
The Third Circuit identified those “bad” factors as “the alleged employer’s authority to promulgate work rules and assignments and to set the employees’ conditions of employment: compensation, benefits, and work schedules, including the rate and method of payment,” and “the alleged employer’s actual control of employee records, such as payroll, insurance, or taxes.” The Court also noted that “although the participants select the specific wage rate for their DCWs, PPL caps the maximum rate DCWs may receive based on the commonwealth’s reimbursement rate. In addition to this cap, PPL requires DCWs and the participants to submit time sheets, which PPL then reviews before paying the DCWs.” The Court also found that PPL had the “authority to hire and fire the relevant employees” and PPL played a role in “day-to-day employee supervision, including employee discipline.”
Health care employers are, I believe, particularly at risk in these joint employer cases. Health care entities often utilize many staffing or other agencies for personnel and the lines of supervision can grow blurry, which may impel a joint employer finding. The strategy here is to engraft into any vendor or other commercial agreement specifically demarcated lines of independence that seal off, to as large an extent as possible, the putative joint employer from making any decisions into the terms and conditions of employment of the workers at issue. In other words, the employer can draft its way out of a problem.