Cuff v. Trans State Holdings, Inc., No. 13-1241 (7th Cir. 2014)

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Justia Opinion Summary

United Airlines contracts for regional air services under the “United Express” brand. One such supplier owns Trans States and GoJet Airlines. Cuff was on the payroll of Trans States, working at O’Hare Airport. He was fired after he took leave despite denial of his request under the Family and Medical Leave Act. The FMLA applies only if the employer has at least 50 employees within 75 miles of a worker’s station, 29 U.S.C. 2611(2)(B)(ii). Trans States had 33 employees at or within 75 miles of O’Hare, while GoJet had 343. Cuff argued that he worked for Trans States and GoJet jointly. The district court agreed and a jury awarded Cuff $28,800 in compensatory damages. The judge added $14,400 front pay in lieu of reinstatement and awarded Cuff about $325,000 in attorneys’ fees and $6,000 in costs and interest. The Seventh Circuit affirmed, citing Department of Labor regulations providing that workers are covered by the FMLA when they are jointly employed by multiple firms that collectively have 50 or more workers, 29 C.F.R. 825.106(a) and that firms may be treated as a single employer when they operate a joint business, 29 C.F.R. 825.104(c), and noting several indicators that Cuff worked for both operations. The court stated that “the defense had not done its homework; it was content to leave the labor to Cuff’s team and the judge … for issue after issue.”

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In the United States Court of Appeals For the Seventh Circuit ____________________   No.  13-­ 1241   DARREN  CUFF,   Plaintiff-­ Appellee,   v.   TRANS  STATES  HOLDINGS,  INC.,  et  al.,   Defendants-­ Appellants.   ____________________   Appeal  from  the  United  States  District  Court  for  the   Northern  District  of  Illinois,  Eastern  Division.   No.  10  C  1349    Harry  D.  Leinenweber,  Judge.   ____________________   ARGUED  OCTOBER  30,  2013    DECIDED  SEPTEMBER  19,  2014   ____________________   es.   Before  EASTERBROOK,  RIPPLE,  and  WILLIAMS,  Circuit  Judg-­ EASTERBROOK,   Circuit   Judge.   United   Airlines   contracts   with  other  firms  for  regional  air  services  under  the   United   Express   brand.   Trans   States   Holdings   (Holdings)   is   one   of   United s  suppliers.  It  owns  two  air  carriers:  Trans  States  Air-­ lines  (Trans  States)  and  GoJet  Airlines  (GoJet).  Our  case  pre-­ sents   the   question   whether   Darren   Cuff,   who   was   on   the   2   No.  13-­ 1241   payroll  of  Trans  States,  was  covered  by  the  Family  and  Med-­ ical  Leave  Act.   The   FMLA   applies   only   if   the   employer   has   at   least   50   employees   within   75   miles   of   a   given   worker s   station.   29   U.S.C.  §2611(2)(B)(ii).  Cuff  worked  at  O Hare  Airport  in  Chi-­ cago.   The   parties   agree   that   in   January   2010,   when   it   fired   Cuff  after  he  took  leave  despite  its  denial  of  his  request  un-­ der  the  FMLA,  Trans  States  had  33  employees  at  or  within  75   miles   of   O Hare,   while   GoJet   had   343   and   Holdings   had   none.  Cuff  contends  that  he  worked  for  Trans  States  and  Go-­ Jet   jointly.   The   district   court   granted   summary   judgment   in   Cuff s   favor   on   that   subject,   816   F.   Supp.   2d   556   (N.D.   Ill.   2011),   and   a   jury   later   determined   that   Cuff   met   the   other   standards  of  eligibility  for  leave.  It  awarded  Cuff  $28,800  in   compensatory   damages,   to   which   the   judge   added   $14,400   front   pay   in   lieu   of   reinstatement.   The   court   also   awarded   Cuff  about  $325,000  in  attorneys  fees  and  $6,000  in  costs  and   interest.  2013  U.S.  Dist.  LEXIS  4467  (N.D.  Ill.  Jan.  11,  2013).   The  Department  of  Labor  has  issued  a  regulation,  whose   validity  defendants  do  not  challenge,  providing  that  workers   are  covered  by  the  FMLA  when  they  are  jointly  employed  by   multiple  firms  that  collectively  have  50  or  more  workers.  29   C.F.R.   §825.106(a).   A   separate   regulation   adds   that   two   or   more   firms   may   be   treated   as   a   single   employer   when   they   operate  a  joint  business.  29  C.F.R.  §825.104(c).  Cuff  invoked   both   of   these   provisions,   but   the   district   judge   relied   exclu-­ sively   on   the   former.   Defendants   have   muddied   the   waters   by  directing  much  of  their  appellate  presentation  to  the  joint-­ business   question.   They   observe,   for   example,   that   the   Na-­ tional   Mediation   Board   has   concluded   that   the   pilots   at   Trans  States  and  GoJet  must  negotiate  separately  because  the   No.  13-­ 1241   3   two   carriers   do   not   conduct   joint   air   operations.   But   that   is   irrelevant   to   the   question   whether   Trans   States   and   GoJet   jointly   used   Cuff s   services.   The   joint-­ employment   inquiry   under   §825.106(a)   is   person-­ specific;   it   is   possible   for   one   person   to   be   employed   jointly   by   two   firms   that   otherwise   have  distinct  labor  forces.   Regulation  825.106(a)  supplies  a  list  of  factors  to  consid-­ er all   relevant,   none   dispositive.   We   remarked   in   Molden-­ hauer   v.   Tazewell-­ Pekin   Consolidated   Communications   Center,   536  F.3d  640,  644  (7th  Cir.  2008),  that  open-­ ended  lists  do  not   decide  concrete  cases.  Often  a  set  of  factors  to  be  considered   and   balanced   implies   the   need   for   a   trial,   but   summary   judgment   is   possible   when   the   facts   allow.   Cf.   Secretary   of   Labor  v.  Lauritzen,  835  F.2d  1529  (7th  Cir.  1987).  And,  like  the   district   court,   we   think   the   summary-­ judgment   record   al-­ lows  only  one  answer.  The  two  lead  factors  identified  by  the   regulation   are   whether   there   is   an   arrangement   between   employers   to   share   an   employee s   services   and   whether   one  employer  acts  directly  or  indirectly  in  the  interest  of  the   other  employer  in  relation  to  the  employee .  Both  questions   must  be  answered   yes,  none  of  the  remaining  factors  helps   defendants,  and  it  follows  that  Cuff  was  a  joint  employee  of   at  least  Trans  States  and  GoJet,  if  not  of  Holdings  too.   Cuff  was  the   regional  manager  of  Trans  States  and  rep-­ resented   the   three   firms   in   their   dealings   with   United   and   O Hare.   His   business   card   bore   the   logos   of   all   three   firms.   Terry   Basham,   the   Vice   President   for   Customer   Services   at   Holdings  (the  corporate  parent  of  the  two  air  carriers)  testi-­ fied   by   deposition   that   Cuff   had   been   hired   to   provide   ser-­ vices  to  both  Trans  States  and  GoJet.  The  internal  directories   of   Holdings   and   United   Express   identified   Cuff   as   the   per-­ 4   No.  13-­ 1241   son  to  contact  with  any  question  about  how  Trans  States  or   GoJet  operated  at  O Hare.  Cuff s  supervisor  notified  United   and  other  airlines  in  2008  that,   [e]ffective  immediately,  Dar-­ ren  Cuff,  Regional  Manager,  Trans  States  Holdings,  Inc.  [sic:   his  official  employer  was  Trans  States  Airlines]  will  be  your   go   to   person   if   there   are   any   operational   issues   or   concerns   with   Trans   States   or   GoJet   Airlines   flights   operating   in   and   out   of   your   cities.   Cuff   related   by   deposition   and   affidavit   that   he   worked   with   Trans   States   and   GoJet   every   day.   Cuff s   replacement   was   put   on   the   payroll   of   Holdings   be-­ cause,  Basham  explained,   We  made  the  decision  to  put  the   support  positions  that  support  both  [Trans  States  and  GoJet]   where   we   can   into   a   Holdings   position.   There s   more,   but   this  is  quite  enough.   This  case  had  to  be  tried,  notwithstanding  the  resolution   of   the   joint-­ employer   question,   because   defendants   made   a   blizzard   of   other   contentions.   They   insisted,   for   example,   that   the   FMLA   did   not   apply   because   Cuff   would   not   have   needed  medical  leave  had  he  been  more  conscientious  in  fol-­ lowing   his   physicians   recommendations.   The   district   judge   ultimately   squelched   that   defense   on   legal   grounds   but   could  not  so  easily  dispatch  others,  which  depended  on  the   principle,   established   in   McKennon   v.   Nashville   Banner   Pub-­ lishing   Co.,   513   U.S.   352   (1995),   that   after-­ acquired   evidence   of   an   employee s   misconduct   can   limit   damages   even   if   the   evidence  does  not  retroactively  erase  the  violation.  Although   McKennon   was   decided   under   the   Age   Discrimination   in   Employment   Act,   its   analysis   is   generalizable   to   remedies   under  other  federal  statutes.  Every  court  of  appeals  that  has   considered  the  subject  has  concluded  that  McKennon  applies   to  the  FMLA.  See,  e.g.,  Dotson  v.  Pfizer,  Inc.,  558  F.3d  284,  298   No.  13-­ 1241   5   (4th  Cir.  2009);  Edgar  v.  JAC  Products,  Inc.,  443  F.3d  501,  514   (6th  Cir.  2006).  We  agree  with  that  conclusion.   Defendants   contended   (among   other   things)   that   Cuff   had  a  sexual  relationship  with  a  subordinate,  lied  about  it  in   an   internal   investigation,   failed   to   report   an   arrest   for   driv-­ ing   while   intoxicated,   and   was   taking   so   many   narcotic   drugs  for  his  medical  conditions  that  he  was  not  fit  for  work.   The   judge   allowed   defendants   to   introduce   evidence   that   Cuff   had   lied   during   an   internal   investigation   but   excluded   other   evidence   for   problematic   reasons.   For   example,   the   judge  wrongly  believed  that  defendants  could  not  introduce   any  evidence  about  misconduct  unless  they  could  show  that   they   had   fired   another   worker   for   doing   exactly   what   they   belatedly   learned   about   Cuff.   That s   not   what   McKennon   holds;  it  says  that  damages  can  be  curtailed  if  the  employer   would  have  fired  this  employee,  in  particular,  on  learning  of   the   worker s   misconduct.   That   principle   is   not   an   anti-­ discrimination   norm   that   requires   a   comparison   with   how   the  employer  has  treated  other  workers.   The  district  judge  also  excluded  some  of  defendants  evi-­ dence  under  Fed.  R.  Evid.  403  on  the  ground  that  it  would  be   used  to  impeach  Cuff.  This  misunderstands  the  reason  why   it  was  offered  and  is  wrong  on  its  own  terms.  The  question   under   Rule   403   is   not   whether   evidence   is   prejudicial ;   all   defense   evidence   is   designed   to   undermine   the   plaintiff s   case;   it   is   whether   the   evidence   is   unfairly   prejudicial.   Any   evidence  within  the  scope  of  McKennon  will  cast  the  plaintiff   in  a  poor  light.  The  worse  the  light,  the  more  likely  the  belat-­ edly  discovered  facts  would  have  produced  a  discharge.  It  is   inappropriate  to  exclude  evidence  under  Rule  403  because  it   casts   the   plaintiff   in   a   really   bad   light,   because   doing   that   6   No.  13-­ 1241   would  effectively  nullify  the  strongest  of  the  class  of  defens-­ es  that  McKennon  recognizes.   When   a   district   judge   excludes   evidence,   the   party   ag-­ grieved   by   that   decision   must   make   an   offer   of   proof   if   it   wants  to  raise  the  issue  on  appeal.  Fed.  R.  Evid.  103(a)(2).  An   offer   of   proof   in   a   situation   like   this   would   be   something   along   the   lines   of:   Manager   X   would   testify   that,   had   he   known   Fact   Y   [the   fact   excluded   from   evidence],   he   would   have  fired  Cuff.  Cuff s  brief  asks  us  to  hold  that  defendants   forfeited   their   appellate   arguments   by   not   making   offers   of   proof.   In   response,   defendants   reply   brief   says nothing.   When  we  explored  this  subject  at  oral  argument,  defendants   lawyer  resisted  giving  an  answer  but,  after  an  extended  col-­ loquy,  finally  conceded  that  the  defense  had  not  made  even   one  offer  of  proof  at  trial.  That  scuttles  a  McKennon  defense,   because   without   anyone   in   authority   testifying   that   Cuff   would   have   been   sacked   when   the   truth   came   out   (had   he   still  been  on  the  payroll),  there  was  no  basis  to  stop  the  run-­ ning  of  damages.  The  jury s  verdict  therefore  stands.   FMLA  authorizes  an  award  of  reasonable  attorneys  fees   to   the   prevailing   party.   29   U.S.C.   §2617(a)(3).   Defendants   concede   that   Cuff   prevailed,   and   they   do   not   contest   either   the  number  of  hours  counsel  devoted  to  the  case  or  the  hour-­ ly  rate  counsel  charged.  Defendants  sole  argument  is  that  an   award   of   almost   $325,000   is   not   reasonable   in   relation   to   Cuff s  recovery,  which  is  less  than  $50,000.   The  ratio  certainly  seems  high.  Rational  people  do  not  set   out   to   invest   $325,000   in   order   to   obtain   $50,000.   But   then   Cuff s  lawyers  surely  did  not  expect  at  the  outset  of  this  case   to   invest   that   much   legal   time   in   its   pursuit.   Sometimes   events   during   the   litigation   change   the   calculus,   and   a   law-­ No.  13-­ 1241   7   yer   must   avoid   the   sunk-­ cost   fallacy.   If,   after   spending   $25,000  in  legal  time,  a  lawyer  is  confronted  with  a  defense   that  will  cost  $30,000  to  defeat,  counsel  will  not  say:   It  is  ir-­ rational   to   spend   $55,000   to   get   $50,000.   The   $25,000   is   sunk;   if   the   suit   is   abandoned   the   recovery   will   be   zero,   so   the   right   question   is   whether   it   is   reasonable   to   spend   $30,000  more  to  get  $50,000,  and  the  answer  is  yes.  Suppose   the   same   thing   happens   over   and   over   in   a   suit,   with   one   unexpected   development   after   another   raising   the   costs   without   raising   the   expected   recovery.   It   can   be   reasonable   to  meet  each  of  these  events  by  investing  more,  even  though   an   analysis   that   looks   only   at   the   bottom   line   ($325,000   in-­ vested  to  get  $50,000)  makes  the  total  seem  unreasonable.   Something   like   our   example   may   have   happened   in   this   litigation.   At   each   turn   the   defendants   injected   new   issues   and  arguments  into  the  case.  And  the  defense  was  conduct-­ ed   in   blunderbuss   fashion.   We   have   mentioned   one   of   the   examples:  defendants  contended  that  Cuff  was  not  qualified   for  FMLA  leave  because  he  was  not  taking  all  of  the  medica-­ tions  his  physician  prescribed.  The  defense  did  not  cite  any   statute,  regulation,  or  judicial  decision  in  support  of  this  ar-­ gument.   That   thrust   on   Cuff s   lawyers   (and   the   judge)   the   burden   of   legal   research.   Cuff s   lawyers   did   the   work   and   discovered   that   the   defense   argument   was   nothing   but   hot   air.   The   right   question   under   the   FMLA   is   whether   the   em-­ ployee   has   a   medical   need   for   leave   at   the   time   he   requests   time  off,  not  whether  he  could  have  managed  his  life  better   to  avoid  needing  time  off.   Later   in   the   case,   defendants   attempts   to   use   McKennon   required   extensive   discovery   and   a   trial,   and   it   was   all   a   waste  because  the  defense  did  not  take  a  basic  step  such  as   8   No.  13-­ 1241   making   an   offer   of   proof.   We   said   earlier   that   the   district   judge   erred   in   excluding   some   of   the   evidence   that   the   de-­ fense  proffered,  but  it  is  hard  to  blame  the  judge,  who  asked   the   defense   for   legal   argument   in   support   of   the   evidence s   admissibility only  to  be  met  with  silence.  The  defense  had   not  done  its  homework;  it  was  content  to  leave  the  labor  to   Cuff s  team  and  the  judge.  And  so  it  goes  for  issue  after  issue   in  this  litigation.  Defendants  do  not  argue  that  the  number  of   hours  Cuff s  lawyers  devoted  to  refuting  their  defenses  was   unreasonable;  defendants  contest  only  the  aggregate  outlay,   yet   the   high   total   is   the   expected   result   of   the   way   the   de-­ fense  was  conducted.   Fee-­ shifting   statutes   such   as   §2617(a)(3)   are   designed   to   prevent   the   potentially   high   costs   of   litigation   from   stifling   justified   claims.   Without   such   a   statute,   defendants   might   have  said  to  Cuff  at  the  outset:   We  concede  violating  your   rights   under   the   Act,   and   we   also   concede   that   your   loss   is   $50,000,  but  we  plan  to  wage  an  all-­ out  defense  that  will  cost   at  least  $200,000  to  overcome.  You  might  as  well  capitulate,   because  you  will  lose  on  net.  A  business  that  can  establish  a   reputation  for  intransigence  may  end  up  not  paying  damag-­ es  and  not  having  to  defend  all  that  often  either,  because  if  a   prevailing   party   who   litigates   to   victory   gets   only   a   small   award   of   fees   the   next   would-­ be   victim   will   see   that   litiga-­ tion  is  futile  and  the  employer  won t  have  to  repeat  the  cost-­ ly  defense.  That s  why  we  held  in  BCS  Services,  Inc.  v.  BG  In-­ vestments,  Inc.,  728  F.3d  633  (7th  Cir.  2013),  that  hyperaggres-­ sive  defendants  who  drive  up  the  expense  of  litigation  must   pay  the  full  costs,  even  if  legal  fees  seem  excessive  in  retro-­ spect.   That   principle   controls   here or,   more   properly,   the   district  judge  did  not  abuse  his  discretion  in  thinking  that  it   No.  13-­ 1241   9   controls   and   deeming   Cuff s   legal   expenses   reasonable   in   light  of  the  defendants  conduct.   AFFIRMED