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Johnson v. Colorado Seminary

United States District Court, D. Colorado

September 11, 2019

ERIN JOHNSON, JOCELYN KLEIN, SARAH FLANSBURG, SUSAN TATE, LINDY GUNN, LAURA SCIARCON, ERICA BERINGER Plaintiffs,
v.
COLORADO SEMINARY, Defendant.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART MOTIONS FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          Marcia S. Krieger Senior United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court pursuant to the Plaintiffs' Partial Motion for Summary Judgment (# 67), the Defendant's (“FELC”) response (# 77), and the Plaintiffs' reply (# 79); and FELC's Motion for Summary Judgment (# 68), the Plaintiffs' response (# 78), and FELC's reply (# 82).[1]

         FACTS

         The Court briefly summarizes the pertinent facts here and elaborates as necessary in its analysis.

         Although the parties disagree as to many facts, at least the basic contours of this dispute are mostly undisputed. The Defendant, through the University of Denver, operates the Fisher Early Learning Center (“FELC”). According to the Defendant, FELC is “a nationally-accredited early learning center, ” although the Plaintiffs describe it as simply “a large child-care center.” The Plaintiffs are among the employees of FELC, responsible for the care and instruction of the children, ranging in age from 6 months to 3 years old.

         Initially, FELC considered its employees to be “teachers, ” exempt from the Fair Labor Standards Act's (“FLSA”) overtime requirements. Thus, FELC employees were only paid their regular salary, regardless of how many hours they worked per week. However, in mid-2016, in anticipation of a change in regulations, FELC revisited that issue and decided to instead treat the employees as covered by the FLSA and entitled to time-and-a-half wages for hours worked over 40 in a week. FELC also decided to compensate the employees for any overtime they had worked since June 1, 2014. Lacking comprehensive documentation on employees' hours over that two-year period, on or about November 17, 2016, Rebecca Tankersly, FELC's Director, wrote to FELC's employees asking them to “document your overtime from June 1, 2014 [to] November 30, 2016.” Each of the employees, including the Plaintiffs, did so. FELC officials made adjustments to the hours claimed by certain employees (including the Plaintiffs), then paid the employees one-and-one-half times their average hourly rate for any overtime hours that had been identified.

         The Plaintiffs believe that FELC owes them additional sums for unpaid overtime, and on August 29, 2017, they commenced the instant action asserting: (i) a claim for unpaid overtime pursuant to the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 207; (ii) a claim for unpaid overtime pursuant to Colorado's Wage Claim Act, C.R.S. § 8-4-101 et eq.; (iii) a claim for failure to provide paid rest breaks as required by Colorado law, 7 C.C.R. § 1103-1:8; (iv) a claim for breach of contract, in that FELC promised to pay the Plaintiffs unpaid overtime but then failed to fully compensate them; and (v) a claim for promissory estoppel premised on the same facts. The Court sua sponte bifurcated and stayed (# 8) the state-law claims, such that only the Plaintiffs' FLSA claims are at issue at this time.

         Both sides now move for summary judgment on their claims. The Plaintiffs' motion (#67) contends that: (i) the Plaintiffs are entitled to an additional payment of liquidated damages pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b); and (ii) because FELC recklessly disregarded its obligations under the FLSA, the Plaintiffs' claims are subject to a three-year statute of limitation instead of a two-year one, 29 U.S.C. § 255(a). The Defendants' motion (# 68) contends that it is entitled to summary judgment on the Plaintiffs' FLSA claims because: (i) the Plaintiffs still fall within the “professional” exemption and thus, are not entitled to overtime compensation under the FLSA at all; and (ii) even if the Plaintiffs are covered by the FLSA, FELC has already paid them the full amount of any overtime compensation to which they are entitled.

         ANALYSIS

         A. Standard of review

         Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure facilitates the entry of a judgment only if no trial is necessary. See White v. York Intern. Corp., 45 F.3d 357, 360 (10th Cir. 1995). Summary adjudication is authorized when there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and a party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Substantive law governs what facts are material and what issues must be determined. It also specifies the elements that must be proved for a given claim or defense, sets the standard of proof and identifies the party with the burden of proof. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Kaiser-Francis Oil Co. v. Producer's Gas Co., 870 F.2d 563, 565 (10th Cir. 1989). A factual dispute is “genuine” and summary judgment is precluded if the evidence presented in support of and opposition to the motion is so contradictory that, if presented at trial, a judgment could enter for either party. See Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. When considering a summary judgment motion, a court views all evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, thereby favoring the right to a trial. See Garrett v. Hewlett Packard Co., 305 F.3d 1210, 1213 (10th Cir. 2002).

         If the movant has the burden of proof on a claim or defense, the movant must establish every element of its claim or defense by sufficient, competent evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A). Once the moving party has met its burden, to avoid summary judgment the responding party must present sufficient, competent, contradictory evidence to establish a genuine factual dispute. See Bacchus Indus., Inc. v. Arvin Indus., Inc., 939 F.2d 887, 891 (10th Cir. 1991); Perry v. Woodward, 199 F.3d 1126, 1131 (10th Cir. 1999). If there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact, a trial is required. If there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact, no trial is required. The court then applies the law to the undisputed facts and enters judgment.

         If the moving party does not have the burden of proof at trial, it must point to an absence of sufficient evidence to establish the claim or defense that the non-movant is obligated to prove. If the respondent comes forward with sufficient competent evidence to establish a prima facie claim or defense, a trial is required. If the respondent fails to produce sufficient competent evidence to establish its claim or defense, then the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986).

         This case involves cross-motions for summary judgment. "Because the determination of whether there is a genuine dispute as to a material factual issue turns upon who has the burden of proof, the standard of proof and whether adequate evidence has been submitted to support a prima facie case or to establish a genuine dispute as to material fact, cross motions must be evaluated independently." In re Ribozyme Pharmaceuticals, Inc., Securities Litig., 209 F.Supp.2d 1106, 1112 (D. Colo. 2002); see also Atlantic Richfield Co. v. Farm Credit Bank of Wichita, 226 F.3d 1138, 1148 (10th Cir. 2000); Buell Cabinet Co. v. Sudduth, 608 F.2d 431, 433 (10th Cir. 1979) ("Cross-motions for summary judgment are to be treated separately; the denial of one does not require the grant of another.").

         B. FELC's motion

         The Court begins with FELC's motion because, if FELC is correct and the Plaintiffs are FLSA-exempt, ...


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