Managers May Not Escape Personal Liability Under the FLSA Even if the Presumed "Employer" Files For Bankruptcy
On July 27, 2009 the Ninth Circuit issued an opinion stating that individual managers can be held liable under the FLSA even though the company that employed the plaintiffs had filed for bankruptcy. Boucher v. Shaw (9th Cir. 05-15454). In Boucher, the company that employed the plaintiffs, Castaways Hotel, Casino, and Bowling Center, that filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June of 2003, discharged the plaintiffs in January 2004, and then converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation. Later that year, the plaintiffs filed claims under federal and Nevada state law for unpaid wages against three Castaways managers. The district court dismissed the plaintiffs' claims and the plaintiffs appealed. With respect to the state law claim, the issue was certified to the Nevada Supreme Court, which determined that individual managers could not be found liable as "employers" under the relevant Nevada state law. The Ninth Circuit then addressed whether the defendants could be personally liable despite Castaways' bankruptcy.
It is generally settled law that certain managers, depending on factors such as the amount of interest and control they exert over the structure of an employment relationship, can be individually liable for violations under the FLSA as an “employer.” See Lambert v. Ackerley, 180 F.3d 997, 1011-12 (9th Cir. 1999); Chao v. Hotel Oasis, 493 F.3d 26 (1st Cir. 2007). In this case, there was no dispute that the individual defendants could be considered employers under the FLSA. Instead, they argued that the conversion of Castaways' bankruptcy from Chapter 11 to Chapter 7 terminated their duty to pay the plaintiffs their wages. The Ninth Circuit rejected the argument. First, the court noted that the plaintiffs were terminated prior to the conversion to Chapter 7, meaning that their pay had already been earned. The court held further that the nature of the bankruptcy filing by Castaways was irrelevant because Castaways was not a defendant in the wage and hour case, the defendants (the managers) were not debtors in bankruptcy, and an automatic stay intended to protect a debtor could not affect the plaintiffs' claims.