Huang v. Gateway Hotel Holdings

Decision Date18 October 2007
Docket NumberNo. 4:07CV00702 ERW.,4:07CV00702 ERW.
PartiesMichael HUANG, et al., Plaintiffs, v. GATEWAY HOTEL HOLDINGS d/b/a Millennium Hotel, St. Louis, Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri

Donna L. Harper, John D. Lynn, Sedey Harper, P.C., William E. Moench, William E. Moench Law Offices, St. Louis, MO, for Plaintiffs.

Gregg M. Lemley, Heidi Kuns Durr, Ogletree and Deakins, St. Louis, MO, for Defendant.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

E. RICHARD WEBBER, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Michael Huang, Kelli Schaper1, Innocente Racanelli, and Melissa Dielschneider ("Plaintiffs") in this opt-in class action lawsuit allege in Count I of their complaint that Gateway Hotel Holdings ("Defendant"), violated their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 ("FLSA") by deducting pay for hours actually worked. They are primarily seeking compensatory relief under this Count. Counts II and III are brought solely by Plaintiff Huang and allege that Defendant discharged him unlawfully in retaliation for the complaints he lodged against these pay deductions, and that this retaliatory discharge violated the FLSA under Count II and Missouri's common law under Count III. Plaintiff Huang is seeking compensatory and injunctive relief under Counts II and III, along with punitive damages under Count III. This matter comes before the Court upon Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Count III of Plaintiffs' Complaint [doe. # 5].

I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff Huang was a non-union hourly employee of Defendant at the Millennium Hotel, St. Louis, where he worked for approximately twenty-five (25) years as a server. Plaintiff Huang recorded his work hours by punching a time clock at the beginning of each shift. In January, 2006, Defendant announced a policy requiring Plaintiffs and other non-union employees to take a one-half hour unpaid meal break during any work shift of six hours or longer. Subsequently, Defendant deducted one-half hour of pay from each of Plaintiffs' shifts of six hours or more. Defendant did not provide Plaintiffs with a scheduled meal break, nor did Defendant relieve Plaintiffs of any work duties upon instituting this policy.

Plaintiff Huang complained to his supervisor, to the Human Resources Director, and to the General Manager, arguing that Defendant's deduction of pay for hours actually worked was illegal, Plaintiff-Huang alleges that he was fired within a month of his last complaint in retaliation for his complaints.

Plaintiffs filed the present action on April 10, 2007. In Count III of the Complaint,2 Plaintiff Huang brings a claim pursuant to common law of the State of Missouri, invoking the public policy exception to the Missouri employment-at-will doctrine. In Count III, Plaintiff Huang seeks "lost wages and other benefits of employment; pre judgment interest; compensatory damages and compensation for special damages; injunctive relief, including but not limited to reinstatement or front pay; punitive damages; costs incurred; and additional relief as may be just and proper." On June 6, 2007, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss Count III of Plaintiff s Complaint [doe. # 5]; that motion is currently pending before this Court.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

Defendant moves to dismiss Count III of Plaintiffs' Complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A complaint shall not be dismissed for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted "unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of a claim entitling him or her to relief. Breedlove v. Earthgrains Baking, 140 F.3d 797, 799 (8th Cir.1998) (internal citations omitted). When considering whether to grant a motion to dismiss, the Court must assume that all allegations in the complaint are true and "construe all reasonable inferences" in the plaintiff's favor. Hafley v. Lohman, 90 F.3d 264, 267 (8th Cir.1996) (citing McCormack v. Citibank, N.A., 979 F.2d 643, 646 (8th Cir. 1992)).

A complaint should be dismissed if "it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). "While, for most types of cases, the Federal Rules eliminated the cumbersome requirement that a claimant `set out in detail the facts upon which he basis his claim,' Rule 8(a)(2) still requires a `showing' rather than a blanket assertion of entitlement to relief." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, ___ U.S. ___, ___ n. 3, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1965 n. 3, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007) (emphasis in original) (quoting Conley, 355 U.S. at 47, 78 S.Ct. 99). "[A] plaintiffs obligation to provide the grounds of his entitle[ment] to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. (internal citations omitted). While a court accepts factual allegations as true, it must "reject conclusory allegations of law and unwarranted inferences." Silver v. H & R Block, Inc., 105 F.3d 394, 397 (8th Cir.1997). Factual allegations must "raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atlantic Corp., 127 S.Ct. at 1959.

III. DISCUSSION

The only issue before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Count III of Plaintiffs' Complaint is whether Plaintiff Huang states a claim under Missouri's common law upon which relief can be granted.

A. THE MISSOURI PUBLIC POLICY EXCEPTION

An employee at will may generally be fired for "any reason or no reason." Nichols v. American Nat'l Ins. Co., 945 F.Supp. 1242, 1246 (E.D.Mo.1996). However, Missouri courts have carved out an exception to the employment at will doctrine. Osborn v. Prof'l Sen. Indus., Inc., 872 F.Supp. 679, 680 (W.D.Mo.1994). This exception permits a cause of action, for wrongful discharge "when an employer has a statutory, regulatory, or constitutional duty to, refrain from discharging an employee for a specified reason and the employer breaches that duty." Id. at 681 (citing Luethans v. Washington University, 838 S.W.2d 117, 120 (Mo.Ct.App.1992)). The retaliatory discharge of an employee may give rise to a cause of action under the Missouri public policy exception. See Boyle v. Vista Eyewear, Inc., 700 S.W.2d 859, 871 (Mo.Ct.App.1985). The rationale behind this doctrine "is the vindication or the protection of certain strong policies of the community." Osborn, 872 F.Supp. at 681; see also Trapp v. Von Hoffmann Press, Inc., 2002 WL 1969650 (W.D.Mo. June 12, 2002).

1. MISSOURI PUBLIC POLICY EXCEPTION IS NOT PREEMPTED BY THE FLSA

Plaintiff Huang has filed claims for wrongful termination under both the FLSA and Missouri common law. The Court first considered whether Plaintiff Huang's claim under Missouri common law has been preempted by the FLSA. A federal statute does not automatically preempt wrongful termination claims pursuant to state common law. "Ordinarily the mere existence of a federal regulatory or enforcement scheme, even one as detailed as [the Energy Reorganization Act], does not by itself imply pre-emption of state remedies." English v. General Electric Co., 496 U.S. 72, 87, 110 S.Ct. 2270, 110 L.Ed.2d 65 (1990); see also Schweiss v. Chrysler Motors Corp., 922 F.2d 473, 475 (8th Cir.1990) (OSHA allows a state wrongful discharge claim to proceed under Missouri's public policy exception).

Preemption of a state law may be "either express or implied." Gade v. National Solid Wastes Management Ass'n, 505 U.S. 88, 98, 112 S.Ct. 2374, 120 L.Ed.2d 73 (1992). Express preemption occurs when preemption is "expressly stated in the statute's language." Id. Express preemption is not present as the FLSA does not contain language indicating that it is intended to preempt the common law. Medina v. Chas Roberts Air. Conditioning, Inc., 2006 WL 2091665, at *4 (D.Ariz. July 24, 2006).

There are two types of implied preemption. Gade, 505 U.S. at 98, 112 S.Ct. 2374. The first type is field preemption, in which Congressional intent to supersede state law is implied from the extensive regulation of a field, such that "Congress left no room for the States to supplement it." Id. (quoting Rice v. Santa Fe Elevator Corp., 331 U.S. 218, 230, 67 S.Ct. 1146, 91 L.Ed. 1447 (1947)). Field preemption is not implicitly present under the FLSA as Congress has not regulated the field in a manner indicating an intent to supersede the common law, and as "there is a remaining area which is the subject for appropriate state regulation." Goldberg v. Wade Lahar Const. Co., 290 F.2d 408, 414 (8th Cir.1961); see also Nash v. Resources, Inc., 982 F.Supp. 1427, 1439 (D.Or.1997).

The second type of implied preemption occurs when an actual conflict exists between federal and state law. Fidelity Federal Say. & Loan Ass'n v. de la Cuesta, 458 U.S. 141, 153, 102 S.Ct. 3014, 73 L.Ed.2d 664 (1982). A stronger argument may be made that there is an actual conflict between Missouri common law and the FLSA as the common law allows awards of punitive damages, which may be considered "an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress." Gade, 505 U.S. at 98, 112 S.Ct. 2374 (quoting Hines v. Davidowitz, 312 U.S. 52, 67, 61 S.Ct. 399, 85 L.Ed. 581 (1941)). However, this argument fails because preemption should not be implied absent "actual conflict." English, 496 U.S. at 90, 110 S.Ct. 2270. That a state law provides punitive damages while the federal statute does not is insufficient for a finding of actual conflict as "[a]bsent some specific suggestion in the text or legislative history ... we cannot conclude that Congress intended to preempt all state actions that permit the recovery of exemplary damages." English, 496 U.S. at 89-90, 110 S.Ct. 2270. The FLSA does not preempt the public policy exception under Missouri common law.

2. PUBLIC POLICY EXCEPTION IS A...

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