Piper v. Jones Dairy Farm

Decision Date19 March 2020
Docket NumberNo. 2018AP1681,2018AP1681
Citation940 N.W.2d 701,2020 WI 28,390 Wis.2d 762
Parties Steven J. PIPER, Robert Bue, Scott R. Olson and Leslie T. Smith, Plaintiffs, Jonathon Kracht, Gary Benes and Charles Manley, Plaintiffs-Respondents, v. JONES DAIRY FARM, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtWisconsin Supreme Court

For the defendant-appellant, there were briefs (in the court of appeals) filed by Bernard J. Bobber, Keith E. Kopplin, Christina L. Wabiszewski and Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C., Milwaukee. There was an oral argument by Bernard J. Bobber.

For the plaintiffs-respondents, there was a brief (in the court of appeals) filed by Micheal J. Modl and Axley Brynelson, LLP, Madison and Douglas J. Phebus, Victor Arellano, and Arellano & Phebus, S.C., Middleton. There was an oral argument by Michael J. Modl.

REBECCA FRANK DALLET, J.

¶1 Current and former employees of Jones Dairy Farm (the employees) filed suit in December 2010 seeking unpaid wages for time spent at the start and end of their shifts "donning and doffing" personal protective equipment and walking to and from their workstations. Jones Dairy Farm (JDF) denied liability, alleging the employees bargained over their right to compensation for this time during collective bargaining negotiations. Alternatively, JDF asserted that the doctrine of de minimis non curat lex rendered this time non-compensable and that equitable defenses precluded the employees' recovery of damages. The circuit court denied JDF's motion for summary judgment, concluding that: (1) the donning and doffing time was compensable; (2) the employees could not modify or eliminate compensation for donning and doffing through collective bargaining; (3) the time was not rendered non-compensable by the de minimis doctrine; and (4) JDF's four equitable defenses did not preclude the employees' recovery of damages.1

¶2 On bypass from the court of appeals,2 JDF presents one principal issue: under Wisconsin law can compensation for donning and doffing personal protective equipment be modified or eliminated through collective bargaining? In the alternative, JDF contends that the de minimis doctrine renders the donning and doffing time non-compensable and that the equitable defenses of promissory estoppel, waiver, laches, and unjust enrichment preclude the employees' recovery of damages.

¶3 We conclude that under Wisconsin law, compensation for donning and doffing cannot be modified or eliminated through collective bargaining. We assume without deciding that the de minimis doctrine applies to claims arising under Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 272.12 (May 2019),3 and determine that the time the employees spent donning and doffing was not de minimis. Lastly, we conclude that the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion when it summarily dismissed JDF's equitable defenses on the basis of Wis. Stat. § 109.03(5) and we remand for full consideration of those defenses. We therefore affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand the case to the circuit court.

I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL POSTURE

¶4 JDF operates a food production plant in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. JDF requires its employees to wear personal protective equipment, including safety footwear, frocks, hairnets, aprons, ear plugs, and plastic bump caps. The employees are required to put on (don) and take off (doff) company-required equipment at the beginning and end of their shifts.

¶5 The employees' wages have historically been set by a collective bargaining agreement between the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, Local 538 (the Union) and JDF. The 1979 collective bargaining agreement between the parties expressly compensated the employees for donning and doffing their personal protective equipment. As part of the collective bargaining negotiations, in 1982, the parties stipulated that the "daily credit" of compensated donning and doffing time would be reduced from 12 minutes to six minutes. In 1985, JDF and the Union agreed to eliminate the provision that compensated the employees for donning and doffing. In 1994, the Union proposed that JDF once again compensate the employees for 12 minutes of donning and doffing time. At some point during the negotiations, the Union withdrew the proposal. Collective bargaining resulted in an increase in the employees' base wages of $.60/hour.

¶6 When the parties reconvened for negotiations in 1997, the Union once again proposed 12 minutes of compensated time for donning and doffing. The Union later withdrew the proposal and collective bargaining resulted in an increase in the employees' base wages of $.90/hour. Again, when the collective bargaining agreement expired in 2000, the Union made a proposal for compensated donning and doffing time, which it later withdrew. This time, collective bargaining resulted in the employees receiving a base wage increase of $1.50/hour. The same pattern occurred in 2004 and 2009: the Union's proposal was withdrawn, and base wages were ultimately increased by $1.25/hour.4

¶7 JDF asserts that this extensive bargaining history demonstrates that the Union withdrew its proposals for compensation for donning and doffing in exchange for an increase in base wages. However, it admitted at oral argument that the record established "no direct tie" between the Union's withdrawal of the proposal and the employees receiving an increase in base wages.

¶8 In 2010, the employees filed this suit seeking unpaid wages for time spent donning and doffing personal protective equipment and walking to and from their workstations.5 In response, JDF pleaded numerous affirmative defenses, including promissory estoppel, waiver, laches, and unjust enrichment. The parties stipulated that the total time employees spent donning and doffing was 4.3 minutes per day.6

The stipulation also included the amount of time the employees spent walking to and from their workstations, up to 4.33 minutes per day. The agreed-upon relevant time period at issue for the employees' claims was December 10, 2008, to November 25, 2013.7

¶9 JDF moved for summary judgment alleging that the Union repeatedly proposed wages for donning and doffing during collective bargaining negotiations and withdrew its proposals in exchange for higher base wages. In the alternative, JDF asserted that the time was rendered non-compensable by the de minimis doctrine and that recovery of damages was precluded by the equitable defenses of promissory estoppel, waiver, laches, and unjust enrichment.

¶10 The circuit court determined that pursuant to United Food & Commercial Workers Union, Local 1473 v. Hormel Foods Corp., 2016 WI 13, 367 Wis. 2d 131, 876 N.W.2d 99, the time employees spent donning and doffing was compensable. The circuit court further concluded that "there is no exception under Wisconsin law permitting collective bargaining to modify or eliminate" compensation for donning and doffing. Finally, the circuit court decided that the donning and doffing time here was not de minimis and that JDF's four equitable defenses did not preclude the employees' recovery of damages.

¶11 JDF petitioned this court for bypass of the court of appeals, which we granted.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

¶12 We review a decision on summary judgment using the same methodology as the circuit court. Green Spring Farms v. Kersten, 136 Wis. 2d 304, 314-15, 401 N.W.2d 816 (1987). Summary judgment shall be granted where the record demonstrates "that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Wis. Stat. § 802.08(2).

¶13 This case involves interpretation and application of Wis. Admin. Code § DWD 274.05 (April 2018).8 We interpret an administrative regulation using the rules of statutory interpretation. Hormel Foods Corp., 367 Wis. 2d 131, ¶30, 876 N.W.2d 99. While we benefit from the analysis of the circuit court, the interpretation of an administrative regulation is a question of law which this court reviews de novo. State v. Brown, 2006 WI 131, ¶18, 298 Wis. 2d 37, 725 N.W.2d 262.

¶14 We also examine the circuit court's discretionary determination as to the applicability of JDF's four equitable defenses, which we review under an erroneous exercise of discretion standard. See Johnson v. Cintas Corp. No. 2, 2012 WI 31, ¶22, 339 Wis. 2d 493, 811 N.W.2d 756. A circuit court erroneously exercises its discretion when it applies an improper legal standard or makes a decision not reasonably supported by the facts of record. Id.; State v. McConnohie, 113 Wis. 2d 362, 371, 334 N.W.2d 903 (1983).

III. ANALYSIS

¶15 We initially consider whether, under Wisconsin law, compensation for donning and doffing can be modified or eliminated through collective bargaining. We next address JDF's contention that the time spent donning and doffing was rendered non-compensable by the de minimis doctrine. Finally, we resolve whether the circuit court erred in concluding that Wis. Stat. § 109.03(5) barred JDF's four equitable defenses.

A. An employee's right to compensation for donning and doffing personal protective equipment cannot be modified or eliminated through collective bargaining.

¶16 The main issue presented on appeal is: under Wisconsin law, can compensation for donning and doffing personal protective equipment be modified or eliminated through collective bargaining? Because time spent donning and doffing comprises "hours worked" under Wis. Admin. Code. § DWD 272.12, and the law does not exempt donning and doffing from the statutory requirement that employees be paid for all hours worked, the answer is no. Contrary to JDF's argument, neither Aguilar v. Husco International, Inc., 2015 WI 36, 361 Wis. 2d 597, 863 N.W.2d 556, nor Hormel Foods Corp., 367 Wis. 2d 131, 876 N.W.2d 99, indicate otherwise.

¶17 DWD is charged with "adopt[ing] reasonable and proper rules and regulations" related to wage and labor laws in Wisconsin. See Wis. Stat. § 103.005(1). DWD...

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