Friday, August 10, 2012

Locking Janitors in Wal-Mart - False Imprisonment? - COTW #104

Yesterday, the Third Circuit issued its opinion in Zavala v. Wal Mart Stores, Inc., and it's the Case of the Week. It's just your standard RICO, false imprisonment, FLSA collective action . . . huh? Yeah, it's complicated. The Court includes some important new precedent on hyper-technical FLSA collective action certification issues that I will get back to next week. For now, let's stick with the false imprisonment claims.

The plaintiffs were janitors who worked on overnight cleaning crews in New Jersey Wal-Marts. Their false imprisonment claims were based on Wal-Mart's practice of locking its stores overnight without always having a manager with a key available to let the workers out. False imprisonment?

Nope. The Court held that the workers had given implied consent to the "imprisonment":
Apparently from the very beginning of their employment, Plaintiffs were aware that Wal-Mart's policy was to close and lock the main doors of its stores when they are not open for business. Plaintiffs nevertheless chose to continue coming to work. They do not allege that they objected to the locked-door policy, nor do they allege that they requested a manager be available during their shift to open the doors. Continuing to come to work under these conditions is "conduct . . . reasonably understood by another to be intended as consent" and is therefore "as effective as consent in fact."
Some employees arguably withdrew their consent by requesting to leave (claiming managers denied their request). Their claims still had problems though. False imprisonment claims can not succeed where the "prisoner" has a reasonable means of escape. The Wal-Mart had emergency exits, effectively dooming the janitors claims. The Court held that sounding the alarm and the fear of discipline were insufficient to establish false imprisonment.

Zavala is a long but interesting case. Tune in next week for the FLSA issues (and maybe the RICO stuff if I have time).