Mitchell Schley (Courtesy of Mitchell Schley)
A law firm that handles Fair Labor Standards Act cases has been named in a collective action in Newark federal court for allegedly failing to pay overtime to its paralegals.
Pasricha & Patel of Edison, N.J., improperly classifies its paralegals as exempt from overtime and does not pay time-and-a-half for hours worked in excess of 40 per week, according to the suit filed July 15.
The suit was filed on behalf of the firm’s five paralegals and an unspecified number of former paralegals.
The named plaintiff, Jason Barros, has worked for the firm for about five years. He put in 440 hours of overtime in 2011, 375 hours in 2012, 75 hours in 2013 and 60 hours to date in 2014, the suit claims.
The suit seeks double the overtime wages allegedly due to Barros and the other collective action members, as provided under the FLSA. Mitchell Schley, counsel for the plaintiff, said he could not provide an estimate of the damages because he did not know the salaries of Barros or other paralegals.
The law firm’s violation of the FLSA is willful and not based on good faith or a reasonable belief that its conduct complied with the statute, the suit says.
“In this regard, in addition to the defendants being attorneys, this firm has itself represented employees who have alleged that their employer unlawfully failed to pay them overtime pay in violation of the FLSA,” the suit claims.
The defendants are the firm and its two principals, Gary Pasricha, also known as Gurpreet Pasricha, and Sheetal Patel. The firm has five lawyers and lists practice areas that include commercial litigation, business law, immigration, family law, motor vehicle violations, personal injury, real estate and business transactions.
Pasricha has handled at least two FLSA cases, in 2009 and 2010, in the District of New Jersey. He represented the plaintiff in one case and the defendant in the other. Both ended in settlements and the terms were not placed on the record.
The firm’s representations of others in FLSA cases and its representations that its attorneys have expertise in employment law support a finding that its violations were willful, said Schley, a solo in East Brunswick, N.J. The statute of limitations for the FLSA is two years, or three years for willful violations, Schley said.
Paralegals’ entitlement to overtime is a well-settled question, according to Schley. He cited U.S. Department of Labor regulation 29 C.F.R. Section 541.301(d)(7), which provides that paralegals and legal assistants generally do not qualify as exempt from overtime because an advanced degree is not a prerequisite for entry into the field. Although many paralegals have a four-year college degree, most specialized paralegal programs are two-year associate programs from a community college or similar institution, according to the regulation.
Paralegals may be exempt from overtime if they have an advanced specialized degree in another professional field that is applied to their duties, according to the regulation cited by Schley. For example, the regulation says, an engineer who is hired as a paralegal to provide expert advice on product liability or patent cases would qualify for an exemption to overtime.
None of the paralegals at Pasricha & Patel fall into that category, since none of them possess advanced specialized degrees in other professional fields, the suit says.
Schley said it was “ironic” that a law firm versed in the FLSA would pay its paralegals a salary but no overtime.
“For the most part, law firms realize it’s not a debatable question so most law firms pay [overtime to paralegals],” Schley said. “Then, of course, there are going to be firms that don’t pay them and hope for the best.”
Patrick Papalia of Archer & Greiner in Hackensack, N.J., who represents the defendants, said paralegals’ entitlement to overtime pay is not as black and white as Schley depicts it. Rather, each case requires a separate analysis of the claimants’ duties, he said.
Papalia cited the holding in Austin v. CUNA Mutual Insurance Society, (W.D. Wisc., 2006), that a paralegal with a high degree of autonomy can be exempt from overtime.
Papalia added that the regulation cited by the plaintiff’s lawyer does not represent a complete picture of federal regulations on overtime for paralegals. Papalia cited 29 CFR 541.202(c), to support the assertion that paralegals who exercise independent judgment in the way they manage their files may be considered exempt from overtime pay. Barros, the only paralegal currently a party to the case, falls into this category, Papalia said.
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