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Kalwaytis v. Preferred Meal Systems

March 11, 1996

MARIE A. KALWAYTIS; PEGGY JACKSON; LYDIA T. HREBEN; SHIRLEY MUSTICH, APPELLEES

v.

PREFERRED MEAL SYSTEMS, INC., APPELLANT



APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA (D.C. No. 93-cv-00371)

Before: SCIRICA, ALITO, and WEIS, Circuit Judges.

WEIS, Circuit Judge.

Argued January 10, 1996

Filed: March 11, 1996

OPINION OF THE COURT

In this WARN Act case, the principal issue is the amount of damages payable to employees who were on seasonal layoff at the time the employer announced what amounted to a permanent layoff. The workers received letters sent less than the 60 days required by the statute before the permanent layoff began. The district court awarded damages for 60 days, as if no notice had been sent. We conclude that the notice was untimely, and that the violation period began on either the day each employee reasonably expected to return to work after the seasonal break or the permanent layoff date set by the employer, whichever was earlier. Accordingly, we will remand for a recalculation of damages.

Plaintiffs are former employees of Preferred Meal Systems, Inc., which prepared pre-packaged meals for schools at a plant in Moosic, Pennsylvania. Because of the seasonal nature of its business, the company had a practice of laying off employees during schools' summer vacation months. In May and June 1992, eighty-five of Preferred's approximately 124 employees began their summer layoffs.

On June 26, 1992, the company sent a letter to the employees advising them that "[o]n August 1, 1992," it would be "ceasing direct food service employment" at the Moosic plant, and "laying off its food service employees." "This letter is your notice of layoff as of August 1, 1992." Noting that this was "the normal time" when "seasonal layoffs would occur," the letter explained that in the future, Preferred would "contract with Culi-Services, Inc. to provide food service employees at this location." The letter continued, "Culi-Services, Inc. has an immediate offer of employment to make to you. If you are interested . . . you must contact them directly." On the same day, Culi sent a communication to the Preferred employees informing them that it would be "recruiting" for certain positions. Culi also placed ads in the local newspapers seeking applicants for the jobs. Culi's announced wages were lower than those Preferred had paid for the same work.In a letter dated July 10, 1992, Preferred wrote again to its employees, stating: "The June 26 letter may have incorrectly conveyed the impression that Culi-Services, the new employer, has an offer of employment to make to you. We are sorry for any confusion this letter may have created, but Culi-Services does not have an offer of employment for you at this time. Any offer of employment will depend upon your application and Culi Services discretionary judgment as to the best applicants available for the limited number of positions available."

Preferred ultimately retained a small number of its employees and Culi hired some, but not all, of the remainder.

Plaintiffs, consisting of a class of sixty-nine former Preferred employees, filed a complaint against the company, asserting a failure to give them 60 days notice of the mass layoff as required by the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), 29 U.S.C. Section(s) 2101-2109. Preferred defended on the basis that it was a "joint employer" with Culi. Preferred also contended that the time between the seasonal layoff in May and the sub-contracting with Culi in late June 1992 should not be considered as a WARN Act violation period.

Finding that the size of the work force at Moosic and the number of employees affected brought the matter within the scope of the WARN Act, the district court granted summary judgment to the plaintiffs and awarded damages in the amount of $253,337.43. The court rejected Preferred's joint employer defense, observing that the WARN Act did "not define the term `employer' to encompass separate business entities which enjoy a simple contractual relationship to produce the goods previously produced by one of the entities." The court also held that the plaintiffs' expectations of returning to employment with Preferred were destroyed on June 26, 1992, when the temporary layoff became permanent. Accordingly, because they had not received a notice 60 days before that date, the plaintiffs were entitled to 60 days wages.

Preferred has appealed, reiterating its joint employer contention and also asserting that the damages should be recalculated because the plaintiffs would have been unemployed in any event during the summer season.

I.

Preferred's joint employer defense is based on the proposition that if the number of employees who took positions with Culi is taken into account, the threshold number of employees required to bring the WARN Act into play, 29 U.S.C. Section(s) 2101(a)(2), is not met. As Preferred sees it, if it and Culi are considered as a single enterprise, when eighty-five employees were laid off and fifty-four were re-employed by ...


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