Hamilton County Convention Center, LLC v. Lee R. Johnson (mem. dec.) ( 2016 )


Menu:
  • MEMORANDUM DECISION
                                                                             FILED
    Pursuant to Ind. Appellate Rule 65(D),                              Aug 18 2016, 8:19 am
    this Memorandum Decision shall not be                                    CLERK
    regarded as precedent or cited before any                            Indiana Supreme Court
                                                                            Court of Appeals
    court except for the purpose of establishing                              and Tax Court
    
    
    the defense of res judicata, collateral
    estoppel, or the law of the case.
    
    
    ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT                                   ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE
    Steven P. Taylor                                         Paul L. Jefferson
    Law Offices of Steven P. Taylor, P.C.                    Jefferson & Brewer, LLC
    Indianapolis, Indiana                                    Indianapolis, Indiana
                                                             Jeffrey S. Nickloy
                                                             Amy E. Higdon
                                                             Nickloy & Higdon
                                                             Noblesville, Indiana
    
    
    
                                               IN THE
        COURT OF APPEALS OF INDIANA
    
    Hamilton County                                          August 18, 2016
    Convention Center, LLC,                                  Court of Appeals Case No.
    Appellant-Cross-Appellee,                                29A05-1509-PL-1525
                                                             Appeal from the Hamilton
            v.                                               Superior Court
                                                             The Honorable Wayne A.
    Lee R. Johnson,                                          Sturtevant, Judge
                                                             Honorable David K. Najjar,
    Appellee-Cross-Appellant
                                                             Special Judge
                                                             Trial Court Cause No.
                                                             29D05-1112-PL-12925
    
    
    
    
    Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016       Page 1 of 13
          Baker, Judge.
    
    
    [1]   Hamilton County Convention Center (HCCC), LLC, appeals the judgment of
    
          the trial court, which found that HCCC had illegally failed to pay its employee,
    
          Lee Johnson. Johnson cross-appeals the trial court’s award of attorney fees.
    
          We find that (1) the trial court properly concluded that Johnson was an
    
          employee, (2) Johnson’s remuneration was a wage, and (3) the award of
    
          attorney fees was within the sound discretion of the trial court. Accordingly,
    
          we affirm.
    
    
                                                         Facts
    [2]   HCCC operated the “Mill Top” event center in Noblesville. Hassan Shanehsaz
    
          was the sole owner of HCCC, as well as the sole owner of Shane, LLC, the
    
          entity that owned the Mill Top building. Johnson had worked for decades in
    
          the event planning industry, experience that Shanehsaz lacked. In October
    
          2010, Shanehsaz came to an agreement with Johnson: she would solicit
    
          customers who were interested in using the event center space, and HCCC
    
          would pay her a commission. The terms were set out in a letter written by
    
          Johnson to Shanehsaz. Each space in the building had a set commission, and
    
          Johnson could earn additional compensation for upsells like linens, chairs, or
    
          catering.
    
    
    [3]   Johnson worked around seventy hours per week. HCCC provided her with an
    
          office, a desk, a computer, a printer, and a cell phone. Shanehsaz set hours for
    
    
    
          Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 2 of 13
          Johnson to work, and she performed several tasks in addition to her role of
    
          booking new clients: she also cleaned, handled checks, and hired interns.
    
    
    [4]   Johnson would periodically meet with Shanehsaz’s son in order to calculate her
    
          compensation. Roughly two weeks before leaving the job, Johnson was given a
    
          report that showed $10,904.60 owed to her for unpaid commissions. On
    
          November 1, 2011, Johnson resigned.
    
    
    [5]   On November 21, 2011, Johnson sent a letter to Shanehsaz’s attorney,
    
          demanding that he compensate her for her work. She demanded $22,863.79,
    
          which consisted of the amount previously mentioned in the report along with
    
          other commissions that she believed she had earned. The letter mentioned that
    
          if the dispute ended in litigation, Johnson would be proceeding under the Wage
    
          Payment Statute,1 which might entitle her to attorney fees.
    
    
    [6]   On December 11, 2011, Johnson filed a complaint, alleging claims of breach of
    
          contract and violation of the Wage Payment Statute. After a July 31, 2013, and
    
          November 1, 2013, bench trial, the trial court granted judgment in favor of
    
          Johnson on December 17, 2013. The trial court found actual damages of
    
          $15,408.60, plus an additional $30,817.20 of liquidated damages under the
    
          Wage Payment Statute. The trial court set a hearing regarding Johnson’s
    
          attorney fees for February 12, 2014.
    
    
    
    
          1
              Ind. Code § 22-2-5-1.
    
    
          Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 3 of 13
    [7]   One day before this hearing was set to take place, HCCC filed a notice of
    
          bankruptcy, and the trial court stayed the attorney fees hearing. When the
    
          bankruptcy closed in 2015, the trial court held a hearing and awarded Johnson
    
          attorney fees of $25,000. HCCC now appeals the judgment that it violated the
    
          Wage Payment Statute, and Johnson cross-appeals the trial court’s calculation
    
          of attorney fees.
    
    
                                       Discussion and Decision
    [8]   Our standard of review is the following:
    
    
                  When a trial court has entered findings of fact and conclusions of
                  law, we engage in a two-tiered standard of review. We must first
                  determine whether the evidence supports the findings of fact and
                  then whether the findings support the judgment. We will not
                  reverse the trial court’s findings and judgment unless they are
                  clearly erroneous. The judgment is clearly erroneous when it is
                  unsupported by the findings of fact and conclusions entered on
                  the findings. In making these determinations, we will neither
                  reweigh the evidence nor judge witness credibility, considering
                  only the evidence favorable to the judgment and all reasonable
                  inferences therefrom.
    
    
          Mueller v. Karns, 
    873 N.E.2d 652
    , 657 (Ind. Ct. App. 2007).
    
    
                                   A. Is Johnson an Employee?
    [9]   Indiana’s Wage Payment Statute applies to “employees.” I.C. § 22-2-5-1(a).
    
          The trial court found that Johnson was an employee. HCCC argues that
    
          Johnson was not an employee, but rather an independent contractor, and that,
    
          therefore, the Wage Payment Statute does not apply to her.
    
          Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 4 of 13
    [10]   The Wage Payment Statute does not define “employee” or “independent
    
           contractor,” but our Supreme Court has laid out a ten-factor test to distinguish
    
           between the two:
    
    
               1. The extent of control which, by the agreement, the master may exercise
                   over the details of the work;
               2. Whether or not the one employed is engaged in a distinct occupation or
                   business;
               3. The kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the
                   work is usually done under the direction of the employer or by a
                   specialist without supervision;
               4. The skill required in the particular occupation;
               5. Whether the employer or the workman supplies the instrumentalities,
                   tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work;
               6. The length of time for which the person is employed;
               7. The method of payment, whether by the time or by the job;
               8. Whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the employer;
               9. Whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relation of master
                   and servant; and
               10. Whether the principal is or is not in business.
    
           Moberly v. Day, 
    757 N.E.2d 1007
    , 1010 (Ind. 2001). We are to consider all
    
           factors, and no single factor is dispositive. Id.
    
    
                                            1. Extent of Control
    [11]   HCCC tasked Johnson with many obligations in addition to her booking duties.
    
           When a space flooded in the middle of the night, Shanehsaz called Johnson and
    
           had her clean it up. She also collected tenants’ checks and helped tenants
    
           access the buildings when they forgot their key. Johnson typically worked
    
           seventy hours per week for HCCC, and she did not work anywhere else. We
    
           find that this factor supports the finding of the trial court.
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 5 of 13
                                            2. Distinct Business
    [12]   Johnson was not engaged in a distinct occupation or business. She was not like
    
           a landscaper, who might work on one property but then work on another. Her
    
           efforts were aimed entirely at securing clients for HCCC, and she worked at
    
           that task full time. We find that this factor supports the finding of the trial
    
           court.
    
    
                                          3. Kind of Occupation
    [13]   The record does not indicate whether this type of work is typically done under
    
           the direction of an employer or by a specialist without supervision. Therefore,
    
           this factor neither supports nor contradicts the finding of the trial court.
    
    
                                               4. Skill Required
    [14]   Johnson’s job does not seem to require any specialized training or skill. In fact,
    
           when Johnson left her job at HCCC, it replaced her with a former intern who
    
           had little experience in the field. We find that this factor supports the finding of
    
           the trial court.
    
    
                               5. Who Supplied Instrumentalities
    [15]   Johnson worked out of an HCCC office, using an HCCC phone, computer,
    
           printer, and desk. HCCC concedes that this factor supports the finding of the
    
           trial court.
    
    
    
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 6 of 13
                                          6. The Length of Time
    [16]   Johnson worked for HCCC for an entire year, and worked nowhere else.
    
           HCCC concedes that this factor supports the finding of the trial court.
    
    
                                          7. Method of Payment
    [17]   Johnson was paid by commission and was not paid a salary. This factor tends
    
           to contradict the finding of the trial court.
    
    
                             8. Part of HCCC’s Regular Business
    [18]   Johnson provided a necessary part of HCCC’s business, and she was the only
    
           worker who provided this service. HCCC concedes that this factor supports the
    
           finding of the trial court.
    
    
                                              9. Parties’ Beliefs
    [19]   Johnson testified that she viewed Shanehsaz as her boss. On the other hand,
    
           Johnson filled out a tax form in which she listed herself as an independent
    
           contractor. We find that this factor neither clearly supports nor contradicts the
    
           trial court’s finding.
    
    
                                        10. Principal in Business
    [20]   HCCC, the principal, was in the event staging business. HCCC concedes that
    
           this factor supports the finding of the trial court.
    
    
    [21]   Overall, HCCC concedes that four out of the ten Moberly factors support the
    
           trial court’s finding that Johnson was an employee. Appellant’s Br. p. 22.
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 7 of 13
           Although HCCC argues that the remaining six tend to show that Johnson was
    
           an independent contractor, we believe that only Johnson’s method of payment
    
           tends to contradict the trial court’s finding; the remaining five are either
    
           ambiguous or actually support the trial court’s finding.
    
    
    [22]   We will only reverse if HCCC can show that the “judgment is contrary to law
    
           [because] the evidence is without conflict and leads to but one conclusion which
    
           is opposite from that reached by the trial court.” Mayflower Transit, Inc. v.
    
           Davenport, 
    714 N.E.2d 794
    , 798 (Ind. Ct. App. 1999). That is certainly not the
    
           case when only one of ten factors cuts against the trial court’s finding and the
    
           remaining nine strongly support it or are ambiguous.
    
    
    [23]   Finally, HCCC argues that we should reverse the trial court’s finding that
    
           Johnson was an employee because such a finding does not accord with how
    
           HCCC has been filing its taxes.
    
    
    [24]   First, we note that this argument was never presented to the trial court, and is
    
           therefore waived. Mitchell v. Stevenson, 
    677 N.E.2d 551
    , 558 (Ind. Ct. App.
    
           1997). Even if it were not waived, we fail to see this argument’s relevance.
    
           While we appreciate HCCC’s candor in admitting that it has been improperly
    
           filing its taxes, we find no legal authority for the proposition that this would
    
           affect our Moberly analysis.
    
    
    [25]   The trial court’s finding, that Johnson was an employee of HCCC, is amply
    
           supported by the evidence, and HCCC’s tax argument has no bearing on the
    
           question before us.
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 8 of 13
                             B. Were the Commissions “Wages”?
    [26]   The Wage Payment Statute requires that every employer pay its employees “at
    
           least semi-monthly or biweekly, if requested, the amount due such employee”
    
           and that “[p]ayment shall be made for all wages earned to a date not more than
    
           ten (10) days prior to the date of payment.” I.C. § 22-2-5-1. “Employees, upon
    
           separation from employment, must be paid the amount [of wages] due them at
    
           their next and usual payday.” Fardy v. Physicians Health Rehab. Servs., Inc., 
    529 N.E.2d 879
    , 882 (Ind. Ct. App. 1988). Failure to pay subjects the employer to a
    
           penalty of up to double the unpaid wages and attorney fees. I.C. § 22-2-5-2.
    
    
    [27]   Although the term “wages” is not statutorily defined for the Wage Payment
    
           Statute, it has been defined in the Wage Claims Act, a definition that courts use
    
           in both contexts: “all amounts at which the labor or service rendered is
    
           recompensed, whether the amount is fixed or ascertained on a time, task, piece,
    
           or commission basis, or in any other method of calculating such amount.” Ind.
    
           Code § 22-2-9-1(b); Highhouse v. Midwest Orthopedic Inst., P.C., 
    807 N.E.2d 737
    ,
    
           739 (Ind. 2004).
    
    
    [28]   The name given to the method of compensation is not controlling. Gress v.
    
           Fabcon, Inc., 
    826 N.E.2d 1
    , 3 (Ind. Ct. App. 2005). Rather, we will consider the
    
           substance of the compensation to determine whether it is a wage and, therefore,
    
           subject to the Wage Payment Statute. Id. We have recognized that wages are
    
           “‘something akin to the wages paid on a regular periodic basis for regular work
    
           done by the employee . . . .’” Id. (quoting Wank v. St. Francis Coll., 740 N.E.2d
    
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 9 of 13
           908, 912 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000)). In other words, if compensation is not linked to
    
           the amount of work done by the employee or if the compensation is based on
    
           the financial success of the employer, it is not a “wage.” Id.
    
    
    [29]   HCCC points to Davis v. All American Siding & Windows, Inc., 
    897 N.E.2d 936
    
           (Ind. Ct. App. 2008), for support. In that case, a salesperson received a
    
           commission, in addition to a base salary, that was based on the final contract
    
           price negotiated by his company. Id. at 938. The salesperson would negotiate a
    
           preliminary deal with clients, but would then direct those clients to the
    
           company for final negotiations. Id. at 939. The undisputed evidence showed
    
           that the process typically lasted three to eight weeks after the salesperson’s work
    
           had been completed. Id. at 944. Because the commission amount could not be
    
           calculated within ten days, and because the level commission ultimately
    
           depended on work performed by the company rather than the salesperson, we
    
           found that these commissions were not “wages” for purposes of the Wage
    
           Payment Statute. Id.
    
    
    [30]   We find the instant case entirely distinguishable from Davis. In the letter sent
    
           by Johnson to Shanehsaz, which set out her commission schedule, the parties
    
           agreed to specific amounts of remuneration. For example, if Johnson booked a
    
           customer to use the Ballroom, the rental value was $2,000 and Johnson would
    
           receive 40% of that amount. Appellant’s App. p. 46. Similarly specific
    
           amounts are set for the Great Room, the Skylight Room, and the Gallery. Id.
    
           When Johnson successfully booked a customer for these rooms, both she and
    
           HCCC knew precisely the amount of remuneration due. The commissions she
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 10 of 13
           earned could be calculated instantly, well within the ten days set out by the
    
           statute. Further, the size of the commission did not depend on the work of
    
           another person or entity; Johnson was the only employee booking clients, and
    
           so her commissions were based on her own labor.
    
    
    [31]   HCCC argues that, because Johnson’s original demand letter requested a
    
           different amount than what the trial court ultimately awarded, the commissions
    
           were inherently incapable of calculation. This argument is unavailing—the trial
    
           court disagreed that Johnson earned several of the commissions listed in her
    
           demand letter. But whether Johnson did certain work that entitled her to wages
    
           is an entirely different inquiry than whether the remuneration was a wage at all.
    
           HCCC has provided no authority for the proposition that a discrepancy
    
           between the wages initially claimed and the wages eventually awarded requires
    
           a reversal, and we decline to adopt such a rule today.
    
    
                                      C. Johnson’s Cross-Appeal
    [32]   Johnson cross-appeals, arguing that the trial court improperly awarded $25,000
    
           in attorney fees after finding that Johnson’s $41,725 in claimed fees were
    
           unreasonable. The trial court noted that this amount was nearly double the
    
           amount of wages Johnson was seeking, which resulted in “concerns as to
    
           whether such amount is reasonable.” Appellant’s App. p. 26. It also
    
           questioned several conferences, emails, and conversations that were related to
    
           Johnson’s refusal to cooperate with document review rather than to proving her
    
    
    
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 11 of 13
           case. Finally, the trial court found that Johnson had not proved that this was a
    
           particularly vexing case.
    
    
    [33]   Johnson argues that the trial court’s decision is in conflict with our decision in
    
           R.L. Turner v. Wressel, 
    44 N.E.3d 26
     (Ind. Ct. App. 2015), which was published
    
           just after the trial court’s order. In that case, we affirmed an award of attorney
    
           fees of $99,870 for an unpaid wage claim of $3,852.82. Id. at 29-30. Johnson
    
           concludes from Wessel that, since we have previously affirmed an attorney fee
    
           award with such a large disparity, the trial court in this case committed
    
           reversible error by deciding that the attorney fees should be decreased based on
    
           a smaller disparity.
    
    
    [34]   An award of attorney fees is within the discretion of the trial court. Id. at 38.
    
           We will reverse only when the trial court’s award is clearly against the logic and
    
           effect of the facts and circumstances before the court. Id. We do not reweigh
    
           the evidence; rather, we determine whether the evidence before the trial court
    
           can serve as a rational basis for its decision. Id.
    
    
    [35]   In determining a reasonable amount of attorney fees, consideration should be
    
           given to the nature and difficulty of the litigation; the time, skill, and effort
    
           involved; the fee customarily charged for similar legal services; the amount
    
           involved; the time limitations imposed by the circumstances; and the result
    
           achieved in the litigation. Id. at 39.
    
    
    [36]   We do not believe that Wressel stands for the proposition advanced by Johnson.
    
           In that case, we rejected the employer’s contention that proportionality alone
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 12 of 13
           could place a cap on the amount of attorney fees. Id. We never stated that the
    
           amount of wages was irrelevant; instead, we explained that the “recovery is
    
           only one consideration which the court may take into account when
    
           determining what amount of fees are reasonable.” Id.
    
    
    [37]   The trial court did not err by awarding $25,000 in attorney fees. The disparity
    
           between the wages recovered and the attorney fees was only one factor the trial
    
           court relied upon. It also noted that it did not believe several charged items
    
           were necessary to advance Johnson’s case, and that this case was not
    
           exceptionally difficult or complex. To be sure, the trial court would have been
    
           within its discretion to award the full $41,725 claimed by Johnson; but this does
    
           not mean that any amount lower than this would be error. The trial court
    
           found $25,000 to be a reasonable amount of attorney fees, and we will not
    
           second guess that determination.
    
    
    [38]   The judgment of the trial court is affirmed.
    
    
           Vaidik, C.J., and Najam, J., concur.
    
    
    
    
           Court of Appeals of Indiana | Memorandum Decision 29A05-1509-PL-1525 | August 18, 2016   Page 13 of 13