Jonathan Bilyk Jul. 17, 2015, 9:31am

Jimmy John’s, a popular Illinois-based chain of sandwich shops, now faces multiple class action lawsuits over its treatment of assistant managers at its hundreds of restaurants across the country.

And each of those class actions will be litigated in Chicago’s federal court.

This month, lawyers representing a group of assistant store managers asked U.S. District Judge Elaine E. Bucklo to certify a class of plaintiffs potentially including all people who have worked as assistant store managers in Jimmy John’s restaurants since 2012.

The federal action was transferred into the Northern Illinois U.S. District Court earlier in July, after U.S. District Judge Gregory L. Frost ordered the case transferred to Chicago from Ohio’s Southern District court in Columbus.

That action had first been filed by plaintiff Scott Watson, who identified himself in the complaint as an assistant manager who had worked at three Ohio Jimmy John’s stores since 2012, and had earned $26,000 per year.

Watson was represented in the action by attorneys with the firm of Landskroner Grieco Merriman LLC, of Cleveland.

During that time, Watson alleged, he, like all other Jimmy John’s assistant managers, were classified by their employer as management employees exempt from the overtime and other wage requirements under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Watson contended this classification was improper, as he said assistant managers at Jimmy John’s rarely, if ever, actually manage anyone or anything. Rather, he estimated at least 90 percent of assistant managers’ duties are little different from those of hourly, so-called non-exempt restaurant employees, who qualify for overtime.

Watson sued on behalf of himself and – at the time – all other Jimmy John’s assistant managers in Ohio, asking the court to require Jimmy John’s to pay the overtime wages the complaint alleges were illegally withheld, as well as other damages.

At the same time, a similar case brought by other Jimmy John’s assistant managers was pending in federal court in Florida. According to court documents, those plaintiffs opted to drop their complaint, and signed on as fellow plaintiffs in Watson’s action in Ohio.

The plaintiffs also asked the court to expand the class to include assistant managers nationwide.

In response, Jimmy John’s asked the court to either dismiss Watson’s action or transfer the case to federal court in Chicago.

In July 2014, Jimmy John’s was hit with a class action in that court from plaintiff Emily Brunner, identified as a second assistant store manager, a position which ostensibly reports to assistant store managers.

Like Watson and his assistant store managers, Brunner alleged the sandwich chain had improperly classified second assistant managers as managerial positions exempt from the FLSA overtime wage requirements.

As that case was still pending in the Chicago court, Judge Frost said, under the so-called “first to file rule,” the Watson case should also be heard in Chicago, as the cases are very similar, as both the job titles and duties of the plaintiffs, and their claims, “substantially overlap.”

Frost noted the class designation requested by the plaintiffs in the Watson case would likely have included Brunner and her fellow second assistant managers, as well.

“Despite the claims that differ between the two suits, the core claim is the same - an unpaid overtime FLSA action brought individually by plaintiffs and on behalf of a nationwide class,” Frost wrote.

Following transfer, the Watson plaintiffs have renewed their request to certify a nationwide class of assistant managers, asking Judge Bucklo in documents filed July 15 to require Jimmy John’s to supply the attorneys with the names and contact information of potential class members so the attorneys can notify them directly by mail and to require the restaurant chain to include notices of the pending class action with the assistant managers’ regular pay.

The plaintiffs are represented in the action by the Landskroner firm, as well as attorneys from the firms of Outten & Golden, of New York; Werman Salas P.C., of Chicago; Shavitz Law Group, of Boca Raton, Fla.; and Klafter Olsen & Lesser, of Rye Brook, N.Y.

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