Category Archives: Offer of Judgment

11th Cir.: Absent Judgment in Plaintiff’s Favor, Offer Did Not Moot FLSA Claims; Mandatory Attorney’s Fees Due

Wolff v Royal American Management, Inc.

Following an order approving the settlement between the parties and an award of attorneys’ fees and costs to the plaintiff, as the prevailing party, the defendant appealed arguing that their tender of damages to plaintiff in exchange for a general release mooted the claims. Rejecting this assertion, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the order below and held that an FLSA defendant cannot moot a claim for unpaid wages, absent an offer of judgment in favor of the plaintiff.

Summarizing the relevant facts and procedural history, the Eleventh Circuit explained:

The relevant background is this. After filing a complaint alleging FLSA violations, Wolff calculated that RAM had failed to pay her $1800 in overtime wages. Liquidated damages under the FLSA in the same amount brought her total itemized damages claim to $3600. In December 2011, RAM tendered $3600 to plaintiff through her attorney, and moved to dismiss the complaint; Wolff’s counsel returned the check. In December 2012, RAM offered to settle the case for $5000, but Wolff’s counsel claimed that he never submitted the offer to Wolff because it was never put into writing. Nevertheless, in February 2012, Wolff received a 1099 form reflecting a payment of $3600, and called RAM to determine the reason for the 1099. RAM informed Wolff for the first time of the prior tender to her counsel, and Wolff said she wanted to settle the case. Wolff then met with RAM, signed a general release and took the $3600 check. Thereafter, the parties moved the court to determine whether the payment and release rendered the action moot, stripping Wolff of attorneys’ fees on the ground that there was no judgment in the case to indicate that Wolff was the prevailing party. The district court ultimately approved the settlement as reasonable, even though the parties reached the settlement without the participation of Wolff’s counsel. The district court further found that the settlement had not mooted the lawsuit, and later awarded Wolff’s counsel $61,810.44 in fees and costs. This timely appeal follows.

Discussing recent FLSA jurisprudence regarding mandatory fees and the ability (or lack thereof) of a defendant to moot a claim for same, the Court explained:

Under the FLSA,

Any employer who violates the provisions of section 206 or section 207 of this title shall be liable to the employee or employees affected in the amount of their unpaid minimum wages, or their unpaid overtime compensation, as the case may be, and in an additional equal amount as liquidated damages …. The court in such action shall, in addition to any judgment awarded to the plaintiff or plaintiffs, allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.

29 U.S.C. § 216(b). We have said that because the FLSA seeks to protect employees from “inequalities in bargaining power between employers and employees,” Congress had made its provisions mandatory. Lynn’s Food Stores, Inc. v. U.S. Dep’t. of Labor, 679 F.2d 1350, 1352 (11th Cir.1982). Thus, “FLSA rights cannot be abridged by contract or otherwise waived because this would nullify the purposes of the statute and thwart the legislative policies it was designed to effectuate.” Id. (quotation omitted). We’ve also held that “[t]he FLSA plainly requires that the plaintiff receive a judgment in his favor to be entitled to attorney’s fees and costs.” Dionne v. Floormasters Enters., Inc., 667 F.3d 1199, 1205 (11th Cir.2012).

The Supreme Court, considering the fee-shifting provisions in “[n]umerous federal statutes [that] allow courts to award attorney’s fees and costs to the ‘prevailing party,’ ” has recognized that a plaintiff is a prevailing party only when she obtains either (1) a judgment on the merits, or (2) a settlement agreement “enforced through a consent decree.” Buckhannon Bd. & Care Home, Inc. v. W. Va. Dep’t. of Health & Human Res., 532 U.S. 598, 603–604 (2001), superseded by statute on other grounds, Open Government Act of 2007, Pub.L. No. 110–175, 121 Stat. 2524. The Buckhannon Court reasoned that a prevailing party needs a judgment or consent decree to prove that there has been an “alteration in the legal relationship of the parties.” Id. at 605. Thus, in the absence of a judgment on the merits, to be a prevailing party, the FLSA plaintiff needs a stipulated or consent judgment or its “functional equivalent” from the district court evincing the court’s determination that the settlement “is a fair and reasonable res[o]lution of a bona fide dispute over FLSA provisions.” Lynn’s Food Stores, 679 F.2d at 1355;
American Disability Ass’n, Inc. v. Chmielarz, 289 F.3d 1315, 1317, 1320 (11th Cir.2002) (holding that the district court’s approval of the terms of a settlement coupled with its explicit retention of jurisdiction are the functional equivalent of a consent decree, which renders the settlement a “judicially sanctioned change in the legal relationship of the parties” for purposes of the “prevailing party” determination necessary for attorneys’ fees).

In Dionne, we held that an employer, who denied liability for nonpayment for overtime work, did not need to pay attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA if the employer tendered the full amount of overtime pay claimed by an employee, and the employee conceded that “the claim for overtime should be dismissed as moot.” 667 F.3d at 1200. In other words, we concluded that Dionne was not a prevailing party under the FLSA because in granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, the district court did not award a judgment to the plaintiff. Notably, however, we expressly limited our holding, emphasizing on rehearing that:

Our decision in this matter addresses a very narrow question: whether an employee who conceded that his claim should be dismissed before trial as moot, when the full amount of back pay was tendered, was a prevailing party entitled to statutory attorney’s fees under § 216(b). It should not be construed as authorizing the denial of attorney’s fees, requested by an employee, solely because an employer tendered the full amount of back pay owing to an employee, prior to the time a jury has returned its verdict, or the trial court has entered judgment on the merits of the claim.

Id. at 1206 n. 5 (emphasis added).

Thereafter, in Zinni, we held that a settlement offer for the full amount of statutory damages requested under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (“FDCPA”), without an accompanying offer of judgment, did not offer full relief to an FDCPA plaintiff and therefore did not render the plaintiff’s claim moot. 692 F.3d at 1167–68. Zinni involved three cases that were consolidated on appeal: in each case, the debt collector offered to settle for $1,001, an amount exceeding by $1 the maximum statutory damages available to an individual plaintiff under the FDCPA, as well as an unspecified amount of attorneys’ fees and costs. Id. at 1164–66. None of the plaintiffs accepted the settlement offers. Id. The district court granted the defendants’ motions to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction because the offers left the plaintiffs with “no remaining stake” in the litigation. Id. at 1164.

On appeal, we reversed, holding that “the failure of [the debt collectors] to offer judgment prevented the mooting of [the plaintiffs’] FDCPA claims.” Id. at 1168. We said that a settlement offer for the “full relief requested” means “the full amount of damages plus a judgment.” Id. at 1166–67. The court explained that judgment is important to a plaintiff because it is enforceable by the district court, whereas a settlement offer without an offer of judgment is “a mere promise to pay” which, if broken, required the plaintiff to sue for breach of contract in state court. Id. at 1167–68 (quoting from and relying on Simmons v. United Mortg. & Loan Inv., LLC, 634 F.3d 754, 766 (4th Cir.2011) (FLSA overtime case)). We also noted that “even if the [settlement] check had been tendered [to the plaintiff], that fact would not change our ultimate conclusion.” Id. at 1164 n. 5. In fact, we said that even if the plaintiff accepted the offer, without an offer of judgment, full relief had not been offered. Id. at 1167 n. 8 (“The issue of whether the offer was accepted or rejected, while argued by the parties, is not relevant to our analysis because Appellees never offered full relief.”).

Applying these principles to the case at bar, the Eleventh Circuit concluded that absent an offer of judgment in plaintiff’s favor, the defendant could not and did not moot the plaintiff’s claims, not withstanding the plaintiff’s acceptance of the monies tendered:

Here, RAM’s settlement offer to Wolff did not include an offer of judgment in Wolff’s favor and against RAM. Rather, Wolff signed a release providing that she “acknowledge[d] receipt of [the $3600] check as full and complete satisfaction of any monies owed to [Wolff] from Royal American.” As a result, under Zinni—which expressly relied on a FLSA case from the Fourth Circuit—we are compelled to conclude that RAM’s offer did not constitute full relief of Wolff’s FLSA claim. We recognize that in Zinni, the plaintiff did not accept the settlement check, but here, Wolff accepted the check and signed a release. However, Zinni made clear that so long as a settlement agreement does not include an offer of judgment against a defendant (and it did not in this case), whether a plaintiff accepted the settlement makes no difference. Thus, RAM’s settlement with Wolff did not moot her FLSA claim, and she was entitled to seek attorneys’ fees and costs from RAM.

Rejecting the defendant’s contention that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Genesis required a different result, the court stated:

RAM argues that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 133 S.Ct. 1523 (2013), requires a different result. There, the Supreme Court held that a “collective action” brought under the FLSA—wherein an employee brings an action to recover damages for FLSA violations on behalf of himself and other “similarly situated” employees—became non justiciable when the lone plaintiff’s individual claim became moot. Id. at 1526. However, Genesis involved a settlement offer that included an offer of judgment-unlike the offer here, and unlike the one in Zinni. See id. at 1527 (“When petitioners answered the complaint, they simultaneously served upon respondent an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68.”). What’s more, Genesis explicitly said that it was “assum[ing], without deciding, that [an employer’s] Rule 68 offer mooted [an employee’s] individual claim.” See id. at 1529; see also id. n. 4 (“[W]e do not resolve the question whether a Rule 68 offer that fully satisfies the plaintiff’s claims is sufficient by itself to moot the action.”). Accordingly, Genesis is not directly on point, and expressly does not answer the question before us.

Affirming the district court’s award of attorneys fees to plaintiff, the Court reasoned:

We also find unavailing RAM’s claim that the district court abused its discretion in awarding the fees in this case. As for RAM’s claim that Wolff was not a prevailing party for purposes of obtaining FLSA attorneys’ fees, we are unpersuaded. As we’ve said, to be entitled to fees under the FLSA, a plaintiff must “receive a judgment in [her] favor.” Dionne, 667 F.3d at 1205. Here, the district court plainly found that the settlement—which RAM admits included the full amount of back pay as well as an equal amount for liquidated damages—was reasonable, and by doing so, the district court entered a judgment in Wolff’s favor. See Lynn’s Food Stores, 679 F.2d at 1355;
Chmielarz, 289 F.3d at 1317, 1320. RAM provides us with no reason to depart from Lynn, which directs a district court to enter a judgment after “scrutinizing” for fairness a proposed settlement entered into between the employee and the employer in an action brought for back wages under the FLSA. Id. at 1353. Further, unlike in Thomas v. State of La., 534 F.2d 613, 615 (5th Cir.1976), it is unclear in this case whether Wolff received “everything to which [she was] entitled under the FLSA at the time the agreement [wa]s reached,” since the district court found that the parties did not intend the settlement agreement to preclude attorneys’ fees under the FLSA.

As for RAM’s claim that it was denied due process when the district court entered the judgment, the record shows that RAM was given an opportunity to respond to Wolff’s motions on this matter, and that RAM expressly made arguments regarding its liability in its papers before the district court. Nor has RAM shown, based on the record of this case—including the record of attorney and party conduct on both sides—that the district court abused its considerable discretion in granting attorneys’ fees using the lodestar analysis. This is especially true given that in cases like this one where attorney fees are allowed to the prevailing party by federal statute, the compensable fees include time spent litigating both the entitlement to and amount of fees incurred; i.e. “fees for litigating fees.” Thompson v. Pharmacy Corp. of Am., Inc., 334 F.3d 1242, 1245 (11th Cir.2003) (statutory fees for civil rights litigants includes “fees for litigating fees”). Accordingly, we affirm.

Click Wolff v Royal American Management, Inc. to read the entire unpublished Per Curiam Opinion.

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U.S.S.C.: High Court Declines to Decide Whether a “Full” Monetary Offer Absent Entry of Judgment Can Moot a Claim

Convergent Outsourcing, Inc. v. Zinni

On the heels of last month’s Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, the Supreme Court had the chance to decide a case which actually would help define the true parameters of the mootness doctrine, visa vis cases where the plaintiff claims finite (and typically relatively small) individual damages, but seeks to represent a putative class. However, as in the Symczyk, the Supremes left some observers scratching their heads and declined to answer the question posed to it. Although the Zinni case was a case brought under the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and not the FLSA, the issue presented is common in FLSA cases.  Specifically, the issue presented by the Zinni case was:

Does an offer to provide a plaintiff with all of the relief he has requested, including more than the legal amount of damages plus costs and reasonable attorney’s fees, fail to moot the underlying claim because the defendant has not also offered to agree to the entry of a judgment against it?

Previously, the Eleventh Circuit had held that such an offer, absent an agreement by the defendant to allow entry of a judgment against it, necessarily cannot moot a claim, because it fails to truly give the plaintiff all of the relief sought which he or she may obtain by litigating the case. Given the high court’s decision to deny cert on the case, this remains good law and parties should govern themselves accordingly.

Click Convergent Outsourcing, Inc. v. Zinni to read the Eleventh Circuit’s underlying decision and ScotusBlog to view the briefing and orders at the Supreme Court.

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U.S.S.C.: Where Named Plaintiff Acknowledged That Unaccepted OJ Mooted Her Claim, Collective Action Mooted and May Not Proceed

Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk

What effect, if any, does an unaccepted “full relief” offer of judgment have on the ability of a named plaintiff to continue with his or her putative collective action claims under the FLSA? This was the question FLSA practitioners had eagerly awaited the answer of from the Supreme Court, ever since the Court accepted certiorti of the Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. However, in a decision of almost no real world value, the Court elected to dodge this question and instead answer its own hypothetical question/issue, so limited in scope, that Justice Kagan (in her dissent) points out, it has absolutely no value in practical application. For this reason, at least one practitioner surveyed regarding the opinion stated, “I don’t care about this decision at all.  Really pretty meaningless.”  In order to understand why such a seemingly important opinion actually means so little we must examine exactly what the Court decided and on what facts it made its decision.

As stated by the Court, its actual holding was that:

a collective action brought by single employee on behalf of herself and all similarly situated employees for employer’s alleged violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was no longer justiciable when, as conceded by plaintiff-employee, her individual claim became moot as result of offer of judgment by employer in amount sufficient to make her whole.

Describing the relevant facts the Court explained:

In 2009, respondent, who was formerly employed by petitioners as a registered nurse at Pennypack Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, filed a complaint on behalf of herself and “all other persons similarly situated.” App. 115–116. Respondent alleged that petitioners violated the FLSA by automatically deducting 30 minutes of time worked per shift for meal breaks for certain employees, even when the employees performed compensable work during those breaks. Respondent, who remained the sole plaintiff throughout these proceedings, sought statutory damages for the alleged violations.

When petitioners answered the complaint, they simultaneously served upon respondent an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. The offer included $7,500 for alleged unpaid wages, in addition to “such reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses … as the Court may determine.” Id., at 77. Petitioners stipulated that if respondent did not accept the offer within 10 days after service, the offer would be deemed withdrawn.

After respondent failed to respond in the allotted time period, petitioners filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Petitioners argued that because they offered respondent complete relief on her individual damages claim, she no longer possessed a personal stake in the outcome of the suit, rendering the action moot. Respondent objected, arguing that petitioners were inappropriately attempting to “pick off” the named plaintiff before the collective-action process could unfold. Id., at 91.

The District Court found that it was undisputed that no other individuals had joined respondent’s suit and that the Rule 68 offer of judgment fully satisfied her individual claim. It concluded that petitioners’ Rule 68 offer of judgment mooted respondent’s suit, which it dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

Although discussed in detail by Justice Kagan in her dissent, the Court’s majority opinion, penned by Justice Thomas ignored the fact that the plaintiff actually received no money, no judgment and no settlement as a result of the unaccepted offer of judgment. Nonetheless, the Court reasoned, because the plaintiff had ostensibly stipulated at the district court that her claim was mooted by the unaccepted offer of judgment, and she had failed to cross-appeal to the Supreme Court (a decision which was entirely in her favor), the Court refused to entertain the plaintiff’s argument that the unaccepted OJ could not have mooted the case in the first place. Instead, charging ahead, under the false pretense that the unaccepted OJ had in fact mooted the plaintiff’s individual claim, the Court went on to hold that under such (imagined) circumstances, a defendant could “pick off” an FLSA collective action, where the plaintiff has not sought conditional certification of a collective action at the time he or she receives an offer of judgment that he or she acknowledges moots his or her individual claim.

While the Court’s majority went to great length to distinguish the collective action mechanism of 216(b) from the Rule 23 class action mechanism on which the reasoning of Circuit Courts have relied in reaching the opposite conclusion, the Court failed to acknowledge it was deciding an issue that was really not even before it, and in practicality unlikely to ever appear before any court ever again.

In a stinging must-read dissent Justice Kagan pointed this out and ridiculed the conservative majority for essentially wasting everyone’s time with a meaningless opinion. The Court ultimately failed to answer the real issue of interest- what effect does an unaccepted “full relief” offer of judgment have on the ability of a named-plaintiff to pursue a collective action.  As Justice Kagan noted, the text of Rule 68 dictates it should have no effect at all.  Pointing out that the plaintiff had actually received no recovery in the case, because the offer of judgment at issue was not accepted, Kagan went reasoned, the majority’s opinion had virtually no application outside of the contrived facts on which it was based. Kagan began:

The Court today resolves an imaginary question, based on a mistake the courts below made about this case and others like it. The issue here, the majority tells us, is whether a ” ‘ collective action’ ” brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., “is justiciable when the lone plaintiff’s individual claim becomes moot.” Ante, at ––––. Embedded within that question is a crucial premise: that the individual claim has become moot, as the lower courts held and the majority assumes without deciding. But what if that premise is bogus? What if the plaintiff’s individual claim here never became moot? And what if, in addition, no similar claim for damages will ever become moot? In that event, the majority’s decision—founded as it is on an unfounded assumption—would have no real-world meaning or application. The decision would turn out to be the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen to a proposed collective FLSA action when something that in fact never happens to an individual FLSA claim is errantly thought to have done so. That is the case here, for reasons I’ll describe. Feel free to relegate the majority’s decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: The situation it addresses should never again arise.

Although this was a case watched most by FLSA practitioners for obvious reasons, it is a case which further highlights the absurd pro-big business mentality employed by today’s conservative majority on the court. In fact, as an aside Kagan took another parting shot at the similarly limited opinion just issued by the court in the Comcast case. (In footnote 2 to her dissent, she notes, “[f]or similarly questionable deployment of this Court’s adjudicatory authority, see Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. ––––, ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 1437, ––– L.Ed.2d –––– (2013) (joint opinion of GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ.) (observing in dissent that “[t]he Court’s ruling is good for this day and case only”).”).

In sum, this decision will leave practitioners scratching their heads. It is unclear what, if any, actual effect it will have on future cases. For this reason, one has to wonder- why did the Court take up the case in the first place.  It would seem that absent a stipulation by a plaintiff that his or her case is mooted by a Rule 68 offer of judgment (which in fact is an impossibility) or an acceptance of such an offer of judgment, a defendant still may not moot a putative collective action with an offer of judgment.

Click Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk to read the Court’s entire opinion and Justice Kagan’s dissent.

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E.D.N.Y.: In the Context of Litigation, Where Plaintiff Represented by Counsel, Court Approval of Accepted OJ Not Required

Picerni v. Bilingual Seit & Preschool Inc.

This case was before the Court on the Plaintiff’s motion to approve settlement, following his acceptance of an offer of judgment tendered by defendant pursuant to Rule 68. Although the plaintiff brought the case as a putative collective action, the accepted offer of judgment purported to resolve the case on an individual basis. Prior to the defendant having answered or appeared in the case, the plaintiff filed a notice of acceptance of an offer of judgment that defendant had made under Fed.R.Civ.P. 68. The offer of judgment provided that the case would be settled on an individual basis (not as a collective or class action) for $5000 payable to plaintiff, plus attorney’s fees of $4590, “which represents 7.65 hours at $600 an hour.” The court initially declined to enter judgment under Rule 68, instead issuing an order requiring the parties to seek the court’s approval of the settlement. Subsequently, the plaintiff complied with the October 19th Order, and filed a motion in an effort to explain that the settlement and his attorney’s fees had a reasonable basis. Upon consideration of the motion it had initially required however, the court essentially reversed itself, and in a lengthy opinion held that under the circumstances of the case- where the employee had filed a lawsuit and was represented by counsel- the parties’ private settlement of the claims did not require judicial approval.

Initially, the court discussed longstanding United States Supreme Court jurisprudence holding that employees cannot enter binding settlements waiving their rights under the FLSA, absent a showing there was a “bona fide dispute.”

Comparing the case before it the court reasoned the situation was not that contemplated by the Supreme Court, because the plaintiff had filed a lawsuit and was represented by counsel:

Curiously, however, none of the cases expressly consider the issue presented in this case, and that is presented in many others before me—settlement of a claim after the FLSA case has been commenced, i.e., a “private” settlement occurring in the context of a public lawsuit, where neither side invites, and in some cases, one or both sides actually resist, the Court’s determination of whether the settlement is fair and reasonable.

When an employer chooses to resolve an FLSA claim without pending litigation, or merely “under threat of suit” as opposed to actual suit, it is obviously taking a reasoned gamble. If the employee later sues notwithstanding the release, the employer may find itself in front of a court that simply disregards the release because it was not previously approved by a court or the Department of Labor. There are at least several reasons why an employer might take this risk: (1) it may be confident that it had a bona fide dispute with the employee; that the release fairly compromises that dispute; and that it will therefore be upheld; or (2) the employer may conclude that as a practical matter, the risk of the settling employee bringing a subsequent suit is small enough in relation to the amount paid as to warrant the settlement; or (3) the employer may not want the settlement publicized among other employees who may well want the same remedial treatment, and therefore may take the risk of subsequent litigation with the settling employee to reduce the likelihood of suit by other employees. The case law cited above, for the most part, involves employers who made these kinds of judgment calls, and when the releases have been subsequently challenged, the courts have either approved them or not.

In the cases before this Court, an employer rarely makes a different analysis just because the case is pending. In other words, the factors that compel parties to settle before litigation is commenced, notwithstanding the possibility that a release that an employer receives will be ineffective, often seem to be equally compelling in reaching a settlement once the litigation is commenced. Except in the less frequent context of a settled class action under the state supplemental claims or a collective action with a substantial number of opt-in plaintiffs, I have never had an employer ask me to conduct a fairness hearing so that it has the protection of a court-approved release. To the contrary, the usual context is the one I am seeing here—no participation by the employer at all, not even an appearance. In the usual case, I merely receive advice from plaintiff’s counsel that the case is over, either by a notice of voluntary dismissal under Rule 41 or a letter saying the same thing (often received the day before the scheduled initial status conference). I have then, following past practice, set the case down for a fairness hearing.

The instant case is somewhat different, but I think not materially so in terms of what steps, if any, this Court needs to take next—plaintiff has simply filed an acceptance of a Rule 68 offer of judgment. I would not even know who the attorney for the employer is but for the signature on the offer of judgment, which has been filed by plaintiff, not defendant. The employer seems quite content to have judgment entered against it, which presumably the employer will satisfy. Perhaps it views a satisfaction of judgment as more protective than a noncourt-approved release, and perhaps, with at least the possibility that a judgment will have res judicata effect where a release might not, it is. But until some court determines that there was a bona fide dispute as to how much plaintiff was owed in wages, and that the offer of judgment fairly compromises it, the employer has not eliminated its risk.

Initially the court concluded that FLSA cases are not exempt from FRCP 41, which permits parties to stipulate to dismissal:

I cannot agree with the largely unstated assumption in the cases that refuse to allow voluntary dismissals that the FLSA falls within the “applicable federal statute” exception to the Rule. Nothing in Brooklyn Savings, Gangi, or any of their reasoned progeny expressly holds that the FLSA is one of those Rule 41–exempted statutes. For it is one thing to say that a release given to an employer in a private settlement will not, under certain circumstances, be enforced in subsequent litigation—that is the holding of Brooklyn Savings and Gangi—it is quite another to say that even if the parties want to take their chances that their settlement will not be effective, the Court will not permit them to do so.

The court then went on to examine Lynn’s Food and distinguished the case from the facts before it:

I believe Lynn’s Food should be confined to its rather egregious facts. Not only did the employer settle on the cheap with unsophisticated employees, but it circumvented the DOL’s investigation in doing so, and then had the audacity to seek a judicial imprimatur validating its aggressive strategy. A narrower reading of Lynn’s Food would be that if the proposed settlement would never have been approved if presented in the context of a pending litigation, then it cannot be approved in a subsequent litigation. In contrast, had the employer paid 100% of the maximum to which the employees might have been entitled plus liquidated damages in a bona fide dispute, the broad language used by the Eleventh Circuit might well have been unnecessary. Indeed, the Eleventh Circuit has recently expressed a similar view. See Dionne v. Floormasters Enterprises, Inc., 667 F.3d 1199 (11th Cir.2012) (if the employer tenders 100% of the unpaid wages claimed by the employee, plus liquidated damages, even while denying liability, the case is moot and no fairness hearing is necessary, nor is the employee a prevailing party entitled to an attorney’s fee). It is hard to conceive of any reason why, if a court is presented with an eminently reasonable, albeit after-the-fact, settlement, it is precluded from giving it legal effect. That is essentially what the Fifth Circuit held recently in upholding a private settlement, distinguishing Lynn’s Food because of its one-sided facts. See Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L .C., 688 F.3d 247, 253–256 & n. 10 (5th Cir.2012).

More importantly, Lynn’s Food does not expressly address the issue of whether parties can voluntarily withdraw a case under Rule 41. It does not preclude the plaintiff or the parties from proceeding unilaterally or bilaterally, depending on the timing, from withdrawing a case and taking their, principally the employer’s, chances in effectuating a settlement without court approval. It simply says, like all of the cases in this area, that the courts will not recognize an unreasonable FLSA settlement, whether the settlement is asserted by the employer as a defense in the settling employee’s subsequent suit, or, as in Lynn’s Food, as the basis for declaratory relief in an action that the employer has brought. Lynn’s Food thus does not dispose of the issue of whether parties in a pending action can voluntarily dismiss the case without any judicial assurances if that is what they want to do.

Recognizing the risks of unsupervised settlements of FLSA cases, the court said:

This is not to say that there is an absence of arguably undesirable consequences in allowing private settlements of FLSA litigation without court oversight. As noted above, in the typical cases I have, like this one, where private resolutions are reached and judicial scrutiny is neither sought nor desired, the case is brought as a collective action but resolved before a collective action notice has gone out to other employees. Although one employee, the named plaintiff, has presumably benefitted to at least some extent from the private resolution, other similarly situated employees will likely not even know about it, and to the extent they have not received their minimum wages or overtime, they will be no better off. Indeed, in at least one case, I have had the employer’s attorney candidly tell me that the reason he wished to avoid a fairness hearing was to prevent other employees from learning of the settlement and seeking the same relief.

I am not suggesting that plaintiff in the instant case or his attorney, who is an experienced and well-regarded practitioner in this Court, have committed any impropriety. But the scenario is conducive to a dynamic that allows both a plaintiff and his employer—not to mention the plaintiff’s attorney, who frequently receives a fee that greatly exceeds the plaintiff’s recovery—to leverage a comparatively cheap settlement on the backs of the plaintiff’s co-employees. This obviously runs contrary to the intent of Congress in enacting the FLSA and in particular to its creation of the collective action mechanism. Using the potential of a collective action as a Sword of Damocles to extract a small settlement and a large, but still comparatively small in relation to the exposure the employer would face in a true collective action, attorney’s fee could not have been what Congress had in mind in authorizing collective actions.

The court went on to discuss issues of confidentiality (the body of law that says there should be no confidential settlements of FLSA cases because same flies in the face of the remedial nature of the statute) and dismiss the typical argument against non-supervised settlements (the threat that they may end up being settled on the cheap), ultimately recognizing that the defendant is the one that is taking a risk often where there is no approval, rather than vice versa:

The problem of non judicially approved confidentiality provisions in private settlements is resolved by the same allocation of employer risk as is the case with private settlements of FLSA claims generally—if a settling employee subsequently breaches the confidentiality provision, then the employer is going to have to try to enforce it, or seek rescission or damages for its violation. At that point, under the authorities cited above, the courts may well hold it unenforceable.

Unlike the recent Fifth Circuit case discussed here, this case does not seem to signal any significant change in longstanding jurisprudence, prohibiting (binding and enforceable) private settlements of FLSA cases. Rather, here the court simply confirmed that the parties to an FLSA case can resolve the case and circumvent the court’s approval, leaving open the question of whether such settlements are enforceable.

Click Picerni v. Bilingual Seit & Preschool Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.

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Mootness and the FLSA: Where Are We Now?

With the Supreme Court set to weigh in on the issue next term, decisions continue to widely diverge on the issue of whether on employer may moot a collective action by paying damages to a plaintiff-employee or plaintiff-employees after they have filed suit seeking their wages pursuant to the FLSA. Recent weeks have brought more confusion to the issue. As discussed below, the Eleventh Circuit held in a non-FLSA claim that absent an actual judgment full tender of money damages alone is insufficient to render a case moot. Within days however, a different court sitting within the Ninth Circuit held that an employer properly mooted an entire collective action when it made payments to the entire class in amounts all parties agreed represented all money damages for a 2 year statute of limitations period, plus liquidated damages. In yet another decision a court within the Third Circuit held that an employer could not moot a collective action by tendering class damages calculated at a “half-time” rate, because an issue of fact existed as to whether that was the appropriate methodology for calculating such damages.

Zinni v. ER Solutions, Inc.

These three consolidated cases were before the Eleventh Circuit on the plaintiff-employee’s appeal of an order granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In each of the consolidated cases, at the court below the defendant had tendered the full monetary damages available to the plaintiff, but had not served an offer of judgment (OJ) or offered a stipulated judgment to the plaintiff. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim on mootness grounds. Summarizing the issue before the court, the Eleventh Circuit explained:

This consolidated appeal presents the issue of whether a settlement offer for the full amount of statutory damages requested under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., moots a claim brought pursuant to the FDCPA. Appellants Anthony W. Zinni, Blanche Dellapietro, and Naomi Desty appeal the district court’s dismissal of their complaints for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In each case, an Appellee sent an e-mail offering to settle an Appellant’s FDCPA case for $1,001—an amount exceeding by $1 the maximum statutory damages available for an individual plaintiff under the FDCPA. Appellees also offered attorneys’ fees and costs in each case, but did not specify the amount of fees and costs to be paid. Appellants did not accept the settlement offers. The district court subsequently granted Appellees’ motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), holding that the offers left Appellants with “no remaining stake” in the litigation. The district court then dismissed Appellants’ complaints with prejudice. We conclude the settlement offers did not divest the district court of subject matter jurisdiction.

After distinguishing a settlement from an accepted offer of judgment and discussing case law pertaining to each distinct situation, the Eleventh Circuit held that absent an actual judgment a mere offer of settlement cannot moot a claim:

The district court erred in finding Appellees’ settlement offers rendered moot Appellants’ FDCPA claims because the settlement offers did not offer full relief. See id. Each of the Appellants requested that the district court enter judgment in his or her favor and against an Appellee as part of the prayer for relief in the complaint. Appellees’ settlement offers, however, did not offer to have judgment entered against them. Because the settlement offers were not for the full relief requested, a live controversy remained over the issue of a judgment, and the cases were not moot. See Friends of Everglades, 570 F.3d at 1216.

Although the case concerned claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) the reasoning of the court is equally applicable to cases under the FLSA. In fact to a large extent the court relied on FLSA jurisprudence in reaching its decision.  At least within the Eleventh Circuit, this case seems to put to bed the short-lived argument fueled by the same court’s decision less than two years ago in the Dionne opinions.

Click Zinni v. ER Solutions, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

Orozco v. Borenstein

Amazingly, before the ink could even dry on the Zinni opinion, 2 days later, a court in the District of Arizona was faced with a virtually identical issue. However, unlike the Eleventh Circuit (and like the Order reversed in Zinni) the court ruled that an FLSA defendant could moot an entire class’ claims simply by tendering the maximum money damages due. Thus, the Orozco court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss on mootness grounds, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, following a tender.

Describing the issue before it, the court explained:

Plaintiff brings this putative class action pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., the Arizona Wage Act, A.R.S. § 23–350, et seq., and the Arizona Minimum Wage Act, A.R.S. § 23–363, et seq. Plaintiff worked as an oven operator in the bagel baking operations of defendant Bada Bing Baking, LLC, doing business as Chompie’s Wholesale Bakery (defendants collectively referred to as the “Bakery”). Plaintiff contends that the Bakery violated the FLSA, as well as Arizona’s wage statutes, by failing to pay plaintiff and other similarly situated employees the required federal and state minimum wages for covered nonexempt employees. Plaintiff contends that, although the employees are paid slightly more than the minimum wage required by federal and state law, 29 U.S.C. § 206(a), A.R.S. § 23–363(A), the Bakery has implemented a policy of deducting certain work-related expenses from the employee’s paychecks, leaving their net pay below minimum wage. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the Bakery deducts $12.50 per paycheck for uniform laundering, $10.00 for initial and lost electronic keys, $5.00 for initial and lost time cards, and $24.00 for “food handlers” health cards from Maricopa County.

After this lawsuit was filed, the Bakery reimbursed 51 current and former “minimum wage” employees for the uniform-related fees incurred in the 2 years preceding the filing of this lawsuit, along with liquidated damages as prescribed by 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Bakery contends that because it has tendered full payment for all claimed violations, there is no remaining live case or controversy, rendering this case moot.

For reasons known only to the plaintiff and his attorney, the plaintiff did not raise any issue regarding the defendant’s failure to allow the entry of judgment on the claims. Instead, the plaintiff contended that he had not been fully compensated for his claims because (1) he sought damages for a third year due to the Defendant’s “willful” FLSA violations, and (2) he was not reimbursed for certain other items. However, due to insufficiencies it cited in the plaintiff’s pleadings and his declaration submitted in opposition to the defendant’s motion, the court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the case.

Of note, the court declined to resolve the issue of whether the plaintiff was entitled to attorneys fees as the prevailing party, instead reserving on the issue until plaintiff had filed a motion for attorneys fees pursuant to the District of Arizona’s local rules.

Click Orozco v. Borenstein to read the entire Order.

Seymour v. PPG Industries, Inc.

In the final case discussed, the defendant actually did tender an offer of judgment, pursuant to FRCP 68, however it was arguably insufficient and thus, the defendant’s motion to dismiss was denied on that basis.

Interestingly, the parties in this salary misclassification collective action case had stipulated to the number of hours each of the plaintiffs had worked during the periods relevant to the claims. However, the parties disagreed as to how the plaintiffs’ damages were due to be calculated. As in many such cases, the defendant argued that the damages were to be calculated using the FWW or half-time methodology, while the plaintiffs asserted time and a half damages were due. Because the issue of how to calculate damages- and ultimately the amount of same- remained unresolved, the court held that the defendant’s offer of judgment could not be said to definitively by “full relief.” Thus, the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was dismissed on this grounds.

Click Seymour v. PPG Industries, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.

So what’s the takeaway here? While it remains clear that a defendant cannot moot a claim where the damages themselves are in dispute, plaintiffs faced with offers that they believe provide full monetary relief, would be wise to demand a judgment as well if the goal is to avoid a dismissal on mootness grounds so that a settlement offer alone cannot moot their claim. Another extra step is to seek a declaratory judgment in the actual complaint.

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M.D.Fla.: Defendant Does Not Moot FLSA Case By Tender of Unpaid Wages/Liquidated Damages, Absent Payment of Reasonable Attorneys Fees and Costs

Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises

Following the recent 11th Circuit decision Dionne v. Floormasters, the blogosphere has been abuzz with articles positing that the decision gave employers the green light to engage in wholesale wage theft and take a wait and see approach with regard to paying employees their wages.  Several management-side attorneys have even gone as far as to suggest that a thieving employer could tender payment of wages/liquidated damages alone on the courthouse steps on the eve of a jury verdict and simply avoid paying mandatory fees and costs under 216(b).  Not so, holds Judge James D. Whittemore, in the first case on the issue post-Dionne.

In Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises, the defendants-employers attempted just this strategy.  After Klinger filed a lawsuit seeking the payment of her unpaid wages and liquidated damages, her former employers tendered what it deemed “full payment” of her unpaid wages and liquidated damages.  However, it denied liability and refused to pay reasonable attorneys fees and costs.  Instead, it filed a Motion to Dismiss, asserting that the case was now moot.  The Court rejected the defendants’ contention that the case was moot absent payment of attorneys fees and costs and denied defendants’ motion.

Significantly, the Court noted:

“Defendants’ mere tender of payment does not provide Plaintiff with all the relief she seeks and would be entitled to as a prevailing party in this action, to wit: an enforceable judgment, attorney’s fees, and costs.  Allowing Defendants to avoid responsibility for Plaintiff’s attorneys fees merely by tendering full payment after litigation has commenced would run counter to the FLSA’s goal of fully compensating the wronged employee.  See Silva v. Miller, 307 Fed. App’x 349, 351 (11th Cir. 2009)(“FLSA requires judicial review of the reasonableness of counsel’s legal fees to assure… that counsel is compensated adquately…”.  Further, Defendants’ tender effectively circumvents the requirements of Rule 68(a), Fed.R.Civ.P.”

As such, the Court denied the defendants’ motion.

Click Klinger v. Phil Mook Enterprises to read the entire Order.

DISCLAIMER:  It is not this author’s assertion that the defendants in this particular case engaged in willful wage theft.  Absent further research into the facts giving rise to the underlying claim, the author makes no representations whatsoever as to the specific facts of this case.  Instead, this post is a commentary on the procedural history of the case once filed.

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3d Cir.: Defendant May Not “Pick Off” a Putative Collective Action by Tendering Full Relief to Named-Plaintiff at Outset

Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp.

In an issue that has now been addressed by several circuits in recent years, the Third Circuit was presented with the question of whether a defendant-employer in an FLSA case may “pick off” a putative collective action (prior to conditional certification), where it tenders full relief to the named-Plaintiff.  Consistent with other circuits to have taken up this issue, the Third Circuit held that a defendant may not do so and that such an offer of judgment (OJ) does not moot a putative collective action.  As such, the court reversed the decision below, dismissing the case on mootness grounds.

In dismissing the case initially, the trial court below reasoned, “[Plaintiff] does not contend that other individuals have joined her collective action. Thus, this case, like each of the district court cases cited by Defendants, which concluded that a Rule 68 offer of judgment mooted the underlying FLSA collective action, involves a single named plaintiff. In addition, Symczyk does not contest Defendants’ assertion that the 68 offer of judgment fully satisfied her claims….”

After discussing the application of full tender relief offers in the Rule 23 context, the court concluded that the same reasoning precludes picking off the named-plaintiff in a representative action brought pursuant to 216(b).  Instead, the court held that a motion for conditional certification in an FLSA case made within a reasonable time “relates back” to the time of the filing of the Complaint and thus such a representative action may proceed, notwithstanding to purportedly “full tender” offer to the named-plaintiff.  The court explained:

“Although the opt-in mechanism transforms the manner in which a named plaintiff acquires a personal stake in representing the interests of others, it does not present a compelling justification for limiting the relation back doctrine to the Rule 23 setting. The considerations that caution against allowing a defendant’s use of Rule 68 to impede the advancement of a representative action are equally weighty in either context. Rule 23 permits plaintiffs “to pool claims which would be uneconomical to litigate individually.” Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 809, 105 S.Ct. 2965, 86 L.Ed.2d 628 (1985). Similarly, § 216(b) affords plaintiffs “the advantage of lower individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources.” Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170. Rule 23 promotes “efficiency and economy of litigation.” Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 349, 103 S.Ct. 2392, 76 L.Ed.2d 628 (1983). Similarly, “Congress’ purpose in authorizing § 216(b) class actions was to avoid multiple lawsuits where numerous employees have allegedly been harmed by a claimed violation or violations of the FLSA by a particular employer.” Prickett v. DeKalb Cnty., 349 F.3d 1294, 1297 (11th Cir.2003).

When Rule 68 morphs into a tool for the strategic curtailment of representative actions, it facilitates an outcome antithetical to the purposes behind § 216(b). Symczyk’s claim-like that of the plaintiff in Weiss—was “acutely susceptible to mootness” while the action was in its early stages and the court had yet to determine whether to facilitate notice to prospective plaintiffs. See Weiss, 385 F.3d at 347 (internal quotation marks omitted). When the certification process has yet to unfold, application of the relation back doctrine prevents defendants from using Rule 68 to “undercut the viability” of either’ type of representative action. See id. at 344.

Additionally, the relation back doctrine helps safeguard against the erosion of FLSA claims by operation of the Act’s statute of limitations. To qualify for relief under the FLSA, a party plaintiff must “commence” his cause of action before the statute of limitations applying to his individual claim has lapsed. Sperling v. Hoffmann–La Roche, Inc., 24 F.3d 463, 469 (3d Cir.1994).  For a named plaintiff, the action commences on the date the complaint is filed. 29 U.S.C. § 256(a). For an opt-in plaintiff, however, the action commences only upon filing of a written consent. Id. § 256(b). This represents a departure from Rule 23, in which the filing of a complaint tolls the statute of limitations “as to all asserted members of the class” even if the putative class member is not cognizant of the suit’s existence. See Crown, Cork & Seal Co. 462 U.S. at 350 (internal quotation marks omitted). Protracted disputes over the propriety of dismissal in light of Rule 68 offers may deprive potential opt-ins whose claims are in jeopardy of expiring of the opportunity to toll the limitations period—and preserve their entitlements to recovery—by filing consents within the prescribed window.

In sum, we believe the relation back doctrine helps ensure the use of Rule 68 does not prevent a collective action from playing out according to the directives of § 216(b) and the procedures authorized by the Supreme Court in Hoffmann–La Roche and further refined by courts applying this statute. Depriving the parties and the court of a reasonable opportunity to deliberate on the merits of collective action “conditional certification” frustrates the objectives served by § 216(b). Cf. Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 921 (explaining “there must be some time for a[n FLSA] plaintiff to move to certify a collective action before a defendant can moot the claim through an offer of judgment”). Absent undue delay, when an FLSA plaintiff moves for “certification” of a collective action, the appropriate course—particularly when a defendant makes a Rule 68 offer to the plaintiff that would have the possible effect of mooting the claim for collective relief asserted under § 216(b)—is for the district court to relate the motion back to the filing of the initial complaint.

Upon remand, should Symczyk move for “conditional certification,” the court’ shall consider whether such motion was made without undue delay, and, if it so finds, shall relate the motion back to December 4, 2009the date on which Symczyk filed her initial complaint. If (1) Symczyk may yet timely seek “conditional certification” of her collective action, (2) the court permits the case to move forward as a collective action (by virtue of Symczyk’s satisfaction of the “modest factual showing” standard), and (3) at least one other similarly situated employee opts in, then defendants’ Rule 68 offer of judgment would no longer fully satisfy the claims of everyone in the collective action, and the proffered rationale behind dismissing the complaint on jurisdictional grounds would no longer be applicable. If, however, the court finds Symczyk’s motion to certify would be untimely, or otherwise denies the motion on its merits, then defendants’ Rule 68 offer to Symczyk—in full satisfaction of her individual claim—would moot the action.

For the foregoing reasons, we will reverse the judgment of the District Court and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

Thus, while ultimately the OJ might have the effect of mooting the case, it could not do so prior to a reasonable opportunity to plaintiff of seeking conditional certification of same.

Click Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. to read the entire decision.

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