Tag Archives: Collective Action

Courts Reach Different Conclusions Regarding Whether FLSA Plaintiffs Should Be Allowed to Proceed Anonymously Under Pseudonyms

Although the issue comes up from time to time, there are few decisions discussing whether FLSA plaintiffs and opt-in plaintiffs may proceed with their claims anonymously notwithstanding the federal rules of civil procedure’s requirement that each party identify itself and the FLSA’s requirement under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) that any person wishing to participate in a collective action file a consent to join.  As discussed here, two recent decisions took up this issue and reached different results, with one court in California permitting exotic dancers to proceed under pseudonyms, while a court in New York denied a similar motion on behalf of “white collar” worker at Bloomberg.

N.D.Cal.: Exotic Dancer Met Burden to Proceed Anonymously

Jane Roes 1-2 v. SFBSC Management, LLC

In the first case, the plaintiffs, a putative class of exotic dancers, requested that they be able to proceed under pseudonyms and the court granted their motion. The plaintiffs ask the court to do two things: First, to allow them to proceed under “Jane Roe” pseudonyms; and, second, to allow future plaintiffs to join this suit by filing their FLSA consents under seal. (ECF No. 17 at 1.) (Plaintiffs in FLSA collective suits must affirmatively “opt in” by filing consent forms. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).). Noting that filing consents under seal was unnecessary in light of the order allowing each of the plaintiffs to use pseudonyms the court denied the second branch of plaintiffs’ motion.

The court applied a balancing test to reach its holding:

The plaintiffs express a legitimate concern for their privacy and, more compelling for the anonymity analysis, an understandable fear of social stigmatization. The Ninth Circuit has recognized that courts grant anonymity where it is needed to “preserve privacy in a matter of sensitive and highly personal nature.” Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1068 (quoting James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir.1993)). “In this circuit,” consequently, “we allow parties to use pseudonyms” where this is “necessary” to “protect a person from … ridicule or personal embarrassment.” Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1067–68 (emphasis added).

Arguing against pseudonymity, SFBSC points to 4 Exotic Dancers v. Spearmint Rhino, No. 08–4038, 2009 WL 250054 (C.D.Cal. Jan. 29, 2009). (See ECF No. 19 at 4–5.) The plaintiffs in that case—who, as the case’s name suggests, were also exotic dancers—were denied anonymity where, in SFBSC’s view, they gave the “same reasons” for withholding their real names as the present plaintiffs. (Id. at 4.) SFBSC calls 4 Exotic Dancers “indistinguishable” from this case. (Id.)

The court does not agree that 4 Exotic Dancers compels the denial of anonymity here. That decision does not reflect how this district has understood the law of anonymity. The court in 4 Exotic Dancers cited a decision of this district, Doe v. Rostker, 89 F.R.D. 158 (N.D.Cal.1981), for the proposition that “some embarrassment or economic harm is not enough” to justify anonymity. See
4 Exotic Dancers, 2009 WL 250054, at *3 (citing Rostker, 89 F.R.D. at 162). SFBSC cites Rostker for the same idea. (ECF No. 19 at 3.) But Rostker itself distinguishes those insufficient fears (“some embarrassment or economic harm”) from the following, which justify anonymity:

A plaintiff should be permitted to proceed anonymously in cases where a substantial privacy interest is involved. The most compelling situations involve matters which are highly sensitive, such as social stigmatization …. That the plaintiff may suffer some embarrassment or economic harm is not enough. Rostker, 89 F.R.D. at 162 (emphases added). This district has thus considered “social stigmatization” among the “most compelling” reasons for permitting anonymity. This is consistent with the Ninth Circuit’s instruction in Advanced Textile that anonymity is permitted where the subject matter of a case is “sensitive and highly personal,” and where disclosing a party’s identity threatens to subject them to “harassment, … ridicule or personal embarrassment.” See Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1067–68.

The plaintiffs have identified an adequate threat of personal embarrassment and social stigmatization that, under Advanced Textile, militates for allowing them to proceed under Jane Roe pseudonyms. To the extent that 4 Exotic Dancers points to a different conclusion, the court respectfully disagrees with that decision.

This case moreover falls into what may be roughly called the area of human sexuality. As SFBSC recognizes (see ECF No. 19 at 4–5), courts have often allowed parties to use pseudonyms when a case involves topics in this “sensitive and highly personal” area. The most famous case of this sort—which, however, did not address the question of pseudonymity—is certainly Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705, 35 L.Ed.2d 147 (1973). But there are many others. E.g., United States v. Doe, 488 F.3d 1154, 1155 n. 1 (9th Cir.2007) (allowing defendant convicted of producing child pornography to use pseudonym); Doe v. Megless, 654 F.3d 404, 408 (3rd Cir.2011) (“Examples of areas where courts have allowed pseudonyms include … abortion, … transexuality … and homosexuality.”) (quotation omitted) (cited by SFBSC at ECF No. 19 at 4–5); John Doe 140 v. Archdiocese of Portland, 249 F.R.D. 358, 361 (D.Or.2008) (plaintiff alleging that he was sexually abused as minor allowed to proceed anonymously); Doe v. United Serv. Life Ins. Co., 123 F.R.D. 437 (S.D.N.Y.1988) (sexual orientation); Doe v. Deschamps, 64 F.R.D. 652 (D.Mont.1974) (abortion; collecting older cases).

The court does not mean to equate the various specific topics that these cases subtend. A broad brush will do: For purposes of the anonymity discussion, it is enough to observe that courts have regularly responded to the especially sensitive nature of this area and have been willing to grant parties anonymity. The same judicial instinct should apply here. SFBSC’s contention that the business of nude and semi-nude dancing “simply does not fall within” the field of “sexuality” (ECF No. 19 at 5) is unconvincing.

The court also reasoned that each of the dancers faced a real potential harm, should they be compelled to disclose their actual identities:

The court must also consider the plaintiffs’ claim that disclosing their identities would subject them to potential harm, both physical and with regard to their careers. (See ECF No. 17 at 3–4.) The Ninth Circuit has again provided guidance: “[I]n cases where, as here, pseudonyms are used to shield the anonymous party from retaliation, the district court should determine the need for anonymity by evaluating the following factors: (1) the severity of the threatened harm, (2) the reasonableness of the anonymous party’s fears; and (3) the anonymous party’s vulnerability to such retaliation.” Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1068. The plaintiffs “are not required to prove that the defendants intend to carry out the threatened retaliation. What is relevant is that plaintiffs were threatened, and that a reasonable person would believe that the threat might actually be carried out.” Id. at 1071. While this language specifically addresses career retaliation by an employer defendant, its terms and concerns usefully frame the general question of whether a plaintiff seeking anonymity faces any harm. The latter is, again, a recognized basis for granting anonymity. E.g., id. at 1068 (anonymity is allowed where identification “creates a risk of … physical or mental harm”); Doe, 655 F.2d at 922 n. 1 (using pseudonyms where informant “faced a serious risk of bodily harm”).

The plaintiffs express reasonable concerns that disclosing their identities would threaten them with both career and possibly physical harm. (ECF No. 17 at 3–4.) For such “privacy and personal[-]safety reasons,” they explain, at SFBSC’s nightclubs, “it is customary for the exotic dancers to use … stage names.” (Id. at 3.) SFBSC does not deny this: either the practice or its rationale. Finally, SFBSC has “agree[d] that that the public disclosure of an exotic dancer’s true identity presents substantial risk of harm.” (ECF No. 26 at 12 (emphasis added).) This consideration favors allowing the plaintiffs to proceed pseudonymously.

Finally, the court concluded that any potential prejudice to the defendants and right to judicial access was outweighed by the potential harm the plaintiffs faced. Thus, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion.

Click Jane Roes 1-2 v. SFBSC Management, LLC to read the entire Order on Anonymity & Sealing.

S.D.N.Y.: White Collar Worker Suing Bloomberg Failed to Meet Burden to Proceed Anonymously

Michael v. Bloomberg L.P.

In the second case, the plaintiff was willing to provide his real name to Bloomberg, but refused to do so absent an agreement from Bloomberg to keep his name confidential. Thus, by his motion, the plaintiff requested that the court permit the plaintiff to proceed pseudonymously, and plaintiff additionally asked that; (1) plaintiff’s identity be filed under seal with the court; (2) plaintiff’s name, address, and other identifying information be supplied to Bloomberg; and (3) Bloomberg be directed not to disclose plaintiff’s identity or make negative public remarks concerning plaintiff. Holding that the plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of proof to warrant the requested relief, the court denied plaintiff’s motion.

In opposition, Bloomberg argued that plaintiff’s privacy concerns were too vague and that plaintiff’s request was contrary to the written notice requirement of 216(b) of the FLSA. The court agreed and reasoned:

Bloomberg has the better of the argument. Under Rule 10(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must “name all the parties.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a). “This requirement, though seemingly pedestrian, serves the vital purpose of facilitating public scrutiny of judicial proceedings and therefore cannot be set aside lightly.” Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 188–89 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted). The use of pseudonyms “runs afoul of the public’s common law right of access to judicial proceedings, a right that is supported by the First Amendment.” Doe v. Del Rio, 241 F.R.D. 154, 156 (S.D.N.Y.2006) (internal quotations omitted); see also Doe I v. Four Bros. Pizza, No. 13 CV 1505 VB, 2013 WL 6083414, at *9–10 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 19, 2013) (rejecting FLSA plaintiffs’ request for anonymity despite threat of retaliation from employer).

The court applied a similar balancing of interests test as the court in the Jane Roe case, but reached the opposite conclusion on the facts before it:

The Court has balanced plaintiff’s possible interest in anonymity against the potential prejudice to defendants and the public’s interest in disclosure, and concludes that the factors weigh in favor of denying plaintiff’s motion. There is no issue here of physical retaliation or mental harm against plaintiff. Nor is this the type of unusual case involving matters of a highly sensitive or personal nature—i.e., claims involving sexual orientation, pregnancy, or minor children—in which courts have justified anonymous plaintiffs proceeding pseudonymously. To depart in this case from the general requirement of disclosure would be to hold that nearly any plaintiff bringing a lawsuit against an employer would have a basis to proceed pseudonymously. The court declines to reach such a holding.

The court also rejected plaintiff’s middle ground position that he be permitted to disclose his identity to Bloomberg, under the condition that they maintain same confidentiality, in the name of judicial access.

Click Michael v. Bloomberg L.P. to read the entire Opinion.

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S.D.N.Y.: Following Conditional Certification, Court Permits Notice Via Social Media

Mark v. Gawker Media LLC

As is often the case, in its order granting plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification and to permit notice, the court in this case ordered the parties to confer regarding the terms of the proposed notice, the length of the notice period, and the means of transmitting such notice. Of note here, the plaintiff requested several alternative means of notice, including posting at defendant’s physical office, requiring that defendant post the notice on its blogs and/or websites, and that plaintiff be permitted to post copies of the court-approved notice on dedicated social media sites. Although the court denied some of plaintiff’s requests in this regard, it granted plaintiff’s request that he be permitted to transmit the notice via social media.

Discussing this issue the court explained:

Plaintiff’s final request is to use social media to target potential plaintiffs. They want to use dedicated social media pages entitled “Gawker Intern Lawsuit” or “Gawker Class Action”—names that match the URLs of the websites that the parties agree will be used to provide notice—on sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

Defendants argue, first, that there is “no evidence here that any former Gawker intern uses Twitter or could reasonably be expected to receive notice in that way,” and second, that creating social media pages would “deprive[ ] the Court of control over the message delivered to potential collective members.” As to the former argument, the Court finds it unrealistic that Defendant’s former interns do not maintain social media accounts; the vast majority likely have at least one such account, if not more. As to the latter, the Court exercises control only over the materials prepared and sent by the parties, not over the discussion that takes place by and among potential class members after notice is sent. The Court’s inability to control “discussion of the lawsuit” on social media sites, as Defendants put it, is no different from the Court’s inability to control two potential plaintiffs’ discussions of the lawsuit in person, by telephone, or even on a social media page that could be created by such a person without the parties’ intervention. The Court’s role is to ensure the fairness and accuracy of the parties’ communications with potential plaintiffs—not to be the arbiter of all discussions not involving the parties that may take place thereafter.

In a footnote, the court explained that its ruling was supported by the widespread use of social media by 18-30 year olds, the same group who comprised the putative class:

The Pew Research Center notes that as of January 2014, 89% of 18—to 29–year–olds use social networking sites. See “Social Networking Fact Sheet,” The Pew Internet Project, http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheets/social-networking-fact-sheet/ (last accessed Oct. 31, 2014).

Thus, the court concluded:

To the extent Plaintiffs propose to use social media to provide potential plaintiffs with notice that mirrors the notice otherwise approved by the Court, that request is granted. Before disseminating any notice by social media, the Plaintiffs shall confer with Defendants over the form and substance of any proposed social media postings, and submit to the court a joint letter describing the postings and any disputes about their contents that the parties cannot resolve themselves. The disputes already settled in this order—for example, the prohibition on the use of Defendant’s logos-shall govern any social media notice as well…  Plaintiffs may send notice via social media sites, subject to the Court’s further approval of the form and content of such notice.

Click Mark v. Gawker Media LLC to read the entire Order.

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S.D.N.Y.: Existence of Arbitration Agreements for Some (Not All) Employees in Putative Class, Irrelevant re “Similarly Situated” Inquiry at Stage I

Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C.

This case was before the court on plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. The case concerned allegations of impermissible tip credit, inadequate notice of same (under 203(m)), and other allegations of unpaid minimum wages. As further discussed here, defendants largely focused their attack on their twin contentions that the class proposed by plaintiff was not similarly situated to him and/or was too broad, because it contained English speakers (the plaintiff did not speak English) and employees and former employees who had signed arbitration agreements (the plaintiff did not). The court rejected both of these contentions, and reasoned that neither of these factors were appropriately considered at Stage I, the conditional certification stage.

Rejecting the defendant’s arguments in this regard, and holding that such issues were more properly reserved for Stage II or decertification analysis, the court reasoned:

The Court disagrees with defendants’ arguments. Case law imposes only a very limited burden on plaintiffs for purposes of proceeding as a conditional collective action. “[C]ourts have conditionally certified collective actions under the FLSA where plaintiffs, based on their firsthand observations, identify an approximate class of similarly situated individuals.” Hernandez v. Immortal Rise, Inc ., 2012 WL 4369746, at *4 (E.D.N.Y. Sept. 24, 2012). Here, Romero has done just that, stating in his declaration that he “personally observed … Defendants’ policy to pay below the statutory minimum wage rate to all tipped employees,” that he and other tipped employees were compensated “all at rates below the minimum wage,” that he has never seen a tipped employee “receive proper notice explaining what a tip credit is,” that he and other tipped employees had to spend more than 20% of their daily time in non-tipped related activities, that he observed defendants engaging in time-shaving, that he observed when employees were sent home without call-in pay if the restaurant was not busy, and that he “personally observed that all non-exempt employees received the same form of wage and hour notice.” Romero Decl. ¶¶ 2–9. The affidavit of a plaintiff attesting to the existence of similarly situated plaintiffs is sufficient for the purposes of a motion to approve a collective action. See Cheng Chung Liang v. J.C. Broadway Restaurant, Inc., 2013 WL 2284882, at *2–3 (S.D.N.Y. May 23, 2013) (“For the purposes of this motion, … plaintiffs’ evidence—in the form of [one employee’s] affidavit—is sufficient to establish that … there may be class members with whom he is similarly situated.”). Thus, Romero has made a sufficient showing that he and potential plaintiffs “were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law.” Hoffman, 982 F.Supp. at 261.

Defendants’ principal argument is that because other employees signed arbitration agreements, Romero is not similarly situated to these other employees. Def. Mem. at 6–14. Defendants assert that the claims here are “properly pursued solely in arbitration, on an individual basis, by all of Ruhlmann’s employees who signed such an agreement” and therefore that “Ruhlmann’s employees are dissimilar from Plaintiff Romero and must pursue any claims they may have in an arbitral forum rather than federal court.” Def. Mem. at 8–9. Romero challenges both the enforceability and the validity of these arbitration agreements. He argues that the agreements are not enforceable because they violate the fee-shifting provision of the FLSA. Reply at 6–7. Romero also argues that defendants caused several of these agreements to be signed by coercion, that it is highly likely that several employees did not actually sign arbitration agreements, and that the validity of the signatures on several agreements are questionable. Reply at 7–9; Pl. May 31 Letter at 2. Additionally, he asserts that the agreements are unenforceable because they limit the statute of limitations on employees’ claims to six months and because they were not provided to employees in their native language. Pl. Aug. 20 Letter at 2–3.

As already noted, the question on a motion to proceed as a collective action is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated “with respect to their allegations that the law has been violated.” Young, 229 F.R.D. at 54; accord Meyers, 624 F.3d at 555 (in conditional collective action approval, question is whether the proposed plaintiffs are similarly situated to the named plaintiffs “with respect to whether a FLSA violation has occurred”). The arbitration agreements do not create any differences between Romero and the proposed plaintiffs with respect to Romero’s claims that defendants have violated the FLSA. That is, the validity vel non of the agreements is unrelated to any claims of a violation of the FLSA. Under this reasoning, the existence of differences between potential plaintiffs as to the arbitrability of their claims should not act as a bar to the collective action analysis. Indeed, courts have consistently held that the existence of arbitration agreements is “irrelevant” to collective action approval “because it raises a merits-based determination.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., 2011 WL 5878045, at *4 (D.Conn. Nov. 23, 2011) (citing cases); accord Hernandez, 2012 WL 4369746, at *5;Salomon v. Adderly Indus., Inc., 847 F.Supp.2d 561, 565 (S.D.N.Y.2012) (“The relevant issue here, however, is not whether Plaintiffs and [potential opt-in plaintiffs] were identical in all respects, but rather whether they were subjected to a common policy to deprive them of overtime pay ….”) (alteration in original) (internal citation and quotation marks omitted).

In support of its argument that the existence of arbitration agreements merits denial of collective action approval, defendants make arguments about the eventual enforceability of the arbitration agreements and rely on cases in which courts granted motions to dismiss and compel arbitration because of such agreements. See Def. Mem. at 6–7. Critically, defendants do not even address the cases holding that consideration of the validity of arbitration agreements is inappropriate in the context of a motion to approval an FLSA collective action. The situation here is thus akin to the situation in Raniere v. Citigroup Inc., 827 F.Supp.2d 294 (S.D .N.Y.2011), rev’d on other grounds, 2013 WL 4046278 (2d Cir.2013), in which the court remarked:

Defendants have failed to cite a single authority finding that due to the possibility that members of the collective [action] might be compelled to bring their claims in an arbitral forum, certification is not appropriate. Such arguments are best suited to the second certification stage, where, on a fuller record, the court will examine whether the plaintiffs and opt-ins are in fact similarly situated.

Id. at 324.

Defendants’ strongest argument is that “[i]t would be a waste of judicial and party resource to force defendants” to send notice to individuals ultimately bound to arbitrate claims. Def. June 4 Letter at 3. But the notice requirement is not unduly burdensome in this case and the defendants’ proposal essentially amounts to an invitation for the Court to adjudicate the validity of the arbitration agreements. But, as already noted, case law makes clear that this sort of merits-based determination should not take place at the first stage of the conditional collective action approval process. Plaintiff has raised at least colorable arguments to support the invalidity or unenforceability of the arbitration agreements, some of which are fact-intensive. Case law holds, however, that issues of fact surrounding arbitration agreements are properly resolved at the second stage of the two-step inquiry. D’Antuono, 2011 WL 5878045, at *5; accord Salomon, 847 F.Supp.2d at 565 (“[A] fact-intensive inquiry is inappropriate at the notice stage, as Plaintiffs are seeking only conditional certification.”) (citing cases); Ali v. Sugarland Petroleum, 2009 WL 5173508, at *4 (S.D.Tex. Dec. 22, 2009) (“The Court will make the determination [of whether to exclude those who signed arbitration agreement from the class] at the conclusion of discovery, when it may properly analyze the validity of the arbitration agreement.”). Defendants not only fail to distinguish these cases, they do not even proffer any argument as to why the reasoning of these cases is wrong.

Defendants have submitted evidence contradicting Romero’s claim that he is similarly situated to other employees with respect to other aspects of his claims, such as his understanding of the tip credit. See Collin Decl. ¶ 9. However, “the two-stage certification process exists to help develop the factual record, not put an end to an action on an incomplete one.” Griffith v. Fordham Fin. Mgmt., Inc., 2013 WL 2247791, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. May 22, 2013) (granting collective action approval where defendant had put forth “contravening evidence”) (emphasis omitted) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). For these reasons, Romero’s motion for conditional approval of a collective action is granted.

Click Romero v La Revise Associates, L.L.C. to read the court’s entire Opinion & Order.

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D.Nev.: Statute of Limitations Tolled for Employees Who Opted Into First-Filed Case Where Conditional Certification Was Denied (and Their Consents Were Dismissed)

Orduna v. Champion Drywall, Inc.

This case was before the court on multiple motions, including plaintiff’s motion for tolling the statute of limitations. As discussed here, the precise issue before the court was what effect, if any, a plaintiff’s consent to join—filed in a prior lawsuit where conditional certification was ultimately denied, and such consent was dismissed—has on such opt-in’s statute of limitations. Electing to treat the motion as one for equitable tolling, the court held that such circumstances amounted to “extraordinary circumstances” such that equitable tolling was warranted. However, the court tolling the statute of limitations only for such time that the consent to join was filed with the court in the prior case, prior to dismissal.

The court reasoned, in part:

Plaintiffs assert that because they filed their consents to sue in a timely manner in Champion I, the statute of limitations for those claims should be equitably tolled to the date on which each plaintiff filed his or her consent. Defendants argue that plaintiffs’ motion should be denied or, in the alternative, tolling should only apply from the date that each plaintiff filed his or her consent until the date of the court’s denial of certification in Champion I on March 27, 2012. The court agrees with defendants’ latter position…

Upon decertification of the collective [action], therefore, it is critical to preserve opt-in plaintiffs’ ability to timely file individual actions.” Sliger v. Prospect Mortgage, LLC, 2012 WL 6005711 (E.D.Cal. Nov.30, 2012).

The Ninth Circuit has recognized the doctrine of equitable tolling of an FLSA claim. Partlow v. Lewis Orphans’ Home, Inc., 645 F.2d 757, 760 (9th Cir.1981), abrogated on other grounds, Hoffman–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). Such tolling “applies when the plaintiff is prevented from asserting a claim by wrongful conduct on the part of the defendant, or when extraordinary circumstances beyond the plaintiff’s control made it impossible to file a claim on time.” Id. at 60. The doctrine of equitable tolling preserves a plaintiff’s claims when strict application of the statue of limitations would be inequitable. See United States v. Patterson, 211 F.3d 927, 930 (5th Cir.2000). Equitable tolling applies only in “rare and exceptional circumstances,” Teemac v. Henderson, 298 F.3d 452, 457 (5th Cir.2002), and should be applied sparingly. Steed v. Head, 219 F.3d 1298, 1300 (11th Cir.2000).

Applying this reasoning, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion.  However, it limited tolling to the period of time in during which the opt-ins’ consents had been filed in the prior case:

Here, plaintiffs have not shown that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled past the court’s denial of certification in Champion I. Plaintiffs claim that they did not know that the court would not grant the collective certification in that case, and that to preserve their rights, each plaintiff in a collective action would have to file individual actions at the same time they filed their consents to sue. The failure to predict the outcome of a motion for collective certification is experienced by each FLSA collective action litigant, and the possibility that diligence would be required in the filing of an individual claim if a collective action was denied or de-certified neither amounts to extraordinary circumstances nor a situation out of a plaintiff’s control.

Click Orduna v. Champion Drywall, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.

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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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U.S.S.C. Grants Cert to Decide Whether a Defendant-Employer Can Moot a Putative Collective Action By “Picking Off” the Named Plaintiff

Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk

As reported by law360 and the ScotusBlog, today the Supreme Court announced that it had granted Certiori to a Defendant-employer who sought to moot a putative collective action by offering “full relief” to the named-Plaintiff before she could file a motion seeking conditional certification of her claims as a collective action.

Initially, the trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims noting that:

 [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….

However, the Third Circuit reversed reasoning, in part:

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.

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.

Now the Supreme Court will apparently be weighing in on the issue.  

Of note, the plaintiff was a single plaintiff and had not sought conditional certification of a collective action at the time the defendant sought to moot the claim.  We will see how much, if at all, these facts play into the Court’s decision to come. 

Click ScotusBlog to read the briefs and Overtime Law Blog, to read our initial post regarding the 3rd Circuit’s Opinion.


Filed under Collective Actions

3d Cir.: Hybrids Are Permissible; Rule 23, FLSA Claims Not Incompatible

Knepper v. Rite Aid Corp.

In one of the most anticipated wage and hour decisions pending at the circuit court level, the Third Circuit held yesterday that Rule 23 state law wage and hour class actions (opt-out) are not inherently incompatible with FLSA collective action (opt-in).  Likely ending one of the longest running and hotly contested issues in wage and hour litigation the Third Circuit “join[ed] the Second, Seventh, Ninth and D.C. circuits in ruling that this purported ‘inherent incompatibility’ does not defeat otherwise available federal jurisdiction.”

At the court below the plaintiffs had asserted a hybrid cause of action– claims under both the FLSA’s collective action mechanism and multiple states’ wage and hour laws (Rule 23 class actions).  Unlike some so-called hybrids though, here the Court’s jurisdiction over the Rule 23 state law claims was based on the original jurisdiction of CAFA, rather than the supplemental jurisdiction of 1367.  While the court below had held that the Rule 23 claims could not be brought together with the FLSA collective action claims, based on “inherent incompatibility” the Third Circuit disagreed and reversed.

Framing the issue, the court explained:

“This case involves a putative conflict between an opt-out Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(b)(3) damages class action based on state statutory wage and overtime laws that parallel the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and a separately filed opt-in collective action under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) of the FLSA. Both suits allege violations arising from the same conduct or occurrence by the same defendant. At issue is whether federal jurisdiction over the Rule 23 class action based solely on diversity under the Class Action Fairness Act (CAFA), 28 U .S.C. § 1332(d), is inherently incompatible with jurisdiction over the FLSA action, and whether the FLSA preempts state laws that parallel its protections. ”

Although there had been many prior trial level decisions from the courts within the Third Circuit holding that so-called hybrids were “inherently incompatible,” the panel noted that “The concept of inherent incompatibility has not fared well at the appellate level. Four courts of appeals have rejected its application to dual-filed FLSA and class actions.”

Looking first to the text of the FLSA, the court agreed with the Seventh Circuit “that that the plain text of § 216(b) provides no support for the concept of inherent incompatibility.”  The court then explained that a look at legislative history was unnecessary in light of the unambiguous nature of the FLSA’s text in this regard.  Nonetheless, looking at the legislative history, the court concluded, “we disagree that certifying an opt-out class based on state employment law contravenes the congressional purpose behind the Portal–to–Portal Act.”

Perhaps most significantly, the court revisited its decision in De Asencio and noted that it was “distinguishable, as the Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits have all concluded. Ervin, 632 F.3d at 981 (“De Asencio represents only a fact-specific application of well-established rules, not a rigid rule about the use of supplemental jurisdiction in cases combining an FLSA count with a state-law class action.”); Wang, 623 F.3d at 761; Lindsay, 448 F.3d at 425 n. 11. Unlike the state law claims at issue in De Asencio, there is no suggestion that the claims under the MWHL and the OMFWSA are novel or complex; Rite Aid’s principal objection is that these state claims are too similar to federal claims with which the federal courts are well familiar. Nor does this case present an instance of supplemental jurisdiction, where there is statutory authority to decline jurisdiction in the factual circumstances of De Asencio.  Here, independent jurisdiction exists over plaintiffs’ claims under CAFA, which provides no statutory basis for declining jurisdiction in this instance. For these reasons, we do not believe De Asencio supports dismissal.”

The court concluded:

“In sum, we disagree with the conclusion that jurisdiction over an opt-out class action based on state-law claims that parallel the FLSA is inherently incompatible with the FLSA’s opt-in procedure. Nothing in the plain text of § 216(b) addresses the procedure for state-law claims, nor, in our view, does the provision’s legislative history establish a clear congressional intent to bar opt-out actions based on state law. We join the Second, Seventh, Ninth, and D.C. Circuits in ruling that this purported “inherent incompatibility” does not defeat otherwise available federal jurisdiction.”

The court also rejected the contention that the FLSA somehow preempts more beneficial state wage and hour laws.

Click Knepper v. Rite Aid Corp. to read the entire Opinion of the Court.  Click here to read the Secretary of Labor’s amicus brief in support of the plaintiff-appellant and here to read the amicus brief submitted on behalf of several employee rights’ organizations, including the National Employment Law Association (NELA).

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Filed under Class Certification, Collective Actions, Hybrid