Tag Archives: Rule 68

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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9th Cir.: Defendant in Putative Wage and Hour Class Action May Not “Pick Off” Class With OJ to Named Plaintiff

Pitts v. Terrible Herbst, Inc.

This case was before the Ninth Circuit on any issue that has become more and more prevalent in recent years, with the increased wage and hour putative class and collective action filings.  Specifically, the issue before the Ninth Circuit was “whether a rejected offer of judgment (OJ) for the full amount of a putative class representative’s claim moots a class action complaint where the offer precedes the filing of a motion for class certification.”  The Ninth Circuit held that it does not and a defendant may not “pick off” a class by making such an offer to the named-plaintiff alone.

The procedural history in the case is worth discussing, because there were other issues, not discussed in detail, also addressed in the opinion.  The trial court had not set a bright-line deadline for filing a motion for class certification simultaneously.  And, because the defendant failed to provide plaintiff with the records pertaining to the putative class members during the initial discovery period, plaintiff filed a motion to compel and sought to extend the discovery deadline as well.  The court ultimately granted both motions.  However, while it held that the OJ did not moot the claim, it nonetheless dismissed the case, because the plaintiff had failed to move for class certification as of the initial discovery deadline.  This appeal ensued.

After reviewing surveying applicable case law from around the country, the court held that the district court below properly concluded that a defendant may not “pick off” a putative class action, by tendering payment to the named-plaintiff alone.

Other issues the court discussed included whether state law class actions (Rule 23 classes) are “inherently incompatable” with FLSA opt-in actions.  However, because the plaintiff had volutarily dismissed his FLSA claims at the lower court, the Ninth Circuit declined to address this hot-button issue, addressed earlier in the year by the Seventh Circuit and currently pending before the Third Circuit.  The court did rule however, that the court below erred in dismissing the case based on plaintiff’s perceived failure to move for class certification in a timely manner.  On this issue the Ninth Circuit opined, “[w]ithout a clear statement from the district court setting a deadline for the filing of the motion for class certification, Pitts could not predict that he was expected to file his motion by the end of the initial discovery deadline.”

Click Pitts v. Terrible Herbst, Inc. to read the entire decision.

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S.D.Tex.: Defendant Who Prevailed at Trial Following OJ, Not Entitled to Award of Attorney’s Fees Under FLSA

Tran v. Thai

While not a novel concept, this case demonstrates a commonly misunderstood concept in FLSA jurisprudence, an FLSA defendant who prevails at trial, following the tender of an offer of judgment (OJ), is not entitled to an award of its attorneys fees.

In this case the defendant had served an OJ on the plaintiff in the amount of $500.00, which the plaintiff did not accept.  The case then proceeded to trial and resulted in a defense verdict.  Following the defense verdict, the defendant moved for an award of its fees and costs, citing Rule 68, the OJ statute.  Denying the defendant’s motion, the court explained that OJ’s do not shift attorney’s fees in FLSA cases, because: (1) OJ’s only shift fees where a plaintiff prevails at trial, but for less than the amount of the OJ; and (2) the FLSA does not permit fee shifting to a defendant.

Reasoning that an award of the defendant’s attorney’s fees was impermissible here, the court explained:

“There are two flaws in the defendants’ request for the fees they incurred after the plaintiff failed to accept the $500 offer. First, Rule 68 “applies only to offers made by the defendant and only to judgments obtained by the plaintiff. It therefore is simply inapplicable to this case because it was the defendant that obtained the judgment.” Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. August, 450 U.S. 346, 352, 101 S.Ct. 1146, 67 L.Ed.2d 287 (1981); MRO Communications, Inc. v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., 197 F.3d 1276, 1280 (9th Cir.1999); see also CHARLES ALAN WRIGHT, et al., 12 FED. PRAC. & PROC. CIV. § 3006 (2d ed.) (“[Rule 68] is entirely inapplicable … if the defendant, rather than the plaintiff, obtain judgment.”). In Delta Airlines, Justice Powell, concurring in the result noted that the Court’s holding implies that “a defendant may obtain costs under Rule 68 against a plaintiff who prevails in part but not against a plaintiff who loses entirely.” 450 U.S. at 362 (Powell, J., concurring) (emphasis in original). In other words, if the jury in this case had awarded Nguyen $300 against the defendants, they could seek attorney fees under Rule 68(d). But because the jury awarded nothing, and judgment is entered in favor of the defendants, there is no basis to award attorney’s fees. See Farley v. Country Coach, Inc., No. 05-71623, 2008 WL 795788, at *1 (E.D.Mich. Mar.26, 2008); Drewery v. Mervyns Dept. Store, No. C 07-5017 RJB, 2008 WL 222627, at *1-2 (W.D.Wash. Jan.25, 2008).

In support of their argument that Rule 68 is relevant to an award of costs in this case, the defendants have cited Haworth v. Nevada, 56 F.3d 1048 (9th Cir.1995). In that case, however, the plaintiffs prevailed on one of their claims. The Ninth Circuit held that the defendant was entitled to costs under Rule 68 because the defendant’s offer of judgment exceeded the final judgment obtained by the plaintiffs. Id. at 1052. In this case, the defendants prevailed and the plaintiff lost entirely. Rule 68 is not applicable.

The second flaw is that the FLSA does not appear to be in the category of statutes on which Rule 68 operates to include fees. The Supreme Court considered the applicability of Rule 68 to statutory fee-shifting provisions in Marek v. Chesny, 473 U.S. 1, 105 S.Ct. 3012, 87 L.Ed.2d 1 (1985). The Court upheld the application of Rule 68 to the fee-shifting provision of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Court reasoned that in an action under § 1983, “all costs properly awardable in an action are to be considered within the scope of Rule 68 ‘costs.’ Thus, absent congressional expressions to the contrary, where the underlying statute defines ‘costs’ to include attorney’s fees, we are satisfied such fees are to be included as costs for purposes of Rule 68.”   Id. at 9, 105 S.Ct. at 3016. Because § 1983 defined costs to include attorney’s fees, Rule 68 applied to bar recovery for any attorney’s fees incurred after a Rule 68 offer was made when the plaintiff recovered less by judgment than the settlement offer. Id. The FLSA is different. The FLSA defines attorney’s fees separately from costs. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Unlike attorney’s fees in a § 1983 action, attorney’s fees in an FLSA action are not automatically shifted by Rule 68. Accord Fegley v. Higgins, 19 F.3d 1126, 1135 (6th Cir.1994), cert. denied, 513 U.S. 875, 115 S.Ct. 203, 130 L.Ed.2d 134 (1994); Cox v. Brookshire Grocery Co., 919 F.2d 354, 358 (5th Cir.1990) (dicta); Haworth v. State of Nev., 56 F.3d 1048, 1051 (9th Cir.1995).

The motion for judgment is denied to the extent it seeks to include $22,057.90 in attorney’s fees after the offer of judgment.”

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D.R.I.: Collective Action FLSA Claims Not Mooted By Offer Of Judgment, In Full Satisfaction, To Named Plaintiff; Motion To Dismiss Denied

Nash v. CVS Caremark Corp.

Plaintiff pled this lawsuit for overtime benefits as a “collective action” under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  That is, he purported to act on behalf of himself and “other employees similarly situated” pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).  After one supposedly “similarly situated” party opted in to the case, Defendants presented both that person and Plaintiff with offers of judgment pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.  The opt-in party previously accepted the offer and was no longer part of the case; Plaintiff rejected the offer, but did not dispute that it was adequate to cover his damages. Defendants then moved to dismiss the suit on grounds that the Rule 68 offer mooted Plaintiff’s claim.  However, since that time, other parties opted into the action and seeking to have their claims resolved as part of a “collective action” with Plaintiff.  Denying, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss on mootness grounds, the Court discussed the remedial purposes of the FLSA’s collective action mechanisms.

Discussing Rule 68 initially, the Court reasoned, “[n]othing in the text of Rule 68 compels dismissal of a case for lack of subject matter jurisdiction when a plaintiff rejects an adequate offer of judgment. Rather, the Rule creates what amounts to a penalty scheme when a plaintiff moves forward with litigation despite being offered the maximum damages she can hope to obtain at trial. “If the judgment that the offeree finally obtains is not more favorable than the unaccepted offer, the offeree must pay the costs incurred after the offer was made.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 68(d). Of course, as a practical matter, in some circumstances a Rule 68 offer may “eliminate[ ] a legal dispute upon which federal jurisdiction can be based,” because “[y]ou cannot persist in suing after you’ve won.” Greisz v. Household Bank (Illinois), N.A., 176 F.3d 1012, 1015 (7th Cir.1999). But this does not transform Rule 68 into an escape hatch from every lawsuit. Rather, as this case makes clear, whether a controversy becomes moot following a Rule 68 offer depends on the factual circumstances, the cause of action, and the procedural status of the claims at issue. Moreover, nothing in Rule 68 itself suggests that it should be used as a vehicle for sabotaging claim-aggregating devices like 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) and Rule 23. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 1. (explaining that the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure should be “construed and administered to secure the just, speedy, and inexpensive determination of every action and proceeding”).”

The Court then distinguished a 216(b) collective action, from a Rule 23 class action:

“The Court agrees with Judge Almond that Cruz v. Farquharson, 252 F.3d 530, 533 (1st Cir.2001), in which the First Circuit approved the dismissal of a Rule 23 action as moot, is distinguishable. Cruz emphasized that between the date the plaintiffs in that case received “complete relief,” and the date the district court dismissed the case as moot, “no new plaintiffs tried to intervene, and the named plaintiffs made no effort to amend their complaint to add new parties.” Cruz, 252 F.3d at 533. That is not so here. Four additional parties have, in fact, “tried to intervene” as “similarly situated” plaintiffs by submitting their consents for the Plaintiff to pursue claims on their behalf.

As Judge Almond noted, where even one similarly-situated plaintiff opts in to an FLSA suit after the rejection of a Rule 68 offer, courts “have refused to permit defendants to moot putative FLSA collective actions.”   Yeboah v. Central Parking Sys., No. 06 CV 0128(RJD)(JMA), 2007 WL 3232509, at *3 (E.D.N.Y. Nov. 1, 2007); see Reyes v. Carnival Corp., No. 04-21861-CIV., 2005 WL 4891058, at *2 (S.D.Fla. May 25, 2005) (refusing to dismiss FLSA action where “other plaintiffs. opted in to [the] suit [after] the offer of judgment was made”); Roble v. Celestica Corp., 627 F.Supp.2d 1008, 1013-14 (D.Minn.2007) (finding that identifying opt-ins sustained jurisdiction); Rubery v. Buth-Na-Bodhaige, Inc., 494 F.Supp.2d 178, 179-80 (W.D.N.Y.2007) (denying motion to dismiss where more than fifty people had filed consents to join FLSA action). This is true even if, as here, there is no dispute about the adequacy of the offer. See Yeboah, 2007 WL 3232509, at *5 (explaining that even if the plaintiff could not dispute the sufficiency of the judgment, “it neither mooted plaintiff’s FLSA claim nor deprived [the court] of subject matter jurisdiction,” because of the “presence of opt-ins.”).

Defendants contend that the opt-ins cannot be considered “plaintiffs” or “parties” to the suit for purposes of any exception to mootness carved out by Cruz. See Cruz, 252 F.3d at 533. Cruz stressed that there had been no “decision on class certification” under Rule 23, appearing to require a formal grant of class status in order to preserve a controversy after named parties obtain full relief. Here, the case has not yet reached the equivalent stage in the § 216(b) context: “preliminary collective action certification,” which requires an initial demonstration that the plaintiff “is ‘similarly situated’ to the other members of the proposed class.” Poreda v. Boise Cascade, L.L.C., 532 F.Supp.2d 234, 238 (D.Mass.2008). In the absence of preliminary certification, Defendants argue, Plaintiff has no procedural right to act on behalf of purported “similarly situated” parties. “[A] § 216(b) plaintiff … presents only a claim on the merits …. [and][i]n contrast to the Rule 23 plaintiff, a § 216(b) plaintiff has no claim that he is entitled to represent other plaintiffs.” Cameron-Grant v. Maxim Healthcare Servs., Inc., 347 F.3d 1240, 1249 (11th Cir.2003).

In other words, Defendants insist, without the only safe harbor arguably warranted by Cruz-collective action status-this lawsuit died the moment that Plaintiff rejected his Rule 68 offer. At that time, there were no other opt-ins with live claims, and plaintiff had no right to stand in for anyone else. Later opt-ins could not resurrect the action once it expired.

This logic has some superficial appeal. But its limitation is that, if true, employers could always “use Rule 68 as a sword … and avoid[ ] ever having to face a collective action.” Sandoz v. Cingular Wireless LLC, 553 F.3d 913, 919 (5th Cir.2008). Congress clearly did not intend such an “anomaly” in enacting § 216(b). See id. Neither does Cruz, which concerns Rule 23, require the result Defendants urge here, which would effectively thwart Congress’ preference to “avoid multiple lawsuits where numerous employees” allege FLSA violations. Prickett v. DeKalb County, 349 F.3d 1294, 1297 (11th Cir.2003).

The Court recognizes that Cruz may create some tension with the underlying rationale for decisions allowing § 216(b) opt-ins to preserve jurisdiction. As explained by the Fifth Circuit in Sandoz, at bottom those cases rest on what is known as the “relation back” doctrine. See Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 921;see, e.g., Yeboah, 2007 WL 3232509, at *3 (citing Weiss v. Regal Collections, 385 F.3d 337, (3d Cir.2004), a Rule 23 case dealing with the “relation back” doctrine). Sandoz acknowledged the quandary raised by Cameron-Grant: a named FLSA plaintiff “cannot represent any other employees until they affirmatively opt in to the collective action.” Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 919 (citing Cameron-Grant, 347 F.3d at 1249.). “If our analysis stopped there,” the court reasoned, “[the plaintiff's] case would be moot,” because she had received an adequate offer of judgment before any opt-ins joined the case. Id. Nevertheless, the court cited Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393 (1975), as providing a solution. There, the Supreme Court observed that a Rule 23 controversy might become moot “before the district court can reasonably be expected to rule on a certification motion.” Id. at 402 n. 11. Depending on the circumstances, in such instances class certification might “be said to ‘relate back’ to the filing of the complaint,” which would preserve jurisdiction. Id. at 402 n. 11.Sandoz found that the “relation back” doctrine was just as appropriate for § 216(b) as Rule 23, because both types of actions were vulnerable to strategic mooting by Defendants. Accordingly, “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.” Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 921.

Defendants fairly point out that Cruz did not approve of such an approach to Rule 23, and in fact took a narrow view of Sosna. The holding in Sosna was that jurisdiction did not disappear when a named plaintiff’s claim became moot after certification of a class with live controversies. Sosna, 419 U.S. at 402. Cruz stated outright that the “holding in Sosna ” was not applicable, because the plaintiffs in Cruz had not obtained class certification. Cruz, 252 F.3d at 534. At the same time, Cruz did not address the footnote in Sosna explaining the “relation back” idea. Furthermore, no First Circuit decision has considered the question of whether it would be proper to use the “relation back” approach in the context of § 216(b).FN2

In the Court’s view, applying the “relation back” doctrine is appropriate in this case. Plaintiff represents he has not yet moved for preliminary certification because he has been busy opposing Defendants’ efforts to transfer venue and dismiss the case, which they commenced less than a month after the Complaint was filed. Under the “relation back” doctrine, the opt-ins who appeared after Plaintiff rejected the Rule 68 offer sustain jurisdiction; this will give Plaintiff the opportunity to seek provisional certification without “undue delay” after the entry of this Order. Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 921 (quoting Weiss, 385 F.3d at 348). This, in turn, will enable “due deliberation” on the issue of whether Plaintiff is the appropriate representative of a collective action. See Weiss, 385 F.3d at 348.”

Last, the Court noted that policy precludes a dismissal due to mootness under these circumstances, because of the remedial purposes of the FLSA:

“As discussed, and as Judge Almond noted, granting dismissal in these circumstances would impair the Congressional preference for collective actions embodied in 216(b). The Court offers some additional comments on this topic below. But there is also a second policy consideration that favors affirming the R & R. Specifically, the present motion underscores the unique danger of tactical manipulation in FLSA cases. Thus, as explained below, to the extent Cruz could be read to establish a broad mootness regime that reaches beyond the Rule 23 context, an exception for FLSA actions is warranted.

To begin with, it is clear that allowing Defendants to “pick off” named FLSA plaintiffs one-by-one encourages manipulation of cases and ultimately of the federal courts. See Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 919. One court in Illinois described the ways employers can hamstring collective actions if allowed to snuff named plaintiffs’ claims using Rule 68:

[The] defense strategy creates a virtually unwinnable situation for plaintiffs in collective or class action lawsuits. Defendant makes an offer of “judgment” to Plaintiff, then alleges that the action is moot. Plaintiff therefore must either pursue discovery very early in the case, when a court likely will deem it premature, or seek class certification and/or notice before discovery, which runs the risk of harming the interest of those as-yet undiscovered class members.  Reed v. TJX Cos., NO. 04 C 1247, 2004 WL 2415055, at *3 (N.D.Ill. Oct. 27, 2004). The FLSA enforcement scheme clearly does not envision such a minefield. Section 216(b) does not require plaintiffs to petition for provisional certification of a “collective action” when filing a complaint. In fact, the final ruling on whether the named plaintiff may maintain a “collective action” usually occurs “after discovery is complete.” Poreda, 532 F.Supp.2d at 239. The collective action process “should be able to ‘play out’ according to the directives” of § 216(b) and the cases applying it, to permit “due deliberation by the parties and the court” on collective action certification. See Weiss, 385 F.3d at 347-48 (discussing the Rule 23 process).

The moot-and-dismiss tactic also facilitates forum-shopping and plaintiff-shopping. At oral argument, Defendants confirmed that multiple lawsuits regarding the overtime claims asserted here are pending in different jurisdictions around the country. Permitting use of Rule 68 to moot cases in one or more forums and thereby cherry-pick another, potentially with the weakest collective action representative, upends the longstanding principle that, in cases based on federal-question jurisdiction, the plaintiff is the “master of the claim.” Caterpillar, Inc. v. Williams, 482 U.S. 386, 392 (1987).

Defendants might object that Rule 23 actions present the same worries. After all, Rule 23 advances a policy similar to § 216(b): the efficient resolution of widespread small claims dependent on common legal and factual questions. Arguably, the opt-out structure of Rule 23 embodies an even firmer commitment to aggregating claims, in contrast to the opt-in rule for § 216(b) cases. And if this is true, how can the cited policies provide any basis to distinguish Cruz, where the same concerns were not enough to stave off dismissal of a Rule 23 action? In that case, the plaintiffs alleged, there was a large pool of class members, and the defendant had defused class action litigation by mooting the claims of the named parties. See Cruz, 252 F.3d at 535.

The answer to the question above is that FLSA actions are more vulnerable to manipulation than Rule 23 actions. For the latter, filing a complaint tolls the statute of limitations for all alleged class members, whether they know of the lawsuit or not. See Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 350 (1983) (“The filing of a class action tolls the statute of limitations as to all asserted members of the class ….”). In contrast, parties alleged to be “similarly situated” in a § 216(b) case must affirmatively opt in to toll the limitations period. See29 U.S.C. § 256 (explaining that an FLSA action is not considered to be commenced for a similarly situated party until he submits written consent to join the case); Bonilla v. Las Vegas Cigar Co., 61 F.Supp.2d 1129, 1136-37 (D.Nev.1999) ( “[A]ll potential plaintiffs to § 216(b) actions must file their consent to the suit to toll the statute of limitations.”) (emphasis in original).

This means that defendants can bleed value out of a large pool of outstanding FLSA claims in a way they cannot with a comparable group of Rule 23 claims. “Picking off” § 216(b) plaintiffs delays the point at which any collective action can be provisionally certified. This stalls notification to potential “ similarly situated” parties. O’Donnell v. Robert Half Int’l, Inc., 534 F.Supp.2d 173, 177 (D.Mass.2008) (“A class may be conditionally certified and notified of the pendency of an action only if the putative class members are “similarly situated” with the named plaintiffs.”) The longer it takes for an FLSA class to mature, the lower members’ damages will be once they opt in, given the two-year limitations period. See29 U.S.C. § 255 (2010). In a parallel situation under Rule 23, the clock for absentees stops upon the filing of a complaint that raises their claims. Thus, even if employers pick off some named plaintiffs, the limitations period for absentees pauses while any applicable class action is pending.

The predicament of the opt-ins in this case brings the problem into sharper focus. Widespread claims involving common issues invite lawsuits in different jurisdictions, as is the situation here. Note the disparate outcomes this creates for Rule 23 absentees and FLSA opt-ins. As a practical matter, if a Rule 23 action is dismissed, class members may not have to worry about expiration dates for their claims drawing closer. If there is another class action underway that allegedly embraces their claims, the automatic tolling rule from Crown, Cork & Seal shelters them. Opt-ins to collective actions enjoy no such protection. If the suit to which they have hitched their claims sinks-the result Defendants seek here-the clock starts running again, even if they might be “similarly situated” to the named plaintiff in another pending case. Thus, as Judge Almond observed:

[I]f [Defendants were] successful in dismissing the case as mooted, the four plaintiffs who opted in … would arguably have to either initiate new individual FLSA actions or join another applicable collective action. Thus, the tolling of the limitations period for their claims could be delayed and, if they were ultimately successful, their back pay damages could be reduced since the value of their claims is potentially diminished with each passing day.  (R & R at 4-5.) The point is that FLSA opt-ins are more exposed to the erosion and possible expiration of their claims than Rule 23 absentees.

Simply put, it is easier to drown collective actions than class actions. If allowed to use Rule 68 as a weapon, defendants can torpedo complaint after complaint, leaving opt-ins to swim for the nearest viable action as their claims leak value. This justifies a more relaxed mootness standard in FLSA cases than Rule 23 cases, and therefore provides an additional basis for distinguishing Cruz.”

Thus, the Court denied Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss.

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S.D.N.Y.: Notwithstanding Defendants’ Disclaimer Of Liability, FLSA Plaintiffs That Accepted OJ Are “Prevailing Party”; Entitled To Reasonable Attorneys’ Fees And Costs

Kahlil v. Original Old Homestead Restaurant, Inc.

Plaintiffs moved for attorneys’ fees and costs following their acceptance of Defendants’ offer of judgment.  The Defendants argued there was no fee entitlement, because their offer contained a disclaimer of liability.  Rejecting this argument, the Court awarded Plaintiffs’ attorneys reasonable attorneys fees and costs.

The Court highlighted the following procedural history:

“Plaintiffs Sayed Kahlil, Wayne Walker, Mohamed Elmahdy and Brian Lahoff were employed as waiters at defendant The Original Old Homestead Restaurant. On January 30, 2007, plaintiffs filed a complaint to resolve wage and hour disputes arising under section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) and section 198 of the New York State Labor Law (“NYLL”). 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2008); N.Y. Lab. Law § 198 (McKinney 2009). Plaintiffs were represented in this matter by Louis Pechman, a partner at Berke-Weiss & Pechman LLP (“BWP”), and Jaime Duguay, an associate at the same firm. On April 29, 2008, mid-way through the discovery process, defendants submitted an offer of judgment in the amount of $36,000, exclusive of attorneys’ fees, pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiffs accepted the offer of judgment on May 8, 2008, and judgment was entered by the Clerk on May 30, 2008. On June 13, 2008, plaintiffs filed a Motion for Attorneys’ Fees and Costs, pursuant to FLSA § 216(b) and NYLL § 198. Plaintiffs seek $119,737.15 to compensate Pechman and Duguay for labor and costs incurred up to the filing of the motion. Defendants oppose the award of attorneys’ fees and costs on the grounds that plaintiffs did not prevail in the foregoing litigation. In the alternative, defendants contend that the requested fee award should be reduced in light of Pechman’s excessively high hourly rate, the limited nature of plaintiffs’ success, the vagueness of BWP’s time entries, BWP’s small size, excessive hours, billing of clerical tasks at attorney rates, and billing of work completed prior to the filing of the complaint.”

The Court then determined that Plaintiffs were the “prevailing party” as defined by the FLSA:

In an action pursuant to the FLSA, a “prevailing party” must be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs: “The Court in such action shall … allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). Likewise, the NYLL requires that “[i]n any action … in which the employee prevails, the court shall allow such employee reasonable attorney’s fees ….“ § 198(1-a) (emphasis added).

Plaintiffs are the prevailing party for the purposes of the FLSA and NYLL “if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir.1978)). Likewise, to qualify as a prevailing party, a plaintiff must demonstrate a change in the legal relationship between itself and the defendant arising from the resolution of the lawsuit. Texas State Teachers Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989).

The judgment in this case suffices to establish plaintiffs as the prevailing party under the FLSA and NYLL. Where, as here, plaintiffs obtained a favorable settlement, they are entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees: “[t]he fact that [plaintiff] prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not weaken [plaintiff's] claim to fees.” Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129 (1980). Defendants contend that the settlement is insufficient to render plaintiffs the prevailing party because the complaint sought monetary, declaratory, and equitable relief, while the offer of judgment provided only monetary relief. The Court finds defendants’ argument unpersuasive. Plaintiffs surely obtained some of the relief sought, and no court in this circuit has indicated that relief obtained in settlement must exactly match relief sought in the complaint. See Lyte v. Sara Lee Corp., 950 F.2d. 101, 104 (2d Cir.1991) (holding that a plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party if the relief obtained through settlement is of the “same general type” as relief requested in the complaint); Koster v. Perales, 903 F.2d 131, 134 (2d Cir.1990) (“A plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party even though the relief ultimately obtained is not identical to the relief demanded in the complaint”); Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 791-92 (indicating that a plaintiff’s receipt of some of the benefit sought is enough to “cross the threshold to a fee award of some kind”).

The Court also finds unpersuasive defendants’ argument that the disclaimer of liability in the offer of judgment indicates that the settlement did not change the legal relationship between the parties, and therefore that plaintiffs are not the prevailing party. It is not necessary for a defendant to admit liability in order for a plaintiff to be designated as the prevailing party. In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court indicated that a consent judgment without an admission of liability by the defendant “[is] nonetheless … a court-ordered ‘chang[e][in] the legal relationship between [the plaintiff] and the defendant.’ “ 532 U.S. at 604, citing Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 792. Further, the Supreme Court in Maher v. Gagne upheld an award of attorneys’ fees based on a settlement agreement containing a disclaimer of liability similar to the one in defendants’ offer of judgment. See 448 U.S. at 126 n. 8. The Court therefore finds that plaintiffs are the prevailing party, and that they are entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA and NYLL.”

Thus, the Court calculated a reasonable attorneys fee and costs and awarded same to Plaintiffs’ counsel.

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