Clarifying murky law regarding when FLSA settlements require judicial versus when they are self-effectuating, a divided Second Circuit panel recently held that settlement proposals in the form of accepted offers of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 are not subject to judicial review and approval. Although FLSA settlements generally require judicial or U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) approval to be enforceable, the Second Circuit held that the statutory language of Rule 68 overrides that conventional wisdom and thus are an exception to the general rule.
In this case, the plaintiff sued his restaurant-employer on behalf of himself and similarly situated employees for overtime violations under the FLSA and New York Labor Law (NYLL). During the pendency of his lawsuit, the defendant-restaurant sent the plaintiff, an offer of judgment (OJ) pursuant to FRCP 68(a), which the plaintiff accepted. Per FCRP 68, the clerk of the court was required to “enter judgment” once the offer and notice of acceptance had been filed with the court.
Notwithstanding the clear dictates of FRCP 68, the district court sua sponte ordered the parties to submit the settlement offer to the court for fairness review, relying on the Second Circuit’s opinion in Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, Inc., 796 F.3d 199 (2d Cir. 2015), in which, the Second Circuit previously held that stipulated dismissals of FLSA claims under FRCP 41(a) require judicial approval notwithstanding the self-effectuating nature of that rule. The district court read Cheeks to stand for the proposition that parties to an FLSA claim could not “evade the requirement for judicial (or DOL) approval by way of Rule 68.”
In a 2-1 decision, the Second Circuit held that Cheeks does not extend to FRCP 68 offers of judgment, and that accepted OJs are an exception to the general rule requiring approval of private FLSA settlements. The majority distinguished FRCP 68(a)’s mandatory dismissal language from FRCP 41(a), which contains an exception to the self-executing nature of the dismissal where a federal statute governing the claim requires court approval. Because FRCP 68(a) contains no such exception to mandatory entry of judgment, the majority declined to read one into the rule.
The majority recognized the Cheeks court’s concern about “private, secret settlements and waivers of an employee’s FLSA rights that the Supreme Court [has] refused to endorse.” However, the Court reasoned that FRCP 68(a) requires public disclosure of the terms of FLSA settlements—unlike FRCP 41(a) stipulated dismissals—because the accepted offers must be publicly filed on the court’s docket. Furthermore, the majority reasoned that settlement agreements reached during the course of ongoing litigation in this manner are distinguishable from “private, back‐room compromises that could easily result in exploitation of the worker and the release of his or her rights,” the latter of which are more likely to be tainted by pressure applied by the employer.
The decision, which was the first from any Court of Appeals on this issue resolves a split among district courts in the Second Circuit. It also provides a blueprint for employees and employers who wish to avoid judicial scrutiny of their settlements reached in arm’s length negotiations during litigation.
Click Mei Xing Yu v. Hasaki Restaurant Inc. to read the entire decision.