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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.”

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.

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.

D.Colo.: Individual FLSA Plaintiff’s Acceptance Of Offer Of Judgment (OJ) Requires Entry Of Judgment Thereon; Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss Denied As Procedurally Improper

Halpape v. Tiaa-Cref Individual & Institutional Services LLC

This matter was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, following Plaintiff’s Acceptance of Offer of Judgment (“OJ”). As discussed below, the Court deemed Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss unfounded, correctly determining that the appropriate procedural effect of Plaintiff’s acceptance was/is entry of judgment in accordance with the terms of the OJ, not dismissal of the case.

Plaintiff filed this action on April 14, 2009, claiming that defendants’ failure to pay overtime wages violates the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and Colorado state law. Plaintiff pleadings sought to prosecute this case on behalf of other similarly situated persons employed by defendants during the relevant time period. As authority for this request, the Complaint cites the collective action provision of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), with respect to his federal cause of action and Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 with respect to his state law claims.

On August 14, 2009, defendants served plaintiff with an offer of judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 68. The terms of the offer included payment of $9,534.54 to plaintiff, an amount “inclusive of all alleged damages … including liquidated damages and interest” covering a period of three years prior to the filing of this lawsuit, along with plaintiff’s reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. Plaintiff accepted the offer of judgment and filed a notice of acceptance with the Court on August 26, 2009. Defendants then moved to dismiss this action as moot in light of plaintiff’s acceptance of the offer of judgment.

Rule 68(a) provides:

More than 10 days before the trial begins, a party defending against a claim may serve on an opposing party an offer to allow judgment on specified terms, with the costs then accrued. If, within 10 days after being served, the opposing party serves writtennotice accepting the offer, either party may then file the offer and notice of acceptance, plus proof of service. The clerk must then enter judgment.

Fed.R.Civ.P. 68(a). Thus, entry of judgment in favor of the plaintiff is mandatory if, as in this case, the conditions specified in Rule 68(a) are satisfied. Ramming v. Natural Gas Pipeline Co. of Am., 390 F.3d 366, 370 (5th Cir.2004) (“If the plaintiff accepts the offer … [t]he court generally has no discretion whether or not to enter the judgment. A Rule 68 Offer of Judgment is usually considered self-executing.”). Here, plaintiff timely served written notice of acceptance eight business days after service of the offer of judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(a). And plaintiff attached the offer of judgment to his notice of acceptance, along with proof of service. Rule 68(a) therefore directs that judgment enter according to the offer of judgment.

Consequently, defendants’ motion to dismiss is unfounded. This is not a case, such as those cited by defendants in their motion, where a plaintiff rejected an offer of judgment that would fully satisfy the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, plaintiff accepted the offer. While it is true that plaintiff’s acceptance removes the controversy between him and defendants, under Rule 68, this case must end by entry of judgment, rather than by an order of dismissal. Cf. Geer v. Challenge Financial Investors Corp., No. 05-1109, 2006 WL 704933, *2 (D.Kan., Mar. 14, 2006) (“Where a defendant makes a Rule 68 offer of judgment and it is accepted, the case is settled and there is no longer a controversy.”).

N.D.Ill.: Offer Of Judgment, Silent On Its Face As To Attorneys Fees And Costs, Read To Allow For Attorneys Fees And Costs

Garcia v. Oasis Legal Finance Operating Co.

Plaintiff filed a one-count Complaint against Defendant in which she asserted violations of the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C, § 206 et seq., and requested, inter alia, the following relief; an Order awarding her the difference between wages paid to her and those paid to similarly situated male employees, liquidated damages, and statutory attorneys’ fees and costs. Defendant answered the Complaint, denying the material allegations. This Motion concerned Plaintiff’s acceptance of Defendant’s Offer of Judgment, as more fully detailed below.

On November 20, 2008, Defendant’s attorney mailed a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment to Garcia’s counsel. Defendant’s attorney also faxed a copy of this Offer to Plaintiff’s counsel on that same date. This Offer read in its entirety:

As you know our firm represents Oasis Legal Finance, LLC, and Oasis Legal Finance Operating, LLC in reference to the above captioned matter. This letter is being written to you pursuant to F .R.C.P. 68, “Offer of Judgment”. Please be advised that pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68 the defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00. Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68, your client has ten (10) days to accept the offer in judgment as set forth herein. If you have any questions, please contact me. Thank you,

On December 8, 2008, Plaintiff’s attorney submitted a letter to Oasis’ counsel accepting the Offer. This letter read in its entirety:

This letter is in response to Defendant’s offer of judgment which was served via U.S. mail on November 20, 2008. Your letter provided only that “defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00” in connection with Ms. Garcia’s cause of action under the Equal Pay Act in the above referenced federal case. Because the offer of judgment is for an amount in excess of the value of Plaintiff’s Equal Pay Act claim, Plaintiff hereby accepts the offer of judgment as stated for her currently pending federal action. Since Defendant’s offer made no reference to costs or attorney’s fees, Plaintiff will proceed with a petition for fees and costs as to this cause of action upon entry of the judgment. Plaintiff’s claims under Title VII and the Illinois Human Rights Act remain under investigation at the EEOC/IDHR and cannot be resolved through the offer of judgment. If you wish to discuss those claims as the investigation moves forward, please feel free to call me.

Defndant then filed a Motion to Strike Plaintiff’s Purported Acceptance of Offer of Judgment, asserting Plaintiff’s purported acceptance was not in fact an acceptance, but was rather a rejection and a counter-offer, which is impermissible under Rule 68, Plaintiff cross-motioned for judgment in her favor. On January 26, 2009, the Court granted Plaintiff’s Motion, denied Defendant’s Motion, and directed the Clerk to enter judgment for Plaintiff. The Clerk entered judgment on January 27, 2009. The Court, in its January 26, 2009 Opinion and Order, granted Plaintiff leave to file a motion for attorneys’ fees if it was appropriate to do so. Plaintiff filed her Motion for Attorneys’ Fees on February 17, 2009.

The Court discussed, at length, the issue of whether Defendant’s Offer of Judgment, as made, was inclusive or exclusive of attorneys fees:

“Oasis correctly asserts that its Rule 68 Offer covered the sole Count of Garcia’s complaint, and that Garcia’s claim sought attorneys’ fees as part of the requested relief. The Court must therefore first determine, as a threshold matter, whether Garcia’s acceptance of Oasis’ Offer of Judgment precludes her from seeking a further award of attorneys’ fees.

Oasis contends that Nordby controls. In that case, defendants made a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment “in the amount of $56,003.00 plus $1,000 in costs as one total sum as to all counts of the amended complaint.” Nordby, 199 F.3d at 391. Plaintiff accepted the Offer, and moved the district court for a statutory award of attorneys’ fees. Id. The court denied the motion, reasoning that the Offer as accepted included fees. Id. On the specific set of facts before it, the Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the Offer unambiguously included fees. ” ‘One total sum as to all counts of the amended complaint’ can only mean one amount encompassing all the relief sought in the counts. One of those counts specified attorneys’ fees as part of the relief sought. That relief was covered by the offer.” Id. at 392.

Garcia, on the other hand, asserts that Oasis’ Offer of Judgment is more like the one made by defendants in Webb. In that case, defendants’ Offer read in its entirety; “The Defendants, Dick James and Dick James Ford, Inc., by their attorneys, Steven C. Wolf and Victoria A. Barnes, hereby make an offer of judgment in the above-captioned matter in the amount of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68.” Webb, 147 F.3d at 619. The district court granted plaintiff’s separate motion for fees, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Seventh Circuit first noted that, “[o]n its face, the offer did not address costs or fees,” id., and later observed that it would have been a simple matter for defendants to “have drafted the offer to signal Webb that it was inclusive of attorney’s fees.” Id. at 623, Because a Rule 68 Offer puts plaintiffs at risk whether or not they accept it, the Seventh Circuit reasoned, “the defendant must make clear whether the offer is inclusive of fees when the underlying statute provides fees for the prevailing party … [T]he plaintiff should not be left in the position of guessing what a court will later hold the offer means.” Id. The Seventh Circuit found that the defendants should therefore “bear the burden of the ambiguity created by their silence on fees,” and held that the district court could “award an additional amount to cover costs and fees.” Id.

In this case, although it is a close call, the Court determines that the Offer of Judgment made by Oasis is more like the one in Webb than the one in Nordby. Here, the Offer of Judgment states in part, “Please be advised that pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68 the defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00.” The Offer is silent as to attorneys’ fees and costs, and does not include, like the Offer in Nordby, language to the effect that the Offer is “one total sum” as to the entirety of Garcia’s requested relief Moreover, there is no question that it would have been a simple matter for Oasis to clearly indicate in its Offer whether fees were included. A standard Rule 68 Offer of Judgment form published by Bender’s Federal Practice includes specific language defendants can use to indicate that costs and fees are included in an Offer of Judgment. 11-68 Bender’s Federal Practice Forms No. 68:3; see also 11-68 Bender’s Federal practice Forms, Comment on Rule 68, ¶ 6 (“it is well established that when an offer is silent about whether the sum specified includes costs and attorney’s fees, the silence means that the court will add costs and attorney’s fees to the amount stated. An argument that the lump sum was meant to include all costs and attorney’s fees will be unavailing.”). Because Oasis failed to take the simple step of indicating whether the Offer included fees and costs, Oasis must “bear the burden of [its] ambiguity created by [its] silence on fees.” See Webb, 147 F.3d at 619. The Court therefore determines that Garcia’s acceptance of Oasis’ Offer of Judgment does not preclude her from pursuing an award of fees and costs.”

5th Cir.: Relation Back Principle Applies to Ensure That Defendants Cannot Unilaterally “Pick Off” Collective Action Representatives and Thwart Availability of Collective Actions Under FLSA by Paying Employee’s Claim in Full

Sandoz v. Cingular Wireless LLC

Although, in theory, FLSA claim could become moot when purported representative of collective action receives offer that would satisfy his or her individual claim and no other plaintiffs have opted in, when FLSA plaintiff files timely motion for certification of collective action, that motion relates back to date plaintiff filed initial complaint; relation back is warranted only when plaintiff files for certification without undue delay.