N.D.Ga.: Defendant Barred from Unilateral Meetings With Putative Class Members Outside of Formal Discovery Process, Absent Detailed Disclosures to Alleviate Concerns re Chilled Participation and/or Retaliation
This case was before the court for consideration of the parties’ Joint Statement regarding restrictions on communications with putative class members, as required by L.R. 23.1(C)(2) of the Northern District of Georgia.
The specific issue raised by the parties’ Joint Submission was explained as follows:
In the Joint Statement, Plaintiffs raise a concern that Defendants will question putative class members about a policy requiring employees to lodge contemporaneous internal complaints about incorrect pay (“Complaint Policy”). Plaintiffs fear that if representatives of Defendants raise the Complaint Policy in communications with putative plaintiffs, the putative plaintiffs will believe that their failure to have lodged a contemporaneous complaint about incorrect pay may have been a violation of company policy that could result in their termination from employment. In its portion of the Joint Statement, Defendants do not deny an intention to make such inquiries of employees.
Initially the court discussed the basic applicable law:
[A]n order limiting communication between parties and potential class members should be based on a clear record and specific findings that reflect a weighing of a need for limitation and the potential interference with the rights of the parties. Only such a determination can insure that the court is furthering, rather than hindering, the policies embodied in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, especially Rule 23.
Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 101–102, 101 S.Ct. 2193, 68 L.Ed.2d 693 (1981). “Unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class sabotage the goal of informed consent by urging exclusion on the basis of a one-sided presentation of the facts, without opportunity for rebuttal. The damages from misstatements could well be irreparable.” Kleiner v. First Nat’l Bank of Atlanta, 751 F.2d 1193, 1203 (11th Cir.1985).
Based on its conclusion that there were inherent risks in the anticipated questioning by the defendants, the court held that the defendants were barred from communicating with former employee putative class members regarding the subject matter of the case, outside of the regular discovery process in the case and without the consent of plaintiff’s counsel. While the court permitted defendants’ counsel to speak with current employees who were putative class members, it set forth detailed prerequisites prior to any such communications, in order to safeguard against defenadnts’ improperly influencing putative class members from exercising their rights under the FLSA:
The Court finds that the risks inherent in the anticipated questioning by Defendants warrant the following limitations on Defendants’ communications with potential class members.
There shall be no communications with any named Plaintiff or with any current or future opt-in Plaintiffs outside the formal discovery process or without the consent of the named Plaintiff’s counsel of record, except-as to any currently employed present or future opt-in Plaintiff-for routine business matters unrelated to this action.
With respect to any presentation of information, including any views or opinions, to any “putative class members” by the Defendants—whether acting through management, counsel, other employees, or any other agent of any kind—that relates to the allegations and claims in this action, whether for the purpose of gathering information in a one-on-one or group basis to defend this action or to address any employee complaints regarding past, current or future compensation practices, such communication shall commence with the following statements:
(a) The person(s) present on the Defendants’ behalf is a Defendant employee or agent acting at the direction of Defendants’ management;
(b) The person(s) present on the Defendants’ behalf is there to address a lawsuit filed against the Defendants, as well as employee complaints, involving allegations that the Defendants failed to pay employees all the wages and overtime they had earned and were entitled to receive;
(c) The lawsuit is a class-action—which means the individual may receive money as a result of the lawsuit;
(d) The allegations of wrongdoing (accurately stated), accompanied by a copy of the Third Amended Complaint;
(e) The “putative class member” is under no obligation to stay, or listen, or speak, or respond;
(f) No record of anyone who does not stay, speak, or respond is being made and no record of who does not stay, speak, or respond will be made at any future time;
(g) No adverse action will be taken if the “putative class member” chooses not to stay, speak, or respond;
(h) No adverse action will be taken if the “putative class member” says, in substance, they believe they not were not properly compensated or did not receive all compensation owed to them, whether or not they complained to anyone about any compensation issues; and
(i) The “putative class member” is free to leave at any time, including at this point.
Click Wilson v. Regions Financial Corporation to read the entire Order Regarding Communications With Putative Class Members.
While the procedural posture of this case was somewhat unique, in that the Northern District of Georgia has a detailed/explicit rule regarding pre-certification communications (and there was a Rule 23 class claim in addition to the FLSA collective action claim), this decision will likely serve as a blueprint for many courts going forward, given the chilling effect unilateral meetings with current and former employees can have, as many courts have previously noted.
S.D.N.Y.: Where Defendant Asserted “Good Faith” Defense, It Waived Attorney Client Privilege, Despite Lack of “Reliance on Counsel” Defense
This case was before the court on the defendant’s motion for a protective order under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 26(c) to prohibit plaintiffs from discovery of defendant’s attorney-client communications regarding the decision to classify certain employees as “executives” and thus exempt from overtime pay. As part of its affirmative defenses, the defendant invoked 29 U.S.C. § 259 to claim that it relied on administrative authority in classifying the plaintiffs and is thus free from liability (the “Eleventh Affirmative Defense”), and 29 U.S.C. § 260 for the proposition that it did not act willfully and thus should not be subjected to FLSA’s liquidated damages provision (the “Twelfth Affirmative Defense”). Specifically, the defendant claimed to have relied on state and federal regulations, “but not upon advice of counsel.” Rejecting the defendant’s contention that it preserved the attorney-client privilege notwithstanding its assertion of “good faith,” the court held that attorney-client communications regarding the exempt nature (or lack thereof) of the position at issue were discoverable. After a discussion of the “at-issue” waiver of the attorney-client privilege, in cases where a party places its knowledge (or lack thereof) and good faith at issue, and a discussion of the general principles behind the FLSA’s good faith defense, the court determined that the defendant in this FLSA case had waived the attorney-client privilege by placing its mental state at issue here by claiming a good faith defense:
Chipotle affirmatively invokes § 259 in its Eleventh Affirmative Defense [stating “Pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 259 and other applicable law, Chipotle’s alleged failure to pay Plaintiffs or any putative class or collective member any of the wages on which Plaintiffs’ claims are based, if at all, was in conformity with and in reliance on an administrative regulation, order, ruling, approval, interpretation, administrative practice, and/or enforcement policy of the United States Department of Labor and any Department of Labor in any of the states in which Plaintiffs allege claims under state law, but not upon advice of counsel.”]. Though it does not specifically name § 260 in its Twelfth Affirmative Defense, Chipotle claims an affirmative defense to FLSA’s liquidated damages, which is necessarily governed by § 260, and therefore its Twelfth Affirmative Defense falls under that provision. See Northrop v. Hoffman of Simsbury, Inc., 134 F .3d 41, 45–46 (2d Cir.1997) (a party need not cite a specific statute in order to invoke it in a pleading).
Despite defendant’s attempt to plead around an “advice of counsel” defense, the court held that they could not, because it was clear that defendant did have the advice of counsel on the very issues for which it claimed good faith, regardless of whether they claimed reliance on same or not:
Yet despite the good faith requirements of both statutory defenses, Chipotle attempts to plead around them by avoiding mention of the advice of counsel, except to disclaim it in the Eleventh Affirmative Defense. Chipotle claims to have invoked only the portions of §§ 259–60 relating to reliance on administrative guidance, rather than any standard of good faith. See Def’s. Br. at 1–2 (“Chipotle does not assert a generalized ‘good faith’ defense … Chipotle set out its affirmative defense, as it is entitled to, in such a way as to remove its ‘state of mind’ from being at issue….”); Answer to Second Am. Compl. at 23. Such artful pleading cannot negate an element of a statutory defense, especially here, where it is evident that Chipotle did in fact have the advice of counsel on the very topic at issue. A defendant may not succeed on an affirmative defense by pleading only some of the necessary elements. As explained supra, Chipotle has invoked two affirmative defenses that require showings of good faith. Here, plaintiffs have shown that Chipotle did in fact have the advice of counsel regarding the classification of apprentices. And knowing whether Chipotle had been advised not to classify the apprentices as exempt is necessary to evaluate the validity of the Eleventh and Twelfth Affirmative Defenses. Thus, the advice of Chipotle’s counsel regarding that classification is plainly “at issue” within the meaning of Bilzerian. Because at-issue waiver is to be “decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis, and depends primarily on the specific context in which the privilege is asserted,” In re Grand Jury Proceedings, 219 F.3d at 183, the Court will examine the specific factual context of this case. Given the substantial similarities between the good faith defenses in §§ 259–60, this analysis will encompass both the Eleventh and Twelfth Affirmative Defenses. At the deposition of David Gottlieb, Chipotle’s corporate representative and Director of Compliance and Field People Support, the witness testified that Chipotle consulted with attorneys in making the classification decision. When asked about the existence of communications regarding the apprentice classification, Mr. Gottlieb admitted that “there were communications. They were in the context of communications and discussions with our lawyers.” Gottlieb Dep. 65:2–4. In fact, Mr. Gottlieb testified that he had “no recollection” of ever communicating with anyone at Chipotle regarding the apprentice classification other than in the presence of his attorneys. Id. at 65:11–15.F In addition, during Mr. Gottlieb’s deposition, Chipotle repeatedly objected on attorney-client grounds and instructed Mr. Gottlieb not to answer questions related to Chipotle’s decision to classify the apprentice position as exempt. For example, Chipotle asserted the attorney-client privilege and directed Mr. Gottlieb not to answer questions about whether Mr. Gottlieb participated in any evaluations regarding the exempt classification position. There are numerous other such examples from the transcript of Mr. Gottlieb’s deposition. See, e.g., Gottlieb Dep. 42:6–16 (refusing to answer question on the research behind the classification after being advised not to disclose any attorney-client communications); id. at 61:18–62:2 (same); id. at 87:14–88:1 (acknowledging counsel were consulted on decision to reclassify apprentices in California). In addition, Chipotle’s privilege log confirms that it received legal advice concerning the apprentice exemption decision. See Ex. D (Def’s Second Am. Privilege Log), No. 2 (February 18, 2011 email from outside counsel to Mr. Gottlieb on the subject of “Legal advice regarding Chipotle’s Apprentice Position.”) Finally, Chipotle’s discovery responses indicate reliance on advice of counsel. Chipotle asserted attorney-client privilege in response to plaintiffs’ document requests and interrogatories that sought information on the decision to classify apprentices as exempt. See, e.g., Ex. C (Def.’s Resps. Pls.’ Fourth Req. Produc. Docs.), No. 28 (asserting privilege in response to request for documents relied upon by Chipotle as basis for decision to classify apprentices as exempt), No. 31 (same for request for documents relied upon by Chipotle as basis for its good faith defenses), No. 32 (same for documents pertaining to or evidencing Chipotle’s decision to classify apprentices as nonexempt under FLSA, NYLL, and Missouri Labor Law) & No. 33 (same for documents related to Chipotle’s contention that apprentices are exempt under administrative or executive exemption).
In light of the clear record demonstrating defendant received legal advice on the very issue on which they claimed good faith, the court held that they could not shield communications with their attorneys about the issue from disclosure:
This evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that Chipotle did receive legal advice on the apprentice classification decision. And Chipotle does not dispute that it did. Instead, it argues that it is entitled to define its affirmative defense narrowly and in such a way as to remove its state of mind from being at issue. In this regard, Chipotle contends that this case is distinguishable from Wang v. The Hearst Corp., where the same legal question was presented, and the district court found an at-issue waiver of the attorney-client privilege. 12 Civ. 0793(HB), 2012 WL 6621717 (S.D.N.Y. Dec. 19, 2012). In Wang, a sophisticated corporate defendant asserted a § 260 defense to allegations of FLSA wage and hour violations, but invoked attorney-client privilege to block the plaintiff’s discovery of the defendant’s in-house counsel e-mails, claiming that its defense “would ‘not rely, directly or indirectly, on legal advice for its good-faith defense in this case’ and that it had offered to so stipulate.” Id. at *1 (internal citations omitted). A witness from the defendant’s human resources department, however, had indicated in a deposition that questions regarding the collection of school credit letters for unpaid interns (who were allegedly misclassified as such) would be better posed to the legal department. Id. at *2. The court soundly rejected the defendant’s attempt to plead around the requirements of § 260, which it found “amount[ed] to little more than semantics without any concrete examples provided by Defendants. On the other hand, [it found] it difficult to imagine that a good faith defense regarding the FLSA raised by a corporation as large and as sophisticated as Hearst would not involve the advice of its legal department.” Id. Chipotle attempts to distinguish Wang on two grounds: there, (1) the defendant’s affirmative defense explicitly invoked good faith, and (2) testimony was introduced that the legal department, not the human resources department, had responsibility for making the classification decisions at issue. These are not distinctions. As discussed above, Chipotle’s affirmative defenses carry a good faith component even if none is so stated. And Mr. Gottlieb, himself an attorney and responsible for Chipotle’s wage and hour determinations, testified that he was unaware of any communications regarding the apprentice determination that did not involve attorneys, and otherwise refused to answer relevant questions on attorney-client privilege grounds. All told, there is far more evidence here than in Wang that the defendant had, and perhaps ignored, the advice of counsel in classifying its employees as exempt. Given the circumstances in this particular case, “legal advice that [the defendant] received may well demonstrate the falsity of its claim of good faith belief,” Leviton, 2010 WL 4983183, at *3, putting Chipotle’s state of mind at issue. The plaintiffs are therefore “entitled to know if [the defendant] ignored counsel’s advice.” Arista Records, 2011 WL 1642434, at *3 (internal citations and quotation marks omitted).
The court also rejected defendant’s public policy argument which it urged supported upholding the attorney-client privilege, even where a defendant impermissibly sought to use it simultaneously as a shield and a sword:
Chipotle contends that even if Second Circuit case law favors a waiver in this case, such waiver should be overcome by policy considerations. It claims that, should the Court find a waiver here, “every employer in every FLSA case will have to choose between revealing such communications or forfeiting statutory defenses. This is akin to imposing, as a matter of law, an expanded limitations period and 100% liquidated damages risk on every employer in every FLSA case.” Def’s. Reply at 6. Such concerns are misplaced and overstated. First, as stated by both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals, liquidated damages are in fact the norm in FLSA cases. This is not a byproduct of a broad reading of the at-issue waiver doctrine. Rather, this is because, by act of the legislature, “the liquidated damage provision is not penal in its nature but constitutes compensation for the retention of a workman’s pay which might result in damages too obscure and difficult of proof for estimate other than by liquidated damages.” Brooklyn Sav. Bank v. O’Neil, 324 U.S. 697, 707 (1945) (citations omitted); see also Herman, 172 F.3d at 142; Reich, 121 F.3d at 71; Brock v. Wilamowsky, 833 F.2d 11, 19 (2d Cir.1987) ( “ ‘[d]ouble damages are the norm, single damages the exception ….‘ “ (quoting Walton v. United Consumers Club, Inc., 786 F.2d 303, 310 (7th Cir.1986))). It is for this very reason, protection of workers as directed by Congress, that defendants face a high bar to mounting a good faith defense to FLSA wage and hour claims. Second, defendants in such situations are not at all required to waive attorney-client privilege to defend against liability. For instance, defendants may assert defenses on bases other than good faith. See Crawford v. Coram Fire Dist., 12 Civ. 3850(DRH)(WDW), 2014 WL 1686203 (E.D.N.Y. Apr. 29, 2014) (upholding denial of discovery of privileged communications where defendant had separate basis for defense that did not rely on good faith); Leviton, 2010 WL 4983183, at *5 (plaintiff did not waive privilege by filing claim where waiver would be useful but not essential to defendants’ defense). In the case at hand, Chipotle has pled a panoply of defenses aside from the two affirmative defenses at issue. If it does not wish to waive its privilege, it may seek leave to amend its answer under Fed.R.Civ.P. 16(b) so that it can forego its good faith defenses and rely instead on its remaining 30 affirmative defenses. See Bilzerian, 926 F.2d at 1293–94 (defendant need not assert good faith defense, but if he does, he waives attorney-client privilege); Answer to Second Am. Compl. at 21–26 (listing Chipotle’s affirmative defenses). Finally, Chipotle claims that a finding of at-issue waiver will discourage companies from seeking advice from counsel. Chipotle predicts that companies will instead be “incentivized to make important decisions concerning critical issues such as employee pay on their own lest they be forced to reveal their confidential and privileged communications.” Def’s. Br. at 2. The Court sees things differently. To the extent Chipotle is found to be liable for overtime violations (a question that is far from answered), and to the extent Chipotle’s counsel advised it against the classification decision it wrongly made, the decision on this motion will only serve to encourage companies to receive competent legal advice and follow it.
Thus, the court held that the defendant had waived the attorney-client privilege by placing its mental state at issue and pleading a good faith defense. Click Scott v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. to read the entire Opinion & Order.
2d. Cir.: Individualized Damages Determinations Alone Cannot Preclude Class Certification Under Rule 23’s Predominance Inquiry
This case presented the question of whether the Supreme Court’s decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 185 L.Ed.2d 515 (2013), overruled the well-established law in the Second Circuit that class certification pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure cannot be denied merely because damages have to be ascertained on an individual basis. The court below had held that Comcast permits certification under Rule 23(b)(3) only when damages are measurable on a classwide basis, and denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. The Second Circuit disagreed, and held that Comcast does not mandate that certification pursuant to Rule 23(b)(3) requires a finding that damages are capable of measurement on a classwide basis, in the context of this wage and hour case.
The court began by summarizing Second Circuit case law prior to the Comcast decision, and explaining that Comcast did not overrule the line of cases that had long held that individualized damages will not preclude class certification generally:
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Comcast, it was “well-established” in this Circuit that “the fact that damages may have to be ascertained on an individual basis is not sufficient to defeat class certification” under Rule 23(b)(3). Seijas v. Republic of Argentina, 606 F.3d 53, 58 (2d Cir.2010); see McLaughlin v. Am. Tobacco Co., 522 F.3d 215, 231 (2d Cir.2008), abrogated in part on other grounds by Bridge v. Phx. Bond & Indem. Co., 553 U.S. 639, 128 S.Ct. 2131, 170 L.Ed.2d 1012 (2008); see also Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2558 (“[I]ndividualized monetary claims belong in Rule 23(b)(3).”). “[T]he fact that damages may have to be ascertained on an individual basis” was simply one “factor that we [had to] consider in deciding whether issues susceptible to generalized proof ‘outweigh’ individual issues” when certifying the case as a whole. McLaughlin, 522 F.3d at 231.
We do not read Comcast as overruling these decisions.
The court then discussed and distinguished Comcast:
In Comcast, the plaintiffs filed a class-action antitrust suit claiming that Comcast’s acquisition of competitor cable television providers in sixteen counties clustered around Philadelphia violated the Sherman Act. 133 S.Ct. at 1430. Comcast’s clustering strategy had increased its market share in that geographical area from around twenty to seventy percent. Id. The plaintiffs sought to certify the class of Comcast subscribers in that geographical area under Rule 23(b)(3), claiming that questions of law and fact common to the class predominated over any questions affecting individual members. Id. The district court held, and neither the plaintiffs nor defendants contested on appeal, that in order to meet the predominance requirement, the plaintiffs had to show that: (1) the injury suffered by the class was “capable of proof at trial through evidence that [was] common to the class rather than individual to its members”; and (2) “the damages resulting from [the anticompetitive] injury were measurable on a class-wide basis through use of a common methodology.” Id. (first alteration in original) (quoting Behrend v. Comcast Corp., 264 F.R.D. 150, 154 (E.D.Pa.2010)) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The plaintiffs offered four theories of antitrust injury or impact, only one of which the district court concluded was susceptible of classwide proof: Comcast’s clustering around Philadelphia reduced competition from “overbuilders,” competitors who build competing cable networks where there exists an incumbent cable provider.FN4
Id. at 1430–31. To prove that the damages resulting from the anticompetitive injury were measurable on a classwide basis, the plaintiffs offered expert testimony that modeled the class damages based on all four theories of antitrust injury; the model did not isolate damages resulting from the “overbuilder” theory. Id. at 1431. Nevertheless, both the district court and the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concluded that the expert testimony was sufficient to establish that damages resulting from the “overbuilder” theory of injury were measurable on a classwide basis. Id. Rejecting the notion that the plaintiffs were required to offer a model of classwide damages that attributed damages only to the “overbuilder” theory of injury, the Court of Appeals explained that the plaintiffs were required merely to provide assurance that, “if they can prove antitrust impact, the resulting damages are capable of measurement and will not require labyrinthine individual calculations.” Id. at 1431 (quoting Behrend v. Comcast Corp., 655 F.3d 182, 206 (3d Cir.2011)) (internal quotation mark omitted). A more rigorous analysis, the Court of Appeals concluded, would constitute an “attac[k] on the merits of the methodology [that] [had] no place in the class certification inquiry.” Id. (first and third alterations in original) (quoting Behrend, 655 F.3d at 207) (internal quotation marks omitted).
The Supreme Court granted certiorari. After noting that neither party had contested the district court’s holding that Rule 23(b)(3) predominance required a showing that damages resulting from the anticompetitive injury were measurable on a classwide basis, id. at 1430, the Court identified the question presented as whether the plaintiffs “had … establish[ed] that damages could be measured on a classwide basis,” id. at 1431 n. 4. The Court reversed, holding that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony failed to carry that burden. Id. at 1432–33.
The Court began by noting that it had recently held that establishing the Rule 23(a) prerequisites to class certification required a “rigorous analysis,” which would “frequently entail ‘overlap with the merits of the plaintiff’s underlying claim.’ ” Id. at 1432 (quoting Dukes, 131 S.Ct. at 2551). Those “same analytical principles,” the Court explained, govern the Rule 23(b) inquiry. Id.
The Court then held that the plaintiffs’ expert testimony did not withstand the “rigorous analysis” for the Rule 23(b)(3) predominance test. The Court explained that the plaintiffs would be entitled only to damages resulting from their theory of injury. Id . at 1433. Thus, “a model purporting to serve as evidence of damages …. must measure only those damages attributable to that theory.” Id. “If the model does not even attempt to do that,” the Court explained, “it cannot possibly establish that damages are susceptible of measurement across the entire class for purposes of Rule 23(b)(3).” Id. Because there was “no question” that the damages model was not based solely upon the “overbuilder” theory of injury certified by the district court, but also included calculations accounting for the three other theories of injury, id . at 1433–34, the Court concluded that “Rule 23(b)(3) cannot authorize treating [cable] subscribers within the Philadelphia cluster as members of a single class,” id. at 1435.
The Second Circuit then explained that Comcast did not hold that a class cannot be certified under Rule 23(b)(3) solely because damages cannot be measured on a classwide basis, as many defendants in many contexts have since argued:
Comcast, then, did not hold that a class cannot be certified under Rule 23(b)(3) simply because damages cannot be measured on a classwide basis. See id. at 1430 (noting that the requirement of a classwide damages model “is uncontested here”); id. at 1436 (Ginsburg and Breyer, JJ., dissenting) (“[T]he decision should not be read to require, as a prerequisite to certification, that damages attributable to a classwide injury be measurable ‘on a class-wide basis.’ “). Comcast’s holding was narrower. Comcast held that a model for determining classwide damages relied upon to certify a class under Rule 23(b)(3) must actually measure damages that result from the class’s asserted theory of injury; but the Court did not hold that proponents of class certification must rely upon a classwide damages model to demonstrate predominance. See id . at 1433; see also In re Deepwater Horizon, 739 F.3d 790, 817 (5th Cir.2014) (construing the “principal holding of Comcast [as being] that a ‘model purporting to serve as evidence of damages … must measure only those damages attributable to th[e] theory’ of liability on which the class action is premised” (ellipsis and second alteration in original) (quoting Comcast, 133 S.Ct. at 1433)); Butler v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 727 F.3d 796, 799 (7th Cir.2013) (construing Comcast as holding only “that a damages suit cannot be certified to proceed as a class action unless the damages sought are the result of the class-wide injury that the suit alleges” (emphasis in original)); Leyva v. Medline Indus. Inc., 716 F.3d 510, 514 (9th Cir.2013) (interpreting Comcast to hold that class-action plaintiffs “must be able to show that their damages stemmed from the defendant’s actions that created the legal liability”); accord Catholic Healthcare W. v. U.S. Foodservice Inc. ( In re U.S. Foodservice Inc. Pricing Litig.), 729 F.3d 108, 123 n. 8 (2d Cir.2013) (“Plaintiffs’ proposed measure for damages is thus directly linked with their underlying theory of classwide liability … and is therefore in accord with the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Comcast … . “). Indeed, as the Court explained, if all four types of anticompetitive injury had been approved for certification by the district court, the plaintiff’s damages methodology “might have been sound, and might have produced commonality of damages.” Comcast, 133 S.Ct. at 1434.
To be sure, Comcast reiterated that damages questions should be considered at the certification stage when weighing predominance issues, but this requirement is entirely consistent with our prior holding that “the fact that damages may have to be ascertained on an individual basis is … a factor that we must consider in deciding whether issues susceptible to generalized proof ‘outweigh’ individual issues.” McLaughlin, 522 F.3d at 231. The Supreme Court did not foreclose the possibility of class certification under Rule 23(b)(3) in cases involving individualized damages calculations.
The court then noted that its reading of Comcast was consistent with all 4 Circuits to have reached the issue previously:
Our reading of Comcast is consistent with the Supreme Court’s statement in Comcast that its decision turned upon “the straightforward application of class-certification principles.” 133 S.Ct. at 1433. Our reading is also consistent with the interpretation of those Circuits that have had the opportunity to apply Comcast. See AstraZeneca AB v. United Food & Commercial Workers Unions & Emp’rs Midwest Health Benefits Fund (In re Nexium Antitrust Litig.), No. 14–1521, 2015 WL 265548, at *8, *10 (1st Cir. Jan.21, 2015) (explaining that Comcast “simply” requires that a damages calculation reflect the associated theory of liability, and discussing the “well-established” principle that individualized damages do not automatically defeat Rule 23(b)(3) certification); Dow Chem. Co. v. Seegott Holdings, Inc. ( In re Urethane Antitrust Litig.), 768 F.3d 1245, 1257–58 (10th Cir.2014) ( “Comcast did not rest on the ability to measure damages on a class-wide basis.”); In re Deepwater Horizon, 739 F.3d at 817 (rejecting, post-Comcast, the argument “that certification under Rule 23(b)(3) requires a reliable, common methodology for measuring classwide damages” (internal quotation marks omitted)); Butler, 727 F.3d at 801 (holding, upon the Supreme Court’s grant of certiorari, vacatur, and remand in light of Comcast, that “the fact that damages are not identical across all class members should not preclude class certification”); Glazer v. Whirlpool Corp. (In re Whirlpool Corp. Front–Loading Washer Prods. Liab. Litig .), 722 F.3d 838, 860–61 (6th Cir.2013) (noting that Comcast was “premised on existing class-action jurisprudence” and that “it remains the ‘black letter rule’ that a class may obtain certification under Rule 23(b)(3) when liability questions common to the class predominate over damages questions unique to class members”); Leyva, 716 F.3d at 513 (reiterating Ninth Circuit precedent, post-Comcast, that “damage calculations alone cannot defeat certification” (quoting Yokoyama v. Midland Nat’l Life Ins. Co., 594 F.3d 1087, 1094 (9th Cir.2010)) (internal quotation mark omitted)).
Because the trial court did not complete its full analysis under Rule 23, inasmuch as it held that individualized damages alone precluded class certification, the Second Circuit reversed and remanded the case for further findings regarding plaintiffs’ motion for class certification. Of note, on the same day, in an unreported decision, the Second Circuit affirmed a trial court’s order granting class certification, notwithstanding the defendant-appellant’s argument that individualized damages precluded class certification regarding liability issues.
W.D.Ark.: In Individual FLSA Cases, Where All Parties Are Represented By Counsel Throughout, Court Approval of Settlement Not Required
What seemed taboo in many parts of the country just a few years ago, dismissing an FLSA case with prejudice and foregoing court approval, has continued to gain steam in most jurisdictions. Most recently, a court in the Western District of Arkansas declined to approve the settlement of an individual-plaintiff FLSA claim, where the parties had jointly requested that the court review the settlement agreement in camera, so that they could avoid placing it in the docket. However, in denying to approve the settlement, the court advised the parties that—under the circumstances of this particular case—court-approval of the settlement agreement was not necessary. Instead, the court held that where: (1) the lawsuit is not a collective action; (2) all individual plaintiffs were represented by an attorney from the time of the filing of the complaint through the conclusion of subsequent settlement negotiations; and (3) all parties have indicated to the Court in writing through their attorneys that they wish for their settlement agreement to remain private and that they do not wish for any reasonableness review of their settlement to occur no reasonableness review or public filing of an FLSA settlement is necessary.
After reviewing 80 years of FLSA jurisprudence that court’s long cited for the premise that all FLSA settlements must be court approved, the court also discussed recent Fifth Circuit authority which cast doubt on that view, in circumstances where there was little or no risk that an employer would be likely to improperly exercise its authority over an employee in order to extract an improper settlement from the employee.
Adopting the view that many settlement agreements do not require a court’s blessing, the court explained:
Unfortunately, this Court is not aware of any Eighth Circuit precedent that addresses the issues raised in the instant Joint Motion. However, this Court believes that the risk is minimal that an unreasonable settlement will result from “unequal bargaining power as between employer and employee” in FLSA lawsuits where each of the following three criteria is met: (1) the lawsuit is not a collective action; (2) all individual plaintiffs were represented by an attorney from the time of the filing of the complaint through the conclusion of subsequent settlement negotiations; and (3) all parties have indicated to the Court in writing through their attorneys that they wish for their settlement agreement to remain private and that they do not wish for any reasonableness review of their settlement to occur. In such cases, this Court does not believe any reasonableness review or public filing of an FLSA settlement is necessary. The Court finds that each of these requirements is met in the instant case.
As such, the court denied the parties’ motion to review FLSA settlement in camera [if necessary], and directed the parties to file a joint stipulation of dismissal under FRCP 41(a) instead:
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED that the parties’ Joint Motion to Review FLSA Settlement in Camera, if Necessary, Approve Settlement, and Dismiss with Prejudice (Doc. 23) is DENIED. The parties may instead file a joint stipulation of dismissal under Fed.R.Civ.P. 41(a)(1)(A)(ii).
Click Schneider v. Habitat for Humanity Intern., Inc. to read the entire Opinion and Order.
6th Cir.: Collective Action Waivers in Employees’ Separation Agreements Did Not Validly Waive Employees’ Rights to Participate in Collective Action Under FLSA, Absent Valid Arbitration Provision
Although this one is not exactly breaking news, we are discussing it because of its importance in the general landscape of FLSA jurisprudence. As discussed here, this case was before the Sixth Circuit on Plaintiffs’ appeal, regarding an issue of first impression. Specifically, the Sixth Circuit was asked to decide whether an agreement by employees to waive their rights to participate in a collective action under the FLSA can be enforceable in the absence of an agreement to arbitrate their FLSA claims. Reversing the district court, the Sixth Circuit held that such agreements are unenforceable, absent an agreement to arbitrate the claims in an alternative forum, because in such a situation there is no congressional interest that weighs against the remedial goals of the FLSA.
In this case, former employees of the Defendant brought putative collective action against their former employer to recover overtime wages under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The district court determined that collective-action waiver in certain employees’ separation agreements was enforceable, despite the fact that the separation agreements contained no agreement to arbitrate their FLSA claims. The employees appealed, and the Sixth Circuit reversed.
Framing the parties’ respective positions, the Sixth Circuit explained:
This brings us to the merits regarding the validity of the unmodified collective-action waivers. The plaintiffs argue that this court’s decision in Boaz v. FedEx Customer Information Services, Inc., 725 F.3d 603 (6th Cir.2013), controls because it holds that an employee will not be bound by a contract entered into with his employer that has the effect of limiting his rights under the FLSA. In response, KeHE argues that cases upholding agreements that require employees to submit to arbitration on an individual basis are more on point. No court of appeals appears to have squarely addressed this issue outside of the arbitration context.
Given its recent related decision in Boaz, the Sixth Circuit began by discussing that case’s implications on the issue presented in this case:
This court’s decision in Boaz provides the relevant framework for the issue before us. In Boaz, the plaintiff-employee signed an employment agreement that contained a provision requiring her to bring any legal action against the defendant-employer within “6 months from the date of the event forming the basis of [the] lawsuit.” Id. at 605. When the plaintiff filed an FLSA lawsuit after the six-month time period had elapsed, the defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that her claims were untimely under the employment agreement.
This court disagreed. It first noted that “[s]hortly after the FLSA was enacted, the Supreme Court expressed concern that an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights … to minimum wages, overtime, or liquidated damages.” Id. at 605–06. The Boaz court concluded that because the waiver of the statutory-limitations period would have deprived the plaintiff of her FLSA rights, the provision was invalid. Id. at 606. It also rejected the defendant’s argument that a plaintiff may waive procedural rights under the FLSA, just not substantive ones. Id. Finally, the court distinguished cases enforcing an employee’s agreement to arbitrate his or her claims on an individual basis due to the strong federal presumption in favor of arbitration. Id. at 606–07 (distinguishing Floss v. Ryan’s Family Steak Houses Inc., 211 F.3d 306 (6th Cir.2000), on that basis).
Following its own reasoning from the Boaz decision, the Sixth Circuit concluded that normally a plaintiff’s right to participate in a collective action under 29 U.S.C. 216(b) cannot be waived:
Boaz therefore implies that a plaintiff’s right to participate in a collective action cannot normally be waived. The court clearly said that “[a]n employment agreement cannot be utilized to deprive employees of their statutory [FLSA] rights.” Id. (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). And “Congress has stated its policy that ADEA plaintiffs [and thus FLSA plaintiffs because the statutory language is identical] should have the opportunity to proceed collectively.” Hoffmann–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). We have little reason to think that the right to participate in a collective action should be treated any differently than the right to sue within the full time period allowed by the FLSA. The concern, Boaz explained, is that “an employer could circumvent the Act’s requirements—and thus gain an advantage over its competitors—by having its employees waive their rights under the Act.” 725 F.3d at 605.
Conscious of the body of law that has permitted collective action waivers when they are contained in agreements containing arbitration clauses, the court was careful to distinguish such cases:
We are aware, of course, that the considerations change when an arbitration clause is involved. Boaz explained that “an employee can waive his right to a judicial forum only if the alternative forum allow[s] for the effective vindication of [the employee’s] claim.” Id. at 606–07 (alteration in original) (internal quotation marks omitted). Arbitration, it noted, is such a forum. Id. at 606. But this line of precedents is of only minimal relevance here because the plaintiffs’ collective-action waivers in this case contained no arbitration clause. And, in any event, none of our precedents permitting arbitration of FLSA claims has addressed employees’ collective-action rights.
KeHE nonetheless points to cases from other circuits enforcing agreements to arbitrate FLSA claims on an individual basis. As KeHE notes, the Eleventh Circuit recently addressed the jurisprudence of the courts of appeals on collective-action waivers in the arbitration context in Walthour v. Chipio Windshield Repair, LLC, 745 F.3d 1326 (11th Cir.2014). It determined that
all of the circuits to address this issue have concluded that § 16(b) does not provide for a non-waivable, substantive right to bring a collective action. See Sutherland v. Ernst & Young LLP, 726 F.3d 290, 296–97 & n. 6 (2d Cir.2013) (determining that the FLSA does not contain a “contrary congressional command” that prevents an employee from waiving his or her ability to proceed collectively and that the FLSA collective action right is a waivable procedural mechanism); Owen [v. Bristol Care, Inc.], 702 F.3d [1050,] 1052–53 [ (8th Cir.2013) ] (determining that the FLSA did not set forth a “contrary congressional command” showing “that a right to engage in class actions overrides the mandate of the FAA in favor of arbitration”); Carter v. Countrywide Credit Indus., Inc., 362 F.3d 294, 298 (5th Cir.2004) (rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim that their inability to proceed collectively deprived them of a substantive right to proceed under the FLSA because, in Gilmer [v. Interstate/Johnson Lane Corp., 500 U.S. 20, 111 S.Ct. 1647, 114 L.Ed.2d 26 (1991) ], the Supreme Court rejected similar arguments regarding the ADEA); Adkins [v. Labor Ready, Inc.], 303 F.3d [496,] 503 [ (4th Cir.2002) ] (determining that a plaintiff failed to point to any “suggestion in the text, legislative history, or purpose of the FLSA that Congress intended to confer a non-waivable right to a class action under that statute” and that the plaintiff’s “inability to bring a class action, therefore, cannot by itself suffice to defeat the strong congressional preference for an arbitral forum”); cf. D.R. Horton [v. NLRB ], 737 F.3d [344,] 362 [ (5th Cir.2013) ] (determining that the National Labor Relations Act does not contain a contrary congressional command overriding the application of the FAA).
Id. at 1336. The Eleventh Circuit then joined this emerging consensus. Id. Crucially, however, the respective waiver agreements in all of the above-cited cases included provisions subjecting the employees to arbitration. See Walthour, 745 F.3d at 1330 (noting the existence of an arbitration*592 agreement between the parties); Sutherland, 726 F.3d at 296 (same); Owen, 702 F.3d at 1052 (same); Carter, 362 F.3d at 298 (same); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 498 (same).
These circuit decisions, in turn, rely on the Supreme Court’s decisions in Gilmer, 500 U.S. at 35, 111 S.Ct. 1647 (“We conclude that Gilmer has not met his burden of showing that Congress, in enacting the ADEA, intended to preclude arbitration of claims under that Act.”), and American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2304, 2309, 186 L.Ed.2d 417 (2013) (holding that “[n]o contrary congressional command requires us to reject the waiver of class arbitration here”). See Walthour, 745 F.3d at 1331 (citing Gilmer and Italian Colors); Sutherland, 726 F.3d at 296 (quoting Italian Colors ); Carter, 362 F.3d at 298 (citing Gilmer); Adkins, 303 F.3d at 502 (citing Gilmer ). Accordingly, none of the foregoing authorities speak to the validity of a collective-action waiver outside of the arbitration context.
Thus, the Sixth Circuit concluded that, in the absence of a valid arbitration agreement, a collective action waiver is unenforceable because there is no countervailing federal policy (i.e. the FAA) that outweighs the remedial policy articulated in the FLSA:
Because no arbitration agreement is present in the case before us, we find no countervailing federal policy that outweighs the policy articulated in the FLSA. The rationale of Boaz is therefore controlling. Boaz is based on the general principle of striking down restrictions on the employees’ FLSA rights that would have the effect of granting their employer an unfair advantage over its competitors. Requiring an employee to litigate on an individual basis grants the employer the same type of competitive advantage as did shortening the period to bring a claim in Boaz. And in cases where each individual claim is small, having to litigate on an individual basis would likely discourage the employee from bringing a claim for overtime wages. Boaz therefore controls the result here where arbitration is not a part of the waiver provision.
Click Killion v. KeHE Distributors, LLC to read the Sixth Circuit’s decision.
U.S.S.C.: Time Spent By Employees Waiting For and Undergoing Security Screenings Before Leaving Workplace Was Not Compensable Under FLSA
The Supreme Court handed yet another victory to America’s corporations early last month, when it ruled that employers do not have to pay their employees for time spent waiting for and undergoing security screening before leaving the workplace, despite the fact that such screenings are solely for the benefit of the employers. Of note, while the decision reversed a contrary decision from the Ninth Circuit, other Circuits and the DOL itself (which filed an amicus brief in support of employers) have long held that such screenings do not constitute compensable work time.
The Court summarized its decision in its Syllabus, preceding the actual opinion as follows:
Petitioner Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc., required its hourly warehouse workers, who retrieved products from warehouse shelves and packaged them for delivery to Amazon.com customers, to undergo a security screening before leaving the warehouse each day. Respondents, former employees, sued the company alleging, as relevant here, that they were entitled to compensation under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) for the roughly 25 minutes each day that they spent waiting to undergo and undergoing those screenings. They also alleged that the company could have reduced that time to a de minimis amount by adding screeners or staggering shift terminations and that the screenings were conducted to prevent employee theft and, thus, for the sole benefit of the employers and their customers.
The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim, holding that the screenings were not integral and indispensable to the employees’ principal activities but were instead postliminary and noncompensable. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed in relevant part, asserting that postshift activities that would ordinarily be classified as noncompensable postliminary activities are compensable as integral and indispensable to an employee’s principal activities if the postshift activities are necessary to the principal work and performed for the employer’s benefit.
Held : The time that respondents spent waiting to undergo and undergoing security screenings is not compensable under the FLSA. Pp. –––– – ––––.
(a) Congress passed the Portal–to–Portal Act to respond to an economic emergency created by the broad judicial interpretation given to the FLSA’s undefined terms “work” and “workweek.” See 29 U.S.C. § 251(a); Tennessee Coal, Iron & R. Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 598, 64 S.Ct. 698, 88 L.Ed. 949. The Portal–to–Portal Act exempted employers from FLSA liability for claims based on “activities which are preliminary to or postliminary to” the performance of the principal activities that an employee is employed to perform. § 254(a)(2). Under this Court’s precedents, the term “principal activities” includes all activities which are an “integral and indispensable part of the principal activities.” Steiner v. Mitchell, 350 U.S. 247, 252–253, 76 S.Ct. 330, 100 L.Ed. 267. An activity is “integral and indispensable” if it is an intrinsic element of the employee’s principal activities and one with which the employee cannot dispense if he is to perform his principal activities. This Court has identified several activities that satisfy this test—see, e.g., id., at 249, 251, 76 S.Ct. 330; Mitchell v. King Packing Co., 350 U.S. 260, 262, 76 S.Ct. 337, 100 L.Ed. 282—and Department of Labor regulations are consistent with this approach, see 29 CFR §§ 790.8(c), 790.7(g). Pp. –––– – ––––.
(b) The security screenings at issue are noncompensable postliminary activities. To begin with, the screenings were not the principal activities the employees were employed to perform—i.e., the workers were employed not to undergo security screenings but to retrieve products from warehouse shelves and package them for shipment. Nor were they “integral and indispensable” to those activities. This view is consistent with a 1951 Department of Labor opinion letter, which found noncompensable under the Portal–to–Portal Act both a preshift screening conducted for employee safety and a postshift search conducted to prevent employee theft. The Ninth Circuit’s test, which focused on whether the particular activity was required by the employer rather than whether it was tied to the productive work that the employee was employed to perform, would sweep into “principal activities” the very activities that the Portal–to–Portal Act was designed to exclude from compensation. See, e.g., IBP, supra, at 41, 126 S.Ct. 514. Finally, respondents’ claim that the screenings are compensable because Integrity Staffing could have reduced the time to a de minimis amount is properly presented at the bargaining table, not to a court in an FLSA claim. Pp. –––– – ––––.
While the decision was lauded by corporations throughout the country, it does not present a significant change to the existing law. However, depending on how the dicta in the decision is read in the future the case could have wide unanticipated consequences going forward. For this reason, and because it is from the United States’ highest court, wage and hour practitioners would be wise to read the entire decision.
Click Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk to read the entire decision.
11th Cir.: Defendant May Not Moot an Individual or Class Claim By Serving Offer of Judgment on Named Plaintiffs
This case presented the issue of whether a defendant may moot a class action through an unaccepted Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 offer of complete relief to the named plaintiffs—but not to class members—before the named plaintiffs move to certify the class. Joining the majority of circuits that have addressed the issue, the Eleventh Circuit held that it may not.
The Eleventh Circuit described the following relevant procedural history at the court below:
Six named plaintiffs filed this proposed class action in Florida state court against the defendant Buccaneers Limited Partnership (“BLP”). The complaint alleged that BLP sent unsolicited faxes to the named plaintiffs and more than 100,000 others, that the faxes advertised tickets to National Football League games involving the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and that sending the unsolicited faxes violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, see 47 U.S.C. § 227(b)(1)(C), and its implementing regulations, see 47 C.F.R. § 64.1200 & 68.318(d) (2013).
The named plaintiffs sought to represent a nationwide class of recipients of the unsolicited faxes. The complaint demanded statutory damages of $500 per violation, trebled to $1,500 based on BLP’s willfulness, and an injunction against further violations.
The plaintiffs served process on BLP on August 1, 2013. BLP removed the action to federal court on August 16. Three days later, on August 19, BLP served on each named plaintiff an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. The offer to the first named plaintiff, who alleged in the complaint that he had received three faxes, provided in full.
Pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, Defendant, BUCCANEERS LIMITED PARTNERSHIP, hereby offers to allow Judgment to be entered against it in this action in the amount of $4,500.00 as well as all reasonable costs incurred to date by JEFFREY M. STEIN, D.D.S., M.S.D., P.A. to be decided by the Court, and an entry of a stipulated injunction enjoining the Defendant from any future violations of 47 U.S.C. § 227, 47 C.F.R. 64.1200, and 47 C.F.R. 68.318(d). The offer extended herein is intended to fully satisfy the individual claims of JEFFREY M. STEIN, D.D.S., M.S.D., P.A. made in this action or which could have been made in this action, and to the extent the offer extended does not do so, BUCCANEERS LIMITED PARTNERSHIP hereby offers to provide JEFFREY M. STEIN, D.D.S., M.S.D., *701 P.A. with any other relief which is determined by the Court to be necessary to fully satisfy all of the individual claims of JEFFREY M. STEIN, D.D.S., M.S.D., P.A. in the action. This offer of judgment is made for the purposes specified in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68, and is not to be construed as either an admission that Defendant, BUCCANEERS LIMITED PARTNERSHIP is liable in this action, or that the Plaintiff, JEFFREY M. STEIN, D.D.S., M.S.D., P.A., has suffered any damage. This Offer of Judgment shall not be filed with the Court unless (a) accepted or (b) in a proceeding to determine costs. The Plaintiff must serve written acceptance of this offer within fourteen (14) days, or this offer will be deemed rejected.
The offers to the other named plaintiffs were identical except for the names of the offerees and amounts of the offers; one was for $7,500, one was for $3,000, and three were for $1,500 each, based on the number of faxes the complaint alleged the offeree had received.
Two days later, on August 21, BLP moved to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, asserting that the unaccepted Rule 68 offers rendered the case moot.
The motion stirred the plaintiffs to action. On August 22, the plaintiffs moved to certify a class. This was long before the deadline under the Local Rules for filing such a motion. On August 28, the district court denied the motion to certify, saying it was “terse” and “admittedly (in fact, purposefully) premature.”
The Rule 68 offers set the deadline for acceptance as 14 days after service of the offers. The applicable counting rules, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 6, extended the deadline 3 days because the offers were served electronically, and further extended the deadline to the next business day. So the deadline for acceptance was September 9. The plaintiffs did not accept the offers, and the deadline passed.
On October 24, the district court entered an order concluding the action was indeed moot, granting the motion to dismiss, and directing the clerk to close the case. The named plaintiffs received no money, no injunction, and no judgment.
Following the order granting the motion to dismiss the plaintiffs appealed. Noting that the case presented an issue of first impression in the Eleventh Circuit, the panel went through great detail providing the reasoning for its holding.
The Eleventh Circuit began by addressing the procedural mechanics of an unaccepted offer of judgment:
Rule 68 provides: “An unaccepted offer is considered withdrawn, but it does not preclude a later offer. Evidence of an unaccepted offer is not admissible except in a proceeding to determine costs.” An unaccepted offer is admissible in a proceeding to determine costs because of Rule 68(d): “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.” That is the whole point of Rule 68: a party who rejects an offer, litigates, and does not get a better result must pay the other side’s costs. A defendant who wishes to offer complete relief need not invoke Rule 68; the defendant can simply offer complete relief, including the entry of judgment. See, e.g., Doyle v. Midland Credit Mgmt., Inc., 722 F.3d 78, 80–81 (2d Cir.2013). BLP did not do that.
The Court then explained that dismissing a case based an unaccepted offer of judgment is “flatly inconsistent with the rule.” The Court found support for its decision in this regard in the strong decent from the recent Supreme Court case of Symczyk:
Four justices of the United States Supreme Court—the only four who have weighed in on this issue—have adopted precisely this analysis. In Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1523, 185 L.Ed.2d 636 (2013), a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the parties stipulated that an unaccepted Rule 68 offer mooted the individual plaintiff’s claim. The majority accepted the stipulation without addressing the issue. Id. at 1528–29. But Justice Kagan, writing for four dissenters, said this:
That thrice-asserted view [that the defendant’s offer mooted the plaintiff’s individual claims] is wrong, wrong, and wrong again. We made clear earlier this Term that “[a]s long as the parties have a concrete interest, however small, in the outcome of the litigation, the case *703 is not moot.” Chafin v. Chafin, 568 U.S. ––––, ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1017, 1023, 185 L.Ed.2d 1 (2012) (internal quotation marks omitted). “[A] case becomes moot only when it is impossible for a court to grant any effectual relief whatever to the prevailing party.” Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). By those measures, an unaccepted offer of judgment cannot moot a case. When a plaintiff rejects such an offer—however good the terms—her interest in the lawsuit remains just what it was before. And so too does the court’s ability to grant her relief. An unaccepted settlement offer—like any unaccepted contract offer—is a legal nullity, with no operative effect. As every first-year law student learns, the recipient’s rejection of an offer “leaves the matter as if no offer had ever been made.” Minneapolis & St. Louis R. Co. v. Columbus Rolling Mill, 119 U.S. 149, 151, 7 S.Ct. 168, 30 L.Ed. 376 (1886). Nothing in Rule 68 alters that basic principle; to the contrary, that rule specifies that “[a]n unaccepted offer is considered withdrawn.” Fed. Rule Civ. Proc. 68(b). So assuming the case was live before—because the plaintiff had a stake and the court could grant relief—the litigation carries on, unmooted.
For this reason, Symczyk’s individual claim was alive and well when the District Court dismissed her suit. Recall: Genesis made a settlement offer under Rule 68; Symczyk decided not to accept it; after 10 days [the rule now says 14], it expired and the suit went forward. Symczyk’s individual stake in the lawsuit thus remained what it had always been, and ditto the court’s capacity to grant her relief. After the offer lapsed, just as before, Symczyk possessed an unsatisfied claim, which the court could redress by awarding her damages. As long as that remained true, Symczyk’s claim was not moot, and the District Court could not send her away empty-handed. So a friendly suggestion to the Third Circuit: Rethink your mootness-by-unaccepted-offer theory. And a note to all other courts of appeals: Don’t try this at home. Symczyk, 133 S.Ct. at 1533–34 (Kagan, J., dissenting). BLP invites us to try this at home. We decline.
At least one circuit has explicitly adopted the position set out in the Symczyk dissent. See Diaz v. First Am. Home Buyers Prot. Corp., 732 F.3d 948, 954–55 (9th Cir.2013). Before Symczyk, at least two other circuits took a different approach, holding that an unaccepted Rule 68 offer for full relief moots an individual claim. See O’Brien v. Ed Donnelly Enters., Inc., 575 F.3d 567, 575 (6th Cir.2009); McCauley v. Trans Union, L.L.C., 402 F.3d 340 (2d Cir.2005). But even those decisions said a plaintiff’s claims could not just be dismissed as was done here; the proper approach, the courts said, was to enter judgment for the plaintiff in the amount of the unaccepted offer.
We agree with the Symczyk dissent. But even if we did not, we would be unable to affirm the dismissal of the plaintiffs’ claims without the entry of judgment for the amount of the Rule 68 offers.
The court also reasoned that the language in the individual offers of judgment at issue, stating that the offers were withdrawn if not accepted within 14 days, also supported its decision.
Although not discussed in great detail here, in a second/alternative holding, the Court also adopted the majority view that a motion for class certification can “relate back” to avoid allowing a defendant to “pick off” a class action by attempting to tender an offer of judgment to the named plaintiffs alone.
Of note, on the same day that it issued this decision, the Eleventh Circuit issued two decisions in similar cases in which they reversed the respective trial court’s dismissals based on mootness grounds. Although none of the three decisions discussed claims brought pursuant to the FLSA and the opt-in mechanism of 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), at least one district court applied the now binding authority to an FLSA case less than a week after the decision, in a case pending in the Southern District of Florida, Collado v. J. & G. Transport, Inc.
With this trifecta of cases and the cases that have already followed suit in the less than one month since the cases were decided, hopefully this illogical defense tactic will now finally be put to bed.
This case involved a former domestic servant who sued her former employers alleging claims for forced labor and involuntary servitude under the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act (TVPA), willful violation of Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and state law claims for breach of contract, fraudulent misrepresentation, and false imprisonment. After the court below dismissed the case on statute of limitations grounds, plaintiff appealed. As discussed here, the Fourth Circuit joined other courts who have similarly held, and held that where an employer fails to post the required FLSA Notice, the statute of limitations for an employees claims under the FLSA are tolled until he or she either obtains an attorney, or obtains actual knowledge of his or her rights.
Initially, the Fourth Circuit identified two circumstances under which equitable tolling may generally be applicable:
[E]quitable tolling is available when 1) “the plaintiffs were prevented from asserting their claims by some kind of wrongful conduct on the part of the defendant,” or 2) “extraordinary circumstances beyond plaintiffs’ control made it impossible to file the claims on time.” Harris, 209 F.3d at 330 (internal quotation marks omitted). Cruz asks us to evaluate this rule in light of Vance v. Whirlpool Corp., 716 F.2d 1010 (4th Cir.1983), in which this Court found that the district court properly held that the 180–day filing requirement of the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (“ADEA”) was tolled by reason of the plaintiff’s employer’s failure to post statutory notice of workers’ rights under the Act. Id. at 1013.
It makes good sense to extend our reasoning in Vance to the FLSA. The notice requirements in the ADEA and the FLSA are almost identical. Compare 29 C.F.R. § 1627.10 (requiring employers to “post and keep posted in conspicuous places … the notice pertaining to the applicability of the [ADEA]”), with id. § 516 .4 (requiring employers “post and keep posted a notice explaining the [FLSA] … in conspicuous places”). The purpose of these requirements is to ensure that those protected under the Acts are aware of and able to assert their rights. Although Vance tolled an administrative filing deadline rather than a statute of limitations, the FLSA lacks an equivalent administrative filing requirement; thus, the FLSA’s deadline to sue is, like the ADEA’s administrative filing deadline, the critical juncture at which a claimant’s rights are preserved or lost. Neither the ADEA nor the FLSA inflicts statutory penalties for failure to comply with the notice requirements. See Cortez v. Medina’s Landscaping, Inc., No. 00 C 6320, 2002 WL 31175471, at *5 (N.D.Ill. Sept.30, 2002) (extending an actual notice tolling rule similar to Vance from the ADEA to the FLSA). Therefore, absent a tolling rule, employers would have no incentive to post notice since they could hide the fact of their violations from employees until any relevant claims expired. For all of these reasons, this Court’s analysis in Vance applies with equal force to the notice requirement of the FLSA. Under Vance, tolling based on lack of notice continues until the claimant retains an attorney or obtains actual knowledge of her rights. 716 F.2d at 1013. The current factual record, which is limited to the amended complaint, does not identify when Cruz first retained a lawyer or learned of her rights under the FLSA. Therefore, the district court should allow discovery on remand to determine in the first instance whether Cruz’s FLSA claim was time-barred despite being equitably tolled.
Click Cruz v. Maypa to read the entire Opinion.