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Courts Reject Defendants’ Attempts to Require Opt-ins to Provide Detailed Factual Information in Order to Join Collective Actions
Aware that the more information putative class members are required to provide, the less likely they are to opt in to the case by submitting a consent to join, it is not unusual for FLSA defendants to request that putative class members provide information above and beyond the simple consent to join required by 216(b) as a prerequisite to joining a case. Two recent opinions joined the majority of courts and rejected such requests, in recognition of the chilling effect they can have on employee participation.
N.D. Cal.: Defendant’s Request to Require Class Members to Provide Dates of Employment Rejected
In the first case, the defendants asserted that any employee who wished to opt-in should be required to provide his or her dates of employment. Rejecting this request, the court reasoned:
Bayside argues that opt-in plaintiffs should be required to provide their actual dates of employment on the opt-in form included with the proposed notice. Plaintiffs respond that Bayside will provide this information when it produces a list of potential collective action members and there is no reason for potential plaintiffs themselves to provide it. I agree with plaintiffs and DENY this request. See, e.g., Flores v. Velocity Exp., Inc., No. 12–cv–05790–JST, 2013 WL 2468362, at *9 (N.D. Cal. June 7, 2013) (“the Court sees no reason why Velocity’s former and current delivery drivers should identify their dates of service on their opt-in forms. As set forth above, Velocity will be producing this information to Plaintiffs”).
Click Ash v. Bayside Solutions, Inc. to read the entire Order.
E.D.Tenn.: Defendant’s Request That Notice Package Include Detailed Questionnaire Rejected
In the second case, the defendant went even further, and requested that each employee who elected to opt-in be required to fill out an entire questionnaire. Again, the court rejected this request and explained:
Generally, an initial mailing regarding an FLSA collective action includes: (1) a notice, advising the potential litigant of his or her ability to join the suit and (2) an opt-in form, which the potential litigant can use to join the suit. Wyndham has proposed that in this case a third document be included in the mailing: a six-page questionnaire, which from its introductory language appears to be mandatory.
The court explained the parties’ respective positions as follows:
Wyndham acknowledges that such questionnaires are not common-place, but Wyndham maintains that they have been used by courts in other cases. Wyndham argues that the use of the questionnaire may streamline litigation and enable it to craft its decertification motion.
The Plaintiffs have responded by asserting that the relief requested by Wyndham is extraordinary and amounts to permitting discovery prior to a potential litigant becoming a party to this suit. The Plaintiffs maintain that the requirement that the opt-in plaintiffs complete the questionnaire, without consultation of counsel, prior to joining the suit would discourage participation and be inconsistent with 29 U.S.C. § 216 and the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
Rejecting the defendant’s request to include the detailed questionnaire in the notice package, the court explained:
The Court has thoroughly considered the parties’ positions and the applicable case law on this issue. At the hearing, Wyndham’s counsel relied heavily upon Rosenberg v. University of Cincinnati, 118 F.R.D. 591 (S.D.Ohio 1987), which he argued supported Wyndham’s position that obtaining discovery before a litigant opts in is acceptable. Initially, the Court finds that Wyndham’s reliance on an almost thirty-year-old case indicates that the use of the questionnaires is not as common place as Wyndham would have the Court believe. Second, the Court finds that Rosenberg devoted almost no discussion to the issue before the Court. The court in Rosenberg addressed the defendant’s motion to decertify a class of female faculty members. Id. at 591–96. The only mention of a questionnaire in Rosenberg is in the court’s description of the case’s procedural posture and its rulings, id. at 491–92, and where the court explained the procedure for decertifying the class, stating:
In the present case, on Defendants’ motion (Doc. # 60), notice of the class action was sent to women employed in faculty positions at the University of Cincinnati at any time between July 15, 1974 and December 15, 1977 by the Plaintiff. See Doc. # 66. Answered questionnaires which accompanied that notice were to be returned to the Clerk of Courts. See Entry of April 23, 1981 (Doc. # 65). Accordingly, because members of the former class who returned the questionnaires received notice of the initial class certification and may have relied upon being included in that class, the Court hereby orders that the Clerk of Courts send the notice of the decertification of this class action attached hereto to all individuals who returned the questionnaire by ordinary mail. Id. at 596–97. This Court cannot find that this factual statement about a questionnaire having been sent, without any discussion of the particular circumstances of the case and the basis for sending the questionnaire, is persuasive authority in the instant case.
Instead, the Court finds the well-reasoned opinion in McCarthy v. Paine Webber Group, Inc., 164 F.R.D. 309 (D.Conn.1995), which directly addresses whether a questionnaire could be sent to potential class members, to be persuasive on this issue. The court in McCarthy reasoned that requiring potential class members to complete a form during the initial notice stage was contrary to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Id. at 313. This Court finds that the questionnaire proposed here would constitute an equally unacceptable condition precedent to joining the collective action, which is not consistent with 29 U.S.C. § 216.
The Court finds that the questions proposed by Wyndham are inappropriate. For example, Wyndham asks the opt-in plaintiffs to state every date on which the person failed to clock-in on time and the amount of time that was worked but underreported. Similarly, the questionnaire calls upon the opt-in plaintiffs to state every time that they were underpaid, who underpaid them, and the amount by which they were underpaid. Ordering an opt-in plaintiff to answer such questions without counsel and prior to joining this suit would be contrary to Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and unfair to the litigant. Moreover, questions like whether the person is currently employed by Wyndham and their prior positions with Wyndham can easily be answered by Wyndham itself once the opt-in form is received, without need for the opt-in plaintiff to provide such information through a questionnaire. Finally, the Court finds that the twenty questions, with multiple sub-parts, proposed by Wyndham are unduly burdensome given that discovery has not yet commenced in this case.
The Court also finds that the questionnaire takes an unacceptably harsh tone in threatening that incorrect or incomplete answers may constitute perjury or have a preclusive effect. The questionnaire states: “Please answer the following questions fully and completely to the best of your knowledge. If a full and complete answer will not fit in the space provided, you must be sure to add additional pages, as necessary, to ensure a full and complete answer.” [Doc. 89–1 at 8]. The questionnaire concludes by stating, “Pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1746, I hereby declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.” [Id. at 13]. The Court finds that these warnings and the threat of penalty of perjury are unacceptable in this case, where Wyndham proposes that these questions be answered without the benefit of advice of counsel and prior to complying with Rule 26 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. At the hearing, counsel for Wyndham could not cite the Court to any case law supporting the service of such a questionnaire with threat of penalty of perjury.
For these reasons, the court denied the defendant’s request in this regard.
Click Pierce v. Wyndham Vacation Resorts, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum and Order.
Courts Reach Different Conclusions Regarding Whether FLSA Plaintiffs Should Be Allowed to Proceed Anonymously Under Pseudonyms
Although the issue comes up from time to time, there are few decisions discussing whether FLSA plaintiffs and opt-in plaintiffs may proceed with their claims anonymously notwithstanding the federal rules of civil procedure’s requirement that each party identify itself and the FLSA’s requirement under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) that any person wishing to participate in a collective action file a consent to join. As discussed here, two recent decisions took up this issue and reached different results, with one court in California permitting exotic dancers to proceed under pseudonyms, while a court in New York denied a similar motion on behalf of “white collar” worker at Bloomberg.
N.D.Cal.: Exotic Dancer Met Burden to Proceed Anonymously
In the first case, the plaintiffs, a putative class of exotic dancers, requested that they be able to proceed under pseudonyms and the court granted their motion. The plaintiffs ask the court to do two things: First, to allow them to proceed under “Jane Roe” pseudonyms; and, second, to allow future plaintiffs to join this suit by filing their FLSA consents under seal. (ECF No. 17 at 1.) (Plaintiffs in FLSA collective suits must affirmatively “opt in” by filing consent forms. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).). Noting that filing consents under seal was unnecessary in light of the order allowing each of the plaintiffs to use pseudonyms the court denied the second branch of plaintiffs’ motion.
The court applied a balancing test to reach its holding:
The plaintiffs express a legitimate concern for their privacy and, more compelling for the anonymity analysis, an understandable fear of social stigmatization. The Ninth Circuit has recognized that courts grant anonymity where it is needed to “preserve privacy in a matter of sensitive and highly personal nature.” Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1068 (quoting James v. Jacobson, 6 F.3d 233, 238 (4th Cir.1993)). “In this circuit,” consequently, “we allow parties to use pseudonyms” where this is “necessary” to “protect a person from … ridicule or personal embarrassment.” Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1067–68 (emphasis added).
Arguing against pseudonymity, SFBSC points to 4 Exotic Dancers v. Spearmint Rhino, No. 08–4038, 2009 WL 250054 (C.D.Cal. Jan. 29, 2009). (See ECF No. 19 at 4–5.) The plaintiffs in that case—who, as the case’s name suggests, were also exotic dancers—were denied anonymity where, in SFBSC’s view, they gave the “same reasons” for withholding their real names as the present plaintiffs. (Id. at 4.) SFBSC calls 4 Exotic Dancers “indistinguishable” from this case. (Id.)
The court does not agree that 4 Exotic Dancers compels the denial of anonymity here. That decision does not reflect how this district has understood the law of anonymity. The court in 4 Exotic Dancers cited a decision of this district, Doe v. Rostker, 89 F.R.D. 158 (N.D.Cal.1981), for the proposition that “some embarrassment or economic harm is not enough” to justify anonymity. See
4 Exotic Dancers, 2009 WL 250054, at *3 (citing Rostker, 89 F.R.D. at 162). SFBSC cites Rostker for the same idea. (ECF No. 19 at 3.) But Rostker itself distinguishes those insufficient fears (“some embarrassment or economic harm”) from the following, which justify anonymity:
A plaintiff should be permitted to proceed anonymously in cases where a substantial privacy interest is involved. The most compelling situations involve matters which are highly sensitive, such as social stigmatization …. That the plaintiff may suffer some embarrassment or economic harm is not enough. Rostker, 89 F.R.D. at 162 (emphases added). This district has thus considered “social stigmatization” among the “most compelling” reasons for permitting anonymity. This is consistent with the Ninth Circuit’s instruction in Advanced Textile that anonymity is permitted where the subject matter of a case is “sensitive and highly personal,” and where disclosing a party’s identity threatens to subject them to “harassment, … ridicule or personal embarrassment.” See Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1067–68.
The plaintiffs have identified an adequate threat of personal embarrassment and social stigmatization that, under Advanced Textile, militates for allowing them to proceed under Jane Roe pseudonyms. To the extent that 4 Exotic Dancers points to a different conclusion, the court respectfully disagrees with that decision.
This case moreover falls into what may be roughly called the area of human sexuality. As SFBSC recognizes (see ECF No. 19 at 4–5), courts have often allowed parties to use pseudonyms when a case involves topics in this “sensitive and highly personal” area. The most famous case of this sort—which, however, did not address the question of pseudonymity—is certainly Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 93 S.Ct. 705, 35 L.Ed.2d 147 (1973). But there are many others. E.g., United States v. Doe, 488 F.3d 1154, 1155 n. 1 (9th Cir.2007) (allowing defendant convicted of producing child pornography to use pseudonym); Doe v. Megless, 654 F.3d 404, 408 (3rd Cir.2011) (“Examples of areas where courts have allowed pseudonyms include … abortion, … transexuality … and homosexuality.”) (quotation omitted) (cited by SFBSC at ECF No. 19 at 4–5); John Doe 140 v. Archdiocese of Portland, 249 F.R.D. 358, 361 (D.Or.2008) (plaintiff alleging that he was sexually abused as minor allowed to proceed anonymously); Doe v. United Serv. Life Ins. Co., 123 F.R.D. 437 (S.D.N.Y.1988) (sexual orientation); Doe v. Deschamps, 64 F.R.D. 652 (D.Mont.1974) (abortion; collecting older cases).
The court does not mean to equate the various specific topics that these cases subtend. A broad brush will do: For purposes of the anonymity discussion, it is enough to observe that courts have regularly responded to the especially sensitive nature of this area and have been willing to grant parties anonymity. The same judicial instinct should apply here. SFBSC’s contention that the business of nude and semi-nude dancing “simply does not fall within” the field of “sexuality” (ECF No. 19 at 5) is unconvincing.
The court also reasoned that each of the dancers faced a real potential harm, should they be compelled to disclose their actual identities:
The court must also consider the plaintiffs’ claim that disclosing their identities would subject them to potential harm, both physical and with regard to their careers. (See ECF No. 17 at 3–4.) The Ninth Circuit has again provided guidance: “[I]n cases where, as here, pseudonyms are used to shield the anonymous party from retaliation, the district court should determine the need for anonymity by evaluating the following factors: (1) the severity of the threatened harm, (2) the reasonableness of the anonymous party’s fears; and (3) the anonymous party’s vulnerability to such retaliation.” Advanced Textile, 214 F.3d at 1068. The plaintiffs “are not required to prove that the defendants intend to carry out the threatened retaliation. What is relevant is that plaintiffs were threatened, and that a reasonable person would believe that the threat might actually be carried out.” Id. at 1071. While this language specifically addresses career retaliation by an employer defendant, its terms and concerns usefully frame the general question of whether a plaintiff seeking anonymity faces any harm. The latter is, again, a recognized basis for granting anonymity. E.g., id. at 1068 (anonymity is allowed where identification “creates a risk of … physical or mental harm”); Doe, 655 F.2d at 922 n. 1 (using pseudonyms where informant “faced a serious risk of bodily harm”).
The plaintiffs express reasonable concerns that disclosing their identities would threaten them with both career and possibly physical harm. (ECF No. 17 at 3–4.) For such “privacy and personal[-]safety reasons,” they explain, at SFBSC’s nightclubs, “it is customary for the exotic dancers to use … stage names.” (Id. at 3.) SFBSC does not deny this: either the practice or its rationale. Finally, SFBSC has “agree[d] that that the public disclosure of an exotic dancer’s true identity presents substantial risk of harm.” (ECF No. 26 at 12 (emphasis added).) This consideration favors allowing the plaintiffs to proceed pseudonymously.
Finally, the court concluded that any potential prejudice to the defendants and right to judicial access was outweighed by the potential harm the plaintiffs faced. Thus, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion.
Click Jane Roes 1-2 v. SFBSC Management, LLC to read the entire Order on Anonymity & Sealing.
S.D.N.Y.: White Collar Worker Suing Bloomberg Failed to Meet Burden to Proceed Anonymously
In the second case, the plaintiff was willing to provide his real name to Bloomberg, but refused to do so absent an agreement from Bloomberg to keep his name confidential. Thus, by his motion, the plaintiff requested that the court permit the plaintiff to proceed pseudonymously, and plaintiff additionally asked that; (1) plaintiff’s identity be filed under seal with the court; (2) plaintiff’s name, address, and other identifying information be supplied to Bloomberg; and (3) Bloomberg be directed not to disclose plaintiff’s identity or make negative public remarks concerning plaintiff. Holding that the plaintiff had failed to meet his burden of proof to warrant the requested relief, the court denied plaintiff’s motion.
In opposition, Bloomberg argued that plaintiff’s privacy concerns were too vague and that plaintiff’s request was contrary to the written notice requirement of 216(b) of the FLSA. The court agreed and reasoned:
Bloomberg has the better of the argument. Under Rule 10(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, a complaint must “name all the parties.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(a). “This requirement, though seemingly pedestrian, serves the vital purpose of facilitating public scrutiny of judicial proceedings and therefore cannot be set aside lightly.” Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 188–89 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotations omitted). The use of pseudonyms “runs afoul of the public’s common law right of access to judicial proceedings, a right that is supported by the First Amendment.” Doe v. Del Rio, 241 F.R.D. 154, 156 (S.D.N.Y.2006) (internal quotations omitted); see also Doe I v. Four Bros. Pizza, No. 13 CV 1505 VB, 2013 WL 6083414, at *9–10 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 19, 2013) (rejecting FLSA plaintiffs’ request for anonymity despite threat of retaliation from employer).
The court applied a similar balancing of interests test as the court in the Jane Roe case, but reached the opposite conclusion on the facts before it:
The Court has balanced plaintiff’s possible interest in anonymity against the potential prejudice to defendants and the public’s interest in disclosure, and concludes that the factors weigh in favor of denying plaintiff’s motion. There is no issue here of physical retaliation or mental harm against plaintiff. Nor is this the type of unusual case involving matters of a highly sensitive or personal nature—i.e., claims involving sexual orientation, pregnancy, or minor children—in which courts have justified anonymous plaintiffs proceeding pseudonymously. To depart in this case from the general requirement of disclosure would be to hold that nearly any plaintiff bringing a lawsuit against an employer would have a basis to proceed pseudonymously. The court declines to reach such a holding.
The court also rejected plaintiff’s middle ground position that he be permitted to disclose his identity to Bloomberg, under the condition that they maintain same confidentiality, in the name of judicial access.
Click Michael v. Bloomberg L.P. to read the entire Opinion.
D.Nev.: Statute of Limitations Tolled for Employees Who Opted Into First-Filed Case Where Conditional Certification Was Denied (and Their Consents Were Dismissed)
Orduna v. Champion Drywall, Inc.
This case was before the court on multiple motions, including plaintiff’s motion for tolling the statute of limitations. As discussed here, the precise issue before the court was what effect, if any, a plaintiff’s consent to join—filed in a prior lawsuit where conditional certification was ultimately denied, and such consent was dismissed—has on such opt-in’s statute of limitations. Electing to treat the motion as one for equitable tolling, the court held that such circumstances amounted to “extraordinary circumstances” such that equitable tolling was warranted. However, the court tolling the statute of limitations only for such time that the consent to join was filed with the court in the prior case, prior to dismissal.
The court reasoned, in part:
Plaintiffs assert that because they filed their consents to sue in a timely manner in Champion I, the statute of limitations for those claims should be equitably tolled to the date on which each plaintiff filed his or her consent. Defendants argue that plaintiffs’ motion should be denied or, in the alternative, tolling should only apply from the date that each plaintiff filed his or her consent until the date of the court’s denial of certification in Champion I on March 27, 2012. The court agrees with defendants’ latter position…
Upon decertification of the collective [action], therefore, it is critical to preserve opt-in plaintiffs’ ability to timely file individual actions.” Sliger v. Prospect Mortgage, LLC, 2012 WL 6005711 (E.D.Cal. Nov.30, 2012).
The Ninth Circuit has recognized the doctrine of equitable tolling of an FLSA claim. Partlow v. Lewis Orphans’ Home, Inc., 645 F.2d 757, 760 (9th Cir.1981), abrogated on other grounds, Hoffman–La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). Such tolling “applies when the plaintiff is prevented from asserting a claim by wrongful conduct on the part of the defendant, or when extraordinary circumstances beyond the plaintiff’s control made it impossible to file a claim on time.” Id. at 60. The doctrine of equitable tolling preserves a plaintiff’s claims when strict application of the statue of limitations would be inequitable. See United States v. Patterson, 211 F.3d 927, 930 (5th Cir.2000). Equitable tolling applies only in “rare and exceptional circumstances,” Teemac v. Henderson, 298 F.3d 452, 457 (5th Cir.2002), and should be applied sparingly. Steed v. Head, 219 F.3d 1298, 1300 (11th Cir.2000).
Applying this reasoning, the court granted the plaintiffs’ motion. However, it limited tolling to the period of time in during which the opt-ins’ consents had been filed in the prior case:
Here, plaintiffs have not shown that the statute of limitations should be equitably tolled past the court’s denial of certification in Champion I. Plaintiffs claim that they did not know that the court would not grant the collective certification in that case, and that to preserve their rights, each plaintiff in a collective action would have to file individual actions at the same time they filed their consents to sue. The failure to predict the outcome of a motion for collective certification is experienced by each FLSA collective action litigant, and the possibility that diligence would be required in the filing of an individual claim if a collective action was denied or de-certified neither amounts to extraordinary circumstances nor a situation out of a plaintiff’s control.
Click Orduna v. Champion Drywall, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
E.D.N.Y.: Named-Plaintiff’s Failure to File Consent to Join Not Fatal to Collective Action, Where Defendants Acknowledged Intent to Proceed as Collective Action in Answer and Plaintiff Filed Sworn Affidavit
Ahmed v. T.J. Maxx Corp.
This case was before the court on the plaintiff’s motion to conditionally authorize a collective action, pursuant to Section 216 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201 et seq. As discussed here, the court held that the plaintiff had “commenced” his FLSA case for the purposes of serving as the representative plaintiff in a collective action, notwithstanding his initial failure to file a formal consent to join, as required by 216(b), by virtue of the defendant’s admissions regarding same in their answer and the fact that plaintiff filed an sworn (signed) affidavit in support of his motion.
Discussing the issue, the court explained:
Defendants maintain, as an initial matter, that Ahmed’s case cannot proceed as a collective action because Ahmed himself has not filed a consent form as required by section 216(b) of the FLSA. (Defendant’s Memorandum of Law in Opposition to Plaintiff’s Motion for Conditional Certification, hereinafter “Def. Mem. of Law in Opp’n”, at 19.) It is defendant’s position that the FLSA requires a plaintiff—even a named plaintiff—to opt-in to his or her own action in order to proceed as a collective action. (Id.)
Although the cases upon which defendants rely provide that all plaintiffs must affirmatively opt in to a suit in order to proceed as part of a collective action, see, e.g. Gonzalez v. El Acajutla Restaurant, Inc., No. 04 Civ. 1513, 2007 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 19690, at *14–15 (E.D.N.Y. Mar. 20, 2007), courts in this Circuit have held that the FLSA itself does not require such written consent in order for a plaintiff to file a motion for conditional certification, see, e.g. Aros v. United Rentals, Inc., 269 F.R.D. 176, 181 (D.Conn.2010) (“The court concludes that denying the Motion for Conditional Certification … would undermine the FLSA’s broad remedial purpose”). Moreover, “[t]he purpose of this consent requirement … is to put the Defendants on notice, which many courts have noted is somewhat redundant with regard to named plaintiffs,” particularly when the named plaintiff has submitted sworn affidavits to the court, participated in depositions, and otherwise taken necessary action to pursue his claims and demonstrate that he “intends to participate in the lawsuit.” D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc., No. 11 Civ. 33, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 49788, at *6–7, 10–11 (D.Conn. Apr. 9, 2012).
Given that defendants expressly acknowledged, in their answer, that Ahmed purports to bring this action “pursuant to FLSA, 20 U.S.C.s. 216(b), on behalf of ‘Assistant Mangers’ employed in T.J. Maxx stores” (see Answer at ¶ 8), it cannot be said that defendants lacked notice of Ahmed’s consent, nor can it be said that defendants were unaware of Ahmed’s intent to pursue his claims as part of a collective action, particularly as Ahmed has already participated in a deposition and has submitted an affidavit in support of the instant motion. Consequently, while the form of Ahmed’s consent may not have strictly adhered to the preferred standard in FLSA collective actions, the substance of Ahmed’s complaint and his conduct throughout the discovery process was sufficient to satisfy the purpose of the written consent requirement. Furthermore, since defendants first raised this issue, Ahmed has filed a formal written consent with the Court. At this point, Ahmed is in compliance with not only the spirit, but also the letter of the written consent requirement. Thus, this Court finds that defendants had sufficient notice of Ahmed’s intent to proceed with a collective action, and this Court will therefore consider Ahmed’s request for conditional certification as a collective action on its merits.
Click Ahmed v. T.J. Maxx Corp. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.
While this case is certainly helpful to practitioners in the situation where the named-plaintiff has not filed a consent to join, as a practical matter (especially in courts outside of the Second Circuit), the best practice is to file a consent to join on behalf of all plaintiffs and opt-in plaintiffs, including the named-plaintiffs, to avoid the necessity of even addressing this issue. Further, it should be noted that even in this case, the named-plaintiff ultimately did file a consent to join, after the issue had been raised by the defendants in their opposition to his motion for conditional certification.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Within days of the Ahmed decision, another court- this one in the Eleventh Circuit- was faced with a similar issue. In that case the plaintiff had actually styled his complaint as an individual claim, excluding language that he sought to proceed on a collective action basis. Nonetheless, the court held that the defendants had adequate notice of plaintiff’s intent to proceed as a collective action, and ultimately granted plaintiff’s motion for conditional certification. See Hogan v. Allstate Beverage Co., Inc., 2012 WL 6027748, at *5 (M.D. Ala. Dec. 4, 2012).
M.D.Tenn.: Defendants’ Request to Have Putative Class Opt Into Specific Claims, As Opposed to the Case as a Whole Rejected
Ware v. T-Mobile USA
This case was before the court following an order that conditionally certified the case as a collective action. The plaintiffs alleged that they performed uncompensated work prior to the commencement of their shifts and during their unpaid meal breaks. They also alleged that the defendant underpaid employees by failing to include certain required payments in the regular rate of pay when it calculated overtime. The plaintiffs claim that, by failing to compensate employees for pre-shift work and work performed during unpaid meal breaks and by miscalculating the regular rate of pay, the defendant violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). In the Memorandum Opinion in which it conditionally certified the case, the court also ordered the parties to confer and attempt to submit agreed-upon-notice and consent forms. Whereas the plaintiffs proposed a relatively basic consent to join form, the defendant took the position that each opt-in plaintiff should be required to specifically opt-in to one or both of the specific claims alleged by the plaintiffs. Rejecting the defendant’s proposed approach and adopting that of the plaintiffs- whereby opt-ins could simply opt into the case as a whole- the court explained:
T–Mobile urges the court to adopt its proposed consent form. It asserts that the form merely attempts to obtain otherwise discoverable information from the opt-in plaintiffs concerning the specific claims they intend to assert. (Docket No. 108, at 2–3.) T–Mobile adds that gaining this information from the consent form will reduce the costs of written discovery. (Id. at 3.)
The plaintiffs raise numerous objections to T–Mobile’s proposed consent form. Chief among them is that the form is contrary to the plain language of the FLSA. (Docket No. 111, at 2.) The remaining objections raised by the plaintiffs include that T–Mobile: (1) is attempting to re-litigate the issue of conditional certification through the questions contained in its proposed consent form; (2) seeks information from opt-in plaintiffs lacking the benefit of counsel that is properly obtainable through discovery; and (3) urges the approval of a consent form that will confuse opt-in plaintiffs. (Docket No. 111, at 5–6, 8–13.) The plaintiffs thus request that the court adopt their proposed consent form, as they contend that it is clear, concise, and lacks any misleading information. (Docket No. 111, at 7–8.)
Having considered the parties’ contentions, the court finds that the text of the FLSA’s statutory provisions settles the instant dispute. The relevant provision provides, in pertinent part, that:
An action to recover the liability prescribed in either of the preceding sentences may be maintained against any employer … in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated. No employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). The plain language of this statutory text expressly provides that, in filing a written consent form, an opt-in plaintiff joins an action to redress his or employer’s statutory liability. Indeed, Section 216(b) lacks any requirement that opt-in plaintiffs consent to join specific claims within the broader action.
In Prickett v. Dekalb County, 349 F.3d 1294, 1297 (11th Cir.2003), the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted the aforementioned statutory text in the same manner. The issue before the court in that case concerned whether opt-in plaintiffs were required to submit new consent forms after the named plaintiffs added a claim to the original complaint. Prickett, 349 F.3d at 1296. In concluding that the filing of new consent forms was not required, the Eleventh Circuit commenced its analysis by examining the text of 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). Id. at 1296–97. It noted that the plain language of Section 216(b) “indicates that plaintiffs do not opt-in or consent to join an action as to specific claims, but as to the action as a whole.” Id. at 1297 (emphasis added). The Eleventh Circuit added that, by referring to opt-in plaintiffs as “party plaintiffs,” “Congress indicated that opt-in plaintiffs should have the same status in relation to the claims of the lawsuit as do the named plaintiffs.” Id. See also Fengler v. Crouse Health Sys., Inc., 634 F.Supp.2d 257, 262–63 (N.D.N.Y.2009) (citing Prickett for this proposition and vacating a Magistrate Judge’s decision to include a paragraph in the consent form that limited the opt-in plaintiffs’ claims to only one of two asserted in the complaint).
After rejecting the defendant’s attempt o distinguish Prickett and Fengler, the court reasoned:
In the instant case, T–Mobile’s proposed consent form compels opt-in plaintiffs to make a decision that the FLSA does not mandate, that is, it requires them to select the specific claims they wish to assert. T–Mobile can readily obtain information concerning such claims after the opt-in plaintiffs have joined this action by using any one of the discovery devices contained in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Indeed, in correspondence exchanged between the parties’ counsel prior to the filing of the proposed consent forms, counsel for T–Mobile acknowledged the availability of targeted interrogatories as a means of ascertaining the specific claims each opt-in plaintiff plans to assert in this lawsuit. (Docket No. 115, Ex. E.) In any event, because T–Mobile’s proposed consent form fails to comply with the FLSA’s express requirements, the court declines to approve it for delivery to members of the nationwide conditional class.
Click Ware v. T-Mobile USA to read the entire Memorandum and Order.
D.Conn.: Although Named Plaintiff Must File Consent to Join, Affidavit Submitted in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss Satisfied Consent Requirement
D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc.
This case was before the court on defendant’s motion for summary judgment. The defendant contended that the case should be dismissed, due to plaintiff’s failure to file a written consent to join within the relevant 3 year statute of limitations, as required by the FLSA. The case revolved around the somewhat novel issue of whether a named Plaintiff, who fails to file a written consent to join her own FLSA case, can nonetheless be deemed to have satisfied the consent requirement, by virtue of filing a written affidavit with the court that states her intention to proceed with an FLSA claim in court. Here, the court found that, on the facts presented, it was a close call. However, in line with the remedial purposes of the FLSA, the court agreed that plaintiff “consented” to join her FLSA case when she filed a prior affidavit in opposition to defendant’s motion to dismiss, because it was written evidence of her intention to participate in the case.
Framing the issue before it, the court explained:
The question presented is whether Mr. Cruz’s signed March 11, 2011 affidavit, attached as an exhibit to Plaintiffs’ response in opposition to a motion to dismiss, constitutes a signed, written consent filed with the court. In full, the only possibly relevant statement provides: “Given my current financial circumstances and my understanding of the costs associated with arbitration, I cannot afford to arbitrate my claims and I could not afford to undertake this litigation and pursue my rights if I had the risk of paying the Defendants’ costs if I lost at arbitration.” Pls.’ Mem. in Opp’n [doc. # 26–4] Ex. D ¶ 9 (Decl. of Ramona Cruz). At the time it was filed, Ms. Cruz was one of three named plaintiffs in this suit. All of the three named plaintiffs submitted signed affidavits with final paragraphs substantially similar to the text quoted above. See Pls.’ Mem. in Opp’n [docs. # 26–2, 26–3] Ex. B ¶ 13 (Decl. of Nicole D’Antuono), Ex. C ¶ 12 (Decl. of Karen Vilnit).
Discussing the authority cited by the parties, the court found no case to be on all fours with the facts presented:
The Court has located no dispositive precedent or closely analogous case. The cases most often cited by the parties are all distinguishable on the facts. See, e.g., Manning, 2011 WL 4583776, at *2–3 (finding that named plaintiff who had submitted a signed declaration stating ” ‘I am the named Plaintiff in this action’ ” and describing the facts of the litigation had met the consent requirement, but that named plaintiffs who had been deposed but had submitted no signed documents did not); Perkins, 2009 WL 3754097, at *3 n. 2 (holding that named plaintiff who submitted a signed declaration in support of a motion for class certification describing her job duties and stating that she ” ‘did not release any claims relating to unpaid overtime wages which are the subject of this litigation’ … insufficient to demonstrate her desire to take part in this action as a plaintiff”); Mendez, 260 F.R.D. at 52 (finding that named plaintiff who had submitted a signed affirmation in support of a motion for class certification stating ” ‘I am the Named Plaintiff in the above-captioned matter’ ” sufficient to meet the consent requirement).
Holding that plaintiff’s prior affidavit satisfied the requirement that all plaintiffs file a consent to join, the court reasoned:
Defendants’ arguments on the facts of prior cases are not convincing. It is irrelevant that Ms. Cruz does not explicitly claim to be a named plaintiff in the action; furthermore, the caption on her signed declaration states as much. Additionally, the fact that her declaration was submitted in response to a motion to dismiss, rather than in support of a motion for class certification, carries little weight. While a declaration attached to a motion for class certification may bolster a plaintiff’s argument that the declaration was meant to serve as a notice of consent, the inverse is not true.
Instead, the Court must determine, as a matter of law, whether Ms. Cruz’s signed declaration manifests a clear intent to be a party plaintiff. This question is a close one, and one which would not have arisen had Ms. Cruz’s counsel simply ensured that a written consent form was filed along with the complaint. Despite this lapse, the Court reads Ms. Cruz’s affidavit broadly as implicitly verifying the complaint, expressing an interest that legal action be taken to protect her rights, and expressing an interest in being a party plaintiff. See Manning, 2011 WL 4583776, at *3; Perkins, 2009 WL 3754097, at *3 n. 2; Mendez, 260 F.R.D. at 52. Unlike the plaintiff in Perkins, Ms. Cruz has expressed an interest not only in preserving her legal claims, but in “undertak[ing] this litigation and pursu[ing her] rights.” Pls.’ Mem. in Opp’n [doc. # 26–4] Ex. D ¶ 9 (Decl. of Ramona Cruz). Furthermore, while participation in a deposition is not dispositive or sufficient for the notice requirement, see Manning, 2011 WL 4583776, at *3, the Court finds that the fact that Ms. Cruz has already willingly undergone a lengthy deposition relevant in the evaluation of whether she intended to participate in this case. Finally, the Court notes that the two potential purposes of the notice requirement-ensuring both that the Defendants are aware of all potential plaintiffs and that each individual plaintiff intends to participate in the lawsuit—are both satisfied.
Thus, the court concluded that plaintiff’s affidavit was sufficient to meet the notice requirement. Moreover, since the affidavit was filed within the three year statute of limitations, the court determined that plaintiff had satisfied the notice or consent requirement of the FLSA.
Click D’Antuono v. C & G of Groton, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum of Decision.