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11th Cir.: Defendant May Not Moot an Individual or Class Claim By Serving Offer of Judgment on Named Plaintiffs

Stein v. Buccaneers Ltd. Partnership

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.

Click Stein v. Buccaneers Ltd. Partnership to read the entire decision, and Collado v. J. & G. Transport, Inc. to read that decision.

E.D.N.Y.: In the Context of Litigation, Where Plaintiff Represented by Counsel, Court Approval of Accepted OJ Not Required

Picerni v. Bilingual Seit & Preschool Inc.

This case was before the Court on the Plaintiff’s motion to approve settlement, following his acceptance of an offer of judgment tendered by defendant pursuant to Rule 68. Although the plaintiff brought the case as a putative collective action, the accepted offer of judgment purported to resolve the case on an individual basis. Prior to the defendant having answered or appeared in the case, the plaintiff filed a notice of acceptance of an offer of judgment that defendant had made under Fed.R.Civ.P. 68. The offer of judgment provided that the case would be settled on an individual basis (not as a collective or class action) for $5000 payable to plaintiff, plus attorney’s fees of $4590, “which represents 7.65 hours at $600 an hour.” The court initially declined to enter judgment under Rule 68, instead issuing an order requiring the parties to seek the court’s approval of the settlement. Subsequently, the plaintiff complied with the October 19th Order, and filed a motion in an effort to explain that the settlement and his attorney’s fees had a reasonable basis. Upon consideration of the motion it had initially required however, the court essentially reversed itself, and in a lengthy opinion held that under the circumstances of the case- where the employee had filed a lawsuit and was represented by counsel- the parties’ private settlement of the claims did not require judicial approval.

Initially, the court discussed longstanding United States Supreme Court jurisprudence holding that employees cannot enter binding settlements waiving their rights under the FLSA, absent a showing there was a “bona fide dispute.”

Comparing the case before it the court reasoned the situation was not that contemplated by the Supreme Court, because the plaintiff had filed a lawsuit and was represented by counsel:

Curiously, however, none of the cases expressly consider the issue presented in this case, and that is presented in many others before me—settlement of a claim after the FLSA case has been commenced, i.e., a “private” settlement occurring in the context of a public lawsuit, where neither side invites, and in some cases, one or both sides actually resist, the Court’s determination of whether the settlement is fair and reasonable.

When an employer chooses to resolve an FLSA claim without pending litigation, or merely “under threat of suit” as opposed to actual suit, it is obviously taking a reasoned gamble. If the employee later sues notwithstanding the release, the employer may find itself in front of a court that simply disregards the release because it was not previously approved by a court or the Department of Labor. There are at least several reasons why an employer might take this risk: (1) it may be confident that it had a bona fide dispute with the employee; that the release fairly compromises that dispute; and that it will therefore be upheld; or (2) the employer may conclude that as a practical matter, the risk of the settling employee bringing a subsequent suit is small enough in relation to the amount paid as to warrant the settlement; or (3) the employer may not want the settlement publicized among other employees who may well want the same remedial treatment, and therefore may take the risk of subsequent litigation with the settling employee to reduce the likelihood of suit by other employees. The case law cited above, for the most part, involves employers who made these kinds of judgment calls, and when the releases have been subsequently challenged, the courts have either approved them or not.

In the cases before this Court, an employer rarely makes a different analysis just because the case is pending. In other words, the factors that compel parties to settle before litigation is commenced, notwithstanding the possibility that a release that an employer receives will be ineffective, often seem to be equally compelling in reaching a settlement once the litigation is commenced. Except in the less frequent context of a settled class action under the state supplemental claims or a collective action with a substantial number of opt-in plaintiffs, I have never had an employer ask me to conduct a fairness hearing so that it has the protection of a court-approved release. To the contrary, the usual context is the one I am seeing here—no participation by the employer at all, not even an appearance. In the usual case, I merely receive advice from plaintiff’s counsel that the case is over, either by a notice of voluntary dismissal under Rule 41 or a letter saying the same thing (often received the day before the scheduled initial status conference). I have then, following past practice, set the case down for a fairness hearing.

The instant case is somewhat different, but I think not materially so in terms of what steps, if any, this Court needs to take next—plaintiff has simply filed an acceptance of a Rule 68 offer of judgment. I would not even know who the attorney for the employer is but for the signature on the offer of judgment, which has been filed by plaintiff, not defendant. The employer seems quite content to have judgment entered against it, which presumably the employer will satisfy. Perhaps it views a satisfaction of judgment as more protective than a noncourt-approved release, and perhaps, with at least the possibility that a judgment will have res judicata effect where a release might not, it is. But until some court determines that there was a bona fide dispute as to how much plaintiff was owed in wages, and that the offer of judgment fairly compromises it, the employer has not eliminated its risk.

Initially the court concluded that FLSA cases are not exempt from FRCP 41, which permits parties to stipulate to dismissal:

I cannot agree with the largely unstated assumption in the cases that refuse to allow voluntary dismissals that the FLSA falls within the “applicable federal statute” exception to the Rule. Nothing in Brooklyn Savings, Gangi, or any of their reasoned progeny expressly holds that the FLSA is one of those Rule 41–exempted statutes. For it is one thing to say that a release given to an employer in a private settlement will not, under certain circumstances, be enforced in subsequent litigation—that is the holding of Brooklyn Savings and Gangi—it is quite another to say that even if the parties want to take their chances that their settlement will not be effective, the Court will not permit them to do so.

The court then went on to examine Lynn’s Food and distinguished the case from the facts before it:

I believe Lynn’s Food should be confined to its rather egregious facts. Not only did the employer settle on the cheap with unsophisticated employees, but it circumvented the DOL’s investigation in doing so, and then had the audacity to seek a judicial imprimatur validating its aggressive strategy. A narrower reading of Lynn’s Food would be that if the proposed settlement would never have been approved if presented in the context of a pending litigation, then it cannot be approved in a subsequent litigation. In contrast, had the employer paid 100% of the maximum to which the employees might have been entitled plus liquidated damages in a bona fide dispute, the broad language used by the Eleventh Circuit might well have been unnecessary. Indeed, the Eleventh Circuit has recently expressed a similar view. See Dionne v. Floormasters Enterprises, Inc., 667 F.3d 1199 (11th Cir.2012) (if the employer tenders 100% of the unpaid wages claimed by the employee, plus liquidated damages, even while denying liability, the case is moot and no fairness hearing is necessary, nor is the employee a prevailing party entitled to an attorney’s fee). It is hard to conceive of any reason why, if a court is presented with an eminently reasonable, albeit after-the-fact, settlement, it is precluded from giving it legal effect. That is essentially what the Fifth Circuit held recently in upholding a private settlement, distinguishing Lynn’s Food because of its one-sided facts. See Martin v. Spring Break ’83 Productions, L.L .C., 688 F.3d 247, 253–256 & n. 10 (5th Cir.2012).

More importantly, Lynn’s Food does not expressly address the issue of whether parties can voluntarily withdraw a case under Rule 41. It does not preclude the plaintiff or the parties from proceeding unilaterally or bilaterally, depending on the timing, from withdrawing a case and taking their, principally the employer’s, chances in effectuating a settlement without court approval. It simply says, like all of the cases in this area, that the courts will not recognize an unreasonable FLSA settlement, whether the settlement is asserted by the employer as a defense in the settling employee’s subsequent suit, or, as in Lynn’s Food, as the basis for declaratory relief in an action that the employer has brought. Lynn’s Food thus does not dispose of the issue of whether parties in a pending action can voluntarily dismiss the case without any judicial assurances if that is what they want to do.

Recognizing the risks of unsupervised settlements of FLSA cases, the court said:

This is not to say that there is an absence of arguably undesirable consequences in allowing private settlements of FLSA litigation without court oversight. As noted above, in the typical cases I have, like this one, where private resolutions are reached and judicial scrutiny is neither sought nor desired, the case is brought as a collective action but resolved before a collective action notice has gone out to other employees. Although one employee, the named plaintiff, has presumably benefitted to at least some extent from the private resolution, other similarly situated employees will likely not even know about it, and to the extent they have not received their minimum wages or overtime, they will be no better off. Indeed, in at least one case, I have had the employer’s attorney candidly tell me that the reason he wished to avoid a fairness hearing was to prevent other employees from learning of the settlement and seeking the same relief.

I am not suggesting that plaintiff in the instant case or his attorney, who is an experienced and well-regarded practitioner in this Court, have committed any impropriety. But the scenario is conducive to a dynamic that allows both a plaintiff and his employer—not to mention the plaintiff’s attorney, who frequently receives a fee that greatly exceeds the plaintiff’s recovery—to leverage a comparatively cheap settlement on the backs of the plaintiff’s co-employees. This obviously runs contrary to the intent of Congress in enacting the FLSA and in particular to its creation of the collective action mechanism. Using the potential of a collective action as a Sword of Damocles to extract a small settlement and a large, but still comparatively small in relation to the exposure the employer would face in a true collective action, attorney’s fee could not have been what Congress had in mind in authorizing collective actions.

The court went on to discuss issues of confidentiality (the body of law that says there should be no confidential settlements of FLSA cases because same flies in the face of the remedial nature of the statute) and dismiss the typical argument against non-supervised settlements (the threat that they may end up being settled on the cheap), ultimately recognizing that the defendant is the one that is taking a risk often where there is no approval, rather than vice versa:

The problem of non judicially approved confidentiality provisions in private settlements is resolved by the same allocation of employer risk as is the case with private settlements of FLSA claims generally—if a settling employee subsequently breaches the confidentiality provision, then the employer is going to have to try to enforce it, or seek rescission or damages for its violation. At that point, under the authorities cited above, the courts may well hold it unenforceable.

Unlike the recent Fifth Circuit case discussed here, this case does not seem to signal any significant change in longstanding jurisprudence, prohibiting (binding and enforceable) private settlements of FLSA cases. Rather, here the court simply confirmed that the parties to an FLSA case can resolve the case and circumvent the court’s approval, leaving open the question of whether such settlements are enforceable.

Click Picerni v. Bilingual Seit & Preschool Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Decision and Order.