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U.S.S.C.: Where Named Plaintiff Acknowledged That Unaccepted OJ Mooted Her Claim, Collective Action Mooted and May Not Proceed
Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk
What effect, if any, does an unaccepted “full relief” offer of judgment have on the ability of a named plaintiff to continue with his or her putative collective action claims under the FLSA? This was the question FLSA practitioners had eagerly awaited the answer of from the Supreme Court, ever since the Court accepted certiorti of the Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. However, in a decision of almost no real world value, the Court elected to dodge this question and instead answer its own hypothetical question/issue, so limited in scope, that Justice Kagan (in her dissent) points out, it has absolutely no value in practical application. For this reason, at least one practitioner surveyed regarding the opinion stated, “I don’t care about this decision at all. Really pretty meaningless.” In order to understand why such a seemingly important opinion actually means so little we must examine exactly what the Court decided and on what facts it made its decision.
As stated by the Court, its actual holding was that:
a collective action brought by single employee on behalf of herself and all similarly situated employees for employer’s alleged violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was no longer justiciable when, as conceded by plaintiff-employee, her individual claim became moot as result of offer of judgment by employer in amount sufficient to make her whole.
Describing the relevant facts the Court explained:
In 2009, respondent, who was formerly employed by petitioners as a registered nurse at Pennypack Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, filed a complaint on behalf of herself and “all other persons similarly situated.” App. 115–116. Respondent alleged that petitioners violated the FLSA by automatically deducting 30 minutes of time worked per shift for meal breaks for certain employees, even when the employees performed compensable work during those breaks. Respondent, who remained the sole plaintiff throughout these proceedings, sought statutory damages for the alleged violations.
When petitioners answered the complaint, they simultaneously served upon respondent an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68. The offer included $7,500 for alleged unpaid wages, in addition to “such reasonable attorneys’ fees, costs, and expenses … as the Court may determine.” Id., at 77. Petitioners stipulated that if respondent did not accept the offer within 10 days after service, the offer would be deemed withdrawn.
After respondent failed to respond in the allotted time period, petitioners filed a motion to dismiss for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. Petitioners argued that because they offered respondent complete relief on her individual damages claim, she no longer possessed a personal stake in the outcome of the suit, rendering the action moot. Respondent objected, arguing that petitioners were inappropriately attempting to “pick off” the named plaintiff before the collective-action process could unfold. Id., at 91.
The District Court found that it was undisputed that no other individuals had joined respondent’s suit and that the Rule 68 offer of judgment fully satisfied her individual claim. It concluded that petitioners’ Rule 68 offer of judgment mooted respondent’s suit, which it dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
Although discussed in detail by Justice Kagan in her dissent, the Court’s majority opinion, penned by Justice Thomas ignored the fact that the plaintiff actually received no money, no judgment and no settlement as a result of the unaccepted offer of judgment. Nonetheless, the Court reasoned, because the plaintiff had ostensibly stipulated at the district court that her claim was mooted by the unaccepted offer of judgment, and she had failed to cross-appeal to the Supreme Court (a decision which was entirely in her favor), the Court refused to entertain the plaintiff’s argument that the unaccepted OJ could not have mooted the case in the first place. Instead, charging ahead, under the false pretense that the unaccepted OJ had in fact mooted the plaintiff’s individual claim, the Court went on to hold that under such (imagined) circumstances, a defendant could “pick off” an FLSA collective action, where the plaintiff has not sought conditional certification of a collective action at the time he or she receives an offer of judgment that he or she acknowledges moots his or her individual claim.
While the Court’s majority went to great length to distinguish the collective action mechanism of 216(b) from the Rule 23 class action mechanism on which the reasoning of Circuit Courts have relied in reaching the opposite conclusion, the Court failed to acknowledge it was deciding an issue that was really not even before it, and in practicality unlikely to ever appear before any court ever again.
In a stinging must-read dissent Justice Kagan pointed this out and ridiculed the conservative majority for essentially wasting everyone’s time with a meaningless opinion. The Court ultimately failed to answer the real issue of interest- what effect does an unaccepted “full relief” offer of judgment have on the ability of a named-plaintiff to pursue a collective action. As Justice Kagan noted, the text of Rule 68 dictates it should have no effect at all. Pointing out that the plaintiff had actually received no recovery in the case, because the offer of judgment at issue was not accepted, Kagan went reasoned, the majority’s opinion had virtually no application outside of the contrived facts on which it was based. Kagan began:
The Court today resolves an imaginary question, based on a mistake the courts below made about this case and others like it. The issue here, the majority tells us, is whether a ” ‘ collective action’ ” brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., “is justiciable when the lone plaintiff’s individual claim becomes moot.” Ante, at ––––. Embedded within that question is a crucial premise: that the individual claim has become moot, as the lower courts held and the majority assumes without deciding. But what if that premise is bogus? What if the plaintiff’s individual claim here never became moot? And what if, in addition, no similar claim for damages will ever become moot? In that event, the majority’s decision—founded as it is on an unfounded assumption—would have no real-world meaning or application. The decision would turn out to be the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen to a proposed collective FLSA action when something that in fact never happens to an individual FLSA claim is errantly thought to have done so. That is the case here, for reasons I’ll describe. Feel free to relegate the majority’s decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: The situation it addresses should never again arise.
Although this was a case watched most by FLSA practitioners for obvious reasons, it is a case which further highlights the absurd pro-big business mentality employed by today’s conservative majority on the court. In fact, as an aside Kagan took another parting shot at the similarly limited opinion just issued by the court in the Comcast case. (In footnote 2 to her dissent, she notes, “[f]or similarly questionable deployment of this Court’s adjudicatory authority, see Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. ––––, ––––, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 1437, ––– L.Ed.2d –––– (2013) (joint opinion of GINSBURG and BREYER, JJ.) (observing in dissent that “[t]he Court’s ruling is good for this day and case only”).”).
In sum, this decision will leave practitioners scratching their heads. It is unclear what, if any, actual effect it will have on future cases. For this reason, one has to wonder- why did the Court take up the case in the first place. It would seem that absent a stipulation by a plaintiff that his or her case is mooted by a Rule 68 offer of judgment (which in fact is an impossibility) or an acceptance of such an offer of judgment, a defendant still may not moot a putative collective action with an offer of judgment.
Click Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk to read the Court’s entire opinion and Justice Kagan’s dissent.