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With the Supreme Court set to weigh in on the issue next term, decisions continue to widely diverge on the issue of whether on employer may moot a collective action by paying damages to a plaintiff-employee or plaintiff-employees after they have filed suit seeking their wages pursuant to the FLSA. Recent weeks have brought more confusion to the issue. As discussed below, the Eleventh Circuit held in a non-FLSA claim that absent an actual judgment full tender of money damages alone is insufficient to render a case moot. Within days however, a different court sitting within the Ninth Circuit held that an employer properly mooted an entire collective action when it made payments to the entire class in amounts all parties agreed represented all money damages for a 2 year statute of limitations period, plus liquidated damages. In yet another decision a court within the Third Circuit held that an employer could not moot a collective action by tendering class damages calculated at a “half-time” rate, because an issue of fact existed as to whether that was the appropriate methodology for calculating such damages.
Zinni v. ER Solutions, Inc.
These three consolidated cases were before the Eleventh Circuit on the plaintiff-employee’s appeal of an order granting the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In each of the consolidated cases, at the court below the defendant had tendered the full monetary damages available to the plaintiff, but had not served an offer of judgment (OJ) or offered a stipulated judgment to the plaintiff. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claim on mootness grounds. Summarizing the issue before the court, the Eleventh Circuit explained:
This consolidated appeal presents the issue of whether a settlement offer for the full amount of statutory damages requested under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), 15 U.S.C. § 1692, et seq., moots a claim brought pursuant to the FDCPA. Appellants Anthony W. Zinni, Blanche Dellapietro, and Naomi Desty appeal the district court’s dismissal of their complaints for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. In each case, an Appellee sent an e-mail offering to settle an Appellant’s FDCPA case for $1,001—an amount exceeding by $1 the maximum statutory damages available for an individual plaintiff under the FDCPA. Appellees also offered attorneys’ fees and costs in each case, but did not specify the amount of fees and costs to be paid. Appellants did not accept the settlement offers. The district court subsequently granted Appellees’ motions to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1), holding that the offers left Appellants with “no remaining stake” in the litigation. The district court then dismissed Appellants’ complaints with prejudice. We conclude the settlement offers did not divest the district court of subject matter jurisdiction.
After distinguishing a settlement from an accepted offer of judgment and discussing case law pertaining to each distinct situation, the Eleventh Circuit held that absent an actual judgment a mere offer of settlement cannot moot a claim:
The district court erred in finding Appellees’ settlement offers rendered moot Appellants’ FDCPA claims because the settlement offers did not offer full relief. See id. Each of the Appellants requested that the district court enter judgment in his or her favor and against an Appellee as part of the prayer for relief in the complaint. Appellees’ settlement offers, however, did not offer to have judgment entered against them. Because the settlement offers were not for the full relief requested, a live controversy remained over the issue of a judgment, and the cases were not moot. See Friends of Everglades, 570 F.3d at 1216.
Although the case concerned claims under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) the reasoning of the court is equally applicable to cases under the FLSA. In fact to a large extent the court relied on FLSA jurisprudence in reaching its decision. At least within the Eleventh Circuit, this case seems to put to bed the short-lived argument fueled by the same court’s decision less than two years ago in the Dionne opinions.
Click Zinni v. ER Solutions, Inc. to read the entire Opinion.
Orozco v. Borenstein
Amazingly, before the ink could even dry on the Zinni opinion, 2 days later, a court in the District of Arizona was faced with a virtually identical issue. However, unlike the Eleventh Circuit (and like the Order reversed in Zinni) the court ruled that an FLSA defendant could moot an entire class’ claims simply by tendering the maximum money damages due. Thus, the Orozco court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss on mootness grounds, for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, following a tender.
Describing the issue before it, the court explained:
Plaintiff brings this putative class action pursuant to the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., the Arizona Wage Act, A.R.S. § 23–350, et seq., and the Arizona Minimum Wage Act, A.R.S. § 23–363, et seq. Plaintiff worked as an oven operator in the bagel baking operations of defendant Bada Bing Baking, LLC, doing business as Chompie’s Wholesale Bakery (defendants collectively referred to as the “Bakery”). Plaintiff contends that the Bakery violated the FLSA, as well as Arizona’s wage statutes, by failing to pay plaintiff and other similarly situated employees the required federal and state minimum wages for covered nonexempt employees. Plaintiff contends that, although the employees are paid slightly more than the minimum wage required by federal and state law, 29 U.S.C. § 206(a), A.R.S. § 23–363(A), the Bakery has implemented a policy of deducting certain work-related expenses from the employee’s paychecks, leaving their net pay below minimum wage. Specifically, plaintiff alleges that the Bakery deducts $12.50 per paycheck for uniform laundering, $10.00 for initial and lost electronic keys, $5.00 for initial and lost time cards, and $24.00 for “food handlers” health cards from Maricopa County.
After this lawsuit was filed, the Bakery reimbursed 51 current and former “minimum wage” employees for the uniform-related fees incurred in the 2 years preceding the filing of this lawsuit, along with liquidated damages as prescribed by 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Bakery contends that because it has tendered full payment for all claimed violations, there is no remaining live case or controversy, rendering this case moot.
For reasons known only to the plaintiff and his attorney, the plaintiff did not raise any issue regarding the defendant’s failure to allow the entry of judgment on the claims. Instead, the plaintiff contended that he had not been fully compensated for his claims because (1) he sought damages for a third year due to the Defendant’s “willful” FLSA violations, and (2) he was not reimbursed for certain other items. However, due to insufficiencies it cited in the plaintiff’s pleadings and his declaration submitted in opposition to the defendant’s motion, the court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the case.
Of note, the court declined to resolve the issue of whether the plaintiff was entitled to attorneys fees as the prevailing party, instead reserving on the issue until plaintiff had filed a motion for attorneys fees pursuant to the District of Arizona’s local rules.
Click Orozco v. Borenstein to read the entire Order.
Seymour v. PPG Industries, Inc.
In the final case discussed, the defendant actually did tender an offer of judgment, pursuant to FRCP 68, however it was arguably insufficient and thus, the defendant’s motion to dismiss was denied on that basis.
Interestingly, the parties in this salary misclassification collective action case had stipulated to the number of hours each of the plaintiffs had worked during the periods relevant to the claims. However, the parties disagreed as to how the plaintiffs’ damages were due to be calculated. As in many such cases, the defendant argued that the damages were to be calculated using the FWW or half-time methodology, while the plaintiffs asserted time and a half damages were due. Because the issue of how to calculate damages- and ultimately the amount of same- remained unresolved, the court held that the defendant’s offer of judgment could not be said to definitively by “full relief.” Thus, the defendant’s motion to dismiss for lack of subject matter jurisdiction was dismissed on this grounds.
Click Seymour v. PPG Industries, Inc. to read the entire Memorandum Opinion and Order.
So what’s the takeaway here? While it remains clear that a defendant cannot moot a claim where the damages themselves are in dispute, plaintiffs faced with offers that they believe provide full monetary relief, would be wise to demand a judgment as well if the goal is to avoid a dismissal on mootness grounds so that a settlement offer alone cannot moot their claim. Another extra step is to seek a declaratory judgment in the actual complaint.
Morris v. South Carolina Dept. of Corrections
In this case Plaintiff, an employee of the South Carolina Department of Corrections (“SCDC”), sought compensation for overtime work under Section 16(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Defendant moved to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6), claiming it was sovereign immune from such claims. The Court agreed and granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss stating:
“SCDC argues that Plaintiff’s claim is barred because the state is immune from claims for money damages brought under Section 16(b). In making these arguments, SCDC relies on Alden v. Maine, which held that states are immune from private suits filed in state courts for damages brought under Section 16(b) of the FLSA. Based on Alden and its progeny, Defendant argues that state agencies are immune from private suits for money damages under the FLSA whether that suit is brought in state or federal court. See Alden v. Me., 527 U.S. 706, 119 S.Ct. 2240, 144 L.Ed.2d 636 (1999); see also Dkt. No. 15 at 4. Plaintiff disagrees, arguing that Alden applies only to FLSA suits brought in state court. Dkt. No. 16 at 2.
State Sovereign Immunity. The doctrine of state sovereign immunity bars suits in federal court for money damages against an “unconsenting State.” Edelman v. Jordan, 415 U.S. 651, 663, 94 S.Ct. 1347, 39 L.Ed.2d 662 (1974); see also Alden, 527 U.S. at 713 (noting that, while “Eleventh Amendment immunity” is often used as convenient shorthand for state sovereign immunity, the latter is “a fundamental aspect of the sovereignty which the States enjoyed before the ratification of the Constitution, and which they retain today … except as altered by the plan of the Convention or certain constitutional Amendments.”). This immunity extends to “arm[s] of the State,” Mt. Healthy City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274, 280, 97 S.Ct. 568, 50 L.Ed.2d 471 (1974), including state agencies and state officers acting in their official capacity. Gray v. Laws, 51 F.3d 426, 430 (4th Cir.1995). This doctrine does not, however, preclude private suits against state officials (but not the state or state agency itself) for prospective or declaratory relief designed to remedy ongoing violations of federal law. Ex parte Young, 209 U.S. 123, 157, 28 S.Ct. 441, 52 L.Ed. 714 (1908); see also Virginia v. Reinhard, 568 F.3d 110 (4th Cir.2009).
Congress may abrogate state sovereign immunity, but “only by stating unequivocally its desire to do so and only pursuant to a valid exercise of constitutional authority.” Constantine v. Rectors & Visitors of George Mason Univ., 411 F.3d 474, 484 (4th Cir.2005) (citing Seminole Tribe of Fla. v. Florida, 517 U.S. 44, 55, 116 S.Ct. 1114, 134 L.Ed.2d 252 (1996)). Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, the Amendment’s enforcement provision, provides one (and possibly the only) basis on which Congress may, under specific circumstances, abrogate state sovereign immunity. Nev. Dep’t of Human Res. v. Hibbs, 538 U.S. 721, 727, 123 S.Ct. 1972, 155 L.Ed.2d 953 (2003) (noting that, while Congress may abrogate the States’ sovereign immunity under Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, it may not do so “pursuant to its Article I power over commerce”) (citing Fitzpatrick v. Bitzer, 427 U.S. 445, 456, 96 S.Ct. 2666, 49 L.Ed.2d 614 (1976)); see also Seminole Tribe, 517 U.S. at 73 (“Article I cannot be used to circumvent the constitutional limitations placed upon federal jurisdiction”).
Applied to Section 16(b) of the FLSA. In Alden, the Supreme Court held that states are immune from private suits for damages brought under Section 16(b) of the FLSA in state court. The Court’s reasoning was based, in part, on the principle that Congress cannot extend state court jurisdiction beyond where it may extend federal court jurisdiction. See 527 U.S. at 754 (“We are aware of no constitutional precept that would admit of a congressional power to require state courts to entertain federal suits which are not within the judicial power of the United States and could not be heard in federal courts.”). Put differently, as applied to Section 16(b) of the FLSA, it is precisely because Congress lacks the authority to subject states to suit in federal court that it also lacks the authority to subject states to suit in their own courts. Thus, the Alden rationale fully supports Defendant’s position.
Prior to Alden, the Fourth Circuit ruled that state sovereign immunity bars Section 16(b) claims for damages brought by state employees in federal court. See Abril v. Va., 145 F.3d 182, 186-89 (4th Cir.1998) (concluding that Section 16(b) was not a valid abrogation of state sovereign immunity under Congress’s Section 5 enforcement powers). No subsequent rulings appear to alter this rule, which is consistent with the rationale in Alden. As explained in Rodriguez v. Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, a post-Alden decision addressing a Section 16(b) claim for damages, Seminole Tribe and Alden operate in tandem to protect states from liability for money damages under the FLSA. Rodriguez v. P.R. Fed. Affairs Admin., 435 F.3d 378, 380 (D.C.Cir.2006) (“Taken together, Seminole Tribe and Alden mean that state employees no longer have any ‘court of competent jurisdiction,’ 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), in which to sue their employers for FLSA violations.”). While not binding, the court finds the Rodriguez court’s reasoning persuasive.”
Thus, the Court concluded that, “SCDC is immune from suits for money damages brought pursuant to Section 16(b) of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b).” Accordingly, Plaintiff’s case was dismissed.
To read the Court’s entire decision, click here.