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3d Cir.: Defendant May Not “Pick Off” a Putative Collective Action by Tendering Full Relief to Named-Plaintiff at Outset
Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp.
In an issue that has now been addressed by several circuits in recent years, the Third Circuit was presented with the question of whether a defendant-employer in an FLSA case may “pick off” a putative collective action (prior to conditional certification), where it tenders full relief to the named-Plaintiff. Consistent with other circuits to have taken up this issue, the Third Circuit held that a defendant may not do so and that such an offer of judgment (OJ) does not moot a putative collective action. As such, the court reversed the decision below, dismissing the case on mootness grounds.
In dismissing the case initially, the trial court below reasoned, “[Plaintiff] does not contend that other individuals have joined her collective action. Thus, this case, like each of the district court cases cited by Defendants, which concluded that a Rule 68 offer of judgment mooted the underlying FLSA collective action, involves a single named plaintiff. In addition, Symczyk does not contest Defendants’ assertion that the 68 offer of judgment fully satisfied her claims….”
After discussing the application of full tender relief offers in the Rule 23 context, the court concluded that the same reasoning precludes picking off the named-plaintiff in a representative action brought pursuant to 216(b). Instead, the court held that a motion for conditional certification in an FLSA case made within a reasonable time “relates back” to the time of the filing of the Complaint and thus such a representative action may proceed, notwithstanding to purportedly “full tender” offer to the named-plaintiff. The court explained:
“Although the opt-in mechanism transforms the manner in which a named plaintiff acquires a personal stake in representing the interests of others, it does not present a compelling justification for limiting the relation back doctrine to the Rule 23 setting. The considerations that caution against allowing a defendant’s use of Rule 68 to impede the advancement of a representative action are equally weighty in either context. Rule 23 permits plaintiffs “to pool claims which would be uneconomical to litigate individually.” Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Shutts, 472 U.S. 797, 809, 105 S.Ct. 2965, 86 L.Ed.2d 628 (1985). Similarly, § 216(b) affords plaintiffs “the advantage of lower individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources.” Hoffmann–La Roche, 493 U.S. at 170. Rule 23 promotes “efficiency and economy of litigation.” Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 349, 103 S.Ct. 2392, 76 L.Ed.2d 628 (1983). Similarly, “Congress’ purpose in authorizing § 216(b) class actions was to avoid multiple lawsuits where numerous employees have allegedly been harmed by a claimed violation or violations of the FLSA by a particular employer.” Prickett v. DeKalb Cnty., 349 F.3d 1294, 1297 (11th Cir.2003).
When Rule 68 morphs into a tool for the strategic curtailment of representative actions, it facilitates an outcome antithetical to the purposes behind § 216(b). Symczyk’s claim-like that of the plaintiff in Weiss—was “acutely susceptible to mootness” while the action was in its early stages and the court had yet to determine whether to facilitate notice to prospective plaintiffs. See Weiss, 385 F.3d at 347 (internal quotation marks omitted). When the certification process has yet to unfold, application of the relation back doctrine prevents defendants from using Rule 68 to “undercut the viability” of either’ type of representative action. See id. at 344.
Additionally, the relation back doctrine helps safeguard against the erosion of FLSA claims by operation of the Act’s statute of limitations. To qualify for relief under the FLSA, a party plaintiff must “commence” his cause of action before the statute of limitations applying to his individual claim has lapsed. Sperling v. Hoffmann–La Roche, Inc., 24 F.3d 463, 469 (3d Cir.1994). For a named plaintiff, the action commences on the date the complaint is filed. 29 U.S.C. § 256(a). For an opt-in plaintiff, however, the action commences only upon filing of a written consent. Id. § 256(b). This represents a departure from Rule 23, in which the filing of a complaint tolls the statute of limitations “as to all asserted members of the class” even if the putative class member is not cognizant of the suit’s existence. See Crown, Cork & Seal Co. 462 U.S. at 350 (internal quotation marks omitted). Protracted disputes over the propriety of dismissal in light of Rule 68 offers may deprive potential opt-ins whose claims are in jeopardy of expiring of the opportunity to toll the limitations period—and preserve their entitlements to recovery—by filing consents within the prescribed window.
In sum, we believe the relation back doctrine helps ensure the use of Rule 68 does not prevent a collective action from playing out according to the directives of § 216(b) and the procedures authorized by the Supreme Court in Hoffmann–La Roche and further refined by courts applying this statute. Depriving the parties and the court of a reasonable opportunity to deliberate on the merits of collective action “conditional certification” frustrates the objectives served by § 216(b). Cf. Sandoz, 553 F.3d at 921 (explaining “there must be some time for a[n FLSA] plaintiff to move to certify a collective action before a defendant can moot the claim through an offer of judgment”). Absent undue delay, when an FLSA plaintiff moves for “certification” of a collective action, the appropriate course—particularly when a defendant makes a Rule 68 offer to the plaintiff that would have the possible effect of mooting the claim for collective relief asserted under § 216(b)—is for the district court to relate the motion back to the filing of the initial complaint.
Upon remand, should Symczyk move for “conditional certification,” the court’ shall consider whether such motion was made without undue delay, and, if it so finds, shall relate the motion back to December 4, 2009the date on which Symczyk filed her initial complaint. If (1) Symczyk may yet timely seek “conditional certification” of her collective action, (2) the court permits the case to move forward as a collective action (by virtue of Symczyk’s satisfaction of the “modest factual showing” standard), and (3) at least one other similarly situated employee opts in, then defendants’ Rule 68 offer of judgment would no longer fully satisfy the claims of everyone in the collective action, and the proffered rationale behind dismissing the complaint on jurisdictional grounds would no longer be applicable. If, however, the court finds Symczyk’s motion to certify would be untimely, or otherwise denies the motion on its merits, then defendants’ Rule 68 offer to Symczyk—in full satisfaction of her individual claim—would moot the action.
For the foregoing reasons, we will reverse the judgment of the District Court and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
Thus, while ultimately the OJ might have the effect of mooting the case, it could not do so prior to a reasonable opportunity to plaintiff of seeking conditional certification of same.
Click Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. to read the entire decision.