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S.D.N.Y.: Notwithstanding Defendants’ Disclaimer Of Liability, FLSA Plaintiffs That Accepted OJ Are “Prevailing Party”; Entitled To Reasonable Attorneys’ Fees And Costs

Kahlil v. Original Old Homestead Restaurant, Inc.

Plaintiffs moved for attorneys’ fees and costs following their acceptance of Defendants’ offer of judgment.  The Defendants argued there was no fee entitlement, because their offer contained a disclaimer of liability.  Rejecting this argument, the Court awarded Plaintiffs’ attorneys reasonable attorneys fees and costs.

The Court highlighted the following procedural history:

“Plaintiffs Sayed Kahlil, Wayne Walker, Mohamed Elmahdy and Brian Lahoff were employed as waiters at defendant The Original Old Homestead Restaurant. On January 30, 2007, plaintiffs filed a complaint to resolve wage and hour disputes arising under section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”) and section 198 of the New York State Labor Law (“NYLL”). 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (2008); N.Y. Lab. Law § 198 (McKinney 2009). Plaintiffs were represented in this matter by Louis Pechman, a partner at Berke-Weiss & Pechman LLP (“BWP”), and Jaime Duguay, an associate at the same firm. On April 29, 2008, mid-way through the discovery process, defendants submitted an offer of judgment in the amount of $36,000, exclusive of attorneys’ fees, pursuant to Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiffs accepted the offer of judgment on May 8, 2008, and judgment was entered by the Clerk on May 30, 2008. On June 13, 2008, plaintiffs filed a Motion for Attorneys’ Fees and Costs, pursuant to FLSA § 216(b) and NYLL § 198. Plaintiffs seek $119,737.15 to compensate Pechman and Duguay for labor and costs incurred up to the filing of the motion. Defendants oppose the award of attorneys’ fees and costs on the grounds that plaintiffs did not prevail in the foregoing litigation. In the alternative, defendants contend that the requested fee award should be reduced in light of Pechman’s excessively high hourly rate, the limited nature of plaintiffs’ success, the vagueness of BWP’s time entries, BWP’s small size, excessive hours, billing of clerical tasks at attorney rates, and billing of work completed prior to the filing of the complaint.”

The Court then determined that Plaintiffs were the “prevailing party” as defined by the FLSA:

In an action pursuant to the FLSA, a “prevailing party” must be awarded reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs: “The Court in such action shall … allow a reasonable attorney’s fee to be paid by the defendant, and costs of the action.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (emphasis added). Likewise, the NYLL requires that “[i]n any action … in which the employee prevails, the court shall allow such employee reasonable attorney’s fees ….“ § 198(1-a) (emphasis added).

Plaintiffs are the prevailing party for the purposes of the FLSA and NYLL “if they succeed on any significant issue in litigation which achieves some of the benefit the parties sought in bringing suit.” Hensley v. Eckerhart, 461 U.S. 424, 433 (1983) (quoting Nadeau v. Helgemoe, 581 F.2d 275, 278-79 (1st Cir.1978)). Likewise, to qualify as a prevailing party, a plaintiff must demonstrate a change in the legal relationship between itself and the defendant arising from the resolution of the lawsuit. Texas State Teachers Ass’n v. Garland Indep. Sch. Dist., 489 U.S. 782, 792 (1989).

The judgment in this case suffices to establish plaintiffs as the prevailing party under the FLSA and NYLL. Where, as here, plaintiffs obtained a favorable settlement, they are entitled to an award of attorneys’ fees: “[t]he fact that [plaintiff] prevailed through a settlement rather than through litigation does not weaken [plaintiff’s] claim to fees.” Maher v. Gagne, 448 U.S. 122, 129 (1980). Defendants contend that the settlement is insufficient to render plaintiffs the prevailing party because the complaint sought monetary, declaratory, and equitable relief, while the offer of judgment provided only monetary relief. The Court finds defendants’ argument unpersuasive. Plaintiffs surely obtained some of the relief sought, and no court in this circuit has indicated that relief obtained in settlement must exactly match relief sought in the complaint. See Lyte v. Sara Lee Corp., 950 F.2d. 101, 104 (2d Cir.1991) (holding that a plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party if the relief obtained through settlement is of the “same general type” as relief requested in the complaint); Koster v. Perales, 903 F.2d 131, 134 (2d Cir.1990) (“A plaintiff may be considered a prevailing party even though the relief ultimately obtained is not identical to the relief demanded in the complaint”); Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 791-92 (indicating that a plaintiff’s receipt of some of the benefit sought is enough to “cross the threshold to a fee award of some kind”).

The Court also finds unpersuasive defendants’ argument that the disclaimer of liability in the offer of judgment indicates that the settlement did not change the legal relationship between the parties, and therefore that plaintiffs are not the prevailing party. It is not necessary for a defendant to admit liability in order for a plaintiff to be designated as the prevailing party. In Buckhannon, the Supreme Court indicated that a consent judgment without an admission of liability by the defendant “[is] nonetheless … a court-ordered ‘chang[e][in] the legal relationship between [the plaintiff] and the defendant.’ “ 532 U.S. at 604, citing Texas State Teachers Ass’n., 489 U.S. at 792. Further, the Supreme Court in Maher v. Gagne upheld an award of attorneys’ fees based on a settlement agreement containing a disclaimer of liability similar to the one in defendants’ offer of judgment. See 448 U.S. at 126 n. 8. The Court therefore finds that plaintiffs are the prevailing party, and that they are entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs under the FLSA and NYLL.”

Thus, the Court calculated a reasonable attorneys fee and costs and awarded same to Plaintiffs’ counsel.

D.Colo.: Individual FLSA Plaintiff’s Acceptance Of Offer Of Judgment (OJ) Requires Entry Of Judgment Thereon; Defendant’s Motion To Dismiss Denied As Procedurally Improper

Halpape v. Tiaa-Cref Individual & Institutional Services LLC

This matter was before the Court on Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss, following Plaintiff’s Acceptance of Offer of Judgment (“OJ”). As discussed below, the Court deemed Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss unfounded, correctly determining that the appropriate procedural effect of Plaintiff’s acceptance was/is entry of judgment in accordance with the terms of the OJ, not dismissal of the case.

Plaintiff filed this action on April 14, 2009, claiming that defendants’ failure to pay overtime wages violates the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq., and Colorado state law. Plaintiff pleadings sought to prosecute this case on behalf of other similarly situated persons employed by defendants during the relevant time period. As authority for this request, the Complaint cites the collective action provision of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), with respect to his federal cause of action and Fed.R.Civ.P. 23 with respect to his state law claims.

On August 14, 2009, defendants served plaintiff with an offer of judgment pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 68. The terms of the offer included payment of $9,534.54 to plaintiff, an amount “inclusive of all alleged damages … including liquidated damages and interest” covering a period of three years prior to the filing of this lawsuit, along with plaintiff’s reasonable attorney’s fees and costs. Plaintiff accepted the offer of judgment and filed a notice of acceptance with the Court on August 26, 2009. Defendants then moved to dismiss this action as moot in light of plaintiff’s acceptance of the offer of judgment.

Rule 68(a) provides:

More than 10 days before the trial begins, a party defending against a claim may serve on an opposing party an offer to allow judgment on specified terms, with the costs then accrued. If, within 10 days after being served, the opposing party serves writtennotice accepting the offer, either party may then file the offer and notice of acceptance, plus proof of service. The clerk must then enter judgment.

Fed.R.Civ.P. 68(a). Thus, entry of judgment in favor of the plaintiff is mandatory if, as in this case, the conditions specified in Rule 68(a) are satisfied. Ramming v. Natural Gas Pipeline Co. of Am., 390 F.3d 366, 370 (5th Cir.2004) (“If the plaintiff accepts the offer … [t]he court generally has no discretion whether or not to enter the judgment. A Rule 68 Offer of Judgment is usually considered self-executing.”). Here, plaintiff timely served written notice of acceptance eight business days after service of the offer of judgment. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(a). And plaintiff attached the offer of judgment to his notice of acceptance, along with proof of service. Rule 68(a) therefore directs that judgment enter according to the offer of judgment.

Consequently, defendants’ motion to dismiss is unfounded. This is not a case, such as those cited by defendants in their motion, where a plaintiff rejected an offer of judgment that would fully satisfy the plaintiff’s claims. Instead, plaintiff accepted the offer. While it is true that plaintiff’s acceptance removes the controversy between him and defendants, under Rule 68, this case must end by entry of judgment, rather than by an order of dismissal. Cf. Geer v. Challenge Financial Investors Corp., No. 05-1109, 2006 WL 704933, *2 (D.Kan., Mar. 14, 2006) (“Where a defendant makes a Rule 68 offer of judgment and it is accepted, the case is settled and there is no longer a controversy.”).

N.D.Ill.: Offer Of Judgment, Silent On Its Face As To Attorneys Fees And Costs, Read To Allow For Attorneys Fees And Costs

Garcia v. Oasis Legal Finance Operating Co.

Plaintiff filed a one-count Complaint against Defendant in which she asserted violations of the Equal Pay Act, 29 U.S.C, § 206 et seq., and requested, inter alia, the following relief; an Order awarding her the difference between wages paid to her and those paid to similarly situated male employees, liquidated damages, and statutory attorneys’ fees and costs. Defendant answered the Complaint, denying the material allegations. This Motion concerned Plaintiff’s acceptance of Defendant’s Offer of Judgment, as more fully detailed below.

On November 20, 2008, Defendant’s attorney mailed a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment to Garcia’s counsel. Defendant’s attorney also faxed a copy of this Offer to Plaintiff’s counsel on that same date. This Offer read in its entirety:

As you know our firm represents Oasis Legal Finance, LLC, and Oasis Legal Finance Operating, LLC in reference to the above captioned matter. This letter is being written to you pursuant to F .R.C.P. 68, “Offer of Judgment”. Please be advised that pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68 the defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00. Pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68, your client has ten (10) days to accept the offer in judgment as set forth herein. If you have any questions, please contact me. Thank you,

On December 8, 2008, Plaintiff’s attorney submitted a letter to Oasis’ counsel accepting the Offer. This letter read in its entirety:

This letter is in response to Defendant’s offer of judgment which was served via U.S. mail on November 20, 2008. Your letter provided only that “defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00” in connection with Ms. Garcia’s cause of action under the Equal Pay Act in the above referenced federal case. Because the offer of judgment is for an amount in excess of the value of Plaintiff’s Equal Pay Act claim, Plaintiff hereby accepts the offer of judgment as stated for her currently pending federal action. Since Defendant’s offer made no reference to costs or attorney’s fees, Plaintiff will proceed with a petition for fees and costs as to this cause of action upon entry of the judgment. Plaintiff’s claims under Title VII and the Illinois Human Rights Act remain under investigation at the EEOC/IDHR and cannot be resolved through the offer of judgment. If you wish to discuss those claims as the investigation moves forward, please feel free to call me.

Defndant then filed a Motion to Strike Plaintiff’s Purported Acceptance of Offer of Judgment, asserting Plaintiff’s purported acceptance was not in fact an acceptance, but was rather a rejection and a counter-offer, which is impermissible under Rule 68, Plaintiff cross-motioned for judgment in her favor. On January 26, 2009, the Court granted Plaintiff’s Motion, denied Defendant’s Motion, and directed the Clerk to enter judgment for Plaintiff. The Clerk entered judgment on January 27, 2009. The Court, in its January 26, 2009 Opinion and Order, granted Plaintiff leave to file a motion for attorneys’ fees if it was appropriate to do so. Plaintiff filed her Motion for Attorneys’ Fees on February 17, 2009.

The Court discussed, at length, the issue of whether Defendant’s Offer of Judgment, as made, was inclusive or exclusive of attorneys fees:

“Oasis correctly asserts that its Rule 68 Offer covered the sole Count of Garcia’s complaint, and that Garcia’s claim sought attorneys’ fees as part of the requested relief. The Court must therefore first determine, as a threshold matter, whether Garcia’s acceptance of Oasis’ Offer of Judgment precludes her from seeking a further award of attorneys’ fees.

Oasis contends that Nordby controls. In that case, defendants made a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment “in the amount of $56,003.00 plus $1,000 in costs as one total sum as to all counts of the amended complaint.” Nordby, 199 F.3d at 391. Plaintiff accepted the Offer, and moved the district court for a statutory award of attorneys’ fees. Id. The court denied the motion, reasoning that the Offer as accepted included fees. Id. On the specific set of facts before it, the Seventh Circuit affirmed, finding that the Offer unambiguously included fees. ” ‘One total sum as to all counts of the amended complaint’ can only mean one amount encompassing all the relief sought in the counts. One of those counts specified attorneys’ fees as part of the relief sought. That relief was covered by the offer.” Id. at 392.

Garcia, on the other hand, asserts that Oasis’ Offer of Judgment is more like the one made by defendants in Webb. In that case, defendants’ Offer read in its entirety; “The Defendants, Dick James and Dick James Ford, Inc., by their attorneys, Steven C. Wolf and Victoria A. Barnes, hereby make an offer of judgment in the above-captioned matter in the amount of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68.” Webb, 147 F.3d at 619. The district court granted plaintiff’s separate motion for fees, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed. The Seventh Circuit first noted that, “[o]n its face, the offer did not address costs or fees,” id., and later observed that it would have been a simple matter for defendants to “have drafted the offer to signal Webb that it was inclusive of attorney’s fees.” Id. at 623, Because a Rule 68 Offer puts plaintiffs at risk whether or not they accept it, the Seventh Circuit reasoned, “the defendant must make clear whether the offer is inclusive of fees when the underlying statute provides fees for the prevailing party … [T]he plaintiff should not be left in the position of guessing what a court will later hold the offer means.” Id. The Seventh Circuit found that the defendants should therefore “bear the burden of the ambiguity created by their silence on fees,” and held that the district court could “award an additional amount to cover costs and fees.” Id.

In this case, although it is a close call, the Court determines that the Offer of Judgment made by Oasis is more like the one in Webb than the one in Nordby. Here, the Offer of Judgment states in part, “Please be advised that pursuant to F.R.C.P. 68 the defendants offer judgment to the plaintiff, Karina Garcia, in the sum of $3,850.00.” The Offer is silent as to attorneys’ fees and costs, and does not include, like the Offer in Nordby, language to the effect that the Offer is “one total sum” as to the entirety of Garcia’s requested relief Moreover, there is no question that it would have been a simple matter for Oasis to clearly indicate in its Offer whether fees were included. A standard Rule 68 Offer of Judgment form published by Bender’s Federal Practice includes specific language defendants can use to indicate that costs and fees are included in an Offer of Judgment. 11-68 Bender’s Federal Practice Forms No. 68:3; see also 11-68 Bender’s Federal practice Forms, Comment on Rule 68, ¶ 6 (“it is well established that when an offer is silent about whether the sum specified includes costs and attorney’s fees, the silence means that the court will add costs and attorney’s fees to the amount stated. An argument that the lump sum was meant to include all costs and attorney’s fees will be unavailing.”). Because Oasis failed to take the simple step of indicating whether the Offer included fees and costs, Oasis must “bear the burden of [its] ambiguity created by [its] silence on fees.” See Webb, 147 F.3d at 619. The Court therefore determines that Garcia’s acceptance of Oasis’ Offer of Judgment does not preclude her from pursuing an award of fees and costs.”

5th Cir.: Relation Back Principle Applies to Ensure That Defendants Cannot Unilaterally “Pick Off” Collective Action Representatives and Thwart Availability of Collective Actions Under FLSA by Paying Employee’s Claim in Full

Sandoz v. Cingular Wireless LLC

Although, in theory, FLSA claim could become moot when purported representative of collective action receives offer that would satisfy his or her individual claim and no other plaintiffs have opted in, when FLSA plaintiff files timely motion for certification of collective action, that motion relates back to date plaintiff filed initial complaint; relation back is warranted only when plaintiff files for certification without undue delay.