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N.D.Ga.: Defendant Barred from Unilateral Meetings With Putative Class Members Outside of Formal Discovery Process, Absent Detailed Disclosures to Alleviate Concerns re Chilled Participation and/or Retaliation
This case was before the court for consideration of the parties’ Joint Statement regarding restrictions on communications with putative class members, as required by L.R. 23.1(C)(2) of the Northern District of Georgia.
The specific issue raised by the parties’ Joint Submission was explained as follows:
In the Joint Statement, Plaintiffs raise a concern that Defendants will question putative class members about a policy requiring employees to lodge contemporaneous internal complaints about incorrect pay (“Complaint Policy”). Plaintiffs fear that if representatives of Defendants raise the Complaint Policy in communications with putative plaintiffs, the putative plaintiffs will believe that their failure to have lodged a contemporaneous complaint about incorrect pay may have been a violation of company policy that could result in their termination from employment. In its portion of the Joint Statement, Defendants do not deny an intention to make such inquiries of employees.
Initially the court discussed the basic applicable law:
[A]n order limiting communication between parties and potential class members should be based on a clear record and specific findings that reflect a weighing of a need for limitation and the potential interference with the rights of the parties. Only such a determination can insure that the court is furthering, rather than hindering, the policies embodied in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, especially Rule 23.
Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 101–102, 101 S.Ct. 2193, 68 L.Ed.2d 693 (1981). “Unsupervised, unilateral communications with the plaintiff class sabotage the goal of informed consent by urging exclusion on the basis of a one-sided presentation of the facts, without opportunity for rebuttal. The damages from misstatements could well be irreparable.” Kleiner v. First Nat’l Bank of Atlanta, 751 F.2d 1193, 1203 (11th Cir.1985).
Based on its conclusion that there were inherent risks in the anticipated questioning by the defendants, the court held that the defendants were barred from communicating with former employee putative class members regarding the subject matter of the case, outside of the regular discovery process in the case and without the consent of plaintiff’s counsel. While the court permitted defendants’ counsel to speak with current employees who were putative class members, it set forth detailed prerequisites prior to any such communications, in order to safeguard against defenadnts’ improperly influencing putative class members from exercising their rights under the FLSA:
The Court finds that the risks inherent in the anticipated questioning by Defendants warrant the following limitations on Defendants’ communications with potential class members.
There shall be no communications with any named Plaintiff or with any current or future opt-in Plaintiffs outside the formal discovery process or without the consent of the named Plaintiff’s counsel of record, except-as to any currently employed present or future opt-in Plaintiff-for routine business matters unrelated to this action.
With respect to any presentation of information, including any views or opinions, to any “putative class members” by the Defendants—whether acting through management, counsel, other employees, or any other agent of any kind—that relates to the allegations and claims in this action, whether for the purpose of gathering information in a one-on-one or group basis to defend this action or to address any employee complaints regarding past, current or future compensation practices, such communication shall commence with the following statements:
(a) The person(s) present on the Defendants’ behalf is a Defendant employee or agent acting at the direction of Defendants’ management;
(b) The person(s) present on the Defendants’ behalf is there to address a lawsuit filed against the Defendants, as well as employee complaints, involving allegations that the Defendants failed to pay employees all the wages and overtime they had earned and were entitled to receive;
(c) The lawsuit is a class-action—which means the individual may receive money as a result of the lawsuit;
(d) The allegations of wrongdoing (accurately stated), accompanied by a copy of the Third Amended Complaint;
(e) The “putative class member” is under no obligation to stay, or listen, or speak, or respond;
(f) No record of anyone who does not stay, speak, or respond is being made and no record of who does not stay, speak, or respond will be made at any future time;
(g) No adverse action will be taken if the “putative class member” chooses not to stay, speak, or respond;
(h) No adverse action will be taken if the “putative class member” says, in substance, they believe they not were not properly compensated or did not receive all compensation owed to them, whether or not they complained to anyone about any compensation issues; and
(i) The “putative class member” is free to leave at any time, including at this point.
Click Wilson v. Regions Financial Corporation to read the entire Order Regarding Communications With Putative Class Members.
While the procedural posture of this case was somewhat unique, in that the Northern District of Georgia has a detailed/explicit rule regarding pre-certification communications (and there was a Rule 23 class claim in addition to the FLSA collective action claim), this decision will likely serve as a blueprint for many courts going forward, given the chilling effect unilateral meetings with current and former employees can have, as many courts have previously noted.