Wednesday, April 17, 2013

SCOTUS: Picking off individual plaintiffs moots wage and hour collective action


The pickoff is one of the most dramatic defensive plays in baseball. It can single-handedly kill a rally. The tying run on first? One deft move by the pitcher to first base, coupled with a lead that’s one step too cocky? Rally over.

We love baseball in part because it can be a metaphor for much that happens in our lives. Today, it’s a metaphor for wage and hour law.

The issue the Supreme Court faced in Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk (4/16/13) [pdf] was whether a case becomes moot when the lone plaintiff receives an offer from the defendants to satisfy all of the plaintiff’s claims. Last December, I predicted an employer loss in this case (the link also provides all the case background you’ll need).

I’m happy to report that my prediction was very wrong. In a partisan 5-4 decision, the Court held as follows:

Because respondent had no personal interest in representing putative, unnamed claimants, nor any other continuing interest that would preserve her suit from mootness, her suit was appropriately dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.

In other words, because there was nothing left for the plaintiff to litigate after the rejected offer of judgment, the plaintiff had no right to pursue the remaining collective claims.

Here’s the money quote from the Court:

In this case, respondent’s complaint requested statutory damages. Unlike claims for injunctive relief challenging ongoing conduct, a claim for damages cannot evade review; it remains live until it is settled, judicially resolved, or barred by a statute of limitations. Nor can a defendant’s attempt to obtain settlement insulate such a claim from review, for a full settlement offer addresses plaintiff’s alleged harm by making the plaintiff whole. While settlement may have the collateral effect of foreclosing unjoined claimants from having their rights vindicated in respondent’s suit, such putative plaintiffs remain free to vindicate their rights in their own suits. They are no less able to have their claims settled or adjudicated following respondent’s suit than if her suit had never been filed at all.

There is perhaps no greater threat facing employers than the risk of a wage and hour collective action—both because of the difficulty in complying with the FLSA’s maze of anachronistic rules and regulations, and because of the expense incurred in defending such a claim. Genesis Healthcare confirms that employers have a powerful weapon at their disposal to cut these dangerous claims off at their knees—a Rule 68 offer of judgment.

Much like a baserunner failing to anticipate a deft pitcher’s move to first base, the Court confirmed that a valid offer of judgment can catch your opponent off-guard and end their hopes of a successful collective action.

For more analysis of this decision, please read the thoughts of some of my fellow bloggers:

photo credit: Chicago Man via photopin cc