Supreme Court’s FLSA Decision on Collective Actions

Last week, the Supreme Court decided a case about collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Collective actions are similar to class actions, in that they give an employee the right to file a lawsuit on behalf of a group of employees who have the same basic claim against the employer. The Court’s decision took a strange turn, resulting in a victory for the employer that skirted a primary issue in the case.

Here’s what happened: Laura Symczyk filed a collective action against her employer, Genesis Healthcare, claiming that it had an unfair policy of docking employees for a 30-minute meal break every shift, whether or not the employee had to work during that time. (If an employee must work through a meal, the employee is entitled to be paid; nobody disputes this basic assertion underlying the employee’s case.) Symczyk was the only named employee in the case, but anticipated that others would join in once the collective action was conditionally certified: that is, once the court found that the group of employees were similarly situated to Symczyk because they were subject to the same policy or practice.

Before Symczyk tried to certify the collective action, Genesis offered to settle her claim. Genesis said it would pay her $7,500, plus fees and costs. Symczyk didn’t respond, and Genesis withdrew the offer.

This settlement offer was made under Rule 68 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Under Rule 68, if one party doesn’t accept a settlement offer, that party will be responsible for all of its lawsuit costs after the date the offer was made, unless that party gets a judgment that’s better than the settlement offer. The purpose of this Rule is to give both sides a strong incentive to settle: The defendant has good reason to offer a generous settlement, both to get out of the lawsuit and to make it more likely that the plaintiff won’t do better at trial. The plaintiff has a good reason to accept, both because the offer is likely to be generous and because the plaintiff may have to foot a large litigation bill if the judgment isn’t better than the settlement.

With me so far? Because here’s where things get weird. The trial court threw out the lawsuit, finding that Symczyk no longer had an active dispute against the company because she had been offered all of the relief to which she was entitled. Because Symczyk no longer had a claim, she couldn’t represent other employees, and so the whole case got tossed.

The problem is that Symczyk didn’t accept the settlement offer; she turned it down. She didn’t get any money in settlement and, because the court tossed her case, she won’t get any money at trial. This should not be possible: Plaintiffs who turn down a Rule 64 settlement offer have a right to take their chances in court. The plaintiffs may win or they may lose, but they buy the opportunity to take their best shot by forgoing the settlement. It isn’t fair to throw a case out when the plaintiffs have neither settlement nor judgment in hand. Nonetheless, one federal judiciary circuit has interpreted Rule 64 to allow this type of penalty, presumably in an effort to put a stop to unnecessary litigation.

But the Court skipped right past this issue to decide that, if Symczyk’s case was properly dismissed, then she can no longer represent the group. Employee attorneys take issue with this, arguing that employees should have a chance to replace the named plaintiff-employee when this happens and continue with the lawsuit. Otherwise, defendant-employers could “pick off” the named employee (by making a Rule 68 offer) and get any collective action filed against it thrown out of court.

This is an interesting argument, but not the one the Court should have decided. In almost any federal court, Symczyk’s case would not have been dismissed and she would still be capable of representing the group. By leaving this fundamental issue undecided, the Court hasn’t clarified things very much for those on either side of an FLSA collective action.