Supreme Court Holds that Early Offer of Judgment Moots Nascent FLSA Collective Action

On April 16, 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit’s decision in Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk and held that a Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) collective action became moot once the employer’s made a Rule 68 offer of judgment that fully satisfied the damages claims of the employee who brought the suit.

In Genesis, the employee filed an action in U.S. District Court in Philadelphia for unpaid wages under the FLSA. In her complaint, the employee claimed to represent similarly situated individuals but no one else had joined the lawsuit when the employer made a Rule 68 offer of judgment to the employee. The offer of judgment was for $7500 plus counsel fees and costs as determined by the Court. The employee did not respond to the offer of judgment and on the employer’s motion, the District Court dismissed the entire suit. The District Court found that the employee’s claim was moot since it was satisfied by the employer’s offer and, since no other parties had joined the action at that time, the complaint was dismissed.

On appeal the Third Circuit agreed that the offer of judgment was effective to have the individual employee’s claim dismissed, regardless of whether the offer was accepted, but not the collective action claims. The Third Circuit reasoned that the employer’s attempt to “pick off” the plaintiff before the collective action could be conditionally certified “frustrated” the purpose of the FLSA collective action process and remanded the case to the District Court for possible conditional certification of the collective action.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Third Circuit but avoided resolving the circuit split regarding whether a Rule 68 offer of judgment can moot a plaintiff’s claim. The Court ruled narrowly that both the District Court and the Third Circuit were in agreement that the employee’s claim was moot after she received the employer’s Rule 68 offer. Then disagreeing with the Third Circuit, the Supreme Court held that, in the absence of any other claimant’s opting in, the collective action claims became moot once the employee’s individual claim became moot, because Ms. Symczyk lacked any personal interest in representing others in the action. The Court further emphasized the distinction between a class action brought under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and an FLSA collective action. Specifically, the Court stated that conditional certification under the FLSA is not tantamount to a Rule 23 class certification because “[t]he sole consequence of conditional certification is the sending of court-approved written notice to employees . . . who in turn become parties to a collective action only by filing written consent with the court.”

In light of the Supreme Court’s decision, an employer that is named in a putative collective action in federal district court now has another option for resolving the claims early, by making a Rule 68 offer of judgment to the named plaintiff early on, before other employees and former employees opt in.

For more information about FLSA collective actions, including defending these suits, please contact Patrick W. McGovern, Esq., pmcgovern@nullgenovaburns.com, or Rebecca Fink, Esq., rfink@nullgenovaburns.com, in the Firm’s Labor Practice Group.