Class Action as Defense: Fifth Circuit Rules Pending Class Action Subsumes Class Member’s Duplicative Individual Claim

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Employers facing multiple litigations can take solace in the fact that, sometimes, too much of a bad thing can be helpful.  In Ruiz v. Brennan, 16-11061, the Fifth Circuit held that a pending administrative class action subsumed a plaintiff’s attempts to file an arguably duplicative individual claim in a separate action.  As a result, the second litigation was dismissed without prejudice.

Administrative Class Action

The United States Postal Service faced an administrative class action in McConnell v. Potter, which asserted class-wide claims of disability discrimination related to the National Reassessment Program (“NRP”), a program designed to regulate procedures for issuing workplace assignments to postal workers injured on the job.  In McConnell, the EEOC certified an administrative class of “all permanent rehabilitation employees and limited duty employees… who have been subjected to the NRP from May 5, 2006 to the present.”

Ruiz Litigation

While McConnell was pending, Plaintiff Ruiz (who has congenital hearing impairment) filed an individual administrative complaint with the EEOC claiming disability discrimination in connection with the Postal Service’s decision that it could not identify a modified job she could perform due to a work-related disability (carpal tunnel syndrome).

The Postal Service argued Ruiz’s individual claim was subsumed in the pending McConnell case.  The EEOC agreed.  Undeterred, Ruiz filed a federal court complaint.  Ultimately, the district court dismissed her claim, finding that she failed to exhaust her administrative remedies because the EEOC never addressed the merits of her claim, which was subsumed by McConnell.

Fifth Circuit Affirms Dismissal

On appeal, Ruiz argued that she filed two distinct disability claims: (1) she was removed improperly from her modified duty position; and (2) the modified duty position was retracted due to the employer’s failure to accommodate her congenital hearing impairment (as opposed to her on-the-job carpal tunnel injury).

In affirming the district court’s dismissal, the Fifth Circuit reasoned Ruiz’s individual claims were subsumed by McConnell inasmuch as she only received the modified duty position as part of the NRP due to her work-related injury, not because of her congenital hearing disability.  Accordingly, she did not exhaust her administrative remedies, which was grounds for dismissal.

Takeaway

Ruiz is an important reminder for employers to evaluate existing class claims to determine if they provide a basis to seek dismissal of subsequently filed, arguably related individual claims.


DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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