The Supreme Court Holds That Employers Mooting Named Plaintiff's Claim Also Moot FLSA Collective Action

by Akerman LLP - HR Defense
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On April 16, 2012, in Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, No. 11-1059, the Supreme Court held that when a FLSA plaintiff's claim becomes moot prior to a conditional certification of a collective action, the entire action itself becomes moot and the case should be dismissed. However, the opinion unfortunately did not render a decision on the key question of whether a named plaintiff's claim is actually mooted with a defendant's offer of judgment of full relief.  Rather, the Supreme Court assumed this to be the case. Therefore, the decision leaves open the issue of whether an employer's use of an offer of judgment to the named plaintiff is an effective tool to quickly dispose of an asserted FLSA collective action.  

In this case, the named plaintiff, Laura Symczyk, was a registered nurse employed at a Genesis Healthcare nursing home facility. In 2009, Symczyk sued Genesis on behalf of herself and all other "similarly situated" employees alleging that Genesis failed to pay her for 30 minutes of meal breaks when she had not actually taken all or some of the break. Genesis answered the complaint and made a Rule 68 offer of judgment, offering to satisfy all of Symczyk's claims for $7,500 in unpaid wages, plus attorneys' fees, costs and expenses to be determined by the Court. Symczyk failed to respond to the offer.

Genesis then moved to dismiss the entire suit on the basis that the named plaintiff no longer had a "personal stake" in the outcome, as she had been offered all the relief she was seeking. The district court agreed and granted Genesis' motion to dismiss. However, on appeal, the Third Circuit reversed and remanded the decision, holding that while Symczyk's personal claim was mooted, the collective action was not necessarily moot. The court concluded that the use of offers of judgment before class certification could "short-circuit the class action process" and "prevent a putative representative from reaching the certification stage." Therefore, the plaintiff should be allowed to seek class certification, which if granted, should relate back to the date of the filing of the complaint.  

The Supreme Court granted certiorari and observed that because Symczyk had conceded in prior pleadings that an offer of complete relief will generally moot the plaintiff's interest in the outcome of the litigation, it was procedurally bound by the Third Circuit's conclusion that Genesis' Rule 68 Offer of Judgment mooted Symczyk's individual claim. As Symczyk no longer had an individual claim, the collective action could not survive. Unless others have come forward to participate in the litigation, and actually opted into the class, nothing survives the satisfaction of the plaintiff's claim.

While the Court did not answer the crucial question of when an offer of judgment operates to moot the plaintiff's individual claim, the decision at least provides employers with a litigation strategy to attempt to end FLSA litigation. If a class has not yet been certified, a defendant may still argue that offering the named plaintiff all the relief individually sought through an offer of judgment moots the entire case and ends a potentially lengthy and costly FLSA collective action. There are some important limitations to note: (1) to even make this argument, the offer must be made before the conditional certification of the class; (2) other employees are not barred from later bringing their own claims in subsequent suits; and (3) the offer must satisfy all the plaintiff's claims and provide every form of relief sought.

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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