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Offer to named plaintiff ends FLSA action

An employer can moot a collective wage-and-hour action by extending an offer of judgment to the lone named plaintiff, the split Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The 5-4 decision reversed a ruling from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that a collective action brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is not necessarily mooted by such an offer.

The plaintiff, Laura Symczyk, worked for Genesis Healthcare Corp. as a registered nurse. After leaving her job, Symczyk initiated a collective action on behalf of herself and all similarly situated individuals. According to her complaint, the defendant violated FLSA by imposing an automatic meal break deduction, regardless of whether the employee performed compensable work during her breaks.

After answering the complaint, Genesis made a Rule 68 offer of judgment in the amount of $7,500 for lost wages, plus attorney fees, costs and expenses. When Symczyk rejected the offer, the U.S. District Court dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, concluding that the offer mooted the entire action.

Symczyk argued that an employer should not be allowed to strategically “pick off” a named plaintiff to put an end to FLSA a collective action before it can be certified.

But the Supreme Court concluded that Symczyk’s action was moot under well-established principles.

“The Court of Appeals concluded that [Symczyk’s] individual claim became moot following [the defendant’s] Rule 68 offer of judgment. We have assumed, without deciding, that this is correct…,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority.

“Reaching the question on which we granted certiorari, we conclude that [Symczyk] has no personal interest in representing putative, unnamed claimants, nor any other continuing interest that would preserve her suit from mootness. [Symczyk’s] suit was, therefore, appropriately dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction,” Thomas wrote.

The court distinguished Symczyk’s situation from its 1975 ruling in Sosna v. Iowa (in which it determined that an offer to the named plaintiff did not moot a class action in which the class has already been certified), and later cases.

Not only are class actions different from collective actions under FLSA, the high court held, but once a class action is certified, the unnamed members “acquire a legal status separate from the interest asserted by [the named plaintiff].”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent, in which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steven G. Breyer and Sonja Sotomayor joined.

The case is Genesis Healthcare v. Symczyk, No. 11-1059.

Lawyers USA is a sister publication of The Daily Record.