Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Today the Supreme Court decided Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk (No. 11-1059), which addresses whether collective action claims under the Fair Labor Standard Act (FLSA) are “justiciable when the lone plaintiff’s individual claim becomes moot.” [Slip Op. 1]. The Court splits 5-4, with Justice Thomas writing the majority opinion (joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, and Alito) and Justice Kagan writing the dissent (joined by Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor).
The Third Circuit had held that the Symczyk’s claim was moot because the defendant had made a Rule 68 offer of judgment that would have “fully satisfied” her claim, even though the plaintiff did not accept the offer. Although there is a circuit split on “whether an unaccepted offer that fully satisfies a plaintiff ’s claim is sufficient to render the claim moot,” Justice Thomas and the majority decline to resolve it--finding that Symczyk had conceded the issue. [Slip Op. at 5.] They therefore “assume, without deciding, that petitioners’ Rule 68 offer mooted respondent’s individual claim” [Slip Op. 5], and they ultimately conclude [Slip Op. 6]:
In the absence of any claimant’s opting in, respondent’s suit became moot when her individual claim became moot, because she lacked any personal interest in representing others in this action. While the FLSA authorizes an aggrieved employee to bring an action on behalf of himself and “other employees similarly situated,” 29 U.S C. § 216(b), the mere presence of collective-action allegations in the complaint cannot save the suit from mootness once the individual claim is satisfied.
In dissent, Justice Kagan rejects the idea that Symczyk’s individual claim was moot, noting that “an unaccepted offer of judgment cannot moot a case.” [Dissenting Op. 3] She adds: “So a friendly suggestion to the Third Circuit: Rethink your mootness-by-unaccepted-offer theory. And a note to all other courts of appeals: Don’t try this at home.” [Dissenting Op. 4]
Given the majority’s failure to address whether an unaccepted Rule 68 offer renders a claim moot--and Justice Kagan's forceful critique of that notion--the broader implications of Genesis are unclear. If lower federal courts accept Justice Kagan’s “friendly suggestion,” then she would be correct that Genesis is “the most one-off of one-offs, explaining only what (the majority thinks) should happen to a proposed collective FLSA action when something that in fact never happens to an individual FLSA claim is errantly thought to have done so.” [Dissenting Op. 1]. But if any circuits continue to follow the mootness-by-unaccepted-offer theory, Genesis ratifies a strategy that allows “defendants to ‘pick off’ named plaintiffs with strategic Rule 68 offers before certification." [Slip Op. 3] Even on that point, the majority’s reasoning is confined to the FLSA scenario--rather than, say, Rule 23 class actions. Justice Thomas notes that “Rule 23 actions are fundamentally different from collective actions under the FLSA.” [Slip Op. 6].