In Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 569 U.S. 66 (2013), the Supreme Court held that a putative Fair Labor Standards Act collective action brought by one employee on behalf of others was no longer justiciable when, as conceded by the employee, her individual claim became moot before others joined the case.
Symzcyk worked for Genesis Healthcare as a registered nurse. In 2009, Symczyk brought a putative collective action under the FLSA on behalf of herself and “other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). She alleged Genesis violated the FLSA by automatically deducting 30 minutes of time worked per shift for meal breaks for certain employees, even when the employees performed compensable work during those breaks. Symcyzk, who remained the sole plaintiff throughout the case, sought statutory damages for the alleged violations.
After Symczyk filed suit, but before any other employees joined the suit, the employer sent Symczyk an offer of judgment under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68, which Symczyk ignored. The offer had proposed to pay all of her statutory damages, plus costs and reasonable attorney’s fees. The District Court, finding that no one else had joined the case, and that the Rule 68 offer fully satisfied Symczyk’s claim, concluded that Symczyk’s suit was moot. The court therefore dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
The Third Circuit reversed, holding that while Symczyk’s individual claim was moot, the collective action on behalf of other similar employees was not. The Third Circuit reasoned that allowing employers to use calculated Rule 68 offers to “pick off” named plaintiff-employees before certification would frustrate the goals of collective actions. The court therefore remanded the case to the trial court, with instructions to allow Symczyk to seek conditional certification of the collective action and move forward with the case on behalf of other employees who might join. See 569 U.S. at 69-71.
The Court’s Decision
The Supreme Court reversed. The Court held that because Symczyk had no “personal interest” in representing other putative, unnamed employees, nor any other kind of continuing interest that would render her suit not moot, the trial court properly determined it lacked subject-matter jurisdiction over the case.
At the outset, the Court declined to decide whether an unaccepted Rule 68 offer that fully satisfies a plaintiff’s individual claim is sufficient to render that claim moot. Symczyk, however, had conceded this point with respect to her claim and did not argue it on appeal. The Court therefore assumed, without deciding, that the employer’s offer to Symczyk mooted her individual claim. 569 U.S. at 72-73.
The Court then determined that “well-settled mootness principles” controlled the outcome of the case. Once Symczyk’s individual claim became moot, the Court determined that the suit became moot because she had no personal interest in representing others in the action. The Court rejected Symczyk’s contrary arguments because they relied on cases that arose in the context of Rule 23 class actions. The Court found those case inapposite, both because Rule 23 actions are “fundamentally different” from FLSA collective actions and because the cases were “inapplicable” to the facts in Symczyk’s case. 569 U.S. at 73-79.
The cases Symczyk rallied behind were Sosna v. Iowa, 419 U.S. 393 (1975) and United States Parole Comm’n v. Geraghty, 445 U.S. 388 (1980). Symczyk argued these cases meant she could seek certification of an FLSA collective action after her individual claim became moot. The Court determined Sosna and Geraghty did not support her position. In short, Sosna held that a class action is not rendered moot when the named plaintiff’s individual claim becomes moot after the class has been duly certified. Geraghty extended those principles to denials of class certification motions, and further provided that, where a putative class action would have acquired independent legal status but for the district court’s erroneous denial of class certification, a corrected ruling on appeal “relates back” to the time of the erroneous denial. See 445 U.S. at 404 and n. 11.
At first glance, these cases seemed like they supported Symczyk’s position. The Court observed, however, that Geraghty’s holding was explicitly limited to cases in which the named plaintiff’s claim remains live at the time the district court denies class certification. See 445 U.S. at 407 and n. 11. Symczyk, by contrast, had not yet moved for “conditional certification” when her claim became moot. Nor had the District Court anticipatorily ruled on any such request. Symczyk therefore had no certification decision to which her claim could have related back. More importantly, the Court emphasized that essential to Sosna and Geraghty was the fact that a putative class acquires an “independent legal status” once it is certified under Rule 23. By contrast, under the FLSA, “conditional certification” does not produce a class with an independent legal status, or join additional parties to the action. 569 U.S. at 73-75.
Second, the Court addressed a line of cases, like County of Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44, 52 (1991), holding that an “inherently transitory” class-action claim is not necessarily moot upon the termination of the named plaintiff’s claim. The Court found these cases inapplicable. Symczyk argued that an employer’s use of Rule 68 offers to “pick off” a named plaintiff before the collective-action process is complete renders the action “inherently transitory.” But the Court observed the “inherently transitory” rationale was developed to address circumstances in which the defendant’s challenged conduct was effectively unreviewable because no plaintiff possessed a personal stake in the suit long enough for litigation to run its course. For this reason, the Court observed, the McLaughlin line of cases focused on the fleeting nature of the challenged conduct giving rise to the claim, not on the defendant’s litigation strategy. Unlike a claim for injunctive relief, a damages claim (like the FLSA claims at issue in Smyczk’s case) cannot evade review — the damage has been done and can be measured and compensated. The Court further pointed out that an offer of full settlement cannot insulate such a claim from review. While dismissing Symzcyk’s case before certification would foreclose the putative other plaintiff-employees of Genesis from vindicating their rights in Symzcyk’s suit, those employees would remain free to do so in their own lawsuits. 569 U.S. at 75-77.
Finally, the Court addressed its decision in Deposit Guaranty Nat. Bank v. Roper, 445 U.S. 326 (1980), which Symczyk cited for her argument that the purposes served by the FLSA’s collective-action provisions would be frustrated by the defendants’ use of Rule 68 to “pick off” named plaintiffs before the collective-action process has run its course. The Court found Roper did not support this argument. In Roper, the named plaintiffs’ individual claims became moot after the District Court denied their Rule 23 class certification motion and entered judgment in their favor based on the defendant’s Rule 68 offer. The Roper Court held that the named plaintiffs could appeal the denial of certification because they possessed an ongoing, personal economic stake in the substantive controversy — namely, to shift a portion of attorney’s fees and expenses to successful class litigants. Symczyk, by contrast, conceded that her employer’s offer provided complete relief, and she asserted no continuing economic interest in shifting attorney’s fees and costs. Moreover, the Roper holding was tied to the unique significance of Rule 23 class certification decisions, distinguishing it from the FLSA collective action context. 569 U.S. at 77-79.
In summary, Genesis held that a putative FLSA collective action brought by a single employee was no longer justiciable when, as conceded by the employee, her individual claim became moot by an offer of judgment providing complete relief and no other employees had joined the case. The Court, however, declined to decide whether an unaccepted offer of judgment could render a plaintiff’s claim moot.
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