Despite the lenient standards for conditionally certifying an FLSA collective action, a federal court in Miami recently ruled that a collective action against a local auto dealership was inappropriate.
First, some background on FLSA collective actions. The Fair Labor Standards Act provides that an action for overtime compensation “may be maintained . . . by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated.” 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, has instructed district courts to follow a two-tiered procedure to determine whether plaintiffs are “similarly situated” for purposes of class certification under § 216(b). At the initial stage, or “notice stage,” the district court’s decision is based only on the pleadings and any affidavits which have been submitted. The second stage of the two-tiered procedure typically occurs at the end of discovery when the matter is ready for trial and defendant has filed a motion for decertification of the class.
In deciding whether to authorize notice at the “notice stage,” the Court should strike a balance between allowing the named plaintiffs to contact potential class members to inform them of their rights, and the prohibition against solicitation of clients and the desire to avoid frivolous claims. One district court explained the rationale for this requirement as follows:
In seeking court-authorized notice, plaintiffs are in effect asking this court to assist in their efforts to locate potential plaintiffs and thereby expand the scope of the litigation. As a matter of sound case management, a court should, before offering such assistance, make a preliminary inquiry as to whether a manageable class exists. Moreover the sending of notice and consent forms to potential plaintiffs implicates concerns in addition to orderly case management. The courts, as well as practicing attorneys, have a responsibility to avoid the “stirring up” of litigation through unwarranted solicitation.
Severetson v. Phillips Beverage Co., 137 F.R.D. 264, 266 (D. Minn. 1991).
The Eleventh Circuit has held that a district court has the authority to enter an order requiring notice to individuals who are “similarly-situated,” but “before determining to exercise such power…the district court should satisfy itself that there are other employees…who desire to ‘opt in’ and who are ‘similarly situated.’” Dybach v. State of Florida Dep’t of Corrections, 942 F.2d 1562, 1567-68 (11th Cir. 1991). A plaintiff must offer “detailed allegations supported by affidavits which successfully engage defendants’ affidavits to the contrary.” Id. Generalized, unsupported allegations are insufficient to discharge the plaintiff’s burden. Rather, a plaintiff has the burden of demonstrating a reasonable basis for crediting her assertion that aggrieved individuals exist in the proposed class. Rodgers, 2006 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 23272, at *7-8 (citing Haynes v. Singer Co., Inc., 696 F.2d 884, 887 (11th Cir. 1983)).
Thus, plaintiff or her counsel’s mere belief in the existence of other employees who desire to opt in, and “unsupported expectations that additional plaintiffs will subsequently come forward, are insufficient to justify” certification of a collective action and notice to a potential class. Id. Moreover, “[c]ertification of a collective action and notice to a potential class is not appropriate to determine whether there are others who desire to join the lawsuit.” Id. (citing Dybach, 942 F.2d at 1567-68). Rather, a plaintiff must show that others desire to opt in before the court can authorize notice. Id.
When there is a lack of evidence to support a finding that other employees are interested in opting in to the litigation, a court should deny the Plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification.
That was exactly the result reached in a recent decision by United States District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro in Galban v. Bill Seidle’s Nissan, Inc., Case No. 1:09-cv-20310-uu (S.D. Fla.) The plaintiffs, former salesmen, alleged in their complaint that they were denied the federal minimum wage based on the dealership’s "commission-only" pay plan. They moved for conditional certification of a class, but failed to demonstrate that any other similarly situated salespeople had an interest in joining the litigation. Absent such evidence, Judge Ungaro did not hesitate in denying the plaintiffs’ motion.
The Galban decision illustrates an important principle of FLSA litigation. A so-called "collective action" is not a collective action until the court says it is. And although the standards for certifying a collective action at the initial, "notice" stage are lenient, there are certain minimum requirements that a plaintiff must meet. It is defense counsel’s role to hold plaintiffs to those standards and demonstrate, if possible, that a collective action is inappropriate.