For several years, employers’ counsel have moved to block the combining of state wage and overtime claims with federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) claims, arguing that Rule 23 opt-out class actions were inherently inconsistent with FLSA collective opt-in actions. For support, they cited to the decision of the Third Circuit in De Asencio vs. Tyson Foods, Inc., 342 F. 3d 301 (3rd Cir. 2003) reversing a district court’s exercise of supplemental jurisdiction because of the inordinate size of the state-law class, the different terms of proof required by the implied contract state-law claims, and the general federal interest in opt-in wage actions. Since De Asencio, numerous district courts in the Third Circuit have dismissed state law wage claims that paralleled FLSA claims because of the “inherent incompatability” between opt-in collective actions and opt-out class actions.
On September 26, 2011, the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals approved the combining of state law Rule 23 opt-out class wage claims with an FLSA opt-in collective action. Salim Shahriar, et al. vs. Smith & Wollensky Group, Inc. d/b/a Park Avenue Restaurant, et al., __________ F. 3d _________ (2nd Cir. No. 10-1884). The Court noted that nothing in the FLSA statutory language or legislative history precluded joint prosecution of FLSA and state law wage claims in the same federal action. The U.S. Department of Labor weighed in with an amicus brief stating that the Restaurant had misinterpreted the FLSA, urging the court to reject any attempt to use the FLSA to bar certification of a class action of state law wage claims in federal courts merely because a FLSA collective action was pending.
The Second Circuit in Smith & Wollensky approved and relied substantially upon the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Irvin vs. OS Restaurant Services, Inc., 632 F. 3d 971 (7th Cir. 2011) holding that a district court had abused its discretion in denying Rule 23 class action certification of state claims merely because of the existence of a parallel FLSA collective action. The Seventh Circuit noted that neither the text of the FLSA nor the procedures established by that statute suggested that the FLSA was intended generally to oust other ordinary procedures used in federal courts, or that class actions in particular could not be combined with an FLSA proceeding.
The Ninth and District of Columbia Circuits also concluded that any alleged incompalability between the FLSA and Federal Rule 23 was insufficient to deny supplemental jurisdiction. See, Wang vs. Chinese Daily News, Inc., 623 F. 3d 743 (9th Cir. 2010) (vacated and remanded in light of Walmart, 564 U.S. _____, 10/3/11); and Lindsay vs. Government Employees Insurance Co., 448 F. 3d 416 (DC Cir. 2006). In summary, these Circuits have held that, while there may in some cases be exceptional circumstances or compelling reasons for declining jurisdiction, the “conflict” between the opt-in procedure under the FLSA and the opt-out procedure under Rule 23 was not a sufficient cause by itself to decline jurisdiction.
Ultimately, the US Supreme Court may be called upon to review an apparent split in the Circuits on this issue. In the meantime, employers are urged to continue to raise the issue in courts that have not yet ruled, and to urge “exceptional circumstances” and “compelling reasons” for courts in the Second, Fourth, Seventh, Ninth and D.C. Circuits to bar hybrid state Rule 23 opt-out claims from the federal processes.
This might include, for example, the size of the putative opt-out Rule 23 class in the state law claims as compared with the number of opt-ins in the FLSA collective action. Hybrid collective and class actions typically arise where only a small number of potential opt-in plaintiffs under a FLSA claim actually opt-in, while there are hundreds and perhaps thousands of putative class members with potential state law claims. One purpose of Congress in enacting the FLSA opt-in provision, it may be argued, was to control the volume of litigation and ensure that absent individuals would not have their rights litigated without their input or knowledge. The opt-in mechanism under the FLSA limits FLSA claims to those affirmatively asserted by employees “in their own right” and frees employers from the burden of representative actions. Allowing a Rule 23 opt-out option to be combined in the same lawsuit with an opt-in FLSA option allows plaintiffs to evade the requirements of the FLSA by permitting litigation through a representative action and bringing unnamed plaintiffs into the lawsuit. See, e.g., Dell vs. Citizens Financial Group, Inc., Western District Pennsylvania No. 2:10-Civ-00320, 6/8/11.