In Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, the Unites States Supreme Court held that a collective action under the FLSA was properly dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction after the named plaintiff ignored the employer’s Fed. R. Civ. P. 68 offer of judgment. The Court concluded that the plaintiff had no personal interest in representing putative, unnamed claimants, nor did she have any other continuing interest that would preserve her suit from mootness.
The plaintiff’s collective action was originally filed in District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, and the employer made an offer of judgment that would have fully satisfied the plaintiff’s individual claim before any other claimants joined the case. Although the plaintiff did not respond to the offer of judgment, the District Court dismissed the case as moot.
The Third Circuit reversed and held that, while the plaintiff’s individual claim was moot, her collective action could go forward on the theory that a defendant should not be allowed to “pick off” named plaintiffs and thereby avoid certification of a collective action.
The Supreme Court stated that the Courts of Appeals disagree over whether a Rule 68 offer that fully satisfies a plaintiff’s individual claim renders that plaintiff’s claim moot even if the offer is not accepted. However, the plaintiff in Symczyk had conceded that issue below. The Supreme Court therefore assumed (but did decide) that the plaintiff’s individual claim was moot even though she had not accepted the offer of judgment.
Distinguishing several cases with regard to headless classes being able to go forward where a named plaintiff’s case becomes moot, Justice Thomas, writing for a 5-4 majority (a straight conservative/liberal breakout) reversed the Circuit, holding that well-settled mootness principles control and that when the named plaintiff’s suit became moot (because the ignored Rule 68 motion covered all of her interests, including attorneys’ fees), she had no personal interest remaining that would allow her to represent others.
In so doing, the Supreme Court’s majority opined that while under Fed. R. Civ. P. 23, a putative class acquires an independent legal status once it is certified, no such independent status is conferred by” conditional certification” under the FLSA.
You may recall that I recently blogged about the Court’s decision in the Comcast case, suggesting that it presented a useful precedent that could be employed, not just in Rule 23 cases, but under the FLSA’s collective action jurisprudence, to require a court to hear merits arguments prior to certification and rule on standing then. In fact, the Court’s decision today not only punctuates that view, it suggests that the FLSA allows for more stringent analysis of standing, even after “conditional certification.”