Depending on the jurisdictions within which they operate, certain employers and their counsel will soon see a significant change in early mandatory discovery requirements in individual wage-hour cases brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).
A new set of initial discovery protocols recently published by the Federal Judicial Center (“FJC”), entitled Initial Discovery Protocols For Fair Labor Standards Act Cases Not Pleaded As Collective Actions (“FLSA Protocols”), available here, expands a party’s initial disclosure requirements to include additional documents and information relevant to FLSA cases. These Protocols apply, however, only to FLSA lawsuits that have been filed in participating courts that have implemented the Protocols by local rule or by standing, general, or individual case order. (At least one court has already adopted the Initial FLSA Protocols — the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division.) Also, as the title of this initiative makes clear, these protocols do not apply to FLSA actions styled as collective actions.
The goal of the FLSA Protocols in requiring an up-front exchange of information is to help frame issues to be resolved in the case, minimize potential opportunities for gamesmanship, and enable the court and parties to plan for more efficient and targeted discovery. To that end, the Protocols focus on the type of information that is most likely to be useful in narrowing the issues in such cases.
Specifically, both parties must produce materials such as employment agreements, compensation agreements, and offer letters; documents recording the plaintiff’s wages and/or hours worked; written complaints from the plaintiff regarding the wages or overtime and any response; and documents showing the defendant’s good faith or willfulness. The employer must also produce its wage and hour-related policies, procedures, or guidelines, as well as relevant portions of any employee handbook. Additionally, both parties must identify the plaintiff’s start and end dates of employment, job title and duties, supervisors and managers, and any individuals having knowledge of the relevant facts. The relevant time period for the FLSA Protocols mirrors the FLSA’s statute of limitations, which is two years before the date the Complaint was filed, or three years if the plaintiff’s complaint alleges a willful violation.
If adopted by a court, the FLSA Protocols will supersede the initial disclosure requirements set forth in Rule 26(a)(1) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“FRCP”); however, they will not supplant parties’ subsequent discovery obligations under the FRCP. To address potential concerns by either party regarding the confidentiality of any documents or information to be exchanged, the FLSA Protocols include a model interim protective order allowing a party to designate documents or information as “confidential,” limiting their use to the particular case.
The FLSA Protocols are the second set of case-specific discovery protocols to be developed and implemented in the federal courts. The FJC published the first set of protocols, the Initial Discovery Protocols for Employment Cases Alleging Adverse Action (“Employment Protocols”), in November 2011, and they have since been adopted by over 50 judges and on a district-wide basis in multiple jurisdictions around the country.
According to a FJC report issued in October 2015, cases filed in courts that adopted the Employment Protocols had less motion practice (both discovery-related and dispositive motions) than comparison cases, and they were more likely to settle. In a follow-up memorandum published a year later, the FJC found that the Employment Protocols had been more widely accepted by the federal judiciary than expected, despite the fact they specifically carve out from their application specific employment-related cases such as those arising under the FLSA and Family Medical Leave Act.
Like the Employment Protocols, the FLSA Protocols may very well become a helpful tool for employers being sued in FLSA litigations because they require early disclosure of relevant information that will help the parties to a litigation assess the strength of the plaintiff’s claims and employer’s defenses quickly and allow them to make informed decisions as to best strategies, including whether potential early resolution is appropriate. Query, however, whether such potential early disclosure could alternatively be achieved by requiring federal district courts to maintain more rigorous case management plan deadlines.
Whether the FLSA Protocols will ultimately result in greater efficiency in the discovery process or an increase in early case resolution remains to be seen. The FJC has announced that it will monitor their use, including by evaluating cases conducted in accordance with the Protocols’ early discovery requirements. Because many plaintiff-employees and their counsel file lawsuits as a collective action, rather than on an individual basis, as a matter of course, it is unclear how big of an impact the FLSA Protocols will actually have on non-collective FLSA litigation. In fact, it is possible the FLSA Protocols could actually incentivize plaintiff’s counsel to file actions on a collective basis, rather than as individual plaintiff lawsuits, in order to avoid the additional work at the outset of a case. If so, then expanding the Protocols to include collective actions would likely have a more resounding impact. Should the Protocols find success with the participating federal judiciary, then perhaps they will be expanded, in both jurisdiction and scope, to include collective actions. Only time will tell, and we will be sure to keep you apprised of all developments with this new initiative.