In most wage and hour cases, each workweek gives rise to a separate claim, at least for statute of limitations purposes. Thus, an employee seeking payment for alleged off-the-clock work or an independent contractor claiming misclassification and entitlement to overtime ordinarily may seek back wages and related recovery only for work performed within a set amount of time—usually two to six years preceding the filing of the complaint, depending on the jurisdiction—preceding the filing of the complaint. But what happens to the statute of limitations when a plaintiff tries to bring a class action under state law, the court denies class certification, and a new plaintiff seeks to bring a subsequent class action presenting the same claims?

On June 11, 2018, the Supreme Court provided the answer in China Agritech, Inc. v. Resh. In short, the Court held that although a class action suspends the running of the limitations period for individual potential class members who subsequently seek to join a suit or to file their own individual case, the class action does not permit the filing of subsequent time-barred class actions.

American Pipe Tolling

The Supreme Court first addressed the interplay of class actions and statutes of limitations more than four decades ago. In American Pipe & Construction Co. v. Utah, the Court concluded that a timely-filed complaint seeking relief on behalf of a class under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure suspends the running of the statute of limitations for potential class members, and that, upon the denial of class certification, members of the unsuccessful class may intervene in the original case without erosion of their claims to the statute of limitations. 414 U.S. 538, 544, 552-53 (1974).

Nine years later, the Court concluded that so-called American Pipe tolling applies not only when members of the pleaded class intervene in the original suit, but also when they file their own individual cases. Crown, Cork & Seal Co. v. Parker, 462 U.S. 345, 350, 353-54 (1983). An open question following American Pipe and Crown, Cork is whether these tolling principles also apply to subsequent class actions.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

In China Agritech, a company’s stock price dropped following public disclosure of allegedly fraudulent conduct by the company. Claims accrued on February 3, 2011, and on February 11, 2011, a plaintiff filed a putative class action under the Securities Exchange Act of 1934, which provides for a two-year statute of limitations. The court denied class certification in May of 2012, and the original case settled in September 2012, leading to dismissal.

The following month, the same counsel filed a second putative class action against the company alleging the same claims on behalf of a new named plaintiff. The court again denied class certification, leading to another settlement and dismissal.

On June 30, 2014—more than two years after the February 3, 2011 accrual of the claims—yet another plaintiff, represented by new counsel, commenced a third putative class action, which made its way to the Supreme Court. The district court dismissed the complaint as untimely, holding that the first two class complaints did not toll the time to bring further class claims. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.

The Supreme Court granted certiorari to resolve a three-way split among the federal appellate courts on the tolling issue. The Court framed the question presented as follows: “Upon denial of class certification, may a putative class member, in lieu of promptly joining an existing suit or promptly filing an individual action, commence a class action anew beyond the time allowed by the applicable statute of limitations?” (Slip Op. at 2.) Justice Ginsburg’s answer, in a decision joined by seven other justices, was that “American Pipe does not permit the maintenance of a follow-on class action past expiration of the statute of limitations.” (Id.)

The Court noted that the reason for American Pipe tolling for individual claims is that “economy of litigation favors delaying those claims until after a class-certification denial. If class certification is granted, the claims will proceed as a class and there would be no need for the assertion of any claim individually.” (Slip Op. at 6.) If a court denies class certification, “only then would it be necessary to pursue claims individually.” (Id.)

But when a case involves class claims, “efficiency favors early assertion of competing class representative claims. If class treatment is appropriate, and all would-be representatives have come forward, the district court can select the best plaintiff with knowledge of the full array of potential class representatives and class counsel.” (Slip Op. at 7.) In cases in which “the class mechanism is not a viable option for the claims, the decision denying certification will be made at the outset of the case, litigated once for all would-be class representatives.” (Id.)

The Court cautioned that the plaintiffs’ “proposed reading would allow the statute of limitations to be extended time and again; as each class is denied certification, a new named plaintiff could file a class complaint that resuscitates the litigation.” (Slip Op. at 10.) The Court observed that although “[t]he Federal Rules [of Civil Procedure] provide a range of options to aid courts” in managing complex litigation, “[w]hat the Rules do not offer is a reason to permit plaintiffs to exhume failed class actions by filing new, untimely class actions.” (Id. at 14-15.)

The Concurrence

Concurring in the judgment only, Justice Sotomayor took issue with the Court’s holding as applied to cases outside the securities context. She addressed several differences between the procedures required by the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act, including publication of notice of the filing of a putative securities class action, designed to encourage active participation early in the case by other potential lead plaintiffs and counsel, not required for other class actions under Rule 23. (Concurrence at 2-4.) Justice Sotomayor agreed with the denial of tolling in the case before the Court, but she would have limited the ruling to cases subject to these additional procedural requirements and would not have issued a decision applicable to all Rule 23 cases. (Id. at 1, 7.)

What the Decision Means for Employers

In light of China Agritech, employers should expect courts to reject the use of American Pipe tolling to allow plaintiffs in wage and hour putative class actions to seek relief for workweeks that are outside the applicable limitations period. Courts will likely continue to allow individual claims for those otherwise time-barred workweeks when supported by American Pipe tolling. In addition, courts may continue to allow subsequent class actions by members of previously denied classes, but without the benefit of tolling. As always, employers faced with a wage and hour putative class action should carefully consider all available defenses, including the statute of limitations as to individual and class claims.

As noted in earlier postings, in March of this year, a federal judge in New York handed Chipotle Mexican Grill a significant victory, denying a request by salaried management apprentices alleging misclassification as exempt from overtime to certify claims for class action treatment under the laws of six states, as well as granting Chipotle’s motion to decertify an opt-in class of 516 apprentices under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”).  The plaintiffs then sought—and in July 2017 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit granted—a discretionary interlocutory appeal of the ruling concerning the six state-law putative classes, allowing the plaintiffs to obtain immediate review of that decision under Rule 23(f) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure rather than waiting until after final judgment in the case to pursue an appeal as of right.

The plaintiffs also asked the district court for permission to appeal the order decertifying the FLSA collective action.  Under the pertinent statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), a district court may certify a non-final ruling for immediate appeal if the “order involves a controlling question of law as to which there is substantial ground for difference of opinion and … an immediate appeal from the order may materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation[.]”  The plaintiffs argued that “a conflict exists in this Circuit between Rule 23 standards for class certification and FLSA Section [16(b)] standards for certification of a collective action” and that the court’s rulings regarding the FLSA and the state-law classes reflect uncertainty regarding the differences, if any, between the class certification standard and the FLSA decertification standard.

On September 25, 2017, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for an interlocutory appeal.  Although the court “disagrees with Plaintiffs’ argument that there is a ‘rift’ between” those standards, the court nevertheless concluded that the “Plaintiffs’ assertions do point to controlling questions of law which may have substantial grounds for a difference of opinion.”  (Order at 2.)  The court emphasized that “[t]he Second Circuit will review this Court’s Rule 23 class certification decision pursuant to Rule 23(f)” but that this review “would not likely encompass the portion of this Court’s decision decertifying the . . . collective action.”  (Id.)  Because “Plaintiffs are adamant that the two standards need elucidation and that this Court erred in applying the standards, it seems proper to grant Section 1292(b) relief in order for the Circuit to review the entire” ruling—i.e., both the FLSA and the state-law class aspects of the decision—and thereby “avoid the possibility of conflicting decisions on Plaintiffs’ class motions, promote judicial efficiency, and avoid piecemeal appellate litigation.”  (Id.)  The court also remarked that “the Second Circuit has recognized that class certification decisions have the potential to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation which the Second Circuit has held may warrant Section 1292(b) relief.”  (Id. at 3.)

Stepping back from the specific wording of the court’s decision, the ruling reflects a pragmatic approach to the matter: because the Second Circuit has already decided to take up the Rule 23 class certification issue in the case, there is no real harm in allowing the appellate court the opportunity to decide whether it also wants to address the FLSA decertification issue at the same time.  The district court’s decision certifying the matter for interlocutory appeal does not require the Second Circuit to hear the full case at this time; instead, it authorizes the plaintiffs to proceed with a petition for permission to that court to appeal the decertification order.

It remains to be seen to what extent this court and other courts will apply the actual verbiage of this decision even-handedly when employers seek review of orders granting class certification or conditionally certifying FLSA collective actions.  Will being “adamant” that the law needs “elucidation” and that the court “erred” features of nearly every employer-side request for interlocutory review—or the “potential” for class certification decisions “to materially advance the ultimate termination of the litigation” similarly lead to interlocutory review when employers make comparable requests?  Stay tuned for further developments.

Our colleague Adriana S. Kosovych, associate at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Hospitality Employment and Labor blog that will be of interest to many of our readers: “Chipotle Exploits Wide Variation Among Plaintiffs to Defeat Class and Collective Certification.

Following is an excerpt:

A New York federal court recently declined to certify under Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 23”) six classes of salaried “apprentices” at Chipotle restaurants asserting claims for overtime pay under New York Labor Law (“NYLL”) and parallel state laws in Missouri, Colorado, Washington, Illinois, and North Carolina, on the theory that they were misclassified as exempt executives in Scott et al. v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. et al., Case No. 12-CV-8333 (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 29, 2017).  The Court also granted Chipotle’s motion to decertify the plaintiffs’ conditionally certified collective action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), resulting in the dismissal without prejudice of the claims of 516 plaintiffs who had opted in since June 2013.

The putative class and collective action of apprentices working in certain of Chipotle’s 2,000-plus restaurants nationwide were provisionally employed while being trained to become general managers of new Chipotle locations. The Scott action challenged Chipotle’s blanket exempt classification of the apprentice position, claiming that the duties plaintiffs actually performed during the majority of their working time were not managerial, and therefore, as non-exempt employees they were entitled to receive overtime pay. …

Read the full post here.

By Evan J. Spelfogel

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.