In the world of class actions, case brought under the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) stand apart from other class actions. Unlike a standard Rule 23 class action, the plaintiff in an FLSA action has the option of filing a class action under Rule 23, a collective action under the FLSA, or both.
What is a collective action? Like a class action, a plaintiff in a collective action trades individual control over her lawsuit for the economies of scale and the bargaining leverage that come with group litigation. But FLSA collective actions follow different procedural rules than Rule 23 class actions, ones generally considered more permissive. FLSA certification usually occurs in two parts. First, in the "notice stage," the trial court decides whether it should notify other “similarly situated” employees who might wish to opt in to the litigation. If the court decides in favor of notice (and with it, conditional certification), it informs the putative class members with a court-ordered notice and gives them an opportunity to opt into (not out of) the class. After any other plaintiffs opt in, discovery commences. After discovery is complete, the defendant can move for decertification. If the court decertifies the proposed opt-in class action, it dismisses the opt-in plaintis without prejudice to reasserting their claims individually.
This more permissive procedure means that employment actions under the FLSA have become a growth industry for plaintiffs' lawyers. And the difference in procedure means that the strategies for opposing certification are different. So how does one oppose an FLSA action? Shook Hardy lawyers William C. Martucci and Jennifer Oldvader have published an article in the Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy answering just that question. (The cite, for those interested, is 19 Kan. J.L. & Pub. Pol'y 433.) And they have several strong proposals for opposing the increasingly-common practice of filing concurrent Rule 23 class actions and FLSA collective actions:
- Attack the "common scheme or plan" allegation. "One way of gathering such evidence is to collect declarations from other employees, who can provide vital information on compensation and time-clock policies as well as how these policies are put into practice." If the declarations show that the "policy" was implemented in different ways at different times by different people, a court will have a harder time certifying a class.
- Argue that enough discovery has occurred to allow for heightened certification standard. "Generally, the rationale behind the "lenient" conditional certification standard is that a plaintiff has not had time to conduct any discovery at the conditional certification stage. However, where discovery has occurred, a defendant may be able to successfully argue that a heightened standard of review is more appropriate."
- Argue the conflict between collective action and class action. "When faced with the possibility of an opt-in FLSA collective action and an opt-out state law class action, a defendant may be able to successfully argue that a district court should decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction because the state law class action predominates over the FLSA collective action."
Martucci and Oldvader focus their article on "off the clock" actions where plaintiffs are allegedly not paid for time they worked (as opposed to misclassification actions, where plaintiffs are denied overtime because their job does not qualify for it). But their tactical advice is sound. For attorneys looking to defend these kinds of cases, this is essential reading.