When I begin defending a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action, one of the first strategies I look for is to find some way to kick the named plaintiff out of the lawsuit, whether through, perhaps, a Rule 68 Offer of Judgment or a contention that they are not a valid part of the lawsuit and so the whole thing must go away. The Sixth Circuit has recently shown that this maxim still holds true. The Court dismissed a collective action in which the lead plaintiff, a Nurse, had not filed the required consent form, i.e. opt-in, prior to the running of the statute of limitations (for the named plaintiff). The case is entitled Frye v. Baptist Memorial Hospital Inc. et al.
The plaintiffs contended that they were not paid for working through their lunch breaks. The Court noted that the failure of the lead plaintiff to file the opt-in, although, on one level, a minor detail, yet doomed the lawsuit. The Court observed that “redundant though it may seem to require consents from the named plaintiffs in a class action, the FLSA’s mandate is clear.” The Court also affirmed the lower court’s decertification of the class, as there was not enough evidence to show that all members of the putative class were similarly situated.
The theory of the plaintiffs was that the automatic deduction of time for a lunch violated the law, but the Court duly noted that such a policy was itself compliant with the FLSA. As such, the mere existence of the policy could not serve as the linchpin of an argument that all employees were similarly situated. I believe this is extremely important, as there has been an explosion of class action cases involving so-called automatic lunch deduction cases.
It is also significant from the perspective of attacking the propriety of class certification simply because off-the-clock work may occur amongst a group of employees. This is because the circumstances that lead to an employee working off the clock or through lunch are individual in nature and cause and this require individual scrutiny, which (as I have often preached) is the anathema of a class action attempt for certification.
The lead plaintiff had argued that the FLSA did not require him to file an opt-in and also that his attorney-services agreement and his deposition satisfied the requirement in a de facto manner. The Sixth Circuit soundly rejected that claim, noting that there was a qualitative difference between an individual action and a collective action. The Court also specifically stated that an unsigned deposition did not constitute a written consent, although the Court noted that the FLSA does not dictate a particular manner in which the written consent must be done.
In sum, here there was a confluence of two very strong defense tactics—knock out the named plaintiff, by any means necessary, and, hit hard at the need for individual scrutiny. ff