Usually, when a party does not respond to discovery requests, it can face sanctions, including the dismissal of the case (if he/they are the plaintiff(s). Well, that truism took a hit the other day when a New Jersey federal judge did not dismiss the claims of two opt-in plaintiffs in a FLSA collective action against General Electric Company, as the Court concluded that the delays in their responding to discovery by service technicians, who have charged they were not compensated for off-the-clock duties, did not mandate dismissal of their case. The case is entitled Maddy et al. v. General Electric Co., and was filed in federal court in the District of New Jersey.
Although the plaintiffs had a lengthy history of delinquent discovery responses, including a year-long lack of response to certain discovery requests, the Judge refused to throw their claims out. The Judge examined the so-called Poulis factors, the Third Circuit six-part standard to determine whether to dismiss a case for failure to comply with discovery and concluded that, in their totality, the standards weighed against dismissal. The Court found that “the only factors which somewhat weigh in favor of dismissal are the extent of the parties’ personal responsibility and the history of dilatoriness.”
The Judge found no evidence to support the employer’s claim that it had been prejudiced by the discovery delay nor was there any evidence that the two opt-ins had acted in bad faith when eventually responded to the May 2014 request in September 2015. Significantly, the Judge also found that the plaintiffs’ claims seemed meritorious (which is one of the Poulis factors) as the defendant had not filed a motion challenging the legal sufficiency of the claims.
The allegations were that employees were doing preliminary, off-the-clock work. The employees charge that spent time on integrally connected tasks, including time spent logging in to the computer system in order to download jobs, responding to emails and travel time. Importantly, they allege that their supervisors intimidated them when they tried to report the time worked on their timesheets.
This case evidences the “leniency” with which courts allow plaintiffs to continue to press their claims, even in the face of dilatory (beyond words) conduct in responding to discovery. It seems if the defendant had made some motion to dismiss or challenge the claims, on their own merits, the result might have been different.
The bigger issue is whether, in reality, the employees were working off-the-clock or performing tasks so directly connected to their primary jobs that those sideline activities became compensable. If supervisors intimidated employees not to report the time, that is bad enough on its own and worse, it will fortify the allegations of how many hours they claimed they worked.