I am always interested in statute of limitations issues and cases because it is the first defense I look to when defending a FLSA case. On occasion, a suit will be dismissed in one court for one reason or another and then the focus is on whether the plaintiff(s) file the suit in the correct jurisdiction and in a timely manner. A very recent case illustrates the principle that a dismissal in one court may prompt a statute of limitations defense in another. This case is even more interesting because the initial lawsuit was dismissed without prejudice, The case is entitled Wright v. Waste Pro USA, Inc., and issued from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

The named plaintiff, a driver, filed a class action seeking overtime wages. He filed against the parent company, Waste Pro, and the subsidiary, Waste Pro Florida in South Carolina. The companies then moved to dismiss these claims because the South Carolina courts did not have personal jurisdiction over the defendants. The South Carolina federal court agreed and dismissed the lawsuit.

Then, two years later, the plaintiff filed the same suit in federal court in the Southern District of Florida. The two-year statute of limitations had expired and his only hope of saving his case was to hope for a finding of “willfulness,” which would allow a third year of recovery. The plaintiff and defendant agreed that his claims would be otherwise untimely if the willfulness standard did not apply. The federal Judge in Florida ruled the claims were not tolled in Florida during the period of time the South Carolina case took to work its way through and dismissed the case with prejudice. The Court found there was no basis for equitable tolling, which would have saved the lawsuit for the plaintiff.

The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the dismissal. The Court agreed that the suit was not tolled during the time the South Carolina case weaved through the system. The Court noted these were separate cases and stated that “for purposes of a limitations period, an action that is dismissed without prejudice is ordinarily treated as never filed. The Court explicitly stated that cases brought under the FLSA “are not an exception to that rule.” The Court also would not allow equitable tolling to bring the case within the time limits, as that was an extraordinary remedy only allowed if there was no other remedy at law, which the named plaintiff did in fact have, e.g., filing a “placeholder” suit in Florida to keep the Florida claims from fading away.

The Takeaway

This is an instance where a scheming plaintiff tried to play both ends down the middle and lost. He tried to hedge his bets by filing in one State and keeping the other jurisdiction in his back pocket. I am especially happy about the Eleventh Circuit shooting down the equitable tolling allegations. That doctrine is to be invoked only in extraordinary circumstances and happily the Court found these machinations did not fall into that narrow crevice.

Better luck next time…