Co-authored by Abad Lopez and Noah Finkel
The two-step “send notice now/worry later” approach to FLSA collective actions — in which courts approve notice to potential collective action members under the lenient standard but comfort defendant-employers with the bromide of “don’t worry, we can revisit the issue at the decertification stage under a more rigorous standard” — continues to leave a bad taste.
Those who follow FLSA collective action litigation are familiar with the recipe. Motions for conditional certification usually are subject to a “lenient standard” under which a plaintiff need carry only a “low burden” in making a “modest showing.” These motions thus typically result in a notice of collective action being issued to all those meeting the collective action definition. Dozens, hundreds, or even thousands then opt in to the case and substantially increase a defendant-employer’s potential exposure. Substantial discovery then occurs, and then the defendant-employer files a motion for decertification. Viewing that motion under a far more rigorous standard, courts often undo conditional certification and find that the collective action members are not in fact similarly-situated to each other. The dozens, hundreds, or even thousands who opted in then are dismissed from the case without prejudice.
So damage repaired, right? Unfortunately, no. Those former opt-ins — who would not exist but for the conditional certification order — can remain a significant cost and potential liability for an employer. They may file new lawsuits separately or in smaller groups, or they may even find their way back into the current lawsuit.
In other words, by refusing to conduct a meaningful analysis at the conditional certification stage, courts invite numerous individuals to join litigation through the collective action mechanism, even when their claims do not belong in the same lawsuit. Defendants then bear the burden of defending multiple lawsuits that, but for the ease of the two-step approach, probably would not have been brought to begin with.
A recent case in Arkansas illustrates this point. In Conners v. Catfish Pies, Inc., et al., an Arkansas federal judge conditionally certified a lawsuit accusing Gusano’s Chicago-Style Pizzeria restaurant operators of using illegal tip pools to pay waiters less than the minimum wage. Conners, who worked as a server at the Gusano’s location in Conway, Arkansas, claimed she was forced to pool her tips with cooks and other kitchen employees, who typically do not receive gratuities, in violation of the FLSA. Conners argued that because Gusano’s tip-sharing agreement was invalid, the company was required to pay her a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, rather than the $2.75 plus tips that she was given.
Following conditional certification under the “lenient standard,” more than a dozen current and former waiters joined the lawsuit. Later, the court purportedly undid the damage when it decertified the lawsuit using the more rigorous analysis in the second step of the two-step certification process typically utilized for collective actions under the FLSA. In its decertification order, the court found that the plaintiffs were in fact not “similarly situated” because different workers were employed by different entities that operated the restaurants, and thus were subject to different pay practices.
But what seemed like a victory for the defendants turned out to be a headache. A few months later, the judge reconsidered part of his decision to decertify the collective action and split the case into four separate trials. Although the court had previously dismissed the claims of all opt-in plaintiffs in its decertification order, it allowed each opt-in plaintiff to join the lawsuit as a named plaintiff against the respective restaurant where he or she was employed. Instead of a victory, the restaurants now have to defend against multiple lawsuits by plaintiffs who were not properly before the court in the first place. For these restaurants, decertification didn’t undo the damage of the conditional certification order. Ultimately, decertification compounded their problem. And to add insult to injury, that is only after these restaurants spent a lot of time and money after conditional certification to get to decertification.
The Conners v. Catfish Pies litigation is a reminder that conditional certification, though it can be undone, has long-term consequences for defendant-employers. Even if the case ceases being a collective action, it nevertheless can transform into a multi-named-plaintiff case, or it can morph into dozens or more separate cases. Defendants need to continue to make this clear to judges when they oppose conditional certification.