Collective Certification

Authored By Robert Whitman

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Second Circuit will soon decide key issues for FLSA practitioners: whether settlements pursuant to an Offer of Judgment are subject to court review and approval, and whether the standards for final collective certification of FLSA claims are different from those for class certification of state law wage claims under Rule 23.

Two cases now before the Second Circuit, one involving a small Japanese restaurant, the other involving Mexican fast-casual chain Chipotle, offer the court the opportunity to experience the gustatory pleasures of two prime cuts of FLSA procedural law: enforceability of settlements and the standards for collective certification. It is a veritable feast for wage and hour geeks in the New York metropolitan area and beyond.

In Yu v. Hasaki, the court on October 23 accepted for interlocutory review the question of whether a district court must approve the settlement of FLSA claims when the settlement is procured through an Offer of Judgment under FRCP 68.

Yu involves FLSA and New York Labor Law claims by a sushi chef. To settle the case, the defendants made an offer of judgment, which the plaintiff accepted. After the parties advised the court, Judge Jesse Furman ordered them to submit their agreement for his approval, along with letters explaining why the settlement is fair and reasonable. The defendants objected, arguing that, under Rule 68, court approval of an accepted offer of judgment is mandatory, leaving no role for the judge in reviewing the agreement’s terms. They based their argument on the language in Rule 68 that, if a plaintiff accepts an offer, the clerk “must then enter judgment.”

In effect, the defendants contended that Rule 68 creates an exception to the Second Circuit’s decision in Cheeks v. Freeport Pancake House, in which the court held that judicial approval of settlement terms is mandatory for dismissal of FLSA claims with prejudice and that many otherwise-customary settlement provisions, such as confidentiality and general releases, are not permissible. The U.S. Department of Labor weighed in as an amicus curiae, arguing that judicial approval is required, even when the settlement arises out of an accepted Rule 68 offer.

Judge Furman agreed, holding that the concerns articulated in Cheeks apply equally under Rule 68 as they do in standard FLSA settlements. But because other district judges had held differently, he certified his order for interlocutory appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b), holding, among other things, that there was a substantial basis for disagreement on the issue. The Second Circuit accepted the case for review, stating that the decision “clearly merits interlocutory review under section 1292(b), as Judge Furman sensibly recognized.”

In Scott v. Chipotle, the appeals court is considering whether to address an issue that has long vexed FLSA litigators: whether the standard for final collective action certification under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) differs from the standard for class certification under Rule 23.

The plaintiffs in Scott are apprentices – managerial trainees – at Chipotle restaurants in several states. They sued under the FLSA and state law, claiming they were misclassified as exempt managers because they spent most of their time filling orders and operating cash registers. District Judge Andrew Carter granted conditional FLSA certification, and 516 employees opted in. But after discovery, the court refused to grant final FLSA certification, and likewise denied Rule 23 class certification of the state law claims, holding that the responsibilities of the seven named plaintiffs did not match those of the putative class or collective.

The plaintiffs appealed the state law class certification decision as of right under Rule 23(f). They also sought permission from Judge Carter to take an interlocutory appeal of his FLSA final certification ruling, contending that the court’s twin rulings highlighted a “rift” between the certification standards for FLSA and non-FLSA wage and hour claims that the Second Circuit could resolve. While disagreeing with the plaintiffs’ argument, Judge Carter nonetheless observed that they had indeed “point[ed] to controlling questions of law which may have substantial grounds for a difference of opinion,” and granted permission.

It is now up to the Second Circuit whether to allow the interlocutory appeal. If it takes the case, it will have the opportunity to issue a combined opinion, addressing both Rule 23 and section 216(b), that clarifies the standards for final certification under both regimes.

Whether one’s preferences run to wasabi or jalapeno, these cases are sure to satisfy even the hungriest of wage and hour lawyers.