Authored by Michael Kopp
With all the drama of a get-away chase, the Third Circuit recently brought to a screeching halt plaintiffs’ counsel’s elaborate maneuvers to end run repeated decertification of their FLSA actions, and held as a matter of first impression in Halle v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, Inc. that opt-in plaintiffs have no right to appeal decertification. The decision is important for three reasons. First, it offers a road block against the use of opt-in plaintiffs to appeal a decertification order, including where the named plaintiffs’ claims have been mooted. Second, it offers instruction on how to structure class notices to foreclose potential opt-in appeals. Third, it underscores the heightened strategic value of Rule 68 offers to named plaintiffs in FLSA actions after decertification to block appeals.
In a long and winding procedural path, plaintiffs’ counsel employed a “whack a mole” strategy to keep the possibility of a collective action alive after successive certification defeats. Counsel originally filed two separate FLSA collective actions, asserting claims that two hospitals and their affiliates failed to compensate work performed during unpaid meal period times. After conditional certification of the separate actions, over 3,000 and 800 individuals respectively opted into the two actions. In a happier moment in this narrative, the district court judges decertified the actions, due to differences in practices for reversing the 30-minute automatic deduction for meal periods, and differences in job duties and supervision that would impact whether work was performed during meal periods.
Plaintiffs’ first escape maneuver was a voluntary dismissal of their claims with prejudice, in the hopes of prompt appellate review of the interlocutory decertification orders. Instead, the Third Circuit rejected this “procedural slight-of-hand,” and held that by dismissing their claims, the named plaintiffs had mooted their claims (along with any right to challenge decertification). The appeals were dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
Not to be deterred, plaintiffs’ counsel filed two new class actions against the same hospital defendants, with only slight modifications to the proposed class. The district courts promptly slammed the brakes, struck the collective allegations, and held that issue preclusion barred the named plaintiffs (who were opt ins in the prior actions), from re-litigating the prior decertification decision. In what appeared to be the end of the road, the employers then mooted the named plaintiffs’ claims by extending Rule 68 offers which were all accepted.
Not willing to give up the chase, plaintiff’s counsel deployed opt-in plaintiffs to appeal the order striking the collective allegations, claiming the opt-ins were “party plaintiffs” with full rights to appeal. The Third Circuit rejected these “procedural gymnastics,” finding that (1) the order striking the collective allegations effectively dismissed the opt-ins as parties to the action, and they therefore could not appeal the subsequent judgments, and (2) the opt-ins had signed consent forms ceding the individual authority to litigate, including the right to appeal. The Third Circuit recognized the claimed “unfairness” of leaving the opt-in plaintiffs without an opportunity to appeal where the employer “picked off” the named plaintiffs. Nonetheless, the court found that the “potential for unfairness” cannot trump an absence of jurisdiction.
Halle is, accordingly, important guidance in structuring class notices, and highlights the continuing strategic value of Rule 68 offers later in the action, including to moot claims and thereby potentially obtain expedited finality for a decertification order.