Where to begin on yesterday's US Supreme Court decision in Genesis Healthcare v. Symczyk? Perhaps we should start, oddly enough, with Justice Kagan's dissent, which is quite unlike any I have seen before. She says:
Feel free to relegate the majority's decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: The situation it addresses should never arise again.
Ok, Justice Kagan, now tell us what you really think.
Here's the short version of the case. The plaintiff filed a complaint under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The complaint was filed as a “collective action,” which is unique to the FLSA and is similar to a class action, except that other plaintiffs need to affirmatively “opt in” to the plaintiff class. Before any other potential plaintiffs had opted in, the defendant made a Rule 68 offer of judgment to the plaintiff. The offer of judgment, in essence, said “we surrender” to the named plaintiff and offered to pay all of the money to which the plaintiff might be entitled. (In this case that amounted to about $7,500.) The offer of judgment was not accepted by the plaintiff. Nonetheless, the district court, and subsequently the court of appeals, held that the offer made the case moot – in other words, there was no longer a live controversy between the named plaintiff and the defendant because the defendant had surrendered. Thus, the case was inappropriate for the continued exercise of federal jurisdiction.
Justice Thomas, speaking for a 5 person majority held:
[W]e conclude that respondent has no personal interest in representing putative, unnamed claimants, nor any other continuing interest that would preserve her suit from mootness. Respondent's suit was, therefore, appropriately dismissed for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction.
We have already provided a flavor of the dissent's view of that conclusion. It is still worth reading, however, if only because it is written less like a judicial opinion than an op-ed piece.
In the end , the case may have turned upon some adroit lawyering by the defense, and perhaps less so by plaintiff's attorneys.
Irrespective, we can agree with Justice Kagan that future FLSA collective action cases are unlikely to suffer from the procedural ambiguities that necessitated the holding in this case.