ALVAREZ v. CITY OF CHICAGO (May 21, 2010)

A group of Chicago Fire Department paramedics brought a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards (FLSA) against the City of Chicago. The complaint alleged that this City violated the FLSA by not properly calculating overtime payments. The plaintiffs identified ten different ways the City allegedly miscalculated overtime pay, not all of which applied to each paramedic's situation. Over three hundred paramedics eventually opted into the collective action. When several were dismissed for failure to opt in in time, they filed their own individual suit with the same allegations. The two cases were consolidated. Judge Hibbler (N.D. Ill.) granted summary judgment to the City as against all plaintiffs. He concluded that the fact that each plaintiff would use a different combination of the various alleged miscalculations prevented them from being similarly situated. He also directed the plaintiffs to arbitrate their complaints, even though he recognized that arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement was not mandatory. The plaintiffs appeal.

In their opinion, Judges Cudahy, Flaum, and Evans reversed and remanded. The Fair Labor Standards Act allows employees to bring complaints as collective actions, on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated. Although a district court is given substantial discretion to manage collective actions, the Court concluded that the district court had misinterpreted a prior case. In Jonites, the Court had found a collective action inappropriate in a situation requiring significant individual fact-finding. Here, although different plaintiffs would be affected by different sub claims, very little individual fact-finding will be required. In addition, the Court concluded that the district court erred in comparing the efficiency of the collective action to arbitration. If the plaintiffs are willing to proceed individually, the proper comparison is between those individual actions and a collective action. Finally, even if a collective action is unwarranted, the proper remedy is not to dismiss the action but to convert it to individual actions.