There are, perhaps, few topics as boring as the issue of whether and under what circumstances a pending class action will toll the statute of limitations for absent class members. But that issue has a real-life impact as reflected in a recent decision from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas.
In Odle v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., Civil Action No. 3:11-cv-2954-O (N.D. Tex. Oct. 15, 2012), the plaintiffs were former members of the class decertified as a result of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541 (2011). Interestingly, as former Wal-Mart employees, they were part of a subgroup found by the Ninth Circuit to lack standing to pursue injunctive relief in its 2010 en banc decision. Several weeks after the Supreme Court decided the Dukes case, they commenced a virtually identical case in Texas, purporting to assert claims on behalf of a somewhat smaller class of female Texas Wal-Mart employees. They asserted that the Dukes action tolled the statute of limitations on both their class and individual Title VII claims.
The district court rejected both arguments. First, it found that tolling would only apply to a class member’s individual claims, and did not work to toll additional class action claims, even though involving a smaller class. Following what was described as a “no piggyback rule,” the court found that prior Fifth Circuit authority and considerations of judicial economy all cut against what would amount to extending the statute of limitations indefinitely.
Turning to the individual claims of the lead named plaintiff, the court found them time-barred as well. Her claims had largely been disposed of as a result of the 2010 Ninth Circuit en banc decision finding that former employees like her lacked standing to pursue claims for injunctive relief. It was at that time, the court found, that the statute of limitations began to run again, barring her claim.
The Bottom Line: The doctrine of equitable tolling of the statute of limitations is tricky in the class action context. It will not preserve future class action claims if the initial case is decertified.