In a widely anticipated decision, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Genesis HealthCare Corp. v. Symczyk that a putative Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) collective action was properly dismissed where the lead plaintiff’s claim was moot and no other plaintiffs had joined the litigation. However, the Court’s April 16, 2013 opinion left unanswered important questions regarding the interplay between individual offers of judgment and collective litigation under the FLSA, including whether a plaintiff’s refusal to accept an offer of judgment that would fully satisfy his or her claim renders the claim moot.
In Symczyk, the plaintiff-appellee’s district court complaint alleged that her employer failed to compensate employees for work performed during scheduled meal breaks. Before any other employees joined the litigation, the employer made an offer of judgment that would have satisfied the plaintiff’s individual claim. Although the plaintiff did not accept the offer, the district court nonetheless dismissed as moot both the individual and collective action claims. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed on appeal that the plaintiff’s individual claims were moot, but reinstated the plaintiff’s collective action claims.
Because the Third Circuit had restored her collective action claims, the plaintiff did not challenge the mootness of her individual claim before the Supreme Court. The Court thus assumed, without deciding, that this aspect of the Third Circuit’s decision was correct. From this assumption, the Court held that a “straightforward application of well-settled mootness principles” also required dismissal of the plaintiff's collective action claims, as the plaintiff did not have any personal interest in representing other employees who had not yet joined the suit.
The Supreme Court’s decision left unresolved a significant split among the federal Courts of Appeals. Whereas the Third Circuit had held previously that an unaccepted offer of judgment may moot a plaintiff’s individual claim, other Courts of Appeals have held that the viability of a plaintiff’s claim is not affected by her decision to reject a fully satisfactory offer of judgment. This undecided issue, highlighted in a dissenting opinion joined by four of the Court’s nine justices, leaves important questions unanswered for plaintiffs and defendants alike in putative collective action matters where an offer of judgment is made.