Third Circuit expounds on class actions in wage claims

A class action is a way for one or more persons to sue on behalf of a voluminous group of similarly situated persons. The idea is that the claim may not be financially worthwhile for one or a few people to prosecute, but where many people have suffered the same wrong, it makes sense for them to litigate the claims all at once, just as it is more efficient for the courts and defendant.

Wage claims are often for relatively small amounts, when one considers only one plaintiff, but can be for huge amounts when prosecuted on behalf of a claim. Wage claims though aren’t technically called a class action. Wage claims are prosecuted under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which provides for “collective” actions; whereas, class actions are prosecuted under Rule 23 of the Rules of Civil Procedure.

What’s the difference between a class action and a collective action? Well, there aren’t many, but the few differences there are, are indeed significant. The biggest difference is conceptual and practical. In a class action, the judge declares a “class,” and members can opt out if they don’t wish to be part of the lawsuit. In a collective action (a FLSA wage claim), the judge declares the potential class, but members have to opt in to become part of the lawsuit.

There are other significant differences in terms of the procedures and standards court follow at the start of the case. Those differences can drive significant outcomes in terms of settlement strategies and litigation approaches.

Still, the differences can be as subtle as they are sometimes significant, triggering relatively frequent litigation in the courts. The Tenth Circuit has, for example, said, in a 2001 decision (Thiessen) that there is “little difference in the various approaches”  under Rule 23 for class actions versus FLSA for collective actions. However the Third Circuit, in a recent decision, Reinig v. RBS Citizens, N.A., held the differences, though often slight, are significant enough that an appeal involving the one did not give it jurisdiction to consider issues related to the other. The Third Circuit, therefore, declined to decide whether certification of a collective action under FLSA was appropriate, even though it did decide that certification of a class under Rule 23 was inappropriate. The court left the collective action certification for the lower court and later litigation.

In so ruling, the court did, though, hold that the class action Rule 23 certification — the issue on appeal before it — had been improper. The Court clarified that, in order to prove that the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleging “off the clock” work was appropriate for class certification, Rule 23 required them to prove that they, and the requested class members, could all show that their rights were violated using the same evidence of liability. It was not sufficient to prove that they had all been wronged by the same employer, that they had all been shorted wages to which they should have been entitled, or even that they had all been shorted in the same way. Rule 23, the Third Circuit held, requires that they prove they, and the requested class, could establish their cases using common evidence.

As for the merits of their claim, the Third Circuit opined that, to prove an off-the-clock work claim, the plaintiffs would need to show they had worked off the clock, which constituted overtime, and that the employer had at least “constructive knowledge” of the same. The court did not explain what would constitute “constructive knowledge.”

To satisfy their wage-and-hour claims, Plaintiffs must show that: (1) pursuant to Citizens’ unwritten “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” the class MLOs performed overtime work for which they were not properly compensated; and (2) Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of that policy and of the resulting uncompensated work.  See Kellar v. Summit Seating Inc., 664 F.3d 169, 177 (7th Cir. 2011) (citing Reich v. Dep’t of Conservation & Natural Res., 28 F.3d 1076, 1082 (11th Cir. 1994)); see generally Davis v. Abington Memorial Hosp., 765 F.3d 236, 240–41 (3d Cir. 2014).  Thus, to satisfy the predominance inquiry, Plaintiffs must demonstrate (1) that Citizens’ conduct was common as to all of the class members, i.e., that Plaintiffs’ managers were carrying out a “common mode” of conduct vis-à-vis the company’s internal “policy-to-violate-the-policy,” and (2) that Citizens had actual or constructive knowledge of this conduct.  See Sullivan, 667 F.3d at 299; Dukes, 564 U.S. at 358; see also Tyson Foods, Inc., 136 S. Ct. at 1046 (explaining that, although a plaintiff’s suit may raise “important questions common to all class members,” class certification is proper only if proof of the essential elements of the class members’ claims does not involve “person-specific inquiries into individual work time [that] predominate over the common questions”).  

The Third Circuit’s holding that class and collective actions are sufficient different that it lacked jurisdiction over issues re the one even though it had jurisdiction over issues re the other firmly establishes a split among the Circuits on the issue. Interested readers may wish to check if either party seeks Supreme Court review.

Source: Reinig v. RBS Citizens, no. 17-3464 (3rd Cir. 12/31/19).