In a case about employees’ ability to join together to challenge broadly applicable unlawful employment practices, the U.S. Supreme Court declined the invitation to broadly eviscerate worker rights.
Laura Symczyk worked as a registered nurse at a nursing home owned and operated by Genesis Healthcare Corporation in Philadelphia. The lawsuit filed on behalf of herself and other workers alleged violations of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) through Genesis’ policy of deducting thirty minutes for meal breaks from pay regardless of whether the employees actually took the breaks. The employees involved are predominately women working at or near poverty level wages in an industry characterized by poor working conditions and high turnover. Studies repeatedly have documented wage and hour violations in this industry.
Genesis offered to settle with Symczyk, the sole named plaintiff, and then argued that because the named plaintiff had been offered a settlement that fully satisfied her individual claims, the entire case must be dismissed. Accepting this view would allow alleged wrongdoers to “pick off” plaintiffs and dismiss suits relatively cheaply without changing business practices or compensating all wronged workers. If, on the other hand, when a named plaintiff drops out of a suit, and the pleadings are allowed to “relate back” to the pre-settlement date for the remaining plaintiffs, the suit could proceed regardless of the individual settlement. (The case was complicated because the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit erroneously characterized Symczyk as having accepted the settlement offer.)
AARP joined a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that Genesis’ view ran afoul of the letter and intent of FLSA, which specifically allows individual workers to band together to enforce their rights in an effort to address systematic pay discrimination in a single lawsuit and help reduce the prospect of retaliation – particularly important for low wage workers who desperately need their jobs.
The Supreme Court ruled that on these specific facts, the individual claim became moot. But the dissent pointed out that the Court’s ruling only meant that in this case based on these facts – where a lower court made an uncorrected misstatement of fact in its ruling that impacted the rest of the proceedings -- the issue was moot. She noted that, in general, this would not happen. “An unaccepted offer of judgment cannot moot a case,” she wrote for the minority, and she was dismayed that rather than correcting the error made by the Third Circuit and ruling on the merits, the Court proceeded with the error.
What’s at Stake
Had Genesis’ view been accepted, employers could “buy off” named plaintiffs and continue allegedly discriminatory practices unimpeded. The case is important to AARP both because the substantive issues being challenged could affect quality of home based and nursing home care, and also because the section of FLSA at issue applies to the federal Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), a cornerstone federal law protecting older workers.
Genesis v. Symczyk was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.