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Prince v. The Cato Corp.

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Eastern Division

June 19, 2018

VIRGINIA PRINCE, on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,



         I. Introduction and Procedural History

         Before the Court is Defendant Cato Corporation's (hereinafter “Cato”) Motion To Decertify the Conditionally Certified Collective Action (the “Motion”). (Doc. 64). Plaintiff Virginia Prince filed this action for herself and other similarly situated persons alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). (Doc. 1). The Court conditionally certified a class. (Doc. 47). Following discovery, Cato filed the present motion. (Doc. 64). Both parties have briefed the Motion and it is ripe for review. For the reasons stated herein, the Motion is DENIED.

         II. Standard

         The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit has endorsed a two-step approach to determining whether to certify a collective action under Section 216(b):

The first determination is made at the so-called “notice stage.” At the notice stage, the district court makes a decision-usually based only on the pleadings and affidavits which have been submitted-whether notice of the action should be given to potential class members.
Because the court has minimal evidence, this determination is made using a fairly lenient standard, and typically results in “conditional certification” of a representative class. If the district court “conditionally certifies” the class, putative class members are given notice and the opportunity to “opt-in.” The action proceeds as a representative action throughout discovery.

Hipp v. Liberty Nat'l Life Ins. Co., 252 F.3d 1208, 1218 (11th Cir. 2001) (quoting Mooney v. Aramco Servs. Co., 54 F.3d 1207, 1213-14 (5th Cir. 1995)).[1] “Because the court has minimal evidence [during the first stage], this determination is made using a fairly lenient standard, and typically results in ‘conditional certification' of a representative class.” Hipp, 252 F.3d at 1218.

The second determination is typically precipitated by a motion for “decertification” by the defendant usually filed after discovery is largely complete and the matter is ready for trial. At this stage, the court has much more information on which to base its decision, and makes a factual determination on the similarly situated question. If the claimants are similarly situated, the district court allows the representative action to proceed to trial. If the claimants are not similarly situated, the district court decertifies the class, and the opt-in plaintiffs are dismissed without prejudice. The class representatives-i.e. the original plaintiffs-proceed to trial on their individual claims.

Hipp, 252 F.3d at 1218.[2]

         Plaintiffs bear the burden of demonstrating a “reasonable basis” for their contention that collective action status is appropriate. Grayson v. K-Mart Corp., 79 F.3d 1086, 1097 (11th Cir. 1996) (citing Haynes v. Singer Co., Inc., 696 F.2d 884, 887 (11th Cir. 1983)). Also, “[t]he decision to create an opt-in class under § 216(b), like the decision on class certification under Rule 23, remains soundly within the discretion of the district court.” Hipp, 252 F.3d at 1219.

         The Supreme Court has identified the main benefits of a collective action under § 216(b):

A collective action allows . . . plaintiffs the advantage of lower individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources. The judicial system benefits by efficient resolution in one proceeding of common issues of law and fact arising from the same alleged . . . activity.

Hoffmann-La Roche, Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170, 110 S.Ct. 482, 486, 107 L.Ed.2d 480 (1989). Separate from determining the similarly situated issue, other district courts have “balance[d] these putative benefits against any prejudice to the defendant and any judicial inefficiencies that may result from allowing plaintiffs to proceed collectively.” Bayles v. American Medical Response of Colorado, Inc., 950 F.Supp. 1053, 1067 (D. Colo. 1996); see Id. (“Further, regardless of the potential benefits, plaintiffs still must meet their burden of showing that they are similarly situated.”).

         The Eleventh Circuit further explained in Morgan:

The second stage is triggered by an employer's motion for decertification. Anderson, 488 F.3d at 953. At this point, the district court has a much thicker record than it had at the notice stage, and can therefore make a more informed factual determination of similarity. Id. This second stage is less lenient, and the plaintiff bears a heavier burden. Id. (citing Thiessen v. Gen. Elec. Capital Corp., 267 F.3d 1095, 1103 (10th Cir.2001)).
In Anderson, we again refused to draw bright lines in defining similarly, but explained that as more legally significant differences appear amongst the opt-ins, the less likely it is that the group of employees is similarly situated. Id. (“Exactly how much less lenient we need not specify, though logically the more material distinctions revealed by the evidence, the more likely the district court is to decertify the collective action.”). We also refused to “specify how plaintiffs' burden of demonstrating that a collective action is warranted differs at the second stage.” Id. Rather, we emphasized the fact that the “ultimate decision rests largely within the district court's discretion, ” and clarified that in order to overcome the defendant's evidence, a plaintiff must rely on more than just “allegations and affidavits.” Id. Because the second stage usually occurs just before the end of discovery, or at its close, the district court likely has a more extensive and detailed factual record.
In Anderson, we also quoted approvingly of Thiessen, where the Tenth Circuit identified a number of factors that courts should consider at the second stage, such as: “(1) disparate factual and employment settings of the individual plaintiffs; (2) the various defenses available to defendant[s] [that] appear to be individual to each plaintiff; [and] (3) fairness and procedural considerations[.]” Anderson, 488 F.3d at 953 (quoting with approval Thiessen, 267 F.3d at 1103); see also Mooney, 54 F.3d at 1213 n. 7, 1215-16. Thus, at the second stage, “although the FLSA does not require potential class members to hold identical positions, the similarities necessary to maintain a collective action under § 216(b) must extend beyond the mere facts of job duties and pay provisions” and encompass the defenses to some extent. Anderson, 488 F.3d at 953 (citation and quotation marks omitted). For example, the district court must consider whether the defenses that apply to the opt-in plaintiffs' claims are similar to one another or whether they vary significantly. Id. at 954 n. 8 (noting that all named plaintiffs were unionized but some opt-in plaintiffs were not, making the collective bargaining agreement defense applicable to some but not all plaintiffs). But ultimately, whether a collective action is appropriate depends largely on the factual question of whether the plaintiff employees are similarly situated to one another.

Morgan v. Family Dollar Stores, Inc., 551 F.3d 1233, 1261-62 (11th Cir. 2008). Additionally, the Eleventh Circuit reviews under the abuse of discretion and clear error standards:

Further, we review a district court's § 216(b) certification for abuse of discretion. Hipp, 252 F.3d at 1217; Grayson, 79 F.3d at 1097. Judicial discretion in making a § 216(b) certification decision is, of course, not unbridled. Indeed, “ ‘[a] district court abuses its discretion if it applies an incorrect legal standard, follows improper procedures in making the determination, or makes findings of fact that are clearly erroneous.' ” Anderson, 488 F.3d at 953-54 (quoting Chicago Tribune Co. v. Bridgestone/Firestone, Inc., 263 F.3d 1304, 1309 (11th Cir.2001)). The district court first must apply the proper legal standards for authorizing a § 216(b) collective action and for determining what similarly situated means. A court's determination that the evidence shows a particular group of opt-in plaintiffs are similarly situated is a finding of fact. Anderson, 488 F.3d at 954 (affirming decision to decertify based on conclusion “that the district court's view of the evidence is reasonable, and its findings, therefore, are not clearly erroneous”); Hipp, 252 F.3d at 1208 (noting that decertification decision is one where the court “makes a factual determination on the similarly situated question”). We will reverse the district court's fact-finding that Plaintiffs are similarly situated only if it is clearly erroneous-not simply because we might have made a different call. Anderson, 488 F.3d at 953-54 (citing McMahan v. Toto, 256 F.3d 1120, 1128 (11th Cir.2001)).

Id. at 1260.

         III. ...

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