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Home Archive Volume 61 Volume 61, Issue 3 The Second-Class Action: How Courts Thwart Wage Rights by Misapplying Class Action Rules
The Second-Class Action: How Courts Thwart Wage Rights by Misapplying Class Action Rules

By Scott A. Moss & Nantiya Ruan | 61 Am. U. L. Rev. 523 (2011)

Courts apply to wage rights cases an aggressive scrutiny that not only disadvantages low-wage workers, but is fundamentally incorrect on the law.  Rule 23 class actions automatically cover all potential members if the court grants plaintiffs’ class certification motion. But for certain employment rights cases—mainly wage claims but also age discrimination and gender equal pay claims—29 U.S.C. § 216(b) allows not class actions but “collective actions” covering just those opting in affirmatively.  Yet courts in collective actions assume a gatekeeper role just as they do in Rule 23 class actions, disallowing many actions by requiring a certification motion proving strict commonality among members.

This Article argues that conditioning § 216(b) collective actions on certification motions proving commonality is incorrect.  Section 216(b) is not an opt-in version of Rule 23; it is a liberalized form of simple Rule 20 joinder, which permits joint suit whenever claims share one common issue and address related events. No text authorizes any § 216(b) certification inquiry, nor is judicial gatekeeping justified by economic logic: Rule 23 classes present principal-agent and asymmetric information problems because lead plaintiffs may inadequately represent unengaged members, but all § 216(b) collective actions members are full plaintiffs with individual claims, obviating the need for judicial scrutiny.

Wage rights cases commonly are high-impact challenges to entire industry pay practices, seeking millions in unpaid wages for thousands of workers. Especially for low-wage workers, disallowing collective actions ends the claims; individual suits are cost-prohibitive. Even when collective actions proceed, certification motions yield cost and delay, thwarting claims and deterring attorneys.

Courts should presumptively allow collective actions whenever workers for the same employer press the same statutory claims. Defendants should bear the burden of challenging collective actions in a Rule 21 misjoinder or Rule 12 dismissal motion.  This Article provides two explanations for such pervasive judicial error. In a complex, once-obscure field, courts heavily relied upon early precedent that proved incorrect, yielding path-dependent “lock-in” of bad law. Less charitably, courts’ mishandling of collective actions is just another example of federal courts erecting procedural hurdles to rights-vindicating litigation.