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Supreme Court Sidesteps Divisive Mootness Issue

WASHINGTON (CN) - Sidestepping an issue that has divided the federal circuits, the Supreme Court cited mootness Tuesday to dismiss a woman's collective action.

Laura Symczyk, who worked as a nurse at Pennypack Center in Philadelphia, sued her employer, Genesis Healthcare aka Genesis Edlercare, in 2009 on behalf of herself and similar situated individuals under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

She claimed that a new policy subjected the pay of certain employees to an automatic meal break deduction even if they performed compensable work during their breaks.

In February 2010, Genesis filed an answer to Symczyk's complaint and offered her $7,500 under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 68 to cover her alleged unpaid wages, attorneys' fees and court costs.

When Symczyk missed the 10-day deadline to respond to that offer, Genesis moved to dismiss, claiming that she no longer possessed a personal stake in the outcome of the suit since it offered her complete relief on her damages claim.

A federal judge found that the action was indeed moot, but the 3rd Circuit reversed after finding that Genesis aimed to frustrate the goals of collective actions by attempting to 'pick off' named plaintiffs with stra­tegic Rule 68 offers before certification.

After taking up the case in June 2012, the Supreme Court sided, 5-4, with Genesis.

"While the Courts of Appeals disagree whether an un­accepted offer that fully satisfies a plaintiff's claim is sufficient to render the claim moot, we do not reach this question, or resolve the split, because the issue is not properly before us," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. "The Third Circuit clearly held in this case that respondent's individual claim was moot."

"We turn, then, to the question whether respondent's action remained justiciable based on the collective-action allegations in her complaint," Thomas added. "A straightforward applica­tion of well-settled mootness principles compels our answer. ... It follows that this action was appropriately dismissed as moot."

The ruling emphasizes that Symczyk had sued for damages.

"Unlike claims for injunctive relief challenging ongoing conduct, a claim for damages cannot evade re­view; it remains live until it is settled, judicially resolved, or barred by a statute of limitations," Thomas wrote. "Nor can a defend­ant's attempt to obtain settlement insulate such a claim from review, for a full settlement offer addresses plaintiff's alleged harm by making the plaintiff whole. While set­tlement may have the collateral effect of foreclosing un­joined claimants from having their rights vindicated in respondent's suit, such putative plaintiffs remain free to vindicate their rights in their own suits. They are no lessable to have their claims settled or adjudicated following respondent's suit than if her suit had never been filed at all."

The concern about the pick-off tactic does not apply because Symczyk "failed to assert any continuing economic interest in shifting attorney's fees and costs to others," according to the ruling.

Arguing that this decision resolves "an imaginary question," the four dissenting justices said the majority "could have resolved this case (along with a circuit split) by correcting the Third Circuit's view that an unaccepted settlement offer mooted Symczyk's individual claim."

"Instead, the court chose to address an issue predicated on that misconception, in a way that aids no one, now or ever," Justice Elena Kagan wrote, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

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