493 U.S. 165 (1989), 88-1203, Hoffmann-La Roche v. Sperling

Docket Nº:No. 88-1203
Citation:493 U.S. 165, 110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480, 58 U.S.L.W. 4072
Party Name:Hoffmann-La Roche v. Sperling
Case Date:December 11, 1989
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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493 U.S. 165 (1989)

110 S.Ct. 482, 107 L.Ed.2d 480, 58 U.S.L.W. 4072

Hoffmann-La Roche

v.

Sperling

No. 88-1203

United States Supreme Court

Dec. 11, 1989

Argued Oct. 2, 1989

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR

THE THIRD CIRCUIT

Syllabus

After petitioner employer ordered a reduction in force and discharged or demoted some 1,200 workers, respondent affected employees filed in the District Court a collective action seeking relief under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). In order to meet the requirement of 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) -- a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) incorporated in the ADEA by 29 U.S.C. § 626(b) -- that an individual may become a party plaintiff in a collective action only if he files with the court his "consent in writing," respondents moved for discovery of the names and addresses of similarly situated employees and requested that the court send notice to all potential plaintiffs who had not yet filed consents. The court held that it could facilitate notice of an ADEA suit to absent class members in appropriate cases so long as the court avoided communicating any encouragement to join the suit or any approval of the suit on its merits. Thus it, inter alia, ordered petitioner to comply with the request for the names and addresses of discharged employees and authorized respondents to send to all employees who had not yet joined the suit a court-approved consent document and a notice stating that it had been authorized by the District Court, but that the court had taken no position on the merits of the case. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that there was no legal impediment to court-authorized notice in an appropriate case. It declined to review the notice's form and contents, including the district Court's authorization statement.

[110 S.Ct. 484] Held: District courts have discretion, in appropriate cases, to implement § 216(b), as incorporated by § 626(b), in ADEA actions by facilitating notice to potential plaintiffs. However, as did the Court of Appeals, this Court declines to examine the terms of the notice used here.

(a) The District Court was correct to permit discovery of the discharged employees' names and addresses, since such discovery was relevant to the subject matter of the action, and since there were no grounds to limit discovery under the facts and circumstances of this case.

(b) Once an ADEA suit is filed, a district court has a managerial responsibility to oversee the joinder of additional parties to assure that the task is accomplished in an efficient way, and has the discretion to begin its involvement at the point of the initial notice rather than at a

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later time. Court-authorized notice may counter the potential for misuse of the class device, avoids a multiplicity of duplicative suits, and sets reasonable cut-off dates to expedite the action's disposition. Moreover, by monitoring preparation and distribution of the notice, a court can ensure that the notice is timely, accurate, and informative, and can settle disputes about the notice's content before it is distributed. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 83 -- which endorses measures to regulate the actions of the parties to a multiparty suit -- and 16(b) -- which requires the entry of scheduling orders limiting the time for, inter alia, the joinder of additional parties -- provide further support for the trial court's authority. Petitioner's contention that court involvement in the notice process would thwart Congress' intention to relieve employers from the burden of multiparty actions, as expressed in the FLSA's 1947 amendments, is rejected, since those amendments merely limited private FLSA plaintiffs to employees who asserted their own rights, thus abolishing the right to sue of representatives with no personal interest in a suit's outcome, and left intact the "similarly situated" language providing for collective actions.

(c) This Court's decision does not imply that trial courts have unbridled discretion in managing ADEA actions. In exercising the discretionary authority to oversee the notice-giving process, courts must be scrupulous to respect judicial neutrality by avoiding even the appearance of judicial endorsement of the merits of the action.

862 F.2d 439 (CA 3 1988), affirmed and remanded.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, post, p. 174.

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KENNEDY, J., lead opinion

Justice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), 81 Stat. 602, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V), provides that an employee may bring an action on behalf of himself and other employees similarly situated. To resolve disagreement among the Courts of Appeals,1 we granted certiorari on the question [110 S.Ct. 485] whether a district court conducting a suit of this type may authorize and facilitate notice of the pending action. 489 U.S. 1077 (1989).

I

Age discrimination in employment is forbidden by § 4 of the ADEA. 29 U.S.C. § 623 (1982 ed. and Supp. V). Section 7(b) of the ADEA incorporates enforcement provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), 52 Stat. 1060, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. (1982 ed. and Supp. V), and provides that the ADEA shall be enforced using certain of the powers, remedies, and procedures of the FLSA. This controversy centers around one of the provisions the ADEA incorporates, which states, in pertinent part, that an action

may be maintained against any employer . . . in any Federal or State court of competent jurisdiction by any one or more employees for and in behalf of himself or

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themselves and other employees similarly situated. No employee shall be a party plaintiff to any such action unless he gives his consent in writing to become such a party and such consent is filed in the court in which such action is brought.

29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (1982 ed.).

In 1985, petitioner Hoffman-La Roche Inc., ordered a reduction in work force and discharged or demoted some 1,200 workers. Richard Sperling, a discharged employee and one of the respondents, filed an age discrimination charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for himself and all employees similarly situated. With the assistance of counsel, Sperling and some other employees formed a group known as Roche Age Discriminatees Asking Redress (R.A.D.A.R.). The group mailed a letter, on R.A.D.A.R. letterhead, to some 600 employees whom it had identified as potential members of the protected class. The letter advised that an action would be brought against petitioner under the ADEA and invited the addressees to join the suit by filling out and returning an enclosed consent form, thus fulfilling the statutory requirement of joinder by "consent in writing."

Respondents filed this ADEA action in Federal District Court and, through R.A.D.A.R.'s letters and informal contacts, received and filed with the court over 400 consents. To ensure that all potential plaintiffs would receive notice of the suit, respondents moved for discovery of the names and addresses of all similarly situated employees. They also requested that the court send notice to all potential plaintiffs who had not yet filed consents. Petitioner opposed both motions, and filed a cross-motion, asking the court to invalidate the consents already filed, on the ground that the solicitation had been misleading. In addition, petitioner requested that the court send out a "corrective notice" to the individuals who had filed consents.

To resolve these matters the District Court ordered petitioner to produce the names and addresses of the discharged employees. The District Court held that it was

permissible

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for a court to facilitate notice of an ADEA suit to absent class members in appropriate cases, so long as the court avoids communicating to absent class members any encouragement to join the suit or any approval of the suit on its merits.

Sperling v. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc., 118 F.R.D. 392, 402 (NJ 1988). The court also authorized respondents to send to all employees who had not yet joined the suit a notice and a consent document, with a text and form approved by the court. The court attached the authorized notice to its interlocutory order. At the end of the approved notice was a statement that the notice had been authorized by the District Court, but that the court had taken no position on the merits of the case. Id., at 417. Finally, the District Court refused to invalidate the consents already filed.

...

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