Roche Inc v. Sperling

Decision Date11 December 1989
Docket NumberNo. 88-1203,HOFFMANN-LA,88-1203
Citation110 S.Ct. 482,493 U.S. 165,107 L.Ed.2d 480
PartiesROCHE INC., Petitioner v. Richard SPERLING et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
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), 29 U.S.C. § 621 et seq. 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.

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. Pp. 169-174.

(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. P. 170.

(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 later time. Court-authorized notice may counter the potential for misuse of the class device, avoids a multiplicity of duplicative suits, and sets reasonable cutoff 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. Pp. 170-173.

(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. P. 174.

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.

John A. Ridley, Newark, N.J., petitioner.

Leonard N. Flamm, New York City, for respondents.

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 whether a district court conducting a suit of this type may authorize and facilitate notice of the pending action. 489 U.S. 1077, 109 S.Ct. 1526, 103 L.Ed.2d 832 (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 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 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." 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.

The District Court found that its orders regarding discovery and further notice met the requirements for immediate appeal, 28 U.S.C. § 1292(b) (1982 ed., Supp. V), and the Court of Appeals permitted an appeal from that portion of the ruling. The Court of Appeals affirmed the discovery order and the order for further notice, ruling that "there is no legal impediment to court-authorized notice in an appropriate case." 862 F.2d 439, 447 (CA3 1988). The Court of Appeals declined to review the form and contents of the notice to potential plaintiffs and, in particular, it declined to pass upon the concluding statement of the notice stating that it had been authorized by the District Court.

II

As it comes before us, this case presents the narrow question whether, in an ADEA action, district courts may play any role in prescribing the terms and conditions of communication from the named plaintiffs to the potential members of the class on whose behalf the collective action has been brought. We hold that district courts have discretion, in appropriate cases, to implement 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (1982 ed.), as incorporated by 29 U.S.C. § 626(b) (1982 ed.), in ADEA actions by facilitating notice to potential plaintiffs. The facts and circumstances of this case illustrate the propriety, if not...

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