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Labor & Economy

Supreme Court Could Block Worker Class-Action Suits






Lawsuits alleging wage and hour violations are on the rise, but a case currently before the Supreme Court could tilt the balance of power toward employers in wage theft cases.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp. on Monday; the American Prospect summarizes the details of the case:

The case involves a lawsuit filed by Laura Symczyk, who alleged that Genesis Healthcare had committed wage theft against her and her co-workers. According to Symczyk, Genesis routinely docked the pay of workers (including herself) for lunch breaks that were not taken. Reflecting the strength of her claim, Genesis offered her $7,500 plus associated fees to settle. Symczyk, however, rejected the offer, believing that she was suing not just for herself but for her co-workers. She wanted time for her lawyers to determine if her case could be brought as a class-action suit, representing all the victims of wage theft at Genesis.

When Symczyk hesitated in accepting the offer, defendant Genesis Healthcare sought to get the lawsuit dismissed, stating that their offer had already settled all claims. Symczyk, who is seeking to address not only the wage theft she suffered but what she sees as widespread violations affecting co-workers, argued (through her attorneys) that as the offer did not provide remedy to the potential class, the case should not be dismissed.

This is a big deal. If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Genesis Healthcare, employers will be able to stop class actions before they start by offering individuals lowball settlements, and then arguing that because those settlement offers exists, they are unable to bring a collective suit. In addition, for low-paid workers (such as say, nursing home workers like Symczyk), legal costs are often too great to pursue individual cases — many plaintiffs’ class action attorneys would be more likely to be persuaded to represent a class of low-wage workers experiencing similar alleged violations, rather than just one. This is to say nothing of the retaliation risks an individual bringing charges against a big company faces, as opposed to a group. There is legal power in numbers.

Marcia D. Greenberger, Co-President of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC, who filed an Amicus Brief on behalf of Symczyk in conjunction with the Service Employees International Union), commented on the case:

“This case epitomizes precisely the type of circumstances that Congress sought to change when it passed the Fair Labor Standards Act 74 years, ago . . . The allegations in this case are that the nursing home employees were subject to wage theft, pure and simple. If employers can shut down the legitimate legal grievances of many merely by offering to buy off one employee, it will harm both the workforce and the work the employees are conducting. In this case, the work is caring for the elderly who rely on nursing home workers for their well-being.”

The NWLC brief also argues that bringing pay discrimination class action suits will become much more difficult should the Supreme Court rule for Genesis. The court has ruled in favor of employees in several recent decisions — let’s hope they preserve the right of employees to band together and combat violations of basic wage and hour laws.

This post first appeared on the Unionosity site and is republished with permission.

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