United States: Florida District Court Decertifies Class Of 20,000 Servers And Bartenders Alleging FLSA Violations

Last Updated: September 10 2014
Article by Michael J. Lehet

In Amanda Mathis v. Darden Restaurants, Inc.,* the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida decertified a massive FLSA collective action by over 20,000 servers and bartenders who worked in nearly 2,000 restaurants across the country. The case involved five different restaurant brands owned by the parent company.

The named plaintiffs, on behalf of the class, alleged that the company systematically required or permitted the class members to work "off the clock" without pay. The plaintiffs also claimed the company systematically took a tip credit against class members' minimum wage even though the employees spent more than 20% of their shifts performing sidework (e.g., rolling silverware) or tasks allegedly unrelated to their work as servers and bartenders. 

After the court conditionally certified a putative class of over 218,000 servers and bartenders, 20,000 employees "opted in" to the suit. Following discovery, the company moved for decertification, which the court granted, finding:

  • The class members had disparate factual and employment settings. As the court noted, the class members worked in 1,995 restaurants across 50 states and "[t]he relevant policies and practices as to off-the-clock work and wages differ by job title, state, Brand, specific restaurant, and manager." In addition, the class members "vary in terms of asserting a single claim or combination of claims" pertaining to off-the-clock work, tip credit, and overtime. 
  • The company had a number of defenses individual to each class member. The court emphasized that because the class members "vary significantly" in terms of hours, work performed, compensation, and treatment by managers, "the majority of material issues underlying the available defenses are highly individualized." The court noted that specific class members did not work off-the-clock, or worked off the clock in violation of well-established policies and practices, and unreasonably failed to use available internal measures to recover unpaid compensation. To resolve these issues, the court would need to make inquiries that "cannot be generalized across 20,255 servers and bartenders who worked across 1,995 distinct restaurant locations." 
  • Fairness and procedural considerations warranted decertification. The representative evidence, damages models, and other suggestions proposed by the plaintiffs could not account for the material distinctions among class members, resulting in an impermissible "all or nothing" model of liability. As a result, the court pointed out, "[i]ndividual Opt-In Plaintiffs would not receive recoveries based on their individual experiences. Rather, they would be grouped with other Opt-In Plaintiffs and receive either windfalls or insufficient recoveries." The only way to avoid these inequities, the court explained, was to "utilize numerous subclasses, individualized evidence, individualized liability determinations, and individualized damage determinations." The necessity of doing so demonstrated that a collective action was not preferable to individual actions.

Finding that "it is not more practical, efficient, or fair to proceed as a collective action," the court dismissed the collective action of roughly 20,000 class members without prejudice to filing their own individual lawsuits.

The Mathis decision underscores the burden faced by plaintiffs seeking to maintain an FLSA collective action, where, as in this case, the class is both expansive and diverse, class members assert different combinations of claims, and resolution of the claims and defenses necessitates detailed individualized inquiries. Although the Mathis ruling involves a multi-brand restaurant employer, these same considerations apply to other employers seeking to decertify collective actions.

* Littler Mendelson represents the defendants in this case.

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