Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. v. Sperling/Opinion of the Court

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Opinion of the Court
Dissenting Opinion
Scalia


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).

* 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.

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 the necessity, for court intervention in the notice process. As did the Court of Appeals, we decline to examine the terms of the notice used here, or its concluding statement indicating court authorization. We confirm the existence of the trial court's discretion, not the details of its exercise.

The District Court was correct to permit discovery of the names and addresses of the discharged employees. Without pausing to explore alternative bases for the discovery, for instance that the employees might have knowledge of other discoverable matter, we find it suffices to say that the discovery was relevant to the subject matter of the action and that there were no grounds to limit the discovery under the facts and circumstances of this case.

The ADEA, through incorporation of § 16(b), expressly authorizes employees to bring collective age discrimination actions "in behalf of . . . themselves and other employees similarly situated." 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) (1982 ed.). Congress has stated its policy that ADEA plaintiffs should have the opportunity to proceed collectively. A collective action allows age discrimination plaintiffs the advantage of lower individual costs to vindicate rights by the pooling of resources. The judicial system benefits by efficient resolution in one proceeding of common issues of law and fact arising from the same alleged discriminatory activity.

These benefits, however, depend on employees receiving accurate and timely notice concerning the pendency of the collective action, so that they can make informed decisions about whether to participate. Section 216(b)'s affirmative permission for employees to proceed on behalf of those similarly situated must grant the court the requisite procedural authority to manage the process of joining multiple parties in a manner that is orderly, sensible, and not otherwise contrary to statutory commands or the provisions of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. See Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 83. It follows that, once an ADEA action is filed, the court has a managerial responsibility to oversee the joinder of additional parties to assure that the task is accomplished in an efficient and proper way.

We have recognized that a trial court has a substantial interest in communications that are mailed for single actions involving multiple parties. In Gulf Oil Co. v. Bernard, 452 U.S. 89, 101, 101 S.Ct. 2193, 2200, 68 L.Ed.2d 693 (1981), we held that a District Court erred by entering an order that in effect prohibited communications between the named plaintiffs and others in a Rule 23 class action. Observing that class actions serve important goals but also present opportunities for abuse, we noted that "[b]ecause of the potential for abuse, a district court has both the duty and the broad authority to exercise control over a class action and to enter appropriate orders governing the conduct of counsel and the parties." 452 U.S., at 100, 101 S.Ct., at 2200. The same justifications apply in the context of an ADEA action. Although the collective form of action is designed to serve the important function of preventing age discrimination, the potential for misuse of the class device, as by misleading communications, may be countered by court-authorized notice. [2]

Because trial court involvement in the notice process is inevitable in cases with numerous plaintiffs where written consent is required by statute, it lies within the discretion of a district court to begin its involvement early, at the point of the initial notice, rather than at some later time. One of the most significant insights that skilled trial judges have gained in recent years is the wisdom and necessity for early judicial intervention in the management of litigation. Peckham, The Federal Judge as a Case Manager: The New Role in Guiding a Case from Filing to Disposition, 69 Calif.L.Rev. 770 (1981); Schwarzer, Managing Civil Litigation: The Trial Judge's Role, 61 Judicature 400 (1978). A trial court can better manage a major ADEA action if it ascertains the contours of the action at the outset. The court is not limited to waiting passively for objections about the manner in which the consents were obtained. By monitoring preparation and distribution of the notice, a court can ensure that it is timely, accurate, and informative. Both the parties and the court benefit from settling disputes about the content of the notice before it is distributed. This procedure may avoid the need to cancel consents obtained in an improper manner.

The instant case is illustrative. Petitioner objected to the form of the notice first sent by respondents' counsel, alleging that it was so inaccurate that any consents based on it should be found invalid by the court, and at the same time petitioner resisted discovery of the names and addresses of the discharged employees. Questions of notice, proper discovery, and the validity of consents were intertwined.

Court authorization of notice serves the legitimate goal of avoiding a multiplicity of duplicative suits and setting cutoff dates to expedite disposition of the action. In this case, the trial court, as part of its order, set a cutoff date for the filing of consents, as it was bound to do if the action was to proceed in diligent fashion. By approving the form of notice sent, the trial court could be assured that its cutoff date was reasonable, rather than having to set a cutoff date based on a series of unauthorized communications or even gossip that might have been misleading.

In the context of the explicit statutory direction of a single ADEA action for multiple ADEA plaintiffs, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide further support for the trial court's authority to facilitate notice. Under the terms of Rule 83, courts, in any case "not provided for by rule," may "regulate their practice in any manner not inconsistent with" federal or local rules. Rule 83 endorses measures to regulate the actions of the parties to a multiparty suit. See Gulf Oil Co., supra, at 99, n. 10, 101 S.Ct., at 2199, n. 10. This authority is well settled, as courts traditionally have exercised considerable authority "to manage their own affairs so as to achieve the orderly and expeditious disposition of cases." Link v. Wabash R. Co., 370 U.S. 626, 630-631, 82 S.Ct. 1386, 1389, 8 L.Ed.2d 734 (1962) (court had authority sua sponte to dismiss action for failure to prosecute). The interest of courts in managing collective actions in an orderly fashion is reinforced by Rule 16(b), requiring entry of a scheduling order limiting time for various pretrial steps such as joinder of additional parties. At pretrial conferences, courts are encouraged to address "the need for adopting special procedures for managing potentially difficult or protracted actions that may involve complex issues, [or] multiple parties. . . ." Fed.Rule Civ.Proc. 16(c)(10).

We reject 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 1947 amendments to the FLSA. In 1938, Congress gave employees and their "representatives" the right to bring actions to recover amounts due under the FLSA. No written consent requirement of joinder was specified by the statute. In enacting the Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, Congress made certain changes in these procedures. In part responding to excessive litigation spawned by plaintiffs lacking a personal interest in the outcome, the representative action by plaintiffs not themselves possessing claims was abolished, and the requirement that an employee file a written consent was added. See 93 Cong.Rec. 538, 2182 (1947) (remarks of Sen. Donnell). The relevant amendment was for the purpose of limiting private FLSA plaintiffs to employees who asserted claims in their own right and freeing employers of the burden of representative actions. Portal-to-Portal Act of 1947, ch. 52, §§ 5(a), 6, 7, 61 Stat. 87-88. Congress left intact the "similarly situated" language providing for collective actions, such as this one. The broad remedial goal of the statute should be enforced to the full extent of its terms.

Our decision does not imply that trial courts have unbridled discretion in managing ADEA actions. Court intervention in the notice process for case management purposes is distinguishable in form and function from the solicitation of claims. In exercising the discretionary authority to oversee the notice-giving process, courts must be scrupulous to respect judicial neutrality. To that end, trial courts must take care to avoid even the appearance of judicial endorsement of the merits of the action.

The judgment of the Third Circuit is affirmed, and the case is remanded for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

Justice SCALIA, with whom THE CHIEF JUSTICE joins, dissenting.

Notes[edit]

^1  Compare Braunstein v. Eastern Photographic Laboratories, Inc., 600 F.2d 335, 336 (CA2 1978) (per curiam) (under Fair Labor Standards Act, notice permitted because of remedial nature of FLSA and because notice would avoid a multiplicity of suits), cert. denied, 441 U.S. 944, 99 S.Ct. 2162, 60 L.Ed.2d 1046 (1979); Woods v. New York Life Ins. Co., 686 F.2d 578, 580-581 (CA7 1982) (allowing court-approved notice); and United States v. Cook, 795 F.2d 987, 993 (CA Fed.1986), with McKenna v. Champion International Corp., 747 F.2d 1211, 1213-1217 (CA8 1984) (disapproving court-authorized notice); Dolan v. Project Construction Corp., 725 F.2d 1263, 1267-1269 (CA10 1984); Partlow v. Jewish Orphans' Home of Southern Cal., Inc., 645 F.2d 757, 758-759 (CA9 1981); and Kinney Shoe Corp. v. Vorhes, 564 F.2d 859, 864 (CA9 1977).

^2  We do not address any conflicts between court-authorized notice and communications with potential plaintiffs by counsel, see Shapero v. Kentucky Bar Assn., 486 U.S. 466, 108 S.Ct. 1916, 100 L.Ed.2d 475 (1988), as these issues are not implicated in the case before us.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).