Aquilino v. Home Depot U.S.A., Inc., No. 04-cv-4100 (D.N.J. July 18, 2006)

So you want to have your state law claims and be in federal court, too? Well, it may not be so simple, particularly in the context of a collective action brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq. This case involved claims by Home Depot’s Merchandising Assistant Sales Managers that they were improperly classified as “exempt” employees under the FLSA and various state law equivalents. This group of employees argued that they functioned more as clerks than they did as managers or supervisors, and, thus, should be classified as non-exempt and eligible for overtime under the FLSA and state law. The Magistrate Judge granted conditional certification of an opt-in class under the FLSA. The plaintiffs then sought to certify twenty-five state law subclasses under Rule 23(b)(3). It was this issue that produced an insightful look back at the history of the FLSA and the ability to bootstrap state law claims onto an FLSA collective action. 

In looking at the history of the FLSA, Judge Sheridan noted that Congress specifically designed an opt-in procedure to reduce the flood of individual litigation, while, at the same time, preserving the right of an “absentee” employee not to be bound by a collective resolution. The court noted that despite both the recent revisions to the FLSA, and the expansion of federal jurisdiction over class actions lawsuits under CAFA, Congress did not alter the fundamental opt-in procedure under the FLSA.  Thus, the question faced by the court was whether to permit twenty-five Rule 23(b)(3) subclasses to proceed along with the FLSA opt-in class. The answer, “no.”

The court looked to the fundamental purposes of supplemental jurisdiction and found that the very fact that the plaintiffs requested 25 subclasses demonstrated that state law claims necessarily would predominate the federal claims.  Additionally, the court would be required to analyze and interpret unique issues of state law.  Thus, the court found that two out of the four reasons courts decline supplemental jurisdiction existed in this case. In discussing the issue, the court painted the picture vividly: “To assert jurisdiction here would create a situation which one court described as a ‘federal tail wagging what is in substance a state dog.’” Finally, coming back to the intent and purpose of the FLSA opt-in procedure, the court held that the purpose of that procedure “‘would largely be thwarted if a plaintiff were permitted to back door the shoe horning in of unnamed parties’ pursuant to an exercise of supplemental jurisdiction.”  With that the court denied the motion to certify the Rule 23 subclasses.

The morale to the story, at least in New Jersey District Court, is that no amount of shoe horns, boot straps, or other metaphors will permit you to bring nationwide class claims based upon state law along with your FLSA collective action. That dog just won’t hunt.