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Bryant v. United Furniture Industries, Inc.

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Aberdeen Division

March 30, 2015

RACHEL BROWN HEFFERNAN BRYANT, et al.,
v.
UNITED FURNITURE INDUSTRIES, INC., et al., Defendants. on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, Plaintiffs,

MEMORANDUM OPINION

SHARION AYCOCK, District Judge.

Plaintiffs Rachel Bryant, Kenny Bryant, Anthony Brown, Cleveland Oliver, Jr., David Franks, Allie Everett, and Eric Thomas initiated this action on behalf of themselves and others similarly situated, against Defendants United Furniture Industries, Inc., United Furniture Industries CA, Inc., and United Furniture Industries NC, LLC, alleging violations of the minimum wage and overtime provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). Plaintiffs have moved for conditional certification of a collective action under Section 16(b) of the FLSA, and Defendants have moved for the Court to apply the doctrine of res judicata. For the foregoing reasons, Plaintiffs' Motion to Certify Class [47][1] is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART and Defendants' Motion for Application of Res Judicata [87] is DENIED.

Facts and Procedural History

Plaintiffs were formerly employed in various positions as furniture manufacturers with Defendant United Furniture Industries, Inc. ("UFI") at its Mississippi facilities in Okolona, Amory, and Nettleton. Plaintiffs allege that they, as well as at least one thousand other UFI employees in Mississippi, were routinely required to work off the clock without pay and to work in excess of forty hours per week without being compensated at overtime rates. Specifically, the employees at UFI's plants were purportedly forced to begin work before being allowed to clock in and forced to clock out before being allowed to leave work.

Plaintiffs have filed a Motion to Certify Class [47], requesting preliminary certification of a collective action pursuant to Section 16(b) of the FLSA, arguing that the non-exempt employees at UFI's Mississippi locations who were required to work off the clock and who were not paid for overtime are "similarly situated" for purposes of this suit. Defendants argue that the proposed class members are not similarly situated. Moreover, Defendants have filed a Motion for Application of Res Judicata [87], contending that a previously settled lawsuit precludes certification in the present case. The Court addresses the potential application of res judicata before proceeding to the certification analysis.

Defendants' Motion for Application of Res Judicata

In their Motion for Application of Res Judicata [87], Defendants request the Court to deny the Plaintiffs' Motion to Certify Class [47] on the grounds that the collective action sought in this lawsuit involves claims that have already been certified for collective action treatment and subsequently settled in another lawsuit within the Northern District of Mississippi, Carothers v. United Furniture Industries, Inc., No. 1:13-CV-00203-DAS ("Carothers").

Like in this case, the Carothers suit concerned alleged violations by UFI of the FLSA, and the named plaintiffs sought certification of a collective action pursuant to Section 16(b) of the FLSA. The parties in Carothers consented to adjudication by the magistrate judge and subsequently settled the case with the magistrate judge's approval.[2] In the order approving the settlement, the magistrate judge expressly "incorporate[d] the terms and definitions used in the parties' settlement agreement filed with the court[, ]" which defines the settlement collective as:

all persons employed by Defendants as non-exempt factory workers in Mississippi, North Carolina or California from October 15, 2010 through the date of the court's order granting final approval of the settlement in regard to any and all claims of any kind or nature, arising under the FLSA and for compensatory damages, liquidated damages and/or attorney's fees.

In the same order, the magistrate judge stated that:

[c]ertification of the Collective Settlement Class herein shall operate as res judicata /claim preclusion to any other certification of non-exempt factory employees of the Defendants under [Section 16(b)] of the FLSA for the time period of October 15, 2010 to the present date.

Thus, Defendants' position is that the magistrate judge's order in Carothers operates as a bar to the claims involved in the present case pursuant to the doctrine of res judicata.

Res judicata, as defined by the Fifth Circuit is, "the venerable legal cannon which proclaims that a valid and enforceable final judgment precludes a second suit between the same parties on the same claim or any part thereof." Medina v. INS, 993 F.2d 499, 503 (5th Cir. 1993). The Supreme Court and Fifth Circuit have both held that "[t]he preclusive effect of a federal court judgment is determined by federal common law." Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880, 892, 128 S.Ct. 2161, 171 L.Ed.2d 155 (2008); In re Paige, 610 F.3d 865, 870 n.2 (5th Cir. 2010). The Fifth Circuit has set forth four conditions to the applicability of res judicata: (1) "the parties must be identical in both suits, " (2) "the prior judgment must have been rendered by a court of competent jurisdiction, " (3) "there must have been a final judgment on the merits[, ]" and (4) "the same cause of action must be involved in both cases." Paige, 610 F.3d at 870.

As to the requirement of identical parties, Section 16(b) of the FLSA authorizes one or more employees to initiate suit "for and in behalf of himself or themselves and other employees similarly situated." 29 U.S.C. ยง 216(b). Importantly, however, "[n]o 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." Id .; LaChapelle v. Owens-Illinois, Inc., 513 F.2d 286, 288 (5th Cir. 1975). Additionally, "no person will be bound by or may benefit from judgment unless he has affirmatively opted into' the class; that is, given his written, filed consent." LaChapelle, 513 F.2d at 288 (emphasis added); see also Mooney v. Aramco Servs. Co., 54 F.3d 1207, 1212 (5th Cir. 1995), overruled on other grounds by Desert Palace v. Costa, 539 U.S. 90, 123 S.Ct. 2148, 156 L.Ed.2d 84 (2003) ...


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