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Belle v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

September 29, 2014

PAUL BELLE, , Plaintiffs,
v.
UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH MEDICAL CENTER, , Defendants.

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

CATHY BISSOON, District Judge.

I. MEMORANDUM

Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 52) based on issue preclusion will be granted to the extent described below, and Defendants' request to sever the claims of the named Plaintiffs will be denied, without prejudice. Also, Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Doc. 48) regarding liability will be summarily denied.

Counsel are familiar with the circumstances giving rise to this case. This is, essentially, a second round of litigation, the genesis of which can be found in Camesi v. UPMC , Civil Action No. 09-85J (Bissoon, J.). In Camesi , this Court conditionally certified a collective action under the FLSA, but later decertified it. The Court found that collective treatment would present a myriad of disparate factual issues and defenses, as well as significant fairness and procedural concerns. See generally id. (available under Westlaw citation, 2011 WL 6372873). Rather than asking the Court to certify the aforementioned ruling for interlocutory appeal, Plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their claims, with prejudice, in an attempt to secure a merits-review by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. See Camesi v. UPMC , 729 F.3d 239, 243 (3d Cir. 2013).

On appeal, the Third Circuit Court highlighted that the Camesi plaintiffs did not complain, or seek review, of the "final" order dismissing their case, but, rather, limited their appeal to the decertification issue. Id. at 244. Otherwise, the appellate decision speaks for itself, and it suffices to say that that court was unimpressed with the Camesi plaintiffs' attempt to "impermissibl[y]... manufacture finality" regarding decertification. See id. at 245-46.

With that case finally resolved, the lawyers in Camesi have filed this lawsuit (" Belle "), identifying as named-Plaintiffs certain employees who previously had joined Camesi as "opt-ins." Several other individuals already have "opted in" to Belle , the vast majority of whom had also "opted in" to Camesi . Indeed, as of Plaintiffs' most recent briefing, 936 of the 982 opt-ins in Belle , or 95.32%, affirmatively participated in Camesi . As a practical matter, then, this case is a "redux" of Camesi , and, although the Belle Plaintiffs have tweaked some aspects of their pleadings, their theories of liability remain materially unchanged. See generally Defs.' Br. (Doc. 53) at 2-3 (highlighting that Belle challenges two policies, Defendants' "Meal Break Deduction Policy" and "Twenty Minute Break Policy, " as likewise identified in Camesi ); see also id. at 8-9 (arguing, convincingly, that Plaintiffs' allegations in Belle are, at bottom, the same as those asserted in Camesi ).

Unsurprisingly, Defendants strongly object to relitigating the collective-action allegations in this new lawsuit, involving a vast majority of the same opt-ins as in Camesi , after decertification was thoroughly litigated and after Plaintiffs' counsel strategically "misfired" in the Court of Appeals. Defendants couch their challenge in terms of issue preclusion, previously known as "collateral estoppel, " and the Court believes that Defendants' arguments beg a very good question: is the proper "next stage" of this collective litigation, if any, to allow the Camesi opt-ins to relitigate, through a new lawsuit, the unfavorable decertification ruling issued by this Court and unsuccessfully challenged on appeal? The answer to this question is, resoundingly, "no."

To place the question in further context, after the Camesi plaintiffs (and, by operation of law, the opt-ins) had their collective action decertified, they had two viable options. As the Court of Appeals explained: (1) they "could have obtained appellate review of the decertification order by proceeding to final judgment on the merits of their individual claims"; or (2) they "could have asked the District Court[] to certify [the] interlocutory [decertification] order[] for appeal." Camesi , 729 F.3d at 245. The Camesi lawyers did neither, but rather attempted "a procedural sleight-of-hand to bring about finality, " an approach soundly rejected by the Third Circuit. See id. One sleight-of-hand maneuver having proven unsuccessful, they now seek to resuscitate their collective-action claims by having other of the Camesi opt-ins assert thinly-dressed "new" claims, involving the same legal and factual issues that led to decertification in the first instance.

As it hardly bears repeating, an incredible amount of time, effort and expense was poured into the preliminary certification, and ultimate decertification, of the collective action in Camesi . Thereafter, the Camesi plaintiffs did not undertake the necessary and appropriate steps to secure appellate review, and the question here is whether the District Court is constrained by the law to reopen the collective action proceedings, and go back to "square one" on those issues. Mercifully, the law does not support this result.

The doctrine of issue preclusion may be invoked when: (1) the identical issue was decided in a prior adjudication; (2) there was a final judgment on the merits; (3) the party against whom the bar is asserted was a party or in privity with a party to the prior adjudication; and (4) the party against whom the bar is asserted has had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue. Kundratic v. Thomas, 2014 WL 3378357, *3 n.6 (3d Cir. Jul. 11, 2014) (citation to binding authority omitted).

Although Plaintiffs' counsel suggests that the claims in the two lawsuits must be identical in every respect, this assertion is inconsistent with the law. See id. ("Identity of legal causes... is not required."). "To apply issue preclusion, a court need not find that the claims in two separate actions were identical; rather, identical factual or legal issues may be material to both actions, even if the claims they support are somewhat different." Alevras v. Tacopina , 226 Fed.Appx. 222, 228 (3d Cir. Apr. 6, 2007) (citation to binding authority omitted, emphasis added).

The named Plaintiffs in Belle , and the vast majority of their opt-ins, are former Camesi opt-ins, asserting the same legal theories for collective action treatment. See discussion supra (noting identity of theories in Camesi and Belle , regarding Defendants' "Meal Break Deduction Policy" and "Twenty Minute Break Policy"). Having exhaustively adjudicated the collective action issues in Camesi , the Court has no doubt that identical factual and legal issues would incur. The Belle Plaintiffs' modest reworking of their pleadings cannot overcome the identity of issues between the two cases. Indeed, the Court cannot imagine how the same opt-ins in Camesi can be viewed as stating non -identical claims in Belle , when they necessarily are complaining of the same conduct of Defendants, however worded, in both cases. In any event, whatever modest distinctions may be drawn between the two cases, they are insufficient to justify permitting counsel to make an "end-run" around the unfavorable decertification ruling in Camesi , and the subsequent unfavorable decision on appeal.

The other significant factor regarding issue preclusion is the "finality" of the rulings in Camesi . Plaintiffs' counsel hammers the point that Defendants argued, and the Third Circuit Court agreed, that the decertification ruling was not "final" for the purposes of appeal under 28 U.S.C. § 1291. Cf. Pls.' Opp'n Br. (Doc. 56) at 15-18. Within the context of issue preclusion, however, the law does not support Plaintiffs' crabbed reading of the term "final." Under the preclusion analysis, "finality" may be interpreted more broadly, and "decisions [that are] not []final['] for purposes of appealability may nevertheless be sufficiently final to have issue[-]preclusive effect." Greenleaf v. Garlock, Inc. , 174 F.3d 352, 360 (3d Cir. 1999); accord Henglein v. Colt Indus. Operating Corp. , 260 F.3d 201, 210 (3d Cir. 2001) ("issue preclusion... does not require the entry of a judgment, final in the sense of being appealable").

Contrary to Plaintiffs' suggestion:

There is no bright-line rule regarding what constitutes a final judgment' for issue preclusion. Instead, ... a prior adjudication of an issue in another action must be sufficiently firm to be accorded conclusive effect.... [F]inality for purposes of issue preclusion is a more pliant concept than it would be in other contexts, and that finality may mean little more than that the litigation of a particular issue has reached such a stage that [the] court sees no really good reason for permitting it to be litigated again.... Factors that courts consider when determining whether the prior determination was sufficiently firm include: whether the parties were fully heard, whether a reasoned opinion was filed, and whether that decision could have been, or actually was, appealed.

Free Speech Coal., Inc. v. Attorney General of U.S. , 677 F.3d 519, 541 (3d Cir. 2012) (citations and most internal quotations omitted, emphasis added).

These factors counsel strongly in favor of issue preclusion. As the risk of waxing colloquial, the issues of collective-action certification and decertification in Camesi were litigated "to death." The lawyers representing the Belle Plaintiffs, here, are the same ones that represented them as Camesi opt-ins; the plaintiffs and opt-ins were zealously represented; and counsel had more than abundant opportunity to be heard. The parties' and the Court's efforts culminated in the issuance of a memorandum and order, spanning twenty-two pages of text and eleven footnotes, that meticulously analyzed every nuance the parties' arguments.

Thereafter, the plaintiffs made a calculated, and ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to secure a merits-appeal regarding decertification. As the Third Circuit Court specifically noted, the plaintiffs' appeal declined to question or challenge the order granting dismissal of their claims. The Camesi case has reached the end of its line, and allowing an actual or de facto reopening of the decertification ruling through this "new" lawsuit would be both an exercise in futility and a gross injustice to Defendants. "The [C]ourt sees no... good reason for permitting [the certification/decertification issue] to be litigated again, " Free Speech , 677 F.3d at 541, and issue preclusion attaches.

The remaining requirements of issue preclusion are easily established. As referenced above, the Court has no doubt that the Belle Plaintiffs, all of whom were Camesi opt-ins, [1] had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the relevant issues. There can be no doubt, moreover, that the named Plaintiffs in Belle were parties to the prior adjudication. 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) ("[an] employee shall be a party plaintiff to any [FLSA] action [if] 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").[2]

Finally, the Court summarily rejects Plaintiffs' suggestion that issue preclusion may "never" attach to a decertification ruling. The cases cited by Plaintiffs support the unremarkable proposition that the decertification of a nationwide collective action typically will not preclude subsequent, state-wide collective claims. See cases cited in Pls.' Opp'n Br. (Doc. 56) at 4-5. Given the unusual posture of Camesi , and the plaintiff's failed attempts on appeal, the Court would be rather surprised to find any legal precedent addressing the specific circumstances presented here. To the extent that any non-binding court decisions are arguably or actually inconsistent with the rulings above, the Court declines to follow them.

For all of the reasons stated above, Defendant's Motion to Dismiss is well taken, and Plaintiffs' collective action allegations will be stricken. Furthermore, the claims of all of the opt-ins in Belle , like the opt-ins in Camesi , are denied without prejudice to the refiling of individual actions.[3] Finally, Defendants' request to sever the individual Belle -Plaintiffs' claims will be denied without prejudice. Although the rulings herein do not bode well for Plaintiffs' proceeding jointly in any fashion, they are somewhat collateral to the question of joinder/severance, and the parties will be afforded an opportunity to flesh out their positions, should they choose, so the Court can make a more informed decision.

As for the named Plaintiffs' Motion for Partial Summary Judgment on liability, that request is summarily denied. Defendants have identified a plethora of material disputed facts, and Plaintiffs' cherry-picking of the evidence arguably flirts with the bounds of Rule 11. Although the undersigned declines to find that counsel have stepped over the line, the Court will indulge Plaintiffs' arguments no further.

Consistent with the foregoing, the Court hereby enters the following:

II. ORDER

Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 52) is GRANTED to the extent described above; Plaintiffs' collective action allegations are STRICKEN; the claims of the opt-in plaintiffs in this case are DISMISSED WITHOUT PREJUDICE; Defendants' request to sever the claims of the named-Plaintiffs is DENIED WITHOUT PREJUDICE; and Plaintiffs' Partial Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 48) is DENIED.

IT IS SO ORDERED.


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