Hoffmann-La Roche v. Sperling
Annotate this Case
493 U.S. 165 (1989)
U.S. Supreme Court
Hoffmann-La Roche v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165 (1989)
Hoffmann-La Roche v. Sperling
Argued Oct. 2, 1989
Decided Dec. 11, 1989
493 U.S. 165
After petitioner employer ordered a reduction in force and discharged or demoted some 1,200 workers, respondent affected employees filed in the District Court a collective action seeking relief under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). In order to meet the requirement of 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) -- a provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA) incorporated in the ADEA by 29 U.S.C. § 626(b) -- that an individual may become a party plaintiff in a collective action only if he files with the court his "consent in writing," respondents moved for discovery of the names and addresses of similarly situated employees and requested that the court send notice to all potential plaintiffs who had not yet filed consents. The court held that it could facilitate notice of an ADEA suit to absent class members in appropriate cases so long as the court avoided communicating any encouragement to join the suit or any approval of the suit on its merits. Thus it, inter alia, ordered petitioner to comply with the request for the names and addresses of discharged employees and authorized respondents to send to all employees who had not yet joined the suit a court-approved consent document and a notice stating that it had been authorized by the District Court, but that the court had taken no position on the merits of the case. The Court of Appeals affirmed, ruling that there was no legal impediment to court-authorized notice in an appropriate case. It declined to review the notice's form and contents, including the district Court's authorization statement.
Held: District courts have discretion, in appropriate cases, to implement § 216(b), as incorporated by § 626(b), in ADEA actions by facilitating notice to potential plaintiffs. However, as did the Court of Appeals, this Court declines to examine the terms of the notice used here.
(a) The District Court was correct to permit discovery of the discharged employees' names and addresses, since such discovery was relevant to the subject matter of the action, and since there were no grounds to limit discovery under the facts and circumstances of this case.
(b) Once an ADEA suit is filed, a district court has a managerial responsibility to oversee the joinder of additional parties to assure that the task is accomplished in an efficient way, and has the discretion to begin its involvement at the point of the initial notice rather than at a
later time. Court-authorized notice may counter the potential for misuse of the class device, avoids a multiplicity of duplicative suits, and sets reasonable cut-off dates to expedite the action's disposition. Moreover, by monitoring preparation and distribution of the notice, a court can ensure that the notice is timely, accurate, and informative, and can settle disputes about the notice's content before it is distributed. Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 83 -- which endorses measures to regulate the actions of the parties to a multiparty suit -- and 16(b) -- which requires the entry of scheduling orders limiting the time for, inter alia, the joinder of additional parties -- provide further support for the trial court's authority. 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 FLSA's 1947 amendments, is rejected, since those amendments merely limited private FLSA plaintiffs to employees who asserted their own rights, thus abolishing the right to sue of representatives with no personal interest in a suit's outcome, and left intact the "similarly situated" language providing for collective actions.
(c) This Court's decision does not imply that trial courts have unbridled discretion in managing ADEA actions. In exercising the discretionary authority to oversee the notice-giving process, courts must be scrupulous to respect judicial neutrality by avoiding even the appearance of judicial endorsement of the merits of the action.
862 F.2d 439 (CA 3 1988), affirmed and remanded.
KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., joined, post, p. 493 U. S. 174.
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