IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF NEW JERSEY
May 26, 2009
IVAN ALVAREZ, AND ALL SIMILARLY SITUATED INDIVIDUALS, PLAINTIFF,
GOLD BELT, LLC, GOLDBELT FALCON, L.L.C., THE BIONETICS CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge
This case concerns a putative collective action for unpaid overtime wages for plaintiff's employment as a "Citizen on Battlefield" role-player for the Unites States military. Pending before the Court is defendants' motion to dismiss and plaintiff's motions to file an amended complaint and for class certification.*fn1
For the reasons expressed below, the parties' motions will be denied.
At various times over the past few years, defendants, Goldbelt Eagle, LLC, Goldbelt Falcon, LLC, and The Bionetics Corporation, have contracted with the United States government to provide role players to the U.S. military to assist the military with training exercises. Plaintiff, Ivan Alvarez, became an employee of defendants in December 2005 as a Citizen on Battlefield ("COB") role player. Plaintiff claims that defendants have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., because he was not paid overtime in accordance with the FLSA. Plaintiff claims that defendants failed to pay him at a rate of one and a half times his regular hourly rate when he worked in excess of forty hours per week. More specifically, plaintiff claims that defendant automatically deducted one hour for an eight-hour work day, and two hours for a twelve hour work day, regardless of whether he took the full break, or any break at all. Plaintiff has filed this action on his behalf and all others similarly situated.
Defendants have moved to dismiss plaintiff's complaint based on the "first-filed" rule. Defendants argue that a case filed prior to plaintiff's, and currently pending before District Judge Joseph Irenas, advances identical claims as plaintiff's. Under the first-filed rule, defendants argue that plaintiff's complaint must be dismissed.*fn2
Plaintiff counters that the first-filed rule is inapplicable to his case. He also asserts that his proposed class should be certified. Additionally, he seeks to add claims based on state law. Defendants have opposed both of plaintiff's motions.
The Court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 29 Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201, et seq., specifically pursuant to § 216(b), and 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1337.
Prior to determining whether plaintiff's proposed class should be certified, or whether he should be permitted to amend his complaint, it must be determined whether this case falls within the scope of the first-filed rule. The first-filed rule was adopted in this Circuit seventy years ago, when the Court of Appeals concluded, "'[i]n all cases of federal concurrent jurisdiction, the court which first has possession of the subject must decide it'."
E.E.O.C. v. University of Pennsylvania, 850 F.2d 969, 971-72 (3d Cir. 1988) (quoting Crosley Corp. v. Hazeltine Corp., 122 F.2d 925, 929 (3d Cir. 1941)) (other citations omitted). "Since then, this policy of comity has served to counsel trial judges to exercise their discretion by enjoining the subsequent prosecution of similar cases  in different federal district courts." Id. (citation and quotations omitted). The purpose of the first-filed rule is to encourage "sound judicial administration," to promote "comity among federal courts of equal rank," and to give "a court the power to enjoin the subsequent prosecution of proceedings involving the same parties and the same issues already before another district court." Id. (citations and quotations omitted).
Defendants argue that the "first-filed" case requiring application of the rule here is Manning v. Gold Belt Falcon, LLC, Gold Belt Eagle, LLC, and Bionetics Corporation, Docket No. 08-3427, filed on July 10, 2008 and currently pending before District Judge Joseph Irenas in the Camden Vicinage. In Manning, the eight plaintiffs were COB role players employed by the same defendants in this case,*fn3 and they advance the same claims of failure to pay proper overtime and impermissible automatic break deductions in violation of the FLSA.*fn4 Just like plaintiff here, the Manning plaintiffs also seek to proceed as a § 216(b) collective action*fn5 on their behalf and on the behalf of others similarly situated.*fn6
Defendants contend that because the Manning case is identical to this case, including the plaintiffs because both plaintiff here and the Manning plaintiffs would all be part of the same collective action class, this case must be dismissed in favor of the first-filed Manning action.
Plaintiff argues that his complaint should not be dismissed because the first-file rule does not apply where, as here, the first-filed action is pending in this same Court, rather than in a federal court in another district. Plaintiff also argues that the parties are not identical, because prior to any certification of the class, the plaintiffs in each action are independent and unrelated to each other. Plaintiff contends that these are fundamental flaws prohibiting the application of the first-filed rule.
Plaintiffs are correct that this rule has mostly been applied to cases pending in different districts. See E.E.O.C, 850 F.2d at 971 ("first-filed" rule prevents "subsequent prosecution of similar cases ... in different federal courts" (emphasis added)). This is because similar cases pending within the same district can be consolidated for discovery and/or trial. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(a) ("If actions before the court involve a common question of law or fact, the court may: (1) join for hearing or trial any or all matters at issue in the actions; (2) consolidate the actions; or (3) issue any other orders to avoid unnecessary cost or delay."); see also Haag v. Janney Montgomery Scott, LLC, 2007 WL 1240206, *1 (E.D. Pa. 2007) (declining to dismiss a subsequently-filed FLSA case because the first-filed rule "was designed to deal with subsequent proceedings involving the same parties and issues pending before another district court," and noting that Fed. R. Civ. P. 42(a) is an effective tool for handling similar actions).
Indeed, in this case, subsequent to the filing of defendants' motion and plaintiff's opposition, on February 9, 2009, Magistrate Judge Schneider entered a consolidation order, consolidating for discovery and case management this case and the Manning case.
Thus, because the first-filed rule is designed to avoid concurrent litigation of the same issues, between the same parties, in more than one federal court, it does not technically apply to the case here. The principles behind first-filed rule, however, are implicated. Long ago, the Third Circuit advised,
The party who first brings a controversy into a court of competent jurisdiction for adjudication should, so far as our dual system permits, be free from the vexation of subsequent litigation over the same subject matter. The economic waste involved in duplicating litigation is obvious. Equally important is its adverse effect upon the prompt and efficient administration of justice. In view of the constant increase in judicial business in the federal courts and the continual necessity of adding to the number of judges, at the expense of the taxpayers, public policy requires us to seek actively to avoid the waste of judicial time and energy. Courts already heavily burdened with litigation with which they must of necessity deal should therefore not be called upon to duplicate each other's work in cases involving the same issues and the same parties.
Crosley Corporation v. Hazeltine Corporation, 122 F.2d 925, 929-30 (3d Cir. 1941) (discussing the principles behind the first-filed rule).
The sentiments of the court in Crosely apply with even more force today. Here, this case and the Manning case are fundamentally identical. The plaintiffs in both matters (1) are all COB role players, (2) seek to certify a class of plaintiffs who are just like them, and (3) claim that the FLSA was violated in the same manner.*fn7 Defendants in both matters are the same employers of all the plaintiffs. The only difference between the cases are the actual names of the plaintiffs and the attorneys prosecuting the actions.
Moreover, the fact that both actions seek to proceed as a collective action causes plaintiff here to be a potential plaintiff in the Manning case, and the plaintiffs in Manning to be potential plaintiffs in this case. Thus, in practical effect, the plaintiffs in both cases are overlapping.
Considering that the plaintiffs are essentially the same, the defendants are the same, and the claims are the same, as was noted in Crosley, this case presents the potential for waste of judicial resources and the duplication of two court's efforts.
Of additional and greater concern is the potential for inconsistency in the determination of the legal issues. Both Judge Irenas in Manning and this Court here will be tasked with determining whether the matters should be certified as collective actions and whether the plaintiffs' claims are viable under the FLSA and NJWHL. Inconsistency in such determinations would cause turmoil for the parties and for the state of the law. It would also be in violation of the law of the case doctrine. The law of the case doctrine applies to at least four situations: (1) a single court adhering to its own prior ruling; (2) one judge or court adhering to the rulings of another judge or court in the same case or closely related cases; (3) a court adhering to the rulings of a higher court; and (4) failure to appeal an issue or to preserve it for appeal. Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Industries Inc., 1999 WL 680185, *34 (W.D. Pa. 1999) (citing 18 Charles Alan Wright, et. al., Federal Practice and Procedure, Section 4478 (1981 & 1998 Supp.) (collecting cases)); see also TCM Film Corp. v. Gourley, 240 F.2d 711, 713 (3d Cir. 1957) ("[J]udges of co-ordinate jurisdiction sitting in the same court and in the same case should not overrule the decisions of each other"; the purpose of this "rule of judicial comity is to preserve the orderly functioning of the judicial process."). The second situation applies here.
Accordingly, judicial comity requires that this Court defer to Judge Irenas in the case filed first before him. In order to effect this comity, plaintiff's motions will be denied without prejudice pending the resolution of the collective action certification issue in Manning. If the Manning action is certified as a collective action, plaintiff will have the choice to either opt-in,*fn8 or to continue with his own action separately. If the Manning action is not certified, then plaintiff may continue his own action, but not as a collective action, unless he can demonstrate a reason otherwise. By deferring judgment on plaintiff's motions, it will preserve his claim and allow him to participate in discovery*fn9, while at the same time preventing the duplication of efforts, waste of judicial resources, and inconsistent results on the same legal issues presented to two separate courts.*fn10
For the reasons expressed above, defendant's motion to dismiss based on the first-filed rule will be denied. Plaintiff's motions for class certification and to amend his complaint*fn11 will be denied without prejudice. Plaintiff's motion for an extension of time to file his brief in opposition to defendant's motion and defendant's motion to file a sur reply will be denied as moot. An appropriate Order will be entered.
NOEL L. HILLMAN, U.S.D.J.