United States District Court, D. New Jersey
WILLIAM J. MARTINI, District Judge.
Plaintiff Daniel Conceicao filed this action against Defendants National Water Main Cleaning Company ("NWMCC") and Carylon Corporation ("Carylon") alleging unlawful wage payment practices. This matter comes before the Court on NWMCC's motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claims, pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), in light of the court-approved settlement in Mulroy v. National Water Main Cleaning Co., No. 12-3669, 2014 WL 7051778, at *1 (D.N.J. Dec. 12, 2014). There was no oral argument. Fed.R.Civ.P. 78(b). For the reasons below, Defendant's motion is GRANTED.
Between April 9, 2005 and the week of November 5, 2011, Plaintiff worked for NWMCC, which provides catch basin and sewer cleaning, inspection, and maintenance services. Defendant Carylon is NWMCC's parent company. See Letter dated June 24, 2015, ECF No. 14. In the instant case, he claims that Defendants' payment practices violated the New Jersey Prevailing Wage Act, the Fair Labor Standard Act, the Davis-Bacon Act, and the Service Contract Act.
Plaintiff filed this action while participating in Mulroy, a state-law wage and hour class action. That lawsuit similarly alleged that NWMCC's payment practices violated the New Jersey Prevailing Wage Act and New Jersey Wage and Hour Law. Mulroy, 2014 WL 7051778 at *1. The Mulroy litigation was filed on May 2012, and ended when the parties reached a class-wide settlement in January 2014. Plaintiff received notice of the proposed settlement, which included an explanation of his right to opt-out or object. On June 2, 2014, he chose to object. Id. at *3. Then, on August 18, 2014, Plaintiff filed the instant action.
On October 23, 2014, Judge Falk held a fairness hearing, during which the parties presented arguments regarding whether the Court should consider Plaintiff's ambiguous objection a request to opt-out. Id. On December 12, 2014, Judge Falk ruled that Plaintiff's objection could not simultaneously function as an opt-out request, and responded to each of Plaintiff's objections to the settlement agreement. Id. at *6-7 n.3. Judge Falk then issued a final settlement approval order pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 23(e), finding the settlement to be fair, reasonable, and adequate. Id. at 2.
II. LEGAL STANDARD
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if the plaintiff fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The moving party bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 750 (3d Cir. 2005). In deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court must take all allegations in the complaint as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. See Warth v. Seldin, 422 U.S. 490, 501 (1975); Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts, Inc. v. Mirage Resorts Inc., 140 F.3d 478, 483 (3d Cir. 1998). Moreover, where the plaintiff is proceeding pro se, the complaint is "to be liberally construed, " and, "however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007).
Although a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds' of his entitlement to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Thus, the factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiff's right to relief above a speculative level, such that it is "plausible on its face." See id. at 570; see also Umland v. PLANCO Fin. Serv., Inc., 542 F.3d 59, 64 (3d Cir. 2008). A claim has "facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). While "[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement'... it asks for more than a sheer possibility." Id.
Res judicata, also known as claim preclusion, bars plaintiffs from bringing claims that they or their representatives brought, or could have brought, in a previously settled litigation. The party raising this affirmative defense bears the burden of showing that the doctrine applies. United States v. Athlone Industries, Inc., 746 F.2d 977, 983 (3d Cir. 1984). Res judicata applies where the prior suit (1) ended in a final judgment on the merits; (2) involved the same parties or their privies, and (3) was based on the same causes of action. Id.
When asking whether two causes of action are the same, the Court considers whether the Plaintiff (1) complains of the same wrongs and demands the same relief; (2) brings the same theory of recovery; (3) would call the same witnesses and bring the same documents at trial; and, (4) alleges the same material facts. Id. at 984. "Claim preclusion... prohibits reexamination not only of matters actually decided in a prior case, but also those that parties might have, but did not, assert in that action." Edmundson v. Borough of Kennett Square, 4 F.3d 186, 189 (3d Cir. 1993). In other words, a new legal theory "does not make the second case different for purposes of claim preclusion." Jones v. Lapina, 450 F. Appx. 105, 108-09 (3d Cir. 2011).
"It is well-settled that under the doctrine of res judicata, a judgment pursuant to a class settlement can bar later claims based on the allegations underlying the claims in the settled class action.'" Gotthelf v. Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., 525 Fed.Appx. 94, 99 (3d Cir. 2013) (quoting In re Prudential Ins. Co. of Am. Sales Practice Litig., 261 F.3d 355, 366 (3d Cir. 2001)). And, judicial approvals of settlement agreements are considered final judgments on the merits for the purposes of claim preclusion. Toscano v. Conn. Gen. Life Ins. Co., 288 Fed.Appx. 36, 38 (3d Cir. 2008). The Court must principally ask whether the factual predicate for future claims is the same as the factual predicate underlying the settlement agreement. Freeman v. MML Bay State Life Ins. Co., 445 Fed.Appx. 577, 579 (3d Cir. 2011).
Here, res judicata applies to all claims that Plaintiff raises in his August 18, 2014 Complaint. First, Judge Falk's order approving the settlement agreement constitutes a final judgment on the merits for the purposes of claim preclusion. See Toscano, 288 Fed.Appx. at 38. Courts facing negotiated settlement agreements that they determine to be fair, reasonable and adequate, have a duty to enter that settlement and its release as judgment. Grimes v. Vitalink Communications Corp., 17 F.3d 1553, 1557 (3d Cir. 1994). The terms of the settlement agreement's release provisions define the preclusive effect of that judgment. See Gotthelf, 525 Fed.Appx. at 13. Thus, Plaintiff has released, and already received judgment on all "claims pursuant to N.J.S.A. 34:11-56a et seq. and N.J.S.A. 34:11-56.25 et seq., the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Davis-Bacon and Related Acts, the Service Contract Act, claims under ERISA or ...