Res judicata helps cut the Gordian knot

Rule 23 and FLSA Section 16(b) can provide myriad benefits to the plaintiffs in class actions, but in some instances the attorneys may resort to procedural runarounds to try to leverage those benefits even further. Courts have been less than receptive to these efforts, as a recent opinion from the Eastern District of Missouri demonstrates. Buchta v. Air Evac EMS, Inc., Case No. 4:19-cv-00976 (E.D. Mo. Aug. 10, 2020).

The case — really two class action cases — has a convoluted fact pattern, but we’ll hit just the high points. The disputes in the two related actions concerned claims for overtime against the same employer, an air ambulance company operating in several states in and around Kentucky. The first case, Peck v. Air Evac EMS, was filed in Kentucky in 2018 and settled in April 2019. The settlement in that case included a release of any claims relating to “failure to pay overtime,” “failure to pay wages,” and “any claim that was or could have been asserted in the action.” Following notice to the class, the Kentucky district court approved the settlement on a class-wide basis in January 2020.

So far, so good. The case looked like a garden-variety settlement of a class overtime claim.

Here’s where things went astray. On the same day that the plaintiffs filed the request for preliminary approval of the settlement of the Peck case, the same attorneys filed a new case in Missouri, Buchta v. Air Evac EMS, with a new class representative, purporting to seek recovery on behalf of Illinois employees. The named plaintiff in that case worked not only in Kentucky but also in Indiana and Illinois. He had received a notice relating to the settlement in the Kentucky Peck case, but never opted out.

After discovery closed, the plaintiff’s attorneys sought to hedge their bets, and sought Rule 24 intervention by additional plaintiffs from West Virginia and Illinois. They also sought class certification with respect to this second case.

Now, the case is a mess, but the court cut through it pretty quickly. It denied the motions to intervene, in part because they were untimely and would require the reopening of discovery.

As to the claims of the new named plaintiff (Buchta), the court found that they were barred either by the release (whose language clearly encompassed claims for overtime, without being tied to any one state) or by res judicata, as Buchta had been a class member in the Peck matter and had never opted out of that settlement. It rejected technical arguments about waiver of these defenses, largely concluding either that they were pleaded in the answer or that the plaintiff was on sufficient notice that they would be asserted.

It’s not clear why the plaintiff’s attorneys resorted to such convoluted tactics. If the class or settlement was limited to Kentucky claims, they could have spelled that out in the agreement. If they wanted to carve out other states, that could also have been done in the agreement. In any case, the court ultimately concluded that these tactics were ineffective and would not permit them to litigate the additional states.

The bottom line: Res judicata may be a powerful argument to address claims asserted after a settlement has been approved.