When the individual claim of the lead plaintiff in a Fair Labor Standards Act collective action becomes moot before class certification, so too do those of the class, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, reversing the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

"In the absence of any claimants opting in, [Laura Symczyk's] suit became moot when her individual claim became moot, because she lacked any personal interest in representing others in this action," Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the 5-4 majority in Genesis Healthcare v. Symczyk, which was split along ideological lines.

"While the FLSA authorizes an aggrieved employee to bring an action on behalf of himself and ‘other employees similarly situated,’ the mere presence of collective action allegations in the complaint cannot save the suit from mootness once the individual claim is satisfied."

Thomas said Symczyk relied on cases involving Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23 dealing with class actions, which he said are fundamentally different from collective actions. Those cases also were factually different from hers: one dealt with a class that was certified and another with a situation in which the plaintiff’s claims were still live at the time class certification was denied.

The court did not decide whether an unaccepted defense offer under Rule 68 to settle Symczyk’s individual claim rendered her claim moot. That is an issue that has split the circuit courts and left the dissenting justices calling the court’s decision an answer to an "imaginary question." Rather, the majority said that because Symczyk did not raise the mootness of her own claim on appeal, the court only had to apply mootness principles to determine whether the satisfaction of Symczyk’s claim mooted the class’ claim.

Symczyk had argued that a ruling in Genesis Healthcare Corp.’s favor would allow defendants in collective actions to strategically use Rule 68 offers of judgment to "pick off" named plaintiffs before the collective action process is complete.

Thomas disagreed, saying, "While settlement may have the collateral effect of foreclosing unjoined claimants from having their rights vindicated in [Symczyk's] suit, such putative plaintiffs remain free to vindicate their rights in their own suits. They are no less able to have their claims settled or adjudicated following [Symczyk's] suit than if her suit had never been filed at all."

Symczyk, a nurse at Pennypack Center in Philadelphia, filed a collective action alleging the defendants violated the FLSA by deducting 30 minutes of time per shift for meal breaks even when some employees worked through the breaks. She sought statutory damages for the alleged violations.

Genesis Healthcare served Symczyk with a Rule 68 offer of judgment for $7,500 for alleged unpaid wages plus attorney fees and costs. Genesis said that if the offer was not accepted within 10 days it would be considered withdrawn. When Symczyk didn’t respond, Genesis filed a motion to dismiss the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, arguing that because Symczyk was offered complete relief she no longer had a personal stake in the outcome of the litigation, according to the opinion.

The district court found the Rule 68 offer fully satisfied Symczyk’s individual claim and therefore mooted the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction. The Third Circuit reversed. It agreed the offer fully satisfied the claim and therefore mooted the individual claim, but held the collective action was not moot. The court found an alternate ruling would allow defendants to pick off plaintiffs and frustrate the goals of collective actions.

In a footnote to his opinion, Thomas said that, while the court doesn’t resolve the question of whether a Rule 68 offer that fully satisfies a claim is sufficient to moot the action, appeals courts on both sides of the issue have recognized a plaintiff’s claim can be satisfied without the plaintiff’s consent.

"Contrary to the dissent’s assertion, nothing in the nature of FLSA actions precludes satisfaction — and thus the mooting — of the individual’s claim before the collective action component of the suit has run its course," Thomas said in the footnote.

He was joined in the majority by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito. Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

Kagan said the majority addressed an "imaginary question" based on a mistake the courts below made. She said embedded in the question of whether a collection action under the FLSA is justiciable when the individual claims are moot is the assumption that the individual claim was moot.

"But what if that premise is bogus?" Kagan asked. "What if the plaintiff’s individual claim here never became moot? And what if, in addition, no similar claim for damages will ever become moot? In that event, the majority’s decision — founded as it is on an unfounded assumption — would have no real-world meaning or application."

Kagan challenged any reader of the majority’s opinion to find a spot in the fact pattern in which Symczyk’s claim was made moot. She said an instance couldn’t be found. Kagan said Symczyk’s claim was "alive and well" when the district court dismissed her suit. Kagan further pointed out that, unlike the Third Circuit, the majority doesn’t attempt to argue Symczyk’s claim was moot. Rather, it hung its hat on a finding of waiver, she said.

"Feel free to relegate the majority’s decision to the furthest reaches of your mind: the situation it addresses should never again rise," Kagan said.

The justice said there would never be an instance in which a plaintiff’s individual claim would become moot.

Ronald Mann of Columbia Law School argued the case on behalf of Genesis Healthcare. Maurice Mitts of Mitts Law in Philadelphia also represented Genesis. Gary Lynch of Carlson Lynch in New Castle, Pa., represented Symczyk along with Neal Katyal of Hogan Lovells.

A number of parties filed amicus briefs in the case. The United States noted its support for affirmance of the Third Circuit’s decision.