Front of appellate courthouse.

On June 6, 2022, the Supreme Court of the United States declined to hear petitions seeking review of whether federal courts may exercise personal jurisdiction over claims of nonresident plaintiffs who join Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) collective actions when their claims are not connected to the defendant’s activities in the forum state. The petitions sought review of rulings on the issue by the First and Sixth Circuit Courts of Appeals in Waters v. Day & Zimmermann NPS, Inc. and Canaday v. The Anthem Companies, Inc., respectively. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision declining to hear the petitions, there remains a circuit split as to whether the Court’s 2017 ruling in Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court applies to FLSA collective actions, and employers with nationwide footprints remain subject to uncertainty depending on jurisdiction.

To date, only the First, Sixth, and Eighth Circuits have ruled on the issue. On August 17, 2021, the Sixth Circuit was the first to address the issue in Canaday. There, the Court held that federal courts may not exercise personal jurisdiction over claims of nonresident plaintiffs who join FLSA collective actions when their claims are not connected to the defendant’s activities in the forum state. Just one day later, on August 18, 2021, the Eighth Circuit came to the same conclusion in Vallone v. CJS Solutions Group, LLC.

On January 13, 2022, in Waters, the First Circuit held to the contrary, concluding that federal courts do have personal jurisdiction over claims asserted by nonresident opt-in plaintiffs.

The Significance of Bristol-Myers

The Supreme Court’s decision in Bristol-Myers provides the basis for the current circuit split. Bristol-Myers involved a mass tort action under state law for alleged defects in a blood-thinning drug, Plavix, which the company manufactured. Residents and nonresidents of California sued Bristol-Myers in California state court, alleging injuries related to the drug. The nonresident plaintiffs claimed no relationship with the forum state, nor did they purchase Plavix in California or suffer any harm from it in California. The Supreme Court reasoned that any similarity between the resident and nonresident plaintiffs’ claims was an “insufficient basis” to exercise specific jurisdiction. Unless nonresident plaintiffs could demonstrate that their claims arose out of the defendant’s contacts with the forum state, personal jurisdiction over the company did not exist, no matter “the extent of a defendant’s unconnected activities in the State.”

In ruling that the California state court lacked jurisdiction over the claims of the nonresident plaintiffs, the Supreme Court acknowledged that its holding might ultimately generate more litigation in the form of separate actions by nonresident plaintiffs in their respective states. But the Supreme Court also noted that all plaintiffs to the action could have brought a mass tort action against Bristol-Myers in New York (the company’s headquarters) or Delaware (its place of incorporation) because courts in those states would have had general personal jurisdiction over the company. Instead, the California state court could exercise only specific personal jurisdiction over the company based on its activities in the state. Notably, Bristol-Myers was limited to Rule 23 class actions, leaving lower courts to determine whether its holding applied to FLSA collective actions, which differ procedurally.

The Circuit Split

In Canaday, the Sixth Circuit reiterated the basic tenet that, pursuant to the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the question of whether a court has personal jurisdiction over a defendant depends on the defendant’s contacts with the state in which the plaintiff filed the lawsuit. Because Anthem is both incorporated and headquartered in Indiana and not otherwise “at home” in the state of Tennessee, the district court in Tennessee lacked general jurisdiction over Anthem as a defendant. At issue was whether the district court in Tennessee had specific personal jurisdiction over Anthem, and thus, whether there was a claim-specific and Anthem-specific relationship between the nonresidents’ FLSA claims and the state of Tennessee.

Applying Bristol-Myers, the Sixth Circuit held that there was not. The court found that the nonresident plaintiffs did not bring claims arising out of or relating to Anthem’s conduct in Tennessee, because Anthem neither employed nor paid the nonresident plaintiffs within the state. The Sixth Circuit went on the explain that adherence to this approach should not change the way FLSA collective actions are filed, because plaintiffs traditionally file their actions where courts have general jurisdiction, or where the conduct occurred. Of note, Sixth Circuit Judge Bernice Donald dissented in Canaday, contending that Bristol-Myers does not apply to FLSA collective actions because the Supreme Court in that case addressed only the limitations of state courts, not federal courts, in their exercise of personal jurisdiction over nonresidents.

In Waters, the First Circuit largely followed the reasoning in Judge Donald’s dissent, concluding that the Supreme Court’s decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb “rest[ed] on Fourteenth Amendment constitutional limits on state courts exercising jurisdiction over state-law claims” and thus did not control whether a federal court could exercise jurisdiction over federal claims asserted by nonresident plaintiffs. The First Circuit also observed that the plain language of Rule 4(k) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure merely concerns the service of summonses and does not “constrain[] a federal court’s power to act once a summons has been properly served, and personal jurisdiction has been established.”

Key Takeaways

The Supreme Court’s decision to deny the petitions means that employers with nationwide footprints continue to live with potentially inconsistent rulings on the question of whether a federal district court has jurisdiction to hear claims of out-of-state workers when the defendant is neither headquartered nor incorporated in the state. Canaday and Vallone stand to significantly limit the size and geographic scope of FLSA collective actions in the Sixth and Eighth Circuits, absent a district court’s exercise of general jurisdiction over a corporate defendant, while Waters permits nationwide jurisdiction in the First Circuit. For now, at least, multistate employers face continued uncertainty on the issue until courts of appeals in the remaining circuits weigh in.

Ogletree Deakins will continue to monitor and report on developments with respect to jurisdictional issues in FLSA collective actions and will post updates to the firm’s Class Action and Wage and Hour blogs as additional information becomes available. Important information for employers is also available via the firm’s webinar and podcast programs.

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