MCLAUGHLIN v. SENECA RESOURCES CORPORATION et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION indicating that, for the reasons stated more fully within Defendant's Motion for More Definite Statement 24 and Motion to Strike 31 will be denied; Plaintiff's request for equitable tolling will be granted. The stat ute of limitations in this action will be tolled from 2/21/18 until the date on which an answer is filed by Defendant. Defendant is instructed to file an answer to the Second Amended Complaint on or before 4/30/18. Signed by Judge Nora Barry Fischer on 4/13/18. (jg)
IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE WESTERN DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
GARY McLAUGHLIN, individually and on
behalf of all others similarly situated,
SENECA RESOURCES CORPORATION,
Civil Action No. 17-255
Judge Nora Barry Fischer
Plaintiff Gary McLaughlin (“Plaintiff”) initiated this civil action against Seneca Resources
Corporation (“Seneca” or “Defendant”) seeking to recover unpaid overtime wages and other
damages. Plaintiff’s First Amended Complaint sets forth claims under the Fair Labor Standards
Act (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), and the Pennsylvania Minimum Wage Act (“PMWA”), 43 Pa.
Stat. Ann. § 333.104.
Presently pending before the Court is Defendant’s Second Motion for a More Definite Statement.
(Docket No. 24). Also before the Court is Defendant’s Motion to Strike Response in Opposition.
(Docket No. 31). For the reasons set forth below, each motion will be DENIED.
Plaintiff purports to bring this FLSA and PMWA action against Defendant, an oil and gas
exploration company, on behalf of a class of similarly situated employees who Plaintiff contends
were misclassified as independent contractors by Defendant to circumvent minimum wage and
overtime laws. In his First Amended Complaint, Plaintiff sought to certify a putative class
consisting of “all current and former oilfield workers that worked for or on behalf of Seneca
Resources who were classified as independent contractors and paid a day-rate during the last three
(3) years.” (Id. at ¶ 15).
On November 20, 2017, Defendant filed a Motion to Dismiss or, in the alternative, Motion for a
More Definite Statement. (Docket No. 10). Defendant argued that the proposed class definition
was legally insufficient and so vague as to provide no basis for Defendant to respond to the
allegations in the Complaint. In response, Plaintiff sought leave to file a Second Amended
Complaint in which he amended the class definition to encompass “all current and former
consultants that worked for or on behalf of [Defendant] who were classified as independent
contractors and paid a day-rate during the last 3 years.” (Docket No. 16-3 at ¶ 32). Defendant
opposed Plaintiff’s request to file a Second Amended Complaint on the basis that the newlyworded class definition remained overly vague and legally insufficient to state a claim. (Docket
On January 30, 2018, this Court issued a Memorandum Opinion and Order denying Defendant’s
Motion to Dismiss, denying Defendant’s Motion for More Definite Statement, and granting
Plaintiff leave to file the proposed Second Amended Complaint. (Docket No. 20). The Court
observed that district courts “routinely certify classes defined in very similar terms to the proposed
class definition set forth in the Second Amended Complaint” and that particular details of the job
descriptions of the proposed class members are “less critical” where the class members where the
victims of a single decision, policy or plan, as appears to be the case here. (Id. at 8-9).
Rather than file an answer to the Second Amended Complaint, Defendants filed the instant Motion
for More Definite Statement, again arguing that the proposed class definition is overly vague.
Plaintiff characterizes the motion is duplicative and dilatory and requests that the Court deny the
motion and toll the running of the statute of limitations to preserve the rights of potential opt-in
plaintiffs who have yet to receive notice of this litigation. Defendant argues that the request for
tolling is procedurally improper and should be stricken because it was raised in a responsive brief
rather than a motion. (Docket No. 27). Each of these motions is ripe for review.
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(e) allows a party to move for a more definite statement of a
pleading “which is so vague or ambiguous that the party cannot reasonably prepare a response.”
Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(e). “Typically, the court restricts the use of this motion to pleadings suffering
from unintelligibility rather than the want of detail.” Retzlaff v. Horace Mann Ins., 738 F.Supp.2d
564, 568-69 (D. Del. 2010). Thus, “[t]he class of pleadings that are appropriate subjects for a
motion under Rule 12(e) is quite small—the pleading must be sufficiently intelligible for the court
to be able to make out one or more potentially viable legal theories on which the claimant might
proceed.” Sun Co. v. Badger Design & Constructors, 939 F. Supp. 365, 368 (E.D. Pa. 1996) (citing
5 C. Wright & A. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure, § 1376, p. 311 (3d ed. 2004) (stating that
“the pleading must be sufficiently intelligible for the district court to be able to make out one or
more potentially viable legal theories on which the claimant might proceed”)). “Granting the
motion is appropriate only when the pleading is ‘so vague or ambiguous that the opposing party
cannot respond, even with a simple denial, in good faith, without prejudice to itself.” Dixon v.
Boscov’s, Inc., No. Civ. A. 02-1222, 2002 WL 1740583, at *4 (E.D. Pa. July 17, 2002) (citing Sun
Co., 939 F. Supp. at 368); see also 5 C. Wright & A. Miller, supra, § 1376, p. 312 n. 9.
In its Rule 12(e) Motion, Defendant contends that Plaintiff’s Second Amended Complaint “fails
to adequately define the class of employees for whom the Plaintiff purports to represent,” such that
Defendant is “prejudiced in its ability to plead, in good faith, all applicable defenses to the claims
asserted by Plaintiff.” (Docket No. 25 at 5, 9). These allegations mirror those already raised by
Defendants by way of their first Motion for More Definite Statement (Docket No. 10) and their
responsive brief in opposition to Plaintiff’s request to file the Second Amended Complaint.
(Docket No. 19). Each of Defendant’s arguments has already been squarely rejected by this Court:
[S]everal courts have noted that the particular job descriptions of the putative class
members are less critical where the class members “were victims of a single decision,
policy or plan.” Tamez v. BHP Billiton Petroleum (Americas), Inc., 2015 WL
7075971, at *3 (W.D. Tex. Oct. 5, 2015). In Tamez, for example, individuals who
performed work on behalf of an oil and gas company alleged that they were paid a
day-rate with no overtime despite that they routinely worked overtime hours. Id. at
*1. The plaintiffs sought conditional certification of a class comprised of “[a]ll
persons who worked for Defendant and were paid a ‘day rate’ at any time since three
years prior to April 24, 2015 . . .”. Id. The court granted conditional certification,
The alleged FLSA violations in this case do not depend on the job title or
responsibilities of each particular plaintiff. Plaintiffs allege that they were paid
a fixed amount per day without regard for the number of hours worked. Plaintiffs
argue that such a compensation scheme is a per se violation of the FLSA and its
implementing regulations.1 If Plaintiffs are correct, then BHP Billiton violated
the FLSA with regard to every putative plaintiff regardless of their particular job
position. In some cases, plaintiffs allege FLSA violations that require showing
not only the existence of a common compensation scheme but also certain
factual predicates. In these cases, it may be appropriate to require the class be
limited to a particular job position in order to provide the court some assurance
that the relevant facts are common across the class. Whereas here, Plaintiffs
allege that the compensation scheme is in of itself a violation the FLSA. No
further factual inquiry is necessary.
Id. at *3. See also Minyard v. Double D Tong, Inc., 237 F.Supp.3d 480, 490 (W.D.
Tex. 2017) (noting that an FLSA violation does not depend on the job title or
responsibilities of each plaintiff where “a common scheme or policy allegedly
affect[ed] all . . . [proposed class members]”); Lagasse v. Flextronics America, LLC,
2012 WL 2357442, at *5 (D. R.I. June 1, 2012) (denying a Rule 12(b)(6) challenge to
an FLSA plaintiff’s collective action allegations and noting that a plaintiff must only
allege “facts which plausibly support his claim that he and other [class members] were
similarly situated with respect to their job duties and manner of pay and were victims
of a common policy to misclassify them as overtime-exempt employees.”).
Indeed, as noted by Plaintiff, courts appear to routinely certify classes defined in very
similar terms to the proposed class definition set forth in the Second Amended
Complaint. See, e.g., Hernandez v. Apache Corporation, No. 4:16-3454, ECF Nos.
38 and 50 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 8, 2017) (certifying class consisting of “[a]ll oilfield
workers who worked for Apache during the past 3 years who were classified as
independent contractors and paid a day-rate with no overtime”); Baucum v. Marathon
Oil Corp., 2017 WL 3017509, at *8 (S.D. Tex. July 14, 2017) (certifying a class
consisting of “[a]ll persons who worked for Marathon as HES Advisors and/or Solids
Control Operators who were classified as independent contractors and paid a day-rate
with no overtime compensation” during the relevant time period); Williamson v.
ConocoPhillips, No. 2:17-103, ECF No. 15 (S.D. Tex. July 31, 2017) (certifying a
class consisting of “[a]ll individuals who worked as independent contractors for
ConocoPhillips . . . as Completions Consultants or Wellsite Consultants and who were
paid a day rate”); Matte v. Greene’s Energy Group, LLC, No. 2:16-1258, ECF No. 19
(W.D. Pa. Mar. 8, 2017) (Cercone, J.) (certifying a class of “all current and former
independent contractors of [defendant] who worked in the oilfield at any time” during
the relevant time period); Stewart v. Anchor Drilling Fluids USA, Inc., No. 2:16-1372,
ECF No. 49 (W.D. Pa. July 10, 2017) (Schwab, J.) (certifying a class comprised of
“[a]ll mud engineers / drilling fluid engineers who performed work for and/or on
behalf of [defendant] during the three years prior . . . who were classified as
independent contractors and paid a day rate”).
(Docket No. 20 at 8-10).
Defendant has failed to cite any legal basis to support the filing of a second, substantively identical
motion attacking the Second Amended Complaint on the precise same grounds that have already
been rejected. Consequently, for the reasons set forth in the Court’s Memorandum Opinion of
January 30, 2017 (Docket No. 20), which is incorporated herein by reference, Defendant’s Motion
will be denied.
In light of the redundant nature of Defendant’s repeated and duplicative attacks on the sufficiency
of Plaintiff’s pleadings, Plaintiff requests tolling of the two-year statute of limitations applicable
to FLSA actions. Plaintiff contends that tolling is necessary to prevent potential opt-in claimants
from losing those portions of their claims that may expire prior to receiving notice of this action.
The Third Circuit has held that equitable tolling of a statutory limitations period may be
appropriate where: (1) “the defendant has actively misled the plaintiff respecting the plaintiff’s
cause of action, and that deception causes non-compliance with an applicable limitations
provision”; (2) “the plaintiff in some extraordinary way has been prevented from asserting his
rights”; (3) or “the plaintiff has timely asserted his or her rights mistakenly in the wrong forum.”
Podobnik v. U.S. Postal Serv., 409 F.3d 584, 591 (3d Cir. 2005). Tolling may also be appropriate
when it is “demanded by sound legal principles as well as the interests of justice.” Jones v. Morton,
195 F.3d 153, 159 (3d Cir. 1999).
In this instance, a brief period of equitable tolling in the interests of justice is warranted. As noted
by the United States Supreme Court, the benefits of a collective action depend upon potential class
members “receiving accurate and timely notice” of their potential claims. Hoffman-La Roche, Inc.
v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 170 (1989). Because timing is so critical to such actions, courts have
recognized that tolling may be appropriate where unreasonable delay results in potential prejudice
to actual or potential opt-in plaintiffs. See, e.g., Kolosa v. BOS Solutions, Inc., No. 2:17-cv-1087,
ECF No. 63 (W.D. Pa. Mar. 7, 2018) (tolling the statute of limitations for potential opt-ins during
the pendency of a motion for conditional class certification); Depalma v. Scotts Company, LLC,
2016 WL 4161093, at *3 (D.N.J. Aug. 4, 2016) (noting that courts “routinely” toll the statute of
limitations in FLSA cases where delays occur which are outside of the control of the plaintiffs or
opt-in plaintiffs); Ornelas v. Hooper Homes, Inc., 2014 WL 7051868, at *4 (D.N.J. Dec. 12, 2014)
(finding equitable tolling to be “in the interests of justice” because of a lengthy delay in resolving
a motion for conditional certification).
As in each of the foregoing cases, Plaintiff has diligently and actively pursued his claims in this
action. Plaintiff had no part in the delay occasioned by Defendant’s decision to file a second,
duplicative Rule 12(e) motion; to the contrary, Plaintiff decisively prevailed on Defendant’s
motion the first time it was presented. Finally, a brief period of tolling will not prejudice the
Defendant by increasing or altering the number of persons who can bring claims against it. Rather,
it will merely prevent claims from lapsing based on the delays in reaching the discovery stage of
this litigation. See, e.g., Struck v. PNC Bank, 931 F.Supp.2d 842, 848 (S.D. Ohio 2013) (noting
lack of prejudice where Defendant has full knowledge of the scope of potential liability).
Plaintiff has requested tolling from November 20, 2017 – the date on which Defendant filed its
first Motion to Dismiss - until such time as an answer is filed. As noted by Defendant, however,
that motion directly led to Plaintiff’s latest request to amend his complaint, suggesting that the
motion was neither dilatory or frivolous. On the other hand, Defendant’s second Motion for More
Definite Statement, filed on February 21, 2018, consists entirely of legal arguments that have
already been conclusively addressed and ruled upon by this Court. The filing of this type of
duplicative motion – and the extensive briefing required thereafter – warrants equitable tolling.
Consequently, the Court will equitably toll the statute of limitations for a period commencing on
February 21, 2018, and terminating as of the date on which Defendants file a responsive pleading.1
For all of the foregoing reasons, Defendant’s Motion for More Definite Statement [Docket No. 24]
and Motion to Strike [Docket No. 31] will be DENIED.
Defendant’s Motion to Strike Plaintiff’s tolling request as “procedurally improper” (Docket No.
27, 31) is denied. Defendant has cited no caselaw to support this position and, in any event, has
been granted a full and fair opportunity to respond to Plaintiff’s request by way of a reply brief.
Moreover, as discussed herein, a request for a period of equitable tolling is not uncommon in
Plaintiff’s request for equitable tolling will be GRANTED. The statute of limitations in this action
will be tolled from February 21, 2018 until the date on which an answer is filed by Defendant.
Defendant is instructed to file an answer to the Second Amended Complaint on or before
April 30, 2018.
IT IS SO ORDERED.
/s/ Nora Barry Fischer
Nora Barry Fischer
United States District Judge
All parties of record.
April 16, 2018
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