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Adair v. Bureau of Customs & Border Protection

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 13, 2016

THOMAS ADAIR, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
BUREAU OF CUSTOMS AND BORDER PROTECTION, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          CHRISTOPHER R. COOPER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Forty-five employees of the Office of Air and Marine in the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection[1] claim that their positions have been misclassified as "administrative, " improperly exempting them from protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act ("FLSA"). They contend that they are entitled to, but have been denied, overtime compensation under the Act and now bring suit against the United States for back pay and liquidated damages. Plaintiffs do not waive any FLSA claims exceeding $10, 000. Because exclusive jurisdiction to hear those claims rests with the Court of Federal Claims, this Court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over them. It will therefore deny both sides' motions for summary judgment without prejudice. Rather than dismiss the case outright, however, the interest of justice requires that the Court transfer this matter to the Court of Federal Claims.

         I. Background

         A. Procedural Background

         In July 2013, an initial set of plaintiffs filed a complaint in this Court charging the United States with violating the FLSA by erroneously exempting them from the Act's overtime-pay requirements. They subsequently amended their complaint three times, adding additional plaintiffs who were also employed in the Office of Air and Marine. Discovery commenced in February 2014. Nine months later, before the close of discovery, Plaintiffs moved the Court to transfer this matter to the Court of Federal Claims. See Pls.' Mot. Transfer, ECF No. 35. They asserted that they did "not waive recovery in excess of $10, 000, " argued that the Court of Federal Claims "ha[d] exclusive jurisdiction over [their] claims, " and urged this Court to transfer the case pursuant to its authority under 28 U.S.C. § 1631 ("Transfer to cure want of jurisdiction"). Id. at 1-2. Defendants opposed this motion, contending that the Supreme Court's opinion in United States v. Bormes, 133 S.Ct. 12 (2012), upended precedent from multiple circuits (including the D.C. Circuit) holding that only the Court of Federal Claims has jurisdiction in this circumstance. Defs.' Opp'n Pls.' Mot. Transfer, ECF No. 36, at 4. Plaintiffs then withdrew their motion to transfer. See ECF No. 37. The parties proceeded to complete discovery and brief summary judgment on the merits of Plaintiffs' claims. These cross-motions for summary judgment are ripe, and the Court is now squarely faced with the question of whether it has subject-matter jurisdiction over those claims.

         Anticipating this question, the Court directed the parties to submit supplemental briefing on the jurisdictional issue. In response, Plaintiffs readopted the arguments they advanced in their motion to transfer and reiterated their view that the Court of Federal Claims has exclusive jurisdiction "over [FLSA] claims, like those asserted here, against the United States exceeding $10, 000." Pls.' Suppl. Br. 1. They also emphasized that the Court of Federal Claims possesses "unique expertise in adjudicating FLSA claims against the federal government." Id. Defendants still maintain that this Court has jurisdiction over the matter. See Defs.' Not., ECF No. 67.

         B. Statutory Background

         The Tucker Act grants the Court of Federal Claims "jurisdiction over a nontort monetary claim ‘against the United States founded . . . upon . . . any Act of Congress.'" Abbey v. United States, 745 F.3d 1363, 1368-69 (Fed. Cir. 2014) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1491(a)(1)). Courts have long held, "since soon after the FLSA was extended to the federal government by the Fair Labor Standards Amendments Act of 1974, . . . [that] the Tucker Act applies to a claim against the government under the monetary-damages provision of the FLSA, 29 U.S.C. § 216(b)." Id. at 1369.

         The Tucker Act's statutory scheme differs somewhat depending on the amount of the claim. Specifically, the "‘Little Tucker Act' grants United States district courts concurrent jurisdiction with the United States Court of Federal Claims over civil actions or claims against the United States not exceeding $10, 000 in amount, " Waters v. Rumsfeld, 320 F.3d 265, 270 (D.C. Cir. 2003) (internal quotation mark omitted) (quoting 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(2)), whereas, generally speaking, "[u]nder the (Big) Tucker Act, claims ‘exceeding the $10, 000 jurisdictional ceiling . . . are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Court of Claims, '" id. (quoting Goble v. Marsh, 684 F.2d 12, 15 (D.C. Cir. 1982)).

         II. Standard of Review

         This Court has "an independent obligation to determine whether subject-matter jurisdiction exists, even in the absence of a challenge from any party." Arbaugh v. Y&H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006) (citing Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co., 526 U.S. 574, 583 (1999)). If it finds that it lacks jurisdiction over a civil action, the Court may, in the interest of justice, transfer that action to another court where it could have been brought at the time it was filed. 28 U.S.C. § 1631. Otherwise, it must dismiss.

         When "the existence of jurisdiction in the District Court depends on the plaintiff[s'] choice" to waive claims in excess of a certain threshold, the Court should give plaintiffs "an opportunity to amend their complaints to effect an adequate waiver" before transferring the action. Goble, 684 F.2d at 17. This requirement follows from 28 U.S.C. § 1653, which allows "[d]efective allegations of jurisdiction [to] be amended, upon terms, in the trial or appellate courts." See Goble, 684 F.2d at 17. If plaintiffs do not choose to effect such a waiver, and the Court lacks jurisdiction as a result, the Court may then transfer the matter to the appropriate court.

         III. Analysis

         The D.C. Circuit has held that "the Court of Federal Claims has exclusive jurisdiction to adjudicate" all "FLSA claims in excess of $10, 000." Waters, 320 F.3d at 272. Unless plaintiffs waive their claims in excess of $10, 000, "the district court [is] without jurisdiction to rule on their merits." Id. This view has long prevailed in other circuits as well. See, e.g., Parker v. King, 935 F.2d 1174, 1177 (11th Cir. 1991); Graham v. Henegar, 640 F.2d 732, 734 (5th Cir. 1981). The government contends, however, that a recent Supreme Court case (analyzing a different statute) necessarily dooms the "30-year-old, multi-circuit, apparently unbroken precedent" that exclusive ...


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