The FLSA’s Bristol-Myers Squibb Problem

By Adam Drake

Three years after Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. v. Superior Court, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that a California state court lacked personal jurisdiction over the claims of out-of-state plaintiffs, the ultimate scope of the holding remains unclear. Having reasoned that permitting jurisdiction over out-of-state plaintiffs’ claims would infringe on the sovereignty of those plaintiffs’ home states, the Court left open the question whether its holding
applies to out-of-state plaintiffs in federal causes of action.

Predictably, defendants have subsequently argued that the Court’s decision in Bristol-Myers Squibb applies to federal causes of action and bars federal courts from exerting jurisdiction over the claims of out-of-state plaintiffs that arose from conduct that occurred solely in their home states. This has led to a stark divide in federal district courts about whether Bristol-Myers Squibb applies in the context of collective actions under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (FLSA), a federal “super statute” for workers’ rights. The FLSA permits similarly situated plaintiffs to join their claims and proceed collectively against a common employer-defendant. As of the publication of this Note, at least eighteen district courts have held that Bristol-Myers Squibb applies to FLSA collective actions—meaning that courts cannot assert jurisdiction over out-of-state plaintiffs’ claims because they do not arise out of or relate to employer-defendants’ contacts with the forum state. In contrast, nineteen district courts have held that out-of-state plaintiffs may join a FLSA collective action and have found that Bristol-Myers Squibb does not apply to FLSA collective actions.

This Note explores and attempts to resolve this divide—specifically by examining whether FLSA collective actions are meaningfully distinguishable from state mass tort actions, like that in Bristol-Myers Squibb. Ultimately, this Note concludes that FLSA collective actions cannot escape Bristol-Myers Squibb’s reach. Given this conclusion, this Note urges Congress to amend the FLSA to provide for nationwide service of process to both circumvent Bristol-Myers Squibb and reestablish FLSA collective actions as an invaluable safeguard for workers.