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How Does Suing John Does Work?

by | Mar 10, 2023 | Federal Law Update, Wage: Minimum Wage, Wage: Overtime, Wage: Tipped Employees |

Our wage and hour lawyers have addressed the various right that employees have against wage theft under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). The FLSA is a federal law that sets minimum wage, overtime pay, recordkeeping, and requirements for tipped-wage employees for covered employees in the United States. Most of our blogs address the substance of minimum wage and overtime pay rights. Today, however, our best wage and hour attorneys chime in on procedural issues addressed in the recent case, Wang v. Ren, No. 20-4216, 2023 WL 1977233, at *1 (2d Cir. Feb. 14, 2023). Let’s call this Wang II (foreshadowing a prior case).

To best understand what happened, we must go backwards a little bit. You see, in 2017, Ming En Wang filed his first class-action lawsuit in the Southern District of New Yorks against his former employer, Yong Lee Inc. (d/b/a Spice Saigon); Spice Saigon’s manager and sole shareholder, Jing Yang; and two unnamed defendants identified as John Doe and Jane Doe (collectively, the “Wang I Defendants”). I. In this first case, he asserted various FLSA violations.

As is typical, the parties engaged in discovery, which includes sending written questions, getting documents, and taking depositions. Want did not seek to amend the complaint until two weeks before trial was set to start when he, Wang moved to amend his complaint to substitute in his former supervisor, Haiying Ren, for the John Doe Defendant. The District Court denied the Motion to Amend as untimely and Wang attempted an end-round by simply filing a completely new case against Ren.

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Who can be held liable for wage violations under the FLSA?

Individuals who can be held liable under the FLSA include:

Employers: Generally, employers are liable for violations of the FLSA. An employer is defined under the FLSA as any person or entity who employs employees and has control over their wages, hours, and working conditions.

  1. “Joint employers”: In some cases, multiple entities may be considered joint employers of the same employee for purposes of the FLSA. In these cases, both entities may be held liable for any FLSA violations.
  2. “Successor employers”: If an employer acquires another employer’s business or assets, they may be held liable for any FLSA violations committed by the predecessor employer.
  3. “Individuals”: In certain situations, individuals who are acting as or on behalf of employers, such as business owners or managers, may be held personally liable for FLSA violations. For example, if an individual exercises control over the wages, hours, or working conditions of an employee, they may be considered an employer under the FLSA and can be held personally liable for any violations.

It’s important to note that determining individual liability under the FLSA can be complex and may depend on the specific facts of each case. If you have concerns about FLSA compliance or liability, it’s recommended that you consult with a legal professional.

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Why are John Does named in civil lawsuits?

John Doe or Jane Doe is a placeholder name used in legal proceedings when the name of a particular defendant is unknown. John Doe can also refer to a defendant whose name is being withheld for privacy or other reasons.

In civil lawsuits, John Does are typically named as a defendant for several reasons:

  1. To preserve the statute of limitations: In some cases, the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit may be about to expire, and the plaintiff may not yet know the identity of the defendant. In such cases, the plaintiff may name John Doe as the defendant in order to preserve their right to sue, and then later amend the complaint to substitute the actual name of the defendant.
  2. To identify the defendant: Sometimes, a plaintiff may have some information about the defendant, but not enough to identify them by name. For example, the plaintiff may have a description of a hit-and-run driver, but not their name. In such cases, the plaintiff may name John Doe as the defendant, and then use the discovery process to obtain additional information that will allow them to identify the defendant by name.
  3. To bring all claims together: In some cases, a plaintiff may not know who certain defendants are but does know others. The law favors bringing all claims arising out of the same facts together in one case as opposed to piecemeal over time in several different cases. Therefore, naming the John Doe Defendant let’s the Court and other parties know of the plaintiff’s intent to add additional defendants in the action.

It’s important to note that naming John Doe as a defendant in a civil lawsuit is not a common occurrence and is generally only done in specific circumstances where the identity of the defendant is unknown or uncertain. Once the identity of the defendant is known, the plaintiff will need to timely amend the complaint to name the actual defendant.

So, what happened in Wang II?

The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed the dismissal and held:

Here, the district court did not abuse its discretion in dismissing this action as duplicative of Wang I. For starters, both suits involve the same set of facts concerning the terms of Wang’s employment at Spice Saigon, where he alleges (among other things) that he was neither paid the minimum wage nor compensated for overtime. The two suits assert substantially identical claims under the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York labor law. Compare App’x at 44–49 (Wang I claims), with id. at 190–96 (Wang II claims). And while it is true that the two suits name different defendants, there can be no doubt that Ren has a “sufficiently close relationship” with Spice Saigon and Jing Yang to meet the privity requirement…

Wang does not dispute any of these facts. Instead, he argues, in essence, that in a joint employer FLSA action a plaintiff who is unhappy with a district court’s denial of an eleventh-hour motion to add a defendant has an unfettered right to bring a new action against that very defendant, effectively neutralizing the district court’s ruling on the motion to amend. That, of course, is not the law. See Sacerdote, 939 F.3d at 505 (holding that the rule against duplicative litigation can be raised to “bar one of two suits that are both still pending”). Contrary to Wang’s assertion, he had a “choice [other than] filing Wang II.” Wang Br. at 10. Wang was – and perhaps still is – free to challenge the district court’s denial of his motion to amend from the final judgment in Wang ISee, e.g.Parker v. Columbia Pictures Indus., 204 F.3d 326, 339 (2d Cir. 2000) (reviewing district court’s decision denying plaintiff leave to amend for abuse of discretion). Were he to avail himself of that avenue for relief – and prevail – he would have the opportunity to bring his claims against Ren as part of Wang I. But he is not entitled to engineer an end-run around the district court’s ruling in Wang I by filing a virtually identical complaint just days after the district court had indicated from the bench that it would deny the motion to amend.

Id. at *3.

In the end, this problem all falls on the shoulders of the employee’s attorney, who should have amended the complaint shortly after discovering the actual name of the John Doe.

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How do I find the best wage theft lawyer?

Call Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm. The FLSA is extremely tricky and very complicated. Most attorneys and law firms have never handled any overtime or minimum wage claims under the FLSA, much less tried those cases to a jury. If you believe that your employer is not properly paying you overtime or minimum wages as required by the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act or Ohio Minimum Fair Wage Standards laws, contact the attorneys at Spitz, The Employee’s Law Firm today for a free and confidential initial consultation. The experienced wage and hour lawyers at Spitz will provide you with the top options for your overtime pay dispute situation. (Read: What is the Spitz No Fee Guarantee?) If you even think that you may be entitled to overtime pay that you are not being paid, call our Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and North Carolina attorneys right now. Do it now. The longer that you wait, the less that your claim may be worth.

Disclaimer:

The materials available at the top of this overtime, wage and hour web page and at this employment law website are for informational purposes only and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. If you are still uncertain about your overtime and minimum wage issues,  the your best option is to contact an experienced overtime attorney to obtain advice with respect to FLSA questions or any particular employment law issue. Use and access to this employment law website or any of the links contained within the site do not create an attorney-client relationship. The legal opinions expressed at the top of this page or through this site are the opinions of the individual lawyer and may not reflect the opinions of The Spitz Law Firm, Brian Spitz, or any individual attorney.