Eleventh Circuit Considers Complaint Dispositive in Assessing Subject Matter Jurisdiction

In Calderon v. Baker Concrete Construction, Inc., No. 14-10090 (11th Cir. Nov. 14, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit reversed a dismissal of a complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction handed down by the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The court held that because the plaintiffs’ complaint alleged a cause of action arising under federal law, subject matter jurisdiction was proper, regardless of the plaintiffs’ subsequent failure to reiterate the federal cause of action in their supplementary “statement of claim.”

The plaintiffs in Calderon were several workers who were formerly employed by the defendant, a Florida construction contractor, to help build the new baseball stadium for the Miami Marlins. After the stadium was completed, the plaintiffs filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida, alleging that the defendant had violated their rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) in two ways. First, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant failed to pay them at a rate of one and a half times their regular pay rate for all hours worked in excess of forty hours within a single workweek. Instead, the defendant paid the plaintiffs their regular pay rate for some overtime hours and did not pay them at all for other overtime hours. Second, the plaintiffs claimed that the defendant misclassified them under a county ordinance governing the wages of contract workers. While the plaintiffs acknowledged that the defendant paid them more than federal minimum wage, they alleged that as a result of the defendant’s misclassification of them, their hourly wages, and thus the overtime pay they did receive, were lower than they should have been. These claims were designated as the “unpaid-overtime-hours claim” and the “misclassification claim,” respectively.

After the plaintiffs filed their complaint, the district court ordered them to file a “statement of claim”—that is, a document “not mentioned in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure[] that the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida uses as a matter of local practice to help . . . classify and manage” FLSA cases—“setting forth the amount of alleged unpaid wages, the calculation of such wages, and the nature of the wages.” In response, the plaintiffs filed a statement of claim that detailed the alleged misclassification of each individual plaintiff, but did not mention the unpaid-overtime-hours claim at all. The defendant subsequently moved to dismiss the plaintiffs’ complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. It argued that by omitting the unpaid-overtime-hours claim from their statement of claim, the plaintiffs narrowed the scope of their original complaint to include only the misclassification claim, which was not a federal claim. The district court agreed that the plaintiffs amended the unpaid-overtime-hours claim out of their complaint and granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss, holding that “it did not have jurisdiction ‘to hear a labor dispute where the employee was paid in excess of . . . minimum wage and overtime was paid in compliance with the terms of the FLSA.’ ”

The Eleventh Circuit reviewed the district court’s legal conclusions and fact findings de novo, and reversed its order dismissing the complaint. First, the Court reiterated that federal subject matter jurisdiction exists when the “plaintiff’s well-pleaded complaint alleges a cause of action arising under federal law.” Lobo v. Celebrity Cruises, Inc., 704 F.3d 882, 891 (11th Cir. 2013). The Court held that because the plaintiffs’ unpaid-overtime-hours claim was precisely the type of claim the FLSA provides a federal cause of action for, the plaintiffs’ complaint alleged a federal claim. Thus, the “district court had jurisdiction based on the complaint.” Furthermore, the Court held that the plaintiffs’ statement of claim did not amend the jurisdictional basis out of the complaint. According to the Court, “the existence of federal jurisdiction at the pleading stage is to be determined based on the contents of the complaint,” with amendments to the complaint being governed by Rule 15 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Because a statement of claim is an “extra-Rules practice” that “does not have the status of a pleading and is not an amendment under Rule 15,” the plaintiffs’ failure to reiterate their unpaid-overtime-hours claim in their statement of claim did not eliminate subject matter jurisdiction.

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