Taylor v. Sturgell, 553 U.S. 880 (2008) was written specifically to torment me. But, since it was issued, I haven’t seen its analysis of res judicata in class cases arise too often. Here, claim preclusion meets a bankruptcy court’s approval of a class settlement against other parties in Wojciechowski v. Kohlberg Ventures (9th Cir. May 9, 2019). The quick summary of the two cases sums it up well.
Wojciechowski filed an adversary class action against the ClearEdge entities in the bankruptcy court. He alleged that the two ClearEdge entities were a “single employer” under the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (“WARN”) Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 2101–2109, and that the entities violated that act when they fired him and other employees without 60 days’ advance notice. Wojciechowski settled that action. Per the settlement agreement, the class released all claims it had against “(i) Defendants ClearEdge, Power, Inc. and ClearEdge Power, LLC and their respective estates,” and “(ii) each of the Defendants’ current and former shareholders, officers, directors, employees, accountants, attorneys, representatives and other agents, and all of their respective predecessors, successors and assigns, excluding any third parties which may or may not be affiliated with Defendants ClearEdge Power, Inc. and ClearEdge Power LLC, including, but not limited to Kohlberg Ventures LLC.” Kohlberg was not involved in the bankruptcy proceedings or in settlement negotiations. The bankruptcy court approved the settlement agreement and closed the case soon after. The ClearEdge estates paid a portion of the class members’ WARN Act wages and benefits.
Wojciechowski then filed this putative class action. He alleges that Kohlberg, as a “single employer” with the ClearEdge entities, violated the WARN Act when it fired him without advance notice. Wojciechowski seeks “an award for the balance of the Class’[s] WARN Act wages and benefits.” That is, he seeks what the class is owed under the Act less the amount received from the ClearEdge estates.
Slip op., at 4-5. In this instance, the Court had little difficulty concluding that the scope of preclusion was clearly specified in the settlement approved in the first suit before the bankruptcy court. Kohberg argued that it was not a party to the initial settlement and could not be limited by it. The Ninth Circuit quickly rejected that argument, observing that two parties can contract to settle a claim on just about any terms they want, particularly when it is then approved by a court.