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Zavala v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. - 691 F.3d 527 (3d Cir. 2012)


On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, appellate court review is plenary. The complaint's factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.


This suit was brought in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey by Wal-Mart cleaning crew members who were seeking compensation for unpaid overtime and certification of a collective action under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), civil damages under RICO, and damages for false imprisonment. The workers — illegal immigrants who took jobs with contractors and subcontractors Wal-Mart engaged to clean its stores — alleged that Wal-Mart paid its contractors with full knowledge that the contractors were hiring illegal immigrants to work in Wal-Mart's stores. Wal-Mart cleaning crew members supported this contention with further allegations that two senior Wal-Mart executives made comments that could be understood as acknowledging that the contractors had hired and would continue to hire illegal immigrants. In addition, they also alleged that Wal-Mart managers and executives were regularly informed that their contractors were employing illegal immigrants. Wal-Mart cleaning crew members stated that Wal-Mart had hiring and firing authority over them and closely directed their actions such that Wal-Mart was their employer under the FLSA; (2) Wal-Mart took part in a RICO enterprise with predicate acts of transporting illegal immigrants, harboring illegal immigrants, encouraging illegal immigration, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and involuntary servitude; (3) Wal-Mart's practice of locking some stores at night and on weekends — without always having a manager available with a key — constituted false imprisonment.

Over the course of eight years and a minimum of four opinions, the district court rejected final certification of an FLSA class, rejected the RICO claim on several grounds, and rejected the false imprisonment claim on the merits.


  1. Did the immigrants satisfy the "similarly situated" standard?
  2. Did the immigrants fail to state a claim for RICO under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1961(1) or RICO conspiracy?
  3. Were the immigrants able to support their claims of involuntary servitude and transportation of illegal immigrants?


1. No. 2. Yes. 3. No.


The court held that the district court properly denied final certification because the immigrants did not meet their burden of demonstrating that they were similarly situated since there were numerous differences in the factual and employment settings of the members of the proposed class.

Being similarly situated did not mean simply sharing a common status, such as being an illegal immigrant. Rather, it meant that one was subjected to some common employer practice that, if proved, would help demonstrate a violation of the FLSA. And, indeed, plaintiffs' allegation of a common scheme to hire and underpay illegal immigrant workers provided some common link among the proposed class. Plaintiffs' evidence with regard to the maintenance manual, the authority of store managers, and the supervision by store employees was relevant to demonstrating whether Wal-Mart employed the proposed plaintiffs. And such a scheme potentially demonstrated Wal-Mart's willfulness in violating the FLSA. But these common links were of minimal utility in streamlining resolution of these cases. Liability and damages needed to be individually proven.

The court held that the immigrants failed to state a claim for RICO under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1961(1) or RICO conspiracy under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1962(d) by failing to allege a pattern of predicate acts.

The immigrants did not allege a plausible claim of involuntary servitude under 18 U.S.C.S. § 1584. The phrase "involuntary servitude" was intended to cover those forms of compulsory labor akin to African slavery. The immigrants presented evidence of some difficult working conditions, but they demonstrated nothing "akin to African slavery" or any modern analogue. Any such comparison was plainly frivolous. The immigrants did not allege that they were held in a labor camp or forced into daily labor by a religious sect. To the extent the immigrants alleged that they were threatened with deportation, those allegations were insufficient to constitute involuntary servitude.

The immigrants did not allege a plausible claim of transportation of illegal immigrants under 8 U.S.C.S. § 1324(a)(1)(A)(i)-(ii), encouraging illegal immigration under § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iv), or harboring illegal immigrants under § 1324(a)(1)(A)(iii). The immigrants alleged two types of scenarios that they believed constituted transporting: (1) after work crews were fired or arrested, alternative work crews were quickly made available, often from other states; and (2) work crews were transported to work shifts. Even assuming that any of these actions — had they been taken by Wal-Mart employees — qualified as "transporting," the immigrants did not demonstrate that Wal-Mart was responsible for the transporting.

Although the immigrants plausibly alleged a claim of conspiracy to commit money laundering, one predicate act did not constitute a RICO pattern under § 1961(5). RICO conspiracy was not a mere conspiracy to commit the underlying predicate acts. It was a conspiracy to violate RICO — that is, to conduct or participate in the activities of a corrupt enterprise. Plaintiffs failed to plead facts supporting a conclusion that this was the object of the alleged conspiracy. Accordingly, the dismissal of the immigrants claim under Section 1962(d) was not error.

The majority of the false imprisonment claims failed because the immigrants impliedly consented to their alleged imprisonment. In addition, the corporation offered evidence of the availability and unobstructed nature of emergency exits in its stores.

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