Two more cases have been added to the growing list of FLSA collective actions against large healthcare systems that have been either decertified or denied certification, granting the holiday wishes of two major healthcare systems in Pennsylvania. In Kuznyetsov v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, Inc., Judge Ambrose of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania decertified a class of 824 hospital employees who worked in 1,174 different departments at 142 different locations with 312 different supervisors. In Camesi v. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Judge Bissoon, of the same district court, likewise granted a motion to decertify a class of plaintiffs in 500 different job titles working in over 1,000 different hospital departments. The Kuznyetsov and Camesi decisions, issued on the same day, are strikingly similar in their analyses and conclusions – and an all-around win for hospital employers.
In both cases the plaintiffs, who included nurses, technicians, secretaries, couriers, maintenance workers, dishwashers, and many others, alleged the hospitals violated the FLSA by automatically deducting 30-minute meal periods from their wages, regardless of whether they worked through the unpaid meal periods. In granting the motions for decertification, and denying plaintiffs’ motions for certification, both courts emphasized the “extremely wide variety” and the “plethora of differences” in the employees’ work settings, as well as individual supervisors’ discretion to dictate how meal breaks would be taken and paid.
The Kuznyetsov and Camesi classes had been conditionally certified under the “lenient” first stage of FLSA class certification, in which the courts relied heavily on affidavits and allegations of common policies. After discovery had been obtained from a sample of the plaintiffs, and the courts proceeded to the “more rigorous” second stage of the FLSA class certification process, the evidence in both cases revealed significant dissimilarities among the plaintiffs. For example, the plaintiffs worked overtime with varying frequency, some plaintiffs received scheduled meal periods while others did not, and they reported and were paid for missed meal periods using a variety of different methods.
These differences would have required the courts to examine each individual’s particular circumstances to determine liability. Proceeding as a collective action would have denied the hospitals an opportunity to develop individualized defenses. Accordingly, both courts concluded that collective action treatment would not serve the interests of fairness or efficiency.
At the heart of both decisions was the decentralized implementation of meal break policies in different departments by different supervisors. Although the hospitals had a common policy of automatic deductions for meal breaks (which had ostensibly justified conditional certification), supervisors had discretion to implement these policies according to business needs. As Judge Ambrose explained:
“[W]hile it is true that there is a Meal Break Deduction Policy and all employees were subject to an automatic deduction that could be cancelled, the application and implementation of the policy was not standard by any means. It differed based on a number of factors, not the least of which was based on the nature of jobs performed by Plaintiffs, the departments in which the Plaintiffs worked, the supervisors’ procedures, and the shifts the Plaintiffs worked.”
Both judges cited a “growing consensus” of federal courts rejecting collective action treatment of automatic meal deductions, citing a number of cases previously discussed on this blog (see here and here), as well as two cases in which Littler successfully represented the defendants, Blaney v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hosp. Auth., and Saleen v. Waste Mgmt., Inc.
Insights from these cases will be useful both for litigation strategy and preventative planning. For example, both cases emphasized high rates of withdrawal or non-participation when discovery was requested of plaintiffs. In Kuznyetsov, the sampling was to include 75 opt-in plaintiffs, but only 18 opt-ins actually participated. In Camesi, the parties also agreed to conduct discovery regarding 75 opt-ins. After the initial selection, 35 withdrew or were dismissed for non-participation. Of the replacements, 33 withdrew or were dismissed. In the end, only 52 opt-ins participated. Despite the relatively small samples, there was sufficient evidence of dissimilarities among the plaintiffs to grant decertification in both cases.
On the planning side, in Camesi, Judge Bissoon specifically noted the hospitals’ “significant efforts to advise employees and managers regarding the substance of the meal break policies and Defendants’ efforts to monitor and ensure compliance.” Employees were trained and educated about the meal break policies and the process for cancelling meal break deductions and reporting time worked during meal breaks. Not only did this enable the hospitals to rebut the plaintiffs’ assertions that the hospitals had “shirked” their FLSA obligations, but it also produced evidence that many plaintiffs had actually been paid for meal periods through the cancellation process.
While these decisions are cause for celebration, healthcare employers with automatic meal deduction policies should carefully evaluate the procedures in place for overriding deductions and reporting time worked during meal breaks, as well as their efforts to educate and train supervisors and employees about these procedures. Hospital and other healthcare employers should also evaluate state meal and rest break laws in their particular localities.