When a labor contract contains provisions that address wage hour issues (such as travel time, or donning and doffing time) a defense argument to dismiss a FLSA suit is that the suit is preempted by federal labor law.  This is essentially asserting that the wage hour issue is inextricably tied with contract interpretation so it for an arbitrator, not a court.  That principle was at the heart of a recent FLSA action where the judge declined the invitation to dismiss a lawsuit alleging overtime was not aid, because the court concluded that it was still an open issue whether the parties’ labor contracted barred the claims.  The case is entitled Fenison et al. v. Prime Healthcare Centinela LLC and was filed in state court in California.

“To avail itself of [a statutory exemption to the overtime law], defendant must establish, inter alia, that there is a valid collective bargaining agreement,” the judge found, in denying the employer’s summary judgment motion. “ There is a triable issue of material fact as to whether there is one. Plaintiffs have submitted evidence which they contend supports the position that there is not, while defendants contend that there is.”

The plaintiffs alleged that they were denied overtime. In California, prior to 2000, there was no daily overtime or “clock overtime” requirement, which means that employees working more than eight hours in a day were entitled to overtime (as opposed to forty hours in a week).  Then, in 2000, the law changed and clock overtime became the law of California.  The plaintiffs allege that the hospital, in response to the law, reduced the regular rate and added on a differential payment to avoid paying the hourly employees any more than it had done when the prior law was in effect, allege the plaintiffs.

The suit seeks to cover some fourteen hundred hospital workers who worked under the allegedly improper system since 2007.  The hospital moved for summary judgment, asserting the labor contract as a defense.  “Plaintiffs’ employment with Centinela has always been governed by the collective bargaining agreement. It follows that plaintiffs’ claims for unpaid ‘wages’ is completely barred by [the statutory exemption]”

The judge, however, denied the motion, finding that there had not been enough evidence submitted to demonstrate that there was a valid labor contract between the parties and that it controlled the issue sought to be litigated.  The court will, notwithstanding this ruling, allow the employer to file a new motion, accompanied by necessary affidavits, so the hospital may still prevail on the preemption defense.