Attempts to certify classes of employees in lawsuits against healthcare industry employers continues to be a growing trend. In yet another such case, Alberts v. Aurora Behavioral Health Care, a California judge denied class certification of more than 1,000 psychiatric hospital workers in a wage and hour lawsuit stemming from alleged missed meal and rest breaks. Unlike other cases we have reported recently, this case did not involve automatic deduction of meal periods, but the resulting claims are the same.
In this case, a putative class of 1,053 nurses and other patient care employees who worked at two Los Angeles-area psychiatric hospitals claimed that they were denied meal and rest breaks under California law, and sought certification of the class. The hospital’s policy required employees to clock in and out for 30-minute meal periods, and directed them to submit a time adjustment form if they missed a meal period. Employees who missed their meal periods received one hour of pay, plus overtime pay, if warranted. The hospitals usually scheduled a break relief nurse to provide breaks, and had other methods of providing breaks when a relief nurse was not available.
Given these facts, the Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge denied class certification because there was too much variation among the employees and the facilities, and individual issues would predominate in a lawsuit. Even employees in the same units with the same supervisors provided conflicting testimony about whether or not they received breaks or pay for the missed breaks. Thus, the judge concluded that while there may have been “a few bad apples,” the evidence did not establish that “the tree itself was bad.” In addition, the judge concurred with other courts that the plaintiffs’ “understaffing” theory – i.e., that employees were forced to miss breaks because of insufficient personnel – is not a theory that lends itself to class action treatment.
Although many employers have been successful in defeating class certification in a number of similar cases, pay-related class actions regarding missed meal and rest breaks is becoming all too common in the healthcare industry. For more information on this and other wage and hour issues impacting the healthcare industry, continue reading the Littler Report:Hot Wage and Hour Issues for Home Healthcare Employers.