Error to find that individual issues predominated in nurses’ state wage suit for missed breaks
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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Error to find that individual issues predominated in nurses’ state wage suit for missed breaks

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

A unanimous Washington Supreme Court ruled that a trial court abused its discretion in denying class certification of a wage suit filed by a group of hospital nurses. The trial court failed to set forth the factual findings that would support an order denying class certification and failed to identify the evidence it reviewed to support its finding that individual issues predominated over common issues. Rather, because there was no system in place to ensure that nurses received breaks, the dominant and overriding issue common to all putative class members was whether the employer failed to ensure that employees could take breaks and record missed breaks, the high court found (Chavez v. Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital at Pasco, April 19, 2018, Fairhurst, M.).

The hospital employed more than 100 nurses in nine different departments, who worked on an hourly basis. Prior to 2013, the hospital used a timekeeping system that automatically deducted 30 minutes from an employee’s compensable time for a meal period during any shift lasting longer than five hours. When an employee clocked out, he or she could account for a first missed meal period by cancelling the automatic deduction, and the hospital would later pay those 30 minutes at the appropriate rate. However, the timekeeping system did not permit nurses to track missed rest breaks. Nor did it permit nurses working 12-hour shifts to track missed second meal periods. Most nurses at the hospital worked 12-hour shifts.

Motion for class certification. In 2012, nurses filed this class action for unpaid wages, asserting that they regularly missed breaks without compensation due to the hospital’s failure to ensure they could take breaks and record missed breaks. In April 2013, the nurses moved for class certification, but the court deferred ruling on the motion. Subsequently, the nurses brought three motions for summary judgment, but the trial court denied each of them, concluding that issues of fact remained as to whether individual nurses were afforded time to take breaks.

In 2015, the nurses renewed their motion for class certification. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the nurses failed to satisfy the predominance and superiority requirements of Washington CR 23(b)(3). The trial court was concerned that the differences between shift length and nurse type created manageability issues. The court of appeals affirmed, basing its decision solely on the superiority prong. The Washington Supreme Court granted the nurses’ petition for review.

Predominance. The question presented was whether the trial court abused its discretion in ruling that the nurses failed to satisfy the predominance and superiority requirements of CR 23(b)(3). To determine whether common issues predominate over individual ones, a trial court examines whether there is a common nucleus of operative facts in each class member’s claim. The relevant inquiry is whether the issue shared by class members is the dominant, central, or overriding issue in the litigation.

The trial court ruled that the nurses had not satisfied the predominance prong of CR 23(b)(3). However, it failed to set forth the factual findings that would support an order denying class certification and failed to identify the evidence it reviewed in reaching its decision. The court’s listing of potential categories of putative class members did not suffice as articulate reasoning for its conclusion that the nurses failed to show common issues predominate over individual questions. The trial court’s decision seemed to be driven solely by the belief that having nurses from nine departments would make the case unmanageable. But manageability is only one of the criteria a court must consider when making a certification decision, observed the high court.

Rest break requirement. The law required the hospital to schedule breaks at regular intervals unless the “nature of the work” allowed employees to take intermittent rest periods. It is not enough for an employer to simply schedule time for an employee to take a break if he or she chooses. Rather, employers must affirmatively promote meaningful break time. The law also requires the employer to compensate nurses for all missed breaks.

In this instance, there was no system in place to ensure that nurses received breaks, and the nature of their duties did not allow them to take intermittent breaks. Moreover, the nurses were never paid for missed breaks because there was no system in place that allowed them to record missed breaks. Thus, the high court concluded that the dominant and overriding issue common to all putative class member was whether the hospital failed to ensure nurses could take breaks and record missed breaks.

Abuse of discretion. The trial court ruled that the nurses could not satisfy the predominance requirement because of the individual issues regarding nurse type and shift length. But the court failed to explain how the differences between nurse type and shift length would be relevant to a determination of whether the hospital maintained an adequate system for ensuring that nurses could take breaks and record missed breaks. The high court pointed out that the predominance requirement is not defeated merely because individual factual or legal issues exist. It found the individual issues in this case did not override the central, predominant issue of whether the hospital failed to ensure that its nurses could take breaks and record missed breaks. Accordingly, the trial court’s denial of class certification was overturned.

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