PITTSBURGH (CN) - A federal judge has decertified the class fighting unpaid meal breaks at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, saying their position "smacks of sandbagging."
UPMC automatically deducts 30-minute meal breaks from the pay of nonexempt employees whose shifts last at least five hours.
"Although UPMC's policies directed employees to cancel the automatic deductions when they were required to work through meals, this approach 'arguably shift[ed] the burden from defendants to their employees to ensure that non-qualifying meal breaks [we]re not deducted from their pay,'" U.S. District Judge Cathy Bissoon wrote, summarizing earlier findings that led her to grant conditional certification.
Since the conditional grant, however, Bissoon found that "a growing consensus of federal courts ... rejected the notion that collective action treatment of automatic deductions is warranted under an FLSA 'burden-shifting' theory."
Discovery also revealed that lead plaintiff Karen Camesi and other opt-in class members did not all regularly work more than 40 hours per week. Moreover, UPMC had trained most on meal-break cancellation policies and had paid employees who worked through meal breaks.
Opt-ins workers reported to 250 different supervisors, holding 107 job titles in 126 different departments. Each department had different means to record work time with different ways to cancel automatic deductions, and only some departments used the Kronos computerized time-tracking system that automatically overrode deductions for employees on some or all shifts. A number of UPMC departments and business units actually paid for an employee's meal break if it was interrupted at all, regardless of how many uninterrupted minutes the employee enjoyed, and some units paid for meal breaks unless the employee received 30 uninterrupted minutes. There were different scheduling methods in different departments and experiences varied among opt-ins regarding the number of meal breaks missed or interrupted. The number of times they reported or were paid for such breaks also varied.
"Essentially, plaintiffs ask the court to focus narrowly on UPMC's 'common polic[ies]' of making automatic deductions where employees received more than twenty minutes of uninterrupted meal breaks," Bissoon wrote. "In plaintiffs' view, UPMC's common policies override all of the various dissimilarities between collective action members identified by defendants."
But Bissoon disagreed.
UPMC "introduced evidence regarding [its] significant efforts to advise employees and managers regarding the substance of the meal break policies," the Dec. 20 decision states. It also proved its "efforts to monitor and ensure compliance" and "demonstrated a plethora of differences between the putative plaintiffs that would make utilization of the collective action vehicle unmanageable."
"At the heart of many of these distinctions was the decentralized nature of UPMC's implementation and enforcement of the meal break policies," Bissoon wrote. "UMPC's written compensation manual specifically stated: 'It is the responsibility of each employee to accurately record time on a daily basis via the manner designated by [his or her] department, including overriding automatic lunch deductions (if working through lunch or interrupted during lunch).'"
Such evidence "casts doubt on plaintiffs' suggestion that UPMC utilized its meal break policies to 'shirk' its" obligations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, the 22-page decision states.
"The named plaintiffs themselves admit to having been trained on and/or were aware of how to cancel meal break deductions, and they did so on many occasions," and the plaintiffs' counsel "failed to identify opt-in member(s) who were dissuaded from cancelling, or instructed not to cancel, deductions for meal breaks," Bissoon wrote. "Nor are there any allegations that employees who cancelled meal breaks suffered retaliation."
With ample case law establishing the insufficiency of an employer's use of automatic deductions, Bissoon said the "plaintiffs' position smacks of sandbagging."
"The breadth of these disparate factual and employment settings seems self-apparent," she wrote.
Bissoon said she is "not entirely unsympathetic" to the plaintiffs' arguments, but those arguments did not pass the stage II threshold for class certification.
"At the very least, it seems the named plaintiffs would not be good candidates," she wrote, adding that "there are far too many individualized inquiries to be addressed through representative testimony, bifurcation and sub-classifications."
The judge also tossed class certification for plaintiffs who said they lost one to nine minutes of a meal break if they were interrupted after minute 20 and had no chance to complete their meal.
"Given the needles that would need to be thread, and the limited nature of recovery, it would seem that retaining class treatment for these claims would be an end for the sake of itself," Bissoon wrote
"The difficulties presented by individualized inquiries outweigh the benefits of a collective resolution," she added.
Bissoon also refused to strike manager declarations and the defendants' statements of fact, but she threw out the defendants' expert statistician because of "the lack of randomness regarding opt-in selection."