Hospital prevails in nurse’s lawsuit claiming pay for meal breaks

Court rules hospital had good intent — Nurse didn’t pursue compensation

A Tennessee hospital has come out on top in a lawsuit filed by a nurse regarding pay for time worked during meal breaks. However, hospitals might see more cases in which employees argue that they should be paid for time in which they were officially “off the clock,” yet their duties as a healthcare provider required them to engage with patients and co-workers.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals court affirmed the judgment of the trial court in dismissing a lawsuit under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) against Baptist Memorial Health Care in Memphis, TN, which was represented by Paul E. Prather, JD, a shareholder with the law firm of Littler Mendelson, also in Memphis.

The court found that the hospital was diligent in its effort to ensure that a reasonable procedure was in place for employees to report and be paid for any missed or interrupted meal breaks; however, the plaintiff, Margaret White, failed to utilize the established procedures to receive pay in lieu of meal breaks. (The full court opinion is available online at http://tinyurl.com/flsaopinion.)

This decision has implications for other hospitals as it demonstrates that an employer should not be liable for work performed when the employee fails to report that time and there is no other basis for the employer to know that the employee worked and was not paid, Prather says.

“This has become a hot topic, and we’ve seen a big uptick in this type of litigation in the healthcare industry in the past five or six years,” Prather says. “We call this ‘off the clock litigation,’ as opposed to more typical FSLA litigation in which someone claims they worked overtime and didn’t get paid, or they’re not being paid the correct rate. In this type of claim, they’re saying they were forced to work when they were officially off the clock.”

White was the original plaintiff in the case. However, the court certified a class action, and about 200 people joined her in suing Baptist Memorial. The White case is the second of two such lawsuits recently brought against Baptist Memorial. In an earlier lawsuit, plaintiffs made a similar claim against Baptist Memorial and two other hospitals about not being paid for meal times, and they were certified by the court for class action litigation. About 450 plaintiffs joined that lawsuit.

In both cases, however, the court eventually dismissed the class action certification and then ruled against the individual plaintiffs.

“In the White case, the court dismissed her claims because it said the hospital had a procedure to notify them that she worked through a meal break, she had used that procedure, she voluntarily chose to quit using that procedure, and the hospital had no way to know that she was both working and not getting paid,” Prather says. “The certification question was appealed, the summary judgment was appealed also, but the appeals court said it was her responsibility to use the procedure set up by the hospital. And because she could not prevail, she could not represent the class action participants.”

One lesson from the case is that class action lawsuits are not well-suited to this type of claim, Prather says. Risk managers should not assume too quickly that class action is the right method for resolving this type of FSLA claim, he says. (See p. 3 for more lessons from the White case.)

Such claims against hospitals are not uncommon, and many hospitals settle them quickly to avoid what can be high litigation costs and the fear of a high payout, Prather says. “In this case, the hospital said, ‘we think we’ve done this right and until somebody tells us otherwise, we’re not going to just roll over and pay millions of dollars to plaintiffs’ lawyers,’” Prather explains. “It’s become a little bit of an industry, where you have plaintiffs’ lawyers going out and soliciting people to file these claims in the healthcare industry. It’s partly because so many people in healthcare do use automatic deductions for meal breaks as a payroll function.”

Risk managers should be cautious not to read too much into the ruling, says Elisa J. Lintemuth, JD, an associate with the law firm of Dykema in Grand Rapids, MI.

“While the 6th Circuit’s decision does not shelter employers who turn a blind eye to the hours its employees work, it does provide protection to employers that, as a result of employees’ actions or inactions, are not made aware of uncompensated work time,” Lintemuth says. “In light of White, employers should review their policies and consider clarifying the employee’s duty to report missed meal breaks and overtime.”

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