As previously discussed, the FLSA requires payment for all hours where an employer “suffers or permits” an employee to work. Compensable time can include time ostensibly designated for meal and other breaks if the employee in question is not completely relieved of duty and/or if the period is insufficient length. Aggrieved employees often allege that employers systemically deduct a fixed amount of time for a meal break, even if a a valid meal period is not provided (an “auto deduct”). This claim often arises in the health care industry where the demands of patient care often impacts an employee’s ability to take an uninterrupted 30 minute meal break. However, as one federal court recently observed, such an allegation is not necessarily appropriate for collective action certification under the FLSA. Cason v. Vibra Healthcare, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 47160 (E.D. Mich. May 3, 2011).
In Cason, the Court concluded that while plaintiff nurse alleged that she performed work during meal periods for Defendant hospital but was not paid for such time due to an “auto deduct”, such allegation coupled with an unsupported assertion that other employees worked through meals but were not paid due to the “auto deduct” was insufficient to support conditional certification of the collective action. The Court observed that Plaintiff Cason had “not identified any other person who claims that her FLSA rights were violated by the automatic meal break deduction policy.”
While plaintiffs often argue in FLSA cases that a ruling such as Cason is antithetical to the “low standard” appropriate at the conditional certification stage in FLSA actions, a decision such as Cason is appropriate to spare a defendant the burden and costs of proceeding through the conditional certification and notice process, as well as collective action discovery. In another recent case highlighting this dilemma, and the wisdom of the Cason decision, a previously conditionally certified collective action also alleging auto-deduct claims against a hospital employer was decertified on just such a theory. White v. Baptist Mem. Health Care Corp., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 52928 (W.D. Tenn. May 17, 2011).
While this is a positive decision for employers, business should continue to ensure they take appropriate measures to ensure employees are paid for all hours worked and that any wage and hour policies cannot be used by the plaintiffs bar to support class/collective claims.