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California Overtime and Meal Breaks Class Action Revived

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Los Angeles, CAA proposed overtime pay laws class action that was struck down in 2013 by a lower court has new life thanks to the opinion of an appellate panel, effectively putting the case back on a pathway that leads to class action for nursing staff claiming missed rest periods, meal breaks and overtime pay.

The defendant in the unpaid overtime case is Aurora Behavior Health Care Inc. (Aurora), a Los Angeles-based entity that operates two psychiatric hospitals. The case, essentially boils down to a standoff with regard to meal breaks and rest periods as mandated by the California labor code and other statutes, v. a nurse’s ethical obligation to a patient.

In the original lawsuit, plaintiffs maintained that Aurora was chronically understaffed, but that the facility also observed a policy that required having at least two employees on active duty at any one time. Such a policy, the plaintiffs stated, precluded them from taking meal breaks and rest periods as required under California law. The plaintiffs also claimed their employer discouraged staff from claiming overtime under California overtime law, resulting in some nursing staff completing necessary paperwork and reports on their own time.

In 2013, Superior Court Judge Elizabeth Allen White found no fault with the defendant’s written policies, also finding too much variance in the reasons plaintiffs put forward for missing breaks - including the possibility that some plaintiffs may have skipped their breaks voluntarily.

However, earlier this month a three-judge panel with a California state appeals court disagreed with the lower court finding and revived the class certification (Valerie Alberts et al. v. Aurora Behavioral Health Care et al., Case Number B248748, in the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Second Appellate District). “The trial court’s order denying class certification rests on erroneous assumptions, improper criteria and, in some respects, insubstantial evidence,” the court said.

“In plaintiffs’ view, the hospital was intentionally and chronically understaffed, a practice which routinely denied nursing staff the opportunity to exercise the right to an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break within the first five hours of a shift,” the decision said.

The original meal break and overtime pay lawsuit dates back to 2009, with plaintiffs hoping to represent no fewer than 1,053 nursing staff and other health care providers. Beyond the taking of meal breaks and rest periods, plaintiffs claim they were denied overtime pay and reimbursement for work-related expenses, a violation of overtime pay laws.

One aspect of the case that has percolated throughout is a meal policy observed by the defendant that states employees are entitled to an unpaid 30-minute meal break at roughly the halfway mark of a shift. However, the appellate court noted that California law requires that a meal break is provided during the first five hours of a shift, regardless of the length of that shift overall.

Nurses, as a sector, are often scheduled for 12-hour shifts. To that end, a meal break scheduled at the halfway point of such a shift would come at six hours, which contravenes California labor law.

The appellate panel also made the point that nurses had no real choice in the matter, given the possibility of losing their jobs if found to have left their post prior to being relieved.

The defendant has countered that in its view hospital policy is legal, and lead plaintiffs had received most of their meal breaks and rest periods, having even been paid for breaks they could not take in some instances.

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