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California Court of Appeal Instructs Trial Court to Reconsider Its Denial of Class Certification of Wage and Hour Claims Brought by Nursing Staff Employees Against Hospital

Published by on December 2, 2015

Class actions against health care employers continue to be a growing trend in California and a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal highlights why health care employers must carefully draft and implement policies that are in compliance with California wage and hour law. When faced with a class action, such employers must also thoroughly […]

Class actions against health care employers continue to be a growing trend in California and a recent decision by the California Court of Appeal highlights why health care employers must carefully draft and implement policies that are in compliance with California wage and hour law. When faced with a class action, such employers must also thoroughly address each class certification requirement when preparing an opposition to class certification. 

As articulated by the California Supreme Court, the party seeking “class treatment must demonstrate [1] the existence of an ascertainable and sufficiently numerous class, [2] a well-defined community of interest, and [3] substantial benefits from certification that render proceeding as a class superior to the alternatives.” Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Super. Ct., 53 Cal.4th 1004, 1021 (2012) (Brinker).

In deciding whether common questions “predominate,” courts must not only “identify the common and individual issues,” but also “consider the manageability of those issues.” Dunbar v. Albertson’s, Inc. 141 Cal. App. 4th 1422, 1432 (2006).

Recently the California Court of Appeal reversed class certification of nursing staff employees’ wage and hour claims, holding that the trial court imposed an improper standard for class certification in demanding that nursing staff employees demonstrate a “universal” policy of denying meal and rest breaks. The California Court of Appeal, however, remanded the matter, instructing the trial court to determine what effect, if any, individual issues, such as damages, will have on the manageability of the case.

In Alberts v. Aurora Behavioral Health Care, 241 Cal.App.4th 388 (2015), a group of former nursing staff employees (“plaintiffs”) sued their former employer Aurora Behavioral Health Care (“Aurora”) on behalf of themselves and others for violations of state wage and hour laws.

The plaintiffs alleged that Aurora regularly and intentionally understaffed its hospitals and forced nurses to remain on duty in lieu of taking off meal and rest periods in the manner required by California law. The plaintiffs also alleged that Aurora regularly required nurses to perform tasks and complete outstanding assignments “off-the-clock” and actively discouraged or denied requests for overtime compensation.

The trial court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, finding a lack of “commonality” among the proposed subclasses. The California Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the trial court relied on improper criteria and erroneous legal assumptions in denying certification.

The Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court’s determination that Aurora’s meal break policy was legal on its face. Aurora’s policy provided employees with “an unpaid thirty-minute break for a meal period approximately halfway between the beginning and end of the employee’s shift.”

California law, as the Court of Appeal noted, requires that employees be provided with a meal break within five hours of the beginning of an employee’s shift. The Court of Appeal identified similar deficiencies in the trial court’s analysis of second meal breaks, rest breaks, and overtime, and held that the trial court’s rulings were improper, especially in light of the evidence offered by the plaintiffs.

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order denying class certification and remanded the action, instructing the court to determine whether the handling of individual issues, such as damages, will have an effect on the manageability of the case as a class action.

Laconic Lookout:

California employers must carefully draft and implement wage and hour policies that comply with California law. This is especially important for employers in the healthcare industry where an employee’s rights under California wage and hour law may come into conflict with the employee’s important obligations to patients.

As demonstrated in Alberts, poorly drafted and improperly implemented policies can result in a wage and hour class action lawsuit against an employer. When faced with such a class action, an employer may improve the likelihood of defeating class certification by thoroughly addressing each requirement for class certification, rather than focusing only on one.

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