GALVESTON, Texas (Legal Newsline) - A Texas federal judge has approved class certification in a class action lawsuit against Methodist Hospital for allegedly making thousands of nurses work through unpaid meal periods.
District Judge Lee Rosenthal approved the class certification on Nov. 14 for a class of "nurses employed at Methodist’s Texas Medical Center, Willowbrook or San Jacinto locations at any time during November 13, 2011 to the present, who were subject to an automatic deduction of their meal-break times and who were either interrupted or were subject to interruptions during a substantial number of their meal breaks," according to the judge's memorandum and order.
Methodist Hospital has until Dec. 12 to provide Joy Corcione with the names, current and last known addresses, telephone numbers and employment dates of the class members. A status conference will be held on Dec. 16.
Corcione, a nurse at Methodist Hospital, sued the hospital under the Fair Labor Standards Act and alleged the hospital improperly denied her and other nurses pay for meal break during which they were not completely relieved of job duties and denied them overtime compensation as a result.
Corcione filed her lawsuit on May 9 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. She claims when she and other nurses at Methodist’s Texas Medical Center, Willowbrook and San Jacinto locations worked eight-hour shifts, Methodist deducted a 30-minute meal break from their pay.
Corcione claims that although the meal break was not compensated, Methodist required her and other nurses to be available during the break and to respond to frequent interruptions for work issues.
The plaintiff and other nurses were still on duty even if they left their stations because they had to carry phones or pagers; respond to questions from doctors or other nurses; address patients’ medical needs, test results and families' concerns; and respond to "codes," according to the judge's order.
"Corcione contends that because the meal-break time was not included in the nurses' paid hours, Methodist improperly recorded that the nurses did not work more than 40 hours per week and denied them overtime pay," the order states. "Methodist responded that its policies discourage meal-break interruptions and state that employees should turn off their pagers or phones or give them to on-duty employees during the meal break."
Methodist also allows employees whose meal breaks are automatically deducted to manually reverse the deduction if work interruptions reduce their actual break to less than 20 minutes, according to the order.
"Methodist instructs such employees to log in to the time-recording system at the end of their shifts and enter a 'No Lunch' code to signify that they should be paid for the meal break," the order states. "Employees can also manually revise the entry to show payment for part of a meal break that was interrupted by work."
Most of the nurses testified that they were permitted to leave Methodist’s premises during their break. However, Corcione claims that she was required to stay at her station during the break.
Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, each employee must be completely relieved of all duties for employers to deduct wages for a meal break. The nurses involved in this lawsuit contend that it is virtually impossible to take a completely uninterrupted meal break.
Under the law, employers must compensate employees for all of the time spent performing work duties, and that includes the time nursing employees spend working through automatically deducted meal breaks.
Galvin Kennedy, one of Corcione's attorneys, said the nurses are not complaining about putting patient safety before meal periods.
"They are professionals who care for their patients first," Kennedy said in a prepared statement. "They only ask for the hospital to pay them for their meal periods because they continue to be responsible for patient care and the hospital knows this."
Kennedy said more than 50 nurses have identified interrupted meal periods and none have been fired or suffered any form of retaliation.
"Methodist has told me no nurse would be retaliated against for claiming their wages in this lawsuit," Kennedy said. "The ruling from the court means Methodist nurses can make a claim for their earned wages without fear."
Kennedy estimates there are at least 4,000 nurses who can join the class action lawsuit for back wages.
Corcione is being represented by Kennedy and David W. Hodges of Kennedy Hodges LLP in Houston.
The defendant is represented by G. Mark Jodon and Kevin S. Little of Littler Mendelson PC in Houston.
The defendant's attorneys could not be reached for comment.
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas case number: 3:14-cv-00160
From Legal Newsline: Kyla Asbury can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.