Northern District Judge Permits Class Action to Move Forward, But Narrows the Class to Nurses in DeMarco v. Northwestern Memorial Healthcare and Northwestern Memorial Hospital

February 6, 2012

hospital.jpgThis blog has previously discussed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Section 216(b), which allows employees to form a class action lawsuit against their employers. If members of the class meet the necessary criteria, their class action can move forward. A court will generally use a two-step process to determine whether a class meets the criteria. First the plaintiffs must make "a modest factual showing sufficient to demonstrate that they and potential plaintiffs together were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law." If the plaintiffs meet that burden, a court will conditionally certify the class. Plaintiffs would then be allowed to notify other potential members of the class. On the second step, both parties may conduct discovery, during which they examine the other party's documents. If the defendants can then point to evidence that the plaintiffs are too dissimilar, they may ask the court to decertify the class. If you are looking to form a class action suit under Section 216(b), find an experienced Illinois class action attorney to help determine whether you meet the right standards.

In DeMarco v. Northwestern Memorial Healthcare & Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the plaintiffs brought a suit in federal court against the defendants for allegedly denying overtime pay and for forcing the plaintiffs to work through their meal breaks, in violation of the FLSA and the Illinois Minimum Wage Law (IMWL). Plaintiffs proposed that their class consist of "[a]ll persons employed (within the three years preceding the sending of notice) on a non-exempt, hourly-compensated basis by [NMH], who were not covered by a collective bargaining agreement with NMH."

Judge Feinerman of the Northern District of Illinois applied the two-step process to determine whether the plaintiffs' class met the standards of a Section 216(b) class action. First, he considered whether the plaintiffs met the burden of making a "modest factual showing." He determined that they had met the burden because the plaintiffs showed that nurses in their unit frequently had their meal periods interrupted with work tasks, and that the nurses even worked during lunch in plain sight of the hospital management, who did nothing. While plaintiffs' knowledge of conditions outside of their unit was lacking, other evidence showed that these alleged conditions were widespread at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Specifically, the hospital staff had allegedly discussed implementing a "Take a Break Project" to encourage hospital employees to take meal breaks.

However, the judge also felt that the proposed class was too broad. Plaintiff DeMarco limited her evidence to nurses and direct care providers, but did not present any evidence that employees not focused on direct patient care faced the same conditions. Since DeMarco presented no evidence, or even raised "a permissible inference," the court saw fit to narrow the proposed opt-in class "where the first-stage evidence provides no tangible support for including certain employees in the class." Thus, Judge Feinerman limited the potential class to nurses and other direct care patient providers. He dismissed the defendants' claim that the first step of preliminary certification should be bypassed immediately because plaintiffs had already conducted some discovery. DeMarco's discovery was too limited to reveal anything meaningful about the hospital's general meal break policy. Thus, although the plaintiffs' class had been narrowed, it was allowed to move forward with its claim.

The attorneys at Chicago Overtime Law Center have decades of experience litigating wage and hour cases, including overtime, meal breaks, vacation pay, and tips. Our offices are conveniently located in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago, Illinois. Contact a Springfield class action attorney at the Chicago Overtime Law Center today at 312-869-4095.