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Federal Judge Rules That Illinois Cable Splicers Can Form a Class Action in Blakes v. Illinois Bell Telephone Company

When many people are similarly harmed by one source — such as a community suffering illness from a nearby power plant — they might file a class-action lawsuit against the offender. A class-action suit is often preferred because it allows dozens, even hundreds, of people to get relief without having to hire an Illinois wage and hour attorney and litigating in court. Most class actions are brought according to Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. If members of the class meet the criteria, their class action can move forward. However, employees also have the option to form a class action under Section 216(b) of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Like class actions brought under Rule 23, Section 216(b) requires that the plaintiffs be similarly situated. If their situations are too dissimilar, they will not be allowed to proceed as a class.

In Blakes v. Illinois Bell Telephone Company, the plaintiffs filed suit in federal court against AT&T Illinois for violations of the FLSA and the Illinois Minimum Wage Law (IMWL). The plaintiffs consisted of both current and former cable splicers for the company. Their goal was to recover wages for work they had allegedly performed after the end of their shifts and during meal breaks. Cable splicers for AT&T Illinois worked an 8.5-hour day, with a 30-minute unpaid lunch break. They allegedly began each day at a garage, where they received their assignment and then drove off to the location. The plaintiffs claimed that the driving they needed to do for their jobs, plus the requirement that they maintain a neat worksite, frequently kept them from taking an uninterrupted lunch. Yet lunch was allegedly deducted from their pay all the same. Splicers were also often allegedly required to fill out their time sheets after hours; yet when they suggested that this was overtime work that should be compensated, the defendant responded with intimidation.

The plaintiffs sought to form a class action under FLSA Section 216(b). The defendants argued that the 1,500 splicers were not similarly situated, since the plaintiffs could not name a policy or plan that harmed all of the cable splicers equally. Instead, each plaintiff’s case required an individual analysis, making them unsuited for a class action.

When determining whether several plaintiffs are similarly situated under Section 216(b), courts usually use a two-step process. 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.” Should the plaintiffs meet this burden, the court will conditionally certify the class. Plaintiffs would then be permitted to notify other potential members of the class. On the second step, both parties are permitted a discovery process during which they examine the other party’s documents. If the defendants are then able to point to evidence that the plaintiffs are too dissimilar, they may ask the court to decertify the class.

Judge Young Kim of the Northern District of Illinois found that the plaintiffs had met their burden for making a “modest factual showing.” All of the 1,500 splicers had been affected by an alleged company policy that required them to maintain a neat worksite and to drive from their garages to the work location. This led to scenarios where cable splicers, regardless of where they worked, allegedly had to hurry and eat lunch while driving or eat lunch while maintaining the security of the work site. Because the plaintiffs met their burden, the judge conditionally certified them as a class.

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 in Oakbrook Terrace and Chicago, Illinois. Contact a Naperville overtime lawyer at the Chicago Overtime Law Center today at 312-869-4095.