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Colozzi v. St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center

January 26, 2009

ROBERT COLOZZI, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
ST. JOSEPH'S HOSPITAL HEALTH CENTER, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



DAVID E. PEEBLES U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Robert Colozzi, Tammy Aiken and Christine Correia, each claiming to be a current or former employee of defendant St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center ("SJHHC"), have commenced this action against that and several other entities, alleged to be "related organizations", as well as two individual defendants asserting, inter alia, that they have violated the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, as amended ("FLSA"), 29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq. In the claim relevant to the issues now before the court plaintiffs maintain that defendants' meal break deduction policy and the automatic payroll deduction protocol through which it is implemented, in combination with chronic understaffing and the expectations of administrators that employees be available, including during meal breaks, to attend to patient care demands, have resulted in the defendants' failure to properly compensate their hourly employees.

The three named plaintiffs, who have since been joined by several other current or former employees of defendants consenting to become plaintiffs in the action, now seek the court's permission to have the matter proceed as a collective action pursuant to 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). In their motion, plaintiffs request that notice be sent to all of defendants' current and former hourly employees whose pay at any time over the past three years was subject to an automatic meal deduction even when performing compensable work during all or portions of a break period, advising them of the pendency of the suit and their opportunity to opt in as plaintiffs.

Having carefully considered plaintiffs' request and the record now before the court, applying the relatively generous standard for granting such requests at this procedural juncture, I conclude that plaintiffs have only partially met their burden of demonstrating that the proposed class members are all similarly situated. Accordingly, I will permit the matter to proceed as a collective action, with necessary information being provided by the defendants and notice given to effectuate this end, only with respect to current and former hourly employees with direct patient care responsibilities working at St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center, but will otherwise deny plaintiffs' application, without prejudice.

I. BACKGROUND

At this early stage, not a great deal is known regarding either the three named plaintiffs or the eighteen defendants listed. Plaintiffs' complaint states only that at relevant times they were employees, for purposes of both the FLSA and the New York Labor Law, and employed within this district, without disclosing either their positions or the identities of their respective employers. See Complaint (Dkt. No. 1) ¶ 73. Affirmations given in support of the instant application for permission to proceed as a collective action by the three named plaintiffs and eight other individuals who have consented to join in the action are only slightly more revealing. Each of those affirmations states that the particular plaintiff was an hourly employee of the SJHHC, with dates of employment given; none of those affirmations, however, discloses the nature of the particular plaintiff's employment. Colozzi Aff (Dkt. No. 11-9) ¶ 2; Aiken Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-10) ¶ 2; Correia Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-11) ¶ 2; Besaw Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-12) ¶ 2; Brewer-Wilton Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-13) ¶ 2; Curcio Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-14) ¶ 2; Niemann Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-15) ¶ 2; Nuber Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-16) ¶ 2; Perotti Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-17) ¶ 2; Sheldon-Kahler (Dkt. No. 11-18) ¶ 2; Sidoran Aff. (Dkt. No. 11-19) ¶ 2.

The information provided by the plaintiffs regarding the several named defendants is equally scant. In one paragraph of their complaint plaintiffs list the eighteen defendants and allege that they "are related organizations through, for example, common membership, governing bodies, trustees and/or officers and benefit plans." Complaint (Dkt. No. 1)

¶ 14. According to the plaintiffs, defendants operate various health care facilities and centers, including St. Joseph's Hospital Health Center (Main Campus), Center for Wound Care and Hyperbaric Medicine, Certified Home Health Care Agency, College of Nursing, Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program (CPEP), Dental Office, Dialysis Center-Camillus, Dialysis Center-Cortland, Dialysis Center-North, Dialysis Center-Northeast, Dialysis Center-Regional, Family Medicine Center, Franciscan Management Services, Inc., Health Care, Management Administrators, Inc., Kinney Drugs at Franciscan Pharmacy, Maternal Child Health Center OB/GYN Office, Maternal Child Health Center Pediatrics Office, Mental Health Services, North Surgery Center, Northeast Surgery Center, Physical Therapy-Lyncourt, Physical Therapy-Northeast, Sleep Lab-East Genesee, Lab-Northeast, Specialty Services, The Wellness Place and Westside Family Health Center. Id. ¶17. Plaintiffs' complaint also alleges that defendant Theodore M. Pasinski is the President of the St. Joseph's entities, with responsibility to manage the various health care operations referenced, and that defendant Frank Panzetta, as Director of Human Resources for SJHHC, has autonomy in overseeing various facets of those operations, including payroll and compensation services.*fn1 Id. ¶¶ 24-71.

According to the defendants the SJHHC, a 431 bed hospital health center that includes a sixteen county service area, provides a variety of in-patient, out-patient and same day services to the Syracuse area and its suburbs. Panzetta Aff. (Dkt. No. 70) ¶¶3-4. Defendants maintain that the only part of the SJHHC Health Care Network implicated in this case is the hospital itself, since that is where all of the named plaintiffs work or worked. Id. at ¶ 5. The SJHHC employs over 3100 health care professionals and support personnel, occupying some 125 different job titles. Id. at ¶ 6.

Defendants' opposition papers also supply some of the missing information regarding the plaintiffs, including in particular the eleven who have provided affirmations in support of plaintiffs' motion for collective action certification. Specifically, five of those individuals, Robert Colozzi, Christine Correia, Joanne Niemann, Therese Perotti, and Jeanne Brewer-Wilton are or were each employed by the SJHHC in licensed practical nurse ("LPN") positions. Hellwig Aff. (Dkt. No. 71) ¶ 8. Plaintiffs Tammy Aiken, Kelly Kahler, Christine Sidoran, Ann Curcio, and Judith Nuber are former employees who each worked as a registered nurse ("RN") at the SJHHC. Id. John Besaw was a nurse practitioner ("NP") formerly employed by SJHHC. Id.

The SJHHC utilizes a computerized time-keeping and payroll system known as Kronos. Panzetta Aff. (Dkt. No. 70) ¶ 8. In accordance with established practices at the facility, an hourly employee who works at least a six-hour shift is entitled to a thirty-minute unpaid meal break, which supervisors and managers are to ensure is available to employees each day. Id. ¶¶ 10-11. The Kronos program automatically deducts thirty minutes from an employee's paycheck, obviating the need for clocking in and out during the break. Id. ¶ 10.

The SJHHC has a policy requiring employees to be compensated when they work through their meal breaks. Hellwig Aff. (Dkt. No. 71) ¶ 5; Proctor Aff. (Dkt. No. 73) ¶ 4. Under that policy, employees are required to contact their supervisor when they are unable to take a full meal break for work-related reasons, and their supervisor then must manually effectuate cancellation of the meal period deduction directly into the Kronos system. Hellwig Aff. (Dkt. No. 71) ¶6; Proctor Aff. (Dkt. No. 73) ¶¶ 5, 6. This procedure is imparted to employees during their initial orientation, and has been disseminated to supervisors via an email directive describing how to add time when an employee has worked hours in addition to their regularly scheduled hours, and how to manually cancel the meal deduction. Proctor Aff. (Dkt. No. 73) at ¶¶ 5, 7; Panzetta Aff. (Dkt. No. 70) ¶ 12.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The three originally named plaintiffs commenced this action on November 13, 2008. Dkt. No. 1. Plaintiffs' complaint sets forth five separate causes of action, alleging 1) violation of the FLSA; 2) violation of the New York Labor Law; 3) violation of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974, as amended, 29 U.S.C. § 1101 et seq. ("ERISA"), for failure to keep accurate records; 4) breach of fiduciary duty, also in violation of ERISA; and 5) estoppel. Since commencement of the action, a total of one hundred seventeen individuals claiming to be present or former hourly employees of one or more of the defendants have consented to join in the action as plaintiffs. Dkt. Nos. 6-10, 13, 25, 29, 32, 35, 42-43, 46, 48, 81.

On November 8, 2008, plaintiffs moved to certify this matter as a collective action.*fn2 Dkt. No. 11. Hand-in-hand with that motion is an application for a court order requiring disclosure by defendants of the identities of the potential opt-in plaintiffs, accompanied by other personal information, and a request that a court-approved notice be sent to the listed current and former hourly employees of the defendants. Id. Plaintiffs' application for preliminary collective action certification, which is vigorously opposed by the various defendants who have thus far appeared in the action, is now fully briefed, and is before me for decision.*fn3*fn4

III. DISCUSSION

A. Controlling Legal Principles

In the portion of their complaint implicated by their motion, plaintiffs contend that defendants' policies and practices of making automatic meal break deductions, coupled with their knowledge of or indifference as to whether their hourly employees are working during those meal breaks without compensation, violates the FLSA. That act allows for the maintenance of collective actions by multiple employees subject to the same, allegedly unlawful practice or ...


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