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Fengler v. Crouse Health Foundation

January 26, 2009

MICHELE FENGLER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CROUSE HEALTH FOUNDATION, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



DAVID E. PEEBLES U.S. MAGISTRATE JUDGE

DECISION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs Michelle Fengler and Marianne Meyers, each claiming to be a current or former employee of defendant Crouse Health Hospital, Inc. ("Crouse Hospital"), 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 two 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 Crouse Hospital, but will otherwise deny plaintiffs' application, without prejudice.

I. BACKGROUND

At this early stage, not a great deal is known regarding either the two named plaintiffs or the twenty-one 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 two named plaintiffs and three 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 Crouse Hospital, with dates of employment given; none of those affirmations, however, discloses the nature of the particular plaintiff's employment. Fengler Aff (Dkt. No. 46-10) ¶ 2; Francis Aff. (Dkt. No. 46-11) ¶ 2; Meyers Aff. (Dkt. No. 46-12) ¶ 2; Foster Aff. (Dkt. No. 46-13) ¶ 2; Hare Aff. (Dkt. No. 46-14) ¶ 2.

The information provided by the plaintiffs regarding the several named defendants is equally scant. In one paragraph of their complaint plaintiffs list the twenty-one 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 Crouse Hospital, CNY Medical Center, Crouse Help People Employee Assistance Program, Crouse Business Center, Outpatient Surgery Center in Crouse Physicians Office Building, Chemical Dependency Treatment Services, Commonwealth Place, Madison Irving Same Day Surgery Center, Marley Education Center, Crouse Prompt care and Crouse Hospital School of Nursing. Id. ¶17. Plaintiffs' complaint also alleges that defendant Paul Kronenberg, M.D. is the President of the Crouse entities, with responsibility to manage the various health care operations referenced, and that defendant John Bergemann, as Director of Human Resources, has autonomy in overseeing various facets of those operations, including payroll and compensation services.*fn1 Id. ¶¶ 24-71.

According to the defendants, Crouse Hospital, licensed for 506 beds, employs approximately 2200 hourly employees, the majority of whom are unionized, occupying some 237 different job titles. Bergemann Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-19) ¶¶ 2-3, 5, 22.

Defendants' opposition papers also supply some of the missing information regarding the plaintiffs, including in particular the five who have provided affirmations in support of plaintiff's motion for collective action certification. Plaintiff Mary Ellen Hare was previously employed as a registered nurse ("RN") in the Medical/Surgical Float Pool at Crouse Hospital. Borchik Aff. (Dkt. No. 116) ¶ 7; Stahl Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-16) ¶ 7. Plaintiff Marianne Francis likewise is a former employee of Crouse Hospital who worked as an RN on the Medical Surgical Floor. Phinney Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-4) ¶¶ 1, 7. Plaintiff Michelle Fengler currently works as an RN in the Maternal/Child Float Pool at Crouse Hospital. Tibbitts Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-7) ¶¶ 1, 7. Another former employee, plaintiff Kelly Foster, was employed by Crouse Hospital as a per diem nurse in the Intensive Care Unit. Brown Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-10) ¶ 6. Also formerly employed by Crouse Hospital, plaintiff Marianne Meyers worked in the Emergency Department as an RN. Corsoniti Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-13) ¶ 7.

Crouse Hospital utilizes a computerized time-keeping and payroll system known as Kronos. Bergemann Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-19) ¶ 7. In accordance with established practices at the facility, an hourly employee who works five or more hours is entitled to a thirty-minute unpaid meal break, which supervisors and managers ensure is available to employees each day. Id. ¶¶ 8-9. The Kronos program automatically deducts thirty minutes from an employee's paycheck, obviating the need for clocking in and out for meal breaks. Id. ¶ 8.

Crouse Hospital has a policy requiring employees to be compensated when they work through their meal breaks. Bergemann Aff. (Dkt. No. 116-19) ¶¶ 6, 9. Under that policy, each employee's supervisor or manager is responsible for enforcing the policy. Id. When an employee is required to work during a meal break, however, he or she must report such an occasion to the supervisor or manager by sending an e-mail or voice mail, leaving a note, communicating in person or, most commonly, completing a form designated for this purpose. Id. ¶ 10. The supervisor or manager responsible for approving that employee's payroll then is tasked with making an adjustment effectuating cancellation of the meal break in the Kronos system. Id. ¶ 9.

II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

The two 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 and one 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. 42-45, 50, 52, 61, 74-75, 79, 80, 85, 87, 91, 135, 142.

On November 18, 2008, plaintiffs moved to certify this matter as a collective action.*fn2 Dkt. No. 46. 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 ...


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