Summary Judgment Denied in Unpaid But Working Lunch Break Case

U.S. District Court Judge Catherine C. Blake shot down a hospital’s effort to dismiss a nurse’s class suit last week in a Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law case.

What Is a Wage Payment and Collection Law Claim?

A Wage Payment and Collection Law (WPCL) lawsuit is a legal action brought by an employee against their employer for alleged violations of state wage payment and collection laws. These laws make employers keep and get the records right – how employers must pay wages, including timely payment, proper calculation of wages, and accurate recordkeeping. The purpose of these laws is to protect employees from unfair wage practices hat companies have historically engaged in by ensuring they receive the compensation they are legally entitled to.

A WPCL lawsuit typically arises when an employee, like the nurse in this lawsuit, claims that their employer has not paid them correctly, has made unauthorized deductions from their pay, or has failed to pay them in a timely manner. In some cases, WPCL lawsuits may also involve issues related to unpaid overtime, unpaid minimum wage, unpaid commissions, or unpaid accrued vacation pay.

WPCL lawsuits address state-specific wage laws and should not be confused with lawsuits under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which sets nationwide minimum wage and overtime standards. However, employees may file claims under both state and federal laws if their employer’s actions violate both sets of regulations.

Facts of Quickley v. University of Maryland Medical System

The plaintiff, Ms. Quickley, worked as a licensed practical nurse at Maryland General Hospital (MGH) from January 20, 1992, to June 14, 2011. She alleges that MGH has a policy where employees’ daily time records are automatically deducted by 30 minutes for a scheduled meal break, regardless of whether they take the break or not. This policy applies to various employees at MGH, and those affected by the automatic deduction policy in the three years before the lawsuit are the potential class members. Quickley claims that she and the potential class members are often required to work during their meal breaks without being paid for the work done during that time, resulting in under-compensation and violation of both Maryland and federal law.

MGH is part of the University of Maryland Medical System Corporation (UMMS), which Quickley argues are related organizations sharing common membership, ownership, governing bodies, trustees, officers, and benefit plans. Employee numbers and nametags also integrate MGH employees into the central UMMS system.

During Quickley’s employment, the system for tracking employee time changed from sign-in sheets to a Kronos time system. Despite her typical 12.5-hour shift, Quickley was paid for only 12 hours, assuming she took a 30-minute meal break. However, she asserts that she and her coworkers rarely took the full meal break, instead working through it, while their supervisors observed but did not step up to fix this injustice.  No evidence is offered that Quickly points this out which I think should be a bit of a problem. This is a hospital.  There is a lot going on.

When employees worked beyond their shift, they were required to fill out a Kronos adjustment sheet, but unused meal breaks were not included. Quickley argues that the Kronos system could have been modified to track the additional hours but was never adjusted to account for these missed breaks. She alleges that the defendants were aware of the missed breaks and the need to work through unpaid breaks.

Quickley claims that the defendants are responsible for ensuring that meal breaks are not improperly deducted from pay and that their failure to do so results in employees working over 40 hours per week without receiving overtime wages. She has filed a lawsuit alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, Maryland Wage and Hour Law, Maryland Wage Payment and Collection Law, and a quantum meruit claim under Maryland common law. She seeks a permanent injunction, compensatory damages, and attorneys’ fees and costs. The defendants have filed a partial motion to dismiss all claims against UMMS, the class action allegations, and the unjust enrichment claim.

Why I am Not a Class Action Employment Lawyer

So what are we taking about here? The nurse’s claim is that Maryland General Hospital automatically deducts a scheduled meal break from employees’ pay while also requiring employees to work during that unpaid break. So the hospital’s policy is, allegedly, an automatic 30-minute deduction in their daily time records for a scheduled meal break, whether or not they can receive the break. Oh, the inhumanity!

I’m not a huge fan of these types of cases. I think these laws are needed to manage some oppressive working conditions. Think West Virginia coal mine worker. But these are health care workers who are in great demand. Sure, the hospital was screwing over the employee on this lousy lunch break deal. But I bet they did a thousand other things for her that they were not required to do. Now she is cherry-picking the one thing she didn’t like. Ultimately, it is the employer’s job to make the employee happy enough that they want to stay. If she does not like it there, she should leave – which is what she did.

These Cases Feel Lawyer Driven

My other problem with these cases is that they seem so lawyer-driven. No lawyer would take just this woman’s case. The damages – her occasional lost half-hour – are not significant enough to attract anyone’s interest. The plaintiff will get little out of this even on her best day (even with a lead plaintiff “bonus”). But the hospital has a lot of employees and lawyers see the value in the numbers. They thought a class action would include all people employed at Maryland General Hospital (“MGH”) within the three years prior to filing this action whose pay was subject to an automatic 30-minute meal period deduction.

UMMS Does Not Get Case Dismissed

The University of Maryland Medical Systems did what these hospitals do: try to escape liability on some technicality that has nothing to do with the merits of the case: whether there was joint-employer status between the University of Maryland Medical Systems and Maryland General Hospital. The arugment was that Quickley’s allegations did not establish joint employer status between the two entities.

However, the court found that Quickley’s amended complaint provided more specific details linking UMMS to payroll and other employee tracking mechanisms, and determined that the “expansive” definition of employer under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allowed for the possibility of joint employer status at this stage of the case.

Moreover, the court ruled that Quickley’s allegations of undercompensation were sufficient to state a claim under the FLSA and parallel state law. The defendants argued that automatic meal deductions do not violate the FLSA, but the court clarified that such deductions are not a per se violation, and the employer must accurately record actual hours worked, including any work performed during meal breaks.  I agree they should… I wish there was a path other than a lawsuit to solve these kinds of problems.

You can read the opinion in Quickley v. University of Maryland Medical System here.