We have previously discussed that, while medical providers have become a common target of plaintiffs asserting wage and hour claims arising out of so-called “auto-deduct” policies, more and more courts are realizing that the inherently fact-specific nature of these lawsuits make class treatment very difficult.  See our posts from June 23, 2014, and September 17, 2014].  The recent case of Jarosz v. St. Mary Medical Center, 10-cv-3330 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 22, 2014), is the latest court to continue this trend.

In Jarosz, the plaintiffs were current and former health care employees of St. Mary Medical Center who were subject to an automatic 30 minute meal period deduction which, they claimed, applied even when they worked during this period.  There was no system-wide mechanism for scheduling or cancelling the automatic meal deductions.  Rather, this process was left largely to the discretion of the 175 or so individual departments.  St. Mary’s eventually agreed to conditional certification of all its current and former employees who had direct patient care duties during the class period under the FLSA.  Notice was sent out to 2,211 such employees, of which only 64 decided to join the class.  Of those 64, the court dismissed 34 on various grounds.  After discovery, St. Mary’s moved to decertify the remnants of the class.

The Court agreed with St. Mary’s and decertified the class for a host of reasons.  It noted that many of the plaintiffs worked under different supervisors and different departments, which was particularly important because of the decentralized implementation of the meal break policy.  The plaintiffs also had vastly different testimony as to the frequency in which they worked through meals, the amount they worked in a week, their knowledge of the procedure for cancelling the meal break deduction and whether they used those procedures.  The Court found that the fact that all the opt-in plaintiffs were subject to St. Mary’s auto-deduct policy was not enough to show that they were similarly situated.  The court also refused the plaintiffs’ Rule 23 certification motion under the same grounds.

What is interesting about this case is that while St. Mary’s obviously had strong arguments as to why the plaintiffs were not similarly situated, they elected not to challenge conditional certification.  Considering that conditional FLSA certification is granted in many instances even in the face of the strongest defense, St. Mary’s decision to focus the fight on decertification is hard to second-guess.  Moreover, the extremely low opt-in rate suggests that St. Mary’s employees did not think highly of the lawsuit – a fact that St. Mary’s might have been well aware when they agreed to conditional certification.

Bottom Line:  Courts continue to recognize that the use of an automatic meal deduction policy, without more, is not enough for plaintiffs to prevail on a FLSA collective action.