Automatic Meal Deduction Case Survives Motion to Dismiss

Lunch ClockIn the most recent decision in the rash of wage and hour class and collective actions against healthcare employers relating to the “automatic deduction” of meal periods from pay, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of Illinois has denied a nursing home’s motion to dismiss the complaint.

In Chastity L. King v. Heritage Enterprises, Inc., the plaintiff, a licensed practical nurse at Heritage Manor, brought suit against Heritage Enterprises (Heritage), an operator of 38 skilled nursing facilities in Illinois, alleging that Heritage’s hourly employees were subject to an automatic 30-minute meal break deduction although they were regularly required to work during their meal breaks. The plaintiff further claimed that after the automatic deduction policy was discontinued in 2008, employees were still required to clock out for 30 minutes regardless of whether they worked through lunch. According to the plaintiff, the policy requiring employees to work through unpaid meal breaks was centrally “dictated and controlled” by Heritage.

Heritage moved to dismiss the collective action complaint, arguing, among other things, that automatic meal break deductions are not illegal. In dismissing Heritage’s motion, the court acknowledged that “the practice of automatically deducting thirty minutes from an employee’s workday for meals is a legal practice.” However, the court stated, this practice was not at issue. Rather, the court defined the issue as whether or not non- exempt employees were required to work during their meal breaks. Citing the federal regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the court stated that a bona fide meal period is not considered work time if an employee is “completely relieved from duty,” but if an employee is required to “perform any duties, whether active or inactive, while eating,” the time is compensable work time. The court concluded that the plaintiff’s allegations, if true, were sufficient to demonstrate a violation of this standard and, accordingly, denied Heritage’s motion to dismiss.

The Heritage decision is significant for two main reasons. First, the district court judge in Heritage appears to have deviated from governing precedent in the Seventh Circuit and other federal circuits by focusing exclusively on the “completely relieved from duty” language in the FLSA regulations. The Seventh Circuit does not apply this “completely relieved from duty” language literally. Instead, like many other courts, it applies the more fact intensive “predominant benefit standard,” assessing, on a case by case basis, “whether, on balance, employees use mealtime for their employer’s benefit.” For example, in Leahy v. City of Chicago, 96 F.3d 228, 231(7th Cir. 1996), the court observed:

[The Seventh Circuit] and other circuit courts have adopted “the predominant benefit” test for determining whether meal periods constitute compensable work time under the FLSA. See, e.g., Alexander, 994 F.2d [333, 337 (7th Cir. 1993)]; Avery v. City of Talladega, 24 F.3d 1337, 1345 (11th Cir. 1994); Henson v. Pulaski County Sheriff Dept., 6 F.3d 531, 534 (8th Cir. 1993); Lamon v. City of Shawnee, 972 F.2d 1145, 1155-57 (10th Cir. 1992), cert. denied, 507 U.S. 972, 122 L. Ed. 2d 785, 113 S. Ct. 1414 (1993). An employee is considered to be completely relieved from duty during a meal period when the employee’s time is not spent predominantly for the benefit of the employer. Alexander, 994 F.2d at 337. The FLSA requires compensation for meal periods during which a police officer cannot comfortably and adequately spend the mealtime because the officer’s time or attention is devoted primarily to official responsibilities. Lamon, 972 F.2d at 1155-56.

The Heritage decision is also significant from a procedural standpoint. As evidenced by the court’s ruling, claims such as those made in Heritage are difficult to refute on a motion to dismiss prior to discovery. Employers and their attorneys should therefore carefully consider the pros and cons of filing a motion to dismiss in FLSA collective actions where, like Heritage, the plaintiff alleges that employees routinely work during unpaid meal breaks. Depending on the particular allegations in the complaint, the wiser course may be to conduct some discovery to create an evidentiary record rebutting the plaintiff’s allegations. Employers that can demonstrate the allegations in the complaint are supported only by a few anecdotal examples may be in a better position to argue that there is no “centralized policy” that violates the FLSA, and defeat the plaintiff’s claims on a summary judgment motion.

This entry was written by Robert Wolff and Michele Malloy.

Photo credit: skodonnell

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.