PHILADELPHIA – In a recent decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld Butler County’s motion to dismiss a class action lawsuit brought by corrections officers against the county, connected to a dispute on fair overtime compensation.
According to the Court’s majority opinion from judges Julio M. Fuentes and Dolores Sloviter, the class led by Officer Sandra J. Babcock failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, while Judge Joseph A. Greenaway Jr. dissented and felt the suit should not be dismissed.
Babcock and 50 other corrections officers filed suit versus Butler County, claiming it violated the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) in not compensating officers with time-and-a-half pay for any work performed above a threshold of 40 hours per week.
Specifically, Babcock’s suit said meal breaks taken by the officers, where they are instructed to resume duty at any point during the break, should be considered as compensable time. Per the officers’ collective bargaining agreement regarding their one-hour meal break, 45 minutes are paid and 15 minutes are unpaid. The unpaid 15-minute portion is the subject of the suit.
Butler County filed a motion to dismiss, claiming the officers received the “predominant benefit” of the break. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania agreed with this view and dismissed the lawsuit.
In speaking for herself and Fuentes, Sloviter concurred in believing the party receiving “predominant benefit” of the break should be the primary criterion used when considering this question.
“Here, although plaintiffs face a number of restrictions during their meal period, the District Court correctly found that, on balance, these restrictions did not predominantly benefit the employer,” Sloviter said. “In comparison to the cadre of case law addressing mealtime compensability in the law enforcement context, the allegations in plaintiffs’ complaint do not suffice.”
Sloviter continued, “Even accepting all of plaintiffs’ allegations as true, we do not find that the officers were ‘primarily engaged in work-related duties’ during the daily, agreed-upon fifteen minutes of uninterrupted mealtime. As a result, we find that they receive the predominant benefit of the time in question and are not entitled to compensation for it under the FLSA.”
Greenaway disagreed, feeling that the collective bargaining agreement terms were a “red herring” detracting from the allegations of the plaintiffs’ complaint.
“[The issue] is whether plaintiffs should be paid because they allege that they are required to be prepared to serve at a moment’s notice for the entirety of the meal period,” Greenaway said. “As a result of maintaining this readiness to serve defendant, plaintiffs allege that they are subject to a number of restrictions and prohibitions that greatly limit their movement and activities.”
Greenaway concluded the claim, in his view, was improperly dismissed.
“Plaintiffs’ allegations regarding the restrictions on their movement and activities are sufficient to state a claim under the FLSA that the meal period is compensable work,” Greenaway said. “Ending this lawsuit now is clearly improper. I respectfully dissent.”
The plaintiffs were represented by Justin L. Swidler of Swartz Law, in Cherry Hill, N.J.
The defendants were represented by Marie Millie Jones and Michael R. Lettrich of Jones Passodelis, in Pittsburgh.
U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit case 14-1467
U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania case 2:12-cv-00394
From the Pennsylvania Record: Reach Courts Reporter Nicholas Malfitano at firstname.lastname@example.org