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Straka v. Methodist Dallas Medical Center Auxiliary

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

April 3, 2018

ROBERT STRAKA, Individually, and on Behalf of All Others Similarly Situated, Plaintiff,
v.
METHODIST DALLAS MEDICAL CENTER AUXILIARY, ET AL., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          JANE J. BOYLE, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court is Plaintiff Robert Straka's Motion to Conditionally Certify Collective Action and Authorize Notice. Doc. 44. For the following reasons, the Court GRANTS the motion.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         This is a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) overtime case. From April 2016 to March 2017, Straka worked as a nurse for Defendants (collectively “Methodist”) in their Dallas healthcare facility. Doc. 46, Pl.'s App., 9. Like all Methodist nurses, Straka was entitled to, but not paid for, a thirty-minute meal break for each six-and-a-half-hour shift he worked. Doc. 45, Pl.'s Br. in Supp., 1. But nurses do not clock out for their meal breaks-Methodist keeps track of their meal breaks for them. Id. How Methodist did so during Straka's employment varied. Id. at 3-4. When Straka started, Methodist used the automatic deduction system, whereby Methodist automatically deducted thirty minutes from each shift that exceeded six and a half hours. Id. If nurses worked through a meal break, they could override the automatic deduction. Doc. 50, Defs.' Resp., 4. But how nurses did so varied by department. Id. at 5-7. On October 30, 2016, Methodist replaced the automatic deduction system with the attestation system. Id. at 4. Under the attestation system, nurses clock in and out by phone. Id. Upon calling the assigned clock-out number, an automated prompt asks the nurse if he is clocking out for the day. Id. If so, the prompt asks if the nurse received a full, uninterrupted meal break during that particular shift. Id. at 5. If the nurse indicates that he did, thirty minutes are deducted from the nurse's time when calculating his pay. Id. But if the nurse did not take a meal break, no time is deducted. Id.

         Straka alleges that work-related matters constantly interrupted his meal breaks. Doc. 45, Pl.'s Br. in Supp., 1. But Straka's claim is not based on actual interruptions-Straka claims Methodist violates the FLSA by not paying its nurses for their meal breaks during which they are subject to interruption but not actually interrupted. Doc. 55, Pl.'s Reply, 1-2. Straka asserts that the Court should grant his motion to conditionally certify because he is similarly situated with the approximately 4500 nurses in Methodist's Dallas, Richardson, Charlton, and Mansfield healthcare facilities who are likewise subject to interruptions during their unpaid meal breaks. Doc. 45, Pl.'s Br. in Supp., 1-3. Methodist argues that the variation across departments is too significant to consider all of its nurses similarly situated. Doc. 50, Defs.' Resp., 2. Straka's motion for conditional certification has been fully briefed and is ripe for review.

         II. LEGAL STANDARD

         Section 216(b) of the FLSA “authorizes a plaintiff to bring a collective action on behalf of similarly situated persons, provided that any person who desires to become a part of the collective action files a written consent in the court.” Valcho v. Dall. Cty. Hosp. Dist., 574 F.Supp.2d 618, 621 (N.D. Tex. 2008). When a plaintiff seeks to bring a collective action, district courts have the discretion to implement § 216(b) by facilitating notice to potential plaintiffs. Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. v. Sperling, 493 U.S. 165, 169 (1989).

         The FLSA authorizes a plaintiff to bring an action on behalf of similarly situated persons, but the FLSA does not define “similarly situated.” And the Fifth Circuit has declined to adopt any specific test to determine when plaintiffs are similarly situated. Acevedo v. Allsup's Convenience Stores, Inc., 600 F.3d 516, 519 n.1 (5th Cir. 2010). But district courts in the Northern District of Texas have adopted the two-step approach outlined in Lusardi v. Xerox Corp., 118 F.R.D. 351 (D.N.J. 1987), which consists of a notice stage and a decertification stage. See, e.g., Oliver v. Aegis Commc'ns Grp., Inc., No. 3:08-cv-828-K, 2008 WL 7483891, at *2-3 (N.D. Tex. Oct. 30, 2008) (collecting cases).

         Under the Lusardi approach, the first step-the notice stage-requires a preliminary determination, usually based only on the pleadings and submitted affidavits, of whether potential class members are similarly situated to the named plaintiff. Mooney v. Aramco Servs. Co., 54 F.3d 1207, 1213-14 (5th Cir. 1995). If they are similarly situated, then the court can conditionally certify the action and authorize notice to potential plaintiffs to opt in, and the suit “proceeds as a representative action throughout discovery.” Id. at 1214. After discovery is largely complete, the defendant may move for decertification, at which point the court proceeds to the second step-the decertification stage-and considers again whether the plaintiffs are similarly situated. Id. If the court finds that the plaintiffs who opted in are not similarly situated with the named plaintiff, then the class is decertified, the opt-in plaintiffs are dismissed without prejudice, and the original named plaintiff proceeds to trial on his individual claims. Id. at 1213-14.

         At the notice stage, the court usually has minimal evidence, so “the determination is made using a fairly lenient standard and typically results in conditional certification of a representative class.” Jones v. SuperMedia Inc., 281 F.R.D. 282, 287 (N.D. Tex. 2012). Courts generally “require nothing more than substantial allegations that the putative class members were together victims of a single decision, policy, or plan.” Mooney, 54 F.3d at 1214 n.8. A factual basis, however, must exist, and a plaintiff must show some “identifiable facts or legal nexus that binds the claims so that hearing the cases together promotes judicial efficiency.” Jones, 281 F.R.D. at 287. In conducting its analysis, the court has “a responsibility to avoid the ‘stirring up' of litigation through unwarranted solicitation.” Valcho, 574 F.Supp.2d at 622.

         Courts do not often engage in the second step-the decertification process-until after “discovery is largely complete and the matter is ready for trial. At this stage, the court has much more information on which to base its decision, and makes a factual determination on the similarly situated question.” Mooney, 54 F.3d at 1214. But there are circumstances in which courts will skip the first, lenient analysis. If parties have already conducted discovery on the certification issue, courts have less cause for leniency during the “notice” phase and may choose to apply a more stringent standard. Valcho, 574 F.Supp.2d at 622; Basco v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. Civ.A. 00-3184, 2004 WL 1497709, at *4 (E.D. La. July 2, 2004) (“[I]n light of the substantial discovery that has occurred in this matter, the Court will consider the criteria for both the first and second steps in deciding whether it should certify [the] matter.”); Pfohl v. Farmers Ins. Grp., No. CV03-3080 DT (RCX), 2004 WL 554834, at *3 (C.D. Cal. Mar. 1, 2004) (proceeding directly to the decertification stage because discovery on the issue of certification was complete).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. Conditional Certification Standard

         Before deciding whether the nurses are similarly situated, the Court first must decide whether to skip the lenient standard and apply the stringent standard because the parties have completed some amount of discovery. See Mooney, 54 F.3d at 1214. So far, Straka “has served, and Methodist responded to, 95 requests for production, 52 requests for admission, and 21 interrogatories, and Methodist produced 369 pages of documents” over a four-month period. Doc. 50, Defs.' Resp., 9. Additionally, Straka has taken three depositions, and Methodist has deposed Straka. Id. Methodist argues in its response that this amount of discovery is extensive and warrants applying the more stringent standard. Id. Methodist contends that Straka now “‘should be able to better support [his] claims' and the Court ‘can make an educated decision as to whether certifying the matter as a collective action would survive the decertification process.'” Id. (quoting Parker v. Silverleaf Resorts, Inc., No. 3:14-CV-2075-B, 2017 WL 1550522, at ...


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