I have defended many cases in which the employee(s) claim they worked through lunch and are owed wages (or, usually, overtime). These cases are usually difficult to defend unless the employer either compels employees to punch out and in for lunch or has another kind of fail-safe mechanism to account for this time, if legitimately worked. A recent case, however, gives me hope as it stands for the premise that the plaintiffs have to make some evidentiary showing. In this case, a federal Judge has dismissed a lunch-time class action because of a failure to make even a modest showing that violations occurred. The case might have involved 15,000 people and is entitled Marshall v. Novant Health, Inc. It was filed in federal court in the Western District of North Carolina
The Court concluded that the plaintiff did not show that the Company systematically and consistently denied her the full lunch periods. The Judge also found that there was no policy that prevented her from recording this time or seeking compensation for it. The Court succinctly stated that “Marshall has failed to present evidence that there was no way for her to record a meal break that is less than 30 minutes. Her argument is contradicted by her sworn testimony and that of every other witness in the case.”
The Company had an automatic lunch deduction policy, where a half-hour was deducted every day for employee lunches. Significantly the employee could utilize a “No Lunch” code if that worker did not take a lunch (or claimed not to) so the person could get paid. In fact, the named plaintiff herself used the No Lunch code “at least 19 times.” She claimed, however, that her meal times were often interrupted and that she was “discouraged from using the code if it would result in overtime hours worked and that there is no way for her to record time worked when her meal break is interrupted.” The Judge noted that the named plaintiff acknowledged that she was directed to use the No-Lunch code if she missed a meal break or she was interrupted and then she would be paid for that half-hour.
Significantly, the Court found that was “simply no evidence to support the argument that Novant prevented Marshall from recording and being paid for interrupted meal breaks.” The Court also noted that the FLSA allowed the kind of automatic lunch-time deductions that the Company was utilizing. The Court also found important that the employees were directed to use the No-Lunch code if they missed a meal break. There was no evidence adduced showing that the plaintiff’s lunches were interrupted a majority of the time and, tellingly, even the plaintiff acknowledged that she “had no difficulty” taking lunch breaks.
This gives me heart. I am a big believer in these automatic deduction policies, provided that there is a fail-safe mechanism for employees to be able to report supposedly missed lunches. The employer had that mechanism in this case, the employee could not prove or make a showing she was somehow excused from using it. This makes for a very solid defense.
And makes a winner…