Federal Court in Minnesota Denies Conditional Certification in a Meal Break Case

In Saleen v. Waste Management, Inc., the named plaintiffs were two drivers of Waste Management, Inc.’s (“WMI”)’s trash collection vehicles who alleged they were not paid for overtime worked when they were unable to take meal breaks.  Saleen v. Waste Management, Inc. (Saleen I), No. 08-4959, 2009 WL 1664451, at *1 (D. Minn. June 15, 2009), affirmed by — F. Supp. 2d —-, No. 08-CV-4959, 2009 WL 2768433 (D. Minn. Sept. 1, 2009).  The time-keeping system used by WMI automatically deducted a 30-minute unpaid meal break from all shifts worked by non-exempt employees of 6 hours or more.  Saleen I, 2009 WL 1664451, at *1.  WMI’s policy required non-exempt employees to take their breaks as required, but had a provision for employees to submit an override request when they were unable to take a meal break in order to avoid uncompensated time.  Id. at *1-2.  Nonetheless, the plaintiffs and most of the 211 opt-ins alleged that “they were rarely (and in some cases never) able to take an entire 30-minute break” and that “WMI failed to compensate them for the many occasions when they worked through such meal breaks.”  Id. at *2.  Plaintiffs sought conditional certification of a collective action that encompassed between 20,000 and 30,000 current and former drivers in up to 820 locations and in 47 states.  Id.

Plaintiffs’ motion was heard by the magistrate judge who held in a detailed opinion that Plaintiffs failed to sustain their burden of making a colorable showing that the Plaintiffs and putative collective members are similarly situated with respect to a single decision, policy, or plan that caused them to be deprived overtime compensation.  In so holding, the court determined that WMI’s automatic deduction policy did not facially violate federal law: “[T]he automatic-deduction policy does not, on its face, state that employees will not be paid if they have worked through their meal breaks.  Indeed, it provides a mechanism (the ‘Kronos Start Time Meal Break Exception Form’) for employees to reverse the automatic deduction if they have missed the meal break and thus get paid for the time worked.”  Id. at *4.  Therefore, in order to establish a single unlawful decision, policy, or plan, the Plaintiffs had to show a colorable basis to find that there was a company-wide unwritten policy to violate the policy.  Id.  The court found that there was no colorable evidentiary basis that identified a single policy of WMI that violated the plaintiffs right to overtime pay.  Id. at *5.  In reaching its decision, the court reviewed depositions and the declarations submitted by 112 opt-ins and determined that they alleged a variety of reasons for not being paid, including: lack of knowledge of the override system; managers’ statements that lunch breaks would not be overridden; and failure to avail themselves of the override system:

The import of these differences is plain:  the myriad reasons alleged why the deponents and declarants were not paid for untaken meal breaks do not provide a colorable basis that Plaintiffs and potential collective action members were together the victims of a single decision, policy or plan.  Because these differences were exposed in a small sample of 112 waste-collection employees, we can reasonably infer that such variation would only increase were the sample extended to include the nearly 30,000 WMI employees at the more than 800 facilities nationwide to whom Plaintiffs request that notice be sent.

Id. (emphasis original).

The court further concluded that the case would be unmanageable due to “considerable variation in the reasons Plaintiffs and the putative collective action members were not compensated for working through meal breaks.”  Id. at *9.

Plaintiffs objected to the Magistrate Judge’s Order claiming that the court’s analysis was too rigorous and not appropriate in the context of a motion for conditional certification.  Saleen v. Waste Management, Inc. (Saleen II), — F.Supp.2d —-, No. 08-CV-4959, 2009 WL 2768433, at *2 (D. Minn. Sept. 1, 2009).  The district court rejected Plaintiffs’ claim that they were “similarly situated” and subject to “a single decision, policy or plan” because all of them were subject to the automatic deduction system: “Obviously, this cannot be sufficient to justify conditional certification.”  Id.  The district court emphasized that “[w]hat the caselaw of this District requires is that the putative class members be the “victims of a single decision, policy or plan.  In other words, the putative class members must be harmed by an unlawful companywide policy.”  Id. (emphasis original). In this regard, the court considered two issues: (1) how much evidence must a plaintiff submit in order to establish a “colorable basis” that all members of the putative class were harmed by the same unlawful policy; and (2) whether it could properly consider evidence submitted by the defendant that tended to show that certification was improper.  Id.

In answering these questions, the court determined that it did not have to consider plaintiffs’ evidence in a vacuum:  “[T]he Court is unaware of any court that has agreed with plaintiffs’ position that evidence submitted by a defendant resisting conditional certification should be completely ignored.”  Id. at *4.  The court further stated:

Plaintiffs have no direct evidence of an unlawful policy that applies to all of these people, but instead ask the Court to infer the existence of such a policy from the fact that a tiny fraction of WMI workers allege that they were not paid for working through meal breaks.  When plaintiffs take aim at such a large target without any direct evidence that they have been victimized by a companywide policy, it is not unreasonable to expect plaintiffs to conduct at least some discovery to justify their request for conditional certification.  The Court is therefore unwilling, in the context of this case, to ignore WMI’s evidence.

Id.  After considering the evidence submitted by both parties, the court found that the Magistrate Judge’s order was not clearly erroneous in concluding that plaintiffs had not established a “colorable basis” to show that there was a single company-wide policy to intentionally fail to compensate employees for overtime and affirmed the magistrate judge’s order denying conditional certification.  Id. at *5.

Tracey H. DoneskyLeonard, Street & Deinard – Minneapolis, MN


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