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Nurse Loses FLSA Meal Break Case, Should Have Followed Protocol

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

If you want to win a Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) compensation dispute, you have to prove that an employer knew or should have known that it owed your client for her work.

If your client -- like today's Sixth Circuit appellant -- failed to comply with internal reporting protocols, she may be out of luck.

Margaret White was an emergency department nurse for Baptist Memorial in Memphis from August 2005 to August 2007. Due to the nature of her job, meal breaks occurred during her shift as work demands allowed.

Under the terms of the employee handbook, Baptist automatically deducted meal breaks from White’s pay checks. If a meal break was missed or interrupted because of a work-related reason, White had to log the break in order to receive pay for her time. There was also a procedure to correct payroll errors.

When she was hired, White signed a document stating that she understood that she had to record missed or interrupted meal breaks. Initially she complied. When she reported missed meal breaks, she was usually compensated.

From time to time, White told her supervisors that she was not getting a meal break. She also told Baptist’s human resources department. But she never told her supervisors or the human resources department that she was not compensated for her missed breaks.

Eventually, she stopped reporting the missed breaks.

White sued Baptist in 2008, alleging violations of the FLSA for failing to compensate her for working during her lunch breaks. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the hospital.

An FLSA plaintiff must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he or she performed work for which he or she was not properly compensated. An automatic meal deduction system is lawful under the FLSA. Time spent predominantly for the employer’s benefit during a period, although designated as a lunch or break period, nevertheless constitutes working time compensable under the FLSA. If an employer knows or has reason to believe that a worker is continuing to work, then the time is working time.

Therefore, the issue is whether Baptist knew or had reason to know it was not compensating White for working during her meal breaks.

Under the FLSA, if an employer establishes a reasonable process for an employee to report uncompensated work time the employer is not liable for non-payment if the employee fails to follow the established process.

Each time White followed Baptist’s procedures for interrupted meal breaks or for payroll errors, she was compensated. But White stopped following Baptist’s procedures, and she never told her supervisors that she was not being paid for missing her meal breaks; the appellate court agreed there was no way Baptist should have known.

Without evidence that Baptist prevented White from utilizing the system to report either entirely or partially missed meal breaks, the Sixth Circuit concluded that she could not recover damages from Baptist under the FLSA.

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