Thursday, April 28, 2011

Northern District Certifies Meal Period Class on Behalf of Refinery Plant Operators: Gardner v. Shell Oil Co.

On April 21, 2011, Northern District Judge Claudia Wilken granted certification of meal period claims on behalf of shift workers employed at the Shell Oil refinery located in Martinez, California. See Gardner v. Shell Oil Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44851 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 21, 2011). According to plaintiffs, the proposed class was deprived of access to meal periods based on the fact that employees could not leave the premises, and hence, were never relieved of duty:
Operators are paid hourly, work rotating twelve-hour shifts, and are required by refinery policies to remain in communication at all times, and to remain on the premises. They must refrain from sleeping, reading non-work related materials, using headphones, and using the internet for personal purposes for more than fifteen minutes per shift. There are no set times for meal breaks. Operators work as Board Operators and Outside Operators and are assigned to one of six departments: Operations Central, Delayed Coker, Distillation and Hydroprocessing, Cracked Products, Utilities, and Logistics. Board Operators work at a console in a control center, tracking on various screens how a particular unit is running. Outside Operators work outside of the control centers, and are responsible for maintaining, monitoring and inspecting equipment, as well as responding to directions from Board Operators. In contrast to Operators, employees on a "day schedule" generally work between eight and ten hours per day, and receive an unpaid thirty-minute meal period free from any work responsibilities. Communication between and among Board and Outside Operators is required to run the Martinez refinery properly.
See Gardner, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44851, at 2-3.

In opposing certification, the defendant sought to shoehorn plaintiff’s claims into a Brinker type analysis -- claiming that breaks were made available, and thereon, required individualized analysis as to whether employees "chose not to take it." See id., at 21. The Court rejected this argument, reasoning it “disregard[ed] the nature of Plaintiffs' claims….” See id., at 21. As reasoned by the Court, claims based on employer policies which preclude employees from leaving the premises and/or restricting employee activities during breaks presents an issue of whether breaks could even be deemed to have been "offered" in the first instance, which was an issue to be resolved uniformly on behalf of the class as a whole:
Under California's meal period provisions, "[i]t is an employer's obligation to ensure that its employees are free from its control for thirty minutes, not to ensure that employees do any particular thing during that time." Brown v. Federal Express Corp., 249 F.R.D. 580, 585 (C.D. Cal. 2008) (applying Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions., Inc., 40 Cal. 4th 1094, 1104 (2007)). Employers are obliged "not to force employees to work through breaks." Id. at 585 (citing Murphy, 40 Cal. 4th at 1104). Accordingly, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants' refinery-wide policies, requiring all Operators to remain on the premises, close to their work stations, to respond to radio calls and alarms throughout their shifts, to remain responsible for assigned units at all times, and to refrain from engaging in common break-time activities, deprived Operators of off-duty thirty-minute meal periods. Essentially, Plaintiffs claim that Defendants have not relinquished sufficient control over Operators during their meal breaks so as to make available an off-duty meal break and, thus, the Operators are entitled to payment of an hour's premium wage for each on-duty meal break. In this respect, the common issues presented by Plaintiffs' claims plainly predominate over any individual issues.
Defendants assert that, as a matter of law, the policies and practices that are the focus of this suit do not deprive Plaintiffs of an off-duty meal break. The Court need not resolve the merits of Plaintiffs' claims based on the present motions. However, for purposes of class certification, Plaintiffs' claims are adequately supported by law. In the USW case, on August 27, 2010, Judge Klausner granted summary judgment in favor of the plaintiffs on their meal break claims, which were based on the same restrictions and requirements attacked in this action. After analyzing Labor Code §§ 226.7 and 512(a), IWC Wage Order 1-2001 § 11, and related case law, the court found that the plaintiffs had established that they were not relieved of all duty during their meal breaks.
See Gardner, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44851, at 22-24.

No comments:

Post a Comment