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Chandler v. Heartland Employment Services, LLC

United States District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania

April 28, 2014

ELLA CHANDLER on behalf of herself and all others similarly situated, Plaintiff,
v.
HEARTLAND EMPLOYMENT SERVICES, LLC et al. Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

L. Felipe Restrepo, United States District Judge

Plaintiff Ella Chandler brought suit against Defendants Heartland Employment Services, LLC (“Heartland”) and Wallingford Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (“Wallingford”), on behalf of herself and others similarly situated, alleging that the defendants violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 207 & 216(b) (“FLSA”), by requiring employees to launder and iron their uniforms at home, without pay.[1] Three additional plaintiffs have since opted in to the suit. See ECF Doc. 43. The plaintiffs now seek authorization to notify a nationwide class of Heartland employees that they may also opt in. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be denied without prejudice.

I. The Uniform Maintenance Claim and Evidence

Plaintiff Ella Chandler worked as a full-time Dietary Aide at a Heartland-owned nursing home in Wallingford, Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2012. Am. Compl. (Doc. 20) ¶ 6, 53-60. According to the Amended Complaint, Heartland owns approximately 500 healthcare facilities and agencies in thirty-two states and employs more than 60, 000 people. Id. ¶ 8. Chandler alleges that Heartland required her to spend approximately two hours per week ironing her uniform, off the clock and without pay, in violation of 29 U.S.C. § 207, the FLSA’s overtime provision, and that its policies imposed a similar burden on other employees. She asks to notify “every person who has worked as a full-time, hourly employee in the dietary, housekeeping or nursing department of any of [Heartland’s] skilled nursing facilities at any time during the past three years” that she or he may opt in to the suit. Plaintiff’s Proposed Order (docketed with this opinion). See also Doc. 42-2 (Plaintiff’s initial Proposed Order); Transcript of Oral Argument (Doc. 61, hereinafter “Tr.”) 56.

The company policy that forms the basis of Chandler’s claim is the “HCR ManorCare Professional Appearance and Dress Code Guidelines for Employees” (“ManorCare Dress Code”), which applies to all of Heartland’s skilled nursing facilities. Doc. 42-3. The ManorCare Dress Code explains the importance of employees’ appearance (“The way we dress plays an important role in caring for patients. It helps us stay safe and infection-free . . . [It] can also change what people think about our quality of care . . .”), consequences of non-compliance (“If an employee does not meet these guidelines, he/she may be sent home to change clothes”); and procedures for accommodations. Id. ¶¶ 1-3. It also includes substantive requirements. Id. ¶ 4. Of relevance here, the policy states that “clothes must fit properly, cover the body and be free from wrinkles.” Id. (emphasis added). Finally, with respect to uniforms, the Dress Code explains that “[e]ach facility has uniform guidelines for employees according to position or job role. If a position requires a uniform, employees must follow the standards set by the facility” and are “responsible for keeping uniforms clean and in good repair.” Id. ¶ 5.3. This is the only evidence provided by Chandler that clearly applies to the proposed class as a whole.

Chandler and two of the opt-in plaintiffs have also provided testimony regarding the uniform requirements at their respective facilities. Opt-in plaintiff Cynthia Shaw-Spencer worked as a certified nursing assistant (“CNA”) at a Heartland facility in Yeadon, Pennsylvania from 2003 to 2010. See Doc. 54-3, 18, 45. Opt-in plaintiff Carole Ann Guerra was employed as a CNA at a Heartland facility in Devon, Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013. See Doc. 54-5, 16-17. All three plaintiffs testified, in essence, that they were required to iron their uniforms and were not provided time or opportunity to do so during working hours. All three recounted that supervisors instructed them, or other employees, to iron their uniforms, and that employees were regularly told in trainings that uniforms must be pressed. See Chandler Dep. (Doc. 54-1), 52-53, 84-85, 130-31, 150, 228, 243-48; Shaw-Spencer Dep. (Doc. 54-3), 23-24, 31, 41-48, 62-64, 68, 76-78, 100, 115; Guerra Dep. (Doc. 54-5), 19-20, 50-57, 64-65. Each plaintiff spent about two hours per week washing, drying and ironing her uniforms without compensation. See Chandler Decl., Doc. 42-5, ¶ 10; Chandler Dep. 90-92, 253-55; Shaw-Spencer Dep. 62-64, 116-18; Guerra Dep. 65, 75-78, 80-83, 90.

Finally, Chandler has submitted the Wallingford “Employee Dress Code, ” which requires employees to “maintain high standards of neatness and personal hygiene, ” and provides that “[c]lothing must be neat and clean and appropriate for the professional image all employees should project.” Doc. 42-4. It delegates uniform policy to departments: “For employees required to wear uniforms, the Department Manager will specify the type of uniform required.” Doc. 42-4.

In opposition to Chandler’s motion, the defendants have submitted seventeen declarations by employees and administrators of Heartland skilled nursing facilities. See Docs. 51-2, 51-3.[2] The declarations illustrate that uniform requirements vary by facility and department, while laundering and ironing practices vary by individual. See, e.g. Doc. 51-2, 18 (Fox Decl., stating that at ManorCare-Allentown “[o]nly the nurses and C.N.A.s are required to wear scrubs;” others can wear “polo shirts and khakis”); id. 17 (Ehrman Decl., stating that at ManorCare-Greentree “nurses do not have to wear scrubs – they can wear navy pants and a navy top or navy or white jacket”); id. 3 (Bonner Decl., noting that she irons her uniforms as a “personal preference”); id. 6 (Chikwere Decl.; “I iron my uniforms when I have time.”); id. 7 (Catullo Decl.; “I do not iron my scrubs. They do not look wrinkled because I take them out promptly and set them aside to wear.”). Several of the declarants, both department employees and administrators, assert that their facilities have not required employees to iron their clothing. See, e.g., id. 18 (Fox Decl. ¶ 8); id. 43 (Hanna Decl. ¶ 7).

The defendants have also submitted “Uniform Color and Style Guidelines” that were purportedly adopted by Heartland’s skilled nursing division as of January 1, 2012. See Resp. (Doc. 51), 5; Ex. 8 to Chandler Dep. (Doc. 51-1, 34); Ex. 2 to Shaw-Spencer Dep. (Doc. 51-1, 79). The record contains two versions of the Guidelines, which differ slightly. The Guidelines adopted by Wallingford required “White polo shirt, Black pants” for the dietary department; “Green polo shirt, Khaki pants” for the housekeeping department; and blue “uniform scrubs” for the nursing department. Doc. 51-1 at 34. The Guidelines adopted by the Yeadon facility required “black pants and white short-sleeved polo uniform shirt” for the Dietary Department, “green uniform scrubs” for housekeeping, and “blue uniform scrubs” for nursing. Id. at 79. It is unclear whether the Guidelines imposed consistent color and style requirements on all skilled nursing facilities or whether they allowed each facility to make these choices.

II. Statutory Framework: “Conditional Certification” of a Collective Action

“The FLSA establishes federal minimum-wage, maximum-hour, and overtime guarantees that cannot be modified by contract.” Genesis Healthcare Corp. v. Symczyk, 133 S.Ct. 1523, 1527 (2013). Section 16(b), codified at 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), empowers an employee to bring suit against her employer, either on her own or on behalf of all others “similarly situated.” Id. Unlike members of a Rule 23 class, participants in an FLSA collective action must “opt in” by filing written consents with the court. Compare 29 U.S.C. § 216(b) with Fed. R. Civ. P. 23; see also Camesi v. Univ. of Pittsburgh Med. Ctr., 729 F.3d 239, 242-43 (3d Cir. 2013) (contrasting FLSA collective actions and Rule 23 class actions).

The Third Circuit has endorsed a two-step process for determining whether an FLSA suit may proceed as a collective action:

Applying a “fairly lenient standard” at the first step, the court makes a preliminary determination as to whether the named plaintiffs have made a “modest factual showing” that the employees identified in their complaint are “similarly situated.” If the plaintiffs have satisfied their burden, the court will “conditionally certify” the collective action for the purpose of facilitating notice to potential opt-in plaintiffs and conducting pre-trial discovery. At the second stage, with the benefit of discovery, “a court following this approach then makes a conclusive determination as to whether each plaintiff who has opted in to the collective action is in fact similarly situated to the named plaintiff.”

Camesi, 729 F.3d at 243 (citing Zavala v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 691 F.3d 527, 535-37 (3d Cir. 2012) and Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., 656 F.3d 189, 193 (3d Cir. 2011), rev'd ...


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