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Chavez v. Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital at Pasco

Supreme Court of Washington, En Banc

April 19, 2018

JUDITH Q. CHAVEZ, KATHLEEN CHRISTIANSON, ORALIA GARCIA, and MARRIETTA JONES, individually, and on behalf of all similarly situated registered nurses employed by Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital at Pasco, d/b/a/ Lourdes Medical Center, Petitioners,
v.
OUR LADY OF LOURDES HOSPITAL AT PASCO, d/b/a LOURDES MEDICAL CENTER and JOHN SERLE, individually, and in his capacity as an agent and officer of Lourdes Medical Center, Respondents.

          FAIRHURST, C.J.

         Judith Q. Chavez, Kathleen Christianson, Oralia Garcia, Marrietta Jones, and other registered nurses (nurses) sought class certification in their wage action against their employer, Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital at Pasco d/b/a Lourdes Medical Center and John Serle (Lourdes). The trial court denied class certification, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. At issue is whether the trial court properly found that the nurses failed to satisfy the predominance and superiority requirements necessary for class certification. We reverse the Court of Appeals and hold that the trial court abused its discretion by finding that individual issues predominate and by failing to compare alternative methods of adjudication. We hold that predominance is met because the dominant and overriding issue in this litigation is whether Lourdes failed to ensure the nurses could take rest breaks and second meal periods and could record missed breaks.[1]We hold superiority is met because a class action is superior to other methods of adjudication for the resolution of these claims. We reverse and remand to the trial court with instructions to certify the class.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         The nurses were hourly employees at Lourdes. At the relevant time, Lourdes employed more than 100 nurses in nine different departments. Until 2013, Lourdes used a timekeeping system from Kronos Incorporated and an accounting system from Medical Information Technology Inc. called Meditech. Kronos automatically deducted 30 minutes from an employee's compensable time for a meal period during any shift lasting longer than five hours. When an employee clocked out, the employee could account for his or her first missed meal period by canceling the automatic deduction, and Lourdes would later pay for those 30 minutes at the appropriate rate. Kronos did not permit nurses to track missed rest breaks. Nor did Kronos permit nurses working 12-hour shifts-a category that includes the majority of nurses at Lourdes-to track missed second meal periods.

         In 2012, the nurses filed this individual and class action for unpaid wages, asserting that they regularly missed breaks without compensation due to Lourdes' failure to ensure they could take breaks and record missed breaks. They sought monetary, declaratory, and injunctive relief. The parties engaged in extensive discovery for nearly a year and introduced conflicting facts.

         In April 2013, the nurses moved for class certification. The court deferred ruling on the motion at that time and directed the nurses to file summary judgment motions before renewing their class certification motion. The nurses brought three summary judgment motions, and the trial court denied each of them, concluding that issues of fact remained as to whether individual nurses were afforded time to take breaks. The trial court noted that availability of a meal break could depend on the particular shift and that some nurses might be able to take intermittent rest breaks.[2]

         In 2015, the nurses amended their complaint and renewed their class certification motion to include all registered nurses who worked at least one hourly shift at the hospital from June 2009 through March 2013[3] and, alternatively, to certify subclasses of these same nurses by department or shift hours. The trial court denied the motion, ruling that the nurses failed to satisfy the predominance and superiority requirements of CR 23(b)(3). The court was concerned that the differences between shift length and nurse type created manageability issues.

         The nurses appealed the denial of certification under CR 23(b)(3). The Court of Appeals affirmed, basing its decision solely on the superiority prong. The Court of Appeals emphasized the deferential nature of the abuse of discretion standard. See Chavez v. Our Lady of Lourdes Hosp. at Pasco, No. 33556-9-III, slip op. at 31 (Wash.Ct.App. Feb. 9, 2017) (unpublished), http://www.courts.wa.gov/opinions/ pdf/7335569_unp.pdf ("We must assume the hospital's testimony to be accurate or else we do not bestow full deference to the court's ruling favoring the hospital."). Although the trial court had not expressly resolved conflicts in the evidence, the Court of Appeals decided to review the facts "in a light most favorable to Lourdes Medical Center." Id. at 30. The court acknowledged that "no case . . . explicitly directs [the court] to view the facts in such a gloss for purposes of reviewing a class action ruling." Id.

         The nurses sought this court's review, which we granted. Chavez v. Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, 189 Wn.2d 1009, 402 P.3d 825 (2017).

         II. ISSUE

         Whether the trial court abused its discretion in ruling that the nurses failed to satisfy the predominance and superiority requirements of CR 23(b)(3).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A class action is an exception to the usual rule that litigation is conducted by and on behalf of only the individual named parties. Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, 569 U.S. 27, 33, 133 S.Ct. 1426, 185 L.Ed.2d 515 (2013). A "primary function of the class action is to provide a procedure for vindicating claims [that], taken individually, are too small to justify individual legal action but which are of significant size and importance if taken as a group." Brown v. Brown, 6 Wn.App. 249, 253, 492 P.2d 581 (1971).

         CR 23(b) concerns the requirements to maintain a class action and forms the basis of this appeal.[4] A class action may be maintained under CR 23(b)(3) if the "court finds that the questions of law or fact common to the members of the class predominate over any questions affecting only individual members, and that a class action is superior to other available methods for the fair and efficient adjudication of the controversy."[5] Factors to be considered by the court when assessing predominance and superiority include

(A) the interest of members of the class in individually controlling the prosecution or defense of separate actions; (B) the extent and nature of any litigation concerning the controversy already commenced by or against members of the class; (C) the desirability or undesirability of concentrating the litigation of the claims in the particular forum; (D) the difficulties likely to be encountered in the management of a class action.

CR 23(b)(3).

         Washington courts liberally interpret CR 23 because the "rule avoids multiplicity of litigation, 'saves members of the class the cost and trouble of filing individual suits[, ] and . . . also frees the defendant from the harassment of identical future litigation.'" Smith v. Behr Process Corp., 113 Wn.App. 306, 318, 54 P.3d 665 (2002) (alterations in original) (quoting Brown, 6 Wn.App. at 256-57). Accordingly, courts should err in favor of certifying a class because the class is always subject to the trial court's later modification or decertification. See Oda v. State, 111 Wn.App. 79, 91, 44 P.3d 8 (2002).

         A trial court's decision to grant class certification is reviewed for manifest abuse of discretion. Lacey Nursing Ctr., Inc. v. Dep't of Revenue, 128 Wn.2d 40, 47, 905 P.2d 338 (1995). A trial court's decision to deny class certification will be upheld if '"the record indicates the court properly considered all CR 23 criteria.'" Schnall v. AT&T Wireless Servs., Inc., 171 Wn.2d 260, 266, 259 P.3d 129 (2011) (quoting Nelson v. Appleway Chevrolet, Inc., 160 Wn.2d 173, 188, 157 P.3d 847 (2007)). However, if the trial court fails to articulate its application of the CR 23 criteria to the facts relevant to class certification, an appellate court will reverse the denial of class certification. See Wash. Educ. Ass 'n v. Shelton Sch. Dist. No. 309, 93 Wn.2d 783, 793, 613 P.2d 769 (1980).[6]

         A. The trial court abused its discretion by ruling that the nurses failed to satisfy the predominance requirement

         To determine whether common issues predominate over individual ones, a trial court pragmatically examines whether there is a common nucleus of operative facts in each class member's claim. Moeller v. Farmers Ins. Co. of Wash., 155 Wn.App. 133, 148, 229 P.3d 857 (2010), aff'd 173 Wn.2d 264, 267 P.3d 998 (2011). The relevant inquiry is whether the issue shared by class members is the dominant, central, or overriding issue in the litigation. Miller v. Farmer Bros. Co., 115 Wn.App. 815, 825, 64 P.3d 49 (2003). The trial court ruled that the nurses had not satisfied the predominance prong of CR 23(b)(3):

The Court finds that common class issues do not predominate over individual questions because issues regarding shift, nurse type, nurse roles and job duties, patient assignments and census, managers, and department cause the ...

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