Employees of West Penn Allegheny Health System have been barred by collateral estoppel from filing a class action in state court when a Pittsburgh federal judge already ruled against certifying a collective action in a similar suit by the same plaintiffs.

Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Senior Judge R. Stanton Wettick Jr. found that U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose of the Western District of Pennsylvania already determined last year that the subclass of plaintiffs arguing they weren’t paid for working through meal breaks were not similarly situated enough for West Penn to fairly defend as a collective action.

But Wettick’s decision in Kuznyetsov v. West Penn Allegheny Health System wasn’t a total loss for the named plaintiffs. Wettick said they could still sue individually because Ambrose did not address the merits of their claims, only whether they and other similarly situated West Penn employees could be certified as a class.

Ambrose also only dealt with the subclass of 827 potential collective action plaintiffs who allegedly weren’t paid for working through meal breaks. The proposed class of approximately 12,000 current or former hourly employees of the hospital system was split into three subclasses. The issue of certification as to the two remaining subclasses was never raised by either party before the case was voluntarily withdrawn. Wettick ruled collateral estoppel did not apply to bar the state court action involving those second two subclasses — employees who performed work before or after their shifts and employees who were not fully paid for training programs they attended.

In determining whether the plaintiffs in the state court action were barred from bringing their claims after filing similar federal claims, Wettick underwent an analysis of Pennsylvania appellate court case law on res judicata and the collateral estoppel doctrine. He ultimately relied on the state Superior Court’s 2002 ruling in Nelson v. Heslin, which set out the four necessary elements for collateral estoppel to apply and bar a claim.

Under Nelson, Wettick said, the collateral estoppel doctrine is applicable when an issue decided in a prior action is identical to one presented in a later action; the prior action resulted in a final judgment on the merits; the party against which the collateral estoppel doctrine is asserted was a party, or in privity with a party, of the prior action; and the party against whom collateral estoppel is asserted had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action.

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act collective action was filed under the same caption as the state Minimum Wage Act and Wage Payment and Collection Law claims in Allegheny County court.

In the federal case, Ambrose ruled that while the plaintiffs all had a meal break deduction policy that would automatically deduct time for breaks they were supposed to take, the process for reversing that deduction if the break wasn’t taken varied by job type, supervisor and department. Ambrose found West Penn’s defenses would be unique to each of the plaintiffs and would result in more than 800 mini trials, Wettick said.

The judge said he then had to determine whether the issues addressed by Ambrose were the same as those raised in the state court case. Wettick said Pennsylvania’s rules governing class actions do not use the same terminology used in federal court. Pennsylvania rules require class members’ individual claims or defenses to those claims be “typical” of other class members’ claims and include questions of law or fact common to the class.

Wettick said Ambrose found the federal “similarly situated” standard was not met because the plaintiffs’ claims were not typical of the class given the varying application of the meal break policy. She also found the defenses would vary among the plaintiffs, Wettick said.

“In summary, the first requirement of Nelson has been met: an issue which must be resolved in plaintiffs’ favor in this litigation in order for plaintiffs to bring a class action has, in the prior proceedings, been resolved in West Penn’s favor,” Wettick said. “Consequently, plaintiffs may not sue on behalf of the other employees in Subclass 1 if the remaining three elements in Nelson are met.”

As to the second Nelson issue, Wettick needed to determine whether there was a final judgment in the West Penn case. After Ambrose’s ruling denying class certification, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed the case so they could appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Wettick said the appeals court did not have to rule for a final judgment to exist. The case is currently pending before the Third Circuit.

Wettick further found the plaintiffs were the same in both cases and that they had a full and fair opportunity to litigate the issue in the prior action.

J. Nelson Thomas and Justin M. Cordello of Thomas & Solomon in Rochester, N.Y., represent the plaintiffs. Larry K. Elliott, Robert B. Cottington and Kelly K. Iverson of Cohen & Grigsby in Pittsburgh represent West Penn.

Gina Passarella can be contacted at 215-557-2494 or at gpassarella@alm.com. Follow her on Twitter @GPassarellaTLI.

(Copies of the 20-page opinion in Kuznyetsov v. West Penn Allegheny Health System, PICS No. 12-2008, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •