Judge Julio Fuentes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Judge Julio Fuentes of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. (Carmen Natale)

A group of certified nursing assistants can move forward with a prospective Fair Labor Standards Act class action against an assisted living facility over claims they weren’t paid enough overtime or compensated for meal breaks.

A split U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit panel affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Noel Hillman denying SCO Silver Care Operations’ request to dismiss the case, or alternatively to stay proceedings while arbitration is conducted.

Silver Care contended that the nursing assistants’ collective bargaining agreement dictated that their overtime claims had to be handled through arbitration. But in the court’s majority opinion, Third Circuit Judge Julio M. Fuentes, joined by Judge Michael A. Chagares, said the overtime issue presented statutory questions over the differences in pay that went beyond interpreting the collective bargaining agreement.

“In other words, whether the wage differentials should be included in the regular rate of pay depends not on any labels assigned to them by the CBA, but on whether they fit into one of the statutory exclusions. An employee’s ‘regular rate is a readily definable mathematical calculation that is explicitly controlled by the FLSA,’” Fuentes said citing the 1945 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Walling v. Youngerman-Reynolds Hardwood.

Because the nursing assistants’ miscalculation of the overtime rate claim didn’t depend on any disputed term of the agreement, Fuentes said, arbitration wasn’t necessary.

Fuentes held that the unpaid meal break claim—in which the plaintiffs allege they aren’t compensated for 30-minute meal breaks that are constantly interrupted—also contained factual disputes that did not necessitate arbitration.

“All of these so-called disputed ‘interpretations’ of the CBA … are factual questions—length of meal breaks, types of interruptions, how they were handled, and whether the plaintiffs ever received compensation due to these interruptions,” Fuentes said.

In his dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas L. Ambro wrote that the collective bargaining agreement covers both of the nursing assistants’ claims.

“I part ways with my colleagues that this dispute is ‘completely irrelevant to a court’s analysis of the proper overtime payment owed to the plaintiffs,’” Ambro said. “If anything, what overtime is owed to plaintiffs depends on interpreting what the parties agreed regarding the breakdown of the pay differentials and what component of them is considered compensable wages for calculating overtime.”

Regarding meal breaks, Ambro said, “The FLSA makes no mention of meal breaks. Instead, the right to uninterrupted meal breaks is created by the CBA, providing that ‘meal periods and breaks shall be free and uninterrupted, and employees shall not be on call.’”

Travis B. Martindale-Jarvis of Swartz Swidler in Cherry Hill represented the plaintiffs and did not respond to a request for comment.

Silver Care’s attorney, Stuart A. Weinberger of Goldberg and Weinberger in New York, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Contact the reporter at PD’Annunzio@alm.com. On Twitter: @PJDAnunzioTLI.