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Arkansas VA, nurses settle lunch-break suit; agency agrees to pay $850,000

by John Lynch | August 3, 2016 at 5:45 a.m.

A $252,568 payment to 288 nurses and assistants who sued the Arkansas Department of Veterans Affairs will end a 4-year-old lawsuit over the agency's policy of docking the workers for lunch breaks whether or not they took time off.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Cathi Compton signed the settlement terms Monday that require Veterans Affairs to pay $850,000, including $551,566 in legal fees and expenses, to the nurses' attorneys, John Holleman, Timothy Steadman and Matthew Ford of Holleman & Associates law firm of Little Rock.

The payments to the individual plaintiffs will range from $75 to $6,964.18, using a base damage award of $75 plus compensation for those counted as having two unpaid lunch breaks per week for up to five years, court filings show.

"The settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate. It compensates each class member for two missed meal breaks per week and avoids the expense and risk of a two-week-long trial and inevitable appeals," plaintiff and defense attorneys stated in a joint motion seeking approval of the arrangement.

"The employees [otherwise] face long, expensive, and complicated litigation. The complexity and uncertainty of trial and appeals illustrates the settlement is fair, reasonable, and adequate."

Some plaintiffs will receive additional funds based on their level of participation in the suit.

An extra $1,300 will go to each of the nine named plaintiffs: Rita Culberson, Shirley Davis, Linda Hopkins, Debra Jackson, Peggy Johnson, Agnes Lewis, Darlene Okeke, Cynthia Rose and Kissa Williams.

Another 20, who were questioned under oath ahead of trial by Veterans Affairs lawyers, will receive an additional $300: Brandy Baker, Barbara Bell, Rickena Brooks, Rose Brown, Rolanda Carner, Connie Cochran, John Conway, Kimberly Davis, Lenster Fredericks, Megean Garst, Laverne Hampton, Noveane Jones, Carl Leegrand, Ruthie Mahone, Teresa McDonald, Barbara Meeks, Phyllis Riddle, Carol Roberts, Darrell Walls and Rapheala Wilson.

Another 22 members who responded to a survey by the agency will be paid an extra $65.

Miscellaneous expenses take up the remainder of the total settlement.

Whatever goes unclaimed after a month will be paid to the Veterans Villages of America or another charity that the sides agree on.

The plaintiffs -- nurses and nursing assistants who work at the two state-run veterans nursing homes -- sued in June 2012, complaining that Veterans Affairs' practice of automatically deducting a 30-minute lunch break from their daily pay, whether or not they actually took a break, violated the state's Minimum Wage Act.

The deduction effectively denied them the full overtime pay they had earned, according to the lawsuit.

The $252,568 for the plaintiffs is "likely more than what class members could reasonably expect at trial," the parties stated in a motion to the judge to approve the settlement.

The minimum wage law is untested by the courts, and the plaintiffs could find themselves in the position of winning a jury trial but then having the jurors decline to award them any compensation, according to the settlement motion.

"It ... avoids the expense of trial and the extreme risk on appeal," the pleading states. "There is a substantial chance the class members might not get any recovery at trial, even if they are successful.

"Furthermore, the uncertainty around the law in this case makes an award of liquidated damages less likely."

All nurses and certified assistants who worked at the veterans homes in North Little Rock and Fayetteville between June 12, 2010, and Aug. 15, 2015, will automatically receive a check.

Accepting the money means accepting the settlement and giving up the right to sue over the matter in the future.

The group members have three months to cash the checks or they're considered to have exempted themselves from the settlement.

The case was supposed to go to trial last month, but mediation about a week before the trial led to the settlement agreement, which was endorsed by Okeke, the lead plaintiff, and agency director Matt Snead, court filings show. The Veterans Affairs Department was represented by Assistant Attorney General Amber Schubert.

A second suit over the automatic lunch-break deductions, filed about eight months later on behalf of a group of cooks, janitors and security guards who also worked at the nursing homes, has not moved forward since the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned its class-action status in November.

The high court, in a 4-3 decision, ruled that Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen was wrong to group their claims into a single suit. The plaintiffs in this suit, with 20 different job titles, were too varied with working conditions that were too different for them to join in a single lawsuit, the justices decided.

A Section on 08/03/2016

Print Headline: VA, nurses settle lunch-break suit; State agency agrees to pay $850,000


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