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Court shocker: WSNA members’ $2.9 million award against Yakima Regional overturned

OLYMPIA (Aug. 18, 2020) — In a 5-4 ruling on Aug. 13, the Washington State Supreme Court overturned the $2.9 million in damages awarded in 2018 to a group of home health and hospice nurses represented by the Washington State Nurses Association (WSNA), which had sued Yakima Regional for pressuring employees to work unpaid overtime and miss meal breaks. The damages were dismissed on a technicality, that the WSNA did not have proper standing under state law to bring a claim on behalf of its members.

The WSNA has issued the following statement in response:

In a shocking and profoundly unjust decision, the Washington State Supreme Court decided on August 13, 2020, by a vote of 5 to 4 that because Yakima Regional Medical Center deliberately and systematically falsified payroll records for home health and hospice nurses, the union did not have legal standing to bring a lawsuit on the nurses’ behalf for unpaid wages and overtime.  The Supreme Court dismissed the case.

The Washington State Nurses Association filed the lawsuit in April 2015, seeking backpay for the home care nurses for hours worked off the clock, overtime pay, and missed meal periods, as well as statutory double damages for Yakima Regional’s willful violation of the law.

Based on the evidence presented at the trial in early 2018, including compelling testimony by several home care nurses, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson ruled that “Yakima Regional deliberately kept inaccurate records… to make it appear the nurses worked fewer hours than they actually did.” The judge found that the Employer “repeatedly told nurses they were expected to report no more than eight hours in a day, regardless of the number of hours the nurses actually worked,” and that “Yakima Regional actually knew nurses were working hours for which they were not being paid.” The judge concluded that “Yakima Regional knowingly, willfully, and with intent to deprive the nurses of pay lawfully owing failed to compensate them for all their time worked.”

The Supreme Court did not question or dispute these facts described by Judge Gibson in his decision. The court acknowledged that the “nurses’ claims are not without merit.”

Instead, the Supreme Court dismissed the case on a narrow legal technicality. The court ruled that in order for an organization to have legal standing to sue on behalf of its members for money damages, the damages must be “certain, easily ascertainable, and within the knowledge of the defendant.” The court concluded that WSNA did not have legal standing in this case “because the damages are not certain, easily ascertainable, and within the knowledge” of Yakima Regional. The only reason why the damages are not absolutely certain, easily ascertainable, and within the employer’s knowledge is because Yakima Regional deliberately and willfully kept false records of the hours worked by the home care nurses. Because the employer falsified the payroll records, the Supreme Court ruled that the union has no legal authority to bring a lawsuit on the nurses’ behalf.

The Supreme Court’s decision is available here.

“We are angry and disappointed at this decision, which in our opinion is a gross miscarriage of justice. We want to thank all of the nurses who testified and provided evidence in the case. It took courage to stand up and tell the truth in the face of the employer’s deliberate and willful falsifications. Despite this setback, WSNA will continue to fight to improve the working lives of nurses across the state. We will continue to advocate to ensure that nurses are properly paid for all the hours they work,” said Christine Watts, MN, RN, CLNC, WSNA Senior Labor Consultant.

The Washington State Nurses Associ­a­tion provides repre­sen­ta­tion, resources and educa­tion that allow nurses to reach our full profes­sional poten­tial and focus on caring for patients and our communities. WSNA has more than 17,000 members and repre­sents the profes­sional inter­ests of more than 103,000 regis­tered nurses who live and work in Washington.

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