Wage and hour class actions are nothing new in Connecticut.  Over the last few years, some employers, particularly in the restaurant field, have been blindsided by the sheer number of them. Some — to be sure — have merit to them.

But we’ve also seen class action lawsuits that attempt to push the envelope.

Take the case of Belgada v. Hy’s Livery Service, Inc.

The facts, according to the court, are relatively undisputed.

The company — which employs limo drivers — had a written policy about meal breaks and allowed the drivers a one-hour break.  During the break, the drivers had to stay dressed in work clothes, monitor their phones and shouldn’t leave the limos “unattended”.  If they were called, they would be paid for their time.  Drivers weren’t expected to watch the vehicles “24/7”.

The lawsuit maintained that the chauffeurs were “effectively chained to their vehicles” and therefore should be paid for their meal breaks.

Who’s right?

The Connecticut Superior Court — while certifying the class — rejected the claims in a decision released last week.

First, the court rejected the claim that the policy created a contract.  It did so in fairly easy fashion. Why? Because the employer’s policy was in the employee handbook and the handbook contained a clear disclaimer that the handbook is not a contract.  Thus, the policy was not a contract.

However, the court said it didn’t really matter.  The regulation cited by the class says a break without pay requires an employee to be “completely relieved of duty”.  The Court, however, said that being “ready for duty isn’t duty”, according to the Court.  At most, the drivers are told they “might get called to duty”. In fact, according to the decision, one of the drivers visited an off-track betting facility during one of these meal breaks.  Thus, the drivers really were relieved of duty.

What about the claim from the drivers that they couldn’t leave the vehicles “unattended”?

According to the court, “in the class’s view this grapples these chauffeurs to their vehicles with hoops of steel”.  The court rejected this because it would lead to an “absurd” result.  Instead, the court said that it would apply the ordinary meaning that “all the chauffeurs have to do is look after their vehicles–take care of them–before they go on their breaks.”

The court’s decision is worth a read for its criticism of the “logic trap class counsel sprang on a couple of Hy’s managers”, though it’s a bit arcane even for an employment law blog.

Is this the end of wage & hour class actions in Connecticut? No way.  In fact, this same judge certified a wage and hour class just a few months ago in another case. 

However, to say that there are no defenses for employers in these cases is going too far as well.  The court’s analysis shows that there are still a few paths for employers to challenge such claims.

One path forward for employers? Conduct a compliance review before a lawsuit is filed.  Figure out where your blindspots are.  There may not be easy fixes but at least employers can understand their risks and work towards full compliance with experienced counsel.