Justices overturn $2.9M award to Yakima nurses for unpaid OT

SEATTLE (AP) — The Washington Supreme Court has narrowly overturned a decision awarding $2.9 million to home care and hospice nurses in Yakima who said they were pressured to work unpaid overtime and miss meal breaks.

In a 5-4 ruling Thursday, the court said it didn't condone the behavior of now-shuttered Yakima Regional hospital, but the Washington State Nurses Association did not have standing to sue on the nurses' behalf. Instead, the majority suggested the case could have been brought as a class action by the nurses themselves.

The union sued in 2015 on behalf of 28 nurses in Yakima Regional's home care and hospice programs, who care for people in their homes. The nurses said they were routinely denied overtime when they had to work more than eight hours per day, such as when a patient nearing death required additional attention or when they had to finish paperwork or coordinate further care after a long shift.

Sunnyside-based Astria Health, which bought Yakima Regional from Community Health Systems in 2017, filed for bankruptcy protection last year as it reorganizes and closed the hospital in January. Astria continues operating a home health and hospice program in Yakima. The company did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

During a trial before Yakima County Superior Court Judge Blaine Gibson in 2018, several nurses testified that they were unable to complete all of the work demanded of them in an eight-hour shift — and that when they complained about having to work for free they were told they could resign.

The judge found that the nurses had not been paid for roughly one-quarter to a little over one-third of the hours they worked from 2012 to 2017, and that the hospital's violations of the state's Minimum Wage Act were willful. He awarded double damages.

“This decision does not condone Yakima Regional’s employment practices that the nurses testified to throughout trial,” Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis wrote for the majority. “The nurses’ claims are not without merit.”

But the Washington State Nurses Association did not have standing to sue on behalf of its members, she wrote, citing case law that allows organizations to sue on behalf of their members only when the participation of the members themselves is not required.

In this case, the majority said, the individual nurses were required to be named plaintiffs to help establish the amount of back pay the hospital owed — and to ensure any damages awarded actually went to the nurses, rather than to the union.

In her dissent, Justice Mary Yu called “associational standing” like that sought by the nurses union “a well-established doctrine that is necessary to ensure there is a path to justice for individuals who might lack the resources or expertise to litigate their cases individually, or who might face retaliation from being a named plaintiff.”

Yu wrote that the restrictions on such standing cited by the majority were not meant to be ironclad. Requiring the individual nurses to participate to demonstrate the damages each was owed would reward the hospital for falsifying or failing to keep accurate records of the hours the nurses worked, she said.

The nurses association and its lawyer did not immediately return emails seeking comment. It was not immediately clear if the nurses might refile the case as a class action.