Duane Morris Takeaways: In Evans III, et al v. Dart, et al., No. 1:20-CV-02453 (N.D. Ill. Sept. 15, 2023), Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District Of Illinois denied Plaintiffs’ motion for conditional certification of a collective action of Cook County Jail Guards who were not compensated for time spent off-the-clock decontaminating their work gear to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In rejecting the jail correctional officers’ bid for conditional certification under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b), the Court ruled the Plaintiffs could not establish that they were victims of a common policy or plan that violated the law, as there was no evidence that the jail even had an off-the-clock decontamination policy. Thus, the Court concluded that Plaintiffs failed to establish that their cleaning efforts outside of work resulted from any requirement imposed by their employer. The ruling is a blueprint for corporate counsel in terms of a solid approach for opposing employment-related conditional certification motions.
The factual origins of the case stem from a COVID-19 outbreak at the Cook County Department of Corrections (“Cook County Jail”) in April 2020. Plaintiffs allege that, amid the outbreak, the Cook County Jail required correctional officers to “engag[e] in decontamination/sanitation activities” before and/or after their shifts within the CCDOC, “including washing and sanitizing their uniforms, sanitizing their persons, sanitizing and maintaining personal protective equipment (‘PPE’), and showering.” Id. at 2.
According to Plaintiffs, they would spend approximately 20 to 30 minutes before and after shifts completing these protocols but were not paid for that time. As the Court noted, “each Plaintiff described slightly different activities that took slightly different amounts of time,” which formed “a consistent narrative of enhanced decontamination activities, significantly exceeding what they did prior to COVID.” Id. at 4.
In the same month that the April 2020 outbreak began, Plaintiffs filed this lawsuit on behalf of themselves and a proposed group of all persons who worked at the Cook County Jail between January 27, 2020 and June 11, 2021 who engaged in the purported COVID-19 decontamination protocols, but who were not paid for time spent on those activities. Id. at 3.
The Court’s Decision
The Court declined to certify the proposed collective action based on finding that Plaintiffs fell short in identifying a common policy requiring workers in the proposed collective action to engage in those [decontamination] activities as a condition of their employment.” Id. at 1. Importantly, the Court noted that the Plaintiffs themselves acknowledged that there was no express written policy requiring correctional officers to decontaminate outside of work, and that the only instructions that they received from supervisors about decontamination was during roll call meetings, when supervisors would merely “read and disseminate general advice from the CDC” and instruct guards to not bring items home from the jail. Id. at 4-5.
Another key finding by the Court was that Plaintiffs “did not report their off-duty decontamination activities to their supervisors, nor were they asked about those efforts or disciplined for failing to decontaminate proper.” Id. at 5. Further, the Court made important note of how “no named Plaintiff reported monitoring the time consumed by their daily decontamination activities, submitting any decontamination overtime, or asking their supervisors about decontamination overtime, although many testified that there was no clear way to submit an overtime claim for these activities in the CCDOC “Workforce” record system.” Id.
In reaching its determination, the Court also rejected the relevance of a Communicable Diseases Policy that Cook County had in place requiring workers to “use good judgment and follow training and procedures related to mitigating the risks associated with communicable disease,” and if exposed to one, to “begin decontamination procedures immediately, obtain medical attention if needed, and “notify a supervisor as soon as practical.” Id. at 7. According to the Court, because this policy specified that its aim was to “provide a safe work environment,” the Court found it “hard to imagine how a pre-shift shower or laundering one’s uniform after a drive home is consistent with that language” and concluded, in turn, that the policy did not require the Plaintiffs to engage in COVID-19 protocols at issue outside of work at the jail. Id. at 11.
Finally, the Court discussed how, even if the Communicable Diseases Policy applied to activities outside of work, an “insurmountable” problem for Plaintiffs was that “none of them seemed to know about the policy at the time they were undertaking those activities.” Id. at 12. As a result, the Court found that there was no evidence showing that the Defendants had actual or constructive knowledge of any de facto policy requiring the Plaintiffs to engage in decontamination activities away from the jail. Id. at 15.
For these reasons, the Court concluded that the Plaintiffs fell short of satisfying the requirements for conditional certification of their proposed collective action.
Implications For Employers
The Evans ruling underscores the importance of maintaining and utilizing well-organized clearly-delineated employee conduct policies for activities at and away from the workplace, in anticipation of arguing the absence of uniform policies and procedures in collective actions under 29 U.S.C. § 216(b). In dismissing all of Plaintiffs’ arguments after finding an absence of policy or plan for all proposed collective action members that violated the law, the Court signaled its steady reliance on the well-established standards for these types of claims, providing a valuable reaffirmation to employers’ reliable defense strategies.