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July 28, 2014

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Judge may force UMC to hire special master to secure evidence in suit alleging unpaid overtime

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The trauma section of UMC is seen Friday, Sept. 27, 2013.

University Medical Center, which continues to hemorrhage taxpayer funds, may have to hire a court-appointed lawyer if it cannot turn over evidence in a lawsuit over pay issues that could involve thousands of employees.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas by a group of hourly workers at the publicly owned Clark County hospital, alleges UMC failed to provide required uninterrupted meal breaks to the workers and failed to pay them for earned overtime.

Federal Judge Peggy Leen chastised UMC at a hearing last month after the hospital failed to produce electronic documents, such as emails between UMC and employees regarding overtime complaints, emails between the hospital and the Department of Labor, memos related to timekeeping and meeting schedules. The hospital also struggled to turn over electronic timekeeping information.

At the hearing, Leen ordered UMC to hand over the timekeeping information it had so that plaintiffs could see if it was what they had requested. At a status check Tuesday, she will decide whether UMC is able to comply with orders.

UMC already has spent $100,000 over a year’s time on two specialists to gather data sought by plaintiffs’ lawyers. But Leen has labeled as “worthless” the information UMC has turned over.

Leen told UMC’s attorneys that if they again failed to follow orders to produce the needed records, she would appoint a special master — someone with expertise who ensures judicial orders are followed. Leen said she also would empower the special master to hire an electronic information specialist.

The judge made clear if she had to go that route, UMC would front the costs. She said she knew a lot of specialized lawyers in New York and San Francisco.

“They’re not cheap, but I will have confidence in what they tell me,” Leen said. “And if I have to do that and impose an extraordinary layer of expense, I’m going to be very unhappy because this is ridiculous.”

Leen also said she would consider the plaintiffs’ request “to be reimbursed for this fiasco.”

The litigation has been ongoing since July 2012, when UMC respiratory therapists Daniel Small, Carolyn Small and William Curtin filed the lawsuit. In December 2012, three more UMC hourly employees — registered nurse David Cohen, admissions clerk Lanette Lawrence and electrocardiogram technician Louise Collard — joined the lawsuit.

The six plaintiffs were all hourly employees and, while they had different duties, were subjected to the same practices that denied them pay for unused 30-minute lunch breaks and overtime pay accumulated from being denied those breaks, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit seeks to win back pay plus 2 percent interest for all hourly employees who join the litigation. The period in question, because of the statute of limitations, spans from July 2009 to when the suit was filed in July 2012.

In July 2013, a year after the original filing, the court gave conditional class-action status to the lawsuit. About 600 UMC employees opted in as members of the affected class before an Oct. 14 deadline.

Merits of the class-action status will be argued once the discovery phase is finished.

Roughly 3,000 additional employees could be eligible for damages if allegations UMC also violated state worker laws are judged to be true.

A judgment against UMC in the case potentially could cost the hospital millions.

UMC regularly operates in the red and will need at least $31 million in additional subsidies from the county this year, on top of the $100 million the county normally contributes.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys refused to comment for this story, citing the importance of Tuesday’s hearing. Attempts to reach UMC’s attorneys were unsuccessful.

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