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April 18, 2019

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Meter begins ticking for UMC as judge weighs special master’s role in unpaid overtime case

Clark County Buildings

Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

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

After determining University Medical Center needed outside assistance following court orders, a federal judge will decide later today just how much guidance the hospital needs.

It’s guidance that comes at a price in a lawsuit that could cost UMC, the publicly owned Clark County hospital, millions as it continues to hemorrhage taxpayer funds.

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

Today’s meeting in the judge’s chambers will decide the scope of responsibilities for the attorney hired to make sure the hospital adheres to the court’s orders as they relate to the sharing of UMC’s electronic documents as lawyers on both sides prepare their cases.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Peggy Leen has appointed Seattle-based attorney Daniel Garrie to act as a special master, someone with expertise who ensures judicial orders are followed. UMC must pay Garrie $385 an hour, plus other additional costs.

Leen decided last month a special master was required to carry out her orders. At a Feb. 11 hearing, the hospital was supposed to show it hadn’t completely wasted more than $100,000 on experts hired 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.

Trouble was, the expert — hired after the court deemed a previous expert’s work essentially worthless — didn’t phone into the hearing to help explain issues with the electronic documents.

Cayla Witty, an attorney for UMC, tried to attribute issues with the expert’s work to a failure of communication during a phone call. Leen was having no part of the explanation.

“Is this the same (expert) that couldn’t figure out how to call the court on time for this hearing?” Leen asked.

“I apologize, your honor, yes, it was,” Witty said.

“That’s what the problem is,” Leen said, before making her decision.

UMC might have to pay even more than the special master’s salary and expenses for its failing.

Plaintiffs are asking for $36,211 for UMC’s “egregious and ongoing discovery abuses and their failure to comply with numerous court orders concerning discovery in this case,” according to a motion filed last week with the court.

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.

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.

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