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California Supreme Court Holds Federal De Minimis Rule Not a Defense to Wage Claims Brought Under California Law

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court ruled that the de minimis rule found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not apply to wage claims brought under California state law.  The court thus rejected an attempt by Starbucks to invoke the rule as a defense to an employee’s claim that he was routinely required to work off-the-clock for a few minutes each day.

Background on the De Minimis Rule

Under the FLSA, employers are generally required to pay at least the federal minimum wage for all ‘‘hours worked.’’ California’s Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) wage orders include similar requirements, which generally define ‘‘hours worked’’ more broadly as ‘‘the time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer, and includes all the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.’’

But federal courts have long recognized an exception to the general rule requiring pay for all hours worked.  Under the de minimis rule, employees generally cannot recover for otherwise compensable time if it amounts to only a few seconds or minutes of work beyond scheduled working hours.  To determine whether work time is de minimis, courts consider: (1) the practical administrative difficulty of recording the additional time; (2) the aggregate amount of compensable time; and (3) the regularity of the additional work.  Applying these standards, numerous courts have held that daily periods of up to 10 minutes are de minimis under federal law and thus not compensable.

Troester v. Starbucks Corporation

As a shift supervisor for Starbucks, Douglas Troester was responsible for performing certain tasks at the end of the business day after clocking out, including transmitting sales data to Starbucks headquarters and setting the store alarm. These closing activities generally totaled fewer than four minutes, and they nearly always took fewer than 10 minutes.

After his termination, Troester sued Starbucks for unpaid wages under California law.  The federal district court granted Starbucks’s motion for summary judgment based on the de minimis rule.  Troester appealed.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, finding no opinion by the California Supreme Court applying the de minimis rule to California wage claims, asked the California Supreme Court whether the rule applied under California state law.  Yesterday the California Supreme Court found that it did not.

In its decision, the court noted that although the de minimis rule has been part of federal law for 70 years, neither the Labor Code nor the wage orders have been amended to recognize a de minimis exception.  Only one published California Court of Appeal decision has applied the de minimis rule, and it found that the rule did not apply to the case before it.  And although the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) has for some time identified the de minimis rule as defense to claims for small amounts of unpaid time in its Enforcement Policies and Interpretations Manual and a handful of opinion letters, neither is binding, and the court found no intent to incorporate the rule into California law.

The court also noted practical considerations undermining the application of the de minimis rule in California wage actions.  The rule was first adopted by federal courts decades ago when it was more difficult to track small amounts of time.  With the technology available today, the court concluded that capturing all employee work time is considerably less difficult.

Although the court rejected the FLSA de minimis rule as a defense to state-law wage claims, the court did not decide whether a general de minimis principle may ever apply to wage and hour claims under state law.  The court made it clear that no such principle applied in the case before it, because Starbucks was aware that Troester and other supervisors worked a few minutes off the clock every time they closed a store.  But the court gave no examples of where a general de minimis principle might apply in future cases.

What This Means For Employers

Yesterday’s decision makes it clear that the FLSA de minimis rule is no defense to claims for small amounts of unpaid time under California law.  Employers with nonexempt employees in California should enact and enforce policies and practices designed record every minute of every employee’s working time, and to pay employees for every minute worked.

Aaron Buckley
Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP – San Diego, CA

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