Federal preemption of California’s meal and rest break laws as applicable to truck drivers under the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA) continues to zigzag through California’s federal courts. When Congress enacted the FAAAA in 1994, a major purpose of the Act was to prevent a patchwork of state laws that interfere with the operations of interstate motor carriers, which can result in different laws applied to different carriers, depending on their states of operation.

Recently, in Mendez v. R&L Carriers, Inc., 2012 WL 5868973 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 19, 2012), a district court judge from the Northern District of California decided that FAAAA preemption does not apply to California’s meal and rest break laws as applied to truck drivers operating in the state because California employers have the option of either providing rest breaks or paying employees an additional hour of wages, which is what the court described as a “wage alternative.” The judge found that because motor carriers have the option to satisfy the rest break requirements without having to alter their routes or services, they have significant flexibility and thus federal preemption does not apply.

In direct contrast to Mendez, in Aguirre v. Genesis Logistics, et al., SACV 12-00687 JVS (C.D. Cal. Nov. 5, 2012), a district judge from the Central District of California found that FAAAA preemption applies to dismiss meal and rest break claims brought by truck drivers operating in California. The Aguirre case involved truck drivers operating in California who alleged that their employer violated California law by failing to provide duty-free meal and rest breaks. In this case, the court addressed the plaintiffs’ argument that in Brinker the California Supreme Court made the meal and rest break laws more flexible, thus lessening their impact on the rates, routes, and services of motor carriers, making federal preemption not applicable—but found that any such flexibility did not undermine the analysis set forth in several California courts that applied FAAAA preemption.

Aguirre also addressed the recent California Supreme Court decision in Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., 53 Cal. 4th 1244 (2012), in which the court made a clear distinction between “wage laws” and break laws. In Kirby, the court stated that the California Labor Code does not give employers a lawful choice between providing either meal and rest breaks or an additional hour of pay. Mendez never discussed Kirby, which leaves the question of whether the Mendez holding is valid in light of Kirby.

Also contrary to the holding in Mendez, other courts have declined to adopt the argument that motor carriers can simply permit on-duty breaks and pay drivers for the time. California law does not provide for on-duty rest breaks, and it significantly restricts motor carriers from arranging on-duty meal breaks with their drivers.

According to Michael Nader, a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ San Francisco office, “There are at least two appeals currently pending before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on these preemption issues, which will hopefully be resolved in 2013. In the meantime, employers should be cautious and continue to provide meal and rest breaks for their drivers in California.”

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