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California Supreme Court’s Clarification of De Minimis Doctrine Leaves Many Questions Unanswered – and Does Little to Ease Plaintiffs’ Path to Class Certification

On July 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, ostensibly clarifying the application of the widely adopted de minimis doctrine to California’s wage-hour laws. But while the Court rejected the application of the de minimis rule under the facts presented to it, the Court did not reject the doctrine outright. Instead, it left many questions unanswered.

And even while it rejected the application of the rule under the facts presented, it did not address a much larger question – whether the highly individualized issues regarding small increments of time allegedly worked “off the clock” could justify certification of a class on those claims.

For more than 70 years, federal courts have regularly applied the de minimis doctrine in certain “circumstances to excuse the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time upon a showing that the bits of time are administratively difficult to record.” Those courts have concluded that as much as 15 minutes per day could be considered de minimis and, therefore, noncompensable.

In Troester, the California Supreme Court concluded that most of California’s wage and hour laws have not in fact adopted the de minimis doctrine found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). However, the Court did not go so far as to reject the application in all instances. Indeed, the Court specifically declined to “decide whether there are circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.” (Emphasis added.)

The key words in that sentence appear to be “minute” and “irregular.”

The Court declined to do so “given the wide range of scenarios in which this issue arises,” proffering what appear to be examples where the de minimis rule couldapply – e.g., “paperwork involving a minute or less of an employee’s time” or “an employee reading an e-mail notification of a shift change during off-work hours.”

Under the facts presented to it, where the employer allegedly required employees to “work ‘off the clock’ several minutes per shift,” the Court found that the relevant statute and regulations did not permit application of the de minimis rule.

Specifically, it apparently was undisputed that the plaintiff “had various duties related to closing the store after he clocked out, and the parties [had] agree[d] for purposes of [the California Supreme Court] resolving the issue . . . that the time spent on these duties is compensable.” It also apparently was undisputed that these tasks took the plaintiff as few as 4 minutes and as much as 10 minutes each shift that he worked. Given those specific facts, the Court found that the de minimis rule would not be applicable, holding that, under California law generally, an “employer that requires its employees to work minutes off the clock on a regular basis or as a regular feature of the job may not evade the obligation to compensate the employee for that time by invoking the de minimis doctrine.” (Emphasis added.)

Consistent with prior language in the opinion, the key words in that conclusion appear to be “minutes” and “regular.”

In other words, while significant, regular time would not be de minimis, insignificant and irregular time could be.

And how that issue could be addressed on a classwide basis seems questionable, at best, given that the very nature of “off the clock” work is that there are no records of it. Individualized inquiries apparently would need to be conducted person-by-person, day-by-day, to determine if an individual in fact worked “minutes” off-the-clock on a “regular” basis.

Not unimportantly, in addition to the Court’s majority opinion, Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger wrote separate concurring opinions, each offering some additional support for employers.

Justice Cuéllar noted that while the Court’s majority opinion “protects workers from being denied compensation for minutes they regularly spend on work-related tasks,” it “does not consign employers or their workers to measure every last morsel of employees’ time.”

Justice Kruger also offered some examples where she opined that the de minimis rule could apply:

  • An employer requires workers to turn on their computers and log in to an application in order to start their shifts. Ordinarily this process takes employees no more than a minute (and often far less, depending on the employee’s typing speed), but on rare and unpredictable occasions a software glitch delays workers’ log-ins for as long as two to three minutes.
  • An employer ordinarily distributes work schedules and schedule changes during working hours at the place of employment. But occasionally employees are notified of schedule changes by e-mail or text message during their off hours and are expected to read and acknowledge the messages.
  • After their shifts have ended, employees in a retail store sometimes remain in the store for several minutes waiting for transportation. On occasion, a customer will ask a waiting employee a question, not realizing the employee is off duty. The employee – with the employer’s knowledge – spends a minute or two helping the customer.

Justice Kruger wrote that “a requirement that the employer accurately account for every second spent on work tasks may well be impractical and unreasonable” in the situations above.

Following Troester, entities doing business in California will want to review their practices and their timekeeping systems.

And while Troester certainly suggests that employers in California will face an increased number of class actions alleging that certain insignificant amounts of time should have been compensated, plaintiffs’ difficulty in actually getting classes certified on such claims appears relatively unchanged.

 

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About this Author

Michael S. Kun, epstein becker green, los angeles, labor, employment
Member

Mr. Kun's practice includes:

  • Litigating more than six dozen class actions and collective actions in California, New York, Georgia and Maryland involving a variety of employment issues, including discrimination and wage-hour claims, and successfully defeating motions for class certification on such claims. The sizes of the putative classes have ranged from 75 to approximately 15,000 employees.

  • Litigating a wide variety of employment-related claims, including discrimination, harassment,...

310-557-9501
Kevin Sullivan, Epstein Becker Green, labor, employment lawyer
Associate

KEVIN SULLIVAN is an Associate in the Labor and Employment practice, in the Los Angeles office of Epstein Becker Green. Mr. Sullivan focuses his practice on employment law; litigating all forms of employment law cases, with a concentration on wage and hour class and collective actions; and client counseling.

310-557-9576