A short-haul truck driver who sued his former employer for wage and hour violations alleged that he was denied mandated meal and rest periods. The employer sought to have the meal and rest break claims dismissed before trial, arguing that California laws and industry regulations providing for meal and rest periods are pre-empted by federal regulations governing truck drivers. The trial court denied the motion to dismiss the claims, and the lawsuit went to trial.
The trial judge ruled in favor of the truck driver on all of the claims and awarded him damages, and the employer appealed. A California appellate court agreed with the employer that the meal and rest break claims should have been dismissed before trial and sent the case back to the lower court so the judge could recalculate the damages owed to the truck driver, subtracting what had been awarded for the alleged meal and rest break violations.
The court first outlined the general principles of pre-emption, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized pre-emption of state law by federal enactments pursuant to the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution.
Express pre-emption, which is relevant in this case, the court said, exists when Congress defines the extent to which its enactments will displace state law. If a federal law contains an express pre-emption clause, it does not immediately end the inquiry because the question of the scope of Congress’ displacement of state law still must be answered, the court explained. Federal regulations may pre-empt state law just as fully as federal statutes.
California law provides that every nonexempt employee in the transportation industry must be provided with a 30-minute meal period for every five hours worked and a 10-minute rest period for every four hours worked.
Applicable Federal Regulations
Under the Motor Carrier Safety Act, the secretary of transportation has the authority to issue regulations on commercial motor vehicle safety. One such set of regulations, often referred to as the hours-of-service (HOS) regulations, imposes limits on driving time and on-duty time for commercial truck drivers.
Pursuant to the HOS regulations, property-carrying commercial truck drivers are subject to daily and weekly limits on driving time and on-duty time and must have 10 consecutive hours off duty between shifts. In addition, long-haul truck drivers are required to take a 30-minute rest break for every eight hours worked, while short-haul drivers are exempted from the 30-minute rest break requirement.
The law gives the secretary of transportation the authority to pre-empt state law if certain criteria are met. To declare a state law pre-empted, the secretary must first find that the state law is less stringent, additional to or more stringent than the federal regulation. If the state law is additional to or more stringent, the secretary must find that the state law has no safety benefit, it is incompatible with the federal regulation, or that enforcement would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The secretary has delegated this pre-emption analysis and determination to the administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).
In 2018, in response to petitions from two industry groups, the FMCSA issued an order stating that the California meal and rest break rules were pre-empted by the federal HOS regulations. The FMCSA found that California’s laws were additional to or more stringent than the federal regulations, had no safety benefit beyond those provided by the federal regulations, were incompatible with the federal regulations and would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The FMCSA therefore concluded that California could no longer enforce its meal and rest break rules with respect to drivers of commercial motor vehicles subject to the FMCSA’s HOS rules.
Pre-emption Applies to Short-Haul Drivers
The driver did not challenge that the California meal and rest period requirements are pre-empted by the federal HOS regulations. Instead, he argued that the pre-emption determination does not apply to short-haul drivers. The driver claimed that, because short-haul drivers are exempted from one of the HOS rules (the 30-minute rest break rule), the pre-emption order does not apply to them.
The appellate court rejected this claim, noting that it is undisputed that certain HOS rules apply to short-haul drivers, such as the daily limits on driving time and the daily and weekly limits on on-duty time. Thus, the court said, the HOS rules, as a general matter, apply to short-haul drivers. The fact that those drivers are exempted from one rule does not remove them from the universe of drivers subject to the HOS rules, and it is not reasonable to read the language of the order to suggest that they are, the court concluded. Espinoza v. Hepta Run Inc., Calif. Ct. App., No. B306292 (Jan. 19, 2022).
Professional Pointer: On Jan. 15, 2021, the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over California upheld the FMCSA determination that federal law pre-empts California law concerning meal and rest periods as it applies to drivers of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles, who are subject to the FMCSA’s own rest break regulations.