Why it matters

With the potential for a significant impact on employers, the California Supreme Court will decide whether employees can bring state law wage and hour claims based on de minimis amounts of time after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals certified the question to the state's highest court. The dispute involves former Starbucks employee Douglas Troester, who sued the coffee chain for failing to pay workers for tasks that lasted only a few minutes but were performed after they clocked out. While the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) prohibits claims over small chunks of time, the Ninth Circuit said it found no definitive policy in state law. Uncertain how to rule on the appeal of summary judgment in favor of the employer, the federal appellate panel kicked the question to the California Supreme Court, which recently agreed to answer.

Detailed discussion

A former shift supervisor at a California Starbucks, Douglas Troester, filed suit in August 2012. He claimed that during his year of employment with the company, Starbucks' computer software required him to clock out on every closing shift before initiating the software's "close store procedure" on a separate computer terminal in the back office.

In addition, Troester walked coworkers to their cars (per Starbucks' policy), reopened the store to allow employees to retrieve items they left behind, brought in store patio furniture that had been left outside, or waited with employees for their ride to arrive. These tasks generally took between four and ten minutes, which in the aggregate over Troester's employment would have netted him $102.67 had he been paid for the time.

Ruling on Starbucks' motion for summary judgment, a federal district court found the time to be de minimis. While acknowledging that the closing activities occurred on a regular basis, the court said the Fair Labor Standards Act's (FLSA) de minimis doctrine foreclosed recovery in the suit.

Troester appealed but the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found itself unable to rule.

Under the FLSA, employers are relieved from liability for unpaid wages where otherwise compensable time was de minimis, a doctrine dating back to a 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision. But the California Supreme Court has yet to rule on the application of the FLSA doctrine to state law, the panel wrote.

A smattering of state appellate courts have weighed in on the issue and a panel of the Ninth Circuit has issued an unpublished decision predicting that the state's highest court would find the doctrine applicable to state law claims. But these conjectures were not enough, the panel said, particularly as the California Supreme Court recently declined to incorporate FLSA standards in a case involving on-call time under state law.

"The California Supreme Court has long held that state wage and hour laws 'although at times patterned after federal regulations, also sometimes provide greater protection than is provided under federal law in the Fair Labor Standards Act and accompanying federal regulations,' " the Ninth Circuit wrote. "The federal de minimis rule could be seen as less employee-protective than California's wage and hour laws and, therefore, at odds with those laws."

For these reasons, the panel requested the court's assistance, certifying the following question: "Does the federal Fair Labor Standards Act's de minimis doctrine … apply to claims for unpaid wages under the California Labor Code?"

The California Supreme Court has agreed to answer.

To read the order in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, click here.