Why it matters

Joining the majority of federal appellate courts to consider the issue, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals adopted the "predominant benefit" test for whether meal breaks are compensable under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The case involved a Pennsylvania prison guard who filed a putative collective action alleging she and her fellow corrections officers were owed overtime pay under the federal statute for a portion of their meal breaks. A federal district court judge dismissed the suit. On appeal, the Third Circuit considered various tests used by the federal courts of appeal, including one that looks at whether the employee has been relieved from all duties during mealtime. Siding with the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh Circuits, a majority of the panel adopted the predominant benefit test and affirmed dismissal, ruling that the prison guards received the bulk of the benefit of the meal break.

Detailed discussion

Sandra Babcock, a corrections officer at a county prison in Butler, Pennsylvania, filed suit claiming that the county failed to properly compensate her and her fellow officers for overtime in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the county and the prison employees provided that corrections officers work eight-and-one-quarter-hour shifts that include a one-hour meal period. Forty-five minutes of that hour are paid and 15 minutes are unpaid. The suit sought compensation for the 15-minute period. Babcock argued that corrections officers were not permitted to leave the prison without permission, had to remain in uniform and in close proximity to emergency response equipment, and be on call to respond in case of an emergency.

These restrictions—which prevented the officers from sleeping, running personal errands, breathing fresh air, or smoking during their mealtime—required compensation, the suit contended.

In a motion to dismiss the suit, the county relied upon the "predominant benefit" test to argue that the time period was not compensable. A federal district court judge agreed. The plaintiff appealed. While Babcock did not dispute the use of the predominant benefit test, she argued that her complaint established a plausible claim for relief under it or an alternative, the "relieved from all duties" test.

Having not established the appropriate test to use in the circuit, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals began by adopting the predominant benefit test, which asks "whether the officer is primarily engaged in work-related duties during meal periods." Eight other circuits use the test, including the Second, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, and Eleventh.

Only two other cases were cited by Babcock to support the use of the relieved from all duties test—an earlier Eleventh Circuit decision and an opinion from the Ninth Circuit. But the Third Circuit said neither court actually applied that test, with the Eleventh Circuit using a slightly different version of the predominant benefit test and the Ninth Circuit recognizing the two standards and stating that neither test was dispositive.

Having formally adopted the test, the panel applied it to the facts of the case. "Here, although Plaintiffs face a number of restrictions during their meal period, the District Court correctly found that, on balance, these restrictions did not predominantly benefit the employer," the court said. "In comparison to the cadre of case law addressing mealtime compensability in the law enforcement context, the allegations in Plaintiffs' complaint do not suffice. For example, the corrections officers here could request authorization to leave the prison for their meal period and could eat lunch away from their desks."

Another factor: the existence of the CBA. Although the agreement was silent on the compensability of the 15-minute period at issue, "it provides corrections officers with the benefit of a partially-compensated mealtime and mandatory overtime pay if the mealtime is interrupted by work," the panel wrote. " 'The FLSA requires no more.' The CBA, then, assumes 'that generally an officer is not working during a meal period, but provides for appropriate compensation when an officer actually does work during the meal.' "

"[E]ven accepting all of Plaintiffs' allegations as true, we do not find that the officers were 'primarily engaged in work-related duties' during the daily, agreed-upon fifteen minutes of uninterrupted mealtime," the court said. "As a result, we find that they receive the predominant benefit of the time in question and are not entitled to compensation for it under the FLSA."

The majority affirmed dismissal of the complaint.

In a dissenting opinion, one member of the panel disagreed with the majority's "flawed application" of the predominant benefit test, arguing that the CBA was a "red herring" that distracted the court. Babcock should be able to conduct discovery to permit her access to the facts and circumstances before the court performed the test based simply on the allegations in the complaint, the dissent said, and at the motion to dismiss stage, the plaintiffs' "allegations regarding the restrictions on their movement and activities are sufficient to state a claim under the FLSA that the meal period is compensable work."

To read the opinion in Babcock v. Butler County, click here.