Federal preemption of California’s meal and rest break laws as applicable to truck drivers under the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (the FAAAA) continues to zigzag through California’s federal courts. In general, federal preemption refers to the displacement or invalidation of a state law when it conflicts with federal law or when enforcement of the state law would frustrate federal purposes.

Congress enacted the FAAAA in 1994 to prohibit states from enacting or enforcing laws related to the prices, routes, or services of motor carriers with respect to the transportation of property. The overall goal of Congress was to help ensure that transportation prices, routes, and services reflected the maximum reliance on competitive market forces, thereby stimulating efficiency innovation, low prices, variety, and quality. Thus, a major purpose of the FAAAA is 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.

In Mendez v. R&L Carriers, Inc., 2012 WL 5868973 (N.D. Cal. Nov. 19, 2012), Judge Claudia Wilken of the Northern District of California recently decided that FAAAA preemption does not apply to California’s meal and rest break laws as applied to truck drivers operating in the state.  According to Mendez, 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.” According to the court, this option allows motor carriers to satisfy the rest break requirements without having to alter their routes or services. The court recognized that the additional wages might have a slight impact on the motor carriers’ prices, but that such an impact would not be large enough to raise preemption concerns. The court also noted that regarding meal breaks, state law allows drivers to voluntarily waive their breaks through specific procedures. As such, the Mendez court concluded that the meal and rest break laws offer motor carriers significantly more flexibility than other courts have recognized in California, 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), Judge James V. Selna of the Central District of California granted a motion for judgment on the pleadings, concluding that based on the allegations alone, 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 Aguirre, the court addressed the plaintiffs’ argument that in Brinker Rest. Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004 (2012), 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. The Aguirre court noted that whatever new flexibility may be evident under Brinker, it did not undermine the analysis set forth in several California courts that applied FAAAA preemption. Aguirre recognized that since the break laws mandate when drivers must stop providing service to take duty-free breaks, it takes longer for them to drive the same distance, and companies are limited only to routes that are amenable to the logistical requirements of scheduled breaks.

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. This language from Kirby indicates that employers must comply with California’s meal and rest break laws by actually providing the breaks and not by paying a “wage alternative.” 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. An on-duty meal break is only permitted if the motor carrier can: (a) show that five objective criteria are met about the nature of the drivers’ work, (b) secure a written agreement with each driver authorizing on-duty meal periods, and (c) even if all of this is completed, the signed agreement must state that it can be revoked at any time. On their own, these restrictions hardly provide any flexibility to motor carriers. Also, FAAAA preemption seems to be precisely what is needed to protect motor carriers from having to comply with a patchwork of such state-specific regulations on how to arrange on-duty meal breaks.

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.