In Raposo v. Garelick Farms, LLC, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts denied the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment on claims concerning automatic unpaid meal break deductions and alleged restrictions on employee activities during the meal breaks.  The case is a reminder that employers should be cautious in their use of automatic meal break deductions.

Plaintiffs Walter Raposo and Joseph Mingolla are former delivery drivers for Garelick Farms.  Garelick provided its drivers with two paid 15 minute breaks and one unpaid 30 minute meal break per shift.  Garelick automatically deducted 30 minutes of time from each shift to account for the meal breaks.  The plaintiffs claimed that the company’s records demonstrated that it deducted the full 30 minutes even when their breaks were less than 30 minutes.  The plaintiffs asserted that Garelick’s actions violated the Massachusetts Wage Act, M.G.L. c. 149, § 148 et al. (Wage Act), by failing to compensate them for all hours worked (the “uncompensated time theory”).  Garelick argued that the plaintiffs’ claims of nonpayment were barred because Garelick was entitled to offset any unpaid working time by gratuitous overtime payments and by the daily 15 minute paid breaks.

The plaintiffs also asserted another theory of liability under the Wage Act, alleging that they were not relieved of all work-related duties during their meal breaks, rendering the breaks compensable (the “on-duty theory”).  Specifically, plaintiffs alleged that Garelick required them to (1) stay within 5 to 10 miles of their routes during breaks and (2) keep their trucks within sight during breaks. 

The District Court denied the plaintiffs’ motion for class certification, and after discovery the parties filed cross-motions for summary judgment.   The Court denied summary judgment under the “uncompensated time theory,” finding that there was an issue of fact as to the accuracy of the company’s records and as to whether Garelick knew that plaintiffs were not logging 30 minutes per break.  The Court found meritless Garelick’s claim that it was entitled to offset any unpaid work with its gratuitous overtime payments and paid 15-minute breaks.  The Court stated that valid “set-offs” under the Wage Act refer to clear and established debts, and receipt of gratuitous overtime pay and paid breaks are not such debts.

The Court also denied summary judgment to both parties under the “on duty” theory.  The parties agreed that working time does not include meal times during which an employee is relieved of all work-related duties, but disagreed as to the meaning of “work related duties.”   The Court found that “work related duties” does not have a plain meaning, and looked to regulations under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) for guidance.  The Court found that under the FLSA, employees perform compensable work during meal breaks if they “predominantly spend [] the time performing activities for their employer’s benefit.”  The fact that an employee is merely “on call” and must remain in a specific area does not render a meal break compensable.  The Court concluded that on the present record, it could not determine whether the restrictions placed on plaintiffs’ breaks converted the breaks into working time, in part because it was unclear whether the company’s directive changed the plaintiffs’ conduct during their breaks, or instead was a commonsense safety precaution that the plaintiffs would have followed regardless of the company’s policies.

Employers who utilize automatic meal break deductions should consult with experienced counsel to ensure that employees are taking the meal breaks and are getting paid if they take shorter meal breaks.  One possible course of action is to implement policies that allow (or require) employees to review and certify the accuracy of their time records.  Similarly, employers should review any unpaid break policies and practices to ensure that employees are relieved of all work-related duties during such breaks.

Table of Cases

Velázquez-Perez v. Developers Diversified Realty Corp., No. 12-226 (1st Cir. May 23, 2014)

Raposo v. Garelick Farms, LLC, No. 11-11943-NMG (D. Mass. June 2, 2014)