Putting the “Breaks” on Truck Driver Meal and Rest Break Class Actions

March 5, 2012

A federal court in California recently dismissed with prejudice a wage and hour putative class action brought by truck drivers, alleging claims based on violations of California’s meal break laws, on the ground that those laws (as applied to a motor carrier’s truck drivers) are preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act (FAAAA). See Esquivel et al. v. Vistar Corp. et al., Case No. 2:11-cv-07284 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 8, 2012). In making that ruling, the Esquivel court became the second court in recent months to hold that California’s break laws are preempted by the FAAAA, which expressly preempts state laws that have a significant impact on the routes, service or prices of motor carriers.

Case Background

The plaintiffs in Esquivel were former truck drivers of various divisions of Performance Food Group, Inc. (PFG) in California. They alleged that PFG built its delivery routes to ensure timely delivery and customer service, but did so by imposing delivery windows and other policies that caused “time pressure” that prevented them and other drivers from being able to take meal breaks as specified under California law. PFG moved to dismiss their complaint. It successfully argued that no factual analysis of the merits of the claims was necessary to decide that they are preempted by the FAAAA. This is because California’s break laws, as applied to a motor carrier’s truck drivers, impose substantive standards regarding the timing, frequency and duration of breaks, and those requirements have a significant and prohibited impact on a motor carrier’s operations. Thus, the court dismissed the putative wage and hour class action lawsuit with prejudice at the pleading stage.

In doing so, the Esquivel court relied on and applied the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s recent decision in American Trucking Ass’ns, Inc. v. City of Los Angeles, 660 F.3d 384, 397 (9th Cir. 2011) (ATA), and the subsequent decision of the district court in Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 122421, *26 (S.D. Cal. Oct. 19, 2011). In ATA, the Ninth Circuit held that where a state law does not directly regulate a motor carrier’s routes, service or prices, in order to determine whether FAAAA preemption applies, the “proper inquiry is whether the provision, directly or indirectly, ‘binds the … carrier to a particular price, route or service and thereby interferes with competitive market forces within the industry.’” Within one month after ATA was decided, the Dilts court utilized that “proper inquiry” to conclude that California’s break laws, as applied to truck drivers, are preempted by the FAAAA because they prescribe that they must have specific types of breaks at specific times and of specific durations, thereby imposing restrictions on motor carriers that bind them to a set of routes and service to which they would not otherwise be bound.

In Esquivel, the court utilized the ATA “proper inquiry” as well in reaching the same conclusion as the Dilts court: that California’s break laws, as applied to a motor carrier’s truck drivers, are preempted by the FAAAA. The court also rejected the application of several earlier state and federal trial court decisions that had held that the effect of California’s break laws on a carrier’s routes, service and prices is too remote or tenuous for FAAAA preemption to apply. Those earlier decisions were predicated on a pre-ATA Ninth Circuit decision that had held that a California prevailing wage law was not preempted by the FAAAA. Both the Dilts and Esquivel courts, however, distinguished that earlier Ninth Circuit decision on the basis that the requirements of California’s break laws are fundamentally different from those of a prevailing wage statute, which merely requires the payment of a minimum wage on a public works project.

Decision Take-Away

Esquivel and Dilts are the only post-ATA decisions addressing whether the FAAAA preempts California’s break laws as applied to a motor carrier’s truck drivers, with both courts finding those laws to be preempted. It is likely that this issue ultimately will be decided by the Ninth Circuit. In the meantime, both of these decisions demonstrate that FAAAA preemption is a viable defense that can put the brakes on meal and rest break class actions brought by truck drivers against motor carriers in California.

In Esquivel, PFG was represented by a team of lawyers from McGuireWoods’ Los Angeles office that included Matthew Kane, Michael Mandel, Sabrina Beldner and Sylvia Kim. Please contact them or any other member of our Labor and Employment Group for further information or assistance in defending against wage and hour class action claims.