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January 15, 2021 12:45 PM, EST

Court Upholds FMCSA Exemption of Trucking From California Rest Break Rules

California highway trafficTraffic on Interstate 80 in Fairfield, Calif. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg News)

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The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s 2018 determination that interstate motor carriers are exempt from California’s stringent meal-and-rest-break rules, a decision that supporters say will avoid a future state-by-state patchwork of rest break rules.

“The FMCSA reached this conclusion because California required more breaks, more often and with less flexibility as to timing,” the court’s three-judge panel said in its Jan. 15 opinion.

The California law requires employers to provide a “duty-free” 30-minute meal break for employees who work more than five hours a day, as well as a second duty-free, 30-minute meal break for those who work more than 10 hours a day, and additional 10-minute rest periods every four hours. An employer’s failure to provide the required breaks is a misdemeanor under California law.

The court’s ruling is a victory for common sense over bureaucracy and the plaintiffs bar.

Chris Spear, American Trucking Associations president

ATA President Chris Spear

By contrast, federal law states that except for certain shorthaul drivers, a property-carrying commercial motor vehicle driver working more than eight hours must take at least one 30-minute break during the first eight hours, although the driver has flexibility as to when the break occurs.

“The court’s ruling is a victory for common sense over bureaucracy and the plaintiffs bar,” American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said in a statement. “When the Department of Transportation pre-empted California’s rules, it was a victory for highway safety, ensuring that there is one uniform standard for trucking regulations. By upholding DOT’s authority to be the sole regulator of interstate trucking, the 9th Circuit is preventing states and trial lawyers from creating a costly and inefficient patchwork of competing rules.”

The appeals court’s unanimous ruling held that not only does the federal government have the authority to review and pre-empt state safety rules, but the panel agreed with DOT’s conclusion that “federal regulations adequately and more appropriately balanced the competing interests between safety and economic burden” than allowing states to impose a patchwork of competing regulations, ATA said.

“We hope this ruling sends a strong message to other states that they are not allowed to impose additional regulatory burdens on interstate commerce,” Spear said. “We thank DOT and the court for upholding the principle that federal regulatory primacy is critical for maintaining safe and efficient transportation.”

Richard Pianka, deputy general counsel for American Trucking Associations

Pianka

Said Richard Pianka, ATA deputy general counsel: “This is a huge victory for the industry. It reaffirms that these factitious wage and hour claims that the industry has been seeing, particularly out in California, are meritless.”

The ruling applies to drivers who are subject to federal hours-of-service regulations, those drivers who are moving interstate freight, Pianka added.

In its opinion, the appellate panel rejected challenges by the Teamsters union to the determination, holding that FMCSA did not act “arbitrarily or capriciously” in finding that enforcement of the meal-and-rest-break rules “would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.”

The court also pointed to comments submitted by carriers demonstrating the impact of the meal-and-rest-break rules on their operations as amply justifying FMCSA’s conclusion that the rules unreasonably burden interstate commerce, said a “law alert” posted by the law firm of Scopelitis, Garvin, Light, Hanson & Feary, P.C.

FMCSA logo

“The crux of the petitioners’ arguments was that FMCSA had previously determined the meal-and-rest-break rules were not laws on commercial motor vehicle safety and that FMCSA lacked authority to consider laws that were not directed specifically to commercial motor vehicle safety under the pre-emption scheme,” the Scopelitis alert said.

The panel noted that the challengers argued that California law has some flexibility in its design. For example, employees may agree to waive certain meal breaks and that employers can also seek exemptions from the rest break requirements from the California Labor Commissioner’s Office. But in its opinion, the court said that compared to federal safety regulations, California’s meal-and-rest-break rules generally require that employers allow commercial truck drivers to take more rest breaks “at greater frequency, and with less flexibility as to when breaks occur.”

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Besides the Teamsters, the challengers included the California Labor Commissioner’s Office and several individual drivers.

The appellate panel concluded that FMCSA permissibly determined that California’s meal-and-rest-break rules were state regulations “on commercial motor vehicle safety, so that they were within the agency’s pre-emption authority.”

“In this case, the FMCSA determined that federal law pre-empts California’s meal-and-rest-break rules, as applied to drivers of property carrying commercial motor vehicles who are subject to the FMCSA’s own rest break regulations,” the panel said.

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