May 11, 2015 3:00 AM, EDT

Supreme Court Won’t Hear Trucking’s Appeal of California’s Meal-Break Requirement

By Michele Fuetsch, Staff Reporter

This story appears in the May 11 print edition of Transport Topics.

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear appeals by two trucking companies that mounted challenges to a California law requiring employers to provide meal breaks to workers.

Penske Logistics, a division of Penske Truck Leasing Co., asked the high court to overturn a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said the company must abide by the state law.

The second appeal that the Supreme Court rejected May 4 involved Vitran Express, a Canadian carrier whose case was heard in the same 9th Circuit Court, which is based in San Francisco.

“Penske is disappointed with the Supreme Court decision, but we look forward to proceeding with the case,” the company said in a statement.

Vitran did not respond to a request for comment.

The high court’s rejection of the appeals means the employees who sued the companies can proceed in their effort to win compensation for lost meal-break time.

“In California, you’re supposed to have a duty-free meal period for, roughly, every five hours of work. And if you don’t get one, you’re supposed to be paid one hour of pay at your regular rate of pay,” said Jason Hill of the San Diego law firm Cohelan Khoury & Singer, who represents the lead driver in the class action suit involving 349 employees.

The California law dates to 1916 and says workers on the job more than five hours a day must get a duty-free 30-minute meal break. The law requires a second 30-minute meal break for those who work more than 10 hours a day.

The employees suing Penske filed their case in 2008. They worked for a Penske account delivering and installing Whirlpool appliances.

“From our perspective, these guys are doing more than just driving because there are a lot of drivers that only drop their box or pick up a box, and they’re not really engaged in loading and unloading, much less installing,” Hill said.

The pressure was on the employees to get all the deliveries and installations done in a workday that often went 10 or 12 hours, he said.

“And there’s a lot of evidence . . . that that pressure basically led to not taking breaks, so you end up with a lot of tired drivers on California roadways,” Hill added.

The cases have been closely watched by the trucking industry, with the two companies arguing that federal law governing trucking companies pre-empts state law.

American Trucking Associations said in a statement that it was “extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court declined to review the 9th Circuit’s erroneous decision in Dilts v. Penske, which thwarts Congress’ intent not to subject motor carriers to a burdensome patchwork of differing state regulations that curtail efficiency.”

Lawyers for the companies had rested their cases on a provision in the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994, which provides that a state “may not enact or enforce a law . . . related to a price, route or service of any motor carrier with respect to transportation of property.”

However, in the 9th Circuit Court decision upheld by the Supreme Court, the three-judge panel said that the state’s meal- and rest-break laws were not related to Penske’s prices, routes or services and were therefore not pre-empted.

Penske Logistics ranks No. 32 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers, and No. 15 on the TT logistics 50.