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August 8, 2019 5:15 PM, EDT

Walmart Fights $54 Million Lawsuit Verdict Awarding Drivers Sleeper Berth Pay

Front of Walmart store in Pittsburgh An entrance to a Walmart store in Pittsburgh is shown June 25, 2019. (Associated Press/Gene J. Puskar)

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A three-member panel of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments Aug. 6 in an appeal by Walmart Transportation of a $54 million jury damage award in 2016.

The case involves a class-action lawsuit filed by hundreds of former Walmart longhaul drivers who sought payment for 10-hour layover shifts and other employee tasks from 2007-2015.

Walmart attorneys have raised multiple core issues in the appeal. One is whether a federal district court judge’s jury instructions improperly influenced the jury’s decision in favor of the drivers. Another is the relevance of a recent Department of Labor opinion letter that the time drivers spend in sleeper berths does not count as compensable time, unless they are actually performing work or are on call.

The plaintiffs in the case are former truck drivers in California employed by Walmart who went to trial on their minimum wage claims in 2016. They alleged that Walmart violated California’s minimum wage law by failing to pay class members the minimum wage for 11 tasks.

Walmart attorney Theodore Boutrous Jr. told the appeals court that the drivers — contrary to claims by the plaintiffs’ attorneys — did not have to stay in the sleeper berth during their 10-hour layovers.

“They were not required to stay in the truck,” Boutrous told the judges. “That time was their time. They went to casinos or water skiing.”

However, Michael Rubin, an attorney for the drivers, argued that a Walmart manual required that the drivers spend that time in the sleeper berth. Rubin said that some drivers were actually fired for being caught outside the sleeper berth.

In a letter to the appeals court, Boutrous said the labor department’s opinion letter, written July 22 by DOL Wage and Hour Division Administrator Cheryl Stanton, is based on the federal Fair Labor Standards Act. The letter said that “time drivers are relieved of all duties and permitted to sleep in the sleeper berth is presumptively non-working time that is not compensable.”

But Rubin wrote to the court that the letter “has no relevance to the California minimum wage law issues that are the exclusive focus of this appeal.”

The panel said it would take the arguments under advisement and issue a decision in the future. 

Walmart Transportation is a division of Walmart Inc., which ranks No. 3 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America.