Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME dealt a major blow to workers, and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the high court might mean more devastation will follow, California has once again claimed its position as a progressive counter to an oppressive federal agenda. The California Supreme Court’s ruling today in Troester v. Starbucks Corp. defends the interests of working people by ensuring greater protection for those who regularly perform small amounts of uncompensated work - which add up to valuable unpaid wages, over time.
The plaintiff, a Starbucks employee named Douglas Troester, has argued Starbucks owes him wages for the time he spent running end-of-day computer software, activating a building alarm, locking the door, and walking coworkers to their cars as required by company policy. All of these duties, alleges Troester, add up to four to ten additional minutes each shift. Over a seventeen-month period, Troester’s unpaid time totaled twelve hours and fifty minutes, adding up to $102.67 at the then-applicable minimum wage of $8 per hour.
Troester first filed his case in Los Angeles County Superior Court, but Starbucks removed the case to federal court, and the district court granted summary judgment for Starbucks based on the federal “de minimis” doctrine. First set forth in the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., the de minimis doctrine holds that employers need not compensate employees for small amounts of otherwise compensable time if the employer can show tracking that time is administratively difficult. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit recognized that although the de minimis doctrine applied to federal wage and hour law, the California Supreme Court had never addressed whether the doctrine applied to wage claims under California law. The California Supreme Court agreed to the Ninth Circuit’s request to answer specifically whether the doctrine applied to claims for unpaid wages under California Labor Code sections 510, 1194, and 1197.
In today’s decision, the California Supreme Court first held that, based on a review of the relevant statutes and Industrial Wage Commission (“IWC”) Orders, California had not previously adopted the federal de minimis doctrine. The California Supreme Court, explains the decision, must interpret the Labor Code and IWC Orders liberally to best further their purposes. And, the Court held, California is free to offer greater protection to workers than federal regulations, which the state already has done, regarding, for example, on-call employees’ compensation for sleep and other personal activities (Mendiola v. CPS Security Solutions, Inc., 60 Cal.4th 833 (2015)), the definition of “employ” (Martinez v. Combs, 49 Cal.4th 35 (2010)), and transportation time (Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal.4th 575 (2000)).
Second, the Court held the relevant IWC Order and statute did not permit application of the de minimis doctrine to the particular facts of Troester’s case. For one, the Court explained, the modern availability of class actions undermines the rationale behind the de minimis rule for wage and hour actions. “The very premise” of wage and hour class actions, stated the Court, “is that small individual recoveries worthy of neither the plaintiff’s nor the court’s time can be aggregated to vindicate an important public policy.” The Court also found that the rationale behind the de minimis rule in Anderson is less relevant now because time-keeping technology has advanced far beyond what it was seventy years ago. The problems of recording employee time discussed in Anderson “may be cured or ameliorated by technological advances that enable employees to track and register their work time via smartphones, tablets, or other devices,” explained the Court. Although the Court found the de minimis doctrine did not apply to Troester’s case, it left open the possibility that certain circumstances may exist where compensable time is “so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.”
The phrase “de minimis” comes from the longer maxim de minimis non curat lex, meaning “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” In this case, Starbucks argued the additional time Troester worked was insignificant. But while $102.67 may be insignificant to a multinational corporation, Justice Liu defended common sense and the dignity of working people in writing that $102.67 “is enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries, or cover a month of bus fares. What Starbucks calls ‘de minimis’ is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.”
The lawsuit now returns to the Ninth Circuit, which will factor in the California Supreme Court’s decision when it rules on Troester’s case. We hope that fairness for working people will prevail, as it did today in our state’s high court.
If you believe your employer has violated wage and hour laws, contact Bryan Schwartz Law.
Read the full opinion here: Troester v. Starbucks Corp., 2018 BL 265635, Cal., S234969, 7/26/18.