In Kirby v. Immoos, 113 Cal.Rptr.3d 370, the Court of Appeal held that an employee not prevailing on a meal-rest claim (or, even one who settled the claims) could be subject to paying the employer's attorneys' fees under Cal. Lab. §218.5, which provides for two-way fee shifting. The consequences of this decision, had it been allowed to stand, would have been disastrous – no employee could risk paying an employer's attorneys' fees to pursue claims arising from meal/rest period violations. The plaintiff's claims might amount to $5,000 and the employer's fees might amount to 100X that much or more – amounts that would bankrupt the average, hourly, non-exempt worker. Since the California Supreme Court and California Legislature have repeatedly emphasized the importance of promoting wage/hour litigation under the Labor Code (see, e.g., Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094), the Court of Appeal's wage/hour claim-killing decision seemed out of line.
Fortunately, this morning, the Supreme Court, in Kirby v. Immoos (http://www.bryanschwartzlaw.com/Kirby_v_Immoos.pdf), rejected the Court of Appeal's incongruous decision, holding as follows:
As we noted in Murphy, "[m]eal and rest periods have long been viewed as part of the remedial worker protection framework," and low-wage workers are the "likeliest to suffer violations of section 226.7." (Murphy, supra, 40 Cal.4th at pp. 1105, 1113-1114.) In giving no indication that section 218.5 applies to meal or rest break claims when it enacted section 226.7, the Legislature could reasonably have concluded that meritorious section 226.7 claims may be deterred if workers, especially low-wage workers, had to weigh the value of an "additional hour of pay" remedy if their claims succeed against the risk of liability for a significant fee award if their claims fail. In light of the statutory text and the legislative history of section 218.5 and section 226.7, we conclude that section 218.5's two-way fee-shifting provision does not apply to section 226.7 claims alleging the failure to provide statutorily mandated meal and rest periods.
Kirby, Slip Op. at p. 17.
The Court did not accept the employees' invitation to treat meal/rest period claims as claims for a "minimum wage" under Cal. Lab. §1194, which expressly precludes two-way fee-shifting for minimum wage and overtime claims. The Court reasoned:
As a textual matter, if plaintiffs were correct that a "legal minimum wage" refers broadly to any statutory or administrative compensation requirement or to any compensation requirement based on minimum labor standards, then section 1194's reference to "legal overtime compensation" would be mere surplusage. For, under plaintiffs' reading, overtime compensation would already be encompassed by the term "legal minimum wage."
Slip Op. at p. 8.
However, the Court left for another day the battle over whether one-way fee-shifting for employees is available for meal/rest claims in suits where they are alleged alongside overtime and minimum wage claims (Slip.Op. at p. 18) –i.e. in most cases where these claims are alleged. This battle – the sequel to Kirby v. Immoos– will most likely be where the rubber meets the road. In the meantime, employees and their advocates should continue to seek attorneys' fees for meal-rest claims alleged alongside overtime and minimum wage claims under §1194. We will also continue to seek fees under Cal. Code Civil Procedure §1021.5, which allows fee-shifting in certain cases brought to vindicate the public interest – like meal/rest litigation so often does.
If you have questions about your meal or rest period claim, contact Bryan Schwartz Law.
Nothing in this article is intended to form an attorney-client relationship with the reader or to provide legal advice in a particular case, but is intended as commentary on a matter of general interest.