Troester v. Starbucks (July 26, 2018): California Supreme Court Veiws De Minimis Doctrine As A Cup Half Empty Under California’s Wage and Hour Laws

By SHLC on July 27, 2018 in Uncategorized
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In the landmark United States Supreme Court decision from the 1940’s, Anderson v. Mt. Clemmens Pottery Co., the High Court formally recognized the de minimis doctrine under federal wage and hour law. In short, the de minimis doctrine is an application of the maxim de minimis non curat lex, which means “[t]he law does not concern itself with trifles.” As interpreted by the United States Supreme Court, that doctrine allowed federal courts applying federal law to excuse employers for the non-payment of wages for insignificantly small amounts of otherwise compensable time (i.e. no more than a few minutes), where these bits of time were otherwise administratively difficult to record. Since that case, the de minimus doctrine has been the law of the land for any cases arising under federal wage and hour laws.

Just recently however, the California Supreme Court heard the case Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, wherein the court sought to answer the question of whether the federal de minimus doctrine also applied to California’s own wage and hour laws.  In this case, the California Supreme Court took a look at Douglas Troester, a non-managerial employee of the coffee powerhouse, Starbucks. As part of his job, Douglas was required to clock out before closing the store. Because of this however, Douglas claimed that Starbucks failed to pay him, on average, four (4) to ten (10) additional minutes per day which Douglas spent locking the door, walking his co-workers out to their cars, and occasionally having to put away patio furniture that had been inadvertently left outside.

Although Douglas claimed that the few daily minutes of unpaid work accumulated to an underpayment of only twelve (12) hours and fifty (50) minutes over the course of a seventeen (17) month period, the California Supreme Court ultimately reasoned that small recoveries of this nature were no longer mere “trifles” under the law in light of the class action litigation that allowed employees to band together to pursue a multitude of small recoveries together. Here is how the California Supreme Court worded its ultimate ruling in the case issued on July 26, 2018:

We approach the question presented in two parts: First, have California’s wage and hour statutes or regulations adopted the de minimis doctrine found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? We conclude they have not. There is no indication in the text or history of the relevant statutes and Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) wage orders of such adoption.

Second, does the de minimis principle, which has operated in California in various contexts, apply to wage and hour claims? In other words, although California has not adopted the federal de minimis doctrine, does some version of the doctrine nonetheless apply to wage and hour claims as a matter of state law? We hold that the relevant wage order and statutes do not permit application of the de minimis rule on the facts given to us by the Ninth Circuit, where the employer required the employee to work “off the clock” several minutes per shift. We do not decide whether there are circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.

To read a copy of the Troester v. Starbucks Corporation opinion in full click here: http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S234969.PDF

All employers with employees in California should take careful note of the Troester v. Starbucks Corporation case. In light of this decision, employers should take care to implement and enforce written policies, workplace practices, and timekeeping systems that do not allow employees to perform any off the clock tasks—no matter how small or insignificant they may seem. As the California Supreme Court was keen to point out, depending upon the facts, failure to abide by this standard could subject employers to a wave of class action litigation, wage penalties, and even the employee’s attorneys fees. Because of that, California employers should take care to inform themselves of the common situations in which the Troester v. Starbucks Corporation may impact their business, depending on the individual circumstances of each case, including tasks performed by workers off the clock such as:

  • Having employees change into their uniforms before their shifts;
  • Having employees lock up a building after clocking out; and
  • Having employees attend pre-shift safety meetings.

To answer more of the lingering questions left in the wake of this ground breaking decision, on September 19th, SHLC will be hosting a half-day live and interactive webinar on California Wage and Hour Law, with full question and answer sessions, including the implications of Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, as well as other cutting edge wage and hour developments of which California employers must be aware including: employee classification and exemptions, paying wages and overtime, meal and rest period rules, and record keeping requirements. To sign up for the webinar call any of our offices or feel free to click on the following link: http://suttonhague.com/events/