In Ruffin v. MotorCity Casino, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether casino security guards were entitled to be paid for meal periods during which they were required to remain on casino property, monitor two-way radios and respond to emergencies if called to do so.

The District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan had granted summary judgment to the employer based on the conclusion that no reasonable jury could have found the meal periods to be compensable work time.

In affirming the ruling of the District Court, the Sixth Circuit relied on its earlier decision in Hill v. United States, which in turn relied on 29 CFR §785.19.  That regulation provides that bona fide meal periods are not work time.  To qualify as bona fide meal period, an “employee must be completely relieved from duty for the purposes of eating regular meals.”

However, the Sixth Circuit further noted that so long as (i) the employee can “pursue his or her mealtime adequately and comfortably,” (ii) the employee does not perform any substantial duties during the period, and (iii) the mealtime is not predominantly for the employer’s benefit, the employee is “relieved of duty” and is not entitled to compensation under the FLSA.

The plaintiffs in Ruffin contended that monitoring their two-way radios, which exposed them to a steady stream of work-related radio chatter during meal periods, was a substantial job duty.

The Sixth Circuit disagreed and cited to caselaw holding that monitoring a radio and being available to respond if called, generally was a de minimis activity rather than a substantial job duty.

Furthermore, the plaintiffs in Ruffin spent their meal periods eating, reading, socializing and conducting personal business on their phones.   Their mealtimes were not interrupted with such regularity that they were spending the time primarily for the employer’s benefit.

While the plaintiffs were required to remain on the premises, the evidence showed that this restriction was not an indirect way of extracting unpaid work from the employee.  Rather, the plaintiffs “spent their meal periods doing exactly what one might expect an off-duty employee to be doing on a meal break.”

Based on the totality of the circumstances, the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court’s summary judgment in favor of the employer.

Therefore, in deciding whether or not to compensate employees for their meal breaks, employers should be mindful of Ruffin, 29 CFR §785.19 and the related caselaw.  Under those circumstances, employers should consider whether (i) the employees are performing any substantial duties during the meal period; (ii) the employees are regularly interrupted during the meal periods to perform work for the employer; and (iii) the employees are unable to leave the employer’s property or spend the meal periods predominantly for their own benefit.