On July 26, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, ostensibly clarifying the application of the widely adopted de minimis doctrine to California’s wage-hour laws. But while the Court rejected the application of the de minimis rule under the facts presented to it, the Court did not reject the doctrine outright. Instead, it left many questions unanswered.

And even while it rejected the application of the rule under the facts presented, it did not address a much larger question – whether the highly individualized issues regarding small increments of time allegedly worked “off the clock” could justify certification of a class on those claims.

For more than 70 years, federal courts have regularly applied the de minimis doctrine in certain “circumstances to excuse the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time upon a showing that the bits of time are administratively difficult to record.” Those courts have concluded that as much as 15 minutes per day could be considered de minimis and, therefore, noncompensable.

In Troester, the California Supreme Court concluded that most of California’s wage and hour laws have not in fact adopted the de minimis doctrine found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”). However, the Court did not go so far as to reject the application in all instances. Indeed, the Court specifically declined to “decide whether there are circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.” (Emphasis added.)

The key words in that sentence appear to be “minute” and “irregular.”

The Court declined to do so “given the wide range of scenarios in which this issue arises,” proffering what appear to be examples where the de minimis rule could apply – e.g., “paperwork involving a minute or less of an employee’s time” or “an employee reading an e-mail notification of a shift change during off-work hours.”

Under the facts presented to it, where the employer allegedly required employees to “work ‘off the clock’ several minutes per shift,” the Court found that the relevant statute and regulations did not permit application of the de minimis rule.

Specifically, it apparently was undisputed that the plaintiff “had various duties related to closing the store after he clocked out, and the parties [had] agree[d] for purposes of [the California Supreme Court] resolving the issue . . . that the time spent on these duties is compensable.” It also apparently was undisputed that these tasks took the plaintiff as few as 4 minutes and as much as 10 minutes each shift that he worked. Given those specific facts, the Court found that the de minimis rule would not be applicable, holding that, under California law generally, an “employer that requires its employees to work minutes off the clock on a regular basis or as a regular feature of the job may not evade the obligation to compensate the employee for that time by invoking the de minimis doctrine.” (Emphasis added.)

Consistent with prior language in the opinion, the key words in that conclusion appear to be “minutes” and “regular.”

In other words, while significant, regular time would not be de minimis, insignificant and irregular time could be.

And how that issue could be addressed on a classwide basis seems questionable, at best, given that the very nature of “off the clock” work is that there are no records of it. Individualized inquiries apparently would need to be conducted person-by-person, day-by-day, to determine if an individual in fact worked “minutes” off-the-clock on a “regular” basis.

Not unimportantly, in addition to the Court’s majority opinion, Justices Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Leondra Kruger wrote separate concurring opinions, each offering some additional support for employers.

Justice Cuéllar noted that while the Court’s majority opinion “protects workers from being denied compensation for minutes they regularly spend on work-related tasks,” it “does not consign employers or their workers to measure every last morsel of employees’ time.”

Justice Kruger also offered some examples where she opined that the de minimis rule could apply:

  • An employer requires workers to turn on their computers and log in to an application in order to start their shifts. Ordinarily this process takes employees no more than a minute (and often far less, depending on the employee’s typing speed), but on rare and unpredictable occasions a software glitch delays workers’ log-ins for as long as two to three minutes.
  • An employer ordinarily distributes work schedules and schedule changes during working hours at the place of employment. But occasionally employees are notified of schedule changes by e-mail or text message during their off hours and are expected to read and acknowledge the messages.
  • After their shifts have ended, employees in a retail store sometimes remain in the store for several minutes waiting for transportation. On occasion, a customer will ask a waiting employee a question, not realizing the employee is off duty. The employee – with the employer’s knowledge – spends a minute or two helping the customer.

Justice Kruger wrote that “a requirement that the employer accurately account for every second spent on work tasks may well be impractical and unreasonable” in the situations above.

Following Troester, entities doing business in California will want to review their practices and their timekeeping systems.

And while Troester certainly suggests that employers in California will face an increased number of class actions alleging that certain insignificant amounts of time should have been compensated, plaintiffs’ difficulty in actually getting classes certified on such claims appears relatively unchanged.

by Michael Kun

We have written frequently in this blog about the great many wage-hour class actions filed against employers doing business in California.   Those lawsuits often allege that a class of employees performed work off-the-clock, and that the employees are not only entitled to compensation for that time, but to a slew of penalties that often dwarf the amount of alleged damages.

Depending on the nature of an employer’s business, a plaintiff might allege that employees were not paid for the couple minutes it might take to “boot up” a computer in the morning, or for waiting to punch in their time cards.  Or a plaintiff might contend that an employer has a time-rounding policy that somehow shortchanges employees by a minute or two of pay each day.

In defending these cases, employers often argue that not only must individualized inquiries be conducted to determine whether, when and how long an employee allegedly worked off-the-clock, but whether the employee was engaged in personal activities during some or all of that time.  Those are issues that go to whether a class should be certified.

On the merits, employers often argue that such time is non-compensable in any event as de minimis time – time that is so small that it need not be compensated.

The de minimis doctrine has been recognized by the United States Supreme Court for decades, and a variety of decisions have held that as much as 10 minutes per day is de minimis, non-compensable time.

In a decision that is likely to be cited by employers defending against off-the-clock class action claims in California, United States District Court Judge Gary Feess has granted summary judgment to Starbucks in a class action lawsuit alleging that employees were entitled to be compensated for the minute or two that they may have spent locking up or engaged in other activities after they punched out.  Relying upon the de minimis doctrine, Judge Feess held that such time is not compensable as a matter of law.

The decision is, of course, a positive development for employers who have been besieged by wage-hour class actions in California.  While one would hope that plaintiffs’ counsel would refrain in the future from filing suit seeking compensation for such small amounts of time, the decision should bolster employers’ efforts to obtain the same result that Starbucks obtained – a confirmation that they are not required to pay employees for every moment those employees are on their premises.