Ninth Circuit Affirms $55 Million Employment Lawsuit Verdict for Wal-Mart Truckers

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which sets precedent in California, affirmed a $54.6 million jury verdict in favor of Wal-Mart truck drivers for violation of California labor law. The retail giant challenged the earlier decision on numerous grounds, including improper application of the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994, the certification of the class and lack of jurisdiction. The federal appellate court rejected all of these in Ridgeway v. Wal-Mart, Inc., in effect reaffirming the state’s definition of what qualifies as compensable work. truck driver minimum wage

State labor laws stipulate that “hours worked” are to include all time a worker is subject to the company’s control and all time he/she is “suffered or permitted to work” – regardless of whether they actually do work. The drivers asserted the company didn’t pay them for time spent under the company’s control, such as during inspections, layovers and rest breaks. They sought damages, restitution and statutory penalties.

Prior to trial, plaintiffs were granted partial summary judgment on the minimum wage liability claims. Specifically, Wal-Mart wasn’t paying them for all their job duties. The company mandated that drivers take breaks without pay and controlled them during 10-hour layover time. By state law, they should have been entitled to receive minimum wage during these stretches. The trial court agreed that the company’s pay policy, if applied as written, would mean the drivers should be getting paid minimum wage during the times they were subject to their employer’s control. The question of whether the company actually violated the law, however, still had to go before a jury.

Jurors returned a verdict finding that in 7 of 11 disputed, non-paid tasks, the company violated state minimum wage laws. These tasks included layovers, rest breaks, pre-trip inspections and post-trip inspections.

Truck driving in general is a unique area of employment law, due to the extensive federal regulation involved as well as the inherent interstate nature of it.

The question of layover pay in particular was interesting in this case because, as our Los Angeles wage and hour lawyers can explain, truck drivers are required by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to take mandatory rest breaks. These mandatory rest breaks were enacted for the purpose of improving public safety; a tired truck driver is a dangerous one.

During these times, the truckers can use the sleeper berth or spend their time simply off-duty. However, they are not allowed to drive. Wal-Mart’s pay manual requires truck drivers to get prior approval before taking one of these layovers at home, and expressly stated that to take one at home without prior authorization would be grounds for immediate dismissal. That meant drivers were essentially required to sleep in the berth of the truck or pay for a hotel. Also during these layover periods, they could not drink alcohol, have a guest or pet in the cab (without prior permission) or carry a personal weapon.

All of these factors meant that the company was exerting control over the driver sufficient to require them to be paid minimum wage during these periods.

This is consistent with previous court cases on similar issues. For example in 2017, C.R. England was ordered by a state district court to pay $2.3 million to more than 6,000 truckers for minimum wage violations – including non-drive time and rest breaks. The following year, Werner Enterprises, Inc. was ordered to pay nearly $800,000 to driver trainees for unpaid rest breaks.

Contact the employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 949-375-4734.

Additional Resources:

Ridgeway v. Wal-Mart, Inc., Jan. 6, 2020, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

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