Understanding the De Minimis Doctrine in California Employment Law

The California Supreme Court ruled that employers in the state cannot invoke the federal de minimis doctrine to avoid paying workers for required duties they perform off-the-clock.clock1-300x225

This California wage theft class action lawsuit filed by a Starbucks employee who alleged the store was requiring him to work for several minutes each shift without being paid. When multiplied by the minimum wage, this work amounted to more than $100 over the course of 17 months.

In granting summary judgment in favor of the employer, the trial court relied on the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., wherein the court concluded that “a few seconds or minutes of work beyond the scheduled working hours… may be disregarded.” The basic concept is that the courts do not concern themselves with “trifles.” Federal courts have held that it can be applied in cases where small amounts of wages that would otherwise be compensable can be excused when they are difficult to administratively record.

The California Supreme Court reversed, noting the de minimis rule doesn’t apply here. 

In determining whether de minimis applies, courts have examined:

  • How practical it is for employers to record this additional time from an administrative standpoint;
  • How regular this additional work is;
  • The aggregate amount of this compensable time.

Defendant employer in this case took note of several previous courts that had ruled periods of about 10 minutes fall under the de minimis guideline.

But here, the California Supreme Court ruled the de minimis doctrine, as outlined in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) doesn’t apply to employers in California. The court did leave open the chance that some narrower version of this legal doctrine might be applicable in wage-and-hour cases. The court noted that relevant wage order and statutes don’t permit application of the de minimis rule just based on the facts of this case (as provided on appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit). Specifically, this was a case where employers required workers to work “off the clock” for several minutes during every single shift. The court did say it wouldn’t consider whether some circumstances where it might apply if such requirements were so irregular that it’s unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.

The court took special note of the fact that technological advances have put employers at an advantage when it comes to development of strategies that would allow better tracking of these four-to-10 minutes worked unpaid every day. Smartphones and other modern devices give employers ample opportunity to track these wages down to the minute. For them not to do so, is considered by many to be a common form of wage theft.

This ruling is considered by our Orange County wage theft attorneys and other employee advocates to be a substantial victory, disallowing employers to avoid paying wages for work they require of employees. Although $100 per worker over the course of 1.5 years may not seem like much, multiply that by the number of employees of the coffee chain, and you begin to see how the coffee chain benefits substantially by nick-and-diming its workers.

Contact the wage theft employment attorneys at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.

Additional Resources:

Troester v. Starbucks Corp., July 26, 2018, California Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

Disneyland Agrees to $15 Minimum Wage for Park Employees, Aug. 6, 2018, Orange County Wage Theft Attorney Blog