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August 7, 2018

California Supreme Court Rejects De Minimis Doctrine for Off-The-Clock Work Claims

Last week, in a highly anticipated decision, the California Supreme Court weighed in for the first time on the viability of a de minimis defense to California wage and hour claims.

In Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, the Court decided whether California’s wage and hour laws have adopted the de minimis doctrine found in the Fair Labor Standards Act. Under federal law, employers can invoke the doctrine and be excused from paying wages for otherwise compensable time where it is administratively difficult to capture such time through customary time recording methods.

The Court found that California’s wage and hour statutes and Industrial Welfare Commission wage orders have never adopted the de minimis doctrine. Nevertheless, the Court noted that the doctrine has been applied in various contexts and may apply under different factual scenarios than presented in this case.

In this case, the plaintiff, a non-managerial California employee, was routinely required to clock out each closing shift before transmitting daily reports to Starbuck’s corporate headquarters. He was then required to activate the alarm, exit the store, lock the front door and walk his co-workers to their cars pursuant to Starbuck’s policy. The undisputed evidence showed that these end-of-shift tasks required some employees to work as many as 10 minutes a day without compensation. At the applicable minimum wage for the time, that came to $102.67 in unpaid wages to the plaintiff, not counting penalties or other remedies.

The Court noted that “a few extra minutes of work each day can add up,” and that the $102.67 earned by Mr. Troester over a 17-month period was enough to “pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries, or cover a month of bus fares,” and that “[w]hat Starbucks calls de minimis is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.”

Under these facts, the Court held that “[a]n 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.”

Thus, the Court left the door open to claim the defense to some California wage and hour claims, particularly in cases where the off-the-clock time is irregular or very brief in duration. WG Members are encouraged to contact Jason Resnick or their employment law counsel when deciding if the de minimis doctrine may be a viable defense under their unique circumstances.