Douglas Troester filed suit alleging that Starbucks violated the California Labor Code by failing to pay him for short periods of time he spent closing the store. He alleged that Starbucks failed to pay him for time spent walking out of the store after activating the security alarm, for the time he spent turning the lock on the store’s front door, and for the time he spent occasionally reopening the door so that a co-worker could retrieve a coat. Based on these allegations, Troester filed a class action under the California Labor Code for failure to pay minimum and overtime wages, failure to provide accurate written wage statements, and failure to timely pay all final wages. Over the 17-month period of his employment, Troester’s unpaid time totaled approximately 12 hours and 50 minutes. At the then-applicable minimum wage of $8 per hour, this unpaid time added up to $102.67, not including any penalties or other remedies.
In the lower court, Starbucks filed a motion for summary judgment asking the court to dismiss Plaintiff’s case based upon the de minimis doctrine. The trial court agreed with Starbucks and dismissed the case, assuming that the additional time would be administratively difficult to capture. However, this ruling was appealed to the California Supreme Court for review based on Plaintiff’s argument that the de minimis doctrine is not applicable under California law. The Supreme Court’s decision has major ramifications for California employers. For this week’s Friday’s Five, here are five issues about the Troester v. Starbucks Corp. holding and the de minimis doctrine employers must understand:
1. The de minimis doctrine: What is it?
The trial court, in granting Starbucks motion for summary judgment, explained the de minimis doctrine as follows:
Under this doctrine, alleged working time need not be paid if it is trivially small: “[A] few seconds or minutes of work beyond the scheduled working hours … may be disregarded.” Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., 328 U.S. 680, 692, 66 S.Ct. 1187, 90 L.Ed. 1515 (1946), superseded by statute on other grounds as stated in IBP, Inc. v. Alvarez, 546 U.S. 21, 25–26, 126 S.Ct. 514, 163 L.Ed.2d 288 (2005).
The California Supreme Court explained the concept as follows:
The de minimis doctrine is an application of the maxim de minimis non curat lex, which means “[t]he law does not concern itself with trifles.” (Black’s Law Dict. (10th ed. 2014) p. 524.) Federal courts have applied the doctrine in some 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.
2. What factors do courts look to in determining whether time is de minimis?
The factors some other courts have look to in determining whether time is de minimis include (1) the practical administrative difficulty of recording the additional time; (2) the aggregate amount of compensable time; and (3) the regularity of the additional work. The trial court in the Starbucks case noted that numerous courts have concluded that daily periods of about 10 minutes are de minimis.
3. Does the de minimum doctrine apply to California law?
The California Supreme Court held that the de minimis doctrine adopted under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not apply to California employers. However, the Court left open the possibility of some narrower version of the doctrine to apply in wage and hour cases:
In other words, although California has not adopted the federal de minimis doctrine, does some version of the doctrine nonetheless apply to wage and hour claims as a matter of state law? We hold that the relevant wage order and statutes do not permit application of the de minimis rule on the facts given to us by the Ninth Circuit, where the employer required the employee to work “off the clock” several minutes per shift. We do not decide whether there are circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.
We decline to decide whether a de minimis principle may ever apply to wage and hour claims given the wide range of scenarios in which this issue arises.
4. Legal and technical advances have limited the need for a de minimis doctrine in California.
The California Supreme Court refused to adopt the FLSA de minimis doctrine for a number of reasons, but specifically stated that the “modern availability of class action lawsuits undermines to some extent the rational behind a de minimis rule with respect to wage and hour actions.” The Court explained that individual recoveries which are too small to be worth the individual’s or the court’s time can be aggregated to “vindicate an important public policy.” “In this age of the consumer class action this maxim [de minimis non curat lex] usually has little value.”
Second, the California Supreme Court relied upon the “technical advances that enable employees to track and register their work time via smartphones, tablets, or other devices” that have made it easier to record employee’s time worked as an additional reason not to adopt the federal de minimis doctrine under California law.
Therefore, the Court held, “[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. As the facts here demonstrate, a few extra minutes of work each day can add up.”
5. The Supreme Court recognized some practical steps employers can take to address the “practical administrative difficulty of recording small amounts of time for payroll purposes.”
The Court held that employers are in a better position than employee to “devise alternatives that would permit the tracking of small amount of regularly occurring work time.” The Court described some alternatives employers could implement include:
- structuring work so that employees would not have to work before or after clocking out
- using technology to have time tracking tools to more accurately record employee’s time
- estimating the time it takes employees to perform work and to compensate employees for that time
The California Supreme Court’s decision, Troester v. Starbucks Corp., No. S234969, 2018 WL 3582702, at *2 (Cal. July 26, 2018) can be read here.