July 27, 2018

California Supreme Court Rejects Federal De Minimis Doctrine for State Wage Claims

On July 26, 2018, in a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation held that the federal “de minimis doctrine” does not apply to claims for unpaid wages under the California Labor Code. 

The federal “de minimis doctrine,” which has existed for decades in connection with claims brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act, effectively excuses employers from paying wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time, taking into account three factors: (1) the administrative difficulty of recording the additional time, (2) the aggregate amount of compensable time, and (3) the regularity of the additional work.

The plaintiff in Troester worked for Starbucks as a shift supervisor. At the end of every closing shift, he was required to clock out before completing a handful of final tasks, including starting a software program that submitted data to headquarters, activating the store alarm, locking up, and walking his coworkers to their cars. Because he had already clocked out, he was not paid for the time he spent performing these activities, which usually took four to ten minutes each day.

When the plaintiff sued for unpaid wages under the California Labor Code, Starbucks argued that the “de minimis doctrine” applied to the few quick tasks the plaintiff had to perform after clocking out. The California Supreme Court disagreed. Noting that California wage laws are generally more protective of employees than federal wage laws and require employees to be paid for “any” and “all” time worked, the Court held that the “de minimis doctrine” is not a valid defense to claims for unpaid wages brought under state law.

Importantly, however, although the Court rejected the federal “de minimis doctrine,” it acknowledged that there might be scenarios where an employee’s “activities… are so irregular or brief in duration that it would not be reasonable to require employers to compensate employees for the time spent on them.” Whether such circumstances exist, or what those circumstances might look like, remain open questions going forward. What the Court made clear, though, was that the plaintiff’s situation at Starbucks was not one of those circumstances: “What Starbucks calls ‘de minimis’ is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.” 

What Employers Should Know

There certainly will be a flood of litigation testing whether various off the clock activities are “so irregular or brief” that employers are excused from paying employees for time spent on them. Nevertheless, given the Court’s hostility to the Starbucks argument, it is almost certain that any such circumstances will be rare. It is crucial now that employers evaluate their timekeeping practices to determine whether there is any work that employees are performing before or after clocking in/out, especially work that is done regularly and amounts to more than just a few seconds.