January 15, 2021

Ninth Circuit Upholds FMCSA Preemption of California Meal and Rest Break Laws

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit on January 15 upheld the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (“FMCSA”) determination that federal law preempted California’s meal and rest break rules (“MRB rules”), as applied to drivers of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles who are subject to the FMCSA’s own rest break regulations.  International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 2785 v. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, No. 18-73488 (2021). 

In 2011, the FMCSA, an agency within the Department of Transportation, revised the federal hours-of-service regulations, which imposed certain limits on the driving time of commercial motor vehicle drivers, to require that drivers working more than eight hours must take at least one 30-minute break during the first eight hours of work, though the driver has flexibility as to when the break occurs.  

California’s MRB rules, however, require with limited waiver exceptions that drivers working more than five hours in a day are entitled to a 30-minute meal period, drivers working more than 10 hours are entitled to a second 30-minute meal period, and that drivers are entitled to 10-minute rest breaks for every four hours worked throughout the day. The MRB rules also prescribe when these breaks are to be taken, in so far as is practicable, and prohibit combining meal periods and rest breaks in one longer break.

In 2018, two transportation industry groups asked the FMCSA to revisit a prior determination that federal law did not preempt California’s MRB rules. The FMCSA, after seeking public comment on the preemption question, declared California’s MRB rules preempted as applied to operators of property-carrying motor vehicles subject to the federal hours-of-service regulations. The FMCSA concluded that compared to federal safety regulations, California’s MRB rules generally require that employers allow commercial truck drivers to take more rest breaks, at greater frequency, and with less flexibility as to when the breaks occur.

California’s Labor Commissioner and other groups (labor organizations and affected individuals) challenged the FMCSA’s determination, but the Ninth Circuit rejected each of the petitioners’ arguments and upheld the FMCSA’s preemption determination. The Ninth Circuit held that the FMCSA acted within its authority to review for preemption state laws and regulations “on commercial motor vehicle safety” under 49 U.S.C. § 31141(c), and that the agency’s interpretation of the statute and the phrase “on commercial motor vehicle safety” merited deference under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984). The court distinguished its prior decision in Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, 769 F.3d 637, 643 (9th Cir. 2014)., because that case concerned the scope of an express preemption provision in the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994 (FAAAA) prohibiting state laws that are “related to” prices, routes, or services of commercial motor vehicles, while the issue presented in this case was whether the FMCSA properly exercised discretionary authority delegated to it by Section 31141.  

The court then held that the FMCSA reasonably determined that California’s MRB rules imposed additional and more stringent requirements than the FMCSA’s own regulations, and that the FMCSA simply determined that, in its view, federal regulations adequately and more appropriately balanced the competing interests between safety and economic burden.

What Employers Should Know

Assuming the decision is not overturned through en banc review by the Ninth Circuit or on petition to the Supreme Court, this ruling will provide much needed clarity for companies that employ property-carrying motor vehicle drivers subject to the FMCSA’s regulations, allowing these companies to operate in compliance with the federal hours-of-service regulations without fear of the added cost and logistical burdens associated with also complying with California’s MRB rules. Contact Payne & Fears LLP if you have questions about this ruling, the status of any appeal or petition, or its application to your workforce.