Monday, November 3, 2014

First District Upholds Class-Wide Meal/Rest Break Judgment Based on Employer’s Failure to Maintain Meal/Rest Break Policies and Practice of Counting Time Waiting to Enter/Exit Oakland Port As A Break: Godfrey v. Oakland Port Servs. Corp.

On Oct. 28, 2014, the First District Court of Appeal (Division 2) issued an opinion in Godfrey v. Oakland Port Servs. Corp. , __ Cal.App.4th __; 2014 Cal. App. LEXIS 980 (2014), upholding a $964,557.08 class-wide meal and rest period judgment secured on behalf of truck drivers who performed work out of employer AB Trucking’s Oakland facility.  In addition to concluding that California meal and rest break requirements are not barred by FAAAA preemption [Slip Opinion, at 9-17], which mirrors the holding of the Ninth Circuit in Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, ___ F.3d___ (9th Cir. Sept. 8, 2014), the Court upheld the trial court’s finding of “absolute” meal and rest period liability based on the employer’s failure to maintain a meal/rest period policy, and practice of providing drivers meal and rest breaks while waiting in line to enter or exit the Port in their trucks.

With regard to the latter issue, the employer’s challenge turned on the trial court’s finding that no class-member had received a legally complaint meal or rest break.  The employer claimed this was error, and that “the [trial] court should have reserved individual determinations of damages for a claims administration process rather than granting ‘a maximum damage award to each and every member of the plaintiff class, based upon an assumption that all of them had the same experience as the handful of drivers who testified on plaintiffs' behalf at trial ….’” See Slip Opinion, at 18-19.  The Court rejected this contention outright, concluding that the evidence cited in the trial court’s Statement of Decision established the employer had categorically failed to satisfy its threshold meal/rest break obligations in the first instance on multiple, independent grounds.  Id., at 19-22.

First, the trial court concluded that the employer’s failure to communicate a meal and rest period policy to employees violated the employer’s legal obligation to authorize breaks in the first instance.  See Slip Opinion, at 20 (“[T]he evidence shows AB neither maintained, nor provided drivers, any 'formal' meal period policy. The first example of unlawful discouragement provided in Brinker presumes the existence of a formal meal period policy. AB does not meet the ‘provide’ standard because it provided no evidence showing drivers were, at a minimum, informed in any meaningful or consistent way that they could take a meal period, or the definition of any such meal period.”); Id., at 21 (“AB provided no evidence of any formal policy on rest breaks” and “[a]s with meal periods, there is no indication drivers were, at a minimum, informed in any meaningful or consistent way that they could take rest breaks, or the definition of any such rest breaks.’”).

Second, the trial court concluded that the employer’s practice of providing drivers breaks during “waiting time” while in line at the Port – which by definition was not a duty-free break –violated the employer’s obligation to release employees of duty:
The evidence reflects AB knew drivers were stuck in line to enter the Port, once inside the Port, and in order to exit the Port, every single day. Yet it did not provide for the relief of its employees' duties during this 'waiting' time. Waiting, even in a comfortable location, is 'on-duty' by definition: here, drivers were waiting to complete a task assigned by their employer.
See Slip Opinion, at 21.

The Court of Appeal held that these findings rendered the employer’s criticism regarding the scope of damages without merit:
AB's contention that the SOD did not apply to "all" class members and that it did not say that deprivation of meal and rest breaks happened "most of the time" is not well taken. A fair reading of the court's factual findings shows that with respect to the class as a whole, the court determined that AB had no policy of providing rest and meal breaks, that breaks the drivers were able to take were usually on-duty breaks, and that AB consistently discouraged or prevented the taking of off-duty breaks. The court's finding of liability applied to the class as a whole, and to its members individually.
See Slip Opinion, at 20.

Moreover, the Court of Appeal rejected the employer’s claim that these findings were inconsistent with “generalized” employee-testimony claiming that they always received meal and rest breaks.  See id., at 21, fn. 21 (“Francis stated that he ‘always’ took his lunch break, but we find no testimony that these were off-duty breaks, in conformance with IWC Order No. 9-2001.… Gaines said that he took rest breaks, but it appears that he counted time in his truck, waiting in line at the Port—time that was not off duty—as break time.”).  Such testimony did not conflict with “the [trial] court's finding that AB did not provide for conforming breaks and actively and consistently impeded or discouraged drivers from taking them” and as such, “failed to undermine the damages model upon which the court based its award.”  See id., at 22.

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