Seyfarth Synopsis: Following the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's determination in December 2018 that federal law preempts California's meal and rest break rules, observers questioned what deference courts would give to the agency's determination. This week, a Los Angeles Superior Court was the first California state court to apply the determination, dismissing armored truck drivers' claims against a security company because federal hours of service rules governing commercial truck drivers preempt California's meal and rest break rules for both long- and short-haul drivers. While this state court ruling is favorable, all eyes remain on how the Ninth Circuit will address this preemption issue in a pending appeal brought by the State of California and several other groups, arguing the federal agency overstepped its authority. Employers should proceed with caution until the Ninth Circuit resolves the preemption issue.

The FMCSA's Preemption Determination:

On December 21, 2018, the FMCSA concluded that federal transportation law preempts California's onerous meal and rest break rules when a driver is subject to federal hours-of-service requirements. In plain language, the FMCSA found that California's rules "are incompatible with the federal hours of service regulations and that they cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce." Consequently, "California may no longer enforce the [state meal and rest break rules] with respect to drivers of property-carrying [commercial motor vehicles] subject to FMCSA's [hours of service] rules." Given the ramifications of this preemption determination, observers questioned whether, and to what extent, California courts would defer to the federal agency's determination in future meal and rest break cases brought by drivers. Indeed, the determination appears to contradict binding authority from the Ninth Circuit as recently as 2014, holding federal law does not preempt California state law mandating meal and rest breaks for drivers.

The State of California and several other groups responded to the FMCSA's determination, immediately filing petitions with the Ninth Circuit to challenge the FMCSA's authority to invalidate California's rules. These petitions are pending and no opinion from the Ninth Circuit is imminent.

Absent Appellate Authority, Courts Begin Applying The FMCSA's Preemption Determination

In May 2019, a federal district court in California first applied the FMCSA's determination and dismissed a truck driver's meal and rest break claims. The court concluded that it "currently has no authority to enforce the [meal and rest break] regulations," as it was "bound by the FMCSA Order and will apply the Order unless and until it is invalidated by the Ninth Circuit."

Then, last week, a Los Angeles Superior Court made public its order dismissing armored truck drivers' meal and rest break claims against a security company on the ground that federal rules governing the hours of service for both long- and short-haul drivers preempt California's state rules. While noting the controversial nature of the determination, the Court ruled it was "obligated to recognize the supremacy of federal law under the United States Constitution and the oath of judicial office" and the Court "has no choice but to respect and enforce the FMCSA Administrator’s preemption Determination without trying to second-guess its legal or policy correctness." This order amounts to first time a California state court agreed with the FMCSA's preemption determination.

Employers Still Should Proceed With Caution

While these recent court orders are welcome news to employers with drivers subject to federal rules, employers should proceed with caution until the Ninth Circuit addresses the critical issue raised by the FMCSA's determination: whether federal law preempts California's state meal and rest break claims, or whether the FMCSA exceeded its authority in issuing the determination.

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