California Supreme Court Holds Employees Not Entitled to Attorneys' Fees for Meal & Rest Period Claims
In a decision that represents more good news for employers doing business in California, the California Supreme Court recently held that employees may not recover attorneys' fees for meal and rest period claims. On April 30, the Supreme Court issued its decision in Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., holding that employees may not recover attorneys' fees under California Labor Code Section 1194 for meal and rest period claims. Section 1194 provides attorneys' fees for minimum wage and overtime wage claims. The plaintiff, Anthony Kirby, argued that meal and rest period claims are similar enough to statutory minimum wage claims that they should fall within this attorneys' fee statute. The court disagreed however, relying on legislative intent and the plain meaning of the statute. The court held that the statute applied only to minimum wage and overtime claims as those terms are ordinarily defined.
Kirby, a former employee of Immoos Fire Protection, filed the lawsuit on behalf of himself and other employees and subcontractors similarly situated, alleging several wage claims, including unpaid overtime, itemized wage statements, and failure to provide required rest breaks. The case reached the Supreme Court after an appeals court affirmed an award of fees to Immoos Fire Protection for a rest break claim that the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed following settlement.
While holding that employees may not recover attorneys' fees for meal and rest period claims, the court also found the same was true for employers. The court held employers also may not pursue attorneys' fees under the shifting attorneys' fee provision contained in California Labor Code Section 218.5, which normally allows employers to recover fees if they successfully defend claims alleging the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions. On balance, however, the decision is believed to be positive for employers.
Kirby comes on the heals of the California Supreme Court's recent decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, in which the court held, among other things, that employers are required to relieve employees of all duties during an uninterrupted 30-minute meal break, but are not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure that no work is performed during the meal breaks.
It is hoped that the decision in Kirby, coupled with the recent Brinker decision, will deter plaintiffs' attorneys from pursuing so many meal and rest period claims or, at a minimum, encourage them to be far more selective in the cases they choose to litigate.
© 2012 Perkins Coie LLP