Supreme Court Issues Ruling on Off the Clock Work – The De Minimis Debate

Are you an employee who’s ever wondered about the value of the minor tasks you do at work? Perhaps you’re an hourly employee who frequently finds yourself doing seemingly insignificant chores after clocking out. This might include locking doors, setting alarms, carrying trash to an outside dumpster and so forth.

While a few minor assignments done after one shift might not seem significant, these moments spent in service of the company add up over a period of days, weeks and years. The California Supreme Court took up the question of this type of work after a Starbucks manager named Douglas Troester, along with a group of employees, sued the company claiming they were denied payment for after-shift work. The court specifically looked the legal doctrine of “de minimis” work, a Latin term referring to matters too small for the law to concern itself with.  In a boost for worker’s rights, the court sided with the employees.

This article was written to discuss the court’s decision, and how it might apply to workers statewide. If you feel you’ve been denied your rightful wages, or have been otherwise treated unlawfully by your employer, contact attorney Branigan Robertsonto schedule a consultation.

Douglas Troester v Starbucks Corporation, A Brief Recap

Starbuck’s store manager Doug Troester, along with several non-managerial employees, filed suit against the coffee giant Starbucks in August of 2012 in Los Angeles Superior Court. Troester’s complaint alleged that between mid 2009 and October 2010, he and his co-plaintiffs performed tasks after closing time for which they weren’t paid.

Troester was able to provide evidence of his activities at closing time thanks to Starbuck’s tracking software, which required him to clock out at the end of every shift. After clocking out, Troester would initiate a “close out” procedure on a separate terminal in the store’s back office. This procedure would transmit daily sales information to Starbuck’s corporate headquarters. After this, Troester would set the store’s alarm, exit the building and lock the door. On occasion, and in line with Starbuck’s company policy, he would walk other employees to their car for safety. He also submitted evidence that he occasionally let employees back inside the store to retrieve items they’d left behind. There were also times when the store had to be unlocked to retrieve patio furniture that had been left outside. It was determined that during this period, Troester’s unpaid wages added up to 12 hours and 50 minutes, which at the current rate of pay came out to $102.67.

Starbucks removed the case to federal court, and the court ruled in favor of the company. While the court agreed that Troester did in fact work hours for which he wasn’t paid, the court relied on a legal doctrine known as de minimis — a matter too small for the law to concern itself with. In other words, $102.67 wasn’t worth the court’s consideration.

Troester appealed the case, and the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit asked that the California Supreme Courtto consider the question of whether de minimis doctrine applies to unpaid wage claims under California’s Labor Code.

State Supreme Court Takes the Case, Rules in Favor of Workers

The State Supreme Court, which rendered its 7-0 decision in July 2018, based its ruling on provisions of the Labor Codeas well as the state’s 18 wage orders. In considering these two factors, Justice Goodwin Liu noted that the law’s purpose is “protection of employees — particularly given the extent of legislative concern about working conditions, wages and hours when the Legislature enacted key portions of the Labor Code.”

In examining Wage Order number 5, which encompasses the housekeeping industry, and includes Starbucks, the court noted that work hours are defined as the time during which the employer knew or should have known the employee was working on its behalf.

Citing the Wage Order’s wording which requires employees to be compensated for all time worked, the court concluded that the de minimis doctrine, “has no application under the circumstances presented.”

Some of Liu’s strongest wording focused on the idea that off-the-clock work was viewed as a trifle at all:

“As the facts here demonstrate, a few extra minutes of work each day can add up. According to the Ninth Circuit, Troester is seeking payment for 12 hours and 50 minutes of compensable work over a 17-month period, which amounts to $102.67 at a wage of $8 per hour. That’s enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries, or cover a month of bus fares. What Starbucks calls “de minimis” is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.”

The court’s ruling stated that an employer may not evade its obligation to pay employees who work off the clock on a regular basis by “invoking the de minimis doctrine.”

What this Means for Workers

For California employees who have worked off the clock at regular intervals for an extended period of time, this ruling could potentially mean a chunk of back pay is owed them. While Federal courts are empowered to rely on de minimis doctrine in similar matters, in California, the Supreme Court has made it clear this doctrine doesn’t fly. Larger companies that encourage off clock work among many employees could potentially be exposed to liability via class action law suits.

At the very least, this is a ruling that all hourly employees should be aware of when calculating their weekly pay. While it’s not worth the strain and effort of filing a complaint over a couple minutes worked after shift, it might be worth discussing the situation with your employer, particularly if it happens with any regularity.

If You Have Questions About Wages, Contact an Employment Attorney

If you’ve read this article and wonder if perhaps your employer has failed to pay you your rightful wages, it’s important to remember that there are a number of different situations in which an employer might deny a worker his or her proper wages. Some of these might relate to discrimination, while others might involve blatant greed. An employment attorney can help you figure out which laws may have been violated. But it’s important to remember that the clock starts ticking the moment an employer violates the law. You usually have a limited amount of time to file a complaint. If you have questions, it could be well worth your time and effort to discuss your situation with a professional who understand the tricks that companies pull to deny workers their rightful compensation. Contact the office of Branigan Robertsonto discuss your situation and find out how he can help.

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