Ninth Circuit Green-Light’s FMCSA Decision to Preempt California Break Rules

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The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) determination that federal law preempts California’s meal and rest break requirements as to drivers of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles (CMVs), who are subject to the FMCSA’s hours of service (HOS) regulations. The Ninth Circuit’s decision provides much needed clarity for companies employing such drivers, allowing them to operate in compliance with the FMCSA HOS drive-time, break, and time recording rules, without the additional costs burdens imposed by California’s break rules. 

However, the decision may still be overruled through en banc review by the Ninth Circuit or on petition to the Supreme Court.  Additionally, it is possible that the FMCSA reverses course after President Biden’s nominated Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg is in the driver’s seat.  A copy of the opinion is available here.

BACKGROUND & SUMMARY

On December 21, 2018, the FMCSA issued a Determination of Preemption, finding that California’s break rules are subject to the Secretary of Transportation’s authority to review and preempt state laws and regulations on CMV safety. (Federal regulations delegate the Secretary’s authority to the FMCSA Administrator.)  This finding was a departure from a 2008 decision, in which the FMCSA concluded that California’s break rules could not be regulations on CMV safety because they “cover far more than the trucking industry.”  The FMCSA supported the departure by pointing to its 2011 revisions to the HOS rules.  Among other changes, the 2011 revisions created a mandatory rest period requirement, which the FMCSA found are “unquestionably” rules on CMV safety. Because California’s break rules govern the same subject as the mandatory rest break requirement under the FMCSA’s HOS rules, the FMCSA concluded that California’s break requirements are also rules on CMV safety and thus subject to preemption review.

Because California’s rules are additional to or more stringent than the HOS regulations, they were subject to preemption upon a finding that they either (1) have no safety benefit, (2) are incompatible with the HOS regulations, or (3) would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.  The FMCSA determined that California’s break rules check each box. It then concluded that California may no longer enforce its break rules with respect to property-carrying CMV drivers subject to the FMCSA’s HOS rules.  

On December 28, 2020, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters petitioned the Ninth Circuit to review and reverse FMCSA’s determination.  California’s Labor Commissioner and others also filed petitions for review.  The Ninth Circuit rejected petitioners’ arguments and upheld the FMCSA’s decision, holding the FMCSA acted within its authority under federal law.  The court distinguished its prior decision in Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC, 769 F.3d 637 (9th Cir. 2014) because it was decided based on a different federal preemption law concerning state laws that are “related to” CMV prices, routes, or services. 

PRACTICAL POINTERS

Many California truckers and drivers remain subject to the state’s break rules.  Although the FMCSA’s HOS regulations, and thus the preemption decision, will apply to any person who operates a CMV (49 C.F.R. §§ 390.5 and 395.1), the roads are not all clear.  Companies must confirm that drivers are operating a vehicle that meets the detailed definition of a CMV, which is not always a simple task.

A CMV is defined as “a self-propelled or towed vehicle used on the highways in interstate commerce to transport passengers or property” depending on the vehicle’s weight or weight rating, number of potential passengers, or the type of property it is used to transport.  A critical factor is whether the vehicle is used “in interstate commerce,” which includes “trade, traffic, or transportation … [b]etween two places in a State as part of trade, traffic, or transportation originating or terminating outside the State or the United States.” (49 C.F.R. § 390.5.)  This definition includes the intrastate transport of goods in “the flow of interstate commerce,” which may be interpreted broadly. 

For example, in 2019, a California Court of Appeal concluded that a driver who transported beer and liquor from his employer’s California warehouse to California retail stores was engaged in interstate commerce because the “deliveries, although interstate, were essentially the last phase of a continuous journey of the interstate commerce.”  Nieto v. Fresno Beverage Co., 33 Cal.App.5th 274 (2019), reh’g denied (Mar. 27, 2019), review denied (July 10, 2019). In that case, the court found the beverages were held in the employer’s warehouse for a “short period,” which was not sufficient to disrupt the “continuous stream of interstate travel.” 

Before leaving California’s break rules in the dust, companies should evaluate its drivers’ routes and shipments to confirm that they are transporting property in interstate commerce, which would likely require the advice of legal counsel.  Additionally, those companies and their drivers still must comply with the FMCSA’s HOS drive-time, break, and time recording rules.  It would be the employer’s burden to establish the FMCSA preemption defense in any related litigation, which would be a difficult task if the employer does not treat them as being subject to the FMCSA’s HOS rules. Moreover, employers should be aware that this area of the law may continue to evolve in the near-term.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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