Ninth Circuit Upholds Federal Preemption of California’s Meal and Rest Break Laws for Interstate Commercial Drivers

Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.In one of the year’s most anticipated court decisions for the trucking industry, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 2785, et al. v. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, No. 19-70413 (January 15, 2021), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ruling that federal rest break regulations preempted California’s meal and rest break rules, as applied to drivers of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles.

Title 49, Section 31141(c) of the United States Code gives the FMCSA the authority to review whether its rules and regulations preempt state laws “on commercial motor vehicle safety.” In 2018, the FMCSA reviewed California’s meal and rest break rules and determined that they  were preempted by the agency’s own break requirements. This determination was challenged and ultimately brought before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In reviewing the FMCSA’s determination, the Ninth Circuit focused on the operative language in the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984: “on commercial motor vehicle safety.” Its analysis largely centered on how broadly the word “on” could be construed in this statement. Opponents of the FMCSA’s ruling argued that California’s break rules were not laws “on” commercial motor vehicle safety because they were not “specifically directed at commercial motor vehicle safety.”

The Ninth Circuit disagreed. It found that the FMCSA could “reasonably conclude” that its rules preempted state law, even when the law was not “specifically directed” at commercial motor vehicle safety. California’s meal and rest break rules may serve a purpose beyond just commercial motor vehicle safety, but that is not enough to save them from preemption. Instead, the court held, California’s meal and rest break rules “are regulations ‘on commercial motor vehicle safety’ because they are within the FMCSA’s specific regulatory domain and the subject of existing federal regulation in the very same area.”

Implied in the opinion, however, is the caveat that such preemption may not always be justified. The court merely ruled that the FMCSA could “permissibly conclude” that its regulations preempted California’s break rules and that this conclusion was entitled to deference. This means the FMCSA could change its position in the future.

Other aspects of the statute’s language support the same conclusion, including the term “safety” in the phrase “on commercial motor vehicle safety.” As noted in the amicus brief filed by the National Armored Car Association, armored car drivers collect and transport large amounts of cash, coin, and valuable items in public. It is commonly known that thieves and armed robbers target armored vehicles and their drivers. One need not look hard to see the problems that may be created by requiring armored car drivers to follow California’s more strictly timed off-duty and off-premises meal periods. Forcing an armored car driver to pull over for a mandatory 30-minute meal period at or before a specified time may place the driver at greater risk of injury or death.

Federal regulations, on the other hand, are far more flexible and allow drivers to exercise discretion as to when and where they choose to take their breaks. For the armored car industry, a future finding that federal regulations do not preempt California’s meal and rest break rules could be disastrous.

In sum, the Ninth Circuit’s opinion has far-reaching consequences for both the drivers, and the employers of drivers, of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles.

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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