Wage-Hour Rulings Impacting Air Carriers Show Continued Headwinds In California

Seyfarth Shaw LLP

[co-author: Justin Stucki]*

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Northern District of California recently issued two rulings with noteworthy employment implications for commercial air carriers. The first ruling represents the first time a court has found that federal aviation safety regulations preempted California-based pilots’ meal and rest period claims based on the California Labor Code. The district court also ruled that the air carrier was not required to reimburse pilots for their alleged work-related use of personal cell phones when company phones were provided. Meanwhile, a different district court rejected the argument that pilots are exempt from California state wage-hour laws under the “learned professionals” exception. Horowitz v. SkyWest Airlines, Inc. and Goldthorpe, et al. v. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd.

A Win for SkyWest Airlines Against Putative Class of California-Based Pilots

In Horowitz v. SkyWest Airlines, Inc., the district court granted SkyWest’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that the Federal Aviation Act (FAAct) preempted California wage-hour claims brought on behalf of SkyWest’s California-based pilots. Plaintiff alleged that SkyWest failed to provide California-based pilots with the meal and rest periods to which they believed they were entitled. But, for the first time, the district court ruled that the FAAct, and accompanying regulations, preempt such claims under California law.

The district court relied on the Ninth Circuit case Ventress v. Japan Airlines, in which the Ninth Circuit held, “[T]he FAA, together with federal aviation regulations … occupies the entire field of aviation safety and that Congress clearly indicated its intent to be the sole regulator of this field.” Thus, the district court concluded that meal and rest periods fall under the umbrella of federal aviation safety guidelines, and that, as such, California cannot regulate this area via its state labor code. Critically, this ruling applies only to California-based pilots, and it comes in the wake of decisions finding that the FAAct does not preempt flight attendants’ meal and rest period claims arising under California state law.

In addition to addressing the meal and rest period claims, the ruling noted plaintiff’s complaint alleged he was “required by SkyWest to use his personal cell phone regularly to clock in when arriving at the airport; clock out when leaving the airport; and make calls to, and receive calls from, traffic controllers, maintenance crews, and dispatch,” but that SkyWest did not reimburse plaintiff for this alleged use.

However, the district court dismissed the claim that the pilots were not reimbursed for personnel cell phone use, finding that the evidence showed that the pilots were not required to use their own cell phone since SkyWest provided the pilots with cell phones to use for Company business. Any use of a personal cell phone then was a personal, voluntary, decision that did not trigger Labor Code section 2802’s requirement that the expense be necessary or mandatory. In a common-sense application of Section 2802, pilots cannot expect reimbursement for using their personal cell phones for work communications where their employer already provided them with alternative means to carry out these communications.

Pilots Are Not Exempt From Wage-Hour Rules Under The “Learned Professional” Exemption

In Goldthorpe, et al. v. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., the district court rejected Cathay Pacific’s argument that pilots should be exempt from California’s wage-hour requirements under the “learned professional” exception. Under the applicable regulations, “learned professions” are limited to those positions that require “an advanced academic degree as a standard prerequisite.” The evidence before the district court showed, however, that Cathay does not require any advanced academic degree to be a pilot. Consequently, despite the rigorous training and expertise that is required of pilots, the district court found that a strict reading of the regulations means that pilots do not fall under the “learned professional.”

What the Rulings Mean for Employers

As we have written before, air carriers, for decades, have acted in good faith in complying with federal and state law as interpreted by numerous courts. These rulings continue that trend, showing the difficulty and ambiguity air carriers face with respect to their California operations, while also establishing the good-faith defenses available to air carriers in these important, high-stakes disputes.

Unless the Ninth Circuit (or another appellate court) decides otherwise, these rulings are also significant in that they, on the one hand, take pressure off air carrier employers in complying with California’s stringent meal and rest break requirements with respect to California-based pilots and, on the other, reaffirm that pilots generally are not “exempt” employees under the California Labor Code.

*Summer Associate in our San Francisco office.

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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