The De Minimis Doctrine Is Alive and Well in California

On March 7, 2014, in Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California applied the de minimis doctrine and granted summary judgment to the employer in a putative class action seeking allegedly unpaid minimum and overtime wages, along with derivative penalties, for time spent after the plaintiff clocked out for the day.  

Troester is notable not only because the employer was able defeat a putative class action by showing that the named plaintiff himself had no viable claims, but also because the sole basis on which the court granted summary judgment was that the post-shift time at issue was de minimis. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., the de minimis doctrine recognizes that “[s]plit-second absurdities are not justified by the actualities of working conditions.” What constitutes a “split-second absurdity” thus takes center stage in many off-the-clock cases where the time at issue is minimal.

In Troester, the plaintiff sought compensation for time spent setting an alarm, locking the doors of the store, and occasionally walking other employees to their cars or bringing a few items of patio furniture inside, after he clocked out for the day. The evidence showed that the plaintiff spent approximately two to five minutes on such activities every day. The court held that the “few minutes that [p]laintiff spent closing the store at the end of his shift were far from substantial and fell well within the 10-minute de minimis benchmark.” The court also noted that, as in other cases that applied the de minimis standard, it would not have been administratively practical for the employer to monitor and record the relatively minimal amount of time it took the employee to perform these activities.

In so holding, the court first recognized that the de minimis doctrine, which grew up under the Fair Labor Standards Act, also applies under California law. The court then summarized case law on the issue from courts in the Ninth Circuit, particularly in California, as follows:

 To determine whether work time is de minimis, courts consider: “(1) the practical administrative difficulty of recording the additional time; (2) the aggregate amount of compensable time; and (3) the regularity of the additional work.” Applying these standards, numerous courts have held that daily periods of approximately 10 minutes are de minimis.

The court cited cases in which the de minimis doctrine was applied to preclude additional compensation for: five minutes spent walking to lunch after passing through a security clearance; six minutes logging in to a computer program, noting the time would be “arduous” to monitor and record; “several minutes” spent waiting for security checks at the end of closing shifts; and less than 10 minutes spent donning and doffing protective gear.   

In contrast to these cases, in Gilmer v. Alameda-Contra Costa Transit District, the court found that a daily average of one minute and 40 seconds of uncompensated mid-shift travel time, in the aggregate, was not de minimis. The time at issue in Gilmer was not a “split-second absurdity,” the court found, because historical records allowed for precise calculation showing that the plaintiff had experienced exactly 797 minutes of mandatory uncompensated mid-shift travel time during the relevant period.

While the district court’s decision in Troester may well be appealed, two things are certain: (1) the Troester decision is valuable reading for its substantial discussion regarding the de minimis doctrine; and (2) this is an area of law well worth keeping close tabs on, as it continues to develop. 

Readers should also note that the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari to review the Ninth Circuit’s decision in Busk v. Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc., which Troester cited with approval in its application of the de minimis doctrine. The central issue in Busk is the compensability of time spent in mandatory security screening. In its petition for certiorari, however, the employer did not raise the de minimis issue. Thus, it remains to be seen whether, or to what extent, the Supreme Court’s decision in Busk will address the de minimis doctrine.

Photo credit: Hustvedt

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.