Attorney’s Fees Not Available For California Meal and Rest Break Claims Under Labor Code Section 226.7

May a party who prevails on an action based on Labor Code section 226.7 for failure to provide rest breaks be awarded attorneys fees? That was the question that was answered in Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., 53 Cal.4th 1244, 1248 (2012).

Plaintiffs Anthony Kirby and Rick Leech, Jr. sued defendant Immoos Fire Protection, Inc. (IFP) for violating various labor laws, one of which was the latter’s alleged failure to provide rest breaks as required by section 226.7. Plaintiff’s sought wage premiums for all missed rest periods. Ultimately, the complaint was dismissed, with IFP moving for attorney’s fees under Labor Code section 218.5.

Section 218.5 provides for a two-way fee-shifting provision. Under that provision, the prevailing party is entitled to attorney’s fees in any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions. However, this two-way fee-shifting provision does not apply to any action for which attorney’s fees are recoverable under Section 1194.

Section 1194 of the Labor Code provides for a one-way fee-shifting provision. This means that only a prevailing employee is entitled to recover attorney’s fees in an action for any unpaid minimum wage or overtime compensation.

Plaintiffs opposed IFP’s motion, claiming that section 1194 prohibited an award of attorney’s fees to the employer because their rest period claim is equivalent to a claim for minimum wage and is, thus, governed by section 1194’s one-way fee-shifting provision. The trial court ruled in favor of IFP, concluding that section 218.5 authorized an award of fees to IFP.

The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court, stating that an award of fees was proper under section 218.5 because “plaintiffs were seeking payment of ‘additional wages’ for missed rest periods.”

The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that section 1194 does not authorize the recovery of attorney’s fees by employees who prevail on section 226.7 claims. Moreover, section 218.5 also does not authorize the recovery of attorney’s fees by the prevailing party in actions based on section 226.7.

In analyzing the wording of the law, the Court emphasized that if there is no ambiguity in the language, the plain meaning of the statute governs. Moreover, labor statues are to be construed in favor of protecting employees.

Applying these principles, the Court ruled that section 1194 applies only to claims for unpaid minimum wages or overtime compensation in the literal, plainest meaning of the law. Thus, the one-way fee-shifting provision of section 1194 does not apply to actions for failure to provide rest breaks, which have nothing to do with minimum wages or overtime compensation in the ordinary sense.

The Supreme Court then proceeded to explain that a claim under section 226.7 for failure to provide rest breaks does not constitute an action brought for the nonpayment of wages within the meaning of section 218.5. According to the Court, what is considered a violation under section 226.7 is not the nonpayment of wages but the very failure to provide the required meal and rest breaks. Thus, this takes claims under section 226.7 out of section 218.5’s coverage.

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