California Supreme Court Rejects the De Minimis Doctrine

The de minimis doctrine (taken from the Latin maxim de minimis non curat lex) means “[t]he law does not concern itself with trifles”. In adopting this doctrine, the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) provides that insignificant periods of time beyond scheduled working hours, which cannot be precisely recorded for payroll purposes, need not be compensated. Federal courts have applied the doctrine to excuse the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time upon proof that they are administratively difficult to record.

The next question that comes to mind for California employees is: Does the de minimis doctrine apply under the California Labor Code and Wage Orders? In Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, the California Supreme Court noted that California’s Wage Orders and statutes do not allow the application of the de minimis doctrine.

Troester filed a class action suit against his employer, Starbucks Corporation, contending that after he clocked out on every closing shift, he was required to activate “close store procedure” software, activate the store alarm, and lock the front door. In addition, he had to walk employees to their cars in compliance with Starbucks policy, and on occasion, reopened the store to let employees retrieve forgotten belongings, wait for employees’ rides to arrive, or bring in furniture left outside. Troester pointed out that these closing tasks took him an additional 4-10 minutes each day, totaling 12 hours and 50 minutes of unpaid time in the 17-month period of his employment.

In determining whether California has adopted the federal de minimis rule, the Supreme Court observed that IWC Wage Order No. 5, which refers to the “public housekeeping industry,” includes establishments like Starbucks that provide food and beverages. Under this Wage Order, hours worked includes “the time during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer, and includes all the time the employee is suffered or permitted to work, whether or not required to do so.”

The Court held that the Labor Code and Wage Orders are liberally construed to favor the protection of employees. Applying this principle, the Court observed that the federal rule allowing the non-compensation of negligible amounts of work time is less protective than California’s requirement that an employee must be paid for all hours worked.

Moreover, the Court mentioned that the application of the de minimis doctrine is inappropriate when the law does care for small things.  For example, California law ensures that most nonexempt employees receive two daily 10-minute rest breaks where employees are completely relieved of any work-related duties. The Supreme Court has scrupulously guarded against encroachments on this 10-minute period, requiring employers to compensate employees for violations of this rule.

A few minutes of work each day can add up. Troester demonstrates that the de minimis doctrine has no application under circumstances where a California employee is regularly required to work an insignificant amount of time after work hours. The relevant California statutes and Wage Orders allow all employees who routinely work even a few minutes off-the-clock to be paid.

Read the full text of the case here.

Leave a Comment