Ninth Circuit hears oral arguments on California break law preemption

November 17, 2020

Mark Schremmer


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard oral arguments on Monday, Nov. 16, over whether or not the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration had the authority to preempt California’s meal and rest break laws.

FMCSA made the determination in December 2018 that California’s rules were “incompatible” with federal regulations.

“Safety is FMCSA’s top priority, and having uniform rules is a key component to increasing safety for our truck drivers,” then FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez said in a Dec. 21, 2018, news release. “During the public comment period, FMCSA heard directly from drivers, small-business owners and industry stakeholders that California’s meal and rest rules not only pose a safety risk but also lead to a loss in productivity and, ultimately, hurt American consumers.”

California’s meal and rest break laws generally require employers to provide employees with an off-duty 30-minute break for every five hours worked and a 10-minute off-duty break for every four-hour period. The law led to numerous class action lawsuits against trucking companies.

FMCSA has said that federal law provides for preemption of state laws on commercial motor vehicle safety that are additional to or more stringent than federal regulations if they have no safety benefit, are incompatible with federal regulations, or would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.

Attorneys for California and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said during oral arguments that until recently FMCSA had “consistently adhered to the position that it had no authority to preempt such generally applicable background laws … because they are not laws on commercial motor vehicle safety.”

The attorneys also contended that the California meal and rest break laws are about general employee health and welfare rather than highway safety.

Judge Andrew David Hurwitz asked FMCSA why California can’t make a law in addition to the federal regulation on highway safety.

“California says it would like them comfortable in addition to safety,” Judge Hurwitz said. “They’re saying our law is about dignity and human right rights, not about safety. How do we evaluate that argument?”

FMCSA contended that the agency’s previous interpretation of the law is “irrelevant” and that California’s break rules is clearly a law on motor vehicle safety.

In 2018, the agency called the California law “burdensome.”

“California’s law is incompatible with federal regulations and causes a disruption in interstate commerce,” FMCSA wrote. “In addition, the confusing and conflicting requirements are overly burdensome for drivers and reduce productivity, increasing costs for consumers. Additionally, safety issues have likely resulted from the lack of adequate parking solutions for trucks in the state.”

Washington’s break rules

In a determination published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, Nov. 17, FMCSA determined that Washington’s meal and rest break rules also are preempted by federal rules.

The notice was in response to a petition submitted by the Washington Trucking Association requesting a determination that the state of Washington’s meal and rest break rules are preempted as applied to property-carrying commercial motor vehicle drivers subject to FMCSA’s hours-of-service regulations. LL