The de minimis doctrine is an application of the maxim de minimis non curat lex, which means “[t]he law does not concern itself with trifles.” (Black’s Law Dict. (10th ed. 2014) p. 524.) Federal courts have applied the doctrine in some circumstances to excuse the payment of wages for small amounts of otherwise compensable time upon a showing that the bits of time are administratively difficult to record. Pursuant to the Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.548, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit asked the California Supreme Court in Troester v. Starbucks Corp., No. S234969 (Cal. July 26, 2018) on whether the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s de minimis doctrine, as stated in Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co. (1946) 328 U.S. 680, 692, and Lindow v. United States (9th Cir. 1984) 738 F.2d 1057, 1063, applies to claims for unpaid wages under California Labor Code sections 510, 1194, and 1197? The California Supreme Court answered the question in two separate parts.
First, on the question of whether California’s wage and hour statutes or regulations have adopted the de minimis doctrine found in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? The court concluded they have not, and went on to say that there is no indication in the text or history of the relevant statutes and Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) wage orders of such adoption.
Second, on the question of whether the de minimis principle, which has operated in California in various contexts, apply to wage and hour claims? In other words, although California has not adopted the federal de minimis doctrine, does some version of the doctrine nonetheless apply to wage and hour claims as a matter of state law? The Supreme Court held that the relevant wage order and statutes do not permit application of the de minimis rule on the facts given to us by the Ninth Circuit, where the employer required the employee to work “off the clock” several minutes per shift. Interesting enough that the Supreme Court did not decide whether there are circumstances where compensable time is so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.
Justice CUÉLLAR, while agreeing with the majority, in his concurring opinion acknowledging that no de minimis doctrine exists under California law to insulate an employer from responsibility for paying an employee who regularly works for minutes off the clock, noted the unresolved whether an employees work may ever be so fleeting or irregular that such time is no longer compensable.
Justice KRUGER, also wrote a concurring opinion to address the central question the majority’s opinion left open, which was whether, in circumstances different from those presented in this case, the de minimis principle may apply to California wage and hour claims.