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California Supreme Court Rejects “De Minimis” Defense to Wage Claims

July 31, 2018 by

The California Supreme Court recently expanded the ability of workers to recover unpaid wages even if the unpaid time occurs in small amounts. Troester v. Starbucks Corp. (Cal. Supreme Court case no. S234969, July 26, 2018).

Douglas Troester, a former Starbucks shift supervisor, routinely engaged in work related to closing the store at the end of a shift after he was required to clock out by the company. These store closing tasks took approximately 4 to 10 minutes each day. He was not paid for this time.

The issue the Supreme Court decided was whether the de minimis doctrine, which applies under federal wage and hour law, also applies under California law. The doctrine comes from the ancient legal maxim de minimis non curat lex, translated as “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” Under federal wage and hour law, courts have applied this doctrine to excuse employers from having to pay employees for small amounts of work time that would otherwise be payable, especially when it can be difficult or infeasible to record the time.

The California Supreme Court concluded that the de minimis doctrine did not apply to Troester’s claims. The Court explained that California wage and hour law (the Labor Code and the Industrial Welfare Commission’s wage orders) did not adopt the de minimis doctrine from federal law, and instead were based on the intent to compensate workers for all time worked. The Court concluded that, in the area of wage and hour law, the law is concerned with “small things,” including payment for all time worked and protection of workers’ state-mandated 10‑minute rest breaks.

This decision will help employees recover unpaid time, especially in cases where workers’ time is routinely “shaved” or unpaid in small increments of a few minutes each.

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