The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an FMCSA decision pre-empting California meal and break rules. - Coolcaesar, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an FMCSA decision pre-empting California meal and break rules.

Coolcaesar, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

An appeals court recently upheld a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ruling that federal hours of service rules pre-empt the state of California’s meal and rest break rules.

In a unanimous decision Jan. 15, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s 2018 ruling that California’s meal and rest break rules were preempted by federal law when it comes to interstate truck drivers covered by federal hours-of-service regulations. The court also reaffirmed FMCSA's primary authority to regulate commercial motor vehicle safety in the United States.

The state of California and the Teamsters union had both sued seeking to overturn the FMCSA's 2018 decision.

“The FMCSA reached this conclusion because California required more breaks, more often and with less flexibility as to timing,” the court’s three-judge panel said. The decision said the rules “cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce” and were reasonable and not unlawful as the challengers alleged. 

The California law in question requires employers to provide a “duty-free” 30-minute meal break for employees who work more than five hours a day. For those who work more than 10 hours a day, it requires a second duty-free, 30-minute meal break, and additional 10-minute rest periods every four hours.

Federal law, however, says that except for certain short-haul drivers, a commercial motor vehicle driver working more than eight hours must take at least one 30-minute break during the first eight hours, although the driver has flexibility as to when the break occurs.

“The court’s ruling is a victory for common sense over bureaucracy and the plaintiffs bar,” American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear said in a statement. “When the Department of Transportation pre-empted California’s rules, it was a victory for highway safety, ensuring that there is one uniform standard for trucking regulations. By upholding DOT’s authority to be the sole regulator of interstate trucking, the 9th Circuit is preventing states and trial lawyers from creating a costly and inefficient patchwork of competing rules.”

The court panel agreed with DOT’s conclusion that “federal regulations adequately and more appropriately balanced the competing interests between safety and economic burden” than allowing states to impose a patchwork of competing regulations, ATA said.

Western States Trucking Association and the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association were among others that filed an amicus curiae brief in late 2019 in support of FMCSA’s primacy in the regulatory oversight of trucking safety and its decision to preempt California’s meal and rest break rules.

Supporters say the ruling will help will avoid a future state-by-state patchwork of rest break rules. California is not the only state to try to put in place stricter rules than federal hours of service. In 2019, the trucking industry in Washington state asked federal regulators to preempt a new state law requiring a higher number of meal and rest breaks than mandated under nationwide hours-of-service rules, and last November, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration granted that petition.

However, the Western States Trucking Association warned its members that purely intrastate truck drivers may indeed have to abide by stricter state meal and rest break requirements, saying, “The question of whether this decision applies to purely intrastate truck drivers from needing to comply with California meal and rest break requirements is one to discuss with your legal counsel,” noting that the appeals court decision pointed out that intrastate short-haul drivers may not even be covered by federal hours-of-service regulations.

And meal and rest breaks are something that could be targeted by a new Democratic Congress. The huge “green” infrastructure bill passed by House Democrats last summer included a raft of trucking safety provisions. Although that bill went nowhere in the Senate, the issue could come up in a new bill now that the Senate is narrowly controlled by Democrats.

The bill said, “No funds made available by this or any other Act may be obligated or expended under the authority in 49 U.S.C. 31141(c) to review and issue a decision on a petition to preempt state meal and rest break laws that may differ from those in 49 C.F.R. 395.”

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