After nine years in the legal system, an exorbitant amount of legal fees, and hours upon hours of work, the matter of James Cole v. CRST Inc., et al. has finally come to an end, at least for the time being. On March 31, 2017, U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips granted summary judgment to CRST, ending a lawsuit brought by James Cole on behalf of himself and 4,200 other truck drivers regarding CRST's labor practices.
On October 6, 2008, James Cole filed a putative class action lawsuit in California Superior Court for the County of San Bernardino against his employer, CRST Van Expedited, Inc., a motor carrier that transports freight to customers across the country, in California Superior Court for the County of San Bernardino. Cole alleged that he, along with 4,200 other truck drivers, were, among other claims, not provided rest and meal breaks, proper compensation for work performed, and not provided with itemized wage statements. Although class certification was initially granted in August 2010, Judge Phillips later reversed her original order and fully decertified the class in 2016 after finding that Cole could no longer satisfy the predominance requirement for class certification.
Despite losing on the issue of class certification, Cole continued to litigate his individual claims against CRST. However, after all the dust had settled over the years, the only real claims remaining were related to Cole's allegations that he was not provided with meal and rest breaks, as well as claims that he was not paid minimum wages for "nonproductive" work performed. On March 31, 2017, in what many would likely consider an anomaly, Judge Phillips adjudicated these remaining claims in favor of CRST and against Cole by granting CRST's motion for summary judgment, obliterating Cole's claims and ending the protracted litigation.
Under California Labor Code § 512, an employee is entitled to an uninterrupted/off-duty meal period of not less than thirty (30) minutes if he or she is working for more than five (5) hours per day, which may be waived by mutual consent of employer and employee only if the employee is working for no more than six hours. Additionally, a second uninterrupted meal period of thirty (30) minutes must be given if the employee works more than ten (10) hours per day. However, this second meal period may be waived, but only if a statutorily compliant first meal period was taken.
In the instance that a full uninterrupted/off-duty meal period is not taken or provided, the employee is entitled to a one hour premium wage rate for each missed meal period. Furthermore, pursuant to Brinker Restaurant Corporation, et al. v. Superior Court of San Diego County (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004 ("Brinker"), if an employer's records fail to show that a meal period was given, there is a rebuttable presumption that the employee was not relieved of all duty and no meal period was provided.
Regarding rest periods, California Industrial Welfare Order 4-2001 requires that an employer authorizes and permits a ten (10) minute rest period for each four (4) hour work period, or major fraction thereof. These rest periods are counted as "time worked," and therefore, the employer is required to pay for such periods.
Here, CRST argued that it encouraged and trained its drivers to not drive more than five hours without taking a break and to take breaks if they ever felt fatigued. In contrast, Cole argued that CRST did not do enough to enforce their policy or police its employees to ensure that appropriate meal and rest breaks were being taken. The court, relying on the rationale of Brinker, tossed out Cole's claim as an employer is not obligated to police its employees to make certain that meal and rest periods are being taken. Indeed, the requirement in California is that an employer provide an opportunity for the mandated breaks and do nothing to discourage or prevent the employee from taking a meal or rest break.
In regards to Cole's claim that CRST had failed to pay him minimum wage for all work performed, Cole argued that the compensation structure of CRST, which utilized a piece-rate system, failed to account for "non-driving" tasks he performed while on duty. In essence, Cole argued that he was not paid for "nonproductive" time which is defined under Labor Code Section 226.2 as "time under the employer's control, exclusive of rest and recovery periods, that is not directly related to the activity being compensated on a piece-rate basis." In fact, this was the same claim made in the recent case of Ridgeway et al. v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. et al. (Case No. 3:08-cv-05221) which resulted in a San Francisco jury awarding Wal-Mart drivers $54 million based on Wal-Mart's alleged failure to pay truckers for "nonproductive" work such as waiting to load/unload their cargo, washing and fueling the trucks, and filling out forms.
Despite the parallel nature of the claims, Cole's minimum wage cause of action was adjudicated in CRST's favor and never made it to a jury. In granting CRST's motion, the court found that Cole had failed to present any evidence of the specific hours in which he did not receive a minimum wage.
Although CRST and its attorneys may be breathing a sigh of relief, any celebration may be premature. Cole's attorneys have already indicated that they will appeal the case to the Ninth Circuit Court based on the belief that Judge Phillips erred in decertifying the class last year, which had detrimental ramifications for Cole and pervaded the court's summary judgment ruling in CRST's favor. It seems, that even after nine years of litigating this case, the final of chapter of James Cole v. CRST Inc., et al. has yet to be written.