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Ninth Circuit Affirms FMCSA Preemption of California Meal and Rest Break Laws for Drivers Subject to Federal Regulation

Ninth Circuit decision upholds the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ("FMCSA") determination that federal law preempts California’s meal and rest break laws with respect to Department of Transportation-regulated drivers of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles.

On January 15, 2021, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit unanimously upheld FMCSA's December 2018 determination that California meal and rest break laws are preempted by federal law, as applied to drivers involved in interstate commerce and subject to federal regulation. See Int'l Brotherhood of Teamsters, et al. v. FMCSA, No. 18-73488 (Jan. 15, 2021).

This long-awaited decision comes after the California Labor Commissioner, among others, petitioned the Ninth Circuit for review of the FMCSA's December 2018 preemption determination. The Ninth Circuit rejected the petitioners' claims that the FMCSA lacked the statutory authority to preempt California's meal and rest break laws and held that the agency's 2018 determination merited deference despite a previous 2008 determination in which the FMCSA declined to preempt California's meal and rest break laws. The court explained that, under Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984), an agency's new position may be provided deference so long as the agency acknowledges and explains its departure from its prior view. The Ninth Circuit found that the FMCSA acknowledged its departure from the previous determination and permissibly concluded that California's meal and rest break laws were state regulations on "commercial motor vehicle safety," and thus within the agency's preemption authority.

The Ninth Circuit further found FMCSA's determination that California's meal and rest break laws are "additional to or more stringent than federal regulations" to be reasonable and supported because "California requires more breaks, more often, and with less flexibility as to timing." Finally, the court found no evidence to indicate that the FMCSA acted arbitrarily or capriciously in finding that enforcement of California's meal and rest break laws would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce and rejected the petitioner's counterarguments as unpersuasive.

The consequences of this decision are significant. The decision confirms that employers need not comply with California's meal and rest break laws in relation to drivers of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles who are subject to federal regulations. However, employers should continue to track developments in this area as the FMCSA could, once again, change its position.

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