In an opinion filed on April 30th, the California Supreme Court held that attorneys' fees are not awarded to the winners in cases involving meal and rest period claims. In Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., the Court unanimously held that neither prevailing plaintiffs nor victorious employers can receive an award of attorneys' fees in these types of cases.
An appeals court affirmed an award of fees to the employer after the plaintiffs dismissed their claims for missed rest periods. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to determine if attorneys' fees could properly be awarded for meal and rest break claims under either of two Labor Code sections: section 218.5 (which awards attorneys fees to the prevailing party in actions brought for nonpayment of wages) or section 1194 (which awards attorneys' fees to prevailing employees in actions for unpaid minimum wage or overtime compensation).
Those of you who obsess over California wage and hour law like we do may be thinking, hey, didn't this same court hold in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole that meal and rest period penalties are actually premium wages? So why wouldn't an action to recover these premium wages be an action for nonpayment of wages?
Good question. The Court stated that, based on the plain meaning of section 1194, claims for minimum wage or overtime compensation are not the same as missed rest or meal period claims. The Court also distinguished a meal and rest period claim from a section 218.5 claim for nonpayment of wages. The Court stated that, even though the penalty for a missed rest or meal period is one hour of premium pay, the essence of the wrong is not nonpayment of wages. As a result, awarding attorneys fees for missed meal and rest period claims under a statute intended to cover nonpayment of wages would be confusing the remedy with the violation itself.
After this opinion, combined with the recent decision in Brinker, California employers might be tempted to paint a rosy picture of the future of wage and hour litigation in California. However, I have already heard grumblings about a push for a legislative reaction to Brinker, and in this case, the Court practically invited it by stating that "it is up to the legislature to decide whether section 1194's one-way fee shifting provision should be broadened to include section 226.7 [missed meal and rest period] actions." So we'll see if there's any legislative reaction to the recent wage and hour decisions. Until then, this decision, while favorable to employers, will likely result in plaintiffs' actions being sure to include other claims in addition to meal and rest period violations.