Attorneys’ Fees Not Available In Meal and Rest Break Claims
The California Supreme Court ruled that the winning party in meal and rest break cases cannot recover attorneys’ fees. In a unanimous decision in Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., the court ruled that neither employees nor employers who prevail can receive an attorneys’ fees award.
The decision may potentially reduce the financial incentive to bring meal and rest break claims. The court was asked to review whether attorneys’ fees could be awarded in meal and rest break cases under either one of two statutes:
- Labor Code sec. 218.5, which provides that attorneys’ fees should be awarded to the prevailing party “[i]n any action brought for the nonpayment of wages ...”
- Labor Code sec. 1194, which provides that prevailing employees should be awarded attorneys’ fees in an action for any unpaid “legal minimum wage or ... legal overtime compensation.”
The court ruled that neither of these statutes allowed for an attorneys’ fee award in meal and rest break cases.
Under sec. 218.5, the court found that a meal and rest break action is not an action for nonpayment of wages but an action for failure to provide meal and rest periods. While the remedy for the failure is a wage, one hour of premium pay, the nature of the violation is failure to provide a break, not failure to pay wages.
Under sec. 1194, the court found that its plain meaning and history show it was meant to apply to minimum wage and overtime violations, and not to encompass meal and rest violations.
In the case before the court, the employer was the winning party, and the employer was not allowed to recover the attorneys’ fees it incurred as a result of having to defend against the meal and rest claim.
The fact that the court’s ruling will also prevent plaintiffs/employees from using these statutes to recover attorneys’ fees in meal and rest break cases may help stem the ongoing flood of such claims. Plaintiffs’ attorneys may still add on other claims, such as PAGA (Private Attorney General Act) claims or other Labor Code violations, to obtain fees.
Author: Gail Cecchettini Whaley
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