Court: Federal Law Pre-Empts Calif. Break Rules for Interstate Drivers

By Tim L. Johnson, Spencer C. Skeen and Nikolas T. Djordjevski © Ogletree Deakins January 26, 2021
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truck on highway

In one of the year's most anticipated court decisions for the trucking industry, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 2785, et al. v. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, No. 19-70413 (Jan. 15, 2021), the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) ruling that federal rest break regulations pre-empted California's meal and rest break rules, as applied to drivers of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles.

Title 49, Section 31141(c) of the United States Code gives the FMCSA the authority to review whether its rules and regulations pre-empt state laws "on commercial motor vehicle safety." In 2018, the FMCSA reviewed California's meal and rest break rules and determined that they were pre-empted by the agency's own break requirements. This determination was challenged and ultimately brought before the 9th Circuit.

In reviewing the FMCSA's determination, the 9th Circuit focused on the operative language in the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1984: "on commercial motor vehicle safety." Its analysis largely centered on how broadly the word "on" could be construed in this statement. Opponents of the FMCSA's ruling argued that California's break rules were not laws "on" commercial motor vehicle safety because they were not "specifically directed at commercial motor vehicle safety."

The 9th Circuit disagreed. It found that the FMCSA could "reasonably conclude" that its rules pre-empted state law, even when the law was not "specifically directed" at commercial motor vehicle safety. California's meal and rest break rules may serve a purpose beyond just commercial motor vehicle safety, but that is not enough to save them from pre-emption. Instead, the court held, California's meal and rest break rules "are regulations 'on commercial motor vehicle safety' because they are within the FMCSA's specific regulatory domain and the subject of existing federal regulation in the very same area."

Implied in the opinion, however, is the caveat that such pre-emption may not always be justified. The court merely ruled that the FMCSA could "permissibly conclude" that its regulations pre-empted California's break rules and that this conclusion was entitled to deference. This means the FMCSA could change its position in the future.

Other aspects of the statute's language support the same conclusion, including the term "safety" in the phrase "on commercial motor vehicle safety." As noted in the amicus brief filed by the National Armored Car Association, armored car drivers collect and transport large amounts of cash, coin, and valuable items in public. It is commonly known that thieves and armed robbers target armored vehicles and their drivers. One need not look hard to see the problems that may be created by requiring armored car drivers to follow California's more strictly timed off-duty and off-premises meal periods. Forcing an armored car driver to pull over for a mandatory 30-minute meal period at or before a specified time may place the driver at greater risk of injury or death.

Federal regulations, on the other hand, are far more flexible and allow drivers to exercise discretion as to when and where they choose to take their breaks. For the armored car industry, a future finding that federal regulations do not pre-empt California's meal and rest break rules could be disastrous.

In sum, the 9th Circuit's opinion has far-reaching consequences for both the drivers, and the employers of drivers, of property-carrying commercial motor vehicles.

Tim L. JohnsonSpencer C. Skeen and Nikolas T. Djordjevski are attorneys with Ogletree Deakins in San Diego. They filed an amicus brief on behalf of the National Armored Car Association in International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 2785, et al. v. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

© 2021 Ogletree Deakins. All rights reserved. Reposted with permission. 

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