When are you under your employer's control?

Rodriguez v. Taco Bell (9th Cir. 16-15465 7/18/18)

The central issue of this case is what constitutes as “on duty” during a meal/or rest break. Plaintiff, Rodrigues, is suing Defendant, Taco Bell, on the grounds that during her meal breaks she claims she was “on duty” and under the employers control, and therefore should be compensated for that time. Taco Bell offers 30 minute meal breaks, but with a special offer where employees could purchase a meal from the restaurant at a discounted price. The only caveat was that the employees had to eat the meal in the restaurant, away from the cashier area and food production area, in order to prevent theft (i.e an employee leaving and going to give the meal to a family member). The employees were not required to purchase the discounted meal, and the purchase was completely voluntary. If the employee did not purchase the discounted meal and chose to eat elsewhere or bring lunch from home, the employee had the option to eat outside of the restaurant wherever they pleased.

However, Plaintiff Rodrigues claims that she was under sufficient employer control when she purchased the discounted meal because she was required to stay at the restaurant, so she renders the time that employees spent consuming this discounted meal as working time under California law. California law, specifically California Wage Order 5-2001, requires employees to be relieved of “all duty” during the meal period. As a result, the district court agreed with Taco Bell that California law was not violated because the employees were free to use the 30 minutes in any way that they wished. The district court granted summary judgment to Taco Bell on most of the Plaintiff’s claims and denied Plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment on the regular rate claim, so that it remained pending.

In 2016, the Plaintiff requested that the court dismiss with prejudice the regular rate claim that remained pending. The Plaintiff requested this because a voluntary dismissal with prejudge of all remaining claims would result in an appealable final judgement, permitting review of all earlier orders. The Plaintiff did this so that she could appeal the previous partial summary judgment order. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that the district court properly granted summary judgment in favor of Taco Bell and properly denied Plaintiff’s summary judgment on the basis of regular pay.

The 9th circuit court of appeals affirms the judgment of the district court to rule in favor of the summary judgement for Taco Bell for the following reasons:

Taco Bell’s meal policy satisfied the standard under California Law because the company relieves employees of all duties during the meal break and relinquishes control over their activities.

The purchase of the discounted meal is completely voluntary, and if employers offer a benefit or service that employees could choose, but were not required to take advantage of, then compensation is not required.

As a result, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the district court’s decision, and determined that the purchase of the discounted meals was not considered “on duty” time, and as such, the employee should not be compensated for that time.