Fee Fi Fo Fum: CA Supreme Court Ruling Precludes Award of Attorneys’ Fees for Prevailing Party in Meal/Rest Break Claims

Contributed by Beverly Alfon

Last week, on the heels of the Brinker decision (which requires employers to make meal breaks available to their employees, without the burden of ensuring that employees take such breaks), the California Supreme Court ruled that a prevailing party cannot collect attorneys’ fees after winning a meal or break dispute under the California Labor Code. 

In Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., the defendant employer was the prevailing party on a claim for alleged violations of the Labor Code section 226.7, which governs employee rest breaks.  As the prevailing party, the employer sought to recover its attorneys’ fees under section  218.5 of the Labor Code, which provides for recovery of fees by “the prevailing party” in “any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions.”  The trial court awarded attorneys’ fees to the employer.  The appellate court upheld the award of attorneys’ fees to the employer on the rest break claim.  However, the California Supreme Court reversed.

The court considered two questions: (i) whether meal/rest break claims fall within section 1194 (fee shifting provision) and, if not, (ii) whether section 218.5 authorizes an award for meal/rest break claims.  

  • The court determined that section 1194 did not apply because neither the text nor the history of section 1194 indicated that the statute is meant to refer to anything other than “ordinary minimum wage and overtime obligations” – which does not include meal/rest break claims.  It also reasoned that code section 1194 is one-way shifting provision that only provides recovery of attorneys’ fees to employees who prevail under that section. 
  • The court acknowledged that section 218.5 is a two-way fee shifting provision that allows an award of attorneys’ fees to any prevailing party.  However, it reasoned that the provision only applies to actions “brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions” – not missed meal/rest breaks. 

Although the California Supreme Court’s ruling was negative for the employer in Kirby, the up-side is that this decision eliminates the potential for an award of attorneys’ fees under the Labor Code, which is often used as an incentive for plaintiffs’ attorneys with respect to meal and rest break claims.