Cal. Supreme Court: No Attorney's Fees in Rest Break Dispute

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 04, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The California Supreme Court has put a lot of thought into employee rest breaks this year.

In April, the court ruled that employers must make meal breaks available, but they don't have to force wage workers to take a break for a meal.

This week, the court ruled that a prevailing party cannot collect attorney's fees after winning a meal or rest break dispute.

Plaintiffs Anthony Kirby and Rick Leech, Jr., sued Immoos Fire Protection, Inc. (IFP) and multiple Doe defendants for labor law violations, among other claims. Their amended complaint stated seven claims, one of which alleged that IFP failed to provide rest breaks as required by Cal. Labor Code 226.7. The remedy a meal or rest break violation under the statute is "one additional hour of pay ... for each work day that the ... rest period is not provided."

The plaintiffs dismissed the claim with prejudice after settling with the Doe defendants. IFP then moved for attorney's fees. The trial court awarded fees, and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

The California Supreme Court, however, reversed the attorney's fees award, noting that the applicable statute did not provide for fees in this situation.

California Labor Code 218.5 states, "In any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions, the court shall award reasonable attorney's fees and costs to the prevailing party if any party to the action requests attorney's fees and costs upon the initiation of the action." This, however, was not an action for nonpayment; it was lawsuit about the nonprovision of required breaks.

The California Supreme Court, in an opinion written by Justice Goodwin Liu, ruled that the Labor Code does not authorize an award of attorney's fees to employees who win a claim for the non-provision of rest periods. Neither the plain text, the history of the statute, nor the language of related statutes provides any reason to depart from the ordinary meaning of the statute.

If you were planning on a side of attorney's fees with your meal or rest break judgment, think again. The California Supreme Court says you aren't entitled to fees under the applicable law.

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