Be Thankful For Meal Breaks: Third Circuit Panel Adopts “Predominant Benefit” Test

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November 25, 2015 Download as PDF

Employers usually want to take a break when trying to navigate the complicated and ever-changing legal landscape of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Signed into law over 75 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the FLSA is an integral part of this country’s employment laws. It seems that something is happening with the FLSA – whether it is a new decision or multi-million dollar class action filed—almost daily.

The FLSA requires that certain employees who work “a workweek longer than forty hours” be paid at least one and one-half times the employees’ regular rate for the work performed over forty hours. Questions often arise as to when the clock should be ticking. In Babcock v. Butler County, No. 14-1467 (3d Cir. November 24, 2015), a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, in a 2-1 decision, held that the clock does not tick during time that predominately benefits the employee.

In Babcock, correctional officers at the Butler County prison in Butler, Pennsylvania filed a class action complaint under the FLSA. The proposed class claimed that Butler County failed to pay overtime for full meal periods. A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between the employees at the prison and the County provided that correctional officers work eight and one-quarter hour shifts that include a one hour meal period, of which forty-five minutes is paid and fifteen minutes is unpaid. The court was asked to decide whether the lack of compensation for those fifteen minutes violated the FLSA.

The prison’s meal period policy required that officers not leave the prison without permission, remain in uniform in close proximity to emergency response equipment, and be on call to respond to emergencies. The officers argued that, as a result of the meal period policy, they could not run personal errands, sleep, breathe fresh air, or smoke cigarettes during mealtime, and, if an emergency or unexpected situation arose, they would have to respond immediately in person, in uniform, and with appropriate response equipment. The officers alleged that, because of these restrictions, they should be compensated for the full hour, not just forty-five minutes.

The lower court dismissed the complaint, holding that the officers received the “predominant benefit” of the meal period. On appeal, the officers did not dispute the appropriateness of applying the “predominant benefit” test, but rather that the facts established a claim under either test that Courts of Appeals across the country have employed in similar cases – the “predominant benefit” test or the “relieved from all duties” test.

The Third Circuit panel adopted the “predominant benefit” test over the “relieved from all duties” test, noting that a majority of the Courts of Appeals have adopted the “predominant benefit” test. It distinguished the cases cited by the officers as purportedly adopting the “relieved from all duties” test because the Courts in those cases did not actually apply that test to the facts. Specifically, one of the Courts applied its own version of the “predominant benefits” test, while the other identified the two tests but then explained that the distinction did not matter in the case before it.

In analyzing the facts of Babcock to determine who predominately benefits, the Court noted the relevant Department of Labor regulations relating to “bona fide meal periods,” but held that you must look at the “totality of circumstances to determine, on a case-by-case basis, to whom the benefit of the meal period inures.”

The Court stated that “although Plaintiffs face a number of restrictions during their meal period…on balance, these restrictions did not predominantly benefit the employer.” The Court distinguished precedent from other jurisdictions by stating that, in Butler County, the officers could request authorization to leave the prison for their meal period and could eat lunch away from their work stations. Elsewhere, officers had much greater restrictions and were required to seek permission to take a meal break and were not permitted to read “nondepartmental publications.”

The Court also considered the existence of the CBA in making its decision. It believed that the CBA sufficiently protected the officers’ right to overtime compensation. It found that, although the CBA was silent on the specific issue of the fifteen-minute period, it provided “officers with the benefit of a partially-compensated mealtime and mandatory overtime pay if the mealtime was interrupted by work.” In the end, the Court held that the officers’ claims under the “predominant benefit” test failed to state a claim and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

So what now? The Court has made quite clear that “predominant benefit” cases will be decided on a case-by-case basis. The overarching theme, however, is control. In Babcock, although the officers had some restrictions during their meal period, for the most part, they could do as they pleased. Employers should ensure they have a similar environment to avoid the clock ticking under the FLSA. In addition, employers should also state clearly that the meal period is the employees’ time to take a break. Finally, it is a good practice to consult a lawyer if you have a question about your meal period policy or any other questions related to the FLSA.

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