Last Week in the Federal Circuit (March 15-19): Compensation Conflict

The Federal Circuit followed last week’s busy week with a slower one, issuing ten total decisions.  In one of its two precedential opinions, the Court took on a circuit split over overtime compensation.  Below we provide our usual weekly statistics and our case of the week—our highly subjective selection based on whatever case piqued our interest.

Precedential opinions:  2

Non-precedential opinions:  8

Rule 36:  0

Longest pending case from argument:  PI Advanced Materials Co., Ltd v. Kaneka Corporation, No. 19-2214 (162 days)

Shortest pending case from argument (non-Rule 36):  Sling TV, L.L.C. v. Realtime Adaptive Streaming, Nos. 20-1601, -1602 (11 days)

Case of the week:  Akpeneye v. United States, No. 20-1622

Panel:  Judges Lourie, Schall, and Dyk, with Judge Dyk writing the opinion

You should read this case if:  you have an overtime-compensation case about meal breaks

The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) entitles employees to overtime compensation when they work more than forty hours a week.  When does a meal break count towards that time?  In answering that question, the Federal Circuit identified a circuit split—and took a side.

The plaintiffs here are police officers at the Pentagon.  Each work day, they received an unpaid 35-minute meal break.  During the break, they were replaced by other on-duty officers.  But they still had to obey certain restrictions (e.g., no watching online videos except in a private break room) and had some duties (e.g., responding to questions from members of the public they encountered).  The officers also often used their breaks to take care of administrative duties.

Seeking compensation for that daily break time, the officers sued their employer—the federal government—in the Court of Federal Claims.  The Claims Court granted summary judgment to the government, holding that the breaks do not qualify as work time under the FLSA.

The Federal Circuit affirmed.  The “central issue,” it explained, “is whether employees are required to ‘work’ within the meaning of the FLSA” during the breaks.  A Department of Labor regulation provides that a “bona fide meal period” does not qualify as “worktime.”  The statute, however, does not define “work.” 

The Court identified a circuit split over the legal standard for deciding when a meal break is “work.”  The Ninth Circuit looks to the Department of Labor regulation, which defines a “bona fide meal period” as one in which employees are “completely relieved from duty.”  Many other circuits (nine, by the Federal Circuit’s count) look instead to a Supreme Court decision limiting “work” under the FLSA to exertion “primarily for the benefit of the employer and his business.”  Tenn. Coal, Iron & R.R. Co. v. Muscoda Local No. 123, 321 U.S. 590, 598 (1944).  This put the Federal Circuit to a choice:  Should employees be paid for meal breaks as “work” (A) as long as they are not completely relieved from duty, or (B) only when their time is spent primarily for the employer’s benefit?

The Court chose the latter “predominant benefit test,” siding with the majority rule.  It concluded that the Supreme Court’s definition of “work” was binding here.  And it held that the Department of Labor regulation was neither binding nor persuasive enough to warrant Skidmore deference.

Under that test, the Court held that the meal breaks here did not qualify as work.  “The most important factor to consider when applying the predominant benefit test,” the Court explained, “is whether an employee is required to perform any ‘substantial duties’ or give up a ‘substantial measure’ of time and effort during a meal break.”  That was not the case here.  The Court held instead that the officers had fairly minimal duties and restrictions during their breaks, and “they were generally able to enjoy the primary benefit of” a break period “during a given shift.”

Having decided all that, the Court still left enough material for a sequel.  While it picked the predominant benefit test and illustrated its application, the Court declined to decide “whether the employer or the employee has the burden of proof under the predominant benefit test.”  That question—which the Court held would not affect the result here—will occupy the Court another day.