California Employers Cannot Rely Upon the De Minimus Doctrine as a Defense for Unpaid Time

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New California Supreme Court Ruling: Troester v. Starbucks Corporation

California Employers Cannot Rely Upon the De Minimus Doctrine as a Defense for Unpaid Time

by Marie Trimble Holvick and Sara Moore of Gordon & Rees


Federal courts have long applied the de minimus doctrine to federal wage and hour violations.  Under the de minimus doctrine, employers are not required to pay employees for small amounts of time worked off the clock.  The theory is that small amounts of time are very difficult to record.  However, in a recent employee-friendly decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that California employers cannot benefit from this Federal doctrine. In other words, employers in California must pay employees for all time worked, no matter how small the time increments.

In Troester v. Starbucks Corporation, former employee, Douglas Troester, brought various wage and hour claims under California law against his employer, Starbucks. He claimed that he was required to work “off the clock” several minutes per shift in order to perform “closing tasks.”  Specifically, Mr. Troester claimed that he had to clock out at a computer terminal in the back of the store before he could complete his closing tasks, including activating the alarm, exiting the store, and locking the front door. As a result, he claimed that he was required to work between 4-10 additional minutes each shift, which he was not paid for. Over the course of his employment, he claimed he should have received an additional 12 hours and 50 minutes of pay.  At the then-applicable minimum wage of $8 per hour, this unpaid time added up to $102.67, not including any penalties or other remedies.

The California Supreme Court considered whether the de minimus doctrine should apply and bar the employee’s claims to recover compensation for these small increments of time.  The California Supreme Court rejected the application of this Federal rule and held that this de minimus rule would not apply to claims for California wage and hour violations.

The Court refused to adopt the federal de minimis doctrine for a number of reasons, but specifically noted that the “technical advances that enable employees to track and register their work time via smartphones, tablets, or other devices” have made it easier to record employee’s time worked. Despite these technological advances, the Court acknowledged the administrative difficulties in recording small amounts of time persist and offered the following suggestions to employers:

  • Structure work so that employees do not perform any work before or after clocking out;
  • Use technology to track all employee work time more accurately;
  • Estimate the amount of time it takes for employees to perform any off-the-clock work and pay employees for that time.

Employers – especially those in the restaurant industry with similar “closing shift” procedures – should review their timekeeping policies and payroll practices to ensure that spent working is properly captured and paid.

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