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FMCSA Determines that California Meal and Rest Break Rules are Preempted

On December 21, 2018, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) granted petitions submitted by the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association (SCRA) requesting a determination that the State of California's Meal and Rest Break rules (MRB Rules) are preempted under 49 U.S.C. 31141 as applied to property-carrying commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers covered by the FMCSA's Hours of Service (HOS) regulations. Basically, ATA and SCRA argued that the MRB should not apply to commercial truck drivers because federal HOS rules already regulated driver breaks. The extensive public comments filed in response to the petitions and considered by the FMCSA can be found at the regulations.gov website.

Federal law can preempt State laws under certain conditions. In the area of commercial motor vehicles Federal law preempts state laws on CMV safety that are additional to or more stringent than Federal regulations if the state laws (1) have no safety benefit; (2) are incompatible with Federal regulations; or (3) would cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The FMCSA determined that the MRB Rules are laws on CMV safety, that they are more stringent than the Agency's hours of service regulations, that they have no safety benefits that extend beyond those already provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, that they are incompatible with the Federal HOS regulations, and that they cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce. The FMCSA, therefore, found that California MRB Rules are preempted under 49 U.S.C. 31141(c).

Over 40 pages, the Determination carefully explores all the issues involved in finding preemption. The Determination specifically acknowledges that the Agency made a different determination in 2008, but the FMCSA "reconsidered its interpretation of section 31141 as applied to California's MRB Rules, and [the] decision explains the basis for reconsidering its previous position." In particular, the Agency noted that it revised its Hours of Service rules in 2011 which for the first time included mandatory rest periods. This was a change in circumstances that supported the different outcome.

The Determination also provides an interesting discussion of how California's MRB Rules may actually hamper safety by forcing truck drivers to take rest stops at specific times throughout the day rather than when they are tired or hungry, thus occupying the limited spaces available for big rig parking which otherwise could be used by drivers that actually need to take rests. The Determination also discussed the financial impact of the MRB Rules on motor carriers and the burden they placed on interstate transportation.

The Determination opens the door for similar petitions for federal preemption of similar stringent meal and rest breaks rules found in other states, paving the way for national uniformity for interstate truck drivers. At the same time, the Determination is likely to be challenged in courts. While the Determination does not expressly say it is retroactive and applicable to pending cases involving claims of MRB violations, the Determination concludes "California may no longer enforce the MRB Rules with respect to drivers of property-carrying CMVs subject to FMCSA's HOS rules." This language appears to deny California agencies, PAGA representatives and California courts the ability to enforce the MRB Rules even in pending cases.

The guidance of experienced transportation and employment lawyers is vital to understanding the impact of this new FMCSA Determination on California and national motor carriers.

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