Signaling another positive development for interstate motor carriers operating in California, the United States District Court for the Central District of California (the “Central District”) recently dismissed a truck driver’s claims that motor carrier U.S. Xpress failed to provide a class of drivers with legally required meal and rest periods compliant with California law. See, Ayala v. U.S. Express Enters., Inc. et al. Case No. 5:16-cv-00137-GW-(KKx) (Order Granting Partial Summary Judgment). The Court, in granting U.S. Xpress’s motion for partial summary judgment, stated that it did not possess the authority to review the merits of the case since the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) determined, in December 2018, that Federal law preempts California state law. The Central District applied the FMCSA’s order retroactively to the Ayala case, filed in 2016, stating that it was bound by the FMCSA order and would apply the order in similar cases unless and until the order was invalidated by the Ninth Circuit.

The Ayala case represents the first challenge to the FMCSA Preemption Determination before a California District Court – and, indeed, the FMCSA order’s first “win.” Only five months ago, FMCSA exercised its authority under Federal law, ruling that California’s Meal and Rest Break rules are preempted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations and cannot be enforced against interstate motor carriers. In granting the petitions filed by the American Trucking Associations and by the Specialized Carriers and Rigging Association, the FMCSA reasoned that California’s Meal and Rest Break rules, although more stringent than those promulgated at the Federal level, provided no additional safety benefits beyond those already provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations, were incompatible with the Federal hours of service regulations, and caused an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce.

The FMCSA’s Preemption Determination, combined with the Order issued by the Central District in Ayala, appear to invalidate those decisions that had held that the California Labor Code was NOT preempted by Federal law. See, e.g., Dilts v. Penske Logistics, LLC [on July 9, 2014, the Ninth Circuit ruled that California’s Meal and Rest Break rules were not preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994].

The FMCSA’s Preemption Determination and the Ayala ruling not only represent a huge win for the trucking industry, but provide the industry with increased clarity as to regulatory standards applicable to interstate carriers in California, and effectively shield those carriers from the draconian penalties promulgated by the State for violations of the California Labor Code’s Meal and Rest Break rules.

Unfortunately, although these decisions are significant and encouraging, the ultimate legality of the FMCSA’s Preemption Determination, and indeed, of the Ayala ruling, remains in limbo. Currently, four petitions challenging the FMCSA’s Preemption Determination are working their way through the Ninth Circuit, including petitions filed by the Teamsters Union, by California’s Attorney General, and by the California Labor Commissioner’s Office. In addition, per the Order of the Court, the Ayala decision granting partial summary judgment to U.S. Xpress may be overturned on a motion for reconsideration if the Ninth Circuit invalidates the FMCSA’s Preemption Determination.

At this time, there is no indication that an opinion from the Ninth Circuit regarding the FMCSA’s ruling is imminent. The Circuit is yet to even hear oral argument on the subject. Rather, the petitions pending before the Ninth Circuit challenging the Preemption Determination are not expected to be fully briefed for three months. Until then – it appears that interstate motor carriers in California are in an excellent position to challenge the merits of thousands of pending wage and hour class actions filed by commercial vehicle drivers for violations of the California Labor Code’s Meal and Rest Break rules.