The California Supreme Court issued its decision yesterday in Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., S185827, 2012 Cal. LEXIS 3981 (April 30, 2012) (available here), holding that attorney’s fees may not be awarded under Cal. Lab. Code § 218.5 to a party that prevails on a claim for meal and rest break violations. Section 218.5 provides that attorney’s fees are to be awarded to the prevailing party "[i]n any action brought for the nonpayment of wages. . . ." However, the statute exempts from its scope any action for which attorney’s fees are recoverable under Lab. Code § 1194, which entitles prevailing employees to attorney’s fees in an action for any unpaid "legal minimum wage or . . . legal overtime compensation."
Here, the defendant moved for attorney’s fees under section 218.5 upon plaintiffs’ dismissal of their meal and rest break causes of action. Thus, the Court set out to determine two questions: (i) whether meal and rest break claims fall within the ambit of section 1194 and are thereby excluded from section 218.5 attorney’s fees and, if not, (ii) whether section 218.5 authorizes an award for meal and rest break claims. Judge Liu, writing for a unanimous Court, held that while section 1194 does not apply to meal and rest break claims, such claims are not authorized by section 218.5. As such, the Court reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision affirming attorney’s fees for the defendant.
The Court first determined that neither the text nor the history of section 1194 indicated that the statute is meant to refer to anything other than "ordinary minimum wage and overtime obligations," which do not encompass meal and rest break claims. Second, the Court found that an employer’s alleged failure to provide meal and rest periods does not constitute an "action brought for the nonpayment of wages" within the meaning of 218.5. While the Court acknowledged defendant’s argument that the remedy for meal and rest has been interpreted to constitute "wages," the Court held that section 218.5 envisions an action on account of the nonpayment of wages, not an action for which the remedy is a wage. Since meal and rest period claims are brought on account of the non-provision of meal or rest breaks, and not for the nonpayment of wages, the Court deemed such claims to be beyond the reach of section 218.5.