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Law Alert: Ninth Circuit Upholds California Meal and Rest Break Preemption

by Christopher J. Eckhart, Gregory M. Feary, James H. Hanson, Prasad Sharma, Adam C. Smedstad

January 15, 2021

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit delivered good news for the trucking industry today, upholding the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s determination that California’s meal and rest break rules are preempted under 49 U.S.C. § 31141. Affording FMCSA’s preemption determination deference required under the law, the Court held FMCSA’s determinations that the MRB rules are laws “on commercial motor vehicle safety,” that the MRB rules are “additional to or more stringent” than the federal hours of service regulations addressing breaks, and that the MRB rules “cause an unreasonable burden on interstate commerce” were all reasonable and not unlawful as the challengers alleged. 

The crux of the petitioners’ arguments was that FMCSA had previously determined the MRB rules were not laws on commercial motor vehicle safety and that FMCSA lacked authority to consider laws that were not directed specifically to commercial motor vehicle safety under the preemption scheme established by Section 31141. The Court noted that FMSCA is free to change its mind, provided it acknowledges it is doing so and explains the reasons for its new position. Because the federal hours of service regulations were promulgated under statutory authority to prescribe regulation “on commercial motor vehicle safety,” the Court found it reasonable to interpret Section 31141 to cover regulations in that same area. The Court also pointed to comments submitted by carriers demonstrating the impact of the MRB rules on their operations as amply justifying FMCSA’s conclusion that the MRB rules unreasonably burden interstate commerce. 

FMCSA’s preemption determination has been helpful to dismiss claims for violations of the MRB rules, even pending the challenge. The Court’s ruling is a welcome development.

For more information, please contact Greg FearyJames HansonPrasad SharmaAdam Smedstad, or Christopher Eckhart.

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