Recent N.D. Cal. Decisions Provide Framework for W&H Litigation Against Commercial Airlines

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The extent to which California’s wage-and-hour protections apply to airline industry employees was recently clarified in two decisions out of the Northern District of California: first in Bernstein v. Virgin America, No. 15-cv-02277 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 5, 2017) (“Bernstein”) (slip op. available here), and second, in Oman v. Delta Airlines, No. 15-cv-00131 (N.D. Cal. Jan. 6, 2017) (“Oman”) (slip op. available here). Together, these decisions affirm that airline industry employees who work in California may be protected by the California Labor Code and provide a framework for how courts will analyze whether the Labor Code applies to employees in positions that require interstate travel.

In Bernstein, the plaintiff brought a class action lawsuit on behalf of Virgin American flight attendants who worked in California, seeking classwide relief for Virgin America’s alleged failure to pay overtime and minimum wages, failure to provide meal and rest breaks, and failure to provide accurate wage statements. After the court certified a class of California-based flight attendants and a California residents subclass, Virgin America moved for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ claims on the basis that California labor law did not apply to their employment because of the presumption against extraterritorial application of California’s labor laws and the Dormant Commerce Clause. Slip op. at 6. Virgin America also moved for summary judgment on the plaintiffs’ meal and rest break claims based on preemption under the Federal Aviation Act and Airline Deregulation Act, but those arguments were rejected. Id.

Virgin America’s primary argument was that California labor law did not apply to the flight attendants because they did not work either exclusively or principally in California, but rather across multiple jurisdictions and in federally-regulated airspace. Slip op. at 6. The court rejected the premise of Virgin America’s argument that job situs alone was determinative. Id. at 7. Instead, the court relied on the California Supreme Court’s decision in Sullivan v. Oracle Corp., 51 Cal. 4th 1191 (2011), in adopting a “multi-faceted approach,” in which the court considers several factors, including: 1) California residency; 2) receipt of pay in California; 3) exclusive or principal “job situs” in California; 4) the employer’s residency; and 5) whether the employee’s absence from the state was temporary in nature. Slip op. at 8. Applying these factors, the court found the plaintiffs were California residents who received their pay in California and that Virgin America is a California-based airline headquartered in California. Id. at 8-9. The court further relied on evidence that Virgin received millions of dollars in state subsidies to train its flight attendants in California and that between 88 and 99 percent of Virgin America’s flights each day departed or arrived in a California airport. Id. at 9. Importantly, the court found the fact that the plaintiffs spent only about 25 percent of their total work time in California was not only not dispositive, but relatively less important where temporary out-of-state travel is an inherent part of the job. Id.

In Oman, the court distinguished Bernstein in holding that Labor Code section 226 did not apply to a class of Delta flight attendants, stating that, in contrast to Bernstein where the court recognized multiple factors supporting application of the Labor Code, the plaintiffs sought to apply section 226 “based solely on a flight attendant’s performance of a de minimis amount of work in California during any pay period.” Slip. op. at 9 (italics in original). The court stressed the plaintiffs’ failure to raise any additional facts supporting the application of section 226, noting the plaintiffs did not rely on the flight attendants’ residence, the employer’s residence or other “deep ties” to California, or the performance of a significant amount of work in California during a particular pay period. Id.

Read together, these decisions support plaintiffs’ ability to pursue California Labor Code violations against airlines and other interstate employers. Although it remains unclear just how much of an evidentiary showing is required for the Labor Code to apply, and such determinations will be made on a case-by-case basis, Oman provides that something more than a de minimis amount of work in California is required, while Bernstein provides even as little as 25% of an employees’ work in California will not preclude application of California law as long as there are other facts tying the employee and/or the employer to California. This rather flexible standard should allow plaintiffs to pursue Labor Code claims against interstate employers in industries that that had previously evaded wage-and-hour liability, like the commercial airline industry.

Authored by: 
Brandon Brouillette, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC