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The Ninth Circuit Asks the California Supreme Court to Weigh in on Bag Checks

On August 16, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an order certifying a question regarding an important wage and hour issue to the California Supreme Court: Is time spent on an employer’s premises waiting for and undergoing required exit searches of bags or packages voluntarily brought to work for purely personal convenience by employees compensable as “hours worked” under California law?

The question arose in Frlekin v. Apple, Inc., an appeal in a wage and hour class action brought against Apple, Inc., by current and former nonexempt California retail store employees. In the suit, the plaintiffs sought compensation for time that they spent waiting for and undergoing exit searches whenever they left Apple’s retail store locations, pursuant to the company’s Employee Package and Bag Searches policy. The at-issue policy, which is similar to ones in place at many other large retailers, required that employees undergo unpaid, manager-performed bag/package checks before leaving the stores—at breaks or at the end of their shifts.

In July 2015, a district court certified the case as a class action. However, in November 2015, the district court granted Apple’s motion for summary judgment and denied the plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment and ruled that time spent by class members waiting for and undergoing exit-related bag searches pursuant to Apple’s policy was not compensable as “hours worked” under California law because such time was neither “subject to the control” of the employer nor time during which the class members were “suffered or permitted” to work.

On appeal, the plaintiffs argued that employees are under the control of the employer while waiting for and undergoing the bag checks because they are required whenever entering or leaving the premises. Apple countered that the time is not compensable because employees are not required to bring bags to work, and may avoid the searches altogether by not bringing a bag or package to the workplace. In its order certifying the issue for the California Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit noted that Apple’s position “finds strong support” in the seminal California Supreme Court decision Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal. 4th 575 (2000), in which the court held that time spent by employees using employer-mandated transportation to get to a worksite was compensable, while noting that time spent on “optional free transportation” would not be compensable. However, the Ninth Circuit expressed questions about whether differences in context—i.e., employer-provided transport to and from the workplace versus searches at the worksite—rendered Morillion distinguishable.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court previously determined that similar bag checks were not compensable in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, 135 S. Ct. 513 (2014), the California Supreme Court has not addressed the compensability of bag checks under California’s wage and hour laws, which involve a somewhat different definition of compensable work time. As the Ninth Circuit noted in its order, the consequences of any interpretation of California law with respect to bag searches “will have significant legal, economic, and practical consequences for employers and employees” throughout California and will materially affect the outcome of many pending lawsuits. For the time being, employers should consult with qualified employment counsel to mitigate risk while we wait for the California Supreme Court to weigh in.

This post was written by Philippe A. Lebel of  Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP.
Read more on litigation of wage and hour issues at the National Law Review.

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