How the Denham amendment could impact the J.B. Hunt meal break trial

  (Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

A class-action lawsuit against J.B. Hunt will head to trial this September after the Supreme Court refused to review the transportation giant’s appeal to overturn a ruling issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The lawsuit alleges that J.B. Hunt did not comply with California’s minimum wage law or state-specific rest and break rules in regards to its California drivers. It was filed by former employees of the company in 2007.

Under California law, drivers making their way through the Golden State are entitled to a 30-minute meal break for every five hours worked, in addition to 10-minute rest breaks every four hours.

The former employees behind the suit said J.B. Hunt did not comply with these rules. The company said the rules never applied to them to begin with, citing a 1994 federal law that strips states of the power to create their own laws in regards to prices and routes of interstate trucking companies.

In its Supreme Court petition, J.B. Hunt said the California state laws would require truckers to leave their routes in order to take frequent breaks and could interfere with the industry-wide pay per mile system.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to review the ruling means the lower court’s decision will remain in place. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that the 1994 transportation law does not prohibit individual states from setting its on rules about wages and breaks.

A federal judge will hear the case Sept. 25 in Los Angeles, but steps taken by Congress in the meantime could impact the outcome of the trial.

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A Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill with ramifications for the trucking industry passed the House earlier this year, and a similar version of the bill has been placed on the Senate legislative calendar.

The House-passed Denham-Cuellar-Costa amendment restricts individual states’ ability to create laws regarding meal and rest breaks for USDOT-regulated truck drivers, instead reinforcing the federal government’s authority over interstate operations.

If the amendment successfully makes its way through conference committee negotiations, it will effectively render state-specific rest rules useless, creating a federal precedent in favor of J.B. Hunt.

The change has gained the support of the American Trucking Associations due to its ability to create national uniformity and prevent costly litigation.

“The amendment would clarify Congress’ intention to have primary regulatory authority over interstate commerce and end the erosion of this authority by states who impose meal and rest break rules that run counter to national uniformity,” ATA officials said in a media release. “These unnecessary and duplicative laws are not grounded in safety, nor being enforced by the states. Rather, they are being used to fuel spurious litigation designed to extort the trucking industry, impairing the safe and efficient movement of interstate goods.”

The Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association stands starkly on the other side of the issue. OOIDA was particularly vocal before the House passed its version of the bill, opposing the amendment because of its potential impact on driver pay.

OOIDA expressed concern about the potential loss of pay for detention time, safety inspections, paperwork and other non-driving tasks because the House amendment.

This time last year, the Supreme Court turned a blind eye to OOIDA’s lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation. The lawsuit was OOIDA’s attempt to stop the ELD mandate before it went into effect last December.