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Massachusetts Superior Court Adopts Strict Test For Compensating Employee Meal Breaks

In a case of first impression, DeVito v. Longwood Security Services, a Superior Court judge recently ruled that the Massachusetts Wage Act (the “Wage Act”) obligates employers to compensate employees for meal breaks, unless employees are relieved of all work-related duties during their breaks.

This standard imposes much stricter requirements on Massachusetts employers than the parallel federal-law standard under the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”), which entitles employees to be paid for meal breaks only if they are predominantly engaged in work activities during those breaks. While it is not yet certain whether the DeVito holding will be adopted by other Massachusetts courts, employers in Massachusetts should take careful note of the decision and consider modifying their practices accordingly.

Background Facts

In DeVito, security officers employed by Longwood Security Services claimed that their meal breaks were compensable under the Wage Act, and that Longwood had wrongfully failed to pay them for that time. Longwood provided the security officers with 30-minute unpaid meal breaks, but required the officers to remain in uniform, stay in their assigned sectors, keep their radios on, and respond to any calls while on break.

At issue in the Superior Court’s decision was the appropriate legal standard under the Wage Act for determining whether an employee’s meal break is compensable working time. This precise question had not been addressed by any Massachusetts state appellate court or the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

The plaintiff employees asked the Superior Court to adopt a “relieved from all duties” test, requiring that employees be compensated for meal breaks unless they are excused from all work duties. Longwood, on the other hand, argued for adoption of the federal FLSA standard, under which meal break time is compensable only if it predominantly benefits the employer. On the basis of the “predominant benefit” test, Longwood moved for summary judgment.

Court’s Decision

In a decision by Justice Edward Leibensperger, the Superior Court denied Longwood’s motion for summary judgment and ruled that the Wage Act entitles Massachusetts employees to be paid for meal breaks unless they are relieved of all work duties during breaks. As support for its ruling, the Court cited regulations issued under the Wage Act by the Massachusetts Division of Occupational Safety, which provide that “Working Time” does not include “meal times during which an employee is relieved of all work-related duties.” (Emphasis added.)

In so holding, the Superior Court expressly rejected the “predominant benefit” test advocated by Longwood. Although this standard is routinely applied in lawsuits under the FLSA, Justice Leibensperger concluded that “where the plain, unambiguous language of . . . the Massachusetts regulations governs the legal standard for liability, there is no reason to draw on FLSA interpretation.”

Because the decision came on a motion for summary judgement, the court did not make any determination as to whether the particular restrictions placed on Longwood’s security officers during their meal breaks meant that they were not “relieved from all duties.”

Implications for Employers

As a Superior Court decision, the DeVito holding is not formally binding on other Massachusetts courts. In addition, Longwood has indicated that it will seek interlocutory (i.e., immediate) appellate review of the ruling. Thus, it is not yet certain whether the holding will become settled law under the Wage Act.

However, the decision appears to be well-reasoned, and Massachusetts appellate courts have often interpreted the Wage Act and other state employment statutes in a manner more favorable to employees than analogous federal statutes. Thus, unless and until the DeVito decision is modified or overturned, employers in Massachusetts should consider revising their practices to conform with the ruling, so that employees are either completely relieved of work duties during meal breaks, or else paid for those break periods.

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We will continue to monitor this issue as the DeVito ruling is appealed. In the meantime, if you have any questions about the decision or its implications, or if you would like guidance regarding any other employee compensation issues, please do not hesitate to contact one of our experienced employment attorneys.