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Johnson v. Arvin-Edison Water Storage Dist.

June 3, 2009


APPEAL from a judgment of the Kern County Superior Court. Arthur E. Wallace, Judge. (Super. Ct. No. S-1500-CV-261871).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Levy, J.



Appellant, Randell Johnson, filed a class action complaint against respondent, Arvin-Edison Water Storage District (District), alleging that he, and a putative class of current and former District employees, had not been paid overtime and provided with meal breaks in accordance with the California Labor Code and the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) wage orders. The District demurred to the complaint on the ground that, as a public entity, it is exempt from the subject wage and hour statutes. The trial court agreed with the District and sustained the demurrer.

Appellant argues that, contrary to the trial court‟s ruling, public employers are subject to the California wage and hour provisions at issue unless they are expressly made exempt. According to appellant, under statutory construction rules, it is evident that the Legislature intended that water storage districts provide their employees with overtime and meal periods as required by Labor Code*fn1 sections 510 and 512, and IWC Wage Order No. 17. Appellant further asserts that these Labor Code requirements will not infringe on the execution of the District‟s sovereign powers.

Additionally, appellant argues the District is required to immediately pay wages due upon an employee‟s termination or resignation under sections 201 and 202 and is subject to penalties for failure to do so under section 203. Although "other municipal corporations" are exempt from these requirements under section 220, subdivision (b), appellant contends the District does not qualify as such.

As discussed below, unless Labor Code provisions are specifically made applicable to public employers, they only apply to employers in the private sector. Since sections 510 and 512 do not expressly apply to public entities, they are not applicable here. Further, applying sections 510 and 512 to the District would infringe on its sovereign power to regulate its workforce. Also, IWC Wage Order No. 17 is inapplicable to this case. Finally, the District is a "municipal corporation" and, therefore, is exempt from sections 201, 202, and 203. Accordingly, the trial court correctly sustained the District‟s demurrer and the judgment will be affirmed.


The District was formed as a water storage district in 1942 under Water Code section 39000 et seq., and has been designated as a "public agency of the State of California." As a water storage district, it acts in the nature of irrigation, reclamation, or drainage districts. (Wat. Code, § 39060.) Specifically, the District operates facilities for storage and distribution of water. (Wat. Code, § 43000.) As part of this operation, the District has the power to: set tolls and charges for the use of water (Wat. Code, § 43006); issue bonds (Wat. Code, § 45100); buy and sell property (Wat. Code, §§ 43500, 43507); acquire property it deems necessary by condemnation (Wat. Code, § 43530); sue or be sued (Wat. Code, § 43700); and contract (Wat. Code, §§ 43005, 44000).

The District is governed by an elected board of directors (Wat. Code, §§40302, 40658) that is expressly charged with power and authority in the nature of "police and regulatory powers. necessary to the accomplishment of a purpose that is indispensable to the public interest" (Wat. Code, § 39059). This authority includes the power to hire employees, set employees‟ compensation, and prescribe employees‟ duties. (Wat. Code, §§ 40356, 43152, subd. (c).)

In compensating its employees, the District complies with the wage and hour laws set forth in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). (29 U.S.C. § 201 et seq.) Appellant contends that the District is subject to the more stringent California Labor Code provisions and wage order, specifically section 510, requiring overtime be paid for any work performed in excess of eight hours in one work day, and section 512, requiring specific meal periods. Under the FLSA, employees are only entitled to overtime wages for work performed in excess of 40 hours in a work week and meal periods are not required.

The trial court concluded the District was exempt from these California wage and hour statutes and IWC Wage Order No. 17. Accordingly, the trial court sustained the District‟s demurrer to the complaint without leave to amend.


At issue in this appeal is the construction of the relevant statutes and wage orders. The facts are not in dispute. Therefore, this court is faced with questions of law requiring independent review. (County of Fresno v. Malaga County Water Dist. (2002) 100 Cal.App.4th 937, 941.)

In construing a statute, the court‟s fundamental task is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the Legislature. (County of Fresno v. Malaga County Water Dist., supra, 100 Cal.App.4th at p. 941.) The statutory language itself is the most reliable indicator. Therefore, the first step is to scrutinize the statute‟s words, assigning them their usual and ordinary meanings, and construing them in context. (Wells v. One2One Learning Foundation (2006) 39 Cal.4th 1164, 1190.) However, if the language allows more than one ...

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