Key Decisions

May 2012 – Brinker: Employers Are Not Required To Police

(filed under: | May 16, 2012)

California Employers Are Not Required To Police Employees To Ensure That Meal Periods Are Actually Taken

Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court
(Cal. Sup. Ct.), filed April 12, 2012 

KEY FACTS

The Brinker Restaurant Corporation operates various restaurant chains and a class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of Brinker’s cooks, stewards, waiters, buspersons and other employees. It alleged that Brinker failed to provide employees with required meal and rest periods. Plaintiffs tried to certify subclasses, including a subclass for alleged rest period violations and a subclass for alleged meal period violations.

Brinker opposed class certification. Brinker argued that individual issues predominated because Brinker was only required to permit the breaks to be taken, not to force employees to actually take the breaks.

Brinker pointed out that many employees took the breaks Brinker allowed, and an individual inquiry would be required for employees who did not take breaks Brinker provided.

The trial court granted class certification, ruling that common issues predominated. The appellate court, however, issued a writ and reversed class certification. The California Supreme Court granted review.

HOLDING & REASONING

The court first determined that with respect to the restaurant industry, employees are entitled to a 10-minute rest break if they work at least 3.5 hours, but not more than 6 hours, and two 10-minute rest breaks if they are required to work 6 to 10 hours.

The Supreme Court held that “in the context of an eight-hour shift, as a general matter, one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break. Shorter or longer shifts and other factors that render such scheduling impractical may alter this general rule.”

In terms of class certification for rest periods, Brinker conceded that it had a uniform rest break policy.

While the court suggested that Brinker’s uniform rest break policy was lawful, it concluded that the Court of Appeal erred in denying class certification. The Supreme Court ruled Brinker would be better off with a certified class and a ruling in favor of its uniform policy. Otherwise, repeated denial of class certifications could lead to a series of class action lawsuits against Brinker.

With respect to meal periods, the court concluded that California law requires a meal period of at least 30 minutes if an employee is required to work more than 5 hours.

Under applicable law, employers are required to provide employees with an uninterrupted 30-minute meal period when the employee’s work day exceeds 5 hours. (Two meal periods are required when the work day exceeds 10 hours.)

To try to get class certification, plaintiffs also argued that employers are required to ensure that employees take their meal periods and do no work during their meal periods. The California Supreme Court rejected the argument concluding that:

“Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with the meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty to relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.”

The Supreme Court went on to note that where employers relieve the employee of duty, an appropriate off-duty meal period has occurred, whether or not the employee decides to continue working.

Of course, the court was careful to admonish employers, noting that “an employer may not undermine” a uniform policy of “providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.”

The Supreme Court concluded that “the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and a relinquishment of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations . . . .”

The court also rejected plaintiffs’ argument that meal periods had to be strictly timed within 5 hour allotments. Instead, the court concluded that “Wage Order No. 5 imposes no meal timing requirements beyond those in section 512. An employer’s obligation is to provide a first meal period after no more than five hours of work and a second meal period after no more than 10 hours of work.”

Having concluded that its rulings would impact the trial court’s discretionary assessment of class certification, the court decided to “remand the question of meal subclass certification to the trial court for reconsideration in light of the clarification of the law we have provided.”

ANALYSIS

California employers had been waiting for the Brinker decision for a long time. The decision has generally been regarded as very favorable for employers, since it pays respect to the differences and variety of challenges that face employers in various business contexts, and it rejects the notion that employers have to micromanage employees even when they have agreed to relieve the employee of all duty and completely relinquish control. To be sure, the decision leaves room for future class action filings based on various employer policies that may be appropriately subject to class action treatment. In the meantime, the decision does offer some much needed guidance in terms of the substance surrounding meal periods and rest breaks.