In a long-awaited decision some eight years in the making, the California Supreme Court released its opinion yesterday in Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court (Honhbaum). The decision is a clear win for employers, and while it may not completely stop meal period class action litigation in California, it should stem the tidal wave of such claims. This comes as welcome news for the thousands of employers consumed by such litigation.
The case presented two primary issues: (1) Does the California meal period statute require that employers merely “make available” meal periods, or does it go further and require that employers ensure employees actually take their meal periods by policing the taking of authorized breaks; and (2) are meal breaks required on a “rolling” five-hour basis (in other words, if an employee takes a break early in a shift, is another break required once five more hours have passed) or are meal period rights based simply on the total number of hours worked? The Supreme Court surprisingly — and unanimously — answered both these questions in ways employers will be glad to see.
On the first issue, the Court adopted the equivalent of a “make available” standard by stating that an employer satisfies its obligation to provide meal periods “if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.” The Court continued, “the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations.” The Supreme Court then made its point more clear by observing that, even if the employer knows the employee is performing work during an authorized meal period, while it must compensate an employee at his/her normal rate of pay for such time, the employer does not violate the meal period statute (and is thus not subject to meal period penalties) because it has met its responsibility to relieve the employee of all duty and allow him or her to spend the time as he or she wishes.
As to the “rolling five” question, the Court squarely rejected the premise — despite language in the California Industrial Welfare Commission’s wage orders governing wage and hour matters that seemed to support such an interpretation — that employees are entitled to a meal period after any five-hour period of work. Instead, the Court noted that the California Labor Code requires a first meal period by the end of the fifth hour of work and a second meal period by the end of the tenth hour of work, and nothing more.
Taking advantage of the significance of the case, the Supreme Court added further guidance in areas additional to these two primary questions. The Court also clarified how many paid rest breaks employers must provide, stating that employees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half hours to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, and 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours. Topping off these “substantive” rulings, the Court also gave guidance on how courts should evaluate legal issues when they are intertwined with class certification questions, and further noted that in the absence of evidence showing a uniform, company-wide policy on issues such as alleged “off-the-clock” work, individual issues will often predominate such that class certification will be difficult to properly obtain.
While it will take some time for the full meaning of Brinker to settle (which may include efforts to minimize the impact of the decision through legislative means), we anticipate the case will, in the immediate future, make meal break class actions more difficult to certify because liability determinations will now necessarily require more individualized and fact-specific inquiries regarding why each particular employee, despite an employer’s policy, did not take a particular break. The rulings should thus make it easier for employers to adopt and observe clearly compliant meal and rest break policies and better avoid class-based claims based on such issues. The ruling also may slow the flood of meal break litigation in California because such claims will be much more difficult to bring, and thus have a greatly reduced “value” to plaintiff’s attorneys. In sum then, at least for employers, the Brinker decision seems to have been well worth the wait.