California Court of Appeal: Employers Must Simply Make Meal Periods Available To Employees, Not Ensure They Are Taken

UPDATE: On May 18, 2011, the California Supreme
Court granted review of the Tien decision.

In the same week that one California court held that employees are entitled to two hours pay for any day in which they did not receive required meal and rest breaks, employers received welcome news from another California appellate court, which found employers do not have to ensure employees receive their meal breaks to avoid class claims for extra pay.

California’s Labor Code requires employers to “provide” meal periods to employees, but the precise obligation that provision imposes has been the subject of conflicting court opinions. Employees contend that the employer must ensure that they actually receive a break of at least 30 minutes, whereas employers argue that the word “provide” means that employers must merely make meal periods available to employees.

A California court of appeal has now agreed with employers, holding that the word “provide” should be construed according to its dictionary meaning of “to supply or make available.” In Tien v. Tenet Healthcare, an employee sought to certify a class of hourly non-exempt employees who supposedly were denied 30-minute meal periods and ten-minute rest breaks. The trial court waffled, first certifying several classes, then reversing itself, eventually agreeing with the employer.

In affirming the trial court’s decision to deny class certification, the appellate court adopted the trial court’s reasoning. Noting that Labor Code section 226.7 states that “[n]o employer shall require any employee to work during any meal . . . period,” the court found that “a corollary to an employer’s obligation to ensure that its employees are free from its control for 30 minutes is the employer must not compel the employees to do any particular thing during that time – including, if employees so choose, not taking their meals.” Where the employer has a policy of making such meal periods available, and does not prevent its employees from taking those breaks, the court found the employer satisfied its legal obligation.

This decision provides employers with more hope that their obligation to “provide” meal breaks will be construed once and for all by the California Supreme Court to be limited—as the Tenet court found—to making such breaks “available,” without frustrating the employees’ ability to take breaks. While this decision is good news, employers cannot rest easy given that the state Supreme Court has accepted review of four other decisions addressing this very issue, including Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, but has yet to set oral argument in any of the cases. Further, the California Supreme Court recently denied review of another California court of appeal decision upholding certification of a class to resolve meal period claims. Given the lack of consistency in the various decisions, it remains to be seen how the California Supreme Court will ultimately resolve this issue.

This entry was written by Alison Hightower.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.