California Employers Win on Interpretation of Their Duty "To Provide" Meal Periods

The California Supreme Court’s much-anticipated decision regarding how employers are supposed to manage meal periods and rest breaks is finally here! The unanimous decision in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court was issued today, and it is largely a win for California employers. Littler will sponsor webinars providing a detailed analysis of the decision on April 17, 2012, from 10 to 11 a.m. PST, and on April 26 from 10 to 11 a.m. PST. In the meantime, here are the highlights.

Duty to Relieve Employees of Duty

The California Supreme Court held that an employer must relieve employees of all duty during their meal period, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for his or her own purpose. Importantly, the court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that the California Wage Order requires employers to ensure that no work is done during an employee’s meal period. If an employee continues to work after the employer relinquishes control, the employer will be liable for straight pay only when it knew or reasonably should have known that the worker was working through the authorized meal period. The court thus clarified that premium pay (an extra one hour’s wage) is not owed when the employer relinquishes control and the employee nevertheless continues to work.

Timing of Meal Periods

The California Supreme Court further held that employers must provide meal periods in accordance with the applicable Wage Order within the first five hours of a work shift. The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that a meal must be provided every rolling five hours of work. Consequently, the first meal must be afforded no later than the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work (or no later than the start of an employee’s sixth hour of work), and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work.

Rest Breaks

Regarding rest breaks, the Brinker court held that a “major fraction” of a four-hour work period is anything more than two hours over and above the prior four-hour work period. Consequently, the rest break rules now mean: an employee who works a shift of only 3.5 hours or less is entitled to no rest break; an employee who works 3.5 to 6 hours is entitled to one 10-minute rest break; an employee who works more than 6 and up to 10 hours is entitled to two 10-minute rest breaks, and an employee who works more than 10 and up to 14 hours is entitled to three 10-minute rest breaks.

In terms of the timing of rest breaks, the court sided with Brinker, holding that employers are “subject to a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible.” The court rejected the plaintiffs' contention that the rest period must in all situations be provided before the meal period.

Class Certification

The California Supreme Court clarified the trial court’s approach to determining whether to certify meal period and rest break claims. The court found it was error for the Court of Appeal to reverse class certification on the basis that rest breaks can be waived because Brinker’s uniform policy itself was alleged to violate the law. As for the meal period class, the court remanded to the trial court to reconsider its certification. Because the trial court used a class definition that assumed that Brinker was required to provide a meal period for every rolling five hours of work, the trial court must now reconsider whether the meal period claims should be certified in light of the clarification of the law now provided.

As a result, under certain circumstances class claims of meal and rest break violations may be certifiable. However, because it is now clear that employers must only make an off-duty meal period available and must simply authorize and permit rest breaks, meal period and rest breaks claims should be much more difficult to certify because of the individualized questions of fact those claims raise, assuming that the employer has legally compliant policies.

Compliance is Key

Importantly, the California Supreme Court did not address whether its decision should be applied on a prospective basis only, apparently leaving the argument open for parties to litigate in their individual cases. Employers should therefore immediately review their meal period and rest break policies and make any modifications necessary to reflect the Brinker court’s rulings today, and train their employees about the meal period and rest break policies as soon as possible.

For an even more detailed examination of the Brinker decision and its implication for employers, please see Littler’s ASAP, California Supreme Court Clarifies Employer Meal & Rest Period Duties, by Julie Dunne and Alison Hightower.

Photo credit: ODonnell Photograf

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.