Today, the California Supreme Court handed down its long-awaited meal period decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. The decision contains some very good news for employers regarding their meal period obligations. It also provides welcome clarification about rest period rules and liability standards for off-the-clock claims. However, it is not the unqualified victory that employers were hoping for on the class action front.
Brinker Restaurant Corporation operates 137 restaurants in California, including Chili's Bar and Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, Romano's Macaroni Grill and others. In 2002, a former employee brought a putative class action against Brinker on behalf of nearly 6,000 cooks, stewards, buspersons, wait staff, host staff and other hourly restaurant employees. The complaint alleged that Brinker failed to provide rest and meal periods in accordance with California legal requirements, required employees to work off-the-clock during meal periods, and unlawfully altered their time records. The plaintiffs obtained class certification in the trial court on each of these claims, but the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that class certification was improper as a matter of law. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, partially agreed and partially disagreed with both the trial court and the Court of Appeal.
There were two distinct questions before the Supreme Court concerning meal periods. First, does an employer have a duty to ensure that a meal period is taken and thus violates the law if the employee does not in fact take a 30-minute duty-free break? To that question, the Supreme Court answered "no" - employers are not required to ensure that an employee performs no work during the meal period. Instead, the Supreme Court held that an employer satisfies its meal period obligations by:
Relieving the employee of all duty for the period;
Relinquishing control over the employee's activities;
Permitting the employee a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted meal period; and
Neither impeding nor discouraging the employee from taking the meal period.
The Court cautioned that employers unlawfully discourage employees from taking meal breaks if they provide incentives for or encourage skipping breaks, coerce employees to forego them, or otherwise make it difficult for employees to take breaks, whether through scheduling or otherwise.
The second meal period question concerned the timing of meal periods (the so-called "floating five-hour rule"): must meal periods be scheduled so that an employee is not working more than five hours either before or after the meal period? The Court answered "no" to this question too. The employees in Brinker were sometimes required to take their meal periods an hour into their shifts, such that they were working seven hours after the meal period. The Court held that this practice was not unlawful and that there is no limit on the number of hours that can be worked after the meal period. Instead, it concluded that:
Employees must be provided a first meal period at some time before the end of the 5th hour of work; and
Employees who work 10 or more hours must be provided a second meal period at some point before the end of the 10th hour of work.
The Supreme Court concluded that the trial court's certification of the meal period class may have been based on an improper legal ground, because the class included employees who claimed that they had to take an early lunch, which was not unlawful. It remanded this issue to the trial court for reconsideration of its certification decision in light of the correct legal standard on the timing of meal periods. Unfortunately, the Court declined to decide whether certification was improper in the first place due to the absence of any duty on an employer's part to ensure that compliant meal breaks were actually taken.
There were two questions regarding rest period rules. First, does California law require that the rest period be taken before the meal period is taken? The Court answered "no" to this question. Second, what does the Wage Order mean when it says that employees have a right to a 10-minute rest period for each "four hour work period or major portion thereof"? The Court rejected Brinker's argument that "major portion" means 3-1/2 hours, and held instead that it means "more than two hours."
The Supreme Court upheld class certification as to the rest period claim, because Brinker's policy stated that employees were allowed a 10-minute rest period for each four hours of work. It ruled that the issue of whether that policy operated to deprive employees who worked more than six but less than eight hours of a second rest period was appropriate for class treatment.
The sole question regarding the off-the-clock work claim was whether class certification should have been granted or denied. In support of class certification, the plaintiffs had offered anecdotal evidence of "a handful of individual instances" of off-the-clock work. The Court held this evidence insufficient to establish a "uniform, company-wide policy" of allowing off-the-clock work. Instead, Brinker's written policy prohibited working off the clock. Furthermore, Brinker's time records showing an employee was clocked out created a presumption that the employee was not working. Finally, an employer is liable for off-the-clock work only when it knew or should have known that the employee was performing work off the clock. The Court held that to rebut the time records and establish employer knowledge would require individual evidence and determinations. Therefore, liability could not be established on a class-wide basis, and class certification was improper.
The Brinker decision is a welcome relief to employers because the California Supreme Court declined to impose strict liability for missed or non-compliant meal periods. It does not go as far as employers were hoping on the class action front, however, because it declined to reach the question whether meal period claims are inappropriate for class actions as a matter of law due to the inherently individualized determinations that must be made to establish liability. As a practical matter, however, in holding that employers are not required to ensure that employees actually take their meal breaks, the Supreme Court has made it more difficult for plaintiffs to obtain class certification of meal period claims. We can expect continued litigation over this issue in the future.