In a well-drafted, yet currently unpublished decision, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District (San Diego County) issued an order that, if published or followed in published decisions, will ease the tremendous burden currently placed on California employers related to meal and rest break claims.
In a well-drafted, yet currently unpublished decision, the California Court of Appeal for the Fourth Appellate District (San Diego County) issued an order that, if published or followed in published decisions, will ease the tremendous burden currently placed on California employers related to meal and rest break claims. In Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court of San Diego County (Adam Hohnbaum Real Party in Interest) (October 12, 2007), the appellate court reversed the trial court’s order certifying the class action based on the trial court’s erroneous interpretation of the law.
Brinker operates 137 restaurants within California. The purported class was made up of current and former hourly employees of Brinker’s restaurants. These employees asserted several claims, including claims for violation of California’s rest and meal break laws, as well as other wage and hour violations. Specifically, the employees claimed that Brinker violated California law by not specifically scheduling rest breaks in the middle of each work period. Further, the employees asserted that Brinker violated California’s meal period law by allowing “early lunches” and by not “ensuring” that employees take their meal break. Further, the employees claimed that they were forced to “work off the clock” and that Brinker engaged in a practice of “shaving time” from the payroll records to reflect less than a five-hour shift. The trial court ordered the classes certified.
Concluding that the trial court’s order was based upon erroneous assumptions, the Court of Appeal vacated the order certifying the class. The Court of Appeal held that without the trial court’s erroneous assumptions, many of the claims were not susceptible to class treatment because they were based on an individualized assessment of the facts.
In analyzing the rest period claim, the Court relied upon the language of the IWC Wage Order 5-2001 to conclude that “(1) employees need be afforded only one 10-minute rest break every four hours ‘or major fraction thereof’ . . .(2) rest breaks need be afforded in the middle of that four-hour period only when ‘practicable,’ and (3) employers are not required to ensure that employees take the rest breaks properly provided to them . . . .” The Court further explained that, had the trial court reached those conclusions, there would be a determination that only individualized claims exist and, thus, class certification would be improper.
In analyzing the meal period claim, the Court addressed two separate issues. One argument presented by the employees related to Brinker’s “early lunching” policy, under which Brinker allegedly required its hourly employees to take their meal periods within the first hour of their shift, and then the employees would be required to work in excess of five hours, potentially up to ten hours, without an additional meal period. The employees argued that this violated the labor code, which the employees interpreted as requiring an employer to provide a meal break for every five hours of work. Applying what it called “common sense,” the Court reasoned that an employer must provide a 30-minute meal break to employees who are permitted to work more than five hours per day, but need not provide a meal break for every five hours of work.
The second issue relating to meal periods addressed whether an employer is required to ensure that employees take their meal periods. The Court did not rule on this issue because the trial court had failed to decide it. However, the Court identified the issue and noted that under the language of Labor Code Section 512, the question is whether employers are required to ensure that employees take meal breaks, or, rather, whether employers must simply make the meal break available. In instructing the trial court regarding how it believed the trial court should address the issue on remand, the Court cited to the dictionary definition of the term “provide,” meaning, “to make available.” Further, the Court cited to the recent federal court decision in White v. Starbucks, 497 F.Supp.2d 1080 (N.D. Cal. July 2, 2007), in which the court concluded that “the California Supreme Court . . .would require only that an employer offer meal breaks, without forcing employers actively to ensure that workers are taking these breaks,” and it stated that “the employee must show that he was forced to forego his meal breaks as opposed to merely showing that he did not take them regardless of the reason.”
With regard to the “off the clock” and “time shaving” issue, the Court simply noted that the trial court needed to conduct a more detailed inquiry as to whether the elements of those claims were met before determining that they were appropriate for class certification.
Employers’ Bottom Line:
Employers should remain cautious, but optimistic, in light of this ruling. It is not a published decision, so other courts are not required to rely upon it, nor can it even be cited to courts rendering decisions on these issues. However, efforts are being made to request publication of the decision. In any event, this decision is good news in that it may reflect how other courts, when faced with similar issues, would rule.
California wage and hour law is constantly changing and being reinterpreted. That is why it is vital that all employers with operations in California have their wage and hour policies and practices audited by California counsel experienced in the area of wage and hour law. Should you have any questions about this Alert or any other area of California employment law, please contact the author of this Alert, Helene Wasserman, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (213) 237-2403.
Helene is the host of the Employer Helpcast, which is a “one stop website” for both “nuts and bolts” employment law advice and insight into new legal developments affecting employers.