Calif. court ruling favors employers in meal break dispute

By Legal News Line | Jul 29, 2008

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Legal Newsline)-In what workers' rights advocates are calling a blow to employees throughout California, an appellate court ruling from last week blocks a class-action lawsuit against Dallas-based Brinker Restaurant Corp.

The 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that Chili's Restaurant is not responsible for ensuring employees take mandatory meal breaks.

Employees who say they were denied paid and unpaid breaks had threatened a class-action suit against the restaurant chain that operates more than 175 restaurants in California, including On the Border, Maggiano's Little Italy and Romano's Macaroni Grill.

The cases, certified as a class action in 2006, must now proceed individually.

"The decision is a disaster for employees," attorney L. Tracee Lorens told the San Diego Union Tribune. Lorens represents the employees of Chili's in this case.

Employment lawyer Michael Walsh called the decision "pro-employer."

In the opinion released last week, the court recognized that mandatory rest and meal breaks have a long history of offer protection for workers, but that the "class certification order is erroneous and must be vacated because the court failed to properly consider the elements of plaintiffs' claims in determining if they were susceptible to class treatment."

While businesses cannot impede employees from taking breaks, "they need only provide, not ensure, rest periods are taken," the court ruled.

Walsh called the ruling "must reading" for lawyers who represent employees.

"Glancing over the opinion," Walsh wrote on his legal blog, "I couldn't help but think that if this had been the first appellate decision in California concerning wage and hour class actions, there might never have been a second wage and hour class action. However, it was not the first, and (this opinion) disagrees with many prior opinions."

Lawyers handling the case for Chili's employees vowed to seek review by the California Supreme Court, according to a report on Law.com.

The decision, if left uncontested, said Kimberly Kralowec, a San Francisco-based attorney involved in the suit, said the result of the appellate ruling "will mean that workers are going to be much less likely to get their meal breaks."

A labor law blog written by Kent Sprinkle, a San Francisco-based attorney who represents employers said businesses should celebrate the ruling.

"Employers can consider the Brinker decision to be a significant and positive victory that is plainly supported by the language and policy of the statute," Sprinkle wrote.

The state Department of Labor Standards Enforcement sued Brinker in 2002. The agency claimed the company had failed to meet statutory standards for meal and rest periods and often worked employees through their breaks.

In April 2006, San Diego County Superior Court Judge Patricia Cowett certified a class action on all issues after finding that common issues predominated and that questions regarding meal and rest breaks were "pervasive," according to Law.com

Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger praised the court decision.

"This decision promotes the public interest," he said, "by providing employers, employees, the courts and the labor commissioner the clarity and precedent needed to apply the meal and rest period requirements consistently."

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