SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - The California Supreme Court, in a highly anticipated ruling, said Thursday employers must relieve employees of all "duty" during meal periods but need not ensure they perform no work.
The Court's opinion resolved uncertainty over the scope of an employer's obligations to afford hourly employees meal and rest periods.
The questions arose in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court, one of a number of meal and rest break class actions pending in the state.
The defendants, Brinker Restaurant Corporation, Brinker International Inc. and Brinker International Payroll Company LP, own and operate various restaurants in California, including Chili's Grill and Bar and Maggiano's Little Italy.
The name plaintiffs, Adam Hohnbaum, Illya Haase, Romeo Osorio, Amanda June Rader and Santana Alvarado, are or were hourly nonexempt employees at one or more of Brinker's restaurants.
In 2002, the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, or DLSE, launched an investigation into whether Brinker was complying with its obligations to provide rest and meal breaks, maintain proper records, and pay premium wages in the event required breaks were not provided.
The DLSE filed suit and eventually settled in exchange for Brinker's payment of $10 million to redress injuries suffered by employees between 1999 and 2001 and the stipulation to a court-ordered injunction to ensure compliance with meal and rest break laws. In connection with the settlement, Brinker disclaimed all liability.
In the aftermath of the DLSE's suit, Hohnbaum filed a putative class action, seeking to represent the cooks, stewards, buspersons, wait staff, host staff and other hourly employees who staff Brinker's restaurants.
He alleged that Brinker failed to provide employees the rest and meal breaks, or premium wages in lieu of those breaks, due them under law.
He also argued that Brinker required employees to work off-the-clock during meal periods and engaged in time shaving, unlawfully altering employee time records to misreport the amount of time worked and break time taken.
Hohnbaum contended governing law obligates an employer to provide a 30-minute meal period at least once every five hours. Brinker countered that no such timing obligation is imposed, and an employer satisfies its meal period obligations by providing one meal period for shifts more than five hours and two meal periods for shifts more than 10 hours.
The San Diego County Superior Court generally agreed with Hohnbaum, holding that an employer's obligations are not satisfied simply by affording a meal period for each work shift longer than five hours, and that affording a meal period during the first hour of a 10-hour shift, with nothing during the remaining nine hours, would violate the obligation to provide a meal period for each five-hour work period.
Brinker filed a writ petition in the state's Court of Appeal, which was denied.
Hohnbaum then moved for class certification, defining the class as "all present and former employees of (Brinker) who worked at a Brinker-owned restaurant in California, holding a non-exempt position, from and after Aug. 16, 2000." The class definition included several subclasses.
The trial court granted class certification.
The Court of Appeal reversed and ordered each subclass vacated.
The state's high court agreed to review the case and resolve "lingering uncertainty" over the nature of rest and meal period obligations, and the suitability of such claims for class treatment.
In its 54-page opinion, the Court concluded that an employer's obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty during meal periods, leaving the employees at liberty to use the period for whatever purpose they desire, but that an employer need not ensure no work is done.
"The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done -- i.e., prohibit work -- is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute," Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for the Court.
"While at one time the (Industrial Welfare Commission)'s wage orders contained language clearly imposing on employers a duty to prevent their employees from working during meal periods, we have found no order in the last half-century continuing that obligation."
Werdegar continued, "Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time."
As to when meal periods must be provided, the Court ruled a first meal break generally must fall no later than five hours into an employee's shift. However, an employer does not need to schedule meal breaks at five-hour intervals throughout the shift, it noted.
As for rest periods, the Court explained that under the IWC's orders, employees are entitled to 10 minutes of rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, and to another 10 minutes rest for shifts from six to 10 hours in length.
Rest periods need not be timed to fall specifically before or after any meal period, it added.
As to the suitability of rest and meal period claims for class treatment, the Court reversed in part, remanded in part and affirmed in part the Court of Appeal's rejection of class treatment.
With respect to rest period claims, the Court concluded the plaintiffs had identified a theory of recovery suitable for class treatment. As to the meal period claims, the Court remanded to the trial court for reconsideration of class certification in light of its clarification of the substantive law governing meal period claims. Finally, with respect to a third subclass -- for claims that Brinker required off-the-clock work -- the Court affirmed vacation of class certification.
Kim Stone, president of the Civil Justice Association of California, came out in support of the Court's ruling Thursday.
"Employers across California can breathe a huge sigh of relief today," she said in a statement. "The Supreme Court wisely recognized that forcing an employee to take a break goes well beyond what is reasonable to require of an employer.
"Running a business is difficult enough without having to worry about making sure your employees are taking their breaks and then facing a lawsuit if certain employees chose not to."
The CJAC is a non-profit, membership-supported coalition of citizens, taxpayers, businesses, local governments, professionals, manufacturers, financial institutions, insurers and medical organizations.
The California Labor Federation had harsher words for the Court.
Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer, said its decision erodes workers' right to meal breaks.
"Every worker deserves a meal break on the job. For many workers, the ability to take a break is critical to health and safety. By weakening current law, the California Supreme Court has sided with corporations over the rights of waitresses, health care workers, construction workers, retail workers and others," he said in a statement late Thursday.
"With its unjust decision in the Brinker case today, the Court struck a blow to workers' fundamental right to take a meal break on the job. The decision unnecessarily muddies the waters on businesses' responsibility to provide meal breaks, which opens the door for worker exploitation."
He continued, "The Court has left a confusing and vague patchwork of concepts that will encourage employers to continue to circumvent the law. It shouldn't be so hard to make employers do what is easily within their power to do: make sure workers get their meal breaks."
From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at email@example.com.