In what is a major victory for California employers, the California Court of Appeal held yesterday in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) that employers are not obligated to ensure that employees actually take meal and rest breaks, and that companies therefore cannot be held liable for alleged meal and rest break violations unless employees are "forced to forgo" these breaks.

Of primary importance was the Court of Appeal's analysis of what it means to "provide" employees with uninterrupted 30 minute meal breaks, as required by Labor Code section 512. The Court held that, while employers cannot "impede, discourage or dissuade" employees from taking meal breaks, they need not ensure that these breaks are actually taken. Rather, the obligation to "provide" employees with meal breaks means only that employers must make these breaks available to employees.

The Court agreed that requiring employers to "ensure" that meal periods are taken would allow employees to "manipulate the process" because they could earn additional premium pay simply by skipping breaks that they were authorized to take. The Court also noted that for large employers, making sure that all employees take meal breaks each day would be an "impossible task." An amicus curie brief filed by our firm was cited by the Court on this issue.

The Court ruled similarly with respect to rest periods, finding that employers cannot be held liable on such claims unless they "impede, discourage or dissuade" employees from taking these breaks. As with meal breaks, employers are not obligated to ensure that employees actually take rest breaks. The Court further held that these rest periods need not be provided in the middle of each work period if to do so would be impractical. Rather, "[a]s long as employers make rest breaks available to employees, and strive, where practicable, to schedule them in the middle of the first four-hour work period, employers are in compliance" with California law.

As a result of these rulings, the Court denied certification of the plaintiffs' meal and rest period class action claims. The Court reasoned that because employers are not obligated to ensure that meal and rest periods are actually taken, the assessment of whether employees were forced to forgo their breaks or voluntarily chose not to take them is necessarily "a highly individualized inquiry." Determination of these claims requires an individual analysis of why each employee did or did not take meal and rest breaks.

As a result of this holding, it should be substantially more difficult for employees to obtain class certification on meal and rest period claims in other cases. This ruling indicates that, absent a class-wide policy prohibiting meal and rest breaks, or evidence that an employer impeded or discouraged employees from taking breaks, class certification will usually not be appropriate. Of particular significance, the Court held that an employer's time records alone cannot be used to justify class certification because such records show only whether or not a meal period was taken, and cannot show why an employee did not take a meal break.

The Court also ruled favorably to employers on the employees' claim that Brinker was required to provide them with a 30-minute uninterrupted meal period for every five consecutive hours of work. The Court described this argument as the "rolling five" theory. In essence, the employees argued that Brinker was required to provide them with a second meal period if they were going to work more than five hours after the end of a meal period taken earlier in the day. The employees alleged that Brinker violated California's meal period requirements through its practice of "early lunching," in which employees were allegedly required to take their meal periods soon after they arrived for their shifts, after which they would work up to nine hours without an additional meal period.

In finding that this "early lunching" practice was permissible, the Court noted that Labor Code section 512 establishes an obligation only to provide an employee with a meal period if he or she works "more than five hours per day." While the Industrial Wage Commission's wage orders do not include the words "per day," the IWC is not authorized to enact wage orders that conflict with the Labor Code. The Court further explained that the employees' interpretation of the statute would render the employer's obligation to provide employees with a second meal period when they work more than 10 hours per day mere "surplusage." Thus, the "early lunching" allegations could not be used to demonstrate a violation of California's meal and rest period requirements. This ruling also benefited the restaurants' employees who wanted to work during the busiest times of the day (in order to maximize tips) rather than being forced to take a meal period when they did not want one.

This ruling is also an important one for employers, as it rejects the "rolling five" theory, and makes clear that employers are not required to provide employees with meal periods within their first five hours of work. Instead, it is sufficient that each employee is provided with a meal period sometime during his or her shift. Employers must provide a second meal period to employees only when they work in excess of 10 hours on a shift.

Pending further guidance and rulings from the California Supreme Court, the Brinker decision is welcome news for employers and many employees.