Following Brinker and the growing number of  issues and decisions in its wake, a recent California Court of Appeals decision is welcome news for employers faced with meal and rest break class actions.  In an unpublished decision, Sutter Health Wage and Hour Cases, the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, upheld an order denying certification of a putative class of 21,000 registered nurses who worked for Sutter Health and 18 of its affiliates in 29 California hospitals. 

The nurses brought claims under California state wage and hour laws in three consolidated cases alleging that the hospitals required them to work without required meal and rest breaks and failed to pay appropriate compensation.  The trial court denied certification because the nurses failed to show that common questions predominated over individual questions.  On appeal, the nurses argued that (1) understaffing resulted in pervasive meal and rest break violations, and (2) the hospitals dissuaded nurses from requesting compensation when they had missed, shortened, or delayed breaks. 

The appellate court found the nurses did not provide any class-wide proof of understaffing that precluded them from meal or rest breaks. On the contrary, there was significant evidence that staffing depended on circumstances that varied among the hundreds of different departments.  Declarations from both sides illustrated that the nurses’ ability to take meal and rest breaks differed based on the affiliates and departments for which they worked, their job responsibilities, their supervisors, their shifts, and other factors.  Some nurses never missed a break, while others did so voluntarily. 

Although the nurses presented statistical evidence suggesting that over 4.4 million meal period “violations” had occurred, the court found that they could not prove, without an analysis of individual circumstances, that the occurrences were actually violations.  Primarily, many of the nurses signed waivers of their meal breaks, and a number of them reported that they voluntarily chose to delay, shorten, or skip breaks, which is allowed under Brinker.  The payroll and timekeeping data used by the expert did not account for these factors. 

In addition, the nurses did not show that the hospitals maintained a common practice of dissuading them from requesting compensation for missed breaks or failing to advise them of their right to make such requests.  Again, practices varied widely among the affiliates and departments.  Handbooks and other communications informed nurses that they could request compensation for missed breaks, and many nurses were aware of their ability to do so because the hospitals paid over $34 million in those circumstances.  Even if some class members claimed they did not receive compensation, the reasons varied.

This case highlights the difficulty for employees in maintaining a meal and rest break class action where the employer can point to evidence of a legally compliant meal and rest break and compensation policy that is clearly communicated to employees, and appropriate payment to employees for missed or shortened breaks.