On October 28, 2010, a California Court of Appeal certified Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill for publication. The Hernandez court, in keeping with Brinker Restaurant v. S. C. and Brinkley v. Public Storage, determined that an employer must only make meal periods available to employees, rather than ensuring that meal periods are actually taken.

The Trial Court Denies Plaintiff’s Motion for Class Certification

Chipotle, a fast food restaurant chain that employs approximately 3000 hourly employees in its California restaurants, moved to deny class certification and to strike the class allegations of former employee Rogelio Hernandez’s complaint on the grounds that it had met its responsibility under California law to provide (i.e., make available) employees with meal periods. Chipotle submitted declarations from 57 employees stating they received all of their meal periods, but they either failed to record breaks or recorded them inaccurately.

Hernandez’s motion for class certification conceded that California employers need only provide employees with meal periods. However, citing Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, Inc., Hernandez argued that California employers were obligated to ensure employees took meal periods. Although Hernandez received all but one meal period, he testified that managers interrupted his meal periods two to three times per week. Hernandez submitted 23 employee declarations stating that managers denied or interrupted meals. Hernandez also submitted an expert declaration presuming to analyze Chipotle’s clock-in and clock-out data over the relevant period.

The trial court denied class certification on the grounds that individual issues predominated over common issues, and class treatment was not superior to individual actions in this case. Regarding rest periods, the trial court held that employers need only make them available. However, the trial court recognized that the California Supreme Court is reviewing Brinker and Brinkley to determine whether employers must ensure that employees take meal periods or if employers need only provide employees with the opportunity to take meal periods. The trial court concluded that the California Supreme Court likely will determine that California law requires employers to provide employees only with the ability to take meal periods, and not to ensure the meals are actually taken. Based on that conclusion, the trial court found that common questions of law and fact did not predominate. The trial court also held that the case was not manageable as a class action because individual inquiry was required with regard to liability.

The Appellate Court Upholds the Denial of Class Certification

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s analysis that California law requires that “employers must provide employees with breaks, but need not ensure employees take breaks.” It found it was not “practical” to require “enforcement of meal breaks” because it “would place an undue burden on employers whose employees are numerous or who . . . do not appear to remain in contact with the employer during the day.”

The Appellate Court also concluded that the trial court was not foreclosed from addressing the provide versus ensure issue in ruling on the certification motions. Determination of this threshold legal issue was necessary to assess whether class treatment was warranted.

The Appellate Court also held that the trial court’s denial of class certification was proper. The evidence before the trial court suggested that in order to prove Chipotle violated the law, Hernandez would have to present an restaurant-by-restaurant or supervisor-by-supervisor analysis. Given the variances in the declarations, Hernandez did not demonstrate a common practice or policy.

Additionally, because the time records were unreliable, a trier of fact would have to determine if employees actually missed meals, or simply forgot to record them, as well as the reason why the employee might have missed the meals. Because of the size of the class, there could be thousands of mini-trials to address these factual issues, which supported the trial court’s conclusion that class treatment was not superior to individual lawsuits.

The Appellate Court also rejected Hernandez’s argument that a sampling of testimony and expert analysis would prove his case. First, the expert did not show how a sampling of testimony would simplify trial. Second, the expert premised his conclusions on the erroneous legal standard that Chipotle had to ensure employees took meals. Lastly, the expert’s conclusions did not demonstrate that Chipotle had a practice of denying meal periods.

Finally, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s holding that some members of the putative class had conflicts of interests. There was substantial evidence that some employees moved in and out of supervisory roles with the responsibility to provide meal and rest breaks for themselves and other employees on the shift. Therefore, the likelihood that some class members might testify against other class members demonstrated antagonism so substantial as to defeat the purpose of class certification.

What Hernandez Means for Employers

Unlike Brinker and Brinkley, which cannot be cited as legal authority since the California Supreme Court granted review, Hernandez can be cited to attack certification in meal and rest break cases. This case also concludes that the standard for meal and rest breaks is the same--employers must make the time available, but are not responsible for ensuring that employees actually take their meal and rest periods. Hernandez also addresses the potential ineffectiveness of expert analysis that is based on an erroneous legal standard. It also addresses the limited relevance of time records in meal and rest break cases where the records do not indicate why breaks were not taken. Finally, Hernandez points out that class certification may not be appropriate where conflicts of interest exist among class members due to their roles and responsibilities regarding meal and rest breaks.