In a long-awaited ruling, the California Supreme Court held in April 2012 that employers need not ensure that their workers take meal and rest periods required by California law, but only that workers are provided the breaks. One effect of Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, welcomed by many California employers, was to make it harder for plaintiffs to get classes certified. Several meal-and-rest-period cases were returned to the state Courts of Appeal for reconsideration in light of Brinker.  Thus far, the courts have affirmed dismissal of claims for meal-and-rest period violations in one case (Muldrow v. Surrex Solutions, Inc., No. D057955 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 29, 2012)) and affirmed denial of class action certification for such violations in two cases (Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., B216004 (Cal. Ct. App. Aug. 30, 2012), and Lamps Plus Overtime Cases, No. B220954 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 5, 2012)).

Applicable Law

In Brinker, the California Supreme Court determined, “An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks … is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees.  The employer satisfies this obligation if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.”  However, the Court stressed, the employer need not police meal breaks and ensure no work is performed.

Courts of Appeal Reconsiderations

The plaintiff in Muldrow brought a class action suit alleging the employer failed to pay overtime and to provide meal period in violation of the California Labor Code.  Prior to Brinker, the Court of Appeal determined that the plaintiff was an exempt commissioned salesperson, not entitled to overtime, and the employer had provided meal periods for the class members, but the law did not require the employer to ensure the employees took their meal breaks.  The Court entered judgment in favor of the employer.  Following Brinker, on reconsideration, the Court concluded that it was “undisputed that Brinker [did] not affect [its] prior conclusion that the … class employees were subject to the commissioned employees exemption.”  The Court also rejected the plaintiff’s claim for meal and rest period violations and affirmed that the employer “was not obligated to ensure that meal periods were taken.” 

The plaintiff in Hernandez, on behalf of himself and a class of current and former employees, sued the employer for alleged failure to provide meal and rest periods.  The employer had a policy providing for such breaks that, it argued, satisfied California law.  The trial court denied class certification, finding that individual issues predominated over common issues and that class treatment was not superior to individual actions.  The trial court reasoned that employers need only authorize and permit the meal and rest breaks, which means make them available, but not ensure they are taken.  The Court of Appeal affirmed.  On reconsideration after Brinker, the Court determined its decision was “consistent” with Brinker and affirmed the order denying class certification.

In Lamps Plus, several employees, on behalf of themselves and a class of non-managerial employees, sued their employer for alleged failure to provide meal and rest periods.  Their employer had a policy providing for such breaks and required employees to take their breaks; it also required employees to report missed breaks to Human Resources.  The trial court denied class certification, for much the same reason as in Hernandez, finding that individual issues predominated and that class treatment was not superior.  The Court of Appeal affirmed.  It again affirmed on reconsideration, finding its decision was “consistent” with Brinker.

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Meal-and-rest period class actions are not likely to go away because of Brinker.  Employers should ensure their policies on these breaks are in compliance with California’s requirements and make clear to their front-line supervisors that they should not deter employees from taking them.  Given the intricacies involved in the California break laws, employers should address specific scenarios with counsel.