The recent decision by the federal district court for the Southern District of California in Coleman v. Jenny Craig, Inc. is a welcome decision for employers in the spate of post-Brinker meal break cases. In denying reconsideration of its decision denying class certification, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that a California Court of Appeal’s decision in Benton v. Telecom Network Specialists, Inc., previously discussed on this blog, was “controlling law.” In Benton, the court granted class certification after determining the theory of liability – that the employer violated the law by failing to adopt a California-compliant meal and rest period policy – was appropriate for class treatment.
The issues in Coleman were: (1) whether the use of a payroll system that provides automatic one-hour premium pay only for missed meal periods (rather than short or late meal periods) is sufficient evidence of a common unlawful policy or practice to render class treatment appropriate; and (2) whether it is facially unlawful for an employer – who has advised employees of their right to meal periods – to fail to expressly further advise its employees of the circumstances under which employees are entitled to missed meal period premiums.
The Coleman plaintiff alleged various wage and hour claims, including unpaid overtime, waiting time penalties, and meal period and rest break violations, and purported to represent a class of approximately 1,055 current and former Jenny Craig employees. The plaintiff initially sought class certification based on the arguments that: (i) her employer followed a common unlawful policy of requiring employees to forego their meal periods, or take short or untimely meal periods, due to customer service demands; and (ii) the employer’s payroll system, which provided automatic premium pay only for missed meal periods, constituted a common, unlawful practice of failing to provide all premium pay due. The court disagreed. Although the employer’s payroll system did not provide automatic payment for short or untimely meal periods, because employees were able to manually submit requests for premium pay for such meal periods, the court found the plaintiff failed to demonstrate the requisite level of commonality needed for class certification.
Following Benton, the plaintiff sought reconsideration and argued that she could demonstrate a common unlawful practice upon which certification should be granted because, under Benton, employers are required to “promulgate a policy informing employees of their rights” to premium payment, and the employer had not done so in this case. The district court declined to read Benton so broadly, stating “Plaintiff cites no authority for her proposition that an employer must inform its employees of their entitlement under certain circumstances to a one-hour premium payment.”
Coleman serves as a timely reminder that the recent flurry of post-Brinker California state appellate court decisions granting certification in meal break cases are not necessarily “controlling law.” As in Brinker, the issue continues to be whether “the plaintiff’s theory could be proved or disproved with common facts and law.”