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Long-Awaited California Supreme Court Decision clarifies law on meal and rest breaks

Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, 273 P.3d 513

Background: Hourly nonexempt employees filed a class action lawsuit against Defendant employer Brinker which owns and operates several restaurants throughout California. A class of just under 60,000 hourly nonexempt employees was certified. The class alleged that, employer failed to provide employees the rest breaks, or premium wages in lieu of rest breaks, due them under law and required employees to work off-the-clock during meal periods and engaged in time shaving, unlawfully altering employee time records to misreport the amount of time worked and break time taken. In the course of litigation, two distinct theories underlying the meal break claim emerged: (1) Brinker provided employees fewer meal periods than required by section 512 and Wage Order No. 5; and (2) Brinker sometimes required “early lunching,” a single meal period soon after the beginning of a work shift followed by six, seven, eight, or more hours without an additional meal period.

Court History: Employees motion for class certification was issued by trial court. Thereafter, the defendants filed petition for writ of mandate, challenging certification. The Court of Appeal granted writ relief and reversed class certification as to the three disputed subclasses. Supreme Court granted review to resolve uncertainties in the handling of wage and hour class certification motions. The Court of Appeal granted petition. Employees petitioned for review in the Supreme Court.

Pertinent Issues addressed: The Supreme Court in a unanimous decision clarified on several important wage and hourly issues. The following is a summary of the key findings:

Employer’s Duty to Provide Rest Periods

Subdivision 12(A) of the applicable wage order provides in relevant part: “Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half (3 1/2) hours.”

The Supreme Court discussed the judicial interpretation of the term “major fraction” and found the text of the wage order dispositive as to the issue. The Court noted as follows: “Under Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 12(A)’s second sentence, employees receive 10 minutes for each four hours of work “or major fraction thereof.” Though not defined in the wage order, a “major fraction” long has been understood—legally, mathematically, and linguistically—to mean a fraction greater than one-half.”

Therefore, an employer is obligated to permit only one paid 10-minute rest period every four hours or “major fraction thereof”. So, an employee who, a) works for less than 3.5 hours is not entitled to any rest break; b) works up to 6 hours is entitled to 1 rest break; c) works up to 10 hours is entitled to 2 rest breaks; d) works up to 14 hours is entitled to 3 rest breaks; and e) works up to 18 hours is entitled to 4 rest breaks.

Rest Break Timings

The Supreme Court held that, an employer is under no obligation to provide rest breaks before meal breaks. The Court found that the applicable wage order does make any reference as the sequence of meal and rest breaks. Hence, employers are subject to a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible.

Employer’s Duty to Provide Meal Periods

The Supreme Court brilliantly summarized its conclusion on the issue as follows:

“An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 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. What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.  On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay under Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(B) and Labor Code section 226.7, subdivision (b).”

Meal Period Timings

The Supreme Court considering the language and history of both Labor Code section 512 and the applicable wage order concluded as follows: “absent waiver, section 512 requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work.” Supreme Court also rejected the employees’ argument of employer’s duty to provide a meal periods every five hours.

Hence, an employee who works for 10 hours is entitled to only 1 meal period, which should be provided to him before the end of his fifth hour of work or the start of the sixth hour of work. Since, the employee does not start his 11th hour of work, employer has no obligation to provide a second meal break.

Also, an employer is free to decide as to when he wants to provide the meal breaks. Thus, as an illustration, if an employee’s scheduled working hours are from 10:00 am to 8:00 pm and the employer decides the first meal break from 1:00 pm till 2:00 pm, employee cannot claim second meal break after five hours from 2:00 pm. Further, employee would be entitled to a second meal break only if he/she works beyond 8:00 pm (after 10 hours). In other words, if the employee works from 10:00 am to 9:00 pm (more than 10 hours), the employer has the obligation to provide the second meal break before 8:00 pm. In this case, employer again is at the liberty to decide as to when he wants to provide the second meal break before the end of employee’s 10th hour of work.

Class Certification of Rest Period Subclass

The Supreme Court observed that, “the certifiability of a rest break subclass in this case is not dependent upon resolution of threshold legal disputes over the scope of the employer’s rest break duties. The theory of liability—that Brinker has a uniform policy, and that that policy, measured against wage order requirements, allegedly violates the law—is by its nature a common question eminently suited for class treatment.”

Since Brinker had adopted a uniform corporate rest break policy that violated Wage Order No. 5 because it failed to give full effect to the “major fraction” language of subdivision 12(A), Supreme Court found the class certification of rest period subclass appropriate.

Class Certification of Meal Period Subclass

The proposed meal period subclass included all “Class Members who worked one or more work periods in excess of five (5) consecutive hours, without receiving a thirty (30) minute meal period during which the Class Member was relieved of all duties, from and after October 1, 2000.”

As discussed above, Supreme Court rejected the employees’ argument of employer’s duty to provide a meal periods every five hours. Accordingly, the Court held that, “the class definition as presently drawn includes individuals with no possible claim.”

Class Certification of Off-the-Clock Claims

Supreme Court found that absent evidence of a uniform policy or practice of employees being required to work off-the-clock, class certification cannot be granted.

Pointers:

  • The decision lays rest to several issues relating to meal and rest breaks, and most importantly as to class certification of such claims. Clearly, in the wake of this decision employers should conform to the standards laid by this case.
  • The case should not be construed as a death knell to meal and rest period class actions. If an employer has a uniform policy or practice of violating the standards laid in the case, a class certification is very much possible.
  • Employers should pay attention to the requirement of relieving its employees of all duties, permitting them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30–minute meal break, and should not impede or discourage them from doing so.
  • Employers should also pay attention to the requirement of relinquishing control over their employees during their breaks.
  • Employer should pay attention to their duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, unless practical considerations render it infeasible.
  • Employers should probably conduct workshops to inform the non exempt employees as to when are they allowed to take their meal and rest breaks.