Court of Appeal's Meal and Break Opinion in Long Awaited Brinker case

....too bad it's unpublished for now.

Meal and break claims have been all the rage in employment law circles. Plaintiffs have alleged in class actions that employers have denied rest breaks, and have not properly "forced" employees to take meal periods that are long enough, early enough, or free enough from duty.

Today, though, the employers won a significant ruling which, if eventually published, could shift some of the momentum.

With respect to rest periods, the court summed up that the trial court should not have granted class certification, and that rest period law is as follows:

Had the court properly determined that (1) employees need be afforded only one 10-minute rest break every four hours "or major fraction thereof" (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11050, subd. 12(A)), (2) rest breaks need be afforded in the middle of that four-hour period only when "practicable," and (3) employers are not required to ensure that employees take the rest breaks properly provided to them in accordance with the provisions of IWC Wage Order No. 5, only individual questions would have remained, and the court in the proper exercise of its legal discretion would have denied class certification, with respect to plaintiffs' rest break claims because the trier of fact cannot determine on a class-wide basis whether members of the proposed class of Brinker employees missed rest breaks as a result of a supervisor's coercion or the employee's uncoerced choice to waive such breaks and continue working.

With regard to meal periods, the court clarified the law regarding the timing of meal periods. The court noted employees are entitled to a thirty-minute meal period for each work period of more than five hours per day. That does NOT mean that a second meal period must occur within five hours of the first meal period. That means that if an employee works ten hours, two meal periods must be provided at some time during the shift. There is no such thing, therefore as "early" lunch violations.

The court, however, punted on the most eagerly awaited issue: is an employer required to "ensure" the employees take their meal periods, or must they simply be "offered" like rest periods? The court of appeal refused to decide the issue until the trial court had the opportunity to do so. Therefore, we must continue to wait and see on that issue. The federal district court in White v. Starbucks Corp. (N.D.Cal. July 2, 2007) 497 F.Supp.2d 1080 has held that meal periods merely have to be offered, but that decision is not binding on California courts.

It is unclear why the Court of Appeal chose not to publish this decision. However, I believe the defense bar may seek an order of publication. Yeah, I know, bold prediction.

The opinion is in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court.