Random Post-Brinker Thoughts

I have taken more time to read Brinker.  Here are some thoughts to add on to yesterday's post.

1.  The Supreme Court tried to clarify when class actions should be certified.  The trial court will have a  lot of latitude to decide certification, as it has been since 2004's Sav-on decision.  But this opinion will give trial courts more encouragement to certify class actions. The Court limited the trial court's examinations of whether a case has legal merit at the class action stage to resolving a legal issue that affects common issues so much that class certification would be improper. The trial courts will still wrestle with this issue and class action practice is likely safe under this analysis.  As explained below, the Court's application of class action rules means that class actions based on common policies (such as rest periods) may be authorized more freely than courts have been allowing up to now.

1.5 The summary judgment motion will be a very important part of class action defense and should be considered early in the process to avoid class certification of claims that are based on a common policy, but have no merit.

2.  Rest period law:  The Court precisely explained to employers the rest period rules.  Policies must be drafted in accordance with this formula:  "the rest time that must be permitted as the number of hours worked divided by four, rounded down if the fractional part is half or less than half and up if it is more (a “major fraction”), times 10 minutes."

You don't like math?  Well they explain it even better here, because they incorporate the fact that employees with shifts of fewer than 3.5 hours in length are not entitled to any rest period: "Employees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.... an employee would receive no rest break time for shifts of two hours or less, 10 minutes for shifts lasting more than two hours up to six hours, 20 minutes for shifts lasting more than six hours up to 10 hours, and so on." 

Caveat re scheduling:  although the court added up the rest-period minutes above, the law requires paid, 10-minute rest periods during each four hour work period.  So, the employer should draft its policies such that the rest periods fall somewhere in the middle of each four-hour work period.  Here is the rule regarding timing:
Employers are thus 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. ....
in the context of an eight-hour shift, “[a]s a general matter,” one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break. (Ibid.)
3. The Court then held that the trial court properly certified a rest-period class because Brinker's rest-period policy was uniformly applied and was vague enough to permit the argument that it violated the law because it did not specifically authorize rest periods when employees work "major fractions" of four-hour periods.  Here is the policy:
Under the written policy, employees receive one 10-minute rest break per four hours worked: “If I work over 3.5 hours during my shift, I understand that I am eligible for one ten minute rest break for each four hours that I work.”

As you can see, this policy permits the argument that employees who worked 6.5 hours were not given a second rest period, even under the policy.  So, the Court's holding re class certification re-opens the door for rest period class actions. Therefore, employers must have a more detailed rest-period policy that spells out rest periods are authorized and permitted in accordance with the formula above, or a class action lawyer can argue that the vague, common policy is applied contrary to law.  Additionally, management must be educated to enforce rest period policies in accordance with their terms when they schedule. Make with the drafting!

4.  Meal periods.   I pulled the quotes in my post yesterday.  Here are some more thoughts.
- Meal period policies should emphasize they are "duty free," meaning the employee can come and go and leave the premises as desired.
the wage order’s meal period requirement is satisfied if the employee (1) has at least 30 minutes uninterrupted, (2) is free to leave the premises, and (3) is relieved of all duty for the entire period.
Under the class action rule the Court developed, a vague policy is subject to an argument that the common policy violates the law.  So, policies should be explicit.

- Employers will be liable for regular straight time or overtime pay when the know or should have known that employees work through meal periods.  That's normal, because you have to pay employees when you "suffer or permit" them to work.  So, if employees don't punch out for meals, you cannot "auto-deduct" meal period time. As we have said before, the remedy for employees who do not comply with policies is discipline, not docking pay.

- Managers who prevent employees from taking meal periods per policy (such as discouraging meal periods) may expose the company to liability for meal period premiums.  When there is a "corporate culture" of discouraging the meal period, look for class actions based on a "common de facto policy."

- The legally compliant policy must provide that a meal period must start before the sixth hour of work begins.  That means, an employee who starts at 9 must be given a meal break by 2 pm.  Again, employers do not have to police the requirement, but the policy should be explicit to avoid the argument that the policy allows for illegal lunches.

- The legally compliant policy also should provide for a second meal period that starts before the eleventh hour of work begins.  There is a waiver of the second meal period allowed upon certain conditions, and that can be included as well.

- Caveat:  Know your business's wage order!  I am going over the general rules here (Wage Order 4, 5, 7 - the biggies).  There are different meal period provisions in some of the lesser used wage orders, such as Wage Order 12, applicable in the film industry. That Wage Order requires meals at six-hour intervals, not before the sixth hour and before the eleventh hour.

5.  Off the clock.  The Supreme Court decided that no "off the clock" work class would be allowed because (1) Brinker had an express and specific policy prohibiting off the clock work and (2) the only evidence in support of class certification was anecdotes about specific instances.  The Court noted the absence of a "de facto" policy requiring workers to work off the clock.  So, it pays to have a policy barring off the clock work.  We also like sign offs on time cards / time sheets certifying that employees reported all time worked, and verifying they know not to work off the clock.

Well, that's it for now.  I'm sure we'll have more down the road.  I hope this has been helpful.