Most recent developments regarding California interpretation of employer’s duty to provide employees mandated meal and rest breaks

This article by Attorney Habib Hasbini will shed the light on some of the most recent developments regarding California interpretation of employer’s duty to provide employees mandated meal and rest breaks under California Labor Code section 512 and Title 8, California Code of Regulations section 11010 et seq.

An issue that potentially could shift the balance of powers in favor of the employers in California is currently pending before California Supreme Court in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Hohnbaum (2008) 85 Cal. Rptr. 3d 688.

The crux issue is how California employers could satisfy their meal and rest periods obligations. The underlying controversy is whether employers need only “authorize” their employees to take meal and rest periods or employers must “ensure” their employees take their meal and rest periods. Interpreting the law one way or the other will have significant implications on the vast wage and hour litigation and class action lawsuits in California.

The Appellate Court, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, issued an opinion in Brinker v. Hohnbaum (2008) 80 Cal. Rptr. 3d 781. Brinker is one of the first California State Appellate Court cases to rule on the parameters of employers’ duties under the California Labor Code regarding meal and rest breaks for non-exempt employees. The decision was overwhelmingly in favor of California employers. The Appellate Court held that an employer does not have to “ensure” that meal and rest breaks are taken. The court’s holding made these types of cases very difficult to certify as a class action. Specifically, the Appellate Court held that employers are not required to “ensure” that employees take the meal or rest breaks properly authorized to them under the provisions of IWC Wage Orders.

The significance of the court’s holding lies in denying class certification with respect to meal and rest break claims. The court reasoned that individual questions arose as to whether class members missed rest breaks as a result of supervisor’s coercion or the employee’s free choice to waive such breaks. Further, individual questions predominate as to whether employees received a full 10-minute rest period, or whether the period was interrupted. The issue of whether rest periods are prohibited or voluntarily declined is an individual inquiry and would result in thousands of mini-trials to determine whether each employee was denied a rest period or the employee waived it.

Further, the Court of Appeal held that under California law, employers need only provide and not ensure meal periods. As a result, as with the rest period claims, meal period claims are not amenable to class treatment. The court reasoned that forcing employers to ensure meal breaks are taken would force employers to police their employees and force them to take meal breaks. This would be an impossible task especially when thousands of employees work multiple shifts. If employers were unable to do so, employers would have to pay an extra hour of pay any time an employee voluntarily chooses not to take a meal period or takes a shortened one.

Importantly, like rest periods, the Court of Appeal held that because meal breaks need only be made available, not ensured, individual issues predominate and the meal break claim is not amenable to class treatment. It will require an individual inquiry as to all the class members to determine if the employer failed to make the breaks available, or employees chose not to take them.

Brinker is fully briefed and awaits a hearing date for oral argument before the California Supreme Court. Will the Supreme Court confirm the Appellate Court ruling and shield California employers from class action lawsuits involving meal and rest periods violations?
We shall wait and see! If it does, it is a big victory for employers in California