California Supreme Court Decides Brinker Case, Clarifying Requirements for Meal Periods and Rest Breaks

This morning the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited opinion in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), holding that an employer’s obligation with respect to meal periods is to relieve an employee of all duty, but does not include prohibiting an employee from working.  A copy of the court’s opinion can be downloaded here.

The main issue in Brinker was the nature of an employer’s obligation to “provide” a meal period as set forth in Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) Wage Order No. 5 and Labor Code section 512.  The plaintiff, Adam Hohnbaum, argued that an employer is obligated to “ensure” that an employee takes a thirty-minute, uninterrupted meal period for each shift that exceeds five hours.  Defendant Brinker contended that an employer is obligated only to “make available” these meal periods, but need not prohibit an employee from working.

The California Supreme Court agreed with Brinker, holding that an employer’s duty with respect to meal periods is satisfied if the employer relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities, permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.  The court further explained that an employer is not obligated to police meal periods and ensure that employees perform no work, and that an employee’s voluntary choice to work during a meal period does not constitute a violation by the employer of its obligations.

In addition to adopting the “make available” standard, the court also addressed the timing of meal periods, rejecting Hohnbaum’s argument that an employer must provide a second meal period within five hours of the first meal period.  In declining to adopt the so-called “rolling five” rule, the court explained that under both the wage orders and the Labor Code, an employer’s obligation is simply to provide a first meal period after no more than five hours of work, and a second meal period after no more than 10 hours of work, and that there are no other meal period timing requirements.

The court also addressed the timing of rest breaks, holding that, while an employer must, “insofar as practicable,” authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period of four hours “or major fraction thereof” (generally meaning work periods that exceed two hours, except in situations where the entire shift does not exceed 3.5 hours) the employer may deviate from that preferred timing where it is not feasible due to practical considerations.  The court rejected Hohnbaum’s argument that employers must always permit their employees a rest break before any meal period.

In addition to addressing the scope of an employer’s obligations to provide meal periods and rest breaks, the court also discussed at length the standards that trial courts must follow when deciding whether to certify meal period and rest break classes.  Although we will not discuss those portions of the opinion here, practitioners who handle wage and hour claims will no doubt want to familiarize themselves with them.

This ruling provides welcome relief to California employers.  Employers are cautioned, however, that this decision is unlikely to bring an end to meal period litigation.  As Justice Werdegar emphasized in his concurring opinion, meal period cases may still proceed as class actions when there is sufficient evidence of a common practice of failing to make meal periods available.  The concurring opinion states that when time records show that no meal period was taken, the burden will be on the employer to prove that it relieved the employee of all duty, and that the employee’s choice to continue working was truly voluntary.

This is a good time for California employers to review their policies and practices with respect to both meal periods and rest breaks.  Specifically, employers should ensure both that they are providing all required breaks, and that employees are aware of their right to take them.  Employers should also be prepared to prove that they have authorized and permitted employees to take breaks in the event that an employee claims otherwise.

Aaron Buckley – Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP – San Diego, CA

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