California Supreme Court Issues Long-Awaited Ruling in Brinker Meal and Rest Break Case
Today, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in the Brinker meal and rest period case. Significantly, the court concluded that “an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty during meal periods, leaving the employees thereafter at liberty to use the period for whatever purpose they desire, but that an employer need not ensure no work is done.”
The bottom line is that employers need to continue to ensure that all non-exempt employees understand that they will be granted a meal break within the first five hours of work, that all managers know that it is their job to make sure that all employees receive their breaks, and that class action certification status may still be granted under limited circumstances.
A summary of the decision by the California Supreme Court publications office is set forth below and the full opinion may be accessed here.
Holland & Knight will issue a Client Alert shortly with an in-depth analysis of the decision and its impact on employers’ obligations and on employee class actions, as well as a discussion of how to comply with the new rules affecting meal and rest periods. These rules are also important for out-of-state employers with employees working in California and underscore the importance of properly classifying employees as exempt or non-exempt.
Summary of the decision by the California Supreme Court publications office
California Supreme Court Rules on Employer Meal and Rest Break Obligations
Court Decides Employers Must Relieve Employees of All Duty During Meal Periods But Need Not Ensure They Perform No Work
San Francisco — Resolving uncertainty over the scope of an employer’s obligations to afford hourly employees meal and rest periods, the California Supreme Court concluded today that an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty during meal periods, leaving the employees thereafter at liberty to use the period for whatever purpose they desire, but that an employer need not ensure no work is done.
On the related question concerning when meal periods must be provided, the court concluded a first meal break generally must fall no later than five hours into an employee’s shift, but an employer need not schedule meal breaks at five hour intervals throughout the shift.
These questions arose in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court, S166350, one of a number of meal and rest break class actions pending in the state. After the Brinker trial court certified classes of employees alleging the Brinker Restaurant Corporation had failed to provide meal and rest periods in the number and at the times required by state law, the Court of Appeal reversed and ordered each subclass vacated. The California Supreme Court accepted review and agreed to resolve lingering uncertainty over the nature of rest and meal period obligations and the suitability of such claims for class treatment.
In a unanimous opinion authored by Associate Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar, the court explained that neither state statutes nor the orders of the Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) compel an employer to ensure employees cease all work during meal periods. Instead, under state law an employer must provide its employees an uninterrupted 30-minute duty-free period during which the employee is at liberty to come and go as he or she pleases. Absent a statutorily permissible waiver, a meal break must be afforded after no more than five hours of work, and a second meal period provided after no more than 10 hours of work.
On the question of rest periods, the court explained that under the IWC’s orders, employees are entitled to 10 minutes of rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, and to another 10 minutes rest for shifts from six hours to 10 hours in length. Rest periods need not be timed to fall specifically before or after any meal period.
As to the suitability of rest and meal period claims for class treatment, the court reversed in part, remanded in part, and affirmed in part the Court of Appeal’s rejection of class treatment. With respect to rest period claims, the court concluded plaintiffs had identified a theory of recovery suitable for class treatment. With respect to meal period claims, the Supreme Court remanded to the trial court for reconsideration of class certification in light of its clarification of the substantive law governing meal period claims. Finally, with respect to a third subclass—for claims that Brinker required off-the clock work—the court affirmed vacation of class certification.
The principal opinion by Justice Werdegar was signed by Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye and Associate Justices Joyce L. Kennard, Marvin R. Baxter, Ming W. Chin, Carol A. Corrigan, and Goodwin Liu.
Justice Werdegar also issued a separate concurring opinion, joined by Justice Liu, addressing meal period class certification issues confronting the trial court on remand. The concurring opinion discussed considerations relevant to the suitability of the plaintiffs’ meal period claims for certification.