California Supreme Court Decides Brinker

The California Supreme Court today (4/12/2012) issued its long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court of San Diego. A copy of the decision is here. The decision resolved several hotly-contested issues surrounding employer meal period and rest break requirements and the ability of employees to pursue alleged violations of those requirements on a class basis. The Court held as follows:

I. Meal Periods.

a. Duty to provide meal periods. The duty to provide meal periods is satisfied where the employer “relieves it employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minutes break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so.” Significantly, the Court rejected the argument that the duty to provide meal periods requires employers to guarantee that the meal periods actually occur. As stated by the Court: “the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability” under Wage Order 5 and the Labor Code Section 226.7 (b).

b. Timing of meal periods. The Court held that “absent waiver, [Labor Code] Section 512 requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work” and a second meal period “after no more than 10 hours of work; …” The Court rejected the argument that a meal period is required for every five hours of work, also known as rolling five hour meal periods. The Court’s holding on these issues is crystal clear: “Accordingly, we conclude that Wage Order 5 imposes no meal timing requirements beyond those in section 512. Under the wage order, as under the statute, an employer’s obligation is 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.”

c. Early meal periods. Meal periods can be scheduled/provided early in a shift, including in the first hour of work. Meal periods can also occur before the first rest break.

II. Rest breaks.

a. Timing of Rest Breaks. Rest breaks must be provided for every four hours of work “or major fraction thereof.” The Court clarified that “major fraction thereof” means anything over two hours. Therefore, an employee who works over six hours in a day is entitled to two, ten minute rest breaks and an employee who works over ten hours in a day is entitled to three, ten minute rest breaks. Employees who work no more than three and one-half hours in a work day are not entitled to a rest break.

III. Class certification.

a. Rest break claims. The fact that employees may waive their rest breaks does not by itself render rest break claims unsuitable for class certification where an employer’s policy fails to provide rest breaks required under Wage Order 5.

We will provide more analysis of this important decision in the days to come. Employers are advised to contact competent employment law counsel with any questions about the Brinker decision and/or to ensure that their meal and rest break policies comply with California law.

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