Thursday, April 12, 2012

Brinker Finally Decided

The California Supreme Court finally handed down its decision in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court ("Brinker") on April 12, 2012. Though important in both the Class Action and "wage & hour" contexts, our focus here is on the latter.

For some background, Brinker involved a class action case where a group of hourly non-exempt employees brought a class action against the restaurant employer claiming that the employer failed to comply with meal and rest period obligations and also required employees to work off the clock. The employees specifically claimed that: 1) the employer’s practice of having employees take “early lunches” shortly after starting their shift and then requiring them to work another five to ten hours without receiving another meal period violated Labor Code section 512(a) and the wage orders; 2) they were not provided their rest periods between their second and fourth hour of work, and were not provided the rest period before the first meal period; and 3) they were required to work off the clock when they were clocked out for their meal periods.

The 4th District Court of Appeal held that "while employers cannot impede, discourage, or dissuade employees from taking" rest periods or meal breaks, "they need only provide, not ensure" that rest breaks and meal periods are taken. (Emphasis supplied.) In so holding, the Court of Appeal adopted both the legal and the policy rational of White v. Starbucks Corp., 497 F. Supp. 2d 1080 (N.D. Cal. 2007), agreeing with the principle that it would be logistically impracticable for large corporations to police whether their employees actually took the provided meal and rest breaks and that such a law would provide perverse incentives to the workforce to shorten or skip meal periods (and presumably attempt to reap the benefits of additional compensation in the form of "meal penalties").

Though Brinker is largely a decision on the propriety of class certification, the Supreme Court noted that the parties had requested guidance on the wage and hour issues and obliged them (and those of us who deal with these issues) with this decision. The Court then weighed in on "the nature of an employer's duty to provide meal periods," concluding that an "employer's obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done."

A particularly important passage from the decision provides:

To summarize: An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation if it relieves its employees of all duty, relinquishes control over their activities and permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, and does not impede or discourage them from doing so. What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.

On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.
(Emphasis added)

As to the timing of when those meal breaks should be taken, the Court held that: "we conclude that Wage Order No. 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."

While it is hard to distill a 62-page decision down into a single blog post, from a "wage and hour" perspective, we believe that the 3 most important aspects of the decision are these:

(1) Employers do NOT have a legal duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period;

(2) Under Wage Order No. 5 and Labor Code section 512, subdivision (a), an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work; and

(3) That an employer has great flexibility in scheduling the meal periods, since its 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.

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