California Supreme Court:
Employers Need Not Police Meal Breaks

By Roger M. Mason, Esq. and Scott A. Mangum, Esq.

The California Supreme Court has issued its long awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court (Supreme Court Case No. S166350). The case is one of a number of class action lawsuits pending in California in which plaintiffs claim that their employers failed to adequately provide them with rest and meal breaks as required by law.

Brinker Restaurant Corporation (“Brinker”) owns and operates a series of restaurants throughout California. California law requires that employers provide their nonexempt employees with rest and meal breaks throughout the day. Failure to provide such breaks can expose employers to significant monetary liability. 

In 2002, California’s Department of Labor Standards Enforcement began investigating Brinker for alleged violations of California’s rest and meal break laws. Brinker settled the matter with the DLSE, but shortly thereafter was sued by Adam Hohnbaum in a class action lawsuit. Hohnbaum sought to represent approximately 60,000 of Brinker’s non-exempt hourly employees, and alleged that Brinker failed to provide the employees with rest and meal breaks as required under California law.

Essential to Hohnbaum’s lawsuit were claims that Brinker did not provide the represented employees with rest and meal breaks in a timely fashion, and did not ensure that the employees’ breaks were “work-free”. In analyzing Hohnbaum’s claims, the California Supreme Court clarified (i) the scope of an employer’s duty to provide rest and meal periods and (ii) the timeframe in which such periods must be provided. 

In addressing the above issues, the unanimous Court explained that, while California law requires employers provide employees with meal breaks, it does not compel employers to ensure employees cease all work during such breaks. Rather, the Court held that California law merely requires employers provide employees with an uninterrupted 30-minute duty-free meal period. During this period, employees may engage in any activity of their choosing. As the Court stated, "The employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed." In terms of the timing of meal breaks, the Court held that, 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.

Regarding rest periods, the Court held that employers are obligated to provide employees with 10 minutes of rest for shifts from three and one-half to six hours in length, and two 10 minute rest periods for shifts from six hours to 10 hours in length. The Court also held that rest periods need not be timed to fall specifically before or after any meal period.

The Supreme Court’s opinion is welcomed by California employers, who for years were faced with ambiguities and uncertainties regarding their obligations under California’s rest and meal break laws. 

The Court’s decision notwithstanding, employers must remain vigilant regarding their rest and meal break policies, and can take affirmative steps to minimize their potential liability to employees. For example, employers should keep detailed time records that set forth when an employee’s shift begins, when rest and meal breaks are taken, and when the shift ends. Employers should also ensure that supervisors are properly trained and understand the importance of providing employees with rest and meal breaks. Employee handbooks should be provided to each employee at the time of hiring and should set forth a clear rest and meal break policy that conforms to the law.

Sweeney, Mason, Wilson & Bosomworth assists employers in virtually all matters regarding employer-employee relations, including rest and meal break policy audits and employee handbook issues. For additional information about labor and employment law, please contact Roger Mason or Scott Mangum. 

 

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