On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court finally issued its much anticipated ruling in Brinker Restaurant Corporation v. Superior Court, holding that employers need not act as surrogate police to their employees. The Court explained that while employers have a duty to provide meal and rest periods to their employees, they have no duty to hover over them to “ensure” that they abstain from working during those breaks. This relieves a huge, impossible burden, which exposed employers to countless class action claims.

The Facts

Brinker Restaurant Corporation (“Brinker”) operates over one hundred restaurants in California, including the more well-known Chili’s Grill and Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy. The Brinker case began when five hourly, non-exempt employees brought a class action claim against Brinker for failing to allow workers to take their state-mandated meal and rest breaks. These employees also alleged that they had been forced to work “off-the-clock” without pay. One of the primary issues on appeal was whether an employer was required to “ensure” that each employee took these breaks, or whether the obligation was simply to make them available. Further, the Court was asked to decide whether the facts of this case warranted class action adjudication of the wage and hour claims alleged.

Employer Has No Duty to “Ensure” Meal Periods

In a decision that will adversely impact a plaintiff’s ability to bring claims based on meal period violations, the Court held that employers only have a duty to “provide” meal periods to its hourly, non-exempt employees, but need not ensure they are taken: “[T]he employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure that no work thereafter is performed.” As such, the employer only has to make the meal break available, leaving the employee thereafter at liberty to use the period for whatever purpose they desire.
Additionally, the Court held that meal periods must occur no later than the fifth and tenth hours of work.

Rest Periods

Similarly, the Court stated that employers must authorize and permit rest breaks, but need not force employees to take them. Further, the Court’s ruling on this issue clarifies that employers enjoy flexibility as to the timing of such breaks, ruling that the general rule requiring employers to provide them at approximately the middle of a four-hour work period need not be adhered to “where practical considerations render it infeasible.” As such, the Court rejected the plaintiffs’ position that a rest break must come before a meal period.

Class Certification of Meal and Rest Period Claims Much Harder to Achieve After Brinker

The Court denied class certification for the “off –the-clock” claims, since there was no evidence of a systematic policy to require or pressure employees to work off the clock without compensation. Such a claim required individualized evidence that would be more cumbersome and inappropriate for class action treatment.

What This Means for Employers

The Brinker ruling is great news for employers, but will only benefit them to the extent they have legally compliant meal and rest period policies in place. As such, employers should review their meal and rest break policies to ensure they comply with California law, and that they conform to the new standards set forth in the Brinker decision. Further, employers should have a written policy prohibiting off-the-clock work, and that includes language requiring employees to immediately report instances where they are asked to work off the clock without compensation.

View the full opinion here.

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