Compliance Bulletin

Supreme Court Offers Guidance on Break/Meal Periods
April 20, 2012

This Bulletin was prepared for CBA by Julie L. Taylor [1], partner with the law firm of Keesal Young & Logan, which is an affiliate member of CBA.

On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. Among several key issues decided by the Court was the scope of the obligation imposed on California employers with respect to employee meal breaks. The Brinker decision has been a long time in the making. Employees of Brinker International, Inc., the parent company of Chili’s restaurants and other restaurant chains, filed a lawsuit in 2004 alleging that Brinker failed to provide its employees with legally mandated breaks. The case was certified as a class action involving nearly 60,000 employees.

Under California law, an employer must provide an unpaid, meal period for nonexempt employees of at least 30 minutes for every work period of more than 5 hours. The key issue in the Brinker case was whether employers need only provide a meal break, or whether they have an obligation to ensure that the break was actually taken. In an unanimous opinion authored by Justice Kathryn Werdegar – and to the great relief of California employers – the Court held that “[t]he 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.” (Emphasis added).

According to the Court, an employer satisfies its legal obligation to provide an off duty meal period to its employees if it: (1) relieves its employees of all duties; (2) relinquishes control over their activities; (3) permits them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break; and (4) does not impede or discourage them from doing so.

The Court acknowledged that the duty to provide a meal break is an affirmative duty on the part of the employer that must meet the above requirements. In other words, an employer must do more than simply making the meal break available. The method by which these requirements are satisfied may “vary from industry to industry.” Once the employer has met the obligations above, however, “the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.” Thus, if the employee continues to work notwithstanding the availability of a meal break that meets an employer’s legal obligations, the employer will not be responsible for premium pay (however, overtime pay is available if working through a meal period causes the employee to work more than an eight hour day).

With respect to the actual penalties associated with rest and meal period violations, the Court did not express any new views. However, it has long been the case that employers who violate meal and rest period requirements must pay “premium wages” equal to one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation for each work day that the meal or rest period is not provided. Further, an intermediate appellate court in California recently held that, for each day of violation of the rest and meal period rules, the employer could be penalized up to two premium payments per day—one for the rest period violation and one for the meal period violation. See United Parcel Service, Inc. v. Superior Court, 192 Cal. App. 4th 1043 (2011). That decision means that rest and meal period violations can be twice as expensive as employers initially thought.

The Brinker Court also decided an important issue regarding the timing of meal breaks. The Court held that employers must provide a first meal break no later than the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal break no later than the end of an employee’s tenth hour of work. However, the Court held that an employer is not required to provide meal breaks at five-hour intervals throughout the employee’s shift. This means that a second meal break is not required before the end of an employee’s tenth hour of work if the first meal break occurred earlier than the end of the employee’s fifth hour of work.

On the related issue of an employer’s duty to provide rest periods, the Court held that employees are entitled to a ten minute rest break for shifts from three-and-a-half hours to six hours in length, a second ten minute rest break for shifts of more than six hours to ten hours in length, a third rest break for shifts of more than ten hours to fourteen hours in length, and so on. Regarding the timing of rest breaks, the Court held that rest breaks need not necessarily occur before a meal break, but that employers should make a good faith effort to authorize rest breaks in the middle of each work period.

The Brinker Court remanded the case to the trial court to reconsider the propriety of the meal subclass certification ruling. Since the class included Brinker employees who might have had a claim under the theory that the Supreme Court disapproved (that a meal period must be provided every five hours), it remanded this question of certification to the trial court for reconsideration. This too is a favorable outcome that should benefit class action defendants of all kinds, as class over-inclusiveness is a common problem in class action suits.

  1. Ms. Taylor may be reached at (415) 398-6000 or julie.taylor@kyl.com.

The information contained in this CBA Regulatory Compliance Bulletin is not intended to constitute, and should not be received as, legal advice. Please consult with your counsel for more detailed information applicable to your institution.

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