Most Recent CA. Commercial Digest

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April 16, 2012

Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum); California Supreme Court rules employers are not required to “police” lunch breaks to ensure they are taken.

In a much-anticipated decision, the California Supreme Court has issued a unanimous opinion in, clarifying California’s meal and rest period laws.

Under the California Labor Code, an employer must provide nonexempt employees meal and rest periods during the workday, and is prohibited from requiring employees to work during mandated meal and rest periods. An employer who is in violation of these requirements is required to pay premium wages. Until the Brinker decision, it was unclear whether an employer was legally obligated to ensure that their employees take the authorized periods, or if it was sufficient that it made these periods available.

The Brinker Court held that with respect to meal periods, an employer satisfies its obligations under the law by relieving its employees of all duties, relinquishing control over their activities, and by allowing them to use the meal period for whatever purpose they desire. Its obligations are satisfied if it permits employees a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted 30-minute break, without impeding or discouraging them from doing so.

The employer is not required to “police” meal periods or ensure that employees are not performing work. In a footnote, however, the court stated that an employer may be liable for “straight” pay, i.e., regular compensation for time worked, as opposed to “premium” pay for violations, if it knows, or has reason to know, that the employee has continued to work during the meal period, despite relieving the employee of all duty.

With regard to the timing of meal periods, the Brinker Court rejected the “rolling five-hour” rule that would require employers to provide meal breaks on a rolling basis for every five hours of work. The court held that absent a waiver, an employer is obligated to provide a first meal period after no more than five hours of work, and a second meal period after no more than ten hours of work.

The court likewise rejected the argument that employers must provide a paid rest break after employees have worked two hours, six hours, and ten hours. The court held that under the law, employees are entitled to 10 minutes of rest for shifts from three and a half to six hours in length, 20 minutes for shifts of more than six hours up to 10 hours, 30 minutes for shifts of more than ten hours up to 14 hours, and so on. As for the timing of rest breaks, the court disagreed with the argument that an employer has a legal duty to provide employees with a rest period before any meal period. The court, held, that as a general matter, one rest break should fall on either side of a meal break, but that this could be modified if factors rendered such scheduling impracticable.

Overall, the Brinker decision represents a significant victory for employers, as employers are not required to expend resources to ensure that employees are not working during meal and rest periods.

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