Brinker Decision Impacts Meal and Rest Break Policies

California Supreme Court’s Brinker Decision Rules That Employers Must Provide Meal Periods but Need Not Ensure They Are Taken.

On April 12, 2012, the California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Super. Ct., Case No. S166350, addressing issues of critical importance regarding employers’ obligations to provide meal periods and rest breaks to nonexempt employees.

The most widely anticipated aspect of the Brinker Decision was the clarification of what it means for an employer to “provide” a meal period. According to the Court, this requirement is satisfied if the employer “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 . . . On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed.”

The ruling covers other topics as well, providing guidance as to the timing and frequency of meal periods and rest breaks and the employer’s obligations with respect to employees working “off the clock.”

In light of the decision in Brinker, employers should review their policies and procedures regarding meal periods, rest breaks, and off-the-clock work and make sure they are consistent with the Court’s ruling.

Factual and Procedural Background

Defendants Brinker Restaurant Corporation, Brinker International, Inc., and Brinker International Payroll Company, L.P. (“Brinker”), own and operate restaurants throughout California, including Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy. The named plaintiffs in the case are or were hourly nonexempt employees at Brinker’s restaurants.

In April 2004, Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit as a putative class action, seeking to represent nearly 60,000 hourly Brinker employees. The lawsuit alleged that Brinker failed to provide employees rest breaks and meal periods. Plaintiffs also contended that, by failing to ensure that employees took meal periods, Brinker required them to work off the clock.

In April 2006, Plaintiffs asked that the trial court allow the case to continue as a class action. Brinker opposed the request on procedural grounds, and also asked that the Court resolve several disputed wage and hour issues. The trial court refused, for the most part, to address those issues, but granted Plaintiffs’ request to proceed as a class action. Brinker appealed.

The Court of Appeal issued its decision in July 2008, holding that the trial court should have resolved the legal issues raised by Brinker. When the California Supreme Court agreed to review the case in October 2008, the lower appellate ruling could no longer be relied on as authoritative guidance, so the business community has anxiously awaited the decision by the state’s High Court.

The Supreme Court’s Ruling

In its opinion, the Supreme Court provided clear answers to each of the rest break and meal period issues raised by Brinker and addressed in the Court of Appeal.

Rest Breaks

In regards to an employer’s obligations to provide rest breaks, the Court addressed two specific issues: “the amount of rest time that must be authorized, and the timing of any rest periods.”

With respect to the first issue, the Court concluded, after a review of the statutory text and legislative history,” that “[e]mployees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts of three and one-half hours 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 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.”

As to timing, the Court construed language from the Wage Orders requiring that “[e]very employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period,” and held that such language imposed upon employers “a duty to make a good faith effort to authorize and permit rest breaks in the middle of each work period, but [they] may deviate from that preferred course where practical considerations render it infeasible.” In so holding, the Court rejected Plaintiffs’ contention that “employers have a legal duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period.”

Meal Periods

As with its discussion of rest breaks, the Court addressed two threshold legal issues regarding an employer’s obligations to provide meal periods: the “nature” of the employer’s obligation to and the timing requirements applicable to the provision of meal periods.

On the first issue, the Court asked “what it means for an employer to provide a nonexempt employee a meal period.” Plaintiffs contended an employer is obligated to “ensure that work stops for the required thirty minutes.” Brinker argued an employer is obligated only to “make available” meal periods, with no responsibility for whether they are taken. After again looking to the statutory text and legislative history, the Court agreed with Brinker.

The timing issue addressed in Brinker focused on when a second meal period must occur, especially if the first meal period was taken early in the shift. The Plaintiffs argued that state law prohibited any work periods of more than five hours during the day without a meal period, so an employee who took a first meal period at hour two, for example, must receive a second meal period no more than five hours later. After another comprehensive review of the legislative history, the Supreme Court rejected this interpretation of the Labor Code, holding that only employees who work a shift of at least ten hours must receive a second meal period before the completion of ten hours. Please note that the Supreme Court’s analysis did not change the timing rule for the initial meal period, as the Court agreed that state law requires that employers provide a meal period before the end of the fifth hour of work.

Off-the-Clock Work

Finally, as to Plaintiffs’ off-the-clock work claims, the Court held that employers could only be held liable for such claims if they knew or should have known that employees were working off the clock. The Court emphasized the importance of having a policy, as Brinker did, prohibiting employees from performing such work.

Implications for Employers

As noted above, employers should review and, where appropriate, revise their policies and procedures in accordance with the Court’s decision in Brinker. For example, to the extent an employer’s policy is unclear as to when a nonexempt employee is authorized to take rest breaks, the policy should be clarified, and it may even be appropriate to quote the precise language of the Supreme Court on this issue: “Employees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts of three and one-half hours 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 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.” It is also now clear that the law does not require—as many cautious employers had assumed—that employers must ensure that nonexempt employees take their meal periods (by, for example, disciplining employees who voluntarily forego their meal period in order to leave work early). With respect to off-the-clock work, employers should seriously consider having a policy—as Brinker did—that explicitly prohibits employees from performing any such work.

Employers should also review their policies and procedures regarding documentation, given the Court’s emphasis on employers’ legal obligations to maintain accurate time records, including documentation of meal periods.

Finally, every employer should provide training to its supervisors and managers on the proper administration of the meal period and rest break rules, including those clarified in the Brinker Decision.