Five lessons for employers from new meal break decision: In re Walgreen Co. Cases

An appellate court upheld a trial court’s denial of class certification in a case brought against Walgreens. The appellate court’s decision provides a few good lessons for employers defending class action allegations.

1. Meal break cases are harder to certify as class actions after the Brinker decision.
The California Supreme Court held in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court that employers had to make meal breaks available to employees, and had no obligation to ensure that employees took the meal break. The court in Walgreens acknowledged this, and explained by the make available standard set forth in Brinker makes it hard to certify meal break claims as a class action:

One important difference between the make available standard and the ensure standard has to do with ease of proof. The ensure standard can make it easier for plaintiffs to prove employer meal break violations, while the make available standard can make it harder. Here is why. Employers generally require employees to record hours worked by clocking in and clocking out, a process that typically generates centralized and computerized time records. It is simple to use computer records to determine if each employee checked out on time for a full 30-minute meal break. Meal break classes thus are relatively easy to certify under the ensure test: each missed break automatically equals an employer violation. Meal break classes are harder to certify under a make available test because the fact of a missed break does not dictate the conclusion of a violation (and thus employer liability). Rather, under the make available standard you additionally must ask why the worker missed the break before you can determine whether the employer is liable. If the worker was free to take the break and simply chose to skip or delay it, there is no violation and no employer liability. This make available test thus can make analysis of break violations more complex than under the ensure standard.

2. There is not a presumption against the employer if the employer’s records show no meal period was taken.
Plaintiff argued that because Walgreens's records did not show that meal breaks were being taken, or taken on a timely basis, that there was a rebuttable presumption created against Walgreens that the breaks had not been taken. Plaintiff argued that Justice Werdegar’s concurring opinion in Brinker supported this analysis. However, in this case, the court did not find this was binding analysis, as a majority of the justices did not agree with this rebuttable presumption and because “concurring opinions are not binding precedent.”

3. After Brinker, an expert witness’ job becomes much more difficult.
The plaintiff utilized an expert witness in the case to attempt to prove that the case was suitable for class certification. However, Plaintiff’s expert witness “incorrectly assumed there was a Labor Code violation every time a worker did not take a timely break. [The expert] thus incorrectly assumed Walgreens must ensure employees took their breaks. This assumption is legally unsound under Brinker’s holding….”

4. It is a good idea to test the truthfulness of the declarations submitted by Plaintiff’s counsel of current or former employees.
In this case, it does not appear that the employees made up facts about their breaks, but instead the plaintiff’s counsel took some liberties with the facts. Usually, plaintiff's counsel will submit written declarations from current and former employees to support their theories for class certification.  In this case, it appears that the declarations were all very similar, and when the employees who signed the declarations were deposed by the defendant, the employees recanted their declarations and stated that the declaration drafted by plaintiff's counsel included statements that they never made during the interview by plaintiff's counsel.  The appellate court noted:

The trial judge repeatedly said these declarations “appalled” him, and he told [plaintiff’s] counsel, “You know better.”
The trial court was “especially troubled” that, once deposed, so many witnesses recanted their declarations.
Form declarations present a problem. When witnesses speak exactly the same words, one wonders who put those words there, and how accurate and reliable those words are.
There is nothing attractive about submitting form declarations contrary to the witnesses’ actual testimony. This practice corrupts the pursuit of truth.
It was not error for the trial court to give these unreliable declarations no weight.

Defendants should take the opportunity to depose the individuals who submitted declarations drafted by plaintiff's counsel.  You never know what may turn up. 

5. Emails and other documentation reminding managers to provide meal breaks will help the company’s defense against class certification.

In the Walgreens case, plaintiff counsel argued that the following email (and apparently similar emails) by Walgreens to its managers established meal break violations:

Just an FYI . . . if anyone is on this list, they did not receive a lunch. Please, you must talk to the assistant managers and find out why. . . . please make a big deal about this . . . remind employees that it is their job to ask for a break or lunch if they did not receive it, but also remind the Managers on duty that they must have a break schedule created for every shift . . . there is no negotiation about this . . . there is no excuse not to give a break or lunch . . . look at your schedule and make sure you have the right people at the right time. Two of the people received a lunch, but it was after the 5 hour mark and both did not take a 30 minute lunch. Please. . . Please address in every store. . . . This is one day in the district . . . but this is occur[r]ing in every store! Thank you for your complete follow through on this. If you have any questions, please let me know. I will be sending out some guidelines to help you succeed on making sure everyone gets a 30 minute break within 5 hours of their shift. Thank you.

Contrary to plaintiff’s argument however, the court found that this email instead showed Walgreens’s efforts to provide its employees with meal breaks. The emails showed the company pressuring store managers to ensure that employees took meal breaks. Takeaway for employers: document the emphasis on the company’s actions to make meal breaks available for employees and routinely remind managers of the obligations to make breaks available.

The decision, In re Walgreen Co. Overtime Cases and be read here

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Are on-duty meal periods valid in California?

As many California employers know, ignoring or failing to comply with the requirements of providing meal and rest breaks in California can create huge liability for companies. California law does allow for “on-duty” meal periods, whereby the employee takes a meal break, but while still working. Employers sometimes view this exception as an easy alternative to having employees clock out and leave the company’s premises for meal breaks. However, the on-duty meal break exception has been interpreted to apply only in a very limited set of circumstances, and needs to be carefully examined before implementing in a workplace.

Pursuant to Labor Code section 226.7 and the Wage Orders (for example Wage Order 4-2001, section 11(b)), each failure to provide the specified meal period entitles the employee to receive an additional compensation premium equal to one hour of pay.

The Wage Order provides for an “on duty” meal period that is an exception to the required meal break if the following requirements are met:

An "on duty" meal period shall be permitted only when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on-the-job paid meal period is agreed to. The written agreement shall state that the employee may, in writing, revoke the agreement at any time.

Wage Order No. 4-2001(a)(emphasis added). Unfortunately, the definition of the “nature of the work” is not clear, and the only real guidance California employers have on this issue is a Department of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) opinion letter. Click here to download the opinion letter.

In the opinion letter, the DLSE addressed the issue of whether a shift manager in a fast food restaurant working the night shift would be allowed to take a “on duty” meal period. The DLSE began its analysis in stating that the off duty meal period is the default requirement, and any exceptions to this requirement should be narrowly construed.

The DLSE set forth factors it considered in determining whether the nature of the work prevents the employee from taking an off-duty meal period. The factors included:

  • the type of work
  • the availability of other employees to relieve the employee during a meal period
  • the potential consequences to the employer if the employee is relieved of all duty
  • the ability of the employer to anticipate and minimize these staffing issues such as by scheduling employees in a manner that would allow the employee to take an off-duty meal break and
  • whether the “work product or process” would be destroyed or damaged if the employee were given an off-duty meal period.

The DLSE concluded that based on the facts presented in the situation of the fast food restaurant, the nature of the work in the restaurant should not prevent the shift manager from being relieved of all duties for 30 minutes, and therefore the on-duty meal period would not be valid in this context.
In the class action setting, the issue of on-duty meal breaks has resulted in varying opinions. For example, the Ninth Circuit appellate court in Abdullah v. U.S. Security Associates, Inc. upheld the lower court’s granting of class certification on whether a security guard company’s use of on-duty meal period agreements was valid. Alternatively, a California appellate court, in Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Inc., upheld the denial of class certification for a case also involving on-duty meal period agreements for security guards. Implementing an on-duty meal period agreement in California needs to be approached with caution, and should only be done with assistance from knowledgeable counsel.

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Post-Brinker Decision Upholds Denial Of Class Certification: Muldrow v. Surrex Solutions Corp.

In Muldrow v. Surrex Solutions Corp., the California Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s determination that the plaintiffs could not maintain a class action for proposed meal period class given the holding by the California Supreme Court in Brinker v. Superior Court (click here for additional information on the Brinker ruling). The appellate court had previously upheld the trial court’s denial of class certification, but the California Supreme Court granted review of the case pending its decision in Brinker. Once Brinker was decided, the Supreme Court transferred the case back to the appellate court for a decision applying the new analysis set forth in Brinker.

In Muldrow, the appellate court found that the trial court properly denied class certification for the meal break class.  It stated, “In Brinker, the Supreme Court held that an employer need only provide for meal periods, and need not ensure that employees take such breaks.”

In support of its conclusion that the trial court properly denied class certification as to the meal break claims, the court quoted the following language from the Brinker decision:

An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks…is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation if it 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.

Plaintiffs argued that they should now be able to present evidence that the employees were “discouraged” from taking meal breaks given the Brinker decision. The appellate court rejected this request as this was the first time plaintiffs raised the issue, and there were a number of cases that plaintiffs could have relied upon for this theory prior to the Brinker decision.

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Meal and Rest Break Compliance After Brinker v. Superior Court

Have you attended webinars and read new legal updates on the new Brinker decision and still uncertain on how this applies to your company? Realizing that employers need to take a more active step in ensuring they are in compliance with the new decision, I've developed a package that actually assists employers in drafting and implementing a meal and rest break policy tailored to their business:

  • A draft of meal and rest break policy to comply with the standards set forth in Brinker.
  • Video presentation covering overview of Brinker (1 hour) and presentation materials.
  • 1/2 hour consultation for implementing meal and rest break policy tailored to your company.

The California Supreme Court made it clear in its decision that different industries and facts will either prohibit or permit employers from requiring different standards regarding the timing and offering of meal and rest breaks under California law.  General advice from webinars and articles are not sufficient to ensure companies are in compliance with the clarifications set forth in the decision.    The cost of the package is a flat fee of $450. 

More information about the compliance package is listed here

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When Do Employers Have To Offer Meal And Rest Breaks? Analysis Of Brinker Corp. v. Superior Court

 

It has been a week now since the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. I’ve been getting a lot of questions, and have spoken on the topic a few times, and thought a couple of charts illustrating the Court’s holding would assist in understanding the decision. For a more general discussion of the Brinker decision, please see my previous article. 

 

Meal Periods

The California Supreme Court made clear in Brinker that employers need to give an employee their first meal break “no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work.” The Court said that contrary to Plaintiff’s argument, there are no additional timing requirements for the meal breaks. 

I’ve created this chart to help illustrate this point:

If an employee begins work at 8:00 a.m., the employee must start his break by 12:59, which is before the end of the 5th hour of work. 

Another issue in the case was Brinker’s policy of “early lunching.” Early lunching is when employers allow the employees to take their meal break within the first hour or two of arriving for work. Once the employee is given this first meal period, then they would continue to work for six, seven, eight, or more hours without an additional meal break. The Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that this policy violated the law. The Plaintiff argued that the law required employers had a duty to provide meal breaks on a “rolling five” hour basis, or every five hours. 

Here is a chart that provides an example of an early lunching practice:

Before employers begin to employ an early lunching policy, they should do so with caution and some guidance. As Court cautioned employers that: “in the context of an eight-hour shift, ‘[a]s

a general matter,’ one rest break should fall on either side of the meal break. Shorter or longer shifts and other factors that render such scheduling impracticable may alter this general rule.”

Rest Breaks

As for of rest breaks, the Court set forth that, “[e]mployees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-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 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.” The Court’s holding can be summarized as follows:

In regards to when during the shift rest breaks should be taken, the Court held that “the only constraint of timing is that rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods ‘insofar as practicable.’” The Court stopped short of explaining what qualifies as “insofar as practicable”, and employers should closely analyze whether they may deviate from this general principle. 

 

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Brinker: California Supreme Court Clarifies Meal And Rest Break Requirements

Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) was finally decided by the California Supreme Court. The decision was anxiously awaited by many due to its clarifications of California employment laws regarding the duties employers have regarding offering meal and rest breaks, and when the breaks need to be taken.  The primary holding of the case is that employers do not need to ensure that no work is performed during meal breaks.  The Court, however, cautioned employers that they cannot undermine formal policies by pressuring employees to work during breaks.  Also of interest, as explained below, the Court provided a clarification of the rate that employees accrue rest breaks, which varies from how most employers interpreted the rest break requirement. 

Meal Periods
Employers Have No Duty To Ensure Meal Breaks Are Taken

The Plaintiff in the case argued that Brinker had to “ensure that work stops for a the required thirty minute[]” meal period. Alternatively, Brinker argued that under California law employers only had to provide meal periods and would not incur any liability if the employee did not take the break. The Court explained:

[Plaintiff] Hohnbaum contends an employer is obligated to “ensure that work stops for the required thirty minutes.” Brinker, in a position adopted by the Court of Appeal, contends an employer is obligated only to “make available” meal periods, with no responsibility for whether they are taken. We conclude that under Wage Order No. 5 and Labor Code section 512, subdivision (a), an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.

The Court clarified that employers do not need to ensure that employees do not perform any work during their break:

The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done—i.e., prohibit work—is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute. While at one time the IWC’s wage orders contained language clearly imposing on employers a duty to prevent their employees from working during meal periods, we have found no order in the last half-century continuing that obligation. Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.

The Court also provided further clarification as to what meal period obligations employers have:

[T]he wage order’s meal period requirement is satisfied if the employee (1) has at least 30 minutes uninterrupted, (2) is free to leave the premises, and (3) is relieved of all duty for the entire period.

Therefore, the Court held:

To summarize: An employer’s duty with respect to meal breaks under both section 512, subdivision (a) and Wage Order No. 5 is an obligation to provide a meal period to its employees. The employer satisfies this obligation if it 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. What will suffice may vary from industry to industry, and we cannot in the context of this class certification proceeding delineate the full range of approaches that in each instance might be sufficient to satisfy the law.
On the other hand, the employer is not obligated to police meal breaks and ensure no work thereafter is performed. Bona fide relief from duty and the relinquishing of control satisfies the employer’s obligations, and work by a relieved employee during a meal break does not thereby place the employer in violation of its obligations and create liability for premium pay under Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(B) and Labor Code section 226.7, subdivision (b).

However, the Court also provided a warning to employers that, “On the other hand, an employer may not undermine a formal policy of providing meal breaks by pressuring employees to perform their duties in ways that omit breaks.”

Meal Period Timing Requirements

The Court also clarified when meal periods must be provided. The Court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that Brinker’s policy of “early lunching” violated the Labor Code. Early lunching is which is when employers allow employees to take their meal break within the first hour or two of arriving to work, and then have the employees continue to work to the end of their shift without taking another meal period. The Plaintiff argued that the Labor Code requires that employees take a meal period every five consecutive hours of work. In rejecting the Plaintiff’s argument, the Court stated:

Hohnbaum contends section 512 should be read as requiring as well a second meal period no later than five hours after the end of a first meal period if a shift is to continue. The text does not permit such a reading.

The Court explained the timing requirements of meal periods as follows:

We conclude that, absent waiver, section 512 requires a first meal period no later than the end of an employee’s fifth hour of work, and a second meal period no later than the end of an employee’s 10th hour of work.

 

Rest Periods
Rate Rest Periods Accrue To Employees

The Court began its explanation of the rate at which rest breaks must be given to employees by examining Wage Order No. 5. The Court focused in on subdivision 12(A) of the wage order, which provides:

Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half (3½) hours.

The Court explained that “major fraction thereof” as applied to the four hour period referenced in the Wage Order means “any amount of time in excess of two hours – i.e., any fraction greater than half.” Therefore, by applying this calculation under the wage order, the Court held:

Employees are entitled to 10 minutes’ rest for shifts from three and one-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 10 hours up to 14 hours, and so on.

Timing Of Rest Breaks

The Court disagreed with the Plaintiff’s argument that rest breaks had to occur before meal breaks under the law. The Court held that the only “constraint on timing is that rest breaks must fall in the middle of work periods ‘insofar as practicable.’” The Court explained:

Hohnbaum asserts employers have a legal duty to permit their employees a rest period before any meal period. Construing the plain language of the operative wage order, we find no such requirement and agree with the Court of Appeal, which likewise rejected this contention.

 

...

Either the rest period must fall before the meal period or it must fall after. Neither text nor logic dictates an order for these, nor does anything in the policies underlying the wage and hour laws compel the conclusion that a rest break at the two-hour mark and a meal break at the four-hour mark of such a shift is lawful, while the reverse, a meal break at the two-hour mark and a rest break at the four-hour mark, is per se illegal.

 

The entire decision can be read from the Supreme Court's website here (PDF) (WRD).  I will definitely have more thoughts on this decision in the near term, and will be reviewing it in further detail over the weekend in preparation for the webinar my partner, Dan Turner and I will be conducting next Wednesday addressing the full impact the Brinker decision will have on employers.

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Brinker v. Superior Court Decision To Be Published Tomorrow

The California Supreme Court announced today that the opinion in Brinker v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) will be published tomorrow at 10:00 a.m. The opinion will address many issues surrounding meal and rest break requirements under the California Labor Code, such as whether employers need to ensure or simply provide meal breaks, and when breaks should be taken during a shift.

For more information on the decision we will be holding a webinar next Wednesday at 10:00 a.m. PST. Registration information is here.

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Webinar - The Impact of Brinker: Understanding The Supreme Court's Decision On Meal & Rest Breaks

Be among the first in California to understand the complete impact the monumental decision in Brinker v. Superior Court will have on employers. The Court’s decision is expected on April 12, and Anthony Zaller and Daniel Turner will analyze and discuss the impact of the decision. The webinar will explain the decision and what it means for employers and wage and hour class actions, discussing among other items:

  • Can meal periods be offered to employees, or do they need to be ensured?
  • When during the shift can meal and rest periods be taken?
  • What does the Court’s ruling mean for the status of meal and rest break class actions and class certification issues?
  • What is the impact for cases currently being litigated?

The cost is $150 per connection. 

Date: Wednesday, April 18
Time: 10:00 a.m. PST

Click here to register.  Existing clients can email us here to have the fee waived. 

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The Enforceability of Class Action Waivers In The Employment Context

The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) recently held in D.R. Horton, 357 NLRB No. 184, that a class action waiver in an arbitration agreement was unenforceable as it violates employees’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Specifically, it held that employees have “the right ‘to engage in…concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection…” under section 7 of the NLRA and therefore any waiver to participate in class actions violates this right.

However, since the D.R. Horton decision courts have upheld class action waivers in the employment context and have rejected the NLRB’s reasoning in D.R. Horton as inconsistent with the United States Supreme Court’s holding in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, which permitted class action waivers in arbitration agreements. For example, in LaVoice v. UBS Financial Services, Inc. (S.D.N.Y.), the plaintiff brought a putative class action alleging various wage and hour violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act and New York labor laws. In rejecting the reasoning of D.R. Horton, the court held that:

Given that the Supreme Court held in AT&T Mobility that ‘[r]equiring the availability of classwide arbitration interferes with fundamental attributes of arbitration and thus creates a scheme inconsistent with the FAA,’ this Court must read AT&T Mobility as standing against any argument that an absolute right to collective action is consistent with the FAA’s ‘overarching purpose’ of ‘ensur[ing] the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms so as to facilitate streamlined proceedings. To the extent that [plaintiff] relies…on the recent decision of the National Labor Relations Board (‘NLRB’) in D.R. Horton, Inc. and Michael Cuda, Case 12-CA-25764, January 2, 2012, as authority to support a conflicting reading of AT&T Mobility, this Court declines to follow [that] decision[].

As I’ve written about previously, this area of the law is quickly changing. There is no doubt that new decisions this year will continue to add to the development of this area of the law.

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Can Employees Agree To Waive Berman Hearings In Arbitration Agreements?

I’ve recently written a series of posts regarding the Berman hearing process available for employees to resolve wage disputes before the Labor Commissioner. See previous posts: Overview Of Berman Hearings Before The Labor Commissioner and How To Prepare For a Berman Hearing. But can an employer have an employee sign an arbitration agreement in which the employee agrees to waive any rights to a Berman hearing, and all claims against the employer must proceed directly to arbitration? A good question, to which there is not currently an answer. The issue is currently under review by the California Supreme Court in the case Sonic-Calabasas A, Inc. v. Moreno

This also leads to the issue of why might an employer want to have all claims proceed directly to arbitration, and skip-over the Berman hearing. As the California Supreme Court stated in its initial review of the Sonic-Calabasas case in early 2011, the Berman hearing provides the employee a number of benefits:

These provisions include the Labor Commissioner's representation in the superior court of employees unable to afford counsel, the requirement that the employer post an undertaking in the amount of the award, and a one-way attorney fee provision that requires an employer that is unsuccessful in the appeal to pay the employee's attorney fees.

It is an interesting background on how the Sonic-Calabasas case proceeded through the Courts. The California Supreme Court has already ruled on the Sonic-Calabasas case in the early part of 2011. At that time, the Court held that a waiver of the Berman hearing process in the arbitration agreement was unconscionable and contrary to public policy, and was not preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Therefore, the California Supreme Court ruled that this waiver of the Berman hearing process was not an enforceable provision of the arbitration agreement. However, shortly after this ruling, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion, a separate case out of California in which the US Supreme Court held that the FAA preempted California law and found that a class action waiver provision in arbitration agreements can be enforceable. For more information on AT&T Mobility you can listen to my podcast on the case here. The employer in Sonic-Calabasas A v. Moreno filed an appeal with the US Supreme Court to review the California Supreme Court’s ruling invalidating the Berman hearing waiver in the arbitration agreement. The US Supreme Court granted review, but recently sent the case back to the California Supreme Court to review the case again and to apply the standards set forth in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion. So, we are waiting for the California Supreme Court to review the issue once again to have a definitive answer to the question.

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Webinar: New Laws Facing California Employers In 2012

 

Governor Brown signed a number of new employment laws that take effect in January 2012.  During this webinar, we will cover the new obligations facing employers under these recently enacted employment laws as well as the proper steps employers should take to comply with them.  The discussion will also cover the recent oral argument in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court and what steps employers should take while waiting for the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Other topics will include:

  • New laws effective January 2012, including:
    • Statute increasing the penalties for employers who misclassify independent contractors
    • What the Wage Theft Protection Act of 2011 means for employers
    • Gender identity and expression
    • Prohibiting e-verify requirements under the Employment Acceleration Act of 2011.
    • New requirement to provide health benefits during pregnancy disability leave
  • Review of new developments that took place in 2011:
    • Development of case law upholding class action waivers in arbitration agreements
    • Payment requirements for non-resident employees working in California

The cost is $150 per connection (no fee for existing clients).  Click here for more information and to register. 

 

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Oral Arguments In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court

What can I say, technology is awesome.  The oral arguments in Brinker v. Superior Court that took place on November 8 are already on Youtube:

The Supreme Court has 90 days from oral argument to issue its decision.

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California Supreme Court Likely to Issue Ruling in Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court Soon

Today, the California Supreme Court set oral argument in Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) to take place on November 8, 2011. The Court typically provides a ruling on cases within 90 days of oral argument, so I expect a ruling very early in 2012.

This case is the much anticipated ruling on whether employers need to “ensure” meal breaks or merely make the breaks available to employees.  The Supreme Court explains, "This case presents issues concerning the proper interpretation of California's statutes and regulations governing an employer's duty to provide meal and rest breaks to hourly workers."   Click here for a detailed analysis of the lower court’s ruling and the different issues that the Supreme Court may address.

The Supreme Court has issued "grant and hold" order pending the ruling in Brinker for the following cases and the Brinker decision will likely determine the issues in these cases as well:

S168806 BRINKLEY v. PUBLIC STORAGE
S184995 FAULKINBURY v. BOYD & ASSOCIATES
S186357 BROOKLER v. RADIOSHACK CORPORATION
S188755 HERNANDEZ v. CHIPOTLE MEXICAN GRILL
S191756 TIEN v. TENET HEALTHCARE
S194064 LAMPS PLUS OVERTIME CASES
S195866 SANTOS v. VITAS HEALTHCARE

I will continue to provide case updates routinely as the decision nears.

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California Employment Law Podcast - AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion Decision On Class Action Waivers And Arbitration Agreements

Employees Entitled Up To Two Hours Of Premium Pay For Missed Meal and Rest Breaks Per Day - UPS v. Superior Court

California Labor Code section 226.7 provides that employees are entitled to receive premium payment in the form of one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay for a missed meal or rest break. As the appellate court admitted in UPS v. Superior Court, this Labor Code provision is amenable to the two different interpretations offered by Plaintiff and Defendant.

Labor Code section 226.7 provides:

(a) No employer shall require an employee to work during any meal or rest period mandated by an applicable order of the Industrial Welfare Commission. [¶] (b) If an employer fails to provide an employee a meal period or rest period in accordance with an applicable order of the Industrial Welfare Commission, the employer shall pay the employee 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.

Plaintiff argued that section 226.7 allowed the recovery of two hours of premium wages if a meal and a rest break were not provided. Defendant argued that the language of section 226.7 only allowed Plaintiff to recover one hour premium wage, regardless if the Plaintiff did not receive both a rest and a meal break. The appellate court reviewed the legislative history and administrative history of the applicable Industrial Welfare Commission wage orders, and concluded that the employer is liable up to two hours of premium wages – one hour for a missed meal break and one hour for a missed rest break – per day.

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Governor Vetoes Bill Giving Farmworkers Greater Overtime

Last week, Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed SB1121, a bill that would have given farm workers overtime when they work over eight hours in one day or over forty hours in one week. Currently, California farm workers earn overtime for all hours over 10 hours in one day and 60 hours in one week. Federal law, by contrast, does not require employers to pay farm workers any overtime at all.

 

The Governor explained:

In order to remain competitive against other states that do not have such wage requirements, businesses will simply avoid paying overtime.

The bill would have also applied California’s meal and rest break requirements to farm workers. The Governor also cited this as a reason why he vetoed the law:

Finally, it should be noted that Senate Bill 1121 would not just change the rules governing overtime pay for agricultural workers, but would also apply California's confusing and burdensome rest and meal requirements. Unfortunately, while there have been several attempts to clean up this section of law, efforts at comprehensive reform continue to fail. There is no reason to exacerbate this continuing problem by adding agricultural workers to it. For these reasons, I am unable to sign this bill.

The Governor’s statement is referring to the issues that the California Supreme Court is currently reviewing in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court. One of the many issues being reviewed in Brinker, is whether California employers need to only provide, not ensure, employees with their 30-minute meal break under California law. Click here for more analysis on the Brinker case
 

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Court Affirms Denial Of Class Certification In Security Guard Meal and Rest Break Case

In Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Inc., Plaintiffs brought a case on behalf of about 4,000 current and former security guards of Boyd & Associates, Inc. Plaintiffs asserted that all guards had to sign an agreement to take on-duty meal periods and that they never took an uninterrupted, off-duty meal break. They also asserted that, while employed by Boyd, they were instructed not to leave their posts and never took any off duty rest breaks.

Meal Break Claim

Defendant Boyd argued that the on-duty meal periods at issue in this case created individualized issues that were not suitable for class-wide treatment by the court. In reviewing defendant’s argument, the court explained that on-duty meal periods are permissible if it meets the “nature of the work exception”:

Under the nature of the work exception, an employer is not required to provide off duty meal breaks “when the nature of the work prevents an employee from being relieved of all duty and when by written agreement between the parties an on the job paid meal period is agreed to.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11040, subd. 11(A).) On duty meal period agreements are permitted under Wage Order No. 4 2001, California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 11040, subdivision 11(A). Based on the nature of the work exception, Boyd argues its liability to the Meal Break Class depends on individual issues regarding the nature of the work at each post and whether each employee did in fact take on duty meal breaks.

The court noted that Boyd did have a company-wide uniform policy of requiring security guard employees to take on duty meal breaks and required them to sign on duty meal break agreements. However, the court also recognized that individualized issues still existed. For example, Boyd submitted evidence that guards were able to take meal break “during periods of inactivity” and other guards stated that they are relieved of all duty in order to take a meal break. Boyd also submitted evidence showing that some of its guards were able to take off-duty meal breaks, it depended on the employees’ post they were assigned to, and other factors could make it possible for employees to take an off-duty break. Some employees submitted declarations saying that Boyd’s clients’ in-house security would relieve a Boyd security guard for a meal and rest break and on other occasions a second Boyd security guard would cover the other’s post to enable one of them to take a break.

The court also noted:

The ability of a Boyd security guard employee to take an off-duty meal break sometimes depended on whether the employee was training another employee (“When I am training another security officer we will relieve each other of all duty during meal and rest periods”). Some guards put out a sign saying “on a break” and took an off duty break.
The trial court held, and the appellate court agreed, that these issues were enough to create individual issues of liability predominate over common issues.

Rest Break Claim

The court held that to determine Boyd’s liability for failing to authorize and permit off duty rest breaks, individual determinations would have to be made for each security guard employee for each shift worked.

In at least one declaration, the employee stated he determined, based on the circumstances, when to take a rest break, and “[w]hen these periods occur I place a sign out to inform visitors that I am on break and will be back shortly.” Another employee declared she frequently took rest breaks at her post, but was able to “watch television, read magazines or books, or engage in other non security related activities.”

The court concluded that the evidence established that there was no common proof regarding a finding of Boyd’s liability for rest breaks. Boyd had no formal policy denying off-duty rest breaks, Boyd did not require employees to waive them, and whether a guard took a rest break depended on a number of individual circumstances.

Therefore, the court held that the trial court was correct in holding that the meal and rest break claims were not suitable for class-wide treatment. The opinion, Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Inc., can be read in full here.
 

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What Labor Code requirements can employees waive?

It may come as a surprise to many employers that employees cannot waive, or enter into contracts contrary to many of California’s Labor Code requirements. The rationale for this is pretty basic: if employees could waive the rights given to them under the Labor Code, every employer would simply require the employee to waive the rights on the first day of work, rendering the Labor Code meaningless.

A general rule for Courts is found in Civil Code section 3513, which provides: “Any one may waive the advantage of a law intended solely for his benefit. But a law established for a public reason cannot be contravened by a private agreement.” California courts have found that many of the Labor Code provisions are for the public good, and therefore cannot be waived by an employee.  

Labor Code Provisions An Employee Cannot Waive:

  • Minimum Wage & Overtime

Labor Code Section 1194 provides a private right of action to enforce violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. That statute clearly voids any agreement between an employer and employee to work for less than minimum wage or not to receive overtime:

Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action the unpaid balance of the full amount of this minimum wage or overtime compensation, including interest thereon, reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.

In Gentry v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court further explained:

[Labor Code] Section 510 provides that nonexempt employees will be paid one and one-half their wages for hours worked in excess of eight per day and 40 per week and twice their wages for work in excess of 12 hours a day or eight hours on the seventh day of work. Section 1194 provides a private right of action to enforce violations of minimum wage and overtime laws.

By its terms, the rights to the legal minimum wage and legal overtime compensation conferred by the statute are unwaivable. “Labor Code section 1194 confirms ‘a clear public policy . . . that is specifically directed at the enforcement of California’s minimum wage and overtime laws for the benefit of workers.’”

  • Expense Reimbursement

Labor Code section 2802 requires employers to reimburse its employees for “necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee” while performing his or her job duties. Labor Code section 2804, clearly provides that an employee cannot waive this right to be reimbursed for or liable for the cost of doing business. Section 2804 provides, “Any contract or agreement, express or implied, made by any employee to waive the benefits of this article or any part thereof, is null and void….”

Labor Code Provisions An Employee May Be Able To Waive:

While it is unclear, the following items could possibly be waived by an employee. However, these areas are very unsettled, and employers should approach with caution when seeking waivers from employees on these issues.

  • Meal Breaks

The California Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case Brinker v. Superior Court, that should address, among other issues, the standard regarding how employers need to provide meals breaks. At issue is whether employers need to simply “provide” employees with meal breaks, or on the other hand, “ensure” that employees take meal breaks. If the Supreme Court rules that employers only need to provide meal breaks, then if the employee chooses not to take the meal break, then arguably there would be no violation. The Supreme Court will hopefully issue a ruling on this case in 2010.

  • Waiver To Participate In A Class Action

Given the increase in wage and hour class actions, employers began seeking agreements from their employees that if a dispute would arise about any wage and hour issue, the employee would agree to only seek remedies on an individual basis, not through a class action. The California Supreme Court reviewed the issue if an employee could enter into such an agreement and found that, “at least in some cases, the prohibition of classwide relief would undermine the vindication of the employees’ unwaivable statutory rights and would pose a serious obstacle to the enforcement of the state’s overtime laws.” The Court therefore set out a number of factors that a trial court must look at to determine whether the class action waiver is enforceable or not. As of February 2010, there has not been a class action waiver that has been upheld by an appellate court in California. So while there is the possibility of enforcing such waivers, this possibility is very slight.
 

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No Break In Worker Suits

I was quoted in this month's California Lawyer magazine regarding the steady persistence of wage and hour lawsuits here in California - even during these difficult economic times.  The article, No Break In Worker Suits, can be read here

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Lower Court's Ruling In Brinker v. Hohnbaum

The Fourth Appellate District, Division One, Appellate Court's opinion in Brinker Restaurant Corporation, et al. v. Hohnbaum, et al. (July 22, 2008) is the opinion that was appealed to the California Supreme Court. The case is one of the first California state appellate court to rule on the parameters of employers’ duties under the California Labor Code requiring rest and meal breaks for hourly employees.  As discussed below, the court’s opinion was across the board in favor for California employers.  The primarily holding by the appellate court was that an employer does not have to “ensure” that meal and rest breaks are taken, therefore making these types of cases very difficult to certify as a class action. 

Due to the monumental impact this case will have on the vast wage and hour litigation in California, this post is longer than we typically like to write.

Case Background

In November 2005 Brinker filed its first petition for writ of mandate (D047509) in this matter. In the petition, Brinker challenged the court's July 2005 meal period order. Specifically, Brinker requested a writ directing the trial court to "vacate its earlier order holding that: (1) a non-exempt employee is entitled to a meal period for each five-hour block of time worked[; and] (2) the premium pay owed for a violation of [section 226.7] is a wage."

In support of its petition, Brinker argued the trial court erred by interpreting section 512 to mean that an hourly employee's entitlement to a meal period is "rolling," such that "a separate meal period must be provided for each five-hour block of time worked . . . regardless of the total hours worked in the day. In other words, the [court] interpreted the law to be that . . . [o]nce a meal period concludes, the proverbial clock starts ticking again, and if the employee works five hours more, a second meal period must be provided." 

Brinker also argued that although an employee working more than five hours and less than 10 hours is entitled under section 512 to a 30-minute meal period at some point during the workday, "nothing in [s]ection 512 . . . requires a second meal period be provided solely because [the] employee works five hours after the end of the first meal period, where the total time worked is less than [10] hours." Brinker further asserted that IWC Wage Order No. 5 also "does not dictate the anomalous result that meal periods must be provided every five hours" because, like section 512, it requires only that an employee working more than five hours "gets a meal period at some point during the workday." Brinker complained that the court's meal period ruling "requires servers to sit down, unpaid, during the most lucrative part of their working day."

Plaintiff’s Motion For Class Certification

Plaintiffs moved to certify a class of "[a]ll present and former employees of [Brinker] who worked at a Brinker[-]owned restaurant in California, holding a non-exempt position, from and after August 16, 2000 ('Class Members')." In their moving papers, plaintiffs alternatively defined the class as "all hourly employees of restaurants owned by [Brinker] in California who have not been provided with meal and rest breaks in accordance with California law and who have not been compensated for those missed meal and rest breaks." 

Plaintiffs' motion also sought certification of six subclasses, three of which are pertinent to the appeal: (1) a "Rest Period Subclass," consisting of "Class Members who worked one or more work periods in excess of three and a half (3.5) hours without receiving a paid 10 minute break during which the Class Member was relieved of all duties, from and after October 1, 2000"; (2) a "Meal Period Subclass," consisting of "Class Members who worked one or more work periods in excess of five (5) consecutive hours, without receiving a thirty (30) minute meal period during which the Class Member was relieved of all duties, from and after October 1, 2000"; and (3) an "Off-The-Clock Subclass," consisting of "Class Members who worked 'off-the-clock' or without pay from and after August 16, 2000."

The class in question is estimated to consist of more than 59,000 Brinker employees.

Plaintiffs Rest Break Claims

Plaintiffs allege Brinker willfully violated section 226.7 and IWC Wage Orders Nos. 5-1998, 5-2000 and 5-2001 by "fail[ing] to provide rest periods for every four hours or major fraction thereof worked per day to non-exempt employees, and failing to provide compensation for such unprovided rest periods." Section 226.7, subdivision (a) provides: "No employer shall require any employee to work during any meal or rest period mandated by an applicable order of the [IWC]." (Italics added.) 

The pertinent provisions of IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001 are codified in California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 11050, subdivision 12(A), which provides:

Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half (3 1/2) hours. Authorized rest period time shall be counted as hours worked for which there shall be no deduction from wages. (Italics added.)

The court held that the phrase "per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof" does not mean that a rest period must be given every three and one-half hours:

Regulation 11050(12)(A) states that calculation of the appropriate number of rest breaks must "be based on the total hours worked daily." Thus, for example, if one has a work period of seven hours, the employee is entitled to a rest period after four hours of work because he or she has worked a full four hours, not a "major fraction thereof." It is only when an employee is scheduled for a shift that is more than three and one-half hours, but less than four hours, that he or she is entitled to a rest break before the four hour mark. 

Moreover, because the sentence following the "four (4) hours or major fraction thereof" limits required rest breaks to employees who work at least three and one-half hours in one work day, the term "major fraction thereof" can only be interpreted as meaning the time period between three and one-half hours and four hours. Apparently this portion of the wage order was intended to prevent employers from avoiding rest breaks by scheduling work periods slightly less that [sic] four hours, but at the same time made three and one-half hours the cut-off period for work periods below which no rest period need be provided. 

The court also held that the DLSE’s opinion that the term "major fraction thereof" means any time over 50 percent of a four-hour work period is wrong because it renders the current version of Regulation 11050(12)(A) internally inconsistent. As an employee cannot be entitled to a 10-minute break if she or she "works more than 2 . . . hours in a day," if the employee is not entitled to a 10-minute break if he or she works "less than three and one-half" hours in a day. The court also noted that it is not required to follow the DLSE opinion on the matter, citing Murphy v. Kenneth Cole, 40 Cal.4th at p. 1105, fn. 7.

The court also held that the law does not required employers to provide rest breaks before meal breaks:

Furthermore, contrary to plaintiffs' assertion, the provisions of Regulation 11050(12)(A)do not require employers to authorize and permit a first rest break before the first scheduled meal period. Rather, the applicable language of Regulation 11050(12)(A)states only that rest breaks "insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period." (Italics added.) Regulation 11050(12)(A)is silent on the question of whether an employer must permit an hourly employee to take a 10-minute rest break before the first meal period is provided. As Brinker points out, an employee who takes a meal period one hour into an eight-hour shift could still take a post-meal period rest break "in the middle" of the first four-hour work period, in full compliance with the applicable provisions of IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001.

The court explained that Regulation 11050(12)(A) allows employers some “discretion to not have rest periods in the middle of a work period if, because of the nature of the work or the circumstances of a particular employee, it is not ‘practicable.’” In explaining what “practicable” means, the court specifically mentioned that:

…this discretion is of particular importance for jobs, such as in the restaurant industry, that require flexibility in scheduling breaks because the middle of a work period is often during a mealtime rush, when an employee might not want to take a rest break in order to maximize tips and provide optimum service to restaurant patrons. As long as employers make rest breaks available to employees, and strive, where practicable, to schedule them in the middle of the first four-hour work period, employers are in compliance with that portion of Regulation 11050(12)(A). 

Ultimately, the court held that a determination about whether it is practicable to permit rest breaks near the end of a four hour work period is not an issue that can be litigated on a class-wide basis. In overruling the trial court’s granting of class certification the Appellate Court stated:

Had the court properly determined that (1) employees need be afforded only one 10-minute rest break every four hours "or major fraction thereof" (Reg. 11050(12)(A)), (2) rest breaks need be afforded in the middle of that four-hour period only when "practicable," and (3) employers are not required to ensure that employees take the rest breaks properly provided to them in accordance with the provisions of IWC Wage Order No. 5, only individual questions would have remained, and the court in the proper exercise of its legal discretion would have denied class certification with respect to plaintiffs' rest break claims because the trier of fact cannot determine on a class-wide basis whether members of the proposed class of Brinker employees missed rest breaks as a result of a supervisor's coercion or the employee's uncoerced choice to waive such breaks and continue working. Individual questions would also predominate as to whether employees received a full 10-minute rest period, or whether the period was interrupted. The issue of whether rest periods are prohibited or voluntarily declined is by its nature an individual inquiry.

Plaintiffs argued that even if the trial court erred in failing to define the elements of plaintiffs' rest period claims prior to certifying the class the appellate court should remand the case to the trial court to permit the trial court to rule on if plaintiffs' "expert statistical and survey evidence" makes their rest break claims amenable to class treatment. The appellate court refused to remand the case, stating that while courts may use such evidence in determining if a claim is amenable to class treatment, here, that evidence does not change the individualized inquiry in determining if Brinker allowed or forbade rest periods. The court stated:

The question of whether employees were forced to forgo rest breaks or voluntarily chose not to take them is a highly individualized inquiry that would result in thousands of mini-trials to determine as to each employee if a particular manager prohibited a full, timely break or if the employee waived it or voluntarily cut it short. (Brown v. Federal Express Corp. (C.D.Cal. 2008) ___ F.R.D. ___ [2008 WL 906517 at *8] (Brown) [meal period violations claim not amenable to class treatment as court would be "mired in over 5000 mini-trials" to determine if such breaks were provided].)

For these reasons, the appellate court vacated the order granting class certification for the rest break subclass. 

Plaintiffs’ Meal Break Claims

In their second cause of action, plaintiffs allege Brinker violated sections 226.7 and 512, and IWC Wage Order No. 5, by failing to "provide meal periods for days on which non-exempt employees work(ed) in excess of five hours, or by failing to provide meal periods [altogether], or to provide second meal periods for days employees worked in excess of [10] hours, and failing to provide compensation for such unprovided or improperly provided meal periods." Plaintiffs claim that Brinker’s “early lunching” policy that required its employees to take their meal periods soon after they arrive for their shifts, usually within the first hour, and then requiring them to work in excess of five hours, and sometimes more than nine hours straight, without an additional meal period violated California law. 

Plaintiffs asserted that common issues predominate on their rest break claims because they "presented corporate policy evidence of a pattern and practice by Brinker of failing to provide a rest period prior to employees' meal period as a result of its practice of scheduling meals early." Specifically, plaintiffs argued that "Brinker maintains company-wide policies discouraging rest periods, including requiring servers to give up tables and tips if they want a break and failing to provide rest periods prior to scheduled early meals."

1. Rolling five-hour meal period claim

The lower trial court in this case, found that a meal period "must be given before [an] employee's work period exceeds five hours." The lower court also stated that "the DLSE wants employers to provide employees with break periods and meal periods toward the middle of an employee[']s work period in order to break up that employee's 'shift.'" The court further stated that Brinker "appears to be in violation of [section] 512 by not providing a 'meal period' per every five hours of work."

In overruling the lower court, the appellate court ruled that this interpretation of the law was incorrect and that the trial court’s class certification order rests on improper criteria with respect to the plaintiffs' rolling five-hour meal period claim.

The appellate court began its analysis with Labor Code Section 512, subdivision (a), which provides:

An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and employee. An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee only if the first meal period was not waived.

The appellate court held that Section 512(a) thus provides that an employer in California has a statutory duty to make a first 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee who is permitted to work more than five hours per day, unless (1) the employee is permitted to work a "total work period per day" that is six hours or less, and (2) both the employee and the employer agree by "mutual consent" to waive the meal period.

The appellate court also held that this interpretation of section 512(a), regarding an employer's duty to provide a first meal period, is consistent with the plain language set forth in IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001, which provides in part: "No employer shall employ any person for a work period of more than five (5) hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that when a work period of not more than six (6) hours will complete the day's work the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee."

On the issue regarding when an meal break must be provided the court stated:

With respect to the issue of when an employer must make a first 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee, Brinker's uniform meal period policy (titled "Break and Meal Period Policy for Employees in the State of California") comports with the foregoing interpretation of section 512(a) and IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001. It provides that employees are "entitled to a 30-minute meal period" when they "work a shift that is over five hours." 

The court continued in holding that Section 512(a) also provides that an employer has a duty to make a second 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee who has a "work period of more than 10 hours per day" unless (1) the "total hours" the employee is permitted to work per day is 12 hours or less, (2) both the employee and the employer agree by "mutual consent" to waive the second meal period, and (3) the first meal period "was not waived."

Plaintiffs argue that Brinker's written meal policy violates section 512(a) and IWC Wage Order No. 5 (specifically, Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11050, subd. 11(A)) because it allows the practice of “early lunching” and fails to make a 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee for every five consecutive hours of work. Plaintiffs maintained that every hourly employee should receive a second meal break five hours after they return from the first meal break. The court found this argument unpersuasive:

Under this interpretation, however, the term "per day" in the first sentence of section 512(a) would be rendered surplusage, as would the phrase "[a]n employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes" in the second sentence of that subdivision.

The appellate court held that without a proper interpretation of section 512(a), the lower court could not correctly ascertain the legal elements that members of the proposed class would have to prove in order to establish their meal period claims, and therefore could not properly determine whether common issues predominate over issues that affect individual members of the class.

2. Brinker's failure to ensure employees take meal periods

Plaintiffs also claim that Brinker's uniform meal period policy violates sections 512 and 226.7, as well as IWC Wage Order No. 5, by failing to ensure that its hourly employees take their meal periods. In the primary holding of the case, the appellate court stated:

We conclude that California law provides that Brinker need only provide meal periods, and, as a result, as with the rest period claims, plaintiffs' meal period claims are not amenable to class treatment.

The appellate court disagreed with Plaintiffs’ contention that an employer’s duty was to ensure a meal break. The court stated:

If this were the case, employers would be forced to police their employees and force them to take meal breaks. With thousands of employees working multiple shifts, this would be an impossible task. If they were unable to do so, employers would have to pay an extra hour of pay any time an employee voluntarily chose not to take a meal period, or to take a shortened one. 

3. Amenability of plaintiffs' meal break claims to class treatment

The appellate court held that because meal breaks need only be made available, not ensured, individual issues predominate in this case and the meal break claim is not amenable class treatment. The court explained:

The reason meal breaks were not taken can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. It would need to be determined as to each employee whether a missed or shortened meal period was the result of an employee's personal choice, a manager's coercion, or, as plaintiffs argue, because the restaurants were so inadequately staffed that employees could not actually take permitted meal breaks. As we discussed, ante, with regard to rest breaks, plaintiffs' computer and statistical evidence submitted in support of their class certification motion was not only based upon faulty legal assumptions, it also could only show the fact that meal breaks were not taken, or were shortened, not why. It will require an individual inquiry as to all Brinker employees to determine if this was because Brinker failed to make them available, or employees chose not to take them.

The appellate court also found that the evidence does not show that Brinker had a class-wide policy that prohibited meal breaks. Instead, the evidence in this case indicated that some employees took meal breaks and others did not, and it requires the court to perform an individualized inquiring into the reasons why an employee did not take the break. The court also held that the plaintiffs’ statistical and survey evidence does not render the meal break claims one in which common issues predominate because while the time cards might show when meal breaks were taken and when there were not, they cannot show why they were or were not taken.

Plaintiffs’ Off-the clock claim

Plaintiffs also allege Brinker unlawfully required its employees to work off the clock during meal periods. This claim was comprised of two theories: (1) time worked during a meal period when an individual was clocked out; and (2) time “shaving,” which is defined as an unlawful alteration of an employee's time record to reduce the time logged so as to not accurately reflect time worked.

The court held, and the Plaintiffs did not dispute, that employers can only be held liable for off-the-clock claims if the employer knows or should have known the employee was working off the clock. (citing Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal.4th at p. 585.) The evidence also established that Brinker has a written corporate policy prohibiting off-the-clock work. Because of these facts, the court found that plaintiffs' off-the-clock claims are not amenable to class treatment. As the court stated:

Thus, resolution of these claims would require individual inquiries in to whether any employee actually worked off the clock, whether managers had actual or constructive knowledge of such work and whether managers coerced or encouraged such work. Indeed, not all the employee declarations alleged they were forced to work off the clock, demonstrating there was no class-wide policy forcing employees to do so.

 

 

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10 common California employment law mistakes by start-up companies

Start-up companies are usually saving every penny and operating on small margins. Simply the cost of defending an employment lawsuit could bring the entire venture into jeopardy. Here is a list of ten common California employment law mistakes made by start-ups:

  1. Assuming everyone can be paid a salary, and not paying overtime for hours over 8 in one day or 40 in one week. For a company to not pay overtime, it has the burden of proof to establish that the employee meets an exemption to California’s overtime laws. The exemptions are based on the amount of pay the employee receives and the duties the employee performs.
  2. Not researching particular laws that apply to the industry or city. For example, businesses in San Francisco have to provide for paid sick leave.
  3. Not having a meal and rest break policy. It goes without saying, every company in California needs a meal and rest break policy – and evidence that this policy is regularly communicated to employees.
  4. Not recording meal breaks. Employers are required to not only provide meal breaks, but also keep records of when the employee started and stopped the meal break.
  5. Not paying accrued vacation when employment is severed. Accrued and unused vacation is considered wages under California law, and needs to be paid out at the end of employment regardless of whether the employee is fired or quits.
  6. Overestimating the enforceability of covenants not to compete. Nine times out of ten, covenants not to compete are unenforceable in California.
  7. Underestimating the importance of an employee handbook.
  8. Assuming any worker can be classified as an independent contractor. Just like exempt employees, employers will bear the burden of proof when it comes to classifying independent contractors. Generally, the test is how much control the employer has over the worker.
  9. Withholding the money necessary to hire an HR manager knowledgeable with California law.
  10. Not reimbursing employees for business related expenses, such as travel expenses. Under Labor Code section 2802, employers are required to repay employees who pay for business related items out of their own pocket.
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Department Of Labor To Step Up Field Audits For Wage and Hour Violations

The newly appointed Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, issued a statement on March 24, 2009 that the Department of Labor is renewing its efforts to enforce labor laws across the country. With the addition of 250 field investigators provided to the DOL under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, businesses can be assured of increased audits.

As the Ohio’s Employer’s Blog points out, a DOL audit can feel like an unpleasant medical exam and employers need to be proactive about compliance. Except, I must add, one difference between the medical exam and DOL audit is that you can buy insurance to cover the costs of the medical exam.

In California, employers should review their pay practices, including that employees are paid on time and receive at least the minimum wage for California. For example, employers should insure they are complying with meal and rest break requirements, properly recording meal breaks and the employees’ time worked, properly paying overtime, and reimbursing employees for all business related expenses. Employers employing minors should also carefully examine the child-labor laws applicable to their business, as these requirements are extremely detailed and many well-intentioned employers may still be in violation.

Businesses should also audit whether they have properly classified their exempt employees and independent contractors. A misclassified employee can create a huge amount of liability for a business, as the misclassified employee is entitled to damages for overtime pay, penalties, interest, and their attorney’s fees.

Employers need to be proactive about complying with these complex wage and hour laws. If cost is a concern, complete an in-house audit and then have an attorney double check the policies and practices. It will cost a lot more to contact an attorney after the DOL is in your workplace or the lawsuit has already been filed.

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Court Holds Arbitration Agreement With Class Action Waiver And PAGA Waiver Is Unenforceable

Plaintiff, who was a trash truck driver for Athens Disposal Company, Inc., filed a class action against the company alleging violations of the Labor Code.  Plaintiff asserted the following causes of action against Athens:

  1. Failing to pay overtime.
  2. Failing to provide meal periods and to pay an additional hour of compensation per workday to employees who missed a meal period.
  3. Failing to provide rest periods and to pay an additional hour of compensation per workday to employees who missed a rest period.
  4. Failing to provide necessary payroll information to employees and failing to maintain records on each employee showing all hours worked and all meal periods taken.
  5. Civil penalties authorized by the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA) for violating the Labor Code.
  6. Violation of the California Unfair Competition Law (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.).

Immediately after the lawsuit was filed, Athens filed a petition to compel arbitration based on a written agreement with plaintiff. The arbitration agreement contained a provision waiving class arbitrations and also precluded an employee from acting in “a private attorney general capacity,” which would bar plaintiff’s enforcement of the Labor Code on behalf of other employees.

The court held that the entire arbitration agreement was not enforceable:

We conclude that the class arbitration waiver is unconscionable with respect to the alleged violations of the meal and rest period laws given “the modest size of the potential individual recovery, the potential for retaliation against members of the class, [and] the fact that absent members of the class may be ill informed about their rights.” (Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443, 463 (Gentry).) In addition, because the arbitration agreement prevents plaintiff from acting as a private attorney general, it conflicts with the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA) (§§ 2698–2699.5) — an act that furthers Gentry’s goal of comprehensively enforcing state labor laws through statutory sanctions (see Gentry, supra, 42 Cal.4th at pp. 462–463).

The court noted that the class action waiver in the arbitration agreement by itself was unenforceable, which may have been severed from the arbitration agreement. However, when coupled with the employee’s waiver of action as a private attorney general, the entire agreement was unenforceable.

The case, Franco v. Athens Disposal Company, Inc., can be downloaded for a short period of time from the court’s website in PDF or Word.
 

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Less Discrimination Lawsuits Equals More Wage And Hour Lawsuits?

The WSJ recently reported, there is a trend that discrimination based lawsuits fair a lot worse than most other cases filed in federal court. A study found that discrimination cases lose at a higher rate and are more likely to be dismissed at early stages in the lawsuit. The article reports:

The odds against winning discrimination cases have some employee lawyers reluctant even to try. "We will no longer take individual employment-discrimination cases, because there's such a high likelihood of losing," New York plaintiffs' attorney Joe Whatley Jr. says. Job-discrimination case filings declined by 40% from 199Source: WSJ.com9 to 2007, federal court records show.

The article also points out that discrimination cases are dismissed more often at the summary judgment stage:

Even the federal courts have detected the pattern of more dismissals in discrimination cases, though they surmise different reasons for it than do plaintiffs' lawyers. A report last year by the Federal Judicial Center, the research arm of the federal courts, found that judges nationwide terminated 12.5% of employment-discrimination cases through summary judgments, before the suits reached trial. In 90% of those cases, it was the employers who requested the summary judgment. In contrast, the study found, 3% of contract cases and 1.7% of personal-injury and property-damage suits were dismissed via summary judgments.

There can be a number of reasons for this as the article points out: employers settle bad cases before litigation and employers have implementing better policies and maintain better documentation to defend themselves against discrimination claims.

It is interesting to note that during this same time period that discrimination class are declining, there is a noticeable increased amount of wage and hour litigation. In fact, wage and hour lawsuits more than doubled in federal courts from 2001 to 2006.  No matter what the cause, discrimination cases are harder to bring, and harder to win. What replaced discrimination claims during this same time period? Wage and hour claims for violations of overtime pay, non-payment of wages, and not providing meal and rest breaks. 
 

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How To Approach Meal & Rest Breaks While Waiting For The California Supreme Court's Decision in Brinker v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum)

While California employers anxiously wait for the California Supreme Court’s opinion in Brinker v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) (and also Brinkley v. Public Storage, Inc.), what steps should they in regards to meal and rest break policies?

Record meal breaks.

This is already an obligation of California employers, and the Brinker decision does not change this obligation. Failure to do so creates a negative inference against the employer during litigation.

Employers should continue to have a strict written policy on providing meal and rest breaks.

Brinker’s policies, which were found to be valid by the appellate court, are a good example of policies California employers should have in place. For example, Brinker had a written policy titled “Break and Meal Period Policy for Employees in the State of California.” Brinker also required its employees to sign a form stating “I am entitled to a 30-minute meal period when I work a shift that is over five hours” and that “If I work over 3.5 hours during my shift, I understand that I am eligible for one [10-]minute rest break for each four hours that I work.” Brinker’s policy also stated that an employee’s failure to abide by the policy could result in termination. The court held that this ultimately was sufficient under California law to “provide” meal and rest breaks, only if the defendant has taken steps to establish and communicate the policy. Then if an employee fails to take a meal or rest break voluntarily, the employer is not liable for damages.

Continue to monitor that employees are actually taking meal breaks.

A good example of what not to do was shown by the defendant in Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, Inc. (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 949. There, the defendant, a trucking company, had computerized systems on each truck that allowed it to track the driver’s location, speed, starts and stops, and time. The drivers had to input factors that the computers could not monitor independently, such as road conditions and traffic. The court held that by requiring its drivers to keep track of these factors, the defendant trucking company regulated the drivers’ activity, but failed to schedule meal breaks, did not include an activity code for meal breaks that would be an acceptable delay for deliveries. The company also did not monitor compliance. The court also noted that:

[W]here the employer has failed to keep records required by statute, the consequences for such failure should fall on the employer, not the employee. In such a situation, imprecise evidence by the employee can provide a sufficient basis for damages.

(citing Hernandez v. Mendoza (1988) 199 Cal.App.3d 721, 727). As a result of Cicairos’ failures, “most drivers at their meals while driving or skipped a meal nearly every working day” and the pressure from management made drivers feel that they should not stop for lunch. The court held that these facts negated defendant’s argument that the meal breaks were provided.

Make sure management knows about and enforces these rules.

Employers should have discussions with their front-line managers about meal and rest breaks to ensure that the policy is being effectively administrated.

Policies should require employees to come forward to report if they have been forced to work through a meal break.

This would help to some degree when the employees claim that they were forced to work through their meal and rest breaks.
 

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Politicians Closer To CA Budget Deal - No Changes To Meal & Rest Break Laws

It appears that the California state politicians are close to finalizing a budget deal in Sacramento by this Friday. The Governor placed everything on the table during these negotiations, including attempting to bring some relief to businesses in regards to the meal and rest break laws and even revising California’s requirements that overtime is owed for all work performed over 8 hours in a day. However, by many reports it appears that there will be no change to the current meal and rest break laws, or the overtime requirements.

Many California businesses have been sued in wage and hour class actions alleging that they have not properly administered meal and rest breaks. Employers face large amounts of liability in these class actions in the form of premium pay of one hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay for each violation for a period of four years.

The Press Democrat also reports that the deal will increase taxes:

Vehicle license fees would nearly double, going from the current rate of 0.65 percent to 1.15 percent of the value of a car or truck.
The sales tax would increase by 1 cent. Gas taxes would increase by 12 cents a gallon.
Californians would pay a new surcharge on their personal income taxes, amounting to 2.5 percent of their total tax bills. The state's dependent credit would be cut in half, raising taxes for parents and those who take care of elders.
The new and increased taxes would remain in effect for at least two years.
 

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Petition For Review Filed In Brinkley v. Public Storage

Plaintiff filed a petition for review to the California Supreme Court in Brinkley v. Public Storage, Inc.  Shortly after the Supreme Court granted review of Brinker v. Superior Court, the Brinkley decision was issued by a lower appellate court (click here to read the opinion in Brinkley v. Public Storage, Inc.).  The appellate court in Brinkley held that:

  • Meal periods need not be provided within the first five hours of the shift.
  • Defendant must provide meal periods but need not ensure that they are actually taken.
  • Defendant did not violate Labor Code section 226.7 because defendant made rest periods available.

This ruling basically agrees with the appellate court's decision in Brinker. The holdings in Brinkley and Brinker definitely make plaintiff's attempt to certify class actions in meal and rest break cases much more difficult.  If the standard is that employers only need to provide (and not ensure) meal breaks, then the inquiry into why employees did not take meal breaks becomes more individualized, which means a court probably cannot make these determinations on a class-wide basis.  For example, the court would have to determine if employees voluntarily worked through meal breaks, as opposed to whether the employee was required to work through the breaks. 

I expect the California Supreme Court will issue a grant and hold in Brinkley, making it non-binding on California trial courts until a final ruling is issued by the Supreme Court on similar issues in Brinker v. Superior Court.

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Update on Brinker v. Superior Court and other California Wage and Hour Issues

Meal and Rest Break Requirements Clarified By Court in Brinker v. Hohnbaum

The Appellate Court, Fourth Appellate District, Division One, issued a much awaited opinion in Brinker Restaurant Corporation, et al. v. Hohnbaum, et al. (July 22, 2008). The case is one of the first California state appellate court to rule on the parameters of employers’ duties under the  California Labor Code requiring rest and meal breaks for hourly employees.  As discussed below, the court’s opinion was across the board in favor for California employers.  The primarily holding by the appellate court was that an employer does not have to “ensure” that meal and rest breaks are taken, therefore making these types of cases very difficult to certify as a class action. 

Due to the monumental impact this case will have on the vast wage and hour litigation in California, this post is longer than we typically like to write. And this post will definitely not be the last time we discuss the case.

Case Background

In November 2005 Brinker filed its first petition for writ of mandate challenging the court's July 2005 meal period order. Specifically, Brinker requested a writ directing the trial court to "vacate its earlier order holding that: (1) a non-exempt employee is entitled to a meal period for each five-hour block of time worked[; and] (2) the premium pay owed for a violation of [section 226.7] is a wage."

In support of its petition, Brinker argued the trial court erred by interpreting section 512 to mean that an hourly employee's entitlement to a meal period is "rolling," such that "a separate meal period must be provided for each five-hour block of time worked . . . regardless of the total hours worked in the day. In other words, the [court] interpreted the law to be that . . . [o]nce a meal period concludes, the proverbial clock starts ticking again, and if the employee works five hours more, a second meal period must be provided." 

Brinker also argued that although an employee working more than five hours and less than 10 hours is entitled under section 512 to a 30-minute meal period at some point during the workday, "nothing in [s]ection 512 . . . requires a second meal period be provided solely because [the] employee works five hours after the end of the first meal period, where the total time worked is less than [10] hours." Brinker further asserted that IWC Wage Order No. 5 also "does not dictate the anomalous result that meal periods must be provided every five hours" because, like section 512, it requires only that an employee working more than five hours "gets a meal period at some point during the workday." Brinker complained that the court's meal period ruling "requires servers to sit down, unpaid, during the most lucrative part of their working day."

Plaintiff’s Motion For Class Certification

Plaintiffs moved to certify a class of "[a]ll present and former employees of [Brinker] who worked at a Brinker[-]owned restaurant in California, holding a non-exempt position, from and after August 16, 2000 ('Class Members')." In their moving papers, plaintiffs alternatively defined the class as "all hourly employees of restaurants owned by [Brinker] in California who have not been provided with meal and rest breaks in accordance with California law and who have not been compensated for those missed meal and rest breaks." 

Plaintiffs' motion also sought certification of six subclasses, three of which are pertinent to the appeal: (1) a "Rest Period Subclass," consisting of "Class Members who worked one or more work periods in excess of three and a half (3.5) hours without receiving a paid 10 minute break during which the Class Member was relieved of all duties, from and after October 1, 2000"; (2) a "Meal Period Subclass," consisting of "Class Members who worked one or more work periods in excess of five (5) consecutive hours, without receiving a thirty (30) minute meal period during which the Class Member was relieved of all duties, from and after October 1, 2000"; and (3) an "Off-The-Clock Subclass," consisting of "Class Members who worked 'off-the-clock' or without pay from and after August 16, 2000."

The class in question is estimated to consist of more than 59,000 Brinker employees.

Plaintiffs Rest Break Claims

Plaintiffs allege Brinker willfully violated section 226.7 and IWC Wage Orders Nos. 5-1998, 5-2000 and 5-2001 by "fail[ing] to provide rest periods for every four hours or major fraction thereof worked per day to non-exempt employees, and failing to provide compensation for such unprovided rest periods." Section 226.7, subdivision (a) provides: "No employer shall require any employee to work during any meal or rest period mandated by an applicable order of the [IWC]." (Italics added.) 

The pertinent provisions of IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001 are codified in California Code of Regulations, title 8, section 11050, subdivision 12(A), which provides:

Every employer shall authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period. The authorized rest period time shall be based on the total hours worked daily at the rate of ten (10) minutes net rest time per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof. However, a rest period need not be authorized for employees whose total daily work time is less than three and one-half (3 1/2) hours. Authorized rest period time shall be counted as hours worked for which there shall be no deduction from wages. (Italics added.)

The court held that the phrase "per four (4) hours or major fraction thereof" does not mean that a rest period must be given every three and one-half hours:

Regulation 11050(12)(A) states that calculation of the appropriate number of rest breaks must "be based on the total hours worked daily." Thus, for example, if one has a work period of seven hours, the employee is entitled to a rest period after four hours of work because he or she has worked a full four hours, not a "major fraction thereof." It is only when an employee is scheduled for a shift that is more than three and one-half hours, but less than four hours, that he or she is entitled to a rest break before the four hour mark. 

Moreover, because the sentence following the "four (4) hours or major fraction thereof" limits required rest breaks to employees who work at least three and one-half hours in one work day, the term "major fraction thereof" can only be interpreted as meaning the time period between three and one-half hours and four hours. Apparently this portion of the wage order was intended to prevent employers from avoiding rest breaks by scheduling work periods slightly less that [sic] four hours, but at the same time made three and one-half hours the cut-off period for work periods below which no rest period need be provided. 

The court also held that the DLSE’s opinion that the term "major fraction thereof" means any time over 50 percent of a four-hour work period is wrong because it renders the current version of Regulation 11050(12)(A) internally inconsistent. As an employee cannot be entitled to a 10-minute break if she or she "works more than 2 . . . hours in a day," if the employee is not entitled to a 10-minute break if he or she works "less than three and one-half" hours in a day. The court also noted that it is not required to follow the DLSE opinion on the matter, citing Murphy v. Kenneth Cole, 40 Cal.4th at p. 1105, fn. 7.

The court also held that the law does not required employers to provide rest breaks before meal breaks:

Furthermore, contrary to plaintiffs' assertion, the provisions of Regulation 11050(12)(A)do not require employers to authorize and permit a first rest break before the first scheduled meal period. Rather, the applicable language of Regulation 11050(12)(A)states only that rest breaks "insofar as practicable shall be in the middle of each work period." (Italics added.) Regulation 11050(12)(A)is silent on the question of whether an employer must permit an hourly employee to take a 10-minute rest break before the first meal period is provided. As Brinker points out, an employee who takes a meal period one hour into an eight-hour shift could still take a post-meal period rest break "in the middle" of the first four-hour work period, in full compliance with the applicable provisions of IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001.

The court explained that Regulation 11050(12)(A) allows employers some “discretion to not have rest periods in the middle of a work period if, because of the nature of the work or the circumstances of a particular employee, it is not ‘practicable.’” In explaining what “practicable” means, the court specifically mentioned that:

…this discretion is of particular importance for jobs, such as in the restaurant industry, that require flexibility in scheduling breaks because the middle of a work period is often during a mealtime rush, when an employee might not want to take a rest break in order to maximize tips and provide optimum service to restaurant patrons. As long as employers make rest breaks available to employees, and strive, where practicable, to schedule them in the middle of the first four-hour work period, employers are in compliance with that portion of Regulation 11050(12)(A). 

Ultimately, the court held that a determination about whether it is practicable to permit rest breaks near the end of a four hour work period is not an issue that can be litigated on a class-wide basis. In overruling the trial court’s granting of class certification the Appellate Court stated:

Had the court properly determined that (1) employees need be afforded only one 10-minute rest break every four hours "or major fraction thereof" (Reg. 11050(12)(A)), (2) rest breaks need be afforded in the middle of that four-hour period only when "practicable," and (3) employers are not required to ensure that employees take the rest breaks properly provided to them in accordance with the provisions of IWC Wage Order No. 5, only individual questions would have remained, and the court in the proper exercise of its legal discretion would have denied class certification with respect to plaintiffs' rest break claims because the trier of fact cannot determine on a class-wide basis whether members of the proposed class of Brinker employees missed rest breaks as a result of a supervisor's coercion or the employee's uncoerced choice to waive such breaks and continue working. Individual questions would also predominate as to whether employees received a full 10-minute rest period, or whether the period was interrupted. The issue of whether rest periods are prohibited or voluntarily declined is by its nature an individual inquiry.

Plaintiffs argued that even if the trial court erred in failing to define the elements of plaintiffs' rest period claims prior to certifying the class the appellate court should remand the case to the trial court to permit the trial court to rule on if plaintiffs' "expert statistical and survey evidence" makes their rest break claims amenable to class treatment. The appellate court refused to remand the case, stating that while courts may use such evidence in determining if a claim is amenable to class treatment, here, that evidence does not change the individualized inquiry in determining if Brinker allowed or forbade rest periods. The court stated:

The question of whether employees were forced to forgo rest breaks or voluntarily chose not to take them is a highly individualized inquiry that would result in thousands of mini-trials to determine as to each employee if a particular manager prohibited a full, timely break or if the employee waived it or voluntarily cut it short. (Brown v. Federal Express Corp. (C.D.Cal. 2008) ___ F.R.D. ___ [2008 WL 906517 at *8] (Brown) [meal period violations claim not amenable to class treatment as court would be "mired in over 5000 mini-trials" to determine if such breaks were provided].)

For these reasons, the appellate court vacated the order granting class certification for the rest break subclass. 

Plaintiffs’ Meal Break Claims

In their second cause of action, plaintiffs allege Brinker violated sections 226.7 and 512, and IWC Wage Order No. 5, by failing to "provide meal periods for days on which non-exempt employees work(ed) in excess of five hours, or by failing to provide meal periods [altogether], or to provide second meal periods for days employees worked in excess of [10] hours, and failing to provide compensation for such unprovided or improperly provided meal periods." Plaintiffs claim that Brinker’s “early lunching” policy that required its employees to take their meal periods soon after they arrive for their shifts, usually within the first hour, and then requiring them to work in excess of five hours, and sometimes more than nine hours straight, without an additional meal period violated California law. 

Plaintiffs asserted that common issues predominate on their rest break claims because they "presented corporate policy evidence of a pattern and practice by Brinker of failing to provide a rest period prior to employees' meal period as a result of its practice of scheduling meals early." Specifically, plaintiffs argued that "Brinker maintains company-wide policies discouraging rest periods, including requiring servers to give up tables and tips if they want a break and failing to provide rest periods prior to scheduled early meals."

1. Rolling five-hour meal period claim

The lower trial court in this case, found that a meal period "must be given before [an] employee's work period exceeds five hours." The lower court also stated that "the DLSE wants employers to provide employees with break periods and meal periods toward the middle of an employee[']s work period in order to break up that employee's 'shift.'" The court further stated that Brinker "appears to be in violation of [section] 512 by not providing a 'meal period' per every five hours of work."

In overruling the lower court, the appellate court ruled that this interpretation of the law was incorrect and that the trial court’s class certification order rests on improper criteria with respect to the plaintiffs' rolling five-hour meal period claim.

The appellate court began its analysis with Labor Code Section 512, subdivision (a), which provides:

An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total work period per day of the employee is no more than six hours, the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of both the employer and employee. An employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that if the total hours worked is no more than 12 hours, the second meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee only if the first meal period was not waived.

The appellate court held that Section 512(a) thus provides that an employer in California has a statutory duty to make a first 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee who is permitted to work more than five hours per day, unless (1) the employee is permitted to work a "total work period per day" that is six hours or less, and (2) both the employee and the employer agree by "mutual consent" to waive the meal period.

            The appellate court also held that this interpretation of section 512(a), regarding an employer's duty to provide a first meal period, is consistent with the plain language set forth in IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001, which provides in part: "No employer shall employ any person for a work period of more than five (5) hours without a meal period of not less than 30 minutes, except that when a work period of not more than six (6) hours will complete the day's work the meal period may be waived by mutual consent of the employer and the employee."

On the issue regarding when an meal break must be provided the court stated:

With respect to the issue of when an employer must make a first 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee, Brinker's uniform meal period policy (titled "Break and Meal Period Policy for Employees in the State of California") comports with the foregoing interpretation of section 512(a) and IWC Wage Order No. 5-2001. It provides that employees are "entitled to a 30-minute meal period" when they "work a shift that is over five hours." 

The court continued in holding that Section 512(a) also provides that an employer has a duty to make a second 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee who has a "work period of more than 10 hours per day" unless (1) the "total hours" the employee is permitted to work per day is 12 hours or less, (2) both the employee and the employer agree by "mutual consent" to waive the second meal period, and (3) the first meal period "was not waived."

Plaintiffs argue that Brinker's written meal policy violates section 512(a) and IWC Wage Order No. 5 (specifically, Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11050, subd. 11(A)) because it allows the practice of “early lunching” and fails to make a 30-minute meal period available to an hourly employee for every five consecutive hours of work. Plaintiffs maintained that every hourly employee should receive a second meal break five hours after they return from the first meal break. The court found this argument unpersuasive:

Under this interpretation, however, the term "per day" in the first sentence of section 512(a) would be rendered surplusage, as would the phrase "[a]n employer may not employ an employee for a work period of more than 10 hours per day without providing the employee with a second meal period of not less than 30 minutes" in the second sentence of that subdivision.

The appellate court held that without a proper interpretation of section 512(a), the lower court could not correctly ascertain the legal elements that members of the proposed class would have to prove in order to establish their meal period claims, and therefore could not properly determine whether common issues predominate over issues that affect individual members of the class.

2. Brinker's failure to ensure employees take meal periods

Plaintiffs also claim that Brinker's uniform meal period policy violates sections 512 and 226.7, as well as IWC Wage Order No. 5, by failing to ensure that its hourly employees take their meal periods. In the primary holding of the case, the appellate court stated:

We conclude that California law provides that Brinker need only provide meal periods, and, as a result, as with the rest period claims, plaintiffs' meal period claims are not amenable to class treatment.

The appellate court disagreed with Plaintiffs’ contention that an employer’s duty was to ensure a meal break. The court stated:

If this were the case, employers would be forced to police their employees and force them to take meal breaks. With thousands of employees working multiple shifts, this would be an impossible task. If they were unable to do so, employers would have to pay an extra hour of pay any time an employee voluntarily chose not to take a meal period, or to take a shortened one. 

3. Amenability of plaintiffs' meal break claims to class treatment

The appellate court held that because meal breaks need only be made available, not ensured, individual issues predominate in this case and the meal break claim is not amenable class treatment. The court explained:

The reason meal breaks were not taken can only be decided on a case-by-case basis. It would need to be determined as to each employee whether a missed or shortened meal period was the result of an employee's personal choice, a manager's coercion, or, as plaintiffs argue, because the restaurants were so inadequately staffed that employees could not actually take permitted meal breaks. As we discussed, ante, with regard to rest breaks, plaintiffs' computer and statistical evidence submitted in support of their class certification motion was not only based upon faulty legal assumptions, it also could only show the fact that meal breaks were not taken, or were shortened, not why. It will require an individual inquiry as to all Brinker employees to determine if this was because Brinker failed to make them available, or employees chose not to take them.

The appellate court also found that the evidence does not show that Brinker had a class-wide policy that prohibited meal breaks. Instead, the evidence in this case indicated that some employees took meal breaks and others did not, and it requires the court to perform an individualized inquiring into the reasons why an employee did not take the break. The court also held that the plaintiffs’ statistical and survey evidence does not render the meal break claims one in which common issues predominate because while the time cards might show when meal breaks were taken and when there were not, they cannot show why they were or were not taken.

Plaintiffs’ Off-the clock claim

Plaintiffs also allege Brinker unlawfully required its employees to work off the clock during meal periods. This claim was comprised of two theories: (1) time worked during a meal period when an individual was clocked out; and (2) time “shaving,” which is defined as an unlawful alteration of an employee's time record to reduce the time logged so as to not accurately reflect time worked.

The court held, and the Plaintiffs did not dispute, that employers can only be held liable for off-the-clock claims if the employer knows or should have known the employee was working off the clock. (citing Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal.4th at p. 585.) The evidence also established that Brinker has a written corporate policy prohibiting off-the-clock work. Because of these facts, the court found that plaintiffs' off-the-clock claims are not amenable to class treatment. As the court stated:

Thus, resolution of these claims would require individual inquiries in to whether any employee actually worked off the clock, whether managers had actual or constructive knowledge of such work and whether managers coerced or encouraged such work. Indeed, not all the employee declarations alleged they were forced to work off the clock, demonstrating there was no class-wide policy forcing employees to do so.

The opinion can be viewed at the court’s website [Word] [PDF].

UPDATE: The California Supreme Court has granted review of the decision, and an opinion is expected in 2011.

UPDATE: If you rather listen to my podcast on Brinker v. Hohnbaum, click here.

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