Labor Law Class Action Defense Cases–Brinker v. Superior Court: California Appellate Court Reverses Trial Court Order Certifying Labor Law Class Action Holding Employers Need Not “Ensure” Employees Take Meal And Rest Breaks

Jul 24, 2008 | By: Michael J. Hassen

Trial Court Erred in Granting Class Action Treatment to Complaint Alleging Labor Law Violations because Employer need only “Provide” Meal and Rest Periods to Employees but need not “Ensure” that Meal and Rest Breaks are Taken California State Court Holds

Plaintiffs filed a class action in California state court against Brinker Restaurant, Brinker International and Brinker International Payroll alleging labor law violations; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that Brinker failed to provide its employees with meal and rest breaks. Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, _\_Cal.App.4th __ (Cal.App. July 22, 2008) [Slip Opn., at 3]. Plaintiffs moved the trial court to certify the litigation as a class action, and the court granted the motion. Id. The central issue in the class action was whether an employer must ensure that employees take meal and rest breaks in order to comply with California law, or whether it is sufficient to make available meal and rest breaks; the Court of Appeal held that an employer is not responsible for ensuring that employees take meal and rest breaks to which they are entitled. Id., at 3-4. Accordingly, the appellate court granted defendants’ petition for writ of mandate and reversed the trial court’s class action certification order.

Defendants have a written policy, on a form signed by each employee, that sets forth the statutory meal and rest periods and acknowledging that the employee may be disciplined or terminated for failing to take those breaks. Brinker, at 5. Employees also are required to clock in and out so that defendants may maintain accurate records for payroll purposes, id., at 5-6. Plaintiffs’ class action complaint alleged that defendants failed to provide meal and rest breaks, id., at 7-8. The class action alleged further that defendants required employees to take “early lunches” and then required that they work upwards of 9 hours without any additional meal period, id., at 8. Finally, the class action alleged that defendants required employees to work “off the clock,” id., at 8-9. Plaintiffs argued that employers “must ‘ensure’ that the employee takes meal periods,” id., at 9. The trial court an employer must give employees a meal break “before [an] employee’s work period exceeds five hours,” and that the purpose of the statute is “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.’” Id., at 10.

In opposing class action treatment, defense attorneys argued that rest and meal periods need only be provided to employees, not necessarily taken, that employees were provided meal and rest periods, and that whether individual employees took meal and/or rest breaks required “individualized” inquiry so that individual issues predominated. Brinker, at 14-15. With respect to “off the clock work,” defense attorneys argued that they had a policy expressly prohibiting such work, that defendants could not be liable for such conduct unless it “suffered or permitted the work,” and that this would require individual inquiries that defeat class action certification. Id., at 15. Defendants supported their opposition to class action treatment with 30 declarations from restaurant managers stating that they permitted their employees to take meal and rest breaks, and explaining the differences among various restaurants in terms of meal and rest periods. Id., at 15-17. Defendants also submitted hundreds of declarations from employees stating that they received meal and rest breaks. Id., at 17.

We cannot here summarize all aspects of the 52-page appellate opinion. The focus of the writ proceeding was whether common questions of fact or law predominate thereby warranting class action certification. Brinker, at 20. The Court of Appeal first held that the trial court erred in failing “to determine the elements of plaintiffs’ claims,” id., at 21, as the lower court believed that this “need not be resolved as part of the certification process,” id., at 22. The appellate court explained at page 22, “The court erred in so finding because it could not determine whether individual or common issues predominate in this case, and thus whether a class action was proper, without first determining this threshold issue.” This error required reversal because “had the court correctly decided the elements of plaintiffs’ rest, meal break and off-the-clock claims, it could have only concluded liability could only be established by making individual inquiry into each plaintiff’s claims, and they thus are not amenable to class treatment.” Id.

The Court then went into a detailed analysis of plaintiffs’ rest break claims, see Brinker, at 22-33, plaintiffs’ meal period claims, see id., at 33-50, and plaintiffs’ “off-the-clock” claims, see id., at 50-53. The appellate court concisely summarized its holdings at page 4 as follows: “we conclude that (1) while employers cannot impede, discourage or dissuade employees from taking rest periods, they need only provide, not ensure, rest periods are taken; (2) employers need only authorize and permit rest periods every four hours or major fraction thereof and they need not, where impracticable, be in the middle of each work period; (3) employers are not required to provide a meal period for every five consecutive hours worked; (4) while employers cannot impede, discourage or dissuade employees from taking meal periods, they need only provide them and not ensure they are taken; and (5) while employers cannot coerce, require or compel employees to work off the clock, they can only be held liable for employees working off the clock if they knew or should have known they were doing so.” (Italics added.) Importantly, the Court of Appeal further held that “because the rest and meal breaks need only be ‘made available’ and not ‘ensured,’ individual issues predominate and, based upon the evidence presented to the trial court, they are not amenable to class treatment.” Id. (italics added). Finally, the Court concluded that individual issues predominated over common issues with respect to the class action’s off-the-clock claims, id. The Court therefore granted defendants’ petition and reversed the trial court order granting class certification. Id., at 53.

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