California Supreme Court One Step Closer to Decision in Long-Awaited Meal and Rest Period Case: Decision Expected By Mid-February

Oct 7, 2011 | By: Michael J. Hassen

The California Supreme Court will hear oral argument in Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum, et al., real parties in interest) on November 8, 2011, according to the Court docket issued recently. The Court generally issues decisions within 90 days after completion of oral argument and submission of post-argument briefs, if any. A decision is expected by mid-February, 2012.

At issue in the case is whether California employers must ensure that their employees actually take their meal and rest periods or merely make them available. Guidance is also anticipated regarding the time in the workday in which meal and rest periods must be taken and whether or not legally-compliant meal and rest period policies can protect an employer against class actions even when these policies are unevenly enforced.

The decision is extremely important to California employers because meal and rest period claims have been the basis of hundreds of class action lawsuits in California. The Court’s decision could make it more difficult for plaintiffs to bring these claims as class actions, or, depending on the ruling, could establish rigid guidelines which may foster more class actions. Either way, California employers and Plaintiffs class action lawyers alike have eagerly awaited this decision since the Supreme Court took up the case in October, 2008 and look forward to receiving guidance from the high court.

Under California law, nonexempt employees are entitled to uninterrupted, off-duty meal periods of at least 30 minutes for every five hours worked. While there are certain limited exceptions to this rule (such as a revocable written waiver of the meal period in limited circumstances), employers are required to compensate employees for on-duty meal periods. In addition, California law assesses employers a penalty equal to one hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate for every day there is a meal period violation.

The lower court in the Brinker case held that California law requires employers only to “supply or make available” meal periods. This view is consistent with several Federal District Court decisions as well as the California Court of Appeals decision in Brinkley v. Public Storage. The California administrative entity charged with enforcing wage and hour laws, the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, takes the position that employers have “an affirmative obligation to ensure the workers are actually relieved of all duty” during meal breaks. The California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker should put this dispute to rest.

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