Brinker - Court to Determine Employers' Obligation To "Provide" Meal Breaks

UPDATE: On July 22, 2008, the Appellate Court issued a published decision, which can be read about at our post "Meal and Rest Break Requirements Clarified By Court in Brinker v. Hohnbaum"

Appellate arguments were made recently in the case Brinker v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum). One issue that is being closely watched by all wage and hour attorneys raised in the appeal is whether the term “provide” in Labor Code § 512 requires employers to force employees to take meal breaks or whether employers only need to offer meal breaks to employees (similar to the "authorize and permit" requirement for rest breaks).

California Labor Code § 512(a) states:
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.
This distinction argued in Brinker is critical in meal and rest break class actions. If the appellate court holds that Labor Code § 512 imputes a requirement on employers to force employees to take their meal and rest breaks, plaintiffs will have an easier argument that meal and rest break cases are subject to class certification. On the other hand, if the court holds that employers only need to make meal breaks available for employees, then class certification would be much harder to achieve because the court would have to make an individual inquiry into whether each employee could have taken a meal break and voluntarily waived it, or if the employee was forced to forego the break.

Courts that have reviewed this issue have reached differing conclusions about the meaning of the term “provide” in § 512. One court, in Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, Inc. (2005) 133 Cal.App.4th 949, held that “employers have ‘an affirmative obligation to ensure that workers are actually relieved of all duty.’” Id. at 962 - 963 (citing Dept. of Industrial Relations, DLSE, Opinion Letter 2002.01.28, p. 1.). However, another California federal district court held employers are only required to offer meal breaks. White v. Starbucks, Corp., (N. D. Cal. July 2, 2007) 497 F.Supp.2d 1080, 2007 WL 1952975. The court refused to follow the DLSE opinion letter relied upon in Cicairos, and stated:
In the absence of controlling California Supreme Court precedent, the court is Erie-bound to apply the law as it believes that court would do under the circumstances. See Wyler Summit Partnership v. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 135 F.3d 658, 663 (9th Cir.1998). The interpretation that White advances-making employers ensurers of meal breaks-would be impossible to implement for significant sectors of the mercantile industry (and other industries) in which large employers may have hundreds or thousands of employees working multiple shifts. Accordingly, the court concludes that the California Supreme Court, if faced with this issue, would require only that an employer offer meal breaks, without forcing employers actively to ensure that workers are taking these breaks. In short, the employee must show that he was forced to forego his meal breaks as opposed to merely showing that he did not take them regardless of the reason.
The California Labor & Employment Defense Blog will post about the appellate court’s ruling in Brinker v. Superior Court once it is issued.
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