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 today 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 (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.

The opinion can be viewed at the court’s website [Word] [PDF]. This case will no doubt change many wage and hour litigator's case strategies, unless the California Supreme Court grants review of the decision.

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

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