Brinker Ruling Issued by California Supreme Court; Employers Only Required to Provide Breaks, Not Ensure They Are Taken

The California Supreme Court finally issued its long-awaited ruling on the Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court case regarding the duty of employers to provide meal periods to employees.  At the Court of Appeal level, the Brinker decision held favorably for employers that employers only had a duty to make meal periods available to employees, and that employers were not affirmatively required to ensure that the meal periods were actually taken by the employees.  Brinker was certified for appeal to the California Supreme Court in 2008, and since that time, a half-dozen other appellate decisions – generally holding the same as Brinker – have come down.  Today, the Supreme Court’s written decision upheld the lower court’s interpretation of employer’s obligations.

The Court reasoned that to require employers to police their employees during meal periods to ensure that no work was being performed was anathema to the very purpose of meal periods of relinquishing control by the employer over the employee.  To put the employer in the role of babysitter of the employee – looking over the employee’s shoulder while on meal break – to ensure no work was being done would require the employer to exercise some measure of control that meal periods were designed to discourage.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturned older appellate decisions applying a “strict liability” – like standard to employers for missed meal periods by their employees.  Under the prior standard, employers could be liable for wage-and-hour violations and monetary penalties even if they were unaware that the employee had refused to take a required meal period.  Thus, employers were forced to implement policies to ensure that their employees took all required meal periods, even punishing employees who negligently or intentionally skipped or truncated a required meal period.

The Brinker decision also clarified how many 10-minute paid rest periods an employee is entitled to depending on the length of that employee’s shift, rejecting an interpretation by the lower court that calculated such shifts calculated based on 3 ½ hour periods.  Thus, “[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.”

If you have a question about how to implement and administer your company’s meal and rest period policy in light of Brinker, Michel & Associates, P.C. can assist you.

Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (April 12, 2012) No. S166350