The California Supreme Court on Thursday offered a qualified ruling in favor of employers in a long-awaited meal-and-rest break lawsuit involving Chili’s parent Brinker International Inc.
In a decision that many hope will bring clarity to state break requirements and reduce the number of lawsuits that have plagued the restaurant industry, the court said employers across the state need not ensure that workers actually take mandated 30-minute breaks during their shifts.
Employers, however, must make meal and rest breaks available within a certain time during shifts, and they must also keep records of such breaks, the ruling said.
Attorneys for Brinker said they were glad to finally have a decision, which was handed down from the Brinker Restaurant Corp. et al v. The Superior Court for the State of California for the County of San Diego.
The court’s action was seen as a victory for Brinker, though aspects of the case will return to the lower court to play out in light of Thursday’s ruling.
“We’re very pleased that our team members and employees have the flexibility to take or not take their meal breaks,” said Roger Thomson, Dallas-based Brinker’s executive vice president and general counsel.
Steven Katz, an attorney with Reed Smith in Los Angeles, said the ruling was “a clear victory for common sense.”
By allowing employees an opportunity for a meal break, but not forcing them to take a break they may not want, “the court declared the law to be precisely what employees and employers have always thought: it is the employee’s choice to take a meal break, not something forced on employees by the government.”
Steve Hirschfeld, founder and chief executive of the San Francisco-based labor and employment attorney network Employment Law Alliance, agreed, adding, “What this ruling says, in essence, is that employers don’t have to babysit employees.
“As long as they make available meal and rest periods and encourage their usage, they are not liable for claims brought by employees that they did not receive them,” Hirschfeld said. “Employers are not going to be in a situation where they have to act like ‘big brother’ and constantly monitor employees.”
A key question before the court was whether employers must ensure that employees take an uninterrupted 30-minute break at specific times during their shifts, or simply to make such breaks available, allowing workers to pass on such breaks if they choose.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed in 2004 by five Chili’s employees who charged that the company illegally denied them breaks for every five hours worked. The complaint was later certified as a class-action suit that was estimated to include potentially up to 63,000 current and former employees.
Under the ruling, however, the court said, “an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.”
The court also said meal breaks must be made available for every five hour shift, but didn’t specify when within those five hours the break should be taken. That allows workers to take their break early within the five-hour period, if they choose.
If employees work 10 hours, however, a second 30-minute break must be provided during the second five-hour period, the court said. The court said 10-minute rest breaks must be made available for shifts from three-and-a-half hours to six-hours long, with a second 10-minute rest break made available during shifts from six to 10 hours in length.
Attorney Andra Greene, managing partner with Irell & Manella LLP in Newport Beach, Calif., said she believes the ruling will be very positive for employers in California because it makes clear what their obligations are under the law.
The court, however, did agree with a trial court ruling that allowed plaintiffs citing rest break violations to file as a class action. In those cases, the court said, plaintiffs alleged that Brinker had a deficit in its policy regarding rest breaks.
Another group of plaintiffs citing meal break violations was remanded to the lower court in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, which agreed with Brinker’s attorneys that employers need not ensure that breaks are taken.
A third subgroup of plaintiffs who claimed Brinker did not pay them for work done during breaks when they were off the clock was not cleared for class action. The court said there was no evidence of systematic abuse in that case.
Will Carroll, an attorney with Schiff Hardin LLP in San Francisco, said employers across the state should take a hard look at their policies regarding meal and rest breaks — particularly if they were disciplining workers for not taking breaks at certain times.
“Employers really need to look at their policies to be sure they comply and adjust them if necessary,” he said.
Greene, however, said the ruling still leaves room for claims from employees who might argue they weren’t allowed to take breaks within the designated time.
“One should never underestimate the creativity of plaintiffs lawyers,” she said. “I fully expect we will see claims for late meal breaks. This is not the end of meal and rest break class actions.”
The ruling is also likely to impact a number of pending restaurant lawsuits that have been on hold while the Supreme Court reviewed the Brinker case. Greene is representing employers in two cases involving restaurant companies — Taco Bell and KFC, both Yum Brands International Inc. chains — that have been stayed awaiting the Supreme Court ruling.
Brinker operates or franchises more than 1,500 restaurants under Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy.