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April 13th, 2012

California Employers Breathe ‘Huge Sigh of Relief’

A recent California Supreme Court ruling provides the state’s employers with greater flexibility in operating their establishments. It will help to curb similar wage-and-hour class actions in the state, allowing many employers to “breathe a huge sigh of relief.” 

The court, in a wage-and-hour class action lawsuit followed closely by employers, ruled yesterday that employers need not force their employees to take meal periods they would prefer to skip and are not obligated to ensure that employees do no work during breaks. The decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, defined key aspects of California’s meal and rest period laws, providing clarity for employers in complying with labor code provisions and reducing the threat of speculative class action lawsuits.

The lawsuit arose out of allegations that Brinker, which operates restaurants throughout California, including Chili’s Grill & Bar and Maggiano’s Little Italy, violated California wage-and-hour law as well as the state’s unfair competition law by failing to provide meal and rest breaks or compensation in lieu thereof, and by making employees work off the clock during meal periods. A California trial court initially certified a class of roughly 60,000 Brinker employees that included three subclasses of employees, but that decision was reversed by a California appellate court.

In its ruling, the California Supreme Court answered questions regarding the timing of meal breaks. Specifically, the court found that an employee’s first meal break generally must fall no later than five hours into an employee’s shift and a second meal break after no more than 10 hours of work, but that an employer need not strictly schedule meal breaks at five-hour intervals throughout the employee’s shift. The court also rejected the plaintiffs’ argument that employers had to make sure that their workers took the breaks, ruling instead that employers were merely required to make meal breaks available. In addition, the court concluded that while an employee is on a meal break, “an employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work.”

The California Supreme Court’s decision may indicate a trend of fair rulings for California businesses, another recent example being the court’s decision to prevent awards of phantom damages. Whether the court will continue issuing such rulings and help shed the state’s Judicial Hellholes reputation remains to be seen, but the high court deserves credit for a sound ruling.

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