California Supreme Court Accepts Post Hearing Additional Briefing In Pending Brinker Meal Period Case: Will The Court Require "Rolling" Meal Periods?

As we previously reported here, on July 22, 2008, in Brinker v. Superior Court, the California Court of Appeal held that while an employer is required to "provide" to non-exempt employees at least one unpaid, duty-free meal period of at least 30 minutes each workday of more than 6 hours, the obligation to "provide" required meal  periods means to make the required meal periods available and not to ensure that employees take all required meal periods.  This was good news for employers and especially good news to numerous employers defending against claims of alleged meal period violations. 

The good news was short lived, however. Just two months later, on October 22, 2008, the California Supreme Court granted the plaintiff's petition for review of the Court of Appeal's decision in Brinker. As a consequence, employers defending lawsuits alleging violation of meal period requirements could no longer cite Brinker as authority that an employer is not required to ensure that employees take all required meal periods made available to them, and plaintiffs could once again contend an employer has a duty to ensure all required meal periods are taken and to document that all required meal periods are taken.

After the California Supreme Court granted review of Brinker, the Court of Appeal issued seven additional decisions holding an employer is required to make required meal periods available but is not required to ensure that employees take all required meal periods made available to them. See Brinkley v. Public Storage, Faulkinbury v. Boyd & Associates, Brookler v. Radio Shack Corp., Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Tien v. Tenet Healthcare, Lamps Plus Overtime Cases, and Santos v. Vitas Healthcare.  However, the California Supreme Court promptly granted review of each of those seven decisions, too, and, like Brinker, those seven decisions can no longer be cited as authority that an employer is not required to ensure that employees take all required meal periods made available to them.  

This state of affairs left employers, employees, and courts tasked with resolving disputes over whether an employer has or has not complied with its obligations to "provide" required meal periods in the dark about what the law requires and has complicated the handling of the innumerable class action wage and hour lawsuits brought against California employers. 

On November 8, 2011, over three years after granting review, the California Supreme Court conducted the long awaited oral argument.  

In an unusual turn of events, on December 2, 2011, the court granted the request of the California Employment Law Council to submit an additional post-hearing amicus curiae or "friend of the court" brief addressing the issue of "rolling" meal breaks, which was raised during the November 8, 2011 oral argument.  The issue concerns when during the workday employers must "provide" the first meal period and whether, and if so, when during the workday employers must "provide" a second meal period.  It has been widely believed that an employer is required to "provide" a second meal period only when a non-exempt employee works more than 10 hours in a workday and only after the tenth hour of work. However, on account of language in the Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders stating "[n]o 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," the court is now considering whether an employee who takes a meal period relatively early in his or her workday is entitled to a second meal period if an employee works 5 hours after taking an "early" meal period, even if the employee's workday does not exceed 10 hours. 

Suffice it to say it would be a stunning development if the court holds employers are required to "provide" such "rolling" meal periods.  Such a holding would potentially expose California employers to truly unanticipated potential liability for penalties for failing to "provide" a second meal period even when an employee does not work more than 10 hours in a workday and would further compromise employers' ability to provide employees flexibility as to when meal periods take place.

We are continuing to monitor this case, and will report on further developments as information becomes available. 

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