Case: Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court of San Diego County, Case No.D049331 (Cal. Sup. Ct. 7/22/08)

The One Sentence Summary: On July 22, 2008, the California Court of Appeal issued a ruling on meal breaks and rest periods that may make it easier for California employers to comply with meal and rest break requirements. Because it is likely that the case will be appealed, however, employers should be cautious in relying on the opinion until all appeals are finally concluded, which may take several years.

What They Were Fighting About:

In Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court of San Diego County, et al., plaintiffs brought a class action complaint against Brinker Restaurants (operator of 137 restaurants in California including Chili’s, Romano’s Macaroni Grill, and Maggiano’s Little Italy) for various alleged violations of California meal and rest break requirements. In vacating the Superior Court’s order granting class certification, the Court of Appeal made several significant rulings concerning employers’ responsibility for meal periods and rest breaks:

(1) Providing Meal and Rest Breaks: The Court held that while employers cannot “impede, discourage or dissuade employees from taking” meal periods or rest breaks, employers need only provide employees the opportunity to take meal periods and rest breaks, not ensure that employees actually take them.

(2) Scheduling Meal Breaks: The Court overturned the trial court’s conclusion that the employer was required to provide meal breaks on a “rolling” five hour schedule-that is, providing a thirty minute break for each five hours worked. Because Brinker allowed its food servers to take meal breaks in the first hour of an eight hour shift (so they could work and earn tips during the busiest part of the shift), plaintiffs had argued that Brinker was required to provide a second meal period within five hours of the first meal break. The Court held that employers need provide only one meal break for employees who work between five and ten hours during a shift, regardless of when the meal period is taken. A second meal break is only required if an employee works more than ten hours.

(3) Scheduling Rest Breaks: The Court also rejected the argument that employees need to take their rest breaks in the middle of each four hour period. The Court found that Brinker did not violate the rest break requirement by allowing employees to take their meal period in the first hour of an eight hour shift and then to take their two rest breaks later in the shift.

What Brinker May Mean to You:

If this case is not overturned on appeal (which we may not know for months or even years), then employers will have more flexibility in scheduling meal periods and will not have the burden of ensuring (and proving) that employees actually take the full meal periods provided. In addition, employers will not have to pay the one hour of premium pay to employees who take an “early lunch,” a break at the wrong time, or a break of less than 30 minutes, as long as the employer provided a meal period and the employee did not work more than ten hours total.

In light of the likelihood that this case will be appealed, we recommend that employers do not make changes to meal and rest break policies without consulting legal counsel.

If you have any questions about the Brinker case, and how it may apply to any particular situation effecting your company, please contact one of us in the Labor and Employment Practice Group.