The California Supreme Court issued its long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court on April 12, 2012. The decision contains some very good news for employers regarding obligations relating to employee meal breaks and could have some significant implications for Delaware employers covered by Delaware's meal break law, 10 Del. C. § 707.
Brinker Restaurant Corporation operates 137 restaurants in California, including Chili's Bar and Grill, Maggiano's Little Italy, Romano's Macaroni Grill and others. In 2002, a former employee brought a putative class action against Brinker on behalf of nearly 6,000 hourly restaurant employees. The complaint alleged that Brinker failed to provide rest and meal periods in accordance with California legal requirements, required employees to work off-the-clock during meal periods, and unlawfully altered their time records. The plaintiffs obtained class certification in the trial court on each of these claims, but the Court of Appeal reversed, holding that class certification was improper as a matter of law. The Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, partially agreed and partially disagreed with both the trial court and the Court of Appeal.
There were two distinct questions before the Supreme Court concerning meal periods. First, does an employer have a duty to ensure that a meal period is taken and thus violates the law if the employee does not in fact take a 30-minute duty-free break? To that question, the Supreme Court answered "no" - employers are not required to ensure that an employee performs no work during the meal period. Instead, the Supreme Court held that an employer satisfies its meal period obligations by:
• Relieving the employee of all duty for the period;
• Relinquishing control over the employee's activities;
• Permitting the employee a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted meal period; and
• Neither impeding nor discouraging the employee from taking the meal period.
The Court cautioned that employers unlawfully discourage employees from taking meal breaks if they provide incentives for or encourage skipping breaks, coerce employees to forego them, or otherwise make it difficult for employees to take breaks, whether through scheduling or otherwise.
It is this ruling that has the most significance for Delaware employers. Under the Delaware meal break law, an employer "must allow" a 30 minute meal break to persons working 7 ½ or more consecutive hours. Like the California law, the break must be given after the first 2 hours of work, but unlike the California law, the Delaware statute imposes an additional restriction in that the meal break must be given "before the last 2 hours."
Based on the guidance from Brinker, as long as a Delaware employer "allows" the employee to take a meal break during the specified time, the employer need not require the break. If the employee, without any employer pressure, works through his or her break and is paid for it, that would not be a violation of the law. It should also be noted that the Delaware law does not mandate that the meal break be a paid break.
The second meal period question in Brinker concerned the timing of meal periods (the so-called "floating five-hour rule"): must meal periods be scheduled so that an employee is not working more than five hours either before or after the meal period? The Court answered "no" to this question too. The employees in Brinker were sometimes required to take their meal periods an hour into their shifts, such that they were working seven hours after the meal period.
The Court held that this practice was not unlawful and that there is no limit on the number of hours that can be worked after the meal period. Instead, it concluded that:
• Employees must be provided a 1st meal period at some time before the end of the 5th hour of work; and
• Employees who work 10 or more hours must be provided a 2d meal period before the end of the 10th hour of work.
Since the Delaware law is more specific as to when the break must occur, this holding has less significance for Delaware employers. For employees working 7 ½ consecutive hours, the meal break must be allowed no later than 5 hours after the beginning of the work day. Delaware law is silent on the need for a second break if the work day extends beyond 7 ½ hours.
There were two questions regarding rest period rules. First, does California law require that the rest period be taken before the meal period is taken? The Court answered "no" to this question.
Second, what does the Wage Order mean when it says that employees have a right to a 10-minute rest period for each "four hour work period or major portion thereof"? The Court rejected Brinker's argument that "major portion" means 3-1/2 hours, and held instead that it means "more than two hours." Since Delaware has no rest period law at present, that ruling has no Delaware implications.
The sole question regarding the off-the-clock work claim was whether class certification should have been granted or denied. In support of class certification, the plaintiffs had offered anecdotal evidence of "a handful of individual instances" of off-the-clock work. The Court held this evidence insufficient to establish a "uniform, company-wide policy" of allowing off-the-clock work. Instead, Brinker's written policy prohibited working off the clock.
Furthermore, Brinker's time records showing an employee was clocked out created a presumption that the employee was not working. Finally, an employer is liable for off-the-clock work only when it knew or should have known that the employee was performing work off the clock. The Court held that to rebut the time records and establish employer knowledge would require individual evidence and determinations. Therefore, liability could not be established on a class-wide basis, and class certification was improper.
The Brinker decision is a welcome relief to employers because the California Supreme Court declined to impose strict liability for missed or non-compliant meal periods. Since California has been a leader in providing work benefits to employees, and over time, policies that began in California have drifted to Delaware (the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing being a prime example), the Brinker ruling should cause Delaware employers to breathe a sigh of relief.