April 12, 2012

Supreme Court issues major wage-and-hour opinion in Brinker

This morning the Supreme Court issued its opinion, authored by Justice Kathryn Werdegar, in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, S166350. The Court of Appeal had rejected certification of all three subclasses (rest breaks, meal breaks, and off-the-clock work). In its unanimous 54-page opinion, the Supreme Court concluded the trial court properly certified a rest break subclass. With regard to a meal break subclass, the court remanded for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. However, with regard to the off-the-clock subclass, because there was no evidence of common policies or means of proof, the Court concluded the trial court erred in certifying a subclass. (See typed opn. 2.)

On the central question of whether an employer must provide meal breaks to its employees or, in the alternative, must also ensure that the employees take those breaks and perform no work during those break periods, the Court held: “[A]n employer’s obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done.” (Typed opn. 2.) The Court explained: “The difficulty with the view that an employer must ensure no work is done—i.e., prohibit work—is that it lacks any textual basis in the wage order or statute. . . . Indeed, the obligation to ensure employees do no work may in some instances be inconsistent with the fundamental employer obligations associated with a meal break: to relieve the employee of all duty and relinquish any employer control over the employee and how he or she spends the time.” (Typed opn. 33.)

Interestingly, Justice Werdegar also authored a separate, five-page concurring opinion to her own majority opinion. In her concurrence, joined by Justice Goodwin Liu, Justice Werdegar wrote that, in remanding the question of meal period subclass certification, “the opinion of the court does not endorse [the defendant’s] argument, accepted by the Court of Appeal, that the question why a meal period was missed renders meal period claims categorically uncertifiable. Nor could it, for such a per se bar would be inconsistent with the law governing reporting obligations and our historic endorsement of a variety of methods that render collective actions judicially manageable.” (Conc. opn. of Werdegar, J., p. 1.)

UPDATE: This post on The UCL Practitoner links to several news articles that discuss the Brinker opinion.


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