California companies don’t have to enforce employee breaks

State Supreme Court decision clarifies employers’ obligations

The California Supreme Court has delivered a long-awaited ruling that is at least a partial victory for employers.

The court ruled yesterday in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum) that employers are not obligated to ensure that their employees take legally required meal and rest breaks.

In 2004, workers from Chili’s and Romano’s Macaroni Grill sued Brinker, which owns the restaurants, claiming managers pressured them to skip breaks, which violated California labor law. The suit proposed a class of about 60,000 nonunion, hourly employees. In 2008, a California appeals court sided with Brinker, finding that the company had to make such breaks available but was not required to ensure employees took their breaks.

Yesterday, the state’s high court agreed with the lower court’s decision. However, the court also allowed a class of workers to proceed with claims that Brinker denied proper rest breaks.

“The fact that we only have to provide, not police or ensure meal breaks, will be hugely significant to California employers,” said Brinker GC Roger Thomson.

Sarah Goldstein, an employment partner at Kaufman Dolowich Voluck & Gonzo, told InsideCounsel that yesterday’s decision “will no doubt yield a positive result for those employers involved in class action lawsuits over their meal period policies. If an employer’s meal break policy is compliant under Brinker, and employers do not require employees to take their meal period, then there should be sufficient individualized issues concerning missed meal periods to make a strong argument against certification.”

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