Meal Periods and Rest Breaks, Again

By May 11, 2011 Blog, Employment Law

Another California Court of Appeal has concluded that while employers must provide employees with meal and rest breaks, they do not need to ensure that employees actually take them.  In the Lamps Plus Overtime Cases, the court denied class certification and, more importantly for this discussion, ruled against the plaintiffs' on the merits of their claims.  Two cases that raise meal and rest break issues are presently pending before the California Supreme Court, and rulings of other California Courts of Appeal cases have been similar to that of Lamps Plus.  The trial court in Lamps Plus denied plaintiffs' request that the court delay its ruling until the Supreme Court rules on the matter.  

Lamps Plus maintained policies on breaks that parallel California statutory law.  The court summarized those policies as follows:

Lamps Plus has an employee handbook that includes a policy requiring meal and rest breaks.  Its meal and rest break policy provides that its nonexempt employees “must” take an uninterrupted meal period of at least 45 minutes after not more than five hours of work. Employees are “entitled” to take a second meal period if they work more than 10 hours.  “Employees are required to take [unpaid] meal periods, and should not eat at their desks or work stations.”  Nonexempt employees are “authorized and permitted” to take a 15-minute paid rest period “for every four hours, or major fraction of four hours, that they work.” The policy also provides for written waiver of the meal periods for employees working a shift of six hours or less, as well as written waiver of the second meal period for those employees working between 10- and 12-hour shifts.  Employees are required to sign an acknowledgment providing:  “I acknowledge that I have received a copy of the Company‟s meal and rest break policy, and I acknowledge and I agree that I will comply with the policy.  I further agree that if I am not provided with the meal and rest periods specified in the policy, I will contact Human Resources . . . .” 

The plaintiffs alleged that Lamps Plus violated a variety of California's labor laws, including statutes and regulatons affecting breaks, off-the-clock work, itemized wage statements, and payment of wages on termination.  The Court of Appeal disagreed with the merits of these claims, but also found that there was not sufficient commonality to justify a class action.  At the heart of plaintiffs' case was the theory that employers must ensure that employees take meal and rest breaks, and that Lamps Plus maintained a companywide practice of requiring off-the-clock work and not paying wages timely upon termination. The court rejected these contentions.

This is yet another in a growing list of California cases rejecting the idea that employers must ensure that employees actually take breaks.  A series of federal decisions interpreting California law also agrees.  The court in Lamps Plus summarized the current state of California law:

The two cases presently before the Supreme Court (Brinker Restaurant v. S. C.,review granted Oct. 22, 2008, S166350 (Brinker), and Brinkley v. Public Storage,review granted Jan. 14, 2009, S168806 (Brinkley)) will address the “proper interpretation of California statutes and regulations governing an employer‟s duty to provide meal and rest breaks to hourly workers.”  While these cases have been pending before the Supreme Court, review has been granted for a number of appellate decisions addressing the meal and rest period issue, including this division‟s opinion in Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., review granted January 26, 2011, S188755 [finding that employers must only provide breaks, and need not ensure they are taken], as well as Faulkenbury v. Boyd & Associates, review granted October 13, 2010, S184995 [addressing meal and rest period violations], among others.  Another decision by this division, Tien v. Tenet Healthcare Corp. (2011) 192 Cal.App.4th 1055, concluded there is no obligation to ensure that breaks are taken.  (Id. at pp. 1066-1067.)  Appellant in that case has petitioned for review, and as of the time of the filing of this opinion, the Supreme Court has taken no action on the petition.

The court noted that Brinker and Brinkley have been pending for some time, and that "it would hardly be efficient to stall resolution of all class actions claiming meal and rest period violations in the interim." Whether plaintiffs will seek review of Lamps Plus by the Supreme Court remains to be seen.  The decision on the interpretation of the meal and rest break statutes and regulations is ultimately in the hands of the California Supreme Court.

Stephen C. Gerrish, Employment Group