By Terry Baynes
(Reuters) - Part of a class-action lawsuit against Brinker International Inc can proceed, the California Supreme Court ruled on Thursday, in a closely watched case about employee meal and rest breaks at the company's restaurants.
The California high court authorized a class of workers in the state to proceed with claims that they were denied proper rest breaks by Brinker. With respect to the meal break claims, the court ruled that employers only have to provide meal periods to workers, not make sure employees actually take them.
"An employer must relieve the employee of all duty for the designated period, but need not ensure that the employee does no work," Associate Justice Kathryn Werdegar wrote for the unanimous court.
Workers first sued Brinker, which owns Chili's and Romano's Macaroni Grills, in 2004 on behalf of a proposed class of around 60,000 non-unionized, hourly employees. They claimed that managers pressured them to skip their breaks by failing to adequately staff the restaurants or by threatening to cut or change their hours.
Brinker's attorneys argued that employees should have flexibility in choosing whether to take their scheduled breaks.
A California appeals court sided with Brinker in 2008, finding that the restaurant company only had to "make available" the meal and rest breaks, but not "ensure" they were taken. The state's Supreme Court agreed that employers do not have to police meal breaks but do need to relieve workers of duties at those times.
The court also resolved uncertainty over whether employers need to enforce a "rolling five-hour" rule, which gives workers a right to an uninterrupted meal break after five consecutive hours of work. The first meal break must fall no later than five hours into an employee's shift, but employers do not have to schedule additional meal breaks every five hours, the court ruled.
The court also set out clear guidelines for the number and timing of rest breaks, upholding a lower court's decision to authorize a class action on those claims.
Tracee Lorens, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, welcomed the opinion as a win for low-wage workers across the state.
"We never argued employers had to police breaks. We just argued that they had an affirmative obligation to relieve the employees of duty so that they could take their lunch break if they wanted to," she said. She said the case would now go back to the trial court to determine whether the meal break claims can remain part of the class action.
A spokeswoman for Brinker said the company was still reviewing the ruling and could not immediately comment.
California employers and labor lawyers have waited for three years for the high court to clarify ambiguities in the state's wage laws, which require extra pay for meal and rest break violations.
"We had an epidemic of meal and rest-break cases where virtually every employer in the state was being sued," said Scott Witlin, a Los Angeles employment lawyer at Barnes & Thornburg who is not involved in the case. The lawsuits have continued to flow in, claiming millions in damages. Many have resulted seven-figure settlements due to uncertainty in the law, he said, adding that the ruling helps businesses by clarifying the law.
Joseph Liburt, an employment lawyer at Orrick in Silicon Valley, said most businesses have been taking a conservative approach, paying the extra penalty whenever an employee's timecard shows a potential meal break issue. Many employers have also tried to make sure workers actually take their breaks, he said.
The case is Brinker Restaurant Corp v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), California Supreme Court, No. S166350.
(Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)