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April 12, 2012 – California meal-and-rest-break claims may proceed on a class action basis, according to a unanimous ruling by the California Supreme Court in its long-awaited decision in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Ct (Hohnbaum). Surprising many labor and employment attorneys who anticipated a closely divided opinion because of the long delay between briefing and argument, the Court unanimously held that employers have an affirmative duty to relieve their workers of all duties during a 30-minute meal break and 10-minute rest breaks, and may not pressure, discourage, or offer inducements to workers to skip those breaks. The Court also affirmed class certification of plaintiffs rest break claims and remanded their meal period claims to the trial court for further consideration.
Plaintiffs were represented by lawyers from five California law firms, including Altshuler Berzon LLP, whose partner Michael Rubin shared oral argument time before the Supreme Court to present the important class action issues raised by the case. Click here for a video of the oral argument, available on the California Courts website.
Justice Kathryn Wergedar, who wrote the unanimous opinion for the Court, also wrote a separate concurrence, joined by Justice Goodwin Liu, to guide the trial court on remand in applying California class action standards, and to explain why the Court of Appeal had erred in concluding that meal and rest break litigation required individualized determinations that precluded class actions – a ruling that, if it had been accepted, would have sounded the death knell for meal and rest break claims in California.
The Court’s unanimous opinion also addressed issues concerning when an employer is required to provide meaningful meal and rest breaks, and provided several examples drawn from prior state and federal case law of factual allegations that would be sufficient to establish that an employer’s paper policy of merely making such breaks “available” would not be sufficient to satisfy the new “relieve of all duty” standard. The Court also reiterated the continued validity of a series of California state law class action decisions that preceded the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Wal-Mart v. Dukes, giving employment class actions a general boost by re-emphasizing that “predominance” is a comparative inquiry and that the presence of individual issues will not defeat class certification if plaintiffs’ theory of the case can be established through common proofs and the trial can be efficiently managed on a class action basis.
The case now returns to the trial court for further discovery and pre-trial litigation, while the Supreme Court decides how best to resolve the nine grant-and-hold cases from the California Courts of Appeal that have been pending while the Court considered Brinker. Among those is Hernandez v. Chipotle, in which Altshuler Berzon LLP is co-counsel for plaintiffs.