On October 30, 2010, the California Court of Appeal published its’ decision in Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc., B216004 (Published 10/30/10). Restaurants and California employers have been inundated with class action lawsuits involving meal and rest period claims. The case addressed California’s meal and rest period laws on both an individual and class action lawsuit basis. California employers have long been waiting for the California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker Restaurants v. Superior Court. Until the Brinker decision is issued, our appetite will have to be satisfied with the Chipotle decision.
This case involved a motion to deny class certification in a lawsuit alleging numerous claims, including meal period, rest period, overtime, wage payment, and other claims. The Trial Court granted Chipotle’s motion to deny class certification and denied the employee’s motion to certify the class. The employee appealed. The Court of Appeal affirmed the Trial Court’s decision. In so doing, it concluded employers must provide employees with breaks, but need not ensure employees take breaks.
Here, Chipotle argued it met its responsibility under California law to provide (authorize and permit) employees with meal and rest breaks. In support of its’ motion Chipotle submitted 57 declarations from employees who stated that they had received all meal and rest breaks. Manager declarations were also submitted stating employees received meal and rest breaks, employees did not always remember to clock in and out when going on a break, and employees were not permitted to return early from breaks. Like many time records, the records did not always indicate that meal breaks are taken, even when they are provided. Some forgot to clock out. Others forgot to clock back in. The records also did not indicate the reason why breaks were not recorded, even when they are provided and made available.
The Court rejected the employee’s claim that employers must ensure employees take meal breaks. It found its interpretation supported by the definition of the word “provide” in the statutes and Webster’s Dictionary, which states that “provide” means “to supply or make available.” The Court found that the employee’s position was not practical and would also create “perverse incentives, encouraging employees to violate company meal break policy in order to receive extra compensation under California wage and hour laws.” Thus, it concluded that employers must merely supply or make available meal breaks to employees.
The Time Records Did Not Establish Violations
The employee also argued that he could prove company-wide violations by using time records, including some where employees did not clock in and out for meal and rest breaks. However, the Court found substantial evidence that the time records may be unreliable because many employees did not clock in and out for meal breaks and, because Chipotle paid employees for breaks, employees lacked a financial incentive to clock in and out accurately. Thus, it would be necessary for a trier of fact to ascertain if employees actually missed breaks, or simply forgot to record them. The Court would also have to determine the reason why employees might have missed breaks or went back to work before completing them. This could necessitate thousands of mini-trials to address the factual issues, thus making class treatment inappropriate.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the Trial Court’s order denying class certification, it concluded that employers must provide employees with breaks, but need not ensure that employees take them. This issue will ultimately be resolved by the California Supreme Court when it decides Brinker Restaurants v. Superior Court, which has been pending for more than a year. The Court also addressed the limited relevance of time records in meal and rest period cases. As other courts had found, time records are sometimes unreliable and can be misleading. Further, they do not indicate the reason why meal or rest periods were not taken or were short and may indicate that a meal period was not taken or short even when proper breaks were provided. Until Brinker is decided, this case will have a significant beneficial impact on California’s restaurants and employers. Employers in California should discuss the case with their attorneys and determine how it may guide or assist them even though it is likely to be appealed to California’s Supreme Court.