The surprise of the recent snowstorm in Southern California was nothing compared to the shock created by the California Supreme Court in its ruling in Brinker International Inc., et al. v. Superior Court.  The California Supreme Court found that employers must only make meal breaks available to their workers, but are not required to “ensure that the employee does not work.”  This is a much needed victory for employers, and one that could significantly reduce the number of wage and hour lawsuits filed by employees.  In particular, the decision removes any obligation by employers to police whether their workers take breaks, and could potentially eliminate claims for off the clock time during meal breaks.

In 2008, the California Supreme Court agreed to hear the case to clarify the meal break standard after an appeals court denied a class action of approximately sixty thousand employees.  The case, for the most part, hinged on the interpretation of California Labor Law § 512, which requires employers to provide meal breaks to individuals working more than five hours in a day.  The employer, Brinker International Inc. (“Brinker”) maintained that it merely had to make the meal breaks available, and the plaintiffs argued that Brinker was obligated to make sure that its employees actually took these meal breaks.  In rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument, the Court held, in an unanimous opinion, “The difficulty with the view that en employer must ensure no work is done – i.e., prohibit work – is that it lacks any textual basis.”

The impact of this decision on wage and hour claims outside of California is difficult to predict.  While the California Supreme Court’s decision was based on its interpretation of the state’s Labor Law, counsel for Brinker has predicted that the Brinker International Inc. decision will have “significant implications” nationwide.  Since the question of whether employers are required to ensure that their workers take their meal breaks is not addressed by the Fair Labor Standards Act, or its regulations, its likely that courts in jurisdictions throughout the country will look to the case for guidance.

In the end, the Brinker International Inc. decision should not affect the manner in which businesses deal with meal breaks for their employees. The decision does not mean that employers do not have to pay employees for any time worked during a meal period.  Rather, the significance of Brinker International Inc. is that it places the burden on the employee to report any time he or she works during a meal break.

For further discussion of the practical affects of this decision, read this post on our California Employment Law blog.