The California Court of Appeal, Second District, recently certified for publication a previously unpublished opinion that limits employer liability and eases administrative burdens. Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill held that while an employer must provide employees with the opportunity to take meal and rest breaks, the employer is not required to ensure that its employees actually take those breaks.
Rogelio Hernandez is a former Chipotle employee. Chipotle is a fast food restaurant chain with over 3,000 hourly employees in its 132 California restaurants. Hernandez filed a lawsuit against Chipotle on his behalf and on behalf of a proposed class of similarly situated hourly employees. He alleged that Chipotle violated labor laws by denying its employees meal and rest breaks.
The trial court denied class certification. The trial court's reasoning was that the California Supreme Court, which had just granted review on a similar issue in two separate cases, will likely determine that California law requires employers only to provide employees with the ability to take breaks, and not to ensure the breaks be taken.
Hernandez appealed, and the appellate court affirmed. The court determined that it was appropriate for the trial court to decide the threshold legal issue of whether employers must provide meal breaks rather than ensure they be taken, because it could not otherwise assess whether class treatment was warranted, and that the trial court had decided that question correctly.
In answering this threshold question, the court held "employers must provide employees with breaks, but need not ensure employees take breaks." The court relied in part on the language of the governing wage order, which only requires that employers provide employees with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes for a work period of more than five hours. Cal. Code Reg., Title 8, § 11050, subdiv. 11. The wage order also authorizes and permits employees to take a 10-minute rest break for every four hours worked. Id. at subdiv. 12.
The court in Hernandez further justified its decision by explaining that it would not be "practical" to require "enforcement of meal breaks." To do so "would place an undue burden on employers whose employees are numerous or who ? do not appear to remain in contact with the employer during the day." Hernandez, quoting White v. Starbucks Corp., 497 F. Supp. 2d 1080, 1088 - 1089 (N.D. Cal. 2007). "It 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." Hernandez, quoting Brown v. Federal Express Corp. 249 F.R.D. 580, 585 (C.D. Cal. 2008).
There are two cases pending at the California Supreme Court involving many of the same issues: Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court, review granted Oct. 22, 2008, S166350; and Brinkley v. Public Storage, review granted Jan. 14, 2009, S168806. It is possible that the Supreme Court will grant review in Hernandez as well, then hold the case pending its decision in the others. That would make the case uncitable as authority. Regardless of whether review is granted, Hernandez gives employers hope that courts will not require them to police their employees to ensure that meal breaks are taken.