In Considering Class Action Certification Order in Labor Law Class Action, California Supreme Court Holds Rest Periods Not Mandated Prior to Meal Periods, and Employer must Provide Meal Breaks but need not Ensure Employee Takes Meal Breaks
Plaintiffs filed a putative class action in California state court against their employer, Brinker Restaurant, alleging various labor law violations; specifically, the class action complaint alleged that Brinker failed to provide employees with rest breaks, failed to provide employees with meal breaks, and that Brinker required employees to work “off-the-clock.” Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, ___ Cal.4th ___ (April 12, 2012) [Slip Opn., at 1, 4]. With respect to the meal period claim, plaintiffs argued that state law requires employers “to provide a 30-minute meal period at least once every five hours.” Id., at 5. Defense attorneys argued that state law does not so long as it provides one meal period for work shifts exceeding 5 hours and two meal periods for work shifts exceeding 10 hours, then it has complied with state law. Id. Brinker also argued that individual issues predominated so that class action treatment would be inappropriate, id. Specifically, Brinker argued that it was required only to permit its employees to take meal and rest breaks, but it was under no legal obligation to ensure that its employees take such breaks. Id., at 6. Plaintiffs moved the trial court to certify the litigation as a class action, id., at 5. The trial court agreed with plaintiffs, and granted plaintiffs’ motion to certify the lawsuit as a class action. Id., at 7. The Court of Appeal granted Brinker’s petition for writ relief and reversed. The Court of Appeal concluded that common issues did not predominate as a matter of law, and therefore the trial court erred in certifying the claims for class action treatment. Id., at 15. The California Supreme Court granted review and held (1) the trial court properly certified the rest break claim for class action treatment, (2) improperly certified the “off-the-clock” claim, and (3) needed to reconsider the meal period claim. Id., at 1-2. Importantly, with respect to the meal break claim, the Supreme Court held that “an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires, but the employer need not ensure that no work is done.” Id., at 2.
The Supreme Court decision in Brinker has been awaited by both sides of the class action bar. Unfortunately, the decision creates as many questions as it solves. For example, with respect to the general rules governing class certification, the Supreme Court recognized that both state and federal decisions hold that consideration of the merits may overlap class certification issues. See Brinker, at 10-12. The Court also held that “[t]o the extent the propriety of certification depends upon disputed threshold legal or factual questions, a court may, and indeed must, resolve them.” Id., at 13. However, in the next breath, the Supreme Court stated that “a court generally should eschew resolution of such issues unless necessary,” id. And relying on its prior decisions, the Court strongly discouraged trial courts from considering the merits of a claim in determining class certification. See id., at 11. But the Court summarized its holding as follows: “if the presence of an element necessary to certification, such as predominance, cannot be determined without resolving a potential legal issue, the trial court must resolve that issue at the certification stage.” Id., at 14. So precisely when trial court consideration of the merits is necessary or prohibited is less clear post-Brinker.