Court Upholds Denial of Class Certification of Meal Break Claim Post-Brinker
Last week, a California court held that class certification was properly denied in a case alleging the restaurant chain Chipotle failed to provide meal breaks to its employees. In Hernandez v. Chipotle Mexican Grill, the plaintiff filed a putatitve class action alleging Chipotle failed to provide hourly workers with meal breaks. The case was brought before the California Supreme Court decided Brinker and, as such, much of the dispute on class certification focused on whether Chipotle was required to ensure that meal breaks were taken or was simply required to provide employees the opportunity to take such breaks. The plaintiff argued that Chipotle was required to ensure the breaks were taken and held that class certification was, therefore, appropriate based on evidence from time records revealing missed breaks or breaks less than 30 minutes in duration. Chipotle argued that its obligation was only to provide the opportunity to take breaks and, thus, time records showing missed or short breaks were of little utility in analyzing liability. Chipotle correctly argued that a determination of liability would require an individualized inquiry into why any particular employee missed a break or took a short break on any given day, making resolution on a class wide basis inappropriate. This was particularly true on the facts of this case, given that Chipotle (unlke many employers) paid employees for meal break time, even though employees were relieved of duties and free to leave the premises if they wished. Given that the time was paid, employees had little incentive to accurately record meal break times and there was evidence in the record that employees inaccurately recorded their breaks without correction. The trial court agreed with Chipotle and denied class certification.
After the California Supreme Court granted review in Brinker, it similarly granted review on a grant and hold basis in Hernandez v. Chipotle (and many other cases whose outcome was premised on the extent of an employer's obligation to "provide" meal periods). Of course, the Brinker Court ultimately held that employers need only provide employees the opportunity to take meal breaks, not ensure that they are actually taken. After the Brinker decision was issued, the Supreme Court remanded all of the cases that had been granted review on a grant and hold basis, for reconsideration in light of Brinker. On remand, the court in Hernandez v. Chipotle reached the same conclusion as it had previously--that class certification was properly denied on the meal break claim because a determination of liability would require a predmoninantly individualized inquiry as to why any meal break was missed on a given day.