Apr. 8 2008

Federal Court Issues Favorable Decision for Employers on Meal Breaks

Topics: Court Decisions, Wage & Hour Issues

A federal district court recently addressed the ongoing debate in California regarding what it means to "provide" employees with meal breaks under California law. California's Department of Labor Standards Enforcement takes the position that employers have an affirmative obligation to ensure that employees take their meal breaks and that employers are liable for one hour of premium pay for each meal period that is not taken (or that is not timely taken), regardless of the reason. Plaintiffs' attorneys often cite to Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, 133 Cal.App.4th 949 (2005), as endorsing the DLSE's interpretation of the law. In contrast, as discussed in a prior post on July 22, 2007, at least one federal district court rejected the DLSE's interpretation and instead determined that an employer complies with its obligation to "provide" meal periods if the employer makes the meal periods available to employees and provides the opportunity for employees to take them. (White v. Starbucks, 497 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1088-89 (N.D. Cal. 2007)). In White, the court held that in order to prevail on a meal period claim, the plaintiff would have to show that he was "forced to forego" meal periods, not simply that he did not take them.

Another federal court has now weighed in on the subject and agreed with White v. Starbucks. In Brown v. Federal Express Corporation, et al., 2008 WL 906517 (C.D. Cal. Feb. 26, 2008), District Judge Dale Fischer denied class certification to a subclass of driver employees that were allegedly denied meal and rest breaks.The plaintiffs and putative class members were current and former non-exempt hourly driversemployed by Defendant Federal Express Corporation. The plaintiffs claimed that the putative class of drivers, who performed a variety of delivery and hauling duties with varied types of workand distances driven, were allegedly put under excessive pressure to make deliveries as quickly as possible, such that they were unable to take meal and rest breaks within the time required by law.They also alleged that FedEx failed to pay an additional hour of pay to putative class members who missed their meal and/or rest breaks. In denying class certification, the court held that FedEx's requirement to "provide" meal periods only meant making meal periods available to employees. "It does not suggest any obligation to ensure that employees take advantage of what is made available to them." Brown, 2008 WL 906517 *5. Citing White v. Starbucks, Judge Fischer held that "[r]equiring enforcement of meal breaks would place an undue burden on employers whose employees are so numerous or who, as with Plaintiffs, do not appear to remain in contact with the employer during the day. 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. In the absence of California Supreme Court precedent, this Court must apply the rule it believes the court would adopt under the circumstances. (internal citations omitted). The court does not believe that the California Supreme Court would adopt the enforcement rule advocated by Plaintiffs." Brown, 2008 WL 906517 at *6.

The court in Brown also relied on language in the California Supreme Court's decisionin Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Prods., Inc., 40 Cal.4th 1094, 1104 (2007), as supporting its interpretation of "providing" meal breaks. "The California Supreme Court has described the interest protected by meal break provisions, stating that '[a]n employee forced to forgo his or her meal period . . . has been deprived of the right to be free of the employer's control during the meal period.' (citing Murphy, 40 Cal.4th at 1104). It is an employer's obligation to ensure that its employees are free from its control for thirty minutes, not to ensure that the employees do any particular thing during that time. Indeed, in characterizing violations of California meal period obligations in Murphy, the California Supreme Court repeatedly described it as an obligation not to force employees to work through breaks." (internal citations omitted).

Notably, the Brown court rejected Plaintiffs' argument that Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, Inc. compelled a contrary conclusion. In addition to rejecting the notion that Cicairos mandates that "employers have 'an affirmative obligation to ensure that workers are actually relieved of all duty,'" the court in Brown also distinguished the decision, pointing out that in Cicairos, "the court found liability where an employer simply assumed breaks were taken, despite its institution of policies that prevented employees from taking meal breaks." 2008 WL 906517 at *6.Though not discussed in such detail by the court in Brown, it is notable that a distinguishing fact (the policythat was considered to prevent employees from taking breaks)inCicairos was the absence of a code for meal or rest breaks whereas the driver employeeswere requiredto enter codes for all sorts of other activities conductedduring the work day.

After articulating the legal standard for what it means to "provide" meal periods, the Brown court found that there was no evidence of any particular policy at FedEx susceptible to common proof to show that drivers were affirmatively prevented from taking required breaks. As a result, the court found that individual issues predominated on the meal period claims, and denied class certification.

Whilefederal district court decisions are not binding onstate courts or on the Ninth Circuit, the growing acceptance of the reasoning in White v. Starbucks is a good sign for employers. The extended discussion in Brown regarding theSupreme Court's comments in Murphyis also a good sign, since the Murphy case, while not squarely addressing the standard for "providing" breaks, certainly provides a sound basis for the reasoning in Brown. We will closely monitor further developments on this important issue and will post any news.

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For over 20 years, CDF has distinguished itself as one of the top employment, labor and immigration firms in California, representing employers in single-plaintiff and class action lawsuits and advising employers on related legal compliance and risk avoidance. We cover the state, with five locations from Sacramento to San Diego.

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About the Editor

Robin Largent has a regular presence in California state and federal courts and has been lead defense counsel and appellate counsel for large and small California employers in litigation (and arbitration) ranging from individual discrimination and harassment claims to complex wage and hour representative and class actions. She also leads the firm’s appellate practice, having substantial experience and success handling appeals, writ petitions, and amicus briefs in both state and federal court on issues such as class certification (particularly in the wage and hour arena), manageability and due process concerns associated with class action trials, exempt/non-exempt misclassification issues, meal and rest break compliance, trade secret/unfair competition matters, and the scope of federal court jurisdiction under the Class Action Fairness Act.
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