Oral Argument in Brinker Scheduled for November
The California Supreme Court has finally scheduled oral argument in Brinker v. Hohnbaum for November 8, 2011. Employers can reasonably expect a decision in the case sometime between December 2011 and February 2012, as the Court generally has 90 days following oral argument to issue its decision. The long-awaited decision is expected to provide much needed clarity on an issue that has fueled countless lawsuits and caused operational headaches for employers as well as inconvenience for employees. Specifically, the Court will decide whether California meal period laws require employers to ensure that employees take at least a 30 minute, uninterrupted meal break at or before completing five hours of work, or whether employers are simply required to provide their employees the opportunity to take such a break, which the employee may voluntarily decide to skip with no adverse consequence to either the employer or the employee.
Most courts that have decided this issue have held that the law simply requires the employer to provide the opportunity for a meal break, but a few courts (along with the DLSE for a period of time) have held that employers must ensure such breaks are taken, regardless of whether an employee wants to take them. As a result, employers have had no clear direction on the proper interpretation of the law and most have taken the conservative approach and forced employees to take breaks, even disciplining them for failing to do so, much to the displeasure of many employees. Employer friendly groups have caused numerous bills to be introduced before the California legislature in the last two or three sessions to try to clarify this issue in a way that is operationally manageable and beneficial to employers and employees alike, but the legislature has refused to pass almost any bill that would provide the greatly needed relief—much to the appreciation of the California plaintiffs' bar which has profited wildly from the cottage industry of meal break litigation.
Stay tuned for further developments on this important case for California employers.