United States District Court Ruling Could Help Limit Employer Liability for Missed Meal Periods
Topics: Wage & Hour Issues
Employers have reason to hope that their liability for missed meal periods may be less than somefirst thought when the California Supreme Court issued its much-publicized ruling in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc.Murphy held that that fines arising from meal and rest break violations in California constitute “wages,” for which there is a three-year statute of limitations, rather than a “penalty,” which would have carried only a one-year statute of limitations.In White v. Starbucks, _ F. Supp. 2d _, 2007 WL 1952975, at *7-*8 (N. D. Cal. July 2, 2007), a federal district court held that California Labor Code § 226 and the IWC Wage Orders’ requirements that employers “provide” employees with meal periods means simply that the employer must offer the employees meal periods; the employer is not required to ensure that the meal periods are taken.
In White, the court further held that in order to prevail on a meal period claim, a plaintiff would have to show that he or she was “forced to forego” a meal period by the employer.The court reasoned as follows:“The interpretation that [plaintiff] advances—making employers ensurers of meal breaks—would be impossible to implement [in industries] in which large employers may have hundreds or thousands of employees working multiple shifts.Accordingly, the court concludes that the California Supreme Court, if faced with this issue, would require only that an employer offer meal breaks, without forcing employers actively to ensure that workers are taking these breaks. In short, the employee must show that he was forced to forego his meal breaks as opposed to merely showing that he did not take them regardless of the reason. . . .[Otherwise,] employees would be able to manipulate the process and manufacture claims by skipping breaks or taking breaks of fewer than 30 minutes, entitling them to compensation of one hour of pay for each violation.This cannot have been the intent of the California Legislature, and the court declines to find a rule that would create such perverse and incoherent incentives.”
The plaintiff admitted that any meal periods he missed were as a result of his own decision to skip the meal periods.There was no evidence that Starbucks had “forced [plaintiff] to forego” meal periods.On these facts, the court held that Plaintiff could not succeed on his meal period claim and summary judgment was appropriate.
The district court’s ruling in White is significant because it does not place the burden on the employer to force employees to take meal breaks.Rather, it simply requires that the employer provide the opportunity to take the meal break.One cautionary note: in reading White, employers must be mindful the ruling was issued by a federal district court.Although the opinion of a federal district court can be used to persuade other state and federalcourts to decide the meal break issue similarly, neither the Ninth Circuit nor California state courts arebound by the district court’s ruling.