By Rhea G. Mariano and Betsy Johnson

The issue of whether California law requires employers to ensure that employees take meal periods or to merely make meal periods available is hotly contested and regularly litigated.  The issue is currently before the California Supreme Court in Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court (review granted Oct. 22, 2008 (Brinker) and Brinkley v. Public Storage (review granted Jan. 14, 2009 (Brinkley)). 

While employers await the California Supreme Court’s decision in Brinker and Brinkley, on May 10, 2011, the California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District Court, issued another positive decision for employers and held that employers are not required to force employees to take meal periods:  “It is an employer’s obligation to ensure that its employees are free from its control for thirty minutes, not to ensure that employees do anything particular during that time.”  Lamps Plus Overtime Cases (CA2/8 B220954 5/10/11).

In the Lamps Plus Overtime Cases, the Appellate Court upheld the lower court’s decision to deny class certification with respect to claims of failure to provide meal and rest breaks, among other claims, against Lamps Plus, Inc., et al. (“Lamps Plus”).  The Court concluded: 

Consistent with the purpose of requiring employers to provide employees with meal breaks, the Labor Code and the IWC use mandatory language precluding employers from pressuring employees to skip breaks, declining to schedule breaks, or establishing a work environment discouraging or preventing employees from taking such breaks. (See, e.g., Lab. Code, § 226.7, subd. (a) [“No employer shall require any employee to work during any meal or rest period . . .”].)  This mandatory language does not mean employers must ensure employees take meal breaks.  Rather, employers must only provide breaks, meaning, make them available. …  The language regarding rest breaks is more permissive.  An employer need only “authorize and permit” rest breaks. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11070, subd. 12, italics added.)

The Court also provided guidance in opposing class certification.  The Court found no evidence of a class-wide policy or practice of preventing employees from taking meal periods.  On the contrary, Lamps Plus employees were required to sign a form stating that they acknowledge that the company policy upholds the rest and meal break laws, that they will comply with the company policy, and that they will report any missed break to human resources.  Lamps Plus supervisors were authorized to take disciplinary action to enforce the policy.  The Court held that under these facts, it “does not make sense” to require an employer to pay a penalty to every employee who chooses to skip a rest and/or meal break.

The ruling in the Lamps Plus Overtime Cases is positive for employers.  However, while the California Supreme Court reviews Brinker and Brinkley, the decisions from the Court of Appeal provide helpful guidance to employers but are of limited precedential value.