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Calif. High Court Takes Meal Break CaseWading into one of the most hotly contested labor issues of recent years, the California Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to decide what employers must do to comply with state-mandated meal breaks. Review had been sought not only by a potential class of an estimated 60,000 restaurant workers, but also by a slew of amici curiae, including Attorney General Jerry Brown, four state legislators and the California Labor Federation, which represents more than 2 million workers in a variety of professions.
The Recorder2008-10-23 12:00:00 AM
Wading into one of the most hotly contested labor issues of recent years, the California Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to decide what employers must do to comply with state-mandated meal breaks.
Review in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum), S166350, had been sought not only by a potential class of an estimated 60,000 restaurant workers, but also by a slew of amici curiae, including Attorney General Jerry Brown, four state legislators and the California Labor Federation, which represents more than 2 million workers in a variety of professions.
The high court's action -- by a 6-0 vote with Justice Kathryn Mickle Werdegar absent -- stays a July 22 decision by San Diego's 4th District Court of Appeal, which held that employers are required to provide meal and rest breaks for their workers, but not to ensure they're taken. The lower court also denied class certification, saying that alleged violations of meal and rest breaks involved individual claims that had to be resolved separately.
Kimberly Kralowec, a partner with San Francisco's Schubert Jonckheer Kolbe & Kralowec and one of the attorneys representing workers who sued Brinker Restaurant Corp., was elated by the Supreme Court's decision.
"The primary meal period compliance question is an issue that has been raised and actively litigated in dozens of cases in state court and federal court," she said Wednesday. "The Brinker ruling created a split of authority. Now the Supreme Court will sort it out."
She said it also gives the court a chance to reconsider the class certification issue.
Rex Heinke, a partner in Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld's Los Angeles office who represents Brinker, referred calls to his client. Susan Sandidge, vice president and assistant general counsel of Dallas-based Brinker International Inc., said in a prepared statement that review by the California Supreme Court provides "a good opportunity" for clarity and direction.
"We believe the court of appeal was correct in [its] ruling," she said, "and look forward to advocating to the Supreme Court that [its] decision be upheld."
Brinker -- which in California operates nearly 140 restaurants, including branches of Chili's Grill & Bar, Romano's Macaroni Grill and Maggiano's Little Italy -- was sued in 2002 by the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement. The agency alleged that Brinker had failed to meet statutory standards for meal and rest periods, often working employees through their breaks.
A San Diego judge sided with the workers in 2006, even finding a class action viable. The appellate court reversed, setting up a split with Sacramento's 3rd District, which ruled in 2005's Cicairos v. Summit Logistics Inc., 133 Cal.App.4th 949, that employers have a duty to ensure employees get meal breaks.
In petitioning for review, Kralowec and her co-counsel, including L. Tracee Lorens of San Diego's Lorens & Associates, argued that the health of "millions of workers" is at stake.
"Without guidance from this court," they wrote, "the split in authority between Brinker and Cicairos will only fester."
In Brinker's response, Heinke and his co-counsel at Morrison & Foerster and the L.A. office of Hunton & Williams argued that their opponents would like to force employers to provide breaks that workers might not want.
"Employers should be required to comply with the law by making meal periods and rest breaks available," they wrote, "while accommodating an employee's personal choice to [forgo] an unpaid 30-minute lunch period to leave early for a dentist's appointment or to meet with a child's teacher."
Many of the amici arguing for review represented employees who have filed similar complaints.
The AG's brief, authored by Solicitor General Manuel Medeiros, likely carried a lot of weight because it was filed on behalf of the state. Medeiros asked the court to resolve the appellate split and said there was "an issue of great importance at stake ... namely the health and safety of California employees, which this court has found is directly related to the rest and meal break periods that employees are statutorily entitled to receive."
No amici filed on behalf of Brinker.
Meal break issues aren't new to the California Supreme Court. Just last year, in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions Inc., 40 Cal.4th 1094, the court extended the period of time that workers had to seek compensation for missed meal and rest breaks.