Apple headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino
Apple headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino (Joe Ravi)

SAN FRANCISCO — Employees who claim Apple denied them timely breaks can proceed as a class in a wage-and-hour suit, a San Diego County judge ruled this week.

Superior Court Judge Ronald Prager certified an estimated class of 21,000 current and former Apple employees Monday. The class includes employees who say they did not receive breaks consistent with California law from 2007 to 2012, and employees who claim they received their final paychecks late after they ceased working for Apple.

“A class action is the only feasible method to fairly and efficiently adjudicate these claims,” Prager wrote. “The fact that this action concerns the enforcement of important matters of public policy also favors certification so that the putative class members can afford to have their important labor rights vindicated without fear of retaliation.”

The order is a major step forward for San Diego plaintiffs attorneys Jeffrey Hogue and Tyler Belong of Hogue & Belong, who filed the suit in late 2011. Apple has tapped Littler Mendelson partner Julie Dunne and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe partners Lynne Hermle and Jessica Perry.

Hogue and Belong argued for class certification with evidence drawn from interviews with putative class members, as well as Apple records.

“The statistics concerning late or missed lunch breaks evidenced by Apple’s own time records are startling,” the attorneys wrote. “According to the time records, 595 out [of] 600 retail non-exempt employees, or 99.17 percent, had at least one first meal period violation.”

Apple countered its managers did not prevent employees from taking timely breaks, and they posted California’s break policy in workplaces as required by law.

“While California employers must provide meal breaks within the first five hours, employers need not force employees [to] take meals in that time frame,” Apple’s attorneys wrote, adding that employees often asked for their meals to be postponed for a variety of reasons, including because they were “having too much fun.”

Citing the California Supreme Court’s 2012 ruling in Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court, Prager agreed with plaintiffs attorneys that Apple’s uniform policy made the case ripe for class treatment. In fact, the rest period policy used by Apple during the time period was identical to that in Brinker, he noted. Prager also considered that Apple changed its meal and rest period policy eight months after the suit was filed and had no record during the class period of compensating any employee for missed meal or rest breaks.

“At the same time that defendant’s rest break policy failed to authorize and permit compliant rest breaks, its scheduling policy/practice also affirmatively impeded or discouraged compliant rest breaks,” Prager wrote. “Both theories are suitable for class treatment under Brinker.”

Apple is facing another wage-and-hour class action in the Northern District of California, in which it has also enlisted Littler for its defense. In that case, Apple retail employees argue they should be compensated for time spent waiting in security screening lines before leaving work. U.S. District Judge William Alsup has yet to certify the class, and has stayed the suit’s federal claims pending the Supreme Court’s ruling on a similar case.

Apple declined to comment on the meal break litigation Wednesday. Apple’s attorneys did not return emails or voice mails. Plaintiffs’ attorney Hogue said his team is pleased with the court’s ruling, and “believes it was the right one given the evidence and applicable law.”

Contact the reporter at mkendall@alm.com.