In Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Super. Ct. (April 12, 2012) 2012 WL 1216356, the California Supreme Court found it is the employer's obligation to relieve its employee of all duty, with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose the employee desires. The employer need not, howeer, ensure that no work is done.
The lawsuit was filed by five non-exempt restaurant employees of Chili’s who claimed the restaurant illegally denied them meal and rest breaks. The employees challenged the restaurant’s practice of having employees take early lunches shortly after starting work and then working employees another five to ten additional hours without receiving another meal period. The employees also claimed they should have received a rest break before the first meal period.
The Court found an employer’s obligation to "provide" a meal period is satisfied if the employee (1) is relieved of all duty for an uninterrupted thirty minute period, and (2) is free to leave the work premises. The employer's obligation is to "relieve the employee of all duty," with the employee thereafter at liberty to use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires. The employer need not "ensure" that no work is done during a meal period. If an employer relieves the employee of all duty, the employer is not liable for a meal period premium if the employee chooses to work (unless the employee is pressured by the employer to work). However, if the employer knew or reasonably should have known that the employee was working during the meal period, the employer will be liable for payment of the employee's regular (or overtime) wage for such time worked. The Court further found Rest breaks and meal periods do not need to be taken in a certain order.