On June 29, 2017, the Washington Supreme Court confirmed that employers have an obligation to provide meal breaks and ensure that those breaks comply with Washington statutory requirements. The decision contrasts notably with the position of the California Supreme Court in Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004 (2012), which addressed meal breaks under California law.
In Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc., et al, No. C-13-1862 RAJ, 2015 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 134259, at *14-15 (W.D. Wash. Sept. 30, 2015), a putative class action seeking unpaid wages for alleged withheld meal breaks, the district court ruled that “employers are not subject to strict liability for failing to police meal breaks. Rather, an employer’s obligation is to relieve its employees of all duty, relinquish control over their activities and permit them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted break. The employer’s ‘affirmative obligation’ is to ensure that this opportunity is meaningful and free from coercion or any other impediment.” The district court, therefore, denied class certification, finding that individual issues predominated. Id., at *22.
The plaintiffs then moved to certify two questions of Washington state law to the Washington Supreme Court. The district court complied and certified the following two questions regarding meal breaks:
- Is an employer strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092?
- If an employer is not strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092, does the employee carry the burden to prove that his employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by WAC 296-126-092?
The Washington Supreme Court, en banc, answered the first question in the negative in light of the plain language of the statute, which allows employees to waive the meal period requirements.
As to the second question, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed the conclusion in Pellino v. Brink’s Inc., 164 Wn. App. 668, 267 P.3d 383 (2011), that “WAC 296-126-092 imposes a mandatory obligation on the employer to provide meal breaks and to ensure those breaks comply with the requirements of WAC 296-126-092.” The Court concluded that an employee can establish a “prima facie case by providing evidence that he or she did not receive a timely meal break. The burden then shifts to the employer to rebut this showing that in fact no violation occurred or that a valid waiver exists.” In reaching its conclusion, the Washington Supreme Court expressly declined to follow the approach articulated by the California Supreme Court in Brinker, 53 Cal. 4th 1004, in which it held that a California employer’s obligation is only to provide a meal period to employees by offering them a reasonable opportunity to take an uninterrupted meal break and not to impede or discourage employees from taking such a break. Under California law, an employer does not need to ensure that no work is done during the break. By contrast, the Washington Supreme Court concluded that Pellino “provides the better approach” and “ultimately provides greater protection for workers, it is more in tune with other Washington case law addressing employee rights.” Accordingly, it is the Washington employer’s affirmative burden to prove that no meal period violation occurred.
The case is entitled Michael Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc. and Autozoners LLC, Case No. 93564-5. A copy of the Opinion can be found here.
– Keesal, Young & Logan Employment Group
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