Co-authored by Alfred Sanderson and Brandon McKelvey

On February 16, 2011, a California Court of Appeal upheld a trial court’s denial of class certification on meal and rest period claims brought against a health services company with hospitals across the state.  In Tien v. Tenet Healthcare Corp., the court ruled that employers need only make meal and rest periods available to employees, and also ruled that individualized issues as to whether employees took meal periods and why meal periods were not taken precluded class certification.  In reaching this decision, the court relied on two other California appellate court decisions, Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court and Brinkley v. Public Storage, Inc., both of which are pending before the California Supreme Court.  The court also distinguished Cicairos v. Summit Logistics, a case often relied upon by employees asserting meal and rest period claims.

In Tien, the court found that, while an employer may not frustrate the use of meal breaks, an employer does not have an obligation to ensure that an employee actually takes breaks.  In affirming the denial of class certification on plaintiffs’ meal period claims, the court agreed with “the common-sense notion” applied by the trial court that individual questions about the reasons an employee might not take a meal or rest period predominate if the employer need only offer meal or rest periods, but need not ensure that employees take those breaks.  The court also ruled that class certification of pay stub claims required class members to show actual injury from noncompliant pay stubs, and affirmed denial of class certification on this claim because there were individualized inquires as to whether each class member actually suffered injury under plaintiffs’ theory that class members were not able to understand their pay stubs. 

The Tien decision is helpful to employers, particularly those in the healthcare industry, that are facing class actions based on meal and rest period and pay stub claims.  However, with these same issues currently pending before the California Supreme Court in Brinker and Brinkley, we will have to wait for that court to decide those cases before employers can be certain whether California law requires them to do more than simply make meal and rest breaks available.