Brinker redux in Brinkley v. Public Storage, Inc.

Greatsealcal100On October 22, 2008, the Supreme Court has GRANTED the Petition for Review in Brinker Restaurant Corporation, et al. v. Superior Court (Hohnbaum).  See this blog's coverage here and here for more information. The calm didn't last long though, as another Division of the Court of Appeal has re-asserted portions of the Brinker holding that were rendered uncitable with the grant of review.

In Brinkley v. Public Storage, Inc(October 28, 2008), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Three), relying on the same federal court decision used by the Court of Appeal in Brinker, determined that employers need only "provide" meal breaks, not "ensure" that they are taken:

In fact, the obligation to affirmatively ensure that workers are relieved of all duty is consistent with the rule requiring employers to provide a meal break. (White v. Starbucks Corp. (N.D.Cal. 2007) 497 F.Supp.2d 1080, 1089 (White) [interpreting Cicairos].) In White, the court rejected the plaintiff’s argument under sections 226.7 and 512 that employers “must affirmatively enforce the meal break requirements.” (White, at p. 1088.) The court noted that it would be impossible for employers with large work forces to enforce such meal breaks. (Ibid.) It further stated that “employees would be able to manipulate the process and manufacture claims by skipping breaks or taking breaks of fewer than 30 minutes, entitling them to compensation of one hour of pay for each violation. This cannot have been the intent of the California Legislature, and the court declines to find a rule that would create such perverse and incoherent incentives.” (Id. at p. 1089.) We agree with this analysis.

(Slip op., at pp. 10-11.)  The California Courts website has been difficult to access today, so have patience if you are looking for the full opinion there.

I authored a column, published in the Daily Journal, where I discussed the weakness in the Brinker/White economic analysis of employer and employee incentives.  (A Bad Meal Deal: 'Brinker' Gets the Incentive Question Wrong, Daily Journal (Los Angeles), August 6, 2008.)  The same criticisms apply with equal force.  Here is a brief excerpt of that column:

The fundamental flaw in Brinker's analysis is that it is premised on false assumptions. The idea that it is "impossible" to control breaks is inconsistent with the observable fact that employers of all sizes control employees in a variety of ways every day. In fact, since S. G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, 48 Cal.3d 341 (1989), "[t]he principal test of an employment relationship is whether the person to whom service is rendered has the right to control the manner and means of accomplishing the result desired." As one example of such control, employers habitually set hours of work for their employees. Under the analysis supplied by White and adopted by Brinker, a large employer should find it impossible to control when its employees arrive and depart each day. And yet somehow, they do. The primary manner in which they do so is through a combination of positive and negative incentives. An employee who is punctual and performs well will receive favorable reviews, earn raises or qualify for promotions. A habitually tardy employee may ultimately face termination. For most employees, these combined incentives control their behavior. An employer's failure to modify a recalcitrant employee's behavior is the fault of the employer, not evidence of the impossibility of employee control.

As a result of accepting the White conclusions, Brinker misses many obvious incentives that could overwhelm the financial incentive on an employee to work during a meal break. The potential loss of employment is a larger financial incentive on an employee than an additional hour of pay. Rational employees, working for an employer that enforces its meal break policy, will respond to the larger financial incentive of job retention. Similarly, an employer faces an economic incentive to affirmatively relieve all employees of work duties for 30 minutes during shifts of sufficient length. The employer must then determine whether enforcement of policy is the preferred course to paying meal break premiums. In addition, the employer faces the additional, strong incentive to avoid meal break litigation by employees seeking to recover meal break premium payments. These incentives on employers and employees seem sufficient to overwhelm the singular incentive mentioned in Brown and accepted by Brinker.

(A Bad Meal Deal: 'Brinker' Gets the Incentive Question Wrong, Daily Journal (Los Angeles), August 6, 2008.)  If Courts are considering a discussion of economics as a supporting basis for an opinion's analysis, such Courts would be well advised to either offer a complete discussion of the economic forces at work or avoid the topic entirely.  An incomplete economic analysis in Brinker, and now Brinkley, results in conclusions that don't stand up to scrutiny.

It's very disappointing to see the law premised upon a suspect rationale that individuals without an economics background might not notice.  It creates the appearance, whether accurate or not, of outcome-driven decisions.  The integrity of our legal systems requires our citizens to believe that the law is dispassionately interpreted without a pre-determined outcome in mind.  I don't perceive that to be the case here.