California Construction Worker Can’t Proceed with Class Action

By Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. November 1, 2018
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​A former construction worker at a solar farm in California could not go forward with a class action challenging his employer's alleged rest-break practice. The plaintiff alleged that the employer "tacked" the required 10-minute afternoon rest break onto the end of the 30-minute lunch break, resulting in a 40-minute midday break, rather than a lunch and a separate midafternoon break.

The plaintiff also alleged that the employer's practice violated California regulations governing rest periods and meal breaks, and he brought class-wide claims on behalf of employees who worked shifts longer than six hours. However, because particular working groups received regular afternoon breaks, the case would raise many individual—as opposed to class—issues. A class action was therefore inappropriate and unworkable, a California appeals court ruled.

The plaintiff claimed that the break policy violated Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Order 16, which states that employers must "authorize and permit all employees to take rest periods, which, insofar as practicable, shall be in the middle of each work period."

The defendants denied that there was a policy at the construction site to deprive workers of an afternoon break. They submitted declarations from numerous employees testifying that they always received afternoon breaks separate from the lunch break. The declarations included testimony by a union business manager that part of his job was to ensure that employees took their afternoon breaks.

The trial court denied the plaintiff's motion to proceed as a class action, and the plaintiff appealed.

Class Actions in California

A class action is permitted under California law when the question is one of a common interest to many people, or when there are many parties and it is impractical to bring them all before the court.

Further, the California Supreme Court has ruled that a party seeking class certification must show that there is a substantial benefit to allowing the lawsuit to proceed as a class action rather than requiring plaintiffs to bring individual lawsuits.

The plaintiff argued that the employer's liability for the tacked rest-break policy was a common issue that justified certification of the class. The trial court rejected this argument, finding that individual issues would predominate because employees in particular working groups were permitted to take work breaks during the afternoon.

The appellate court agreed and affirmed the trial court's decision that the case could not proceed as a class action.

The court stressed that, even assuming that one tacked afternoon rest break was unlawful, the relevant question was whether there was a uniform policy for workers to receive only such a break. The evidence showed that this was not the case, and workers who received a midafternoon break either instead of, or in addition to, the tacked rest break did not suffer a violation of California law, the court said.

Payton v. CSI Electrical Contractors Inc., No. B284065 (Sept. 28, 2018).

Professional Pointer: A lawsuit challenging an employer's policy regarding meal breaks and rest periods may be brought as a class action only when evidence shows that the policy is uniformly applied. In the absence of a uniform policy, an employee must proceed individually with a claim that he or she did not receive required breaks.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md.  

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