California Supreme Court Adds Fuels to Meal and Rest Break Litigation by Adopting Cumulative Penalties

By Andrew J. Sommer and Samuel S. Rose

For the last couple of years, we have been keeping an eye on Naranjo v. Spectrum Security Services, Inc. as it’s made its way through the California state courts. Now, the California Supreme Court has issued its unanimous decision with wide-ranging ramifications over meal and rest break violations. As a result of the Court concluding that premium pay for meal and rest break violations is “wages,” it has paved the way to award as well waiting time and wage statement penalties based on meal/rest period violations. The practical impact of this decision is to encourage class action and PAGA (Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act) litigation within the state, providing plaintiffs’ attorneys further remedies in meal and rest period litigation and inflating the settlement value of these cases.

Meal and Rest Break Premiums Are Considered “Wages”

The first issue that the Court considered in Naranjo was whether premium pay available pursuant to Labor Code section 226.7 for meal/rest period violations is considered “wages.” Section 226.7 provides that an “employer shall pay the employee one additional hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of compensation for each work day that [a] meal or rest period is not provided.”

The Supreme Court found that “[a]lthough the extra pay is designed to compensate for the unlawful deprivation of a guaranteed break, it also compensates for the work the employee performed during the break period.” Therefore, the Court concluded, “[t]he extra pay…constitutes wages subject to the same timing and reporting rules as other forms of compensation for work.”

In reversing the Court of Appeal, which held that meal/rest period premium pay did not constitute wages, the Supreme Court noted that the reasoning rested on a “false dichotomy,” namely that the payment must be either a legal remedy or wages. The Court held, for purposes of Section 226.7, premium pay is both a legal remedy and wages, which leads us to the next holding in the case.

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