Saturday, September 10, 2011

Northern District Certifies Meal Period Class on Behalf of Tesoro Refinery Plant Operators: Delagarza v. Tesoro Ref. & Mktg. Co.

On September 8, 2011, Northern District Judge Edward M. Chen granted certification of meal period claims on behalf of “12-hour shift employees at the Golden Eagle refinery in Martinez, … alleging that they were required to be on duty at the refinery for the entirety of their shifts due to the dangerous work environment under which they operate, the potential need for emergency response, and Tesoro's efforts to keep the refinery running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”  See Delagarza v. Tesoro Ref. & Mktg. Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101127 (N.D. Cal. 2011). The Court’s certification opinion and analysis is analogous to Judge Claudia Wilken’s order in Gardner v. Shell Oil Co., 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 44851 (N.D. Cal. Apr. 21, 2011), discussed previously here.

While the Court’s opinion contains discussion on several important points – including the non-impact of Wal-Mart v. Dukes, 131 S. Ct. 2541(2011), as was predicted in a previous post contained here – the most interesting point concern the Court’s discussion of a meal break theory predicated upon the issue of “control.” It bears noting that one of the biggest misconceptions with regard to meal period compliance is that an employer’s duty is exhausted by merely affording employees an opportunity to eat. This, however, narrowly construes the law, as compensable working time in not confined to time spent working. To the contrary, “California law requires that employees be compensated for all time ‘during which an employee is subject to the control of an employer’” [Rutti v. Lojack Corp., 596 F.3d 1046, 1061 (9th Cir., 2010)], and importantly, “an employee who is subject to an employer's control does not have to be working during that time to be compensated under [the] Wage Order.” See Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal. 4th 575, 582 (2000).

As explained by Judge Chen, making breaks "available" is not synonymous with giving employees 30 minutes to eat, and as such, the fact that “an employee had time to eat during his or her shift does not establish that such a meal satisfied the California requirements for off-duty meal periods”:
“Defendant's argument that it need only make meal periods available in order to satisfy the law does not answer Plaintiffs' central allegations; it merely begs the question whether those meal periods that were made available complied with applicable law regarding off-duty meal breaks. For example, Defendant emphasizes Plaintiffs' acknowledgments that they have been able to eat during their employment at the refinery. See, e.g., Gutierrez Depo., Docket No. 139, Exh. L, at 67-68; Brunell Decl., Docket No. 142, ¶ 5 (Operators "regularly have much more than 30-minutes of uninterrupted time every five hours during their shifts to eat their meals"). However, that an employee had time to eat during his or her shift does not establish that such a meal satisfied the California requirements for off-duty meal periods. See IWC Wage Order 1-2001 § 11(C) ("Unless the employee is relieved of all duty during a 30 minute meal period, the meal period shall be considered an "on duty" meal period and counted as time worked.").
Delagarza, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101127, at 39-40.

Rather, as the Court properly pointed out, “Courts have interpreted [meal period] provisions to mandate that employers ‘ensure that [their] employees are free from [their] control for thirty minutes.’” See id., at 42. Based on this distinction, the Court reasoned that the issue of whether Tesoro made meal breaks “available” within the meaning of the law existed whether or not employees were given 30 minutes to eat their lunch:
Even under the more lenient "available" standard advocated by Defendant, there is still a classwide dispute over whether Plaintiffs' meal periods were "off-duty" given the restrictions on their activities during shifts. This dispute "can be resolved for all members of the class in a single adjudication." Hanlon, 150 F.3d at 1022. That Defendant disputes Plaintiffs' interpretation of its legal duties to the class does not make the resolution of such a dispute "individualized"; quite the opposite.
See Delagarza, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101127, at 43.

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