The Washington Supreme Court held that an employer is not strictly liable under Washington law for an employee who voluntarily waives his or her meal break. The court also held that, once an employee has asserted a prima face case for a meal break violation, the burden shifts to the employer to rebut the claim that it did not allow the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break.
Plaintiff Michael Brady filed a class action complaint seeking unpaid wages for meal breaks that his employer, Autozone, Inc. Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc., No. 2:13-CV-01862-RAJ, 2016 WL 7733094, at *1 (W.D. Wash. Sept. 6, 2016). Autozone removed the case to federal district court, and Brady moved to certify a class. The District Court found that employers have met their obligations under the law if they ensure that employees have the opportunity for a meaningful break. As a result, the district court denied Brady’s motion for class certification. Brady then sought review by the 9th circuit court of appeals, which was denied. He subsequently filed a motion in the District Court, seeking certification of two questions:
- Is the employer strictly liable under Washington Administrative Code (WAC) 296-126-092?
- If the employer is not strictly liable, does the employee carry the burden to prove that the employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by WAC?
WAC 296-126-092 provides that employees who work five consecutive hours are entitled to a 30 minute meal break, which can be taken from the second through fifth hour of their shift, but which can also be waived. The first question in Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc. asked whether an employer is strictly liable when an employee has failed to take a meal break after waiving the opportunity for the break.
The Washington Supreme Court answered “no” to strict liability, holding that an employer is not automatically liable if a meal break is missed because the employee can waive the meal break.
In analyzing the second question, the Court found that an employee asserting a meal break under WAC 296-126-092 can meet his or her prima facie case by providing that he or she did not receive a timely meal break. The burden then shifts to the employer to rebut the claim by showing that in fact, no violation occurred, or that a valid waiver from the employee exists.
This is good news for employers. Employers are not strictly liable under Washington law for employees who voluntarily waive their meal break during a work shift. Employers should, however, obtain an employee’s meal break waiver in writing, to the extent possible. Should an employee end up suing for a meal break violation, such documentation can help rebut a claim that the employee was not offered the opportunity to take the break.