The Washington Supreme Court case Brady v. Autozone recently addressed the standards that apply when a non-exempt employee alleges that an employer did not provide meal breaks. In short: it is now clear that if a lawsuit is brought, employers are likely to bear the burden to show that break laws have not been violated.
In Washington, non-exempt employees must be allowed to take a 10-minute paid rest break for every four hours in a shift and an unpaid 30-minute meal break for every five hours in a shift. Here’s a hypothetical. Imagine an employer has a policy stating that all non-exempt employees must take rest and meal breaks. The employer has never received complaints that employees are unable to take rest and meal breaks. The managers routinely observe employees taking rest and meal breaks (and in fact, the employer is aware that most employees take more than the minimum rest and meal breaks). But then a disgruntled former employee files a class action lawsuit, alleging that the employer intentionally deprived employees of rest and meal breaks. The lawsuit claims that the employer is liable for three years of back wages to several hundred employees. What does the plaintiff need to prove, and how can the employer defend itself? Brady v. Autozone now sets the standard.
Are Washington Employers Strictly Liable For Rest and Meal Break Violations and What is Their Burden?
In 2013 Michael Brady (“Brady”) filed a class action in King County Superior Court alleging that AutoZone violated Washington’s meal break laws. AutoZone removed the case to federal court. Brady argued that the time records established meal break violations because they showed instances of employees not punching out for meal breaks during shifts that lasted five hours or longer. Brady reasoned that AutoZone should be liable for every instance in which an employee did not punch out for a meal break.
In a well-reasoned decision, the federal district court denied class certification. The federal court held that employers are required to provide a meaningful opportunity for breaks, but employers are not responsible to “police” employees and force employees to take breaks. The federal court held that individualized fact finding was necessary for each class member, and therefore, class certification was inappropriate. The Ninth Circuit did not permit Brady to appeal. The federal district court then certified two questions to the Washington State Supreme Court:
- Is an employer strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092?
- If an employer is not strictly liable under WAC 296-126-092, does the employee carry the burden to prove that his employer did not permit the employee an opportunity to take a meaningful break as required by WAC 296-126-092?
Answering the first question, the Washington Supreme Court held that an employer is not strictly liable for missed meal breaks. Significantly, the Court confirmed that employees may waive meal breaks even if there is no written waiver.
The Court answered the second question, holding that an employee can make “a prima facie case by providing evidence that he or she did not receive a timely meal break [and then the] employer may then rebut this by showing that in fact no violation occurred or a valid waiver exists.” The Court’s answer was terse and left a number of unresolved issues. This case has significant implications for all Washington employers. Employers should consult Washington counsel to develop strategies to protect themselves against rest and meal break lawsuits.
 Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc., 397 P.3d 120 (Wash. 2017).
 Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc., No. C13–1862 RAJ, 2015 WL 5732550, at *3 (W.D. Wash. Sept. 30, 2015).
 Brady v. Autozone Stores, Inc., No. 2:13-CV-01862-RAJ, 2016 WL 7733094, at *3 (W.D. Wash. Sept. 6, 2016).
 Brady, 397 P.3d at 124.