California Supreme Court Issues Important New Wage and Hour Decision

On July 13, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued a decision that California employment law attorneys have been anticipating for over two years. Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California, LLC) (S227228 7/13/17). The Williams decision significantly impacts the nature and extent of the information employers may be forced to give employees who sue their employers on what are commonly called “PAGA” claims. But before explaining that decision, a bit of background information is required.

In California, employees have at least four different ways to make claims against their current or former employers for unpaid wages and penalties: (1) They can make an administrative claim with the State Labor Commissioner (a “wage claim”); (2) they can file an individual lawsuit in court; (3) they can file a wage and hour class action on behalf of themselves and other current and former employees; or (4) they can file a “representative” action under California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004, commonly known as a PAGA Claim. The first two options, the wage claim and the individual lawsuit, typically seek recovery only of wages and penalties due to an individual claimant or plaintiff. The other two options seek wages or penalties, or both, for a much wider group of employees, represent a risk of far greater liability for the employer and a far greater potential attorney fee reward for the plaintiff’s attorneys. Thus, plaintiff attorneys prefer to bring class actions and PAGA claims rather than wage claims and individual lawsuits. Not surprisingly, class actions and PAGA claims tend to strike fear in employers.

Under the current state of California and federal law, wage and hour class actions may well be less scary for employers than PAGA claims. It used to be the other way around, because in a PAGA claim all that can be recovered are the myriad penalties assessable under the California Labor Code for violation of the wage and hour provisions of the Labor Code. While those penalties can be substantial they are typically (but not always) far, far less than the unpaid wages resulting from an employer’s wage and hour violations.

There are two reasons why PAGA claims have become more problematic for employers relative to class actions. First, the California Supreme Court has held that plaintiffs in PAGA claims do not have to meet certain requirements that they must meet in class actions. Arias v. Superior Court (2009) 46 Cal.4th 969. So PAGA claims can be more difficult to defend against than class actions. Second, as a result of developments in federal law over the last several years, employers can frequently require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that require them to arbitrate all wage and hour claims and give up any right to bring a wage and hour class action in court or in arbitration. Thus, for many employers, the risk from wage and hour class actions has been greatly reduced – in fact almost eliminated.

Employers have argued that PAGA claims are also subject to mandatory arbitration under federal law. They have also argued that they should be able to avoid “representative” PAGA claims in the same way they can avoid class actions. In other words, they have argued that they should be able require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements that require them to arbitrate all PAGA claims and give up any right to bring a PAGA claim in court or in arbitration on behalf of anyone other than themselves. However, in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC (2014) 59 Cal.4th 348, the California Supreme Court noted that PAGA claims are a form of government action – with the plaintiff acting as a “private attorney general” on behalf of the state of California to collect Labor Code penalties. The California Supreme Court reasoned that forcing plaintiffs to arbitrate their PAGA claims and preventing PAGA claims on behalf of other employees would really be preventing California from bringing such claims, thereby frustrating the purpose of the PAGA law. Therefore, the California Supreme Court held that employees cannot be forced to arbitrate PAGA claims and cannot be forced to give up their right to bring such claims on behalf of other employees.

That brings us to the decision issued on July 13, 2017 by the California Supreme Court, Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California, LLC) (S227228 7/13/17). In Williams, the plaintiff, Mr. Williams, had worked in a single Marshalls store in California. He brought a PAGA claim, asserting that Marshalls had violated California wage and hour laws including those governing employee meal and rest breaks. Apparently, Marshalls had over 16,000 current and former employees in the time period covered by Mr. Williams’ lawsuit, spread across a large number of stores across the state. In the course of pretrial discovery, Mr. Williams asked Marshalls for the names and contact information for all of those thousands of employees. Marshalls refused Mr. Williams’ request, claiming the request was unfairly burdensome and would violate the privacy rights of those employees. Marshalls argued that until Mr. Williams had demonstrated that his claim of alleged wage and hour violations had some merit he should only be given information on the employees who had worked at the same store as Mr. Williams. The trial court and the court of appeal (in a 2015 decision) agreed with Marshalls. Mr. Williams sought and obtained review by the California Supreme Court.

At this point, it bears noting that if Mr. Williams had brought his law suit as a class action (assuming he had not signed a mandatory arbitration agreement giving up his right to bring a class action), he probably would have been entitled to the names and contact information for all of the thousands of current and former employees. But Marshalls’ argument was that, as the California Supreme Court has held, a PAGA claim is not a class action. So, logically, the rules governing a PAGA claim should be different. The trial court and the court of appeal agreed.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court disagreed with each of Marshalls’ arguments, and reversed. Therefore, at least for the foreseeable future, plaintiffs in PAGA actions, just like plaintiffs in wage and hour class actions, can require the defendant employers to provide the names and contact information of potentially thousands of current and former employees impacted by the plaintiffs’ PAGA claims.

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