Employee Cannot Pursue PAGA Claims Against Employer After Settling Individual Claims

In one of the final judicial decisions of 2017, a California court of appeal has held that an employee who settled his individual wage and hour claims against his former employer could not continue to pursue his PAGA claims against that employer. The court therefore affirmed the trial court’s judgment dismissing the employee’s PAGA claims. Kim v. Reins International California, Inc., 2d Dist. Case No. B278642 (filed December 29, 2017).

The Plaintiff, Justin Kim, sued his former employer, Reins International California, Inc. (“Reins”) alleging individual and class claims for wage and hour violations and seeking civil penalties on behalf of the State of California and aggrieved employees under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”). Mr. Kim had signed an arbitration agreement at the commencement of his employment; therefore, Reins moved to compel arbitration of Mr. Kim’s individual claims, dismiss his class claims, and stay his PAGA cause of action until the arbitration had concluded. The trial court granted the motion. While the arbitration was pending, Mr. Kim accepted Reins’ offer to compromise under Code of Civil Procedure section 998. As a result, Mr. Kim dismissed his individual claims with prejudice and dismissed the class claims without prejudice, leaving only the PAGA cause of action.

Reins filed a motion for summary adjudication of the PAGA cause of action, arguing that after Mr. Kim dismissed his individual causes of action he was no longer an “aggrieved employee” under PAGA and therefore could not longer pursue the PAGA cause of action. The court granted the motion. Mr. Kim appealed.

PAGA provides that an action may be brought by “an aggrieved employee on behalf of himself or herself and other current or former employees.” Labor Code section 2699(a). The term “aggrieved employee” “means any person who was employed by the alleged violator against whom one or more of the alleged violations was committed.” Labor Code section 2699(c). The court concluded that once Mr. Kim settled his individual claims and dismissed them with prejudice, he was no longer an “aggrieved employee” as defined in Labor Code section 2699, so he no longer had standing to maintain his PAGA action.

The court noted that Mr. Kim’s inability to pursue his PAGA cause of action, because he was no longer an “aggrieved employee,” would not prevent any other aggrieved employee from bringing a PAGA action against Reins. The court rejected Reins’ suggestion that the trial court’s dismissal with prejudice of Mr. Kim’s PAGA cause of action was a “decision on the merits” that would bar any other employee from bringing a PAGA claim against Reins.

The decision in Kim v. Reins International California, Inc. is not surprising, but suggests a likely employer strategy for trying to avoid liability under PAGA. That strategy depends on the employer’s ability to settle a plaintiff employee’s individual wage and hour claims. Such a strategy may be pursued regardless of whether the employee is subject to mandatory arbitration of his or her individual claims. However, such a strategy may have a higher likelihood of success if the employee is subject to mandatory arbitration since the PAGA claims are likely to be stayed while the employee’s individual claims are litigated in the arbitration forum.

Gov. Brown Signs New Ban On Employer Requests For Salary History Information

In October, Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 168, which enacts Labor Code Section 432.3, prohibiting employers from asking job applicants for their salary histories and prohibiting employers from relying on salary history information as a factor in determining what salary to offer an applicant. Labor Code Section 432.3 will affect employers and job applicants alike.

Commencing on January 1, 2018, employers will no longer be able to request salary history information from job applicants. The new law will also require employers to provide to applicants a position’s pay scale upon reasonable request.

Human Resource Managers and other hiring personnel should be instructed to refrain from asking job applicants about their salary history and employers should remove salary history questions from their employment applications. However, job applicants will still be able to voluntarily provide information concerning their previous salaries. If a job applicant discloses salary history information without prompting, the new ban will not prohibit an employer from considering or relying on that information. But, to insulate themselves from potential litigation, employers may want to document the disclosure before using voluntarily disclosed salary information.

Applicants for employment may gain new leverage in salary negotiations once Labor Code Section 432.3 becomes law.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of employment services to employers and employees. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your employment law concerns.

Attorneys’ Fees Awarded Based on Void Contract

Recently, in California-American Water Company v. Marina Coast Water District, a California court of appeal found prevailing parties could recover attorneys’ fees based on a void contract under Code of Civil Procedure section 1717 (“section 1717”). The non-prevailing party challenged the trial court’s award of attorneys’ fees, posing the question, “How can an attorney fees provision in a contract govern the parties’ fees obligations when the contract itself is deemed to have been void from its inception?”

In Santisas v. Goodin (1998) 17 Cal.4th 599, the California Supreme Court held that “when a party litigant prevails in an action on a contract by establishing that the contract is invalid, inapplicable, unenforceable, or nonexistent, section 1717 permits that party’s recovery of attorney fees whenever the opposing parties would have been entitled to attorney fees under the contract had they prevailed.” (Santisas, supra, 17 Cal.4th at p. 611.)

The appellant in California-American argued that the trial court’s attorney fees award contravened section 1717’s limitation that fees be awarded only in an “action on a contract.” In California-American, no contract-based claims were at issue. The only issue litigated was the effect of a board member’s conflict of interest on the validity of certain contracts. In other words, the action was one to declare certain contracts void. The losing party argued that such a claim is not an “action on a contract.” However, the appellate court in California-American found “a party’s entitlement to attorney fees under section 1717 turns on the fact that the litigation was about the existence and enforceability of the contract, not on the presence of particular contractual claims . . .” The court noted that a California appellate court had previously found a suit brought by litigants seeking to have a contract declared void is an “action on a contract” for the purposes of section 1717. (Eden Township Healthcare Dist. v. Eden Medical Center (2013) 220 Cal.App.4th 418, 426.) Since an action to declare a contract void is an “action on a contract” for purposes of section 1717, attorneys’ fees can be awarded based on an attorney fees provision of a void contract.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law concerns.

What Happens At the End of an LLC’s Term?

In its operating agreement, a Limited Liability Company, or LLC, may specify a termination date or other event that will result in the dissolution of the LLC. On the termination date or occurrence of another specified event, the LLC is “dissolved” (Corporations Code section 17707.01(e)), with only limited powers to “wind up” its affairs (Corporations Code section 17707.04).

Generally, after the dissolution has occurred, a certificate of dissolution must be filed with the California Secretary of State. Corporations Code section 17707.08(a). Upon the completion the winding up of the LLC’s affairs, a certificate of cancellation of the articles of organization must be filed with the California Secretary of State. Corporations Code section 17707.08(b). When the certificate of cancellation is filed, “a limited liability company shall be cancelled and its powers, rights and privileges shall cease.” Corporations Code section 17707.08(c).

Even after the filing of a certificate of cancellation, the LLC continues to exist for the purpose of prosecuting and defending actions by or against it in order to collect and discharge obligations, disposing of and conveying its property, and collecting and dividing its assets. Corporations Code section 17707.06(a). However, “A limited liability company shall not continue business except so far as necessary for its winding up.” Corporations Code section 17707.06(a).

Even after a certificate of dissolution has been filed, the LLC can be revived under limited circumstances enumerated in Corporations Code Section 17707.09, by the filing of a “certificate of continuation,” which has the effect of nullifying the certificate of dissolution.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your business law concerns.

U.S. Supreme Court Declines To Rule On Large Fees For Homebuilders

Recently, the United States Supreme Court denied certiorari in 616 Croft Ave., LLC v. City of West Hollywood (2016) 3 Cal.App.5th 621, in which the issue for review was whether the City of West Hollywood’s in-lieu housing fee was an exaction. While the Supreme Court did not rule for or against the homebuilder claiming city fees were invalid, the decision not to hear the case affirms precedent. Just five months earlier, the Supreme Court issued a takings decision, authored by Justice Kennedy, in Murr v. Wisconsin (2017) 137 S. Ct. 1933. This most recent Supreme Court ruling is the latest in a line of cases that deprive property owners of power over their properties. The Court in Murr held the two parcels along the St. Croix River, combined under common ownership in 1995, were required to be evaluated as a single parcel in determining whether the regulations constituted a regulatory taking. Ultimately, the Court found the regulations, which did not allow petitioners to sell one parcel as part of an improvement plan for the lots, did not constitute a compensable regulatory taking.

Declining to hear a case like 616 Croft Ave., for now, continues the trend. The California Appellate Court in 616 Croft Ave. found a half a million dollar in-lieu fee imposed by the City of West Hollywood, to permit the homebuilder to build a condominium, was not an exaction or a taking. The Supreme Court declined to hear a similar case last year. For now, the Court is leaving open to interpretation the constitutionality of large fees upon homebuilders. With rumors of Justice Kennedy retiring soon and New Justices entering the Bench, perhaps a changed Supreme Court may tackle the constitutionality of fees upon homebuilders in coming years.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of both transactional and litigation services to individuals and businesses. We have successfully prosecuted and defended various types of business and property claims. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your property law concerns.

California Court Eases Employee’s Burden in Proving Employer’s Wage Statement Violations

In 2004, the State legislature enacted the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”), which authorizes California employees to sue their employers for Labor Code violations and collect civil penalties that would otherwise be collectible only by California’s Labor and Workforce Development Agency. PAGA suits are known as “representative actions,” in which an employee sues “on behalf of himself or herself and other current or former employees.” Civil penalties recovered in a PAGA action are distributed 75% to the State of California and 25% to the employees.

Recently, a California appellate court, in Eduardo Lopez v. Friant & Associates, LLC, held that an employee can sue his or her employer under PAGA for failure to provide accurate wage statements without showing that the employer’s conduct was “knowing and intentional.” The ruling is significant because employees can also sue their employer for wage statement violations without using the PAGA statute. But when they do, they must show that the employer’s violation was “knowing and intentional” in order to win their case. Thus, the Lopez decision is likely to significantly impact how suits for wage claim violations will be filed in the future. After Lopez, it is unclear why employees would bring lawsuits for “knowing and intentional” wage statement violations when they can bring PAGA claims without proving the wage statement violations were knowing and intentional.

In the Lopez case, the plaintiff, Mr. Lopez, filed an action seeking recovery of civil penalties under PAGA for his employer’s failure to include the last four digits of its employees’ social security numbers or employee identification numbers on their itemized wage statements. The trial court found that the employer had been unaware that this required information was missing and therefore ruled in favor of the employer. The trial court reasoned that Lopez could not prevail because the employer’s omission was not “knowing or intentional” within the meaning of Labor Code section 226, which specifies what information must be included in employee wage statements.

The appellate court reversed the judgment. The Lopez court reasoned a PAGA claim is not subject to Section 226’s “knowing and intentional” requirement, and that the “knowing and intentional” requirement applies only to non-PAGA lawsuits.

Ezer Williamson Law provides a wide range of employment services to employers and employees. Contact us at (310) 277-7747 to see how we can help you with your employment law concerns.

Ninth Circuit Rules Employer’s Mandatory Arbitration Agreement Violates the National Labor Relations Act

The Ninth Circuit recently ruled that an employer’s mandatory arbitration agreement that included a class action waiver violated the National Labor Relations Act (the “Act”) and therefore was unenforceable. Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP (9th Cir. August 22, 2016) 834 F.3d 975. The Ninth Circuit’s ruling endorses the position taken by the National Labor Relations Board (the “Board”) on this issue and is consistent with the position taken by the Seventh Circuit. However, the Ninth Circuit’s ruling is in conflict with the position taken by the Second, Fifth and Eighth Circuits, each of which has held that the Federal Arbitration Act requires that class action waivers contained in employers’ mandatory arbitration provisions must be enforced under the recent arbitration decisions of the United States Supreme Court. This split among the Circuits renders a future United States Supreme Court decision on this issue all but inevitable.

Stephen Morris and Kelly McDaniel brought a wage and hour class action against their employer, Ernst & Young (“E&Y”). E&Y moved to compel arbitration pursuant to a “concerted action waiver” signed by Morris and McDaniel. The concerted action waiver required employees (1) to pursue all claims against E&Y in arbitration and (2) to arbitrate only as individuals. The effect of the two provisions was that employees were prohibited from bringing class action claims “in any forum – in court, in arbitration proceedings, or elsewhere.” 834 F.3d at 979.

The Second, Fifth and Eighth Circuits have held that the Federal Arbitration Act requires that such arbitration agreements be enforced. However, the Ninth Circuit characterized the issue in a very different way: “The problem with the contract at issue is not that it requires arbitration; it is that the contract term defeats a substantive federal right to pursue concerted work-related legal claims.” 834 F.3d at 985. The court also said, “The same provision in a contract that required court adjudication as the exclusive remedy would equally violate the [Act].” 834 F.3d at 984.

Two years ago, the California Supreme Court addressed the identical issue in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC (2014) 59 Cal.4th 348, 366-374. In Iskanian, the California Supreme Court performed an independent analysis of the issue and concluded that such waivers are enforceable. The California Supreme Court’s analysis was similar to that of the Fifth Circuit, whose decisions the court cited. Since the California Supreme Court’s holding on this issue is contrary to that of the Ninth Circuit, it is likely that California’s trial and appellate courts will follow the California Supreme Court’s lead, and will enforce class action waivers contained in employers’ mandatory arbitration provisions, unless either the California Supreme Court changes its mind or the United States Supreme Court decides the issue.

California Supreme Court – Arbitrator Decides Whether Parties Agreed To Arbitrate Class Action

California Supreme Court Says Arbitrator Decides Whether Parties Agreed To Arbitrate Class Action Claims

In a highly anticipated decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that the question of whether parties to an arbitration agreement agreed to arbitrate class action claims is a question to be decided by the parties’ arbitrator and not by a court. Sandquist v. Lebo Automotive, Inc., ____ Cal.4th ____, 2016 Daily Journal Daily Appellate Report 7663 (California Supreme Court July 28, 2016) .

Specifically, the question decided by the California Supreme Court was: when the parties to a dispute disagree over whether class action claims are subject to arbitration, “who decides whether the [arbitration] agreement permits or prohibits classwide arbitration, a court or the arbitrator?” (2016 DJDAR at 7663.) The answer to that question is of supreme importance to parties who may find themselves in arbitration, because everyone, rightly or wrongly, suspects that judges and arbitrators are likely to reach opposite conclusions when construing identical arbitration agreements, with courts more likely to find that the parties have not agreed to classwide arbitration and arbitrators more likely to find that they did agree.

The plaintiff, Timothy Sandquist, worked for defendant Lebo Automotive, Inc. Mr. Sandquist, who is African-American, sued Lebo Automotive, alleging that he and other non-Caucasian employees were subjected to racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Mr. Sandquist sought to sue not only on his own behalf but also “on behalf of a class of current and former employees of color.” (2016 DJDAR at 7663.) Lebo Automotive moved to compel arbitration based on three separate yet similar arbitration agreements that Mr. Sandquist signed on his first day of employment. The trial court granted the motion. The court also concluded that the arbitration agreements did not permit class arbitration. Therefore, the court struck the class allegations from the case.  Mr. Sandquist appealed.

The court of appeal reversed the trial court and concluded that the arbitrator rather than the trial court should decide “the availability of class proceedings under an arbitration agreement.” (2916 DJDAR 7664.) Not surprisingly, Lebo Automotive sought review by the California Supreme Court, which affirmed the decision of the court of appeal.

The California Supreme Court noted that all three arbitration agreements contained “comprehensive” language describing what claims were subject to arbitration. For example, one of the agreements encompassed “any claim, dispute or controversy . . . which would otherwise require or allow resort to any court or other governmental dispute resolution forum” “arising from, related to, or have any relationship or connection whatsoever with my seeking employment with, employment by, or other association with the Company . . . .” (2016 DJDAR at 7665.) Since the dispute over who decides whether class claims are arbitrable is related to claims arising from Mr. Sandquist’s employment, the California Supreme Court concluded that the language of the arbitration agreements “suggests” that the question is for the arbitrator, but is “by no means conclusive.” (2016 DJDAR at 7665.) The Court, therefore, looked to California law “applicable to the interpretation of arbitration clauses and contracts generally.” (2016 DJDAR at 7665.)

The Court noted that two principles of contract interpretation favor leaving the question to the arbitrator: (1) “when the allocation of a matter to arbitration or the courts is uncertain, we resolve all doubts in favor of arbitration”; and (2) “ambiguities in written agreements are to be construed against the drafters” (in this case, the employer, Lebo Automotive). (2016 DJDAR at 7666.) Thus, the Court concluded, “as a matter of state contract law, the parties’ arbitration provisions allocate the decision on the availability of class arbitration to the arbitrator, rather than reserving it for a court.” (2016 DJDAR at 7666.)

If Mr. Sandquist’s lawsuit were governed solely by California law, this would have been the end of the Court’s analysis. However, each of the three arbitration agreements between Mr. Sandquist and Lebo Automotive invokes the coverage of the Federal Arbitration Act. Therefore, the California Supreme Court also looked to recent decisions of the U.S Supreme Court relating to arbitration.

The Court noted that in Green Tree Financial Corp. v. Bazzle (2003) 539 U.S. 444 (“Green Tree”) a plurality of the U.S. Supreme Court concluded that the question of whether the parties had agreed to arbitrate class claims should be decided by the arbitrator rather than the courts.

But here’s the rub: Green Tree was a plurality decision, not a majority decision. Therefore, Green Tree does not constitute controlling precedent. As the California Supreme Court noted, the U.S. Supreme Court “has twice reiterated” this fact. (2016 DJDAR at 7667.) In addition, notwithstanding the Green Tree decision, all of the federal appellate courts that have been confronted with this question, have ruled that the trial court rather than the arbitrator must decide whether the parties agreed to class arbitration.

Justice Kruger dissented in Sandquist v. Lebo Automotive, in an opinion joined in by Justices Chin and Corrigan. She conceded that the majority’s decision is supported by the plurality opinion in Green Tree. However, but she noted that the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be heading in a direction contrary to Green Tree, which has resulted in the federal appellate decisions holding that a court rather than the arbitrator should decide whether the parties agreed to conduct the classwide arbitration. Justice Kruger concluded by saying, “unless and until the [U.S. Supreme Court] revisits the issue, I would follow where the court has led. Because the majority today charts a different path, I must respectfully dissent.” (2016 DJDAR 7675.)

The California Supreme Court majority in Sandquist v. Lebo Automotive is on solid ground analytically. However, Justice Kruger and her fellow dissenters may well have correctly divined where the U.S. Supreme Court is headed on this issue. Thus, this case could well be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Employers, if Your Employees Stand to Work, You Better Sit Down

Lots of employees work while standing. You see them on an almost daily basis – cashiers in department stores and big box retailers, bank tellers, retail clerks, and numerous other employees performing countless jobs that, on reflection, perhaps could be performed while seated. Why are they standing? The answer, of course, is because their employers instructed them to stand while working.

For decades, there has been a provision in various California Industrial Welfare Commission Wage Orders that says, “All working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” The Wage Orders have the force of law. But this provision has been all but ignored for the last 40 years. Earlier this month, though, the California Supreme Court, relying on this provision in the Wage Orders, effectively ruled that “If the tasks being performed . . . reasonably permit sitting, and provision of a seat would not interfere with performance of any other tasks that may require standing, a seat is called for” – meaning that the employer is required by law to provide a seat and permit the employee to sit while working. Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., 2016 WL 1296101 (California Supreme Court April 4, 2016).

What’s going on? What prompted this decision after all these years?

Up until 2004, the Wage Orders could only be enforced by the California Labor Commissioner, whose office was too understaffed to properly perform its enforcement activities. So, a little over a decade ago, California enacted the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004, better known as “PAGA.” PAGA permits employees to take on the government’s enforcement role by suing to collect penalties from employers who violate the Labor Code and the Wage Orders. PAGA allows those employees keep to 25% of the penalties, with the balance going to the State of California. And the employers can be ordered to pay the employees’ attorneys.

In the early days of the PAGA statute, most PAGA lawsuits were class actions against employers who were not paying minimum wages or overtime, misclassified their employees as exempt from overtime, or treated their workers as independent contractors rather than as employees. But, more recently, attorneys representing employees have filed PAGA lawsuits against big retailers and banks, claiming that they are violating the Wage Orders by not allowing their employees to sit while working.

Up until now, employers have been aggressively defending themselves against these lawsuits based on the failure to permit employees to sit while working. But, now that the California Supreme Court has said, in effect, that the Wage Orders mean what they say, many of these cases are likely to settle. And, more importantly for many smaller employers, the attorneys bringing these cases are likely to start turning their attention to smaller employers who require their employees to stand while doing work that could be performed while seated.

So now is a time for employers to be proactive if they have employees who work while standing. Ask yourself, can any of that work be performed while seated? Do they perform work similar to that of bank tellers or retail clerks and cashiers? Or do they perform other functions that would easily be accomplished while seated? If the answer is either yes or maybe, then now is the time to take action to comply with the Wage Orders. Otherwise, you might find yourself in a class action lawsuit, having to defend yourself against the same claims as the big banks and retailers.

Ezer Williamson Law Announces Affiliation With Leven & Seligman, LLP

Ezer Williamson Law is proud to announce its formal affiliation with Century City’s Leven & Seligman, LLP.  With this association, both firms build on their reputations for superior quality, client service, and results.

The association will enable both firms to add depth and breadth to their existing practice areas of Real Estate Law and Litigation, Business and Corporate Transactions, Business and Commercial Law and Litigation, Partnership and Member Disputes, Shareholder Rights, Business Formation, and Estate Planning and Administration.

As part of the affiliation, Ezer Williamson Law gains a physical presence at Leven & Seligman, LLP’s offices in Century City, located at 1801 Century Park East, Suite 1460, Los Angeles, California to further serve Ezer Williamson Law’s West Los Angeles and Valley clients.  The association will also provide Leven & Seligman, LLP with the Ezer Williamson Law South Bay office.