Arias v. Superior Court (June 29, 2009) analyzes certification obligations under two of California's representative action statutes

[Editor’s Note: This post was prepared by new Contributing Author, Shawn Westrick. Mr. Westrick is an attorney at Initiative Legal Group, LLP, and it is the Editor’s hope that this column is the first of many such posts. Mr. Westrick has spent considerable time in his career litigating PAGA issues, and the Arias decision was of particular interest as source material for a first blog post submission.]

By Shawn Westrick:

In Arias v. Superior Court (Angelo Dairy) (June 29, 2009), the California Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated opinion addressing when conventional class action procedural requirements must be met in representative actions filed against employers.

Plaintiff Jose Arias sued his employer Angelo Dairy, alleging, among other things, violations of the unfair competition law and under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”) (Cal. Lab. Code § 2698, et seq.). The trial court granted defendant’s motion to strike the causes of action based on the unfair competition law. The trial court’s reasoning was that claims brought under the unfair competition law and PAGA had to plead class action requirements.

In essence, the appellate court affirmed a portion of the trial court’s Order, directing the trial court to “issue a new order striking the representative claims alleged in the seventh through tenth causes of action, but not the eleventh cause of action” (slip op., at 3), the eleventh cause of action being the claim arising under PAGA.

The Supreme Court began its analysis with a thorough discussion of Proposition 64. Proposition 64 amended the unfair competition law to ensure that a plaintiff suffering injury in fact must comply with Code of Civil Procedure § 382. However, Proposition 64 did not specifically use the phrase “class action” in any of its statutory language. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court ruled that a literal construction would frustrate the purpose of Proposition 64. A review of the Voter Information Guide, the official summary of Proposition 64, and the ballot measure summary suggested that the purpose of Proposition 64 was to require plaintiffs to meet the requirements for a class action.

Turning to PAGA, the Supreme Court then analyzed the question of whether PAGA claims must be certified as class actions to proceed on a representative basis. As an important distinction to be aware of, it has already been determined that actions under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 may be brought as class actions. (Amaral v. Cintas Corp. No. 2 (2008) 163 Cal.App.4th 1157, 1173.) At issue in Arias was whether such actions must be brought as a class action. Beginning its discussion, the Supreme Court noted that the statute was passed because of the lack of adequate financing for labor law enforcement. Employees would act as private attorneys general to collect civil penalties for violations of the Labor Code:

Before bringing a civil action for statutory penalties, an employee must comply with Labor Code section 2699.3. (Lab. Code, § 2699, subd. (a).) That statute requires the employee to give written notice of the alleged Labor Code violation to both the employer and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency, and the notice must describe facts and theories supporting the violation. (Id., § 2699.3, subd. (a).) If the agency notifies the employee and the employer that it does not intend to investigate (as occurred here), or if the agency fails to respond within 33 days, the employee may then bring a civil action against the employer. (Id., § 2699.3, subd. (a)(2)(A).) If the agency decides to investigate, it then has 120 days to do so. If the agency decides not to issue a citation, or does not issue a citation within 158 days after the postmark date of the employee‘s notice, the employee may commence a civil action. (Id., § 2699.3, subd. (a)(2)(B).)

Slip op., at 9.

The Supreme Court rejected the employer’s convoluted argument that permitting employees to proceed with representative actions that did not satisfy class action requirements would cause absurd results. Explaining the strange reasoning of the employer, the Supreme Court said:

Defendants read the Court of Appeal‘s decision as holding that class action requirements do not apply to actions under Labor Code section 2699, subdivision (a) only because class action requirements are "provisions of law" and subdivision (a) says that it applies regardless of, or notwithstanding, "any other provision of law." Defendants then argue that because Labor Code section 2699, subdivision (g) does not contain subdivision (a)'s "[n]otwithstanding any other provision of law" language, it follows that actions under that subdivision must comply with class action requirements. According to defendants, to conclude that subdivision (g) actions must satisfy class action requirements but subdivision (a) actions need not is "absurd" and therefore the Court of Appeal's statutory construction must be wrong. We disagree.

Slip op., at 11. According to the Supreme Court, Defendants' argument presupposed that class action requirements apply to all representative actions unless the Legislature affirmatively precludes their application by inserting the phrase "notwithstanding any other provision of law," or similar words, in the statute authorizing the representative action. The Court rejected that assumption.

The Supreme Court then turned to the employer’s argument that the legislative history required PAGA actions be brought as class actions. The Supreme Court noted that some committee reports expressed concerns that PAGA would allow employees to sue as a class action and some commentators were concerned that without a class action there could be no preclusive effects. The Supreme Court rejected committee report comments as insufficient to demonstrate any particular legislative intent regarding certification of PAGA claims.

The Court then turned to the due process issue of collateral estoppel. The employer argued that in the absence of class action requirements, employers would be subject to constant one-way intervention, violating their rights to due process. However an action under PAGA is binding not only on the named employee but also on the government agencies and any aggrieved employee not a party to the proceeding. An employee suing under PAGA does so as a “proxy or agent of the state’s labor law enforcement agencies.” Slip op., at p. 16. The employee can only bring a PAGA action after giving written notice pursuant to Section 2699.3. Id. An employee acts as a substitute for “the government itself” and a “judgment in an action binds all those ... who would be bound by a judgment in an action brought by the government.” Slip op., at p. 17.

Overall, the Court’s decision on the unfair competition law is straightforward. The long term effect of the Court’s foray into res judicata could have far reaching consequences for class actions in California. Taken as a whole, Arias should be a lesson to lawyers representing employers during settlements. Arias is clear that a PAGA action can only be commenced by adhering to the requirements under Section 2699.3. Slip op., at p. 16. In conjunction with the Supreme Court’s suggestion that the State of California has a vested interest in the civil penalties in PAGA, employers who settle class actions but do not settle PAGA actions with an employee who is authorized to file a PAGA action may find themselves liable for civil penalties owed to California (and, if authorized, other employees) for the same time period and the same class members who participated in a previous class action.

[Full Disclosure: Mr. Westrick is counsel in the matter of Deleon v. Verizon Wireless, in which the Supreme Court issued a “grant and hold” Order pending disposition of Arias. The Deleon matter directly raises the issue of whether settlement of wage & hour claims implicitly settles PAGA claims based upon the same underlying violations.]