Supreme Court holds that a single statue of limitation governs Labor Code section 203 claims

California Labor Code § 203 provides that, if an employer willfully fails to timely pay final wages, “the wages of the employee shall continue as a penalty from the due date thereof at the same rate until paid or until an action therefor is commenced; but the wages shall not continue for more than 30 days.”  Lab. Code § 203(a).  Usually, a one-year statute of limitation governs actions to recover penalties (Code Civ. Proc. § 340(a)), but section 203 states that an employee may sue for “these penalties at any time before the expiration of the statute of limitations on an action for the wages from which the penalties arise.” Lab. Code § 203(b).  In Pineda v. Bank of America, N.A. (November 18, 2010), the California Supreme Court answered two questions related to section 203 claims:  first, whether a different statute of limitation applies when an employee seeks to recover only section 203 penalties (in this case, final wages were paid late but before the filing of the action), as opposed to when an employee seeks both final wages and penalties; and, second, whether section 203 penalties recoverable as restitution under California's Unfair Competition Law (UCL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.).  A unanimous Supreme Court answered both questions in the negative, holding that (1) the underlying wage claim statute of limitation is tied to the 203 cause of action, and (2) since employees have no ownership interest in section 203 penalties they cannot use the UCL to recover those penalties as a form of restitution.

The Court had little difficulty concluding that a single, longer statute of limitation applies to section 203 claims:

Plaintiff urges us to conclude the Legislature intended for a single statute of limitations — the one set forth in section 203(b) — to govern the filing of any and all suits for section 203 penalties, regardless of whether a claim for unpaid final wages accompanies the claim for penalties. He contends this is the only plausible construction of section 203, and his contention has merit.  Absent explicit statutory language to the contrary, common sense would suggest that, where the Legislature has set forth a statute of limitations in one part of a statute, the prescribed limitations period governs the filing of actions provided for in another part of the same statute. In providing when “[s]uit may be filed for [section 203] penalties” (§ 203(b)), the Legislature could have employed language unambiguously limiting the application of section 203(b)‟s limitations period to those suits that seek both unpaid wages and penalties. For example, it could have provided that “[s]uit for unpaid final wages and these penalties may be filed at any time before . . . .” It did not.

Slip op., at 5-6.  The Court then spent several pages dismissing the defendant's strained construction of the Legislature's grammatical choices, concluding by remarking on the important public policy served by the prompt payment of final wages.

As for the UCL, the Court was equally quick to reach its conclusion that 203 penalties cannot be recovered by means of restitution under the UCL:

By contrast, permitting recovery of section 203 penalties via the UCL would not “restore the status quo by returning to the plaintiff funds in which he or she has an ownership interest.” (Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin Corp. (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1134, 1149.) Section 203 is not designed to compensate employees for work performed. Instead, it is intended to encourage employers to pay final wages on time, and to punish employers who fail to do so.  In other words, it is the employers' action (or inaction) that gives rise to section 203 penalties. The vested interest in unpaid wages, on the other hand, arises out of the employees' action, i.e., their labor. Until awarded by a relevant body, employees have no comparable vested interest in section 203 penalties. We thus hold section 203 penalties cannot be recovered as restitution under the UCL.

Slip op.,  at 14-15.

Compared to many others from the Supreme Court, this was a short opinion.  The direct language suggests that the Court found little over which to disagree as the opinion was prepared.  Congratulations to my colleague, Mr. Greg Karasik, on obtaining this partial reversal.