Judge Patel offers interesting comments about the puzzle of PAGA

United States District Court Judge Marilyn Hall Patel (Northern District of California) offered some interesting comments, but no clear solutions, to the puzzle posed by litigation of PAGA claims as representative actions.  Ochoa-Hernandez v. Cjaders Foods, Inc.. (N.D. Cal. Apr. 2, 2010) 2010 WL 1340777.  In the course of denying plaintiff's motion to preclude the defendant from contacting current or former employees about the litigation, the Court said:

From a practical perspective, plaintiff's analogy between class actions and PAGA claims is also misplaced. While both fall within the general category of virtual representation, there are significant differences between the two. Unlike a class action seeking damages or injunctive relief for injured employees, the purpose of PAGA is to incentivize private parties to recover civil penalties for the government that otherwise may not have been assessed and collected by overburdened state enforcement agencies. Id. (“The act's declared purpose is to supplement enforcement actions by public agencies, which lack adequate resources to bring all such actions themselves.”). Unlike class actions, these civil penalties are not meant to compensate unnamed employees because the action is fundamentally a law enforcement action. Moreover, unlike the binding finality of a class action with respect to damages, the individual employee has less at stake in a PAGA representative action: if the employer defeats a PAGA claim, the nonparty employees, because they were not given notice of the action or afforded an opportunity to be heard, are not bound by the judgment as to remedies other than civil penalties. Id. at 987, 95 Cal.Rptr.3d 588, 209 P.3d 923. Thus, nonparty employees can bring an action against the employer based on identical facts so long as they do not seek civil penalties. Class members, however, would be bound by a judgment against the class, independent of the remedy later sought.

*5 Class actions litigated in federal court also contain numerous procedural protections that are not available in PAGA claims. Unnamed employees need not be given notice of the PAGA claim, nor do they have the ability to opt-out of the representative PAGA claim. There is no indication that the unnamed plaintiffs can contest a settlement, if any, reached between the parties. The court does not have to approve the named PAGA plaintiff, nor does the court inquire into the adequacy of counsel's ability to represent the unnamed employees. These procedural protections ensure the fidelity of the attorney-client arrangement in a class action. Their absence further militate against considering a PAGA claim akin to a certified class action.

Additionally, in order to bridge the gap between Arias and the creation of an attorney-client relationship, at least two inferential steps are required, and neither is present. First, Arias is silent on what procedures, if not class action procedures, are sufficient to perfect representative status in representative actions. While representative status may accrue once administrative requirements have been satisfied, Arias does not so hold and plaintiff cites no further authority. Second, assuming that representative status is perfected once administrative requirements are satisfied, Arias does not contemplate the practical issue of when, if at all, an attorney-client relationship arises between plaintiff's counsel and the current or former employees.

Slip op., at 4-5.  If it isn't obvious from this long excerpt, the argument up for discussion was whether an attorney-client relationship existed between the absent employees and the attorney for the named plaintiff.  While the Court's comments explain why a PAGA claim is different from a class action, the discussion is not intended to address the case management question posed by PAGA.  Nevertheless, the brief observations by this Court are of interest to practitioners in this area of law.