In Voris v. Lampert, the California Supreme Court finally provides the definitive answer to the question of whether wages can be recovered via a conversion tort claim


I recall that in the early 2000’s it was common to see a conversion claim for relief included in a wage & hour complaint, on the theory that the wages owed and unpaid were property of the employee. When this was challenged by demurrer, I observed that the demurrer was successful well over half the time, but there wasn’t a definitive appellate ruling on point. The demurrers that worked would usually focus on the argument that a conversion tort for money had to specifically identify the precise amount in question (essentially, identify the specific cash in question).

Today, in Boris v. Lampert (August 15, 2019) the California Supreme Court answers a question I long ago quit wondering about: whether a conversion claim is cognizable for unpaid wages. In a split 5-2 decision, the Supreme Court said it was not.

The conversion of specific sums of money guided the majority’s analysis:

The employee’s claim is not that the employer has wrongfully exercised dominion over a specifically identifiable pot of money that already belongs to the employee—in other words, the sort of wrong that conversion is designed to remedy. Rather, the employee’s claim is that the employer failed to reach into its own funds to satisfy its debt. Indeed, in some cases of wage nonpayment, the monies out of which employees would be paid may never have existed in the first place. Take, for example,a failed start-up that generates no income and thus finds itself unable to pay its employees. Because the business accounts are empty, there would not be any identifiable monies for the employer to convert. No one would dispute that the start-up is indebted to its employees. But only in the realm of fiction could a court conclude that the business, by failing to earn the money needed to pay wages, has somehow converted that nonexistent money to its own use.

Slip op., at 15. The majority expressed some concern about the consequences of layering tort liability over what has traditionally been a species of contract recovery:

But a conversion claim is an awfully blunt tool for deterring intentional misconduct of this variety.As noted,conversion is a strict liability tort. It does not require bad faith, knowledge, or even negligence; it requires only that the defendant have intentionally done the act depriving the plaintiff of his or her rightful possession. (Moore, supra, 51 Cal.3d at p. 144, fn. 38; Poggi, supra, 167 Cal. at p.375.) For that reason, conversion liability for unpaid wages would not only reach those who act in bad faith, but also those who make good-faith mistakes—for example, an employer who fails to pay the correct amount in wages because of a glitch in the payroll system or a clerical error. We see no sufficient justification for layering tort liability on top of the extensive existing remedies demanding that this sort of error promptly be fixed.

Slip op., at 25.

I won’t go into great detail on the dissent, but it is pointed, and is well-encapsulated by this passage, which rejects the notion that wage payment recovery is best handled under contract theories:

In California, unpaid wages are not merely contractual obligations to pay a sum. This is because, as we long ago observed, “wages are not ordinary debts.” (In re Trombley (1948) 31 Cal.2d 801, 809, italics added.)

Slip op., Dissent of Cuellar, at 3. This comment is also interesting: “For some time, plaintiffs in wage cases have routinely included a claim for conversion.” Slip op., Dissent of Cuellar, at 7. It is a somewhat feisty dissent. I like it for the conviction. In closing, the dissent observes that it seems illusory to treat theft of stocks as a conversion but deny similar treatment to wages owed.

I’m not 100% settled on where I come down on these competing arguments, but, for purposes of California law, the majority defines where things stand.

BREAKING NEWS: Opinion in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association now available

Finally, the news drought comes to an end, and class action practitioners have been waiting for this one for some time.  Today, the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Duran v. U.S. Bank National Association (May 29, 2014). A more extensive analysis will have to wait, but the introduction includes some very telling statements, namely that the Supreme Court is not holding that statistics cannot be used for both liability and damages in class actions:

We encounter here an exceedingly rare beast: a wage and hour class action that proceeded through trial to verdict. Loan officers for U.S. Bank National Association (USB) sued for unpaid overtime, claiming they had been misclassified as exempt employees under the outside salesperson exemption. (Lab. Code, § 1171.) This exemption applies to employees who spend more than 50 percent of the workday engaged in sales activities outside the office. (Ramirez v. Yosemite Water Co. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 785 (Ramirez).)

After certifying a class of 260 plaintiffs, the trial court devised a plan to determine the extent of USB‘s liability to all class members by extrapolating from a random sample. In the first phase of trial, the court heard testimony about the work habits of 21 plaintiffs. USB was not permitted to introduce evidence about the work habits of any plaintiff outside this sample. Nevertheless, based on testimony from the small sample group, the trial court found that the entire class had been misclassified. After the second phase of trial, which focused on testimony from statisticians, the court extrapolated the average amount of overtime reported by the sample group to the class as a whole, resulting in a verdict of approximately $15 million and an average recovery of over $57,000 per person.

As even the plaintiffs recognize, this result cannot stand. The judgment must be reversed because the trial court‘s flawed implementation of sampling prevented USB from showing that some class members were exempt and entitled to no recovery. A trial plan that relies on statistical sampling must be developed with expert input and must afford the defendant an opportunity to impeach the model or otherwise show its liability is reduced. Statistical sampling may provide an appropriate means of proving liability and damages in some wage and hour class actions. However, as outlined below, the trial court‘s particular approach to sampling here was profoundly flawed.

Slip op., at 1-2.  Didn't expect that outcome, did you?

Bright v. 99¢ Only Stores holds that PAGA penalties are available for certain wage order violations

Employer:  Give it to me straight, Doc, is it serious?

Defense Counsel:  You'll need to sit down for this one.

Employer:  Okay.  Wait, there aren't any chairs here.

Defense Counsel:  I know!  Get it?  No chairs?  Now don't be like that....

I'm delaying the reporting just to build the suspense.  You have been wondering whether violations of Wage Order No. 7, subdivision 14 are violations of Labor Code § 1198, and here I am writing my first play.  But your wait is over.  In Bright v. 99¢ ONLY STORES, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Five) held that (1) violations of Wage Order No. 7, subdivision 14 are violations of section 1198; and (2) civil penalties under section 2699, subdivision (f) are available despite the fact that Commission wage order No. 7-2001 has its own penalty provision.

This action arises from a claim for civil penalties under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 ("PAGA") for violation of the suitable seating order of the Commission.  Commission Wage Order No. 7, subdivision 14, provides, in part: Wage Order No. 7, subdivision 14 provides: “(A) All working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats. [¶] (B) When employees are not engaged in the active duties of their employment and the nature of the work requires standing, an adequate number of suitable seats shall be placed in reasonable proximity to the work area and employees shall be permitted to use such seats when it does not interfere with the performance of their duties.”  Slip op., at 2, n. 2.  This requirement is sometimes known as the suitable seating requirement.  The trial court sustained the defendant's demurrer on the grounds that (1) failure to provide sufficient seating is not a condition “prohibited” by Wage Order No. 7, subdivision 14, and (2) even if it were, civil penalties are not recoverable under section 2699, subdivision (f), because Commission Wage Order No. 7-2001 contains its own civil penalty provision.

The Court of Appeal concluded that the issues raised in the appeal were matters of first impression.  On an issue of first impression, the Court began with the statute at issue:

We begin by examining the statutory and administrative scheme, starting with section 1198, which provides: “The maximum hours of work and the standard conditions of labor fixed by the commission shall be the maximum hours of work and the standard conditions of labor for employees. The employment of any employee for longer hours than those fixed by the order or under conditions of labor prohibited by the order is unlawful.”

Slip op., at 5.  The Court then held that, under the plain meaning of section 1198, suitable seating is a "standard condition of labor fixed by the commission."  Slip op., at 6.  The Court rejected defendant's argument that because the seating language was not expressed in prohibitory language, it was merely a suggestion.

Employer:  What about chairs that give off electric shocks at random intervals so nobody wants to sit in them?

Defense Counsel:  No.  Wait.  Yes, if that's what you want to do, but only after you augment your retainer.  Significantly.

Turning to the second question, the Court of Appeal quickly concluded that, because the suitable seating requirement did not have its own penalty provision, it is governed by section 2699, subdivision (f) of PAGA.  The Court noted that the penalty set forth in subdivision 20 is expressly described as a cumulative remedy, rendering it nonexclusive.

Employer:  I had a nightmare.  It was horrible.

Defense Counsel:  Tell  me about it.

Employer:  It was dark.  There was a sound.  It was like nothing I have ever heard before.  I think it was the sound of drool from a million plaintiff's attorneys splattering on the floor.

Defense Counsel:  It was no dream!

Employer:  Aaaaahhh!!!!..........

Breaking News: Ninth Circuit issue two class action opinions addressing novel issues in the Ninth Circuit

After a bit of a lull on the class action front, the Ninth Circuit had a busy morning.  Two major opinions on class action issues were just issued by Ninth Circuit panels, and both opinions are sure to generate a good deal of discussion.  Both address areas of unsettled law among various federal courts.  The first is of interest to wage & hour practitioners and the second addresses the argument that large statutory damage awards defeat "superiority" of the class action procedure:

  • Wang v. Chinese Daily News, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 27, 2010) is something of a kitchen sink of class action issues.  Among other things, the Ninth Circuit affirmed (1) the concurrent prosecution of a FLSA opt-in collective action and a Rule 23 opt-out class action, (2) the invalidation of Rule 23 opt-outs due to coercion, (3) the decision to conduct a corrective opt-out process after the trial, and (4) certification under Rule 23(b)(2).  The Court also held that the UCL was not preempted by the FLSA.
  • Bateman v. American Multi-Cinema, Inc. (9th Cir. Sept. 27, 2010) concerned the singular issue of a class certification denial on superiority grounds.  The Ninth Circuit concluded that none of the three grounds relied upon by the district court — the disproportionality between the potential statutory liability and the actual harm suffered, the enormity of the potential damages, or AMC’s good faith compliance — justified the denial of class certification on superiority grounds.

Both opinions are substantial, and I will try to give both an extended treatment this evening.  Full disclosure: Greg Karasik of Spiro Moss represents Plaintiff Bateman.

Civil Code section 3345 cannot be used to treble restitutionary remedy under UCL

In Clark v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court examined the interplay between the UCL and Civil Code section 3345, which provides that in an action brought by senior citizens to redress unfair competition, a trier of fact may award up to three times the amount imposed as “a fine, or a civil penalty or other penalty, or any other remedy the purpose or effect of which is to punish or deter.”  Without belaboring the extensive analysis of the legislative histories of the two statutes, the unanimous Court held:

We conclude that because Civil Code section 3345 authorizes the trebling of a remedy only when it is in the nature of a penalty, and because restitution under the unfair competition law is not a penalty, an award of restitution under the unfair competition law — which plaintiffs seek here — is not subject to section 3345's trebling provision.

Slip op., at 2.  You can find more analysis of the reversed decision from the Court of Appeal at The UCL Practitioner.

in brief: Evans v. Lasco Bathware, Inc. has a little something for everyone

While it deserves a more substantial discussion, Evans v. Lasco Bathware, Inc. (November 6, 2009) requires at least a brief mention.  In Evans, the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) reviewed an Order denying class certification.  The Court of Appeal affirmed.  The interesting elements of the opinion include (1) a discussion of when, in the Evans Court's view, damages become an issue of sufficient complexity to justify a denial of certification and (2) a discussion of "liability only" certification.  In this case, the complications arising when a defective shower pan caused varying degrees of damages in different homes convinced the Court to reject the "liability only" certification option in this case.  Nevertheless, that aspect of class actions is so infrequently discussed in California that it is of note that it was even considered here.

In Clark v. Superior Court, the Court of Appeal tackles a major, but novel question about the interplay between the UCL and statutory penalty provision protecting seniors

The California Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, Division Seven, has been in the thick of many a difficult class action or class-related question.  Why should today be any different?  After all, I spent an hour and half driving about 8 miles to work, so everything seems to be functioning as intended in our fine City and State.  But I digress.  Today, the Division Seven, in Clark v. Superior Court (May 21, 2009) was asked to reconcile statutes with similar purposes (consumer protection) but very different means of implementing those purposes.  The question presented to the Court makes the challenge clear:

Civil Code section 3345 (section 3345) authorizes the award of an enhanced remedy—up to three times greater than the amount of a fine, civil penalty "or any other remedy the purpose or effect of which is to punish or deter" that would otherwise be awarded—in actions by or on behalf of senior citizens or disabled persons seeking to "redress unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition." Is this enhanced remedy available in a private action by senior citizens seeking restitution under California’s unfair competition law (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.)?

(Slip op., at p. 2.)  Can the protected classification of senior citizens receive triple UCL restitution?  That's quite a question.  What might be more suprising at first blush is that the Court of Appeal said, "Yes."

Procedurally, after a class was certified, defendant National Western filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings, asserting section 3345’s enhanced, "treble damages" remedy was inapplicable to a private action under the unfair competition law.  The trial court granted the motion.  Plaintiffs filed a petition for a writ, and the Court of Appeal granted the petition, issuing the writ.  By necessity, the Court of Appeal reviewed the two laws:

Since 1977 the unfair competition law has prohibited unlawful, unfair or fraudulent business practices or unfair, deceptive, untrue or misleading advertising (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200) and subjected violators in actions prosecuted by public prosecutors to civil penalties not exceeding $2,500 for each violation (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17206), as well as to injunctions and restitution orders (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203). Private plaintiffs may also prosecute actions under the unfair competition law, but their remedies are limited to orders for injunctions and restitution. (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17203.) Damages and penalties, whether compensatory or punitive, are prohibited. (Korea Supply, supra, 29 Cal.4th at p. 1148 [only monetary relief available to private plaintiffs under unfair competition law is restitution; compensatory and punitive damages are not authorized]; Kasky v. Nike, Inc. (2002) 27 Cal.4th 939, 950 ["[i]n a suit under [unfair competition law], a public prosecutor may collect civil penalties, but a private plaintiff’s remedies are ‘generally limited to injunctive relief and restitution’"]; Cel-Tech, supra, 20 Cal.4th at p. 179 [under unfair competition law "[p]laintiffs may not receive damages, much less treble damages, or attorney fees"].)

(Slip op., at pp. 5-6.)  Many years later, the legislature determined that senior citizens were regular targets of unfair competition schemes and required additional protection.  A variety of potential statutes and amendments to existing laws were considered, including revisions to the UCL and the CLRA.  (Slip op., at pp. 6-10.)  Sweeping legislation was finally passed.

As finally enacted the legislation effected three major changes to California’s consumer protection laws relating to senior citizens and disabled persons. First, it amended the unfair competition law by adding Business and Professions Code section 17206.1,8 which authorizes the Attorney General and prosecutors in civil enforcement proceedings to recover an added civil penalty up to $2,500 (in addition to the $2,500 civil penalty available under Business and Professions Code section 17206) when the unfair practice is perpetrated against a senior citizen or disabled person. (See Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17206.1; Stats. 1988, ch. 823, § 1, pp. 2665-2666.)

Second, it amended the CLRA to authorize private litigants to recover, in addition to other remedies available under the act, including compensatory and punitive damages, an additional monetary award—up to $5,000—when the unfair practice prohibited by the act is perpetrated against a senior citizen or disabled person. (Civ. Code, § 1780, subd. (b)(1)(A)-(C); Stats. 1988, ch. 823, § 3, pp. 2667-2668.)

Third, it added section 3345 to the Civil Code, authorizing an enhanced remedy in actions brought by or on behalf of senior citizens seeking redress for "unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition." (§ 3345, subd. (a).) Section 3345, subdivision (a), limits the new provision to actions "brought by, or on behalf of, or for the benefit of senior citizens or disabled persons, as those terms are defined in subdivisions (f) and (g) of [Civil Code] Section 1761[10] to redress unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition." Section 3345, subdivision (b), provides the enhanced remedy: "Whenever a trier of fact is authorized by a statute to impose either a fine, or a civil penalty or other penalty, or any other remedy the purpose or effect of which is to punish or deter, and the amount of the fine, penalty, or other remedy is subject to the trier of fact’s discretion, the trier of fact shall consider all of the following factors, in addition to other appropriate factors, in determining the amount of fine, civil penalty or other penalty, or other remedy to impose. Whenever the trier of fact makes an affirmative finding in regard to one or more of the following factors, it may impose a fine, civil penalty or other penalty, or other remedy in an amount up to three times greater than authorized by the statute, or, where the statute does not authorize a specific amount, up to three times greater than the amount the trier of fact would impose in the absence of that affirmative finding."

(Slip op., at pp. 12-13.)  The Court then turned to the question:

Under the plain language of section 3345 two prerequisites must be satisfied before its enhanced remedy may apply: (1) The action must be brought by or on behalf of senior citizens or disabled persons seeking redress for "unfair or deceptive acts or practices or unfair methods of competition"—plainly satisfied here; and (2) the action must be one in which the trier of fact is authorized by a statute to impose a fine, civil penalty or any other penalty the purpose or effect of which is to punish or deter.

(Slip op., at p. 14.)  The Court then concluded that the enhanced restitution remedy was available:

Unlike Korea Supply and Cel-Tech, in this case the plaintiffs do not seek to justify monetary relief other than restitution under the unfair competition law: The enhanced remedy is sought under section 3345, a separate statute, which specifically authorizes such an enhanced remedy in unfair competition actions brought by senior citizens. We simply must presume the Legislature meant what it said when it provided section 3345 applied in unfair competition actions involving a fine, civil penalty or "any other remedy" the purpose of which is to punish or deter. (See People v. Toney (2004) 32 Cal.4th 228, 232 ["[i]f the statutory language is unambiguous, ‘we presume the Legislature meant what it said, and the plain meaning of the statute governs’"]; accord, Genlyte Group, LLC v. Workers’ Comp. Appeals Bd. (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 705, 714; see also Hood v. Hartford Life & Accident Insurance Co. (E.D. Cal. 2008) 567 F.Supp.2d 1221, 1227 ["[t]he text of the statute clearly indicates that section 3345 applies to the UCA [unfair competition law] and the CLRA, as both Acts prohibit ‘unfair practices’"].)

(Slip op., at p. 16-17.)  I can't imagine that this ruling won't at least generate a Petition for Review.

Are meal period premiums part of the "regular rate" in FLSA cases? One District Court says, "No."

In a news article entitled Must Employers Include Meal-Period Premium Payments in the "Regular Rate" Used to Compute the Overtime Owed to Their Employees?, it is reported that, on February 25, 2009, Judge Saundra B. Armstrong of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California held that meal-period premiums mandated by California Labor Code Section 226.7 need not be included in the "regular rate" for purposes of calculating an employee's overtime compensation under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), 29 U.S.C. para 201 et seq.   The ruling was issued in the context of a putative state-wide class-action in Rubin v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. CV 08-4214.

Read More

in brief: UCL Practitioner's post on Kwikset v. Superior Court (Benson) is a must-read

If you happen to read the UCL Practitioner with any regularity, you know that Kimberly Kralowec is as cool a customer as they come.  That's why I pay careful attention when she let's loose in prose on any appellate decision touching on the UCL and related False Advertising Law.  Her post earlier today on the recent Court of Appeal decision in Kwikset Corp. v. Superior Court (Benson) (Feb. 25, 2009) (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) is the most critical commentary that I can recall reading (but that criticism is well-justified, I think).  I've commented previously about my own concern that Division Three of the Fourth Appellate District has moved out of step with California's policies that favor consumer protection and resolution of issues with the class action device.  But the most recent Kwikset decision is little more than judicial legislation.  Be sure to check out what the UCL Practitioner has to say about Kwikset.

Read More

For the moment, California law is clear: no punitive damages for violations of labor code provisions regulating breaks

Greatsealcal100Whether punitive damages are available for violations of various labor code provisions has been something of an open question in California. You may recall, for instance, that a jury found against Wal-Mart in the matter of Savaglio v. Wal-Mart, awarding $172 million to the class members, including $115 million in punitive damages.  In that particular case, after Wal-Mart argued that punitive damages amounted to a penalty on a penalty, Judge Ronald Sabraw rejected the argument that meal and rest break premiums were penalties.  That particular finding was later confirmed as the correct interpretation in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094.  In any case, without clear guidance on the question, it has seemed prudent to at least request punitive damages for such violations and let a Court say that they weren't recoverable.

Yesterday, however, a Court of Appeal approached this issue from a different perspective.  In Brewer v. Premier Golf Properties (December 3, 2008) the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate Distirct, Division One) reviewed, among other things, whether a punitive damage award for violation of various Labor Code sections was valid.  The Brewer Court concluded that punitive damages are not available for several violations of the Labor Code: 

We are convinced, both by application of the "new right-exclusive remedy" doctrine and under more general principles that bar punitive damages awards absent breach of an obligation not arising from contract, punitive damages are not recoverable when liability is premised solely on the employer's violation of the Labor Code statutes that regulate meal and rest breaks, pay stubs, and minimum wage laws.

(Slip op., at pp. 10-11.)  The Brewer case was an individual action, but it is covered here because of the significant impact on many wage & hour class actions.  If you are curious about the "new right-exclusive remedy" doctrine, take a look at Rojo v. Kliger (1990) 52 Cal.3d 65.

It is worth noting that Savaglio remains on appeal and may ultimately affect this area of law.  However, Savaglio has been stayed pending the outcome in Brinker, so it will be several years before that case moves forward.

Read More