ZB, N.A., et al. v. Superior Court (Lawson) holds that "wages" are not recoverable as a PAGA penalty through Labor Code section 558

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So, it turns out that the answer to my question is GOAT, not goat (he says with tongue planted firmly in cheek). ZB, N.A., et al. v. Superior Court (Lawson) (September 12, 2019) was issued this morning, and, unsurprisingly I think, the Supreme Court dropped an off speed pitch over the plate and froze everybody. You could see the windup with the italics added by the Court to this passage:

Before the enactment of the PAGA, section 558 gave the Labor Commissioner authority to issue overtime violation citations for “a civil penalty as follows: [¶] (1) For any initial violation, fifty dollars ($50) for each underpaid employee for each pay period for which the employee was underpaid in addition to an amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages. [¶] (2) For each subsequent violation, one hundred dollars ($100) for each underpaid employee for each pay period for which the employee was underpaid in addition to an amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages.” (Id., subd. (a), italics added.)

Slip op, at 1-2. See that? It’s the tell for what’s coming:

What we conclude is that the civil penalties a plaintiff may seek under section 558 through the PAGA do not include the “amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages.” Although section 558 authorizes the Labor Commissioner to recover such an amount, this amount –– understood in context –– is not a civil penalty that a private citizen has authority to collect through the PAGA. ZB’s motion concerned solely that impermissible request for relief. Because the amount for unpaid wages is not recoverable under the PAGA, and section 558 does not otherwise permit a private right of action, the trial court should have denied the motion. We affirm the Court of Appeal’s decision on that ground. On remand, the trial court may consider striking the unpaid wages allegations from Lawson’s complaint, permitting her to amend the complaint, and other measures.

Slip op., at 2-3. So that’s it then.

There is, of course, a bit more, given that the Opinion is 30 pages long, but after the procedural history, the balance of the discussion is a detailed example of statutory construction. For instance, the Court finds that the wages referred to in Section 558 must be treated as a compensatory wage, else the provision would be internally inconsistent with Section 1197.1. Read it, if for no other reason than to see the thoroughness with which a sentence can be parsed, and persuasively I might add.

The Court was unanimous in its decision.

It isn’t entirely clear who you would call the “winner” here, given the disconnect between affirming the Court of Appeal and the practical result, but James L. Morris, Brian C. Sinclair and Gerard M. Mooney, of Rutan & Tucker, represented the Petitioners, who no longer have to deal with the potential for an award of unpaid wages as part of Section 558 penalties under PAGA.

Episode 23 of the Class Re-Action Podcast, discussing L'Chaim House, Inc. v. DLSE, is now available

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Still on a show bender, we are back with Episode 23 of the Class Re-Action Podcast. We discuss the unicorn known as the “on-duty meal period” by chatting about L'Chaim House, Inc. v. Div. of Labor Standards Enforcement (July 31, 2019).

People keep telling me they prefer shorter shows more often, so we are sticking with it for a while. And, as always, guests are welcome if you want to talk about something recent that interests you.

Episode 22 of the Class Re-Action podcast, discussing Voris v. Lampert, is now available

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This is almost looking like a trend. We are back with Episode 22 of the Class Re-Action Podcast. We discuss Voris v. Lampert (August 15, 2019), but I don’t know if we will convert anyone with our analysis. Ahhhh?!?!

NOTE: Correcting a comment I made on the podcast about Lawson, somehow I got it stuck in my head that opinions are due 60 days after submission. It’s 90 days, and I’m either becoming senile or too much junk is taking up valuable storage space in my head.

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

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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.

Labor Code section 218.5 controls contractual attorney fee provisions when wage and contract claims are intertwined

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This is a little nugget for the wage & hour set. In a matter of first impression, the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three), in Dane-Elec Corp. v. Bodokh (May 24, 2019) considered the effect of Labor Code section 218.5 on a prevailing party employer’s right to recover contract-based attorney fees from an employee where the employer successfully defended against a wage claim, found not to have been brought in bad faith, when the wage claim was inextricably intertwined with a contract claim for which the employer would otherwise be contractually entitled to recover attorney fees.

The Court described Labor Code section 218.5 as follows:

Labor Code section 218.5 is a fee-shifting statute in actions for nonpayment of wages. The first sentence of section 218.5(a) states: “In any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions, the court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party if any party to the action requests attorney’s fees and costs upon the initiation of the action.”There is a significant limitation if the prevailing party is not an employee. The second sentence of section 218.5 (a) states: “However, if the prevailing party in the court action is not an employee, attorney’s fees and costs shall be awarded pursuant to this section only if the court finds that the employee brought the court action in bad faith.”

Slip op., at 15. The issue in the case arose because the wage claim and a contract claim were inexplicably intertwined. The Court resolved the question after looking at apportionment rules and the purpose of similar fee-shifting statutes, such as the Cartwright Act. The Court observed that while section 218.5 isn’t exactly a one-way fee shifting statute, the bad faith requirement effectively renders it a one-way fee-shifting statute that favors employees.

Timbs v. Indiana to be cited in PAGA cases in 3...2...1...

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On Wednesday, February 20, 2019, the United States Supreme Court held, in Timbs v. Indiana, that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines applies to the states. You can find plenty of analysis about this decision out there as it applies to things like state asset forfeiture laws, so I won’t even try to duplicate all of that analysis here, But it occurs to me that we should expect to see this holding tossed into the mix in PAGA cases on the theory that a large PAGA penalty violates the Eighth Amendment. How well that works remains to be seen, since, just spitballing here, a large PAGA penalty is pretty much only going to arise when an employer has lots of employees and violates lots of wage and hour provisions lots of times. Of course, out at the fringe, this argument might have some traction. I’m sure we’ll see in the next few years.

I'm moving to an up-and-coming employment law firm...

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A awesome opportunity came my way quite recently, and I can now announce that I am joining Moon & Yang, effective February 25, 2019, where I will be focusing exclusively on employment class actions. I received quite a vote of confidence from the partners, for which I am very grateful. With a surging employment practice, this is a chance to great things.

Petition for Review of PAGA decision denied in Huff v. Securitas Security Services USA

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I previously mentioned the surprising appellate court opinion in Huff v. Securitas Security Services USA (May 23, 2018). When it was issued, I was certain that review would be requested, and I would not have been surprised if review had been granted. However, I missed the fairly quick denial of review and depublication. That denial issued on August 8, 2018. Sorry I missed that; this is a noteworthy opinion.

BREAKING NEWS: Troester v. Starbucks opinion will be released tomorrow

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Hot off the notification presses, the California Supreme Court will release its opinion in Troester v. Starbucks tomorrow, at about 10:00 a.m.

Wagers on whether California will adopt the Lindow rule for de minimis time?  Comments?

Huff v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc. finds broad standing for plaintiffs bringing PAGA claims; [UPDATED]

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I haven't posted anything yet about Epiq Systems Corp. v. Lewis (what's there to say that hasn't been kicking around for years in various ways), but certainly that decision motivates a renewed focus on PAGA claims in California.  And would you look at that?!  Here's a new decision about PAGA.  In Huff v. Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., the Court of Appeal (Sixth Appellate District) examined the following question:

This case presents the question of whether a plaintiff who brings a representative action under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA; Lab. Code, § 2698, et seq.) may seek penalties not only for the Labor Code violation that affected him or her, but also for different violations that affected other employees.

Slip op., at 1.  So at this point, I must admit that my assumption for about 5 seconds was that the answer would be a big "No, they may not."  To my surprise, the Court held to the contrary:

As we will explain, we conclude that PAGA allows an “aggrieved employee” –– a person affected by at least one Labor Code violation committed by an employer –– to pursue penalties for all the Labor Code violations committed by that employer.

Slip op., at 1.  That was unexpected.

The Court's primary analysis is well summarized by this passage:

When we interpret a statute our primary task is to ascertain the Legislature’s intent and effectuate the purpose of the law. We look first to the words of the statute itself as the most direct indicator of what the Legislature intended. (Hsu v. Abbara (1995) 9 Cal.4th 863, 871.) PAGA provides in section 2699, subdivision (a) that “any provision of this code that provides for a civil penalty to be assessed and collected by the Labor and Workforce Development Agency or any of its departments, divisions, commissions, boards, agencies, or employees, for a violation of this code, may, as an alternative, be recovered through a civil action brought by an aggrieved employee on behalf of himself or herself and other current or former employees pursuant to the procedures specified in Section 2699.3.” The statute then specifically defines “aggrieved employee” in section 2699, subdivision (c): “ ‘aggrieved employee’ means any person who was employed by the alleged violator and against whom one or more of the alleged violations was committed.”

As the trial court did, we interpret those provisions to mean that any Labor Code penalties recoverable by state authorities may be recovered in a PAGA action by a person who was employed by the alleged violator and affected by at least one of the violations alleged in the complaint. Indeed, we cannot readily derive any meaning other than that from the plain statutory language, and Securitas does not offer a reasonable alternative for what those provisions mean when read together.

Slip op., at 5-6.  After this, the Court spent a lot of time rejecting arguments that it should look to the legislative history (the Court held that when a statute is clear, it is not to consider legislative history) and other arguments about absurd results.  It rejected all of those arguments.

Of course, in good Apple presentation fashion, this case has a couple of items that qualify as a "one more thing" moment.  One of those moments included the following:

Section 2699, subdivision (f) creates a civil penalty for any Labor Code violation for which a penalty is not provided elsewhere in the law. The penalties under section 2699, subdivision (f) are “one hundred dollars ($100) for each aggrieved employee per pay period for the initial violation and two hundred dollars ($200) for each aggrieved employee per pay period for each subsequent violation.” Securitas posits that using the definition of aggrieved employees in section 2699, subdivision (c) to calculate those penalties would allow over-counting in some cases to include weeks worked by employees affected by just one of the Labor Code violations alleged in the complaint, even if it is not the one giving rise to the penalties imposed by section 2699, subdivision (f). To the contrary, it is entirely possible to harmonize the two provisions. The method of calculation under section 2699, subdivision (f) imposes penalties based on the total number of employees that have been affected by an employer’s Labor Code violations. Though Securitas calls that “over-counting,” it is not impermissible for the Legislature to impose penalties measured in that way. Even if the method of calculation provided for by section 2699, subdivision (f) is something of a blunt instrument, it is not our role to rewrite the statute. (People v. Garcia (1999) 21 Cal.4th 1, 14.) Separation of powers principles require us to interpret the law as written, “and leave for the People and the Legislature the task of revising it as they deem wise.” (Id. at p. 15.) We also note that PAGA gives a court broad discretion to “award a lesser amount than the maximum civil penalty amount … if, based on the facts and circumstances of the particular case, to do otherwise would result in an award that is unjust, arbitrary and oppressive, or confiscatory.” (§ 2699, subd. (e)(2).) So the statute incorporates a remedy if the penalty calculation is unfair or arbitrary as applied to a particular employer.

Slip op., at 12-13.  Let that sink in for a moment.  If I am not imaging things, I believe that this means that for subdivision (f) penalties, the Court held that the correct method of counting up the penalties would be to count the total number of employees that qualify as "aggrieved" by any violation an multiply that number by the $100 or $200 penalty.  Oh my.  So, if this stands the test of time, more employers will avoid class actions with class waivers in their arbitration agreements, but if there are violations of any of the sections included in PAGA, the penalty calculation for that one year will be absolutely brutal.  Big winner?  The LWDA.  For California employers in the long run it will likely be a slight loss.  While Epiq will cut into class actions, that will be countered with larger penalty recoveries.  And since the statutory period is just one year, an employer that doesn't fully correct issues will see plaintiffs returning to that well with regularity.

Respondent and Plaintiff was successfully represented by Michael Millen.

UPDATE: In response to a question about my post, I want to clarify something that is potentially unclear. When I wrote, “…if there are violations of any of the sections included in PAGA, the penalty calculation for that one year will be absolutely brutal,” I was referring to the penalty look-back period of one year prior to filing. In other words, I was not saying that a specific one year period was implicated by this decision. I was only observing that the penalties for a one-year statute of limitation could be high, compared to a four-year statute in a wage and hour class action (plus whatever time passes while a case is pending).