Another Court of Appeal holds that PAGA claims cannot be split and sent partially to arbitration

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Right now, Lawson v. ZB, N.A., review granted Mar. 21, 2018, S246711, is making its way through the California Supreme Court. The case asks whether a representative action under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq.) (‘PAGA”) seeking recovery of individualized lost wages as civil penalties under Labor Code § 558 fall within the preemptive scope of the Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. § 1 et seq.). Lawson was argued on June 5, 2019. Supplemental briefing was requested and received, and the matter was deemed submitted on June 27, 2019. That means a decision is imminent.

Today, in Mejia v. Merchants Building Maintenance, LLC (August 13, 2019), the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division One) another Court of Appeal came down on the side of the Courts of Appeal that have concluded that PAGA claims cannot be split so as to direct a portion to arbitration:

We agree with the conclusion of the Lawson and Zakaryan courts on this question, and conclude that a single PAGA claim seeking to recover section 558 civil penalties may not be "split" between that portion of the claim seeking an "amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages" and that portion of the claim seeking the $50 or $100 per-violation, per-pay-period assessment imposed for each wage violation. The result is that an employee bringing a PAGA claim to recover the civil penalties identified in section 558 may not be compelled to arbitrate that portion of her PAGA claim that seeks an amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages pursuant to that statute, while the rest of the claim that seeks the $50 or $100 per-pay-period per violation portion of the penalty remains in a judicial forum. We therefore affirm the trial court's order denying the MDM defendants' motion to compel arbitration in this case

Slip op., at 6.

As for reading tea leaves, the Lawson matter (perhaps to be known as the ZB matter due to a change in the name of the case), as noted above, requested supplemental briefing on this question:

If this court concludes Labor Code section 558's "amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages" is not a "civil penalty" recoverable under the Private Attorneys General Act (Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq.), should the trial court be ordered to deny ZB's motion to compel arbitration?

Lawson docket. That question suggests that at least someone on the Supreme Court is thinking about whether an aggrieved employee can recover unpaid wages at all through Labor Code § 558. There’s a curve for you.

How long do "on-duty" meal periods have to be? 30 minutes.

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This really feels like the setup for a bad joke that only employment lawyers in California would get. Question: How long does an “on-duty” meal period have to be? Answer: 30 minutes. Follow-up: But….it’s “on-duty.” Put your hand down. I’m not calling on you. In L’Chaim House, Inc. v. Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (July 31, 2019), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division One), the Court was called upon to review a wage and hour citation by the DLSE. The Court summarized, “On appeal, L’Chaim claims that under the applicable Industrial Welfare Commission (IWC) wage order, it may require its employees to work “on-duty” meal periods that, unlike periods when employees are ‘relieved of all duty,’ do not need to be at least 30 minutes long.” (Slip op., at 1.)

The Court’s discussion was more interesting than you might think, since the Court necessarily had to explain the difference between on-duty and off-duty meal periods, and what events can transform one into the other. This led to the Court’s rejection of the appellant’s position:

What L’Chaim misunderstands is that an on-duty meal period is not the functional equivalent of no meal period at all. On-duty meal periods are an intermediate category requiring more of employees than off-duty meal periods but less of employees than their normal work. Recognizing this, the trial court stated that even if L’Chaim’s employees were not entitled to “an uninterrupted meal period,” they “may at least be afforded 30[] minutes of limited duty enabling them to eat their meal in relative peace.” L’Chaim attacks the notion that its “employees may be given ‘limited duty’ while on a meal break” as creating “several absurd consequences.” According to L’Chaim, because employees do not clock out for on-duty meal periods, there is no way to track the length of those periods. In addition, “the creation of a new ‘limited duty’ requirement to [Wage Order No. 5, subdivision 11(E)] would force employers to delineate which tasks an employee is expected to perform during his or her on-duty meal period,” which L’Chaim claims “would be difficult and even potentially dangerous for the residents.”

But any such practical challenges are inherent in providing “on-duty meal periods” at all, not just periods of a particular length. Moreover, the question presented here is whether an on-duty meal period must be at least 30 minutes long, not how courts might evaluate the adequacy of the period under different factual scenarios. Thus, while we do not address what constitutes an acceptable on-duty meal period in the context of this case, what we can say is that employees of 24-hour residential care facilities for seniors are unambiguously entitled to “on-duty meal periods” under subdivision 11(E). L’Chaim’s interpretation would effectively read that requirement out of Wage Order No. 5.

Slip op., at 5. If this still doesn’t convince you, the Court made one final observation that seems pretty solid:

Finally, even if any doubt remained, we agree with the DLSE that section 512 compels the same conclusion. Under that statute, which L’Chaim does not address in its briefing, an employer is prohibited from “employ[ing] an employee for a work period of more than five hours per day without providing the employee with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes,” unless the employee works no more than six hours in a day and agrees to waive the meal period. (§ 512, subd. (a).) Although section 512 contains exceptions for workers in several industries, none of them apply here. And although the IWC has broad authority to “adopt or amend working condition orders with respect to . . . meal periods . . . for any workers in California consistent with the health and welfare of those workers,” at all relevant times—including when subdivision 11(E) was added to Wage Order No. 5—that authority has been specifically limited “as provided in Section 512.”

Slip op., at 7. The Wage Orders cannot negate Labor Code provisions. The balance of the decision is worth a quick read if you practice in this area.

The tort of "Trespass to Chattel," by itself, does not support a UCL violation

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I just wanted to write “trespass to chattel,” so this case gets a post just for that. In Pneuma International, Inc. v. Cho (June 24, 2019), the Court of Appeal (First Appellate District, Division One) was asked to review an assortment of complaints about the outcome of a trial. One issue was whether the failure to transfer ownership of a domain, the “trespass to chattel” that was at issue, constituted a fraudulent or unfair practice under the UCL. While Pneuma argued that the UCL’s “unlawful” prong is construed broadly, so there should be no resistance to borrowing the tort to serve as the predicate violation, the Court was not persuaded. After noting the dearth of authority on that particular tort, the Court said:

Although not directly relevant to whether Pneuma may “borrow” a tort as a basis for a UCL cause of action, respondents correctly observe that Pneuma may not recover damages under a UCL cause of action because remedies under the act are purely equitable in nature. (E.g., Korea Supply Co. v. Lockheed Martin Corp. (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1134, 1150-1151 [remedies provided under UCL “are limited” and “it is well established that individuals may not recover damages”].) Pneuma does not identify what additional relief it would be entitled to if it prevailed on its UCL cause of action. The trial court already ordered the equitable relief of transferring the egpak.com website to Pneuma after it prevailed on a cause of action for trespass to chattel.

Slip op., at 15. So, does this mean that, where the UCL could supply some additional relief, a common law tort could serve as a predicate violation of the UCL? More realistically, can you even concoct a scenario where it would make sense to say that a common law tort constituted the predicate violation?

It's still possible to waive enforcement of arbitration agreements according to Nunez v. Nevell Group, Inc.

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Other than the minor surprise I now experience when any motion to compel arbitration is denied, such agreements having achieved a status as super-contracts with super powers, the decision in Nunez v. Nevell Group, Inc. (pub. ord. May 28, 2019) isn’t too surprising. In Nunez, the Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) affirmed the trial court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration on the basis of waiver, delay, and prejudice.

The Court covers two topics in its discussion of waiver that might be of use to others. First, the Court examines the idea of waiver generally. Second, the Court examines the “clear and unmistakable” standard that asks whether a CBA clearly and unmistakably waives the right to a judicial forum for the particular type of claim in question. Keep in mind that, as the Court here observed, federal and California state courts may reach slightly different conclusions regarding application of the “clear and unmistakable” waiver standard, since California Courts are not bound by federal court decisions on the subject.

FAA section 1 held to exempt some California truck drivers from FAA coverage in Nieto v. Fresno Beverage Co.

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The arbitration battle lines have somewhat diminished in their spectacular scope, but that doesn’t mean the war is entirely over. Case in point: in Nieto v. Fresno Beverage Co. (certified for publication March 22, 2019), the Court of Appeal (Fifth Appellate District) affirmed a trial court ruling that found beverage company deliver drivers to be exempt from Federal Arbitration Act (9 U.S.C. §1 et seq., the “FAA”) by operation of the exemption in Section 1 for what the Supreme Court has denominated “transportation workers.”

The case is not too long of a read, but it nevertheless does a thorough job of reviewing decisions addressing the Section 1 exemption (see pages 6-13 for the state of affairs).

There is also a quick reminder in the discussion about waiver of arguments not raised in the Opening Brief.

Kenneth H. Yoon, Stephanie E. Yasuda, and Brian G. Lee of Yoon Law and Douglas Han, Shunt Tatavos-Gharajeh, and Daniel J. Par of Justice Law Corporation represented the prevailing plaintiff on appeal.

Perfunctory certification order reversed and sent back to the trial court in Myers v. Raley's

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The standard of review governing certification orders is effectively unique to class actions. As the Supreme Court explained in Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, Inc. 59 Cal.4th 522 (2014): “We review the trial court’s actual reasons for granting or denying certification; if they are erroneous, we must reverse, whether or not other reasons not relied upon might have supported the ruling.” Id., at 530. In other words, only the stated reasons are reviewed under the abuse of discretion standard. And if a stated reason includes a legally erroneous provision, that, by definition, constitutes and abuse of discretion. The record is not searched for an alternative basis to affirm.

In Myers v. Rayey’s (March 12, 2019), the Court of appeal (Third Appellate District) [Yolo!] concluded that one paragraph of substance was insufficient to permit review, since, without a statement of reasoning and analysis, there is no way to meaningfully review what is simply an ultimate conclusion:

To turn to the record to concoct some basis for the trial court’s denial of certification is to abolish the relevant standard of review, ignore the trial court’s reasoning, and apply ordinary appellate review contrary to the legion of cases that prohibit appellate revisionism. This we cannot do.

Slip op., at 15. As part of its discussion of the insufficiency of a “perfunctory” order, the Court explicitly disagreed with Dailey v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 214 Cal. App. 4th 974 (2013), which had affirmed an exceedingly terse certification denial order.

This hits close to home, as I was unsuccessful on an appeal of a certification order with about as much (or little) in the way of analysis. If I had been in front of this panel…. And if it weren’t for those meddling kids!

I also get the feeling when reading the statement of facts that the Court had a strong opinion about how things should turn out after round two but couldn’t actually say how things should turn out.

In Moorer v. Noble L.A. Events Inc., the Court of Appeal confirms that a PAGA plaintiff can't keep the aggrieved employee share for himself

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In Moorer v. Noble L.A. Events Inc. (February 27, 2019), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Seven) definitively answered the question of whether the twenty-five percent share of a PAGA action that goes to “aggrieved employees” can be retained by the plaintiff bringing the action as a type of relator share. No, you can’t do that:

Moorer contends that because a PAGA action is a type of qui tam action, under which the private citizen enforces a statute on behalf of the government, the 25 percent of the civil penalties not allocated to the government should be distributed to the aggrieved employee who brings the PAGA action. Although Moorer asserts policy arguments for why this approach would serve the goals of PAGA, the Supreme Court in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC, supra, 59Cal.4th 348 (Iskanian) held otherwise. As the Supreme Court explained, a PAGA representative action “conforms to the traditional criteria” for bringing a qui tam action, “except that a portion of the penalty goes not only to the citizen bringing the suit but to all employees affected by the Labor Code violation.” (Iskanian, at p.382;see Williams v. Superior Court (2017) 3Cal.5th 531, 545 (Williams) [PAGA “deputiz[es]employees harmed by labor violations to sue on behalf of the state and collect penalties, to be shared with the state and other affected employees”].)

Slip op., at 7-8.

Inconsistent Spanish and English arbitration clauses leads to invalidation in Juarez v. Wash Depot Holdings, Inc.

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I won't hit you with too much analysis of a case right before the 4th of July holiday, but in Juarez v. Wash Depot Holdings, Inc. (July 3, 2018), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Six), upheld a trial court order declining to enforce an arbitration agreement.  The peculiarity that led to the result is pretty simple:

A company provides its employees with a handbook setting forth its employment policies. The handbook is written in English and Spanish. The handbook requires arbitration of employment disputes and denies an employee's right to bring an action under the California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). The English version states that the denial of the right to bring a PAGA action is severable if such denial is found by a court to be unenforceable. The Spanish version provides that the PAGA denial is not severable. 

Slip op., at 1.  The Court concluded that this was potentially deceitful and declined to sever the provision regarding PAGA, agreeing that the entire agreement was unenforceable.

Jack Bazerkanian of Shin Ryu Bazerkanian, LLP, and James M. Lee, Caleb H. Liang of LTL Attorneys LLP, represented the successful Plaintiff and Respondent.

It's a day ending in "y," so rounding is cool says AHMC Healthcare, Inc. v. Superior Court

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Set aside, for a brief moment, the legal arguments about rounding in the context of California law (I know...it's a legal blog, but I can digress because I say so).  Here's what I don't get in the class context: how does it pass the smell test to say to some employees, who lost some wages from rounding, that it's cool because their money basically went to some other employees.  Using the rationale of rounding jurisprudence, I think I could make wage system that randomly takes money from half a workforce and gives it to the other half.  It's neutral as applied by definition.  It's random so it's "fair" on its face.  What's wrong with that?  And if it's not okay, why is rounding okay.

Anyhow, in AHMC Healthcare, Inc. v. Superior Court (June 25, 2018), the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) held that rounding was proper in a system the Court characterized as "neutral on its face and as applied."  Slip op., at 2.  On undisputed facts, it was shown that slightly more employees lost time than gained time, but the gainers did slightly better in aggregate.  Slip op., at 4-5.

After discussing federal decisions that approved of rounding in the aggregate, the Court said this:

Because California’s wage laws are patterned on federal statutes, in determining employee wage claims, California courts may look to federal authorities for guidance in interpreting state labor provisions. 

Slip op. at 11.  I don't think that's right, at least not as stated.  California extensively diverges from federal wage and hour law in many areas.  The California Supreme Court has issued a number of decisions rejecting application of federal law in a variety of contexts, noting in several cases that Wage Orders must basically state express incorporation of a federal standard before it will be read into a Wage Order.  Notably, and I think relevant to rounding, California's definition of what constitutes compensable time differs from the federal standard.  What no Court has yet attempted to explain is why rounding is not analyzed in the way other wage and hour obligations are analyzed when comparing California law to federal law.  Given the undeniably employee-centric nature of California wage and hour law, I find this at least peculiar.

This issue will receive more attention before it is settled I predict.

Jeffrey P. Fuchsman and Zareh A. Jaltorossian of Ballard Rosenberg Golper & Savitt represented the successful petitioner. 

Shine v. Williams-Sonoma, Inc. puts the spotlight on releases in wage and hour class actions

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See what I did there?  Shine. Spotlight.  Nevermind.  Today's wage and hour class action opinion comes to us courtesy of Shine v. Williams-Sonoma, Inc. (May 29, 2018).  In Shine, the Court of Appeal (Second Appellate District, Division Four) reviewed de novo whether a demurrer to a reporting time pay complaint was properly sustained on res judicata grounds.  Multiple bases were argued in support of the Trial Court's Order, but the Court found that the res judicata basis was sufficient alone, and did not require analysis of the other arguments.  As to res judicata, the Court said:

The Morales complaint sought recovery of unpaid wages on behalf of class members employed by Williams-Sonoma since June 24, 2009. The allegations in that case included the claims of failure to provide meal and rest periods, overtime and minimum wages, timely wages, and final paychecks to the Morales class plaintiffs.
In the present action, Mr. Shine seeks reporting-time pay for on-call shifts that were canceled in early 2013, within the period covered by the Morales settlement agreement. Because reporting-time pay is a form of wages, a claim for reporting-time pay could have been raised in the Morales action. (See Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094, 1111–1112 [reporting-time pay, like split-shift and overtime pay, is a form of wages even though it serves a dual purpose of shaping employer behavior].) The fact that no claim for reporting-time pay was alleged in Morales does not alter our determination that the same primary right, to seek payment of wages due, was involved in both Morales and this case. (See Boeken v. Phillip Morris USA, Inc. (2010) 48 Cal.4th 788, 798–799.)

Slip op., at 7.  The Court also discussed Villacres, but, compared to Villacres, the outcome seems more obvious here when the language of the prior release is considered:

Like the Augustus release, the Bonilla settlement agreement released “all claims, demands, rights, liabilities and causes of action that were or could have been asserted (whether in tort, contract or otherwise) for violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the California Labor Code, the California Business and Professions Code, the Private Attorneys General Act (‘PAGA’), the applicable Industrial Welfare Commission Orders or any similar state or federal law, whether for economic damages, non-economic damages, liquidated damages, punitive damages, restitution, penalties, other monies, or other relief based on any facts, transactions, events, policies, occurrences, acts, disclosures, statements, omissions or failures to act pled in the Complaint, which are or could be the basis of claims that Defendant failed to pay wages or overtime, failed to provide meal or rest breaks or compensation in lieu thereof, failed to provide timely wages and final paychecks, committed record-keeping violations, provided noncompliant wage statements, failed to reimburse for business expenses, or engaged in unfair business practices at any time on or before the date of Preliminary Approval.” (Italics added.)

Slip op., at 12 (boldface emphasis added).

Separate from all of this, I have a concern about the Villacres holding that allows any enumerated list of released items to be treated as a "general release."  This seems to muddy the waters as to what constitutes a general release and what constitutes a specific release.  As it stands, this seems to re-define "specific release" to mean a release with an expressly enumerated scope and a "general release" to mean any release with coverage broader than what is expressly enumerated, particularly where identified by the phrase "all claims."  So you can have a "general" release of "all" wage payment claims.  Perhaps we should call "general" releases "total coverage" releases and all other releases "specific" or "itemized" coverage releases.

Respondents and Defendants were successfully represented by Melanie L. Bostwick, Randall C. Smith, Jessica R. Perry, and Allison Riechert Giese of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe