Guest post by Charlie Nelson Keever:

Brace yourself.  Plaintiffs can now use representative PAGA actions as the basis for a statewide “fishing expedition” to discover alleged employer misconduct.

"Hello, I am suing you" nametag
Copyright: iqoncept / 123RF Stock Photo

Now, I’m a baby lawyer (or, more aptly, an almost baby lawyer) – I’m a Summer Associate trying to figure out what this means so I can tell you all about it. And while my brilliant and talented supervising attorney (Hey, Nancy Yaffe!) assures me that I’ve understood this correctly, this does not smell right to me.

First of all, there’s this thing called PAGA (The Private Attorneys General Act), that allows one employee to initiate a civil action against an employer on behalf of other allegedly aggrieved employees for Labor Code violations. Employees like representative PAGA actions because they don’t need to meet the rigorous requirements of traditional class actions. So basically, one employee having a problem at work – say, they’re not getting appropriate meal breaks – can use this super convenient tool to sue their employer. Not only that, they get to act the hero and say they’re suing on behalf of other “aggrieved” employees, even if they don’t know if anyone else is having the same problem. These lawsuits bring up a lot of questions like “Who is an ‘aggrieved employee’?” and “How much discovery should be allowed?” Conflicts over these issues make PAGA lawsuits particularly burdensome and expensive for defendant-employers to manage.

Last week, the CA Supreme Court answered one of those questions. In Williams v. Superior Court, Plaintiff-employee Michael Williams filed a representative PAGA action against Defendant-retailer Marshalls alleging that the company failed to provide him and other employees with proper meal and rest breaks, and that it failed to provide timely wage payments and accurate wage statements. To bolster his claims, Williams served interrogatories requesting contact information from 16,500 current and former non-exempt Marshalls’ employees throughout California – not just at the location where he worked. Marshalls objected on the grounds of relevance, scope, burden, and employee privacy. They essentially argued that Williams had no reason to believe that his issues at work were company-wide. So the trial court limited production of contact information to employees at the store where Williams worked.  The Court of Appeal agreed.

But the California Supreme Court disagreed, and found that nothing more than a mere allegation of a state-wide policy issue is necessary to compel preliminary discovery. So essentially, if one disgruntled employee says they have a problem, they’re entitled to contact information for employees all over the state to figure out if anyone else is having the same problem. While the Court held that this wasn’t an invasion of employee privacy, I’m willing to bet that a lot of employees would disagree. The Court also opposed the lower courts’ conclusions that discovery seeking statewide contact information was unduly burdensome to the defendant employer.

So What Can Employers Do?

While this might sound like all bad news for employers, the Court did shed some light on how employers might protect themselves and their employees by limiting the scope of discovery if they are unlucky enough to get sued in a PAGA action.

  • First, the Court noted that there might be “special reason[s] to limit or postpone” a PAGA plaintiff’s access to contact information (though the Court didn’t specify what those reasons might be). It will be up to employers to set forth specific facts that demonstrate undue burden and/or particular privacy concerns.
  • Second, the Court suggested that an employer might seek a protective order that would condition discovery on, for example, a confidentiality requirement or prohibition against using the information for purposes outside the confines of a specific lawsuit.
  • Finally, the Court indicated that an employer attempting to subvert such broad discovery might file a motion to “establish the sequence and timing of discovery,” although the mere availability of this measure may do more harm than good, as it tends to undermine the argument that the discovery is unduly burdensome.

Here’s my takeaway: even with these potential interventions, the best protection for employers is compliance with the Labor Code, and fixing any issues as soon as the PAGA notice is served. Now would be a good time for employers to review previous posts related to the PAGA from our blog.

Charlie Nelson Keever is a summer associate, based in the firm’s Los Angeles office.