Most employers know that companywide policies or practices that do not strictly comply with applicable state or federal employment laws can expose employers to class action lawsuits by large numbers of employees seeking recovery of massive sums in damages, attorneys’ fees and costs. Unfortunately, traditional class action lawsuits are not the only representative actions employers should be concerned with. Recent litigation trends have shown that California’s lesser known Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”) can be equally, if not more harmful to employers than class actions due to steep penalties for minor violations.
WHAT IS PAGA?
Under PAGA, “aggrieved employees” can sue employers for alleged Labor Code violations. Like class actions, a PAGA plaintiff sues on a representative basis on behalf of themselves and other workers. However, unlike class action plaintiffs, PAGA plaintiffs do not seek damages; rather, they seek civil and statutory penalties formerly recoverable solely by state agencies in enforcement actions.
The distinction between recovery of damages in class actions and recovery of penalties in PAGA actions reflects the often-insidious nature of PAGA claims. While workers have long alleged “derivative” PAGA claims for penalties in connection with more substantive underlying Labor Code violations (meal or rest break violations, for example), we have seen a recent spike in PAGA suits alleging hyper-technical Labor Code violations with no underlying substantive violation, and where the “aggrieved employees” have suffered no actual harm.
WHAT'S AT STAKE?
Equally troubling for employers is the method by which significant penalties are aggregated. With a few significant exceptions, penalties generally range from $50 to $250 per violation. At first blush, this may not seem like much, however total penalties rise rapidly when considering that calculations are made on a per-employee and a per-pay period basis.
AN EXAMPLE ON HOW PAGA WORKS
Consider the following example based on one recent case:
Issue: An employee brought a PAGA-only lawsuit on behalf of himself and 400 other “aggrieved employees” against his employer for alleged Labor Code violations.
Claim: The employee claimed the employer’s 30-year practice of paying employees 9 days after the close of the applicable payroll period violated Labor Code Section 204(d), which requires payment to be made within 7 days of the close of the payroll period. The employee claimed that, under PAGA, the employer was liable for a minimum penalty of $100 per employee, per pay period, going back at least one year (the statutory limitations period for PAGA claims).
Exposure: With 400 employees, 24 pay periods per year, and $100 per violation, the plaintiff sought a minimum of $960,000 in penalties (not including substantial attorneys’ fees, costs and interest also available under PAGA), despite offering no evidence of harm suffered by the employees or prior notice of the issue.
OTHER IMPORTANT CONSIDERATIONS
In addition to a draconian penalties scheme, there are a myriad of additional aggravating factors for employers involved in PAGA litigation, such as:
- PAGA plaintiffs are not required to meet the rigorous class certification standards required of class action plaintiffs, meaning plaintiffs’ attorneys may be more likely to bring meritless “strike suits” aimed at obtaining quick settlements based on significant alleged penalties exposure.
- 75% of PAGA penalties recovered by way of settlement or judgment are directed to the state of California, while the "aggrieved employees” only keep 25%, reinforcing the notion that PAGA claims are frequently attorneys’-fee-driven, rather than for protecting employees.
STEPS FOR EMPLOYERS TO PROTECT THEMSELVES
Fortunately, there are a number of measures employers can take prior to and during wage and hour litigation which can dramatically reduce, or even eliminate, exposure to substantial penalties and damages. This includes:
- Regular reviews. Prior to litigation, we recommend regular detailed reviews of company policies and practices in order to identify areas of possible concern and ensure compliance with California’s ever-changing labor laws.
- Take action. On receipt of a new PAGA claim, taking immediate action to remedy an alleged violation within the Labor Code’s 33-day “safe harbor” time-period may help limit an employer’s exposure, and could bar a plaintiff from filing suit at all.
- Be aggressive. Once a PAGA or class action claim is in litigation, a proactive, aggressive approach to claim evaluation, investigation and litigation is critical.
For these reasons and more, it’s in an employers’ best interest to monitor these issues closely and seek input when appropriate.
Angela Reston-Nunez is a labor and employment attorney in Newmeyer & Dillion’s Walnut Creek office. For questions regarding PAGA, class action or individual wage and hour issues, or other employment law matters, please feel free to contact Angela Reston-Nunez at (925) 988-3249 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Newmeyer & Dillion
For more than 30 years, Newmeyer & Dillion has delivered creative and outstanding legal solutions and trial results for a wide array of clients. With over 70 attorneys practicing in all aspects of business, employment, real estate, construction and insurance law, Newmeyer & Dillion delivers legal services tailored to meet each client’s needs. Headquartered in Newport Beach, California, with offices in Walnut Creek, California and Las Vegas, Nevada, Newmeyer & Dillion attorneys are recognized by The Best Lawyers in America©, and Super Lawyers as top tier and some of the best lawyers in California, and have been given Martindale-Hubbell Peer Review's AV Preeminent® highest rating. For additional information, call 949-854-7000 or visit www.ndlf.com.