Wednesday, October 11, 2017

California Court of Appeal Holds Employees Not Required to Prove Injury or Intent in a PAGA Representative Lawsuit for Employer’s Itemized Wage Statement Violations.

A wage statement allows an employee to determine whether her employer has correctly compensated her for her labor, or whether she has been short-changed. California Labor Code section 226(a) seeks to ensure that employees receive accurate wage statements by requiring employers to provide timely, itemized wage statements to their employees. In addition to being timely, wage statements generally must include the following nine categories of information: (1) gross wages earned; (2) total hours worked (with exceptions); (3) the number of piece-rate units earned and any applicable piece rate if the employee is paid on a piece-rate basis; (4) all deductions from pay; (5) net wages earned; (6) the dates of the pay period; (7) the name of the employee and only the last four digits of her social security number or an employee identification number; (8) the name and address of the legal entity that is the employer (with additional information required for farm labor contractors); and (9) all applicable hourly rates in effect during the pay period and the corresponding number of hours worked at each hourly rate by the employee (with additional information required for temporary service employers). 
California Labor Code sections 226(e) and 226.3 provide
hefty penalties for wage statement violations.

California has empowered both individuals and the government to bring legal claims for violations of Section 226(a). Because wage statements are critical for determining whether an employee receives fair and adequate pay, California’s statutes provide steep penalties for wage statement violations. 
  
Individuals have a private right of action for statutory damages under Labor Code section 226(e). Under Section 226(e), individuals may seek statutory damages (sometimes called statutory penalties) if they have suffered an “injury” as a result of their employer’s “knowing and intentional” failure to comply with Section 226(a). An employee who proves she was injured by the knowing and intentional acts of her employer may recover the greater of her actual damages or fifty dollars ($50) for the initial pay period and one-hundred dollars ($100) for each subsequent pay period during which a violation occurs, not to exceed an aggregate penalty of four-thousand dollars ($4,000). Cal. Lab. Code § 226(e).

The state may pursue civil penalties under Labor Code section 226.3, and individuals are empowered to sue for these civil penalties as representative plaintiffs on behalf of the government, pursuant to the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA). If the government’s Labor Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) or a PAGA plaintiff proves the employer violated Section 226(a), the Court may award civil penalties in the amount of two-hundred-and-fifty dollars ($250) for the initial pay period and one-thousand dollars ($1,000) for each subsequent pay period during which a violation occurs. Typically, an employer must have some prior notice of its wrongful practice before the higher, subsequent-violation penalty is imposed. See Amaral v. Cintas Corp. No. 2, 163 Cal. App. 4th 1157, 1209 (2008). 

In a recent decision from California’s First District Court of Appeal, Lopez v. Friant & Associates, LLC, -- Cal.Rptr.3d --, 2017 WL 4251126 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 26, 2017), the Court clarified that a PAGA representative plaintiff seeking civil penalties under Section 226.3 must only prove the violation of the requirements in Section 226(a) in order to succeed in his claims. In Lopez, the plaintiff brought a PAGA-only action seeking civil penalties for his employer’s failure to include the last four digits of employees’ social security or employee identification number on 5,776 itemized wage statements, in violation of Section 226(a)(7). Id. at *2. The trial court granted defendant’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that a PAGA plaintiff must show evidence of not only a violation of section 226(a) but also the employer’s “knowing and intentional” violation. Id. at *3. The PAGA plaintiff appealed arguing that he was not required to show either (1) a “knowing and intentional” violation or (2) “injury” within the meaning of section 226(e) to prevail on his PAGA claim. Id. The Court of Appeal looked to the plain language and legislative history of the statute and PAGA, and concluded that the PAGA plaintiff was correct on both positions. Id. **3-9. This ruling knocks out a major defense tactic for employers seeking to overcome claims of itemized wage statement violations in PAGA actions – namely, the notion that the PAGA plaintiff has failed to meet the proof requirements of Section 226(e) – and affirms the robust remedies available for wage statement violations under PAGA.

Statutory penalties under California Labor Code section 226(e) and civil penalties under section 226.3 for PAGA violations have a one-year statute of limitations.

If you believe your employer is failing to provide you with timely and accurate wage statements, contact Bryan Schwartz Law. 

Friday, October 6, 2017

The United States Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument on Individual Arbitration Agreements in Employment Contracts in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis and Consolidated Cases


On Monday, the Supreme Court of the United States heard oral argument in one of the most important employment cases in recent history. In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, and consolidated cases, Ernst & Young LLP v. Morris, and N.L.R.B. v. Murphy Oil, Inc., petitioners asked the Court to address whether employees can join together to sue their employer for labor violations, or whether employers may enforce individual arbitration agreements. Transcript available here. Bryan Schwartz Law has previously blogged about the Morris, Lewis, and Murphy Oil cases here, here, and here. Based on the questioning at oral argument, the conservative justices of the Roberts Court appear poised to deliver a victory to big business at the expense of employees.

Background

Whether individual arbitration clauses in employment agreements are enforceable will depend on the Court’s interpretation of two federal laws, the Federal Arbitration Act of 1925 (FAA) and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 (NLRA).

The FAA provides that arbitration agreements “shall be valid,” except, according to a savings clause, “upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract.” 9 U.S.C. § 2. Arbitration agreements require parties to resolve legal disputes in front of a private arbitrator rather than in a court of law. Employers frequently seek to condition employment on a worker’s agreement to forego class-wide relief if a dispute arises, and instead pursue their claims in individual arbitrations.

Section 7 of the NLRA prohibits employers from interfering with employees’ right to engage in “concerted activities” for their “mutual aid or protection.” 29 U.S.C. § 157. Class actions have long been considered a concerted activity, which permit large numbers of employees who share common disputes with large employers to band together to pursue relief they would otherwise have foregone due to fear of being singled out for retaliation, or because the cost of hiring an attorney for their individual case would dwarf the amount of their individual wage claims. Agreements to arbitrate individually are in tension with the NLRA’s right to “concerted” activity.

During the years John Roberts has served as Chief Justice, the Supreme Court has consistently stretched the FAA to favor big business, and disfavor class actions.[1] In 2011 and 2013, the Supreme Court held that the FAA allows companies to use fine-print arbitration clauses to force consumer and merchant disputes to be arbitrated on an individual basis. See AT&T v. Concepcion, 563 U.S. 333 (2011) (Scalia, J.); American Express v. Italian Colors Restaurant, 133 S.Ct. 2304 (2013) (Scalia, J.). Bryan Schwartz Law previously blogged about Concepcion and Italian Colors here and here. These rulings effectively bar claims by millions of individuals who have each suffered a relatively small injury by a corporation, by baring them from using the class action mechanism.

Unlike consumers or merchants, federal law specifically recognizes a worker’s right under the NLRA to engage in “concerted activity” against employers. In Lewis v. Epic Systems Corp., and Morris v. Ernst & Young LLP, the Seventh and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal recognized “concerted activity” as a substantive federal right which would render individual arbitration clauses unenforceable against employees under the FAA’s savings clause. The employers appealed.

In Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, and the consolidated cases, petitioners asked the Court to determine whether the FAA gives an employer the freedom to condition employment on an employee’s agreement to proceed individually in arbitration. Put another way, the issue was whether the NLRA gives workers a chance at a more level playing field, by protecting  employees from their employer’s attempts to restrain their ability to act jointly to vindicate rights in an arbitral or other forum.

Oral Argument

Questioning from conservative Justices Roberts and Alito suggests they will back the employers’ arguments that the right to “concerted activity” ends at the courthouse or arbitral forum’s doors. These justices seem satisfied to interpret the FAA to permit companies to use forced individual arbitration to bar workers from coming together in a concerted or joint legal action against their employer. (See Transcript, pp. 5, 34-36, 41-44). They appear inclined to subordinate the purpose of the NLRA to the FAA’s mandate to honor arbitration agreements absent some very specific Congressional command. (See Transcript p. 4). Justice Thomas and the Supreme Court’s newest addition, Justice Gorsuch, were silent throughout the argument, but can be expected to vote with the vocal conservative Justices.

Justice Kennedy seems poised to contort the language of the NLRA to the benefit of employers, too. In the first question of the day, Justice Kennedy suggested the meaning of “concerted action” under the NLRA may somehow exclude class actions. (Transcript p. 5. Justice Kennedy raised a hypothetical of two employees seeking to arbitrate their wage claims. (Transcript pp. 15-16). He implied that employees’ concerted activity rights could be satisfied if each employee hired the same attorney for individual representation – though the whole point of class action is the efficiency of not having countless individual actions seeking the same relief. Justice Kennedy showed no apparent concern for workers’ potential confidentiality concerns, or conflicts of interest that can arise in separate individual representation of numerous employees against a single employer. (Transcript pp. 37). Justice Kennedy suggested, that “many of the advantages of concerted action can be obtained by going to the same attorney” (Transcript p. 39), but this is absurd: corporations and everyone else know that most workers will never step forward individually to prosecute their claims. Companies don’t want to arbitrate at all – they want to eliminate legal challenges by workers, and know the Supreme Court has gifted them a sledgehammer for doing so, with the creative distortion of the FAA to ban group litigation.

Even before Concepcion, Justice Kennedy has been willing to twist the plain language of the FAA to the benefit of employers. In Circuit City Stores, Inc. v. Adams, 532 U.S. 105, he interpreted the FAA to apply to all employment contracts, except for interstate transportation workers, despite the fact that the plain language of the FAA suggests the Act excludes all employees working in interstate commerce. 9 U.S.C. § 1 (“nothing herein contained shall apply to contracts of employment of seamen, or railroad employees, or any other class of workers engaged in foreign or interstate commerce.”) (emph. added).

To the Court’s progressive wing, the resolution of these issues could not be clearer – the NLRA is a Congressional command that falls within the FAA’s express savings clause, and the NLRA prevents employer restraints on employees’ concerted action, including joint efforts to seek labor law remedies.  

Justice Breyer made his view clear that the NLRA requires invalidation of forced individual arbitration agreements in employment contracts, because, under the NLRA, “what the employer cannot stop is joint effort” including bringing legal claims in a class or collective action. (Transcript, pp. 56-57). Enforcing individual arbitration agreements would gut a foundation of labor law that represents “the entire heart of the New Deal.” (Transcript, pp. 7-8).

Justice Ginsberg described as the “driving force” of the NLRA the recognition of an “imbalance” in bargaining power between employers and employees, and explained that the protection of employees’ “concerted activity” was meant to correct that imbalance. (Transcript, pp. 5-6). A worker with small monetary damages can thereby join with other workers sharing similar claims in order to bring a larger claim to recover their damages jointly. (Transcript, pp. 21).

Justice Kagan pointed to the Supreme Court’s prior precedent, federal statutes, and the Constitution in support of the progressive wing’s straightforward position. The Supreme Court in Eastex v. N.L.R.B., 437 U.S. 556, 565-566, 566 n. 15 (1978) recognized that the NLRA protects employees from retaliation by their employers when they resort to “administrative and judicial forums” for their mutual aid and protection. (Transcript, pp. 6-7). Sections 102 and 103 of the Norris-LaGuardia Act of 1932, upon which the NLRA was modeled, state that any contract that prevents concerted activities of workers for their mutual aid and protection “shall not be enforceable in any court.” (Transcript, pp. 18). Once such a basic right has been articulated, as in, e.g., the First Amendment right to free speech, its broad protection may not be easily narrowed in its exercise. (Transcript, pp. 66).  

To Justice Sotomayor, the NLRA is a federal law that invalidates contracts that constrain concerted activity, making forced individual arbitration clauses illegal and unenforceable, in much the same way that “state law concepts like fraud[ and] duress,” invalidate contracts. (Transcript pp. 13-14).

No Proportional Check on Corporate Wrongdoing

The conservative justices of the Roberts Court appear determined to interpret the FAA based on its text, or as Congress intended, but rather by any means available to protect large corporations against consumers, small businesses, and now employees. Berkeley Law’s Dean, and the famed constitutional law scholar Erwin Chemerinsky, has observed that to effectively protect their rights employees need a proportional response to violations by large corporations:

With the rise of the large corporation in the early twentieth century, courts and legislatures developed class actions as a procedural device to protect individuals from the harms of exploitation by large entities. Courts and legislatures realized that large entities have incentives to engage in widespread but small violations of the law, because corporations know that people cannot afford to sue over a small violation of the law. When individual litigation is not economically rational, the threat of litigation is not an effective deterrent to illegal behavior. Absent a robust government bureaucracy dedicated to enforcing consumer- or employee- protection laws, class actions are an essential aspect of law enforcement. And even the most aggressive enforcement agency cannot deal with even a significant fraction of law violations. Litigation is essential for deterring wrongdoing and class actions suits are necessary when a large number of people suffer a relatively small injury.[2]

If the Supreme Court proceeds as expected, based on Monday’s oral argument, millions of workers will lose an effective means to remedy many violations of their rights. More and more employees will be forced to enter into individual arbitration agreements and face their employers alone.





[1] Jessica Silver-Greenberg & Robert Gebeloff, “Arbitration Everywhere, Stacking the Deck of Justice,” N.Y. Times, Oct. 31, 2015.
[2] Erwin Chemerinsky, The Case Against the Supreme Court, § II.5 (2014).

Monday, October 2, 2017

Appellate Court Hits Tipped Workers

On September 6, 2017, the Ninth Circuit in Marsh v. J. Alexander’s LLC, No. 15-15791 (9th Cir. 2017) dealt a blow to tipped workers. The Court rejected U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) regulatory guidance that would have strengthened tipped workers’ claims to full minimum wage for the hours spent working outside the scope of tipped work. Currently, unlike California law (which rejects such a notion), the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) allows employers to reduce a tipped worker’s wages based on what that worker earns in tips, thereby passing the payment of wages to the customer. This wage reduction for employers is called a “tip-credit.” The DOL’s interpretation of this provision would have made it so that the tip-credit would not apply to the hours an employee spent doing non-tipped work. In other words, when a waiter spends time cleaning, taking out trash, folding napkins and other non-tipped work, the DOL interpretation would have considered this type of work a “dual job,” separate from the employee’s tipped work, for which the worker is entitled to receive full minimum wage. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the DOL’s interpretation, a decision further disempowering low-wage workers.

Tip-credit Explained
The FLSA generally requires employers to pay a cash wage of $7.25 per hour to their employees. 29 U.S.C. § 206(a)(1)(c). But where an “employee engage[s] in an occupation in which he customarily and regularly receives more than $30 a month in tips,” id. § 203(t), his or her employer may pay a reduced cash wage and claim the employee’s tips as a credit towards the $7.25 per hour minimum, id. § 203(m).

As part of the DOL’s clarification of the statutory phrase “more than $30 a month in tips,” the DOL promulgated the “dual jobs” regulation, which maintains that an employee can be “employed in a dual job.”. 29 C.F.R. § 531.56(e). The regulation provides that if the employee is engaged in one occupation in which “he customarily and regularly receives at least $30 a month in tips,” and is also engaged in a second occupation in which the employee does not receive the required amount of tips, then the employer can take a tip credit only for the first occupation. Id. To further clarify enforcement, the DOL provided guidelines in its Field Operations Handbook (“FOH”), of 29 C.F.R. 531.56(e) to interpret the regulation.

The FOH provides that “an employer may not take a tip credit for the time that a tipped employee spends on work that is not related to the tipped occupation.” FOH § 30d00(f) (2016). For example, the FOH states that “maintenance work (e.g., cleaning bathrooms and washing windows) are not related to the tipped occupation of a server; such jobs are nontipped occupations.” Id. As such, the FOH would support the conclusion that the employee is effectively employed in “dual jobs.” The Ninth Circuit, however, takes issue with this interpretation.

The Ninth Circuit points out that the DOL regulation itself provides two examples of situations where an employee is not employed in dual jobs: (1) “a waitress who spends part of her time cleaning and setting tables, toasting bread, making coffee and occasionally washing dishes or glasses”; and (2) a “counterman who also prepares his own short orders or who, as part of a group of countermen, takes a turn as a short order cook for the group.” 29 C.F.R. § 531.56(e). These examples appear to come at odds with the FOH, especially applied to the facts in Marsh.

Marsh Challenge to Tip Credit Application to Non-Tipped Work
In Marsh, plaintiffs argued in reliance on the DOL guidance that certain job-related duties that were not tipped work should be excluded from the FLSA tip credit, and plaintiffs should be paid the minimum wage for the time engaged in these distinct duties. Marsh, No. 15-15791 at 15. Plaintiffs contended that the defendant employer should pay its servers minimum wage – without a reduction for tips - when the servers engaged in duties such as stocking food, taking out trash, sweeping floors, wiping down tables and walls, or other tasks that require no customer interaction. Id.

The Ninth Circuit court disagreed and held that the FOH was not entitled to deference because the “dual jobs” regulation is unambiguous. See Auer v. Robbins, 519 U.S. 452, 462 (1997) (holding that courts should consider agency guidance in cases where the regulation is ambiguous); see also Chase Bank USA, N.A. v. McCoy, 562 U.S. 195, 208 (2011). Looking back to the FLSA and the “dual jobs” regulation, the court determined that the dual jobs regulation interprets § 203(t)’s reference to employees “engaged in an occupation” to mean employed in a “job,” not performing an activity. See 29 C.F.R. § 531.56(e) (emphasis added). Furthermore, citing Abramski v. United States (2014), the Court wrote that “nothing in the FLSA’s ‘context, structure, history, [or] purpose’ suggests that Congress intended to use the term ‘occupation’ in § 203(t) to mean discrete duties performed over the course of the day.” Abramski v. United States, 134 S. Ct. 2259, 2267 (2014). Based on the regulation, the Ninth Circuit determined that plaintiffs could not state a claim by alleging that their discrete tasks or duties comprised a dual job.

The Future for Tipped Workers
Marsh illustrates the continuing controversy around the tip-credit provision, including its discriminatory effects and how it continues to push costs of labor onto the consumer. In its interpretation of the tip credit, the Marsh Court limits the ability of the minimum wage to protect the well-being of low-wage service workers, perpetuating a system that has grown the ranks of the working poor. For employees living hand-to-mouth, being paid at least the minimum wage may be the difference between making rent and eviction, eating and starving, providing for children or having them under the care of the state.