Thursday, December 20, 2018

Ninth Circuit Holds Catholic School Teacher fired after Cancer Diagnosis Can Sue School for Discrimination, Not Barred by First Amendment

On December 17, 2018, the Ninth Circuit reversed a decision by the United States District Court for the Central District of California in Biel v. St. James School, A Corp., et al., Case No. 17-55180.

Plaintiff Kristen Biel, a fifth-grade teacher for Defendant, filed a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) when St. James Catholic School fired her after she told the School that she had breast cancer and needed time off from work to undergo chemotherapy. The district court dismissed Biel’s claims at summary judgment—holding that her lawsuit under the ADA was barred by the First Amendment’s “ministerial exception.” After her case was dismissed, Plaintiff Biel appealed to the Ninth Circuit.

In November 2013, Plaintiff Biel received a positive teaching evaluation from the School’s principal, noting that Biel was “very good” at promoting a safe and caring learning environment for her students. Less than six months after that evaluation, Biel was diagnosed with breast cancer. When she disclosed her diagnosis to the School’s administrators, she was told her employment contract would not be renewed because “it was not fair … to have two teachers for the children during the school year.”

Biel sued St. James in the United States District Court for the Central District of California, alleging that her termination violated the ADA, which prohibits employment discrimination based on disability. St. James moved for summary judgment, arguing that the First Amendment’s ministerial exception to generally applicable employment laws barred Biel’s ADA claims. The district court agreed and granted summary judgment for St. James.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, finding that the total circumstances of Biel’s employment did not qualify her as a minister for the purposes of the ministerial exception.

In Hosanna-Tabor, the only case where the U.S. Supreme Court has applied the ministerial exception, the Court focused on four major considerations to determine if the ministerial exception applied: (1) whether the employer held the employee out as a minister, (2) whether the employee’s title reflected ministerial substance and training, (3) whether the employee held herself out as a minister, and (4) whether the employee’s job duties included “important religious functions.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171, 192 (2012).

In Hosanna-Tabor, Cheryl Perich, a teacher for a Lutheran school, was fired after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy and brought ADA claims against the school. The Supreme Court found that the ministerial exception did apply because Perich was more than just a teacher in the Lutheran school. She had a special title of “Minister of Religion” conferred to her by the congregation and distinct from other teachers. Perich led her students in daily prayer, and she also led the school wide mass that occurred twice each school year. Perich claimed a federal tax benefit for employees earning compensation in the "exercise of the ministry" on her tax returns, and she also had to complete extensive religion training in the Lutheran doctrine that took her six years to complete in order to be a commissioned minister. In light of these circumstances, the Supreme Court held that Perish was a minister covered by the ministerial exception.

The Ninth Circuit found that Biel, by contrast, had no sort of credentials, training or titles like Perich. Biel was Catholic, but St. James Catholic School did not require its employees to be Catholic to teach. Biel did not have any extensive training in religion or the Catholic pedagogy. Biel taught all fifth-grade subjects, including a thirty-minute religion class using a workbook on the Catholic faith prescribed by the school administrators. And while Biel joined her students in prayer twice daily, Biel did not lead her students in prayer, and her only job duties at the School’s monthly mass were to keep her class orderly and quiet.

After a holistic examination of her training and duties demonstrated that Biel had a limited role in her student’s spiritual lives, the Ninth Circuit held the ministerial exception did not apply, reversing and remanding her case back to the district court. Biel’s lawyer, Andrew Pletcher, said Biel is still struggling with cancer but is delighted by the Ninth Circuit's ruling.

Friday, November 30, 2018

New York Times Investigation Supports Bryan Schwartz Law's Race Harassment Class Action Against Tesla

One year ago, Bryan Schwartz Law, along with co-counsel Larry Organ and the California Civil Rights Law Group, filed a rare racial harassment class action, because use of the "N-word" and other harassment are so common at Tesla's Fremont auto manufacturing plant. Today, after an in-depth investigation, the New York Times published a feature discussing the disturbing pattern at Tesla.

The story begins:

Owen Diaz had seen swastikas in the bathrooms at Tesla’s electric-car plant, and he had tried to ignore racist taunts around the factory. "You hear, ‘Hey, boy, come here,’ ‘N-i-g-g-e-r,’ you know, all this," said Mr. Diaz, who is African-American.

Similar accounts of race harassment follow, profiling a number of the witnesses in Bryan Schwartz Law’s case. 

If you have information about race harassment at Tesla, contact Bryan Schwartz Law today.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Pass the Gravy, But Don't Hold the Wages

Tomorrow, many Americans will prepare their Thanksgiving feast from a box of assembled ingredients, opting to skip the crowded grocery store frenzy by ordering their Thanksgiving meal from a meal kit delivery service. However, customers may be left with a bad taste in their mouths to learn that many of the workers that assemble their meals are being subjected to unsafe, unlawful working conditions and unfairly compensated for their work. 

That is the subject of a recent class action lawsuit filed in Northern California against Blue Apron, claiming that Blue Apron failed to pay workers overtime and failed to provide them with mandatory meal and rest breaks.

Meal kit delivery services are growing in popularity, and there are number of brands to choose from like Blue Apron, Martha and Marley Spoon, HelloFresh, or Sun Basket. Forbes reports the trend for these online meal-kit delivery services will continue, forecasting online sales of meal kits to top $10 billion by 2020, up from about $1 billion in 2015. These meal kit delivery services have capitalized on their success by reinventing dinner, making it easy and accessible for cooks of all skill levels. 

However, there is one group of people who have plenty of complaints about this new industry: the workers

Blue Apron employs over 1000 employees at their warehouse center in Richmond, California where nearly 8 million meal kits are assembled each month. Even under fair conditions, the job is difficult. Blue Apron workers assemble the perishable meal kit boxes inside warehouses kept at a temperature below 40 degrees. According to an investigative report by Buzzfeed, Blue Apron employees reported working 12 hour shifts, five to six days each week on the assembly line in order to meet production deadlines. 

On October 5, 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed against Blue Apron in the Alameda County Superior Court, alleging that Blue Apron failed to properly pay its workers, failed to provide its workers with meal and rest breaks, and failed to provide workers with accurate itemized wage statements. The lawsuit covers all Blue Apron hourly employees that work/worked in California from October 5, 2014 to the present. Plaintiff and the putative class are represented by the Turley & Mara Law Firm, APLC. The case was removed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California on November 19, 2018 (Fairley v. Blue Apron, Inc., Case No. 3:18-cv-07000).

If you believe you have been subjected to employment discrimination, unfair pay or unsafe working conditions, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law today. 

Ignorance of the Law is no Excuse

“Ignorance of the law is no excuse,” particularly when it comes to an employer’s responsibility to pay its workers according to current wage laws. That’s the upshot from the California Court of Appeal’s opinion in Diaz v. Grill Concepts Services, Inc., 23 Cal. App. 5th 859 (2018).

In Diaz, the employer claimed its failure to pay timely its workers was not “willful” – an element of proof for a waiting time penalty claim under Labor Code § 203 – because the employer was purportedly unable “to locate” an amendment to a local Los Angeles ordinance. This amendment to the local wage law required employers to pay certain hotel workers a specific living wage which exceeded the state minimum wage law. The court was unpersuaded.

The court explained several circumstances under which an employer’s failure to pay all wages due upon termination or resignation are not “willful,” including: (1) uncertainty in the law, (2) representations from a taxing authority that no further payment is warranted, and (3) “the employer’s ‘good faith mistaken belief that wages are not owed’ grounded in a ‘good faith dispute,’ which exists when the ‘employer presents a defense, based in law or fact which, if successful, would preclude any recovery on the part of the employee.” Id. at 868. None applied in this case.

To the contrary, the “undisputed facts show that Grill Concepts suspected it was underpaying its employees and went so far as to confirm that the living wage law was in the midst of being amended, but then did nothing else.” Id. at 869. The employer just kept running the same web search which failed to produce information about the amended statute. Id. Because the employer ignored multiple, obvious ways to inform itself of a change in the living wage law, the court affirmed that the employer’s “inability to locate the amended ordinance does not preclude the finding that its failure to pay was willful” for purposes of establishing Labor Code § 203 waiting time penalty liability. Id. [1]

While it should not have taken a court of appeal to state the obvious, nevertheless, workers and workers’ advocates should find comfort in knowing that California courts will not allow an employer to bury its head in the sand to avoid properly paying its workers.

If your employer refuses to pay you earned wages because it claims not to know the law, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law for a free case evaluation to determine if we can assist you.

[1] The court also rejected the employer’s argument that the amended statute was unconstitutionally vague, in part because of “the absence of any evidence that any other hotelier or restauranteur had any problem reading the ordinance to pay its employees the proper living wage.” Id. at 873. In addition, the court rejected the employer’s misreading of Labor Code § 203 as purportedly allowing a trial court to waive waiting time penalties “for equitable reasons” when the relevant statutory language lacks any such discretionary authority and instead includes language mandating the imposition of such penalties upon a finding of willful violation, as was the case here. Id. at 874-75.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Bryan Schwartz Law Submits Amici Curiae Brief on Behalf of Impact Fund and 12 Leading Non-Profits: the Ninth Circuit Should Support Courts' Broad Power to Protect Those Who Assert Statutory Rights, in Acosta v. Austin Electrical Services

When a worker has the courage to step forward to assert his or her statutory rights - like the right to be paid the minimum wage and overtime under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) - he or she must be free from intimidation by corporate defendants. Courts must retain the prerogative to intervene on behalf of  individuals and class and collective action members, to prevent wrongdoing companies from engaging in misleading and coercive communications with witnesses and potential claimants, designed to suppress participation in actions asserting important, protected rights. 

In Acosta v. Austin Electrical Services, LLC, 322 F.Supp.3d 951 (D.Ariz. 2018), the District Court issued a preliminary injunction (among other things) striking declarations a company gathered in trying to beat back a FLSA lawsuit, because the declarations it gathered from its workers were based upon misleading communications. As in other similar cases against other companies, when it pressured employees into signing declarations to use in its defense, Austin Electrical did not tell the workers the details of the lawsuit, who was representing the workers, what they might stand to gain in the suit (recovering unpaid wages), or other important details. The company appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal.

In the amicus brief supporting the U.S. Department of Labor, Bryan Schwartz Law, along with Nichols Kaster and Apollo Law, on behalf of the Impact Fund and a dozen other leading non-profits, detailed the many cases in which courts have properly exercised their authority to curtail defendants' improper conduct in lawsuits. For example, employers overreach when confronted by FLSA claims if they begin contacting alleged collective action members without providing them full and complete information about their rights, the lawsuit, and the employer's potentially adverse interests. In addition to describing the strong, historic protections for those asserting FLSA claims, and examples of employer practices that courts intervene to stop, the amicus brief details best practices to guide courts in ensuring robust protections for those bravely asserting wage claims.

If you are seeking to assert wage claims and are facing an employer who seeks to retaliate or keep you and others from protecting your rights, contact

Monday, October 1, 2018

Governor Brown Signs Wave of Sexual Harassment Legislation

Yesterday, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law numerous amendments to the sexual harassment provisions of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). The bills were part of a wave of sexual-harassment-related legislation resulting from the groundswell of public support for the #Metoo movement. While the Governor vetoed many of the sexual-harassment-related bills that made it to his desk, the signed bills provide important new protections for employees in California. This blog post discusses some of these bills.

I.                   SB 1300 clarifies and expands employee rights under FEHA.

Governor Brown signed SB 1300, a bill which clarifies and strengthens the rights of employees who seek to shed light on workplace harassment and other discrimination.  

A.   A single instance of sexually harassing conduct may trigger a triable sexual harassment claim.

Perhaps most importantly, SB 1300 clarifies the “severe or pervasive” legal standard for proving sexual harassment claims (sexual, or otherwise, under the FEHA). Under the FEHA (and the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII), sexual harassment is actionable if the sexual conduct is so “severe or pervasive” as to create a hostile work environment. “Severe or pervasive” harassment alone triggers the action, unlike other discrimination and retaliation claims, which may become actionable only if the employee experiences a tangible loss or denial of job benefits. See 2 Cal. Code. Regs. § 11034, subd. (f); Meritor Sav. Bank, FSB v. Vinson, 477 U.S. 57, 67-68 (1986); Lyle v. Warner Bros. Television Prods., 38 Cal.4th 264, 279, 284 (2006).

SB 1300 clarifies that under FEHA’s “severe or pervasive” standard, “a single incident of harassing conduct is sufficient to create a triable issue regarding the existence of a hostile work environment if the harassing conduct has unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s work performance or created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.” Id. The legislature rejected the “stray remarks doctrine,” affirming the decision in Reid v. Google, Inc., 50 Cal.4th 512 (2010) – in other words, a single harassing remark should not be dismissed as being merely a “stray remark,” for the purpose of assessing an employer’s liability. It is also no defense for an employer that a particular occupation may have had more frequent sexual commentary or conduct in the past (disapproving Kelley v. Conco Companies, 196 Cal.App.4th 191 (2011)). Indeed, the Legislature went so far as to declare expressly that: “Harassment cases are rarely appropriate for disposition on summary judgment.” Id., subd. (e) (citing and adopting Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc., 178 Cal.App.4th 243 (2009). 

SB 1300 makes it more likely that victims of sexual harassment will get their day in court. What action may constitute “severe” or “pervasive” harassment has often been highly contested in sexual harassment cases, and unfortunately, in the past, some courts have ruled that workplace behavior that most women would find abusive was neither “severe or pervasive.” For example, in Brooks v. City of San Mateo, 229 F.3d 917 (9th Cir. 2000) the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a single incident in which a fellow employee touched a plaintiff's breast under her sweater, while very offensive, did not rise to the level of “severe or pervasive” harassment for which Title VII and FEHA offer a remedy. On this basis, the appellate court upheld the district court’s grant of summary judgment for the employer, which meant that the plaintiff’s claims could not proceed to trial. Notably, last year, Alex Kozinski, who penned Brooks, stepped down from his seat on the Ninth Circuit rather than face an investigation into complaints of harassment by numerous women, including his former employees. SB 1300 expressly overturns Brooks’s nauseating “single grope” rule for claims brought under FEHA. Gov’t Code § 12923, subd. (b).

B.     Employers have a duty to prevent third party harassment of all stripes.

SB 1300 creates liability for employers who fail to prevent unlawful harassment of employees by non-employees where the employer knew or should have known of the discrimination and failed to take appropriate remedial action. This provision now extends not only to sexual harassment, but all forms of harassment based on a protected status. Gov’t Code § 12940.

C.    Employers may not obtain costs for plaintiffs’ worthy FEHA claims.

FEHA authorizes a court in certain circumstances and in its discretion to award the prevailing party in a civil action reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees. California Code of Civil Procedure section 998 permits defendants to recover defense costs if a jury awards a smaller award to the plaintiff than the defendant previously offered in settlement. A defendant’s section 998 offer in a FEHA case used to have the effect of exerting pressure on a plaintiff to accept a settlement rather than face the prospect of covering defendant’s costs, even if the plaintiff prevailed at trial.

SB 1300 provides that a defendant may only receive fees and costs, regardless of any settlement offer, if a case is “frivolous, unreasonable, or groundless when brought, or the plaintiff continued to litigate after it clearly became so.” Gov’t Code § 12965, subd. (b). The new law allows plaintiffs with worthy claims to seek their day in court without worrying about being on the hook for defendants’ fees and costs.

D.    Release of claims agreements and non-disparagement agreements related sexual harassment claims are unlawful.

SB 1300 prohibits employers from requiring employees to sign non-disparagement agreements as well as release of claims agreements as a condition of employment, continued employment, a raise, or bonus. Gov’t Code § 12964.5. These provisions will prevent employers from coercing or tricking employees into signing agreements that effectively silence them discussing workplace harassment or that strip them of their right to bring a claim under FEHA.

II.                SB 820 prohibits confidentiality provisions in sexual harassment settlements.  

It has become a common practice for employers to condition settlement of sexual harassment disputes on a complaining employee’s silence. Going forward, such provisions are expressly void and unenforceable for claims that have been filed in an administrative action or in court. SB 820 prohibits employers from conditioning settlement of certain claims of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or harassment or discrimination on the employee’s silence. The bill does allow for a provision that shields the identity of the claimant and all facts that could lead to the discovery of his or her identity, including pleadings filed in court to be included within a settlement agreement upon the request of the claimant. However, this provision does not apply if a government agency or public official is a party to the settlement agreement. This bill extends to disputes beyond the employment context, and takes effect on January 1, 2019.

III.             AB 3109 voids contracts and settlement provisions that seek to waive a party’s right to testify in a government proceeding concerning alleged criminal conduct or sexual harassment.

AB 3109 makes void and unenforceable any contract or settlement provision that waives a party’s right to testify in an administrative, legislative, or judicial proceeding concerning alleged criminal conduct or alleged sexual harassment, when the party has been required or requested to attend the proceeding. Civil Code § 1670.11. Like SB 1300 and SB 820, AB 3109 frees employees who have experienced sexual harassment and others to share their experiences with the public. This law takes effect on January 1, 2019.

IV.             SB 1343 brings sexual harassment training to more workplaces.

Employers of five or more employees, including temporary or seasonal employees, are now required to provide at least two hours of sexual harassment training to supervisory employees and at least one hour of sexual harassment training to non-supervisory employees by January 1, 2020, and every two years thereafter. See SB 1343; Gov’t Code §§ 12950, 12950.1. This is a major expansion of FEHA’s sexual harassment training requirements, as the law previously extended training only to supervisory employees of employers with fifty or more employees. This expansion recognizes the value of educating all employees that they have a right to work in an environment free of sexual harassment and associated retaliation. 

V.                Conclusion

In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.” California’s new laws will ensure that more victims of workplace harassment and others have their day in court and can more freely shed light on problems that persist in California workplaces.

If you have been a victim of sexual harassment or unwanted sexual advances in the workplace, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law today. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Bryan J. Schwartz Awarded 2018 Attorney Advocate Award by The Wage Justice Center

Today, Bryan J. Schwartz, principal at the law firm Bryan Schwartz Law, will accept the 2018 Attorney Advocate Award from the Wage Justice Center at an evening fundraiser in Los Angeles, California. (See press release here).

The Wage Justice Center fights for economic justice on behalf of low-wage workers in California. The non-profit organization specializes in piercing corporate shell games to hold employers accountable when they commit wage theft. 

Bryan Schwartz Law regularly represents low-wage workers in wage and hour class actions. The firm seeks swift relief for its clients, and pursues justice for as long as it takes. 

One of the firm’s signature cases involves wage violations at restaurants in Los Angeles and Orange County, in which the wealthy owner of a defunct business attempted to shield himself from personal liability for the business’s wage violations. After workers filed the class action suit, the employer immediately fired the named plaintiff, later closed his restaurants, and filed for personal and corporate bankruptcy. During nearly eight years of litigation, Bryan and his firm won over $1.5 million in back wages, damages, penalties, fees and costs from the individual employer on behalf of the terminated employee (whose wage loss was determined to be $3,000) after victories in bankruptcy court, a bench trial, a jury trial, several trips to the Court of Appeal, and collections proceedings. See Quiles, et. al. v. Koji’s Japan, Inc. et al. (Orange Cnty. Sup. Ct.) Case No. 30-2010-00425532. (Read more about the Quiles trial here)

The firm continues its fight for the class of restaurant employees who suffered wage violations, after securing a major victory at the court of appeals. In Turman, et al., v. Superior Court (2017) 17 Cal.App.5th 969, California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, Division Three (in Orange County), held that an individual owner and president of a closely-held corporation may be personally liable in a lawsuit to recover overtime, meal and rest period premiums, tip compensation, and minimum wages under California law. Turman provides the first published state appellate interpretation of Martinez v. Combs (2010) 49 Cal.4th 35, the California Supreme Court’s marquee decision on the definition of an “employer,” as it applies to personal rather than corporate liability. On remand, the Superior Court recently ruled that the individual owner of the restaurants was may be liable as a joint employer with respect to the class claims under the Labor Code, Wage Orders, Business & Professions Code, and Private Attorneys’ General Act. (Read more about the Turman decision on our blog here and here).

“I am honored that the Wage Justice Center has recognized my firm’s dogged representation of restaurant workers in the Quiles/Turmanlitigation with the 2018 Attorney Advocate Award,” says Bryan Schwartz. “I have the greatest admiration for my clients – who for eight years have continued this fight to seek justice on behalf of their co-workers.”

For more information about Bryan Schwartz Law, please contact Bryan Schwartz at

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Bryan Schwartz Law Submits Amicus Curiae Brief on Behalf of California Employment Lawyers Association: the California Supreme Court Should Rule in Lawson v. Z.B. that Employers Cannot Compel any PAGA Claims into Arbitration

When a worker stands in the shoes of the State of California, prosecuting wage violations under the Labor Code Private Attorneys’ General Act (PAGA), that representative plaintiff cannot be forced into arbitration, because the State did not agree to arbitrate. See Iskanian v. CLS Transportation of Los Angeles, LLC, 59 Cal.4th 348 (2014).

In Lawson v. ZB, N.A., 18 Cal. App. 5th 705 (Cal. Ct. App. 4th Dist. Dec. 19, 2017, as modified Dec. 21, 2017), the Court of Appeal rejected the attempt by the defendant Bank to force a PAGA plaintiff into arbitration as to the PAGA penalty requiring restitution of underpaid wages, under Labor Code §558. On March 23, 2018, the California Supreme Court granted review. On August 29, 2018, Bryan Schwartz Law, on behalf of the California Employment Lawyers Association (CELA), submitted an amicus brief supporting affirmance of the Court of Appeal decision.

PAGA civil-enforcement claims invoking Labor Code §558 include both the default civil penalty plus the penalty concerning underpaid wages. Lawson created a split with Esparza v. KS Industries, 13 Cal.App.5th 1228 (5th Dist. Aug. 2, 2017), which held that Labor Code §558(a)’s reference to a penalty including “an amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages” created a “private dispute,” to which the Iskanian rule does not apply.

Bryan Schwartz Law’s brief on CELA’s behalf demonstrates that Lawson was correctly decided, and Esparza was wrong, because all PAGA actions are representative actions, not individual actions. The amicus brief illuminates the breadth of the State’s police power, which cannot be limited by a mandatory, pre-dispute arbitration agreement with an individual worker. The language, legislative history, and purposes of PAGA and Labor Code §558 demonstrate the Legislature’s clear intent to permit PAGA plaintiffs to recover the full measure of relief that would be available to the State in a public enforcement action. Defendant ZB Bank’s contention that PAGA and Labor Code §558 would be preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), 9 U.S.C. §§1, et seq., clearly contravenes the Supreme Court’s analysis in Iskanian and McGill v. Citibank, N.A. (2017) 2 Cal. 5th 945. The FAA does not strip the State of its enforcement authority, or strip employees of their non-waivable, substantive state law right to pursue vital workplace protections.

CELA is an organization of approximately 1400 California attorneys whose members primarily represent workers in a wide range of employment cases, including wage and hour actions and PAGA actions. CELA and its members have taken a leading role in protecting the rights of California workers, including by submitting amicus briefs and oral argument in such groundbreaking employment rights cases such as Iskanian, Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094, Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443, Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court (2012) 53 Cal.4th 1004, Ayala v. Antelope Valley Newspapers, Inc. (2014) 59 Cal.4th 522, and Dynamex Operations W. v. Superior Court (2018) 4 Cal.5th 903. Bryan Schwartz Law has been instrumental to CELA’s amicus briefing in a host of key California cases.

The California Supreme Court’s decision in Lawson will have widespread ramifications for California workers. If the State’s PAGA penalty provisions forcing restitution to victims of wage theft can be shunted to individual arbitration, it will deeply undermine PAGA’s goal to strengthen the State’s enforcement power against wage law violators who steal from workers and unfairly compete against law-abiding businesses.

If you are seeking to assert wage claims representing your co-workers and are facing an employer who seeks to force you into individual arbitration, contact Bryan Schwartz Law.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

California Supreme Court Delivers Workers a Victory in Troester v. Starbucks Corp.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus v. AFSCME dealt a major blow to workers, and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the high court might mean more devastation will follow, California has once again claimed its position as a progressive counter to an oppressive federal agenda. The California Supreme Court’s ruling today in Troester v. Starbucks Corp. defends the interests of working people by ensuring greater protection for those who regularly perform small amounts of uncompensated work - which add up to valuable unpaid wages, over time.

The plaintiff, a Starbucks employee named Douglas Troester, has argued Starbucks owes him wages for the time he spent running end-of-day computer software, activating a building alarm, locking the door, and walking coworkers to their cars as required by company policy. All of these duties, alleges Troester, add up to four to ten additional minutes each shift. Over a seventeen-month period, Troester’s unpaid time totaled twelve hours and fifty minutes, adding up to $102.67 at the then-applicable minimum wage of $8 per hour.

Troester first filed his case in Los Angeles County Superior Court, but Starbucks removed the case to federal court, and the district court granted summary judgment for Starbucks based on the federal “de minimis” doctrine. First set forth in the 1946 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Anderson v. Mt. Clemens Pottery Co., the de minimis doctrine holds that employers need not compensate employees for small amounts of otherwise compensable time if the employer can show tracking that time is administratively difficult. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit recognized that although the de minimis doctrine applied to federal wage and hour law, the California Supreme Court had never addressed whether the doctrine applied to wage claims under California law. The California Supreme Court agreed to the Ninth Circuit’s request to answer specifically whether the doctrine applied to claims for unpaid wages under California Labor Code sections 510, 1194, and 1197. 

In today’s decision, the California Supreme Court first held that, based on a review of the relevant statutes and Industrial Wage Commission (“IWC”) Orders, California had not previously adopted the federal de minimis doctrine. The California Supreme Court, explains the decision, must interpret the Labor Code and IWC Orders liberally to best further their purposes. And, the Court held, California is free to offer greater protection to workers than federal regulations, which the state already has done, regarding, for example, on-call employees’ compensation for sleep and other personal activities (Mendiola v. CPS Security Solutions, Inc., 60 Cal.4th 833 (2015)), the definition of “employ” (Martinez v. Combs, 49 Cal.4th 35 (2010)), and transportation time (Morillion v. Royal Packing Co., 22 Cal.4th 575 (2000)).

Second, the Court held the relevant IWC Order and statute did not permit application of the de minimis doctrine to the particular facts of Troester’s case. For one, the Court explained, the modern availability of class actions undermines the rationale behind the de minimis rule for wage and hour actions. “The very premise” of wage and hour class actions, stated the Court, “is that small individual recoveries worthy of neither the plaintiff’s nor the court’s time can be aggregated to vindicate an important public policy.” The Court also found that the rationale behind the de minimis rule in Anderson is less relevant now because time-keeping technology has advanced far beyond what it was seventy years ago. The problems of recording employee time discussed in Anderson “may be cured or ameliorated by technological advances that enable employees to track and register their work time via smartphones, tablets, or other devices,” explained the Court. Although the Court found the de minimis doctrine did not apply to Troester’s case, it left open the possibility that certain circumstances may exist where compensable time is “so minute or irregular that it is unreasonable to expect the time to be recorded.”

The phrase “de minimis” comes from the longer maxim de minimis non curat lex, meaning “the law does not concern itself with trifles.” In this case, Starbucks argued the additional time Troester worked was insignificant. But while $102.67 may be insignificant to a multinational corporation, Justice Liu defended common sense and the dignity of working people in writing that $102.67 “is enough to pay a utility bill, buy a week of groceries, or cover a month of bus fares. What Starbucks calls ‘de minimis’ is not de minimis at all to many ordinary people who work for hourly wages.” 

The lawsuit now returns to the Ninth Circuit, which will factor in the California Supreme Court’s decision when it rules on Troester’s case. We hope that fairness for working people will prevail, as it did today in our state’s high court.

If you believe your employer has violated wage and hour laws, contact Bryan Schwartz Law.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

The U.S. Supreme Court Exploits the First Amendment to Endorse Public Union “Free Riders”

by DeCarol Davis and Eduard Meleshinsky

With its decision yesterday in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31, No. 16-1466 (U.S. June 27, 2018), the U.S. Supreme Court marches forward in its sweeping campaign to erode workers’ rights to engage in protected concerted activity. See, e.g., Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 584 U.S. ___ (2018) (holding that an arbitration agreement can bind an employee to individual arbitration and thereby prevent that worker from participating in class or collective action) (read our analysis of the decision here). In a 5-4 opinion, authored by Justice Alito, with Justice Kagan dissenting (joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor), the Court held that state government workers who choose not to join a union do not have to pay a share of union dues for covering the cost of negotiating and administering collective bargaining agreements. The Court’s decision overrules its long-standing precedent in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, 431 U.S. 209 (1977), which required non-union employees to pay a portion of union dues, known as “agency fees,” to cover the out-of-pocket costs of collective bargaining and prevent “free riders” (i.e., workers who get the benefits of a union contract, like higher wages, better healthcare insurance, and competitive retirement plans without paying for it). Such mandatory agency fees do not fund any type of political campaigning by the union.

In Janus, the Supreme Court found that an Illinois law, which required public employees benefiting from union-organized collective bargaining agreements, to pay agency fees violated non-members’ free speech rights. Janus, No. 16-1466, at *1. The Court majority held that unions, in their “political and ideological projects” (including negotiating for better working conditions) may come at odds with a worker’s beliefs, and thereby violate a worker’s First Amendment rights. Id. The majority reasoned that requiring public employees to pay union dues would be “compelling” the worker to “subsidize” the speech of other private third party in violation of First Amendment. Id. at *9.

Justice Kagan, joined by the three other dissenting Justices, eloquently spoke to the majority’s radical departure from the Court’s established precedent:

There is no sugarcoating today’s opinion. The majority overthrows a decision entrenched in this Nation’s law—and in its economic life—for over 40 years. As a result, it prevents the American people, acting through their state and local officials, from making important choices about workplace governance. And it does so by weaponizing the First Amendment, in a way that unleashes judges, now and in the future, to intervene in economic and regulatory policy.

Departures from stare decisis are supposed to be “exceptional action[s]” demanding “special justification,” (citation omitted)—but the majority offers nothing like that here. In contrast to the vigor of its attack on Abood, the majority’s discussion of stare decisis barely limps to the finish line. And no wonder: The standard factors this Court considers when deciding to overrule a decision all cut one way. Abood’s legal underpinnings have not eroded over time: Abood is now, as it was when issued, consistent with this Court’s First Amendment law. Abood provided a workable standard for courts to apply. And Abood has generated enormous reliance interests. The majority has overruled Abood for no exceptional or special reason, but because it never liked the decision. It has overruled Abood because it wanted to. Id. at **26-27.

The First Amendment in 1977 was the same as it is today, and yet, the Supreme Court again tramples on long-established American public policy favoring workplace peace and shared prosperity through collective bargaining between labor and management—one of few remaining mechanisms for workers to stand toe-to-toe with employers. The Court, despite its “pull-your-boots-up” philosophy, now gives “free-riders” the right to reap the fruits of hard-fought collective bargaining without chipping in anything.

Even conservative legal experts like Eugene Volokh agree that the majority’s opinion fails to reckon with the many ways in which “the First Amendment ‘simply do[es] not guarantee that one’s hard-earned dollars will never be spent on speech one disapproves of.’” Dissent at p. 15; Eugene Volokh, Why There’s No First Amendment Problem With Compulsory Union Agency Fees, (published Jan. 29, 2018), available at: Were it otherwise, the Court would be compelled to upend many other well-entrenched arrangements where the government requires mandatory fees to subsidize various activities it believes serve an important governmental interest but which individuals may oppose, such as mandatory bar dues for attorneys, certain administrative fees for public university students, and, more generally, taxes spent on controversial governmental activities.

The Janus opinion is another example of the Roberts Court “turning the First Amendment into a sword, and using it against workaday economic and regulatory policy.” Slip. Op., Dissent at 27. Working people should remember this decision as they head to the ballot box this November.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Supreme Court Upholds Trump's Bigoted Travel Ban in Trump v. Hawaii

Today, in Trump v. Hawaii, No. 17-965 (U.S. Jun. 26, 2018), the Supreme Court has enshrined Donald Trump’s bigotry into our nation’s jurisprudence. In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed a preliminary injunction against the third iteration of President Trump’s travel ban. The Court determined the preliminary injunction was an abuse of discretion and remanded the case for further evaluation on its merits. But further proceedings are unlikely to change the Court’s result, which found the travel ban permissible under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause despite Trump’s vehemently anti-Muslim motivation for the ban.

The travel restrictions, established in Presidential Proclamation No. 9645, claimed to protect national security by restricting the flow of nationals from eight foreign countries the Trump administration labeled as having deficient systems for managing and sharing information about their nationals. See Trump, slip op. at 3. These nations originally included Chad, Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen, all of which are majority Muslim except for North Korea and Venezuela. See Trump, slip op. at 5.

In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts found the plain language of § 1182(f) of the INA granted the President wide-ranging power to restrict which foreign nationals may enter the United States. Section 1182(f) provides that the President can “suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens” whenever he “finds” their entry “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” See Trump, slip op. at 11. According to the Chief Justice, the President had presented sufficient evidence showing that the entry of those covered by the ban into the country would be “detrimental” to the national interest. See Trump, slip op. at 10.

But the crux of the debate focused on whether or not the anti-Muslim rhetoric surrounding the travel ban ran afoul of the Establishment Clause, which forbids government policies “respecting an establishment of religion.” U.S. Const., Amdt. 1. Accordingly, the government “may not adopt programs or practices . . . which aid or oppose any religion.” Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 106 (1968). But for Chief Justice Roberts, only laws that “lack any purpose other than a ‘bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group’” are illegitimate under the Court’s deferential standard. See Trump, slip op. at 33 (citing Dep’t of Agric. v. Moreno, 413 U. S. 528, 534 (1973)). Despite the anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from the Trump administration, the Chief Justice held that the Court could not strike the travel ban “because there is persuasive evidence that the entry suspension has a legitimate grounding in national security concerns, quite apart from any religious hostility.” Trump, slip op. at 34.

In her forceful dissent, Justice Sotomayor catalogues in laboring detail the substantial record of the travel ban’s anti-Muslim purpose, including Trump’s statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” that remained on his campaign website several months into his Presidency. Trump, slip op. at 4 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Over the course of seven pages, Justice Sotomayor details myriad other egregious statements, including Trump’s December 2015 comment analogizing his ban to the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and Trump’s February 2016 repetition of an apocryphal story to a cheering crowd in South Carolina about how U.S. General John J. Pershing executed Muslim insurgents with bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. See Trump, slip op. at 5 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). Justice Sotomayor rightfully points out the absurdity of Chief Justice Roberts finding an insufficient level of animus to strike down the travel ban in the face of Trump’s statements, his refusal to retract them, and his insistence that his second Executive Order was simply a “watered down version of the first one.” Trump, slip op. at 8 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

Justice Sotomayor also calls out the hypocrisy of the Court’s decision today in light of its decision earlier this month in MasterpieceCakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111 (U.S. Jun.4, 2018). While the majority in Masterpiece Cakeshop found state commissioners’ hostile comments about Christianity to be evidence of unconstitutional government action, the majority here renders Trump’s statements, far more numerous and hateful than in Masterpiece Cakeshop, to be irrelevant. See Trump, slip op. at 26 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). A clear message emerges from these two decisions: a different First Amendment applies to Christianity than to Islam.

The Court’s decision today disturbingly parallels the Court’s horrific approval of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II in Korematsu v. U.S., 323 U. S. 214 (1944). See Trump, slip op. at 26-28 (Sotomayor, J., dissenting). In a move to legitimize today’s decision, Chief Justice Roberts explicitly condemns Korematsu, saying it was “gravely wrong the day it was decided.” See Trump, slip op. at 38. But the Court has not truly abandoned Korematsu. It has only repackaged the same xenophobia for a new era. And one day, Justice Sotomayor’s dissent will be praised by the judiciary as having the same foresight and moral clarity as Justice Jackson’s dissent in Korematsu. Until then, we keep fighting.

See our previous posts covering the travel ban from February 10, 2017 and June 15, 2017.

Bryan Schwartz Law is proud to represent workers from Muslim, immigrant, and other oppressed communities. If you believe your employer has violated your workplace rights, please contact our office.

Monday, June 4, 2018

U.S. Supreme Court Sides with Baker and Emboldens Anti-LGBTQ Efforts in Masterpiece Cakeshop Decision

The Supreme Court issued today its highly-anticipated decision in MasterpieceCakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, No. 16-111 (Jun. 4, 2018). While the opinion’s narrow holding sets no groundbreaking precedent, it strengthens anti-LGBTQ activists and their narrative of state-led, anti-Christian persecution as the substantive debate returns to lower courts.

In 2012, Jack Phillips, owner of the bakery Masterpiece Cakeshop outside of Denver, refused David Mullins and Charlie Craig a wedding cake because he believed creating a cake for a same-sex wedding violated his religious beliefs. (Slip Op. at 1). Mullins and Craig filed a charge under the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation in any “place of business engaged in any sales to the public and any place offering services . . . to the public.” (Slip Op. 5). The Colorado Civil Rights Commission sided with Mullins and Craig, and the Colorado Court of Appeals affirmed. (Slip Op. at 8).

The Supreme Court’s reversal in favor of Phillips, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, comes as a surprise given Justice Kennedy’s career-defining support for LGBTQ rights. Among his authored opinions are Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), invalidating anti-sodomy laws, United States v. Windsor, 570 U.S. 744 (2013), declaring the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, and Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S.Ct. 2584 (2015), legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Justice Kennedy acknowledges “[o]ur society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth.” (Slip Op. at 9). But the Court still sided with Phillips, finding that the state had not met its obligation of religious neutrality. (Slip Op. 2). Instead of giving Phillips “neutral and respectful consideration,” the Court found the Commission exhibited anti-religious hostility in violation of the Free Exercise Clause. (Slip Op. at 9). Especially troubling to Justice Kennedy were the comments of one Commissioner who likened Phillips’s position to defenses of slavery and the holocaust and disparaged Phillips’s religious beliefs as “despicable” and merely “rhetoric.” (Slip Op. at 13-14). Justice Kennedy also took issue with the Commission’s treatment of Phillips compared to secular bakers who had refused to bake cakes with homophobic messages in other discrimination claims. (Slip Op. at 14-16).

By reversing the lower court on these narrow grounds, the Supreme Court avoided ruling on the case’s main issue of to what extent religious freedom can justify discrimination based on sexual orientation. “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” writes Justice Kennedy. (Slip Op. at 18). While his motivation is unclear, limiting the decision to the case’s particular facts may be an attempt to prevent further polarization in an already divided culture.

But even with its narrow holding, Masterpiece Cakeshop will negatively shape the debate over LGBTQ rights as the issue returns to lower courts. Most significant may be Justice Kennedy’s broad definition of “hostility.” In their dissent, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor criticize Justice Kennedy’s conclusion that statements made by one or two Commissioners can taint proceedings involving “several layers of independent decisionmaking, of which the Commission was but one.” (Slip Op. at 7). Finding such a low level of “hostility” violates the state’s obligation of religious neutrality expands on Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), the only case cited by Justice Kennedy as support. Lukumi involved only one decisionmaking body, compared to several in Masterpiece Cakeshop, and anti-religious animus motivated the passing of an entire law, not just a couple of a law’s enforcers. (Slip Op. at 7-8). As a result, Masterpiece Cakeshop may embolden those discriminating based on sexual orientation to seek redress in court by claiming that their animus against gay people is based upon religion.

The Supreme Court has dealt LGBTQ rights a blow with Masterpiece Cakeshop. But the wound is not fatal, and the widespread “recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts” provides hope that the civil rights of the LGBTQ community will prevail as the substantive issues of law return to the lower courts.

If you have experienced discrimination based upon your sexual orientation or gender identity and need help, please contact Bryan Schwartz Law.