Alcantar v. Hobart: Rule 23 Requirements Don’t Apply to PAGA Claims in Federal Court

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A federal district court’s ruling has solidified the principle that actions seeking civil penalties for workplace violations under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) needn’t satisfy the requirements applicable to class actions. See Alcantar v. Hobart Service, No. 11-1600 (C.D. Cal. Jan. 14, 2013) (order denying defendants’ motion in limine).

In Alcantar, the plaintiff alleged claims arising under the California Labor Code for unpaid overtime, uncompensated commute time, and meal break violations, and sought standard compensatory damages in a putative class action. The plaintiff’s motion for class certification was denied, and on that basis, defendants filed a motion in limine arguing that the plaintiff was also precluded from seeking civil penalties predicated on the same Labor Code violations. However, in denying defendants’ motion, Judge Philip S. Gutierrez distinguished class actions and PAGA actions: “Unlike a class action, which allows individuals to seek financial remuneration as a way to redress personal injuries, a PAGA action is brought on behalf of the state labor agencies to punish noncompliant employers.” Order at 2. Thus, “PAGA is a law-enforcement mechanism, and not an action designed to confer a private benefit.” Id. As such, actions seeking civil penalties on behalf of aggrieved employees under PAGA need not satisfy the Federal Rule 23 requirements applicable to class actions.

In ruling that the familiar Rule 23 requirements — numerosity, commonality, and so forth — do not apply to PAGA actions, Alcantar mirrors the California Supreme Court’s holding in Arias v. Super. Ct., 46 Cal. 4th 969 (2009), that PAGA actions need not satisfy California’s analogous class certification criteria because, unlike a class action, “a plaintiff suing under PAGA steps into the shoes of the state labor law enforcement agencies.” Order at 2. In so ruling, Judge Gutierrez is in accord with the bulk of California district courts to have confronted the same question. See Thomas v. Aetna Health of California, No. 10-01906, 2011 WL 2173715, *12-13 (E.D. Cal. June 2, 2011).

At least as significant as Arias being applied in federal court was Judge Gutierrez’s rejection of defendants’ due process argument, which posited that the adjudication of PAGA claims with representative evidence constituted the sort of “trial by formula” that the U.S. Supreme Court proscribed in the landmark Wal-Mart v. Dukes decision. Judge Gutierrez distinguished Dukes (which he described as “notably different” from Alcantar) based on the fact that Dukes arose out of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, while the Alcantar claims are predicated solely on California Labor Code violations. Order at 5-6. Using expansive language potentially applicable beyond the PAGA context, Judge Gutierrez noted that “both the Ninth Circuit and California courts have permitted district courts to award damages for Labor Code violations based on a representative sampling of class members.” Order at 6.