Lopez v. Friant: Neither Intent nor Injury Required for PAGA Wage Statement Claims

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In September, the California Court of Appeal reversed a summary judgment ruling that applied the “knowing and intentional” standard of Labor Code section 226(e) to a Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”) claim for violation of section 226(a), the provision that requires employers to issue wage statements to employees containing certain information. The court held that PAGA claims based on wage statement violations are not subject to the statutory penalty requirements of section 226(e)(1). See Lopez v. Friant & Assocs., LLC, No. A148849, 15 Cal. App. 5th 773 (1st District Div. 1, Sept. 26, 2017) (slip op. available here). This is helpful clarification for employees seeking redress of wage statement violations through PAGA rather than through a private right of action.

The plaintiff in Lopez sought civil penalties on behalf of himself and other aggrieved employees through PAGA. PAGA affords private individuals, who allege violations of the Labor Code committed by an employer, to step into the shoes of California state labor enforcement agencies to collect civil penalties that otherwise could only be pursued by the state. As explained in Lopez, PAGA was designed to incentivize the enforcement of Labor Code provisions for which there was no private right of action, and to supplement the limited resources of state enforcement agencies. The plaintiff in Lopez’s PAGA claim was based on a violation of Labor Code section 226(a)(7), which requires the issuance of wage statements that include either the last four digits of the employee’s social security number, or some other employee identification number. The defendant moved for summary judgment against that predicate violation, arguing that the employer’s failure to include an identification number was not “knowing and intentional” as required for statutory damages or penalties under section 226(e)(1). The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant. The plaintiff appealed.

The plaintiff’s primary argument on appeal was that the “knowing and intentional” requirement under section 226(e) does not apply to a PAGA action based on a wage statement violation under section 226(a). The Court of Appeal began by examining the plain language of the relevant statutes, pointing to the “important distinction between the ‘civil penalties’ available under PAGA, and ‘statutory penalties’ recoverable by individual plaintiffs before PAGA was enacted.” Slip op. at 6. The penalties afforded by section 226(e) have always been available in private rights of action, and therefore constitute “statutory” penalties, whereas the penalties sought under PAGA for violations of section 226(a) are civil penalties, which are regulatory and not available to private plaintiffs outside of a PAGA suit, and thus are not bound by the same rules. Id. This interpretation was also supported by the relevant legislative history. Id. at 7-10. Lastly, the Court of Appeal noted that while section 226(a) is enumerated as one of the available predicate violations for a PAGA claim under section 2699.5, section 226(e) is not. Accordingly, the appellate court held: “Because section 226(e)(1) sets forth the elements of a private cause of action for damages and statutory penalties, its requirement that a plaintiff demonstrate “injury” resulting from a “knowing and intentional” violation of section 226(a) is not applicable to a PAGA claim for recovery of civil penalties.” Id. at 16.

In a footnote, the Court of Appeal also teased the issue of which civil penalty should apply to a PAGA claim predicated on a section 226(a) violation. Indeed, “various federal courts have taken different positions on this issue.” Slip op. at 11, n.6. PAGA ordinarily adopts whichever civil penalty is specifically defined by statute, and otherwise uses the default penalty amount under section 2699. And, while section 226.3 defines a civil penalty for wage statement violations, some courts have interpreted it as only providing the civil penalty for a failure to provide any wage statement at all—not one that was only missing some of the nine required elements. So does an incomplete wage statement fail to meet the definition of a “wage statement” provided? Should the section 226.3 civil penalty therefore apply? Or should the default penalty apply? Unfortunately, since that issue was neither directly raised nor sufficiently briefed, the Court of Appeal left the question unanswered.

Though many in the plaintiffs’ bar had already been operating under the interpretation that section 226(e) requirements do not apply to section 226(a) violations in the PAGA context, Lopez now makes this interpretation binding on all California trial courts. And, without the need to satisfy section 226(e), this makes wage statement claims much simpler to prosecute through PAGA than through a regular cause of action.

Authored by:
Jonathan Lee, Associate