Posts belonging to Category PAGA



Brown v. Cinemark: 9th Cir. Finds Cert Denial Appealable Following Settlement for Consideration & Recognizes Minimal Standard for PAGA Notice Letters

On December 7, 2017, in a published order, the Ninth Circuit rejected dismissal of an appeal of the denial of class certification by two plaintiff employees who had settled their individual claims and preserved certain class and representative claims for appeal, because the parties’ mutual settlement for consideration did not amount to “sham tactics” to manufacture an appealable final judgment under recent Supreme Court precedent. Brown v. Cinemark USA, Inc., No. 16-15377 (9th Cir. Dec. 7, 2017) (Ms. Brown and Mr. De La Rosa are represented by Capstone Law APC) (order available here). In an unpublished memorandum filed with the order, the panel reversed the denial of class certification and the dismissal of the claim under the Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”), finding that the district court had erred in denying class certification based on the pleadings and had erroneously dismissed the PAGA claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under Williams v. Superior Court, 3 Cal.5th 531 (2017), a case decided after the district court had issued its order (memorandum available here).

Plaintiffs Brown and De La Rosa were movie theater employees who brought a wage and hour class and representative action against their employer and consolidated their case with another action. The district court denied the plaintiffs’ joint motion for class certification, which, among others, sought to certify a direct wage statement claim under Labor Code section 226(a). The district court’s ruling was based solely on the pleadings, finding the wage statement claims had been pleaded derivatively rather than directly, and provided no Rule 23 class certification analysis. The court also dismissed the direct wage statement PAGA claim for failure to exhaust administrative remedies, finding that the PAGA notice letters had not provided sufficient information. Finally, the district court denied leave to amend the complaint and the remaining individual claims were set for trial. However, prior to trial, the parties settled all remaining individual claims for consideration, reserving the right to challenge the district court’s denial of class certification and the dismissal of Ms. Brown’s PAGA claim. Order at 4. Both plaintiffs appealed the issues reserved by the settlement. Id.

Cinemark subsequently brought a motion to dismiss the appeal in light of Microsoft Corp. v. Baker, 137 S. Ct. 1702 (2017), which was issued after the notice of appeal was filed. The Ninth Circuit denied the motion to dismiss the appeal. First, the Ninth Circuit distinguished Baker, noting that in Baker, the district court had denied class certification and the Ninth Circuit had denied discretionary interlocutory review under Rule 23(f). Order at 4. Then, “rather than pursue their individual claims on the merits, the plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their own claims with the express purpose of creating a final judgment for appeal.” Id. The Baker plaintiffs subsequently only appealed the district court’s interlocutory order denying class certification. The Supreme Court of the United States found that such a voluntary dismissal did not qualify as a “final decision” within the parameters of 28 U.S.C. § 1291 and was a tactic that would undermine section 1291’s firm finality principle. Id. Here, however, the Ninth Circuit found that “unlike Baker, where the plaintiffs openly intended to sidestep Rule 23(f) when they voluntarily dismissed their claims[,]” after the district court denied certification, the Brown plaintiffs continued litigating their remaining individual claims, some of which resolved in favor of the defendants and some resulted in settlement. Id. at 5. The Brown plaintiffs did not engage in any “sham tactics to achieve an appealable final judgment,” and “the parties’ mutual settlement for consideration in this case does not raise the same concerns.” Id.

Second, the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s dismissal of Ms. Brown’s PAGA claim based on a failure to exhaust administrative remedies “[g]iven the import of Williams.” Memorandum at 2. The panel found that the PAGA notice letter “pleaded facts and theories sufficient to put the Defendants and the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency [LWDA] on notice for potential investigation, which satisfies the policy goal of California Labor Code section 2699.3(a).” Id. at 2-3. Quoting the California Supreme Court’s unanimous decision verbatim, the Ninth Circuit underscored that “[h]urdles that impede the effective prosecution of representative PAGA actions undermine the Legislature’s objectives.” Id. at 3. The panel further relied on the powerful dicta in Williams setting a very modest standard for PAGA notice letter sufficiency, recognizing that “[n]othing in Labor Code section 2699.3, subdivision (a)(1)(A), indicates the ‘facts and theories’ provided in support of ‘alleged’ violations must satisfy a particular threshold of weightiness, beyond the requirements of nonfrivolousness generally applicable to any civil filing.” Id.

Third, the Ninth Circuit found the district court erred in denying class certification of the direct wage statement claim on the basis of the pleadings. Memorandum at 3. Because the district court based its decision to deny certification solely on the pleadings rather than a Rule 23 analysis, the Ninth Circuit reviewed that decision de novo rather than applying the more deferential abuse of discretion normally reserved for certification rulings. It concluded that the pleadings put the defendants on sufficient notice of wage statement violations, whether direct or derivative, and further found that the plaintiffs’ pleadings merited a Rule 23 analysis for their direct wage statement claim. Id. It thus vacated the order and remanded for the district court to conduct a Rule 23 analysis.

The import of the Brown rulings is that Baker does not necessarily preclude federal appellate review of certification orders pursuant to partial settlements for consideration, particularly when the parties continue litigation. Further, with respect to PAGA notice letters, the Ninth Circuit has demonstrated that the California Supreme Court’s recent pronouncement in Williams is key—that PAGA notice letters need not meet any “threshold of weightiness,” but need only put defendants and the LWDA on notice of potential investigations, a low bar that need only pass the requirements of “non-frivolousness.”

Authored By:
Liana Carter, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

United States ex rel. Welch v. My Left Foot Children’s Therapy: 9th Cir. Rules Arb Agreement Does Not Apply in Former Employee’s Whistleblower Lawsuit

In September, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a ruling that rejected a company’s attempt to force its former employee into arbitration under a very broadly-worded agreement that she had signed at the time of hire. See United States and State of Nevada ex rel. Welch v. My Left Foot Children’s Therapy, LLC, et. al, No. 16-16070 (9th Cir. Sept. 11, 2017) (slip op. available here). Specifically, the court held that the broad arbitration provision did not cover an employee’s claim under the False Claims Act (FCA), because an FCA claim belongs to the government, and in this case, neither the United States nor the state of Nevada had agreed to arbitrate its claims. Id. at 4.

The plaintiff in Welch was an employee working for My Left Foot Children’s Therapy (MLF), who filed a whistleblower complaint in federal court alleging that MLF violated the FCA by presenting fraudulent claims to federal health care programs. See id. at 6. The United States and Nevada declined to intervene, and thus, Welch proceeded with her claim. Id. On October 19, 2015, the defendants moved to compel arbitration of Welch’s FCA claims pursuant to the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) and the arbitration agreement contained in her employment contract. Id. at 6. The arbitration agreement stated in relevant part:

I agree and acknowledge that the Company and I will utilize binding arbitration to resolve all disputes that may arise out of the employment context. Both the Company and I agree that any claim, dispute, and/or controversy that either I may have against the Company . . . or the Company may have against me, arising from, related to, or having any relationship or connection whatsoever with my seeking employment by, or employment or other association with the Company shall be submitted to and determined exclusively by binding arbitration under the Federal Arbitration Act.

Id. (emphasis added).

On June 13, 2016, the district court denied the defendants’ motion to compel arbitration on the basis that Welch’s arbitration agreement did not extend to the United States or Nevada, the parties that owned the underlying FCA claims. Following this, on September 11, 2017, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Specifically, the Ninth Circuit held that the material terms (“arising out of,” “related to,” and “having any relationship or connection whatsoever”) of the agreement only covered claims directly related to the plaintiff’s employment. Id. at 13-17. The court reasoned that here, the FCA suit had no direct connection with Welch’s employment because even if Welch had never been employed by the defendants, assuming other conditions were met, she would still have been able to sue them for presenting false claims to the government. Id. Thus, her ability to bring this claim did not necessarily arise from her employment and was not covered by the arbitration agreement. Id.

The court also stated that the arbitration agreement only covered claims between Welch and MLF (id. at 15), and did not cover claims brought on behalf of another party—the United States or Nevada. This reasoning has been echoed in other types of qui tam actions such as those brought under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”). Like FCA claims, in a PAGA action, a plaintiff brings the case for violations of the California Labor Code on behalf of the real party in interest—the state of California. As such, the California Supreme Court has also held that such actions are not covered by arbitration agreements to which the real party in interest—the state of California—has not assented. See Iskanian v. CLS Transp. Los Angeles, LLC, 59 Cal. 4th 348, 386 (2014).  However, it is important to note that the Ninth Circuit also stated in dicta that, had the parties wanted to agree to arbitrate FCA claims, they were free to have drafted a broader agreement that covers “any lawsuits brought or filed by the employee whatsoever” or “all cases Welch brings against MLF, including those brought on behalf of another party.” See slip op. at 17.

Thus, while this holding is another victory in the fight against adhesive arbitration agreements in qui tam-type actions, it may also provide some guidance to employers wishing to force qui tam actions under the FCA into arbitration.

Authored by:
Ruhandy Glezakos, Associate
CAPSTONE LAW APC

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

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
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Betancourt v. Prudential Overall Supply: CA Ct. of App. Reiterates that PAGA Claims Cannot Be Arbitrated, Prudential Files Appeal

Complaining that California “leads the field” in circumventing United States Supreme Court’s pro-arbitration precedent Concepcion, Prudential Overall Supply petitioned for certiorari on August 15, 2017, seeking review of California’s Fourth Appellate District’s ruling that claims under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”) cannot be arbitrated. Betancourt v. Prudential Overall Supply, No. E064326 (4th District Div. 2, March 7, 2017) (slip op. available here) (petition for writ of certiorari available here). In April 2015, Betancourt filed a representative action suit solely based on PAGA against his employer, Prudential Overall Supply. Within the single PAGA claim, the plaintiff alleged violations of overtime and minimum wage law, meal and rest period requirements, timely pay and final pay requirements, and recordkeeping and wage statement requirements, among other claims. In a March 7, 2017 decision, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of Prudential’s motion to compel arbitration of the plaintiff’s claim for penalties under PAGA. Slip op. at 2.

First, Prudential argued that Betancourt had already agreed to arbitrate the PAGA claim and that an arbitrator would decide the scope and application of the agreement. Id. at 10-11. Additionally, Prudential claimed since the “representative claims” portion of the agreement could be severed, Betancourt could be compelled to arbitrate his claims. Id. at 11. Prudential further asserted that if Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC, 59 Cal. 5th 348 (2014), is interpreted as prohibiting arbitration of all PAGA claims, then the state law prohibiting arbitration is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Id. at 12. Finally, Prudential, citing Sakkab v. Luxottica Retail North America, Inc. (2015 9th Cir.) 803 F.3d 425, contended that California law permits arbitration of PAGA claims. Id. at 12-13. Repeatedly citing Iskanian, the appellate court rejected each of these arguments, holding that Prudential could not “rely on a predispute waiver by a private employee to compel arbitration in a PAGA case, which is brought on behalf of the state . . .” because “[t]he state is not bound by Betancourt’s predispute agreement to arbitrate.” Id. at 8; see also id. at 9-13 (applying Iskanian in greater detail) (internal citations omitted). Further, the Court of Appeal noted that a state rule prohibiting arbitration of PAGA claims is not preempted by the FAA because it falls outside of the scope of the FAA, as PAGA “is not a dispute between an employer and an employee arising out of their contractual relationship. It is a dispute between an employer and the state . . . .” Slip op. at 10 (citing Iskanian, at 386-87, emphasis in original).

The Court of Appeal also rejected the defendant’s other argument, which was based on an alleged defect in the pleadings. The defendant argued that because Betancourt had sought non-PAGA remedies in the prayer for relief, e.g., for unpaid wages, business expenses, interest, and attorney’s fees, in addition to civil penalties, the action was not actually a PAGA action and that the plaintiff was trying to disguise a standard wage-and-hour action in order to evade arbitration. Slip op. at 4, 8-9. Yet, the trial court had found and the appellate court agreed, such a challenge is a challenge against the pleadings, and should have been brought as a motion to strike—not as a motion to compel arbitration. Id. at 9. As the Court of Appeal aptly noted, “Prudential accuses Betancourt of attempting to make an ‘end run around arbitration’ by incorrectly labeling his claims as a PAGA matter. It appears to this court that Prudential may be attempting to make an ‘end run” around a demurrer or motion to strike . . . .” Id. at 9.

Overall, the Court of Appeal’s Betancourt opinion makes a strong case for PAGA claims being inarbitrable, based on the fact that the state—the real party in interest in every PAGA action—is not a party to an employee’s bilateral agreement to arbitrate his or her employment claims, and thus cannot be bound by that agreement. Whether the United States Supreme Court will break its streak of rejecting cert petitions based on PAGA issues in Betancourt remains to be seen.

Authored By:
Jennifer Bagosy, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC