Rojas-Cifuentes v. Sup. Ct.: MSA Based on “Insufficient Facts and Theories” in PAGA Notice Letter Overturned on Writ of Mandate

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In Rojas-Cifuentes v. The Superior Court of San Joaquin County, Cal. Ct. App. 3d Dist., No. C085643, Dec. 21, 2020 (“Rojas-Cifuentes”) (slip op. available here), the Court of Appeal issued a writ of mandate directing the Superior Court of San Joaquin County to set aside its order granting summary adjudication of an employee’s claim under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”) in favor of the defendant, American Modular Systems, Inc. (“AMS”), and enter a new order denying the MSA. AMS’s motion was brought on the grounds that Plaintiff Rojas-Cifuentes’ PAGA notice letter to AMS and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency failed to include sufficient “facts and theories” (Cal. Lab. Code § 2699.3) to support his claimed Labor Code violations.

The “facts and theories” requirement for a PAGA notice letter, however, is not high and provides little fodder for employers seeking a procedural loophole to PAGA claims. The purpose of the PAGA notice requirement is to afford the Labor and Workforce Development Agency “the opportunity to decide whether to allocate scarce resources to an investigation.” Slip. op. at 6 (citing Williams v. Superior Court, 3 Cal.5th 531, 545-546 (2017)). Thus, to require a PAGA notice letter to “satisfy a particular threshold of weightiness . . . would undercut the clear legislative purposes the act was designed to serve.” Id. Following cases such as Williams and Brown v. Ralphs Grocery Co., 28 Cal.App.5th 824 (2018), Rojas-Cifuentes found “few ‘facts and theories’ are needed to satisfy PAGA’s notice requirement.” Id. at 7. Rojas-Cifuentes also confirmed that a PAGA notice letter need only allege broadly a class of “aggrieved employees” such as “current and former California non-exempt employees of AMS.” Id. at 10.

Considering the legislative purposes of PAGA, as cases such as Rojas-Cifuentes, Williams, and Brown all confirm, challenges to the sufficiency of PAGA notices have no legitimate purpose. They harm the interests of the State of California, in collecting civil penalties; of employees, as victims of Labor Code violations; and our overburdened judiciary, forcing the courts to address repeated, groundless challenges to the PAGA statute.

Authored by:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Wilson v. IKEA: Thin Evidence of Amount in Controversy Requires Remand of W&H Case, Says C.D. Cal. Dist. Ct.

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In Wilson v. Ikea North America Services, LLC, C.D. Cal. Dec. 14, 2020 (slip op. available here), the district court found on a motion to remand that Ikea failed to meet its burden of proof that the amount in controversy exceeded the $5 million required for Class Action Fairness Act (“CAFA”) jurisdiction.

Ikea had removed the case to federal court alleging that the amount in controversy exceeded $22 million. Unlike a notice of removal, which need only include plausible allegations that the amount in controversy exceeds the minimal jurisdictional requirements, on a motion to remand, the removing party must submit evidence, and the court decides by a preponderance of the evidence whether the amount in controversy is met. Slip op. at 4. “Under this system, CAFA’s requirements are to be considered by real evidence and the reality of what is at stake in the litigation, using reasonable assumptions of underlying the defendant’s theory of damages exposure.” Id., quoting Ibarra v. Manheim Invs., Inc., 775 F.3d 1193, 1198 (9th Cir. 2015) (emphasis added).

Ikea failed to meet this burden. It presented “thin evidence” of the amount in controversy consisting of the number of employees and the number of workweeks for three calendar years; and it presented no evidence that every employee suffered all of the injuries alleged in the complaint. Slip op. at 5 (emphasis in original). Instead, Ikea relied on the plaintiff’s “pattern and practice” allegations to establish that point. The complaint, however, did not allege that Ikea violated wage and hour laws on each and every shift, so there was no judicial admission in play to support Ikea.

In closing remarks, the district court reminded that although Ikea’s $22 million estimate is far above the $5 million CAFA threshold, “it is not the Court’s job to perform the mathematical calculations to justify it. . . .  That is Ikea’s burden.” Slip op. at 6. Something to consider from a plaintiff’s perspective—that sometimes the removing defendant should be put to the task of proving up potential damages on a motion to remand after a flimsy notice of removal.

Authored by:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Gulf Offshore Logistics, LLC v. Sup. Ct.: Offshore Workers Based in CA Are Entitled to Labor Code Protections

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In Gulf Offshore Logistics, LLC v. The Superior Court of Ventura County, Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist., No. B298318, Dec. 7, 2020 (slip op. available here), the Court of Appeal, on remand from the California Supreme Court, reconsidered whether Louisiana law applied to employees of Louisiana-based companies that operated outside the territorial waters of California. Following recent precedent in Ward v. United Airlines, Inc., 9 Cal.5th 732 (2020), and Oman v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 9 Cal.5th 762 (2020), the court concluded that the California Labor Code applies to workers whose “base of work operations” is in California.

The plaintiffs are former crew members (two able-bodied seamen and an engineer), none of whom were California residents. They were flown into Los Angeles International Airport by their employers and shuttled to the ship, where they were employed for a “hitch” of 21 to 42 days before returning to their homes. The Adele Elise, an offshore supply ship that stationed in Port Hueneme, California, supplied four oil platforms located outside the boundaries of the state of California (a typical voyage lasted 24 hours). The plaintiffs alleged violations of the California Labor Code relating to minimum wages and overtime pay, meal and rest periods, maintenance of accurate work records, and provision of accurate and complete wage statements.

In a prior opinion, the court applied a conflict of law analysis and determined that Louisiana law governed the dispute “because that state had more significant contacts with the parties and a greater interest in regulating the employment relationships at issue.” On remand, the court acknowledged that was a mistake. Slip op. at 11. “Oman clarifies that the relevant consideration is the location in which work is performed. Here, that location is California. Other considerations, such as the residence of the employees or the location of the employer, are not relevant.” Id.

Ward and Oman applied California’s wage and hour laws to airline employees based in California, even though they worked in federally regulated airspace. Gulf extends this important concept to the federal waters off the California coast. Seamen based in California are entitled to the protections of the state’s wage and hour laws, even if their work takes them offshore.

Authored by:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC

Olson v. Lyft: PAGA Waivers Remain Unenforceable UnderIskanian, Says Another CA Ct. of Appeal

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In Brandon Olson v. Lyft, Inc., Cal. Ct. App. 4th Dist., No. A156322, Oct. 29, 2020 (slip op. available here), Lyft appealed an order denying its motion to compel Olson’s PAGA claims to arbitration. Lyft argued that the California Supreme Court’s holding in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC, 59 Cal.4th 348 (2014) (precluding enforcement of PAGA waivers) was “wrongly decided” and no longer good law in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, 138 S.Ct. 1612 (2018). Slip op. at 1.

The court disposed of the first argument in a footnote, pointing out that arguing that a California Supreme Court decision was “wrongly decided” is “not productive” in either a trial or appellate court. Slip op. at 5. The court then rejected the second argument, noting that an “identical argument” was rejected in Correia v. N.B. Baker Electric, Inc., 32 Cal.App.5th 602 (2019). Slip op. at 1. In doing so, the First District joined a growing number of courts following Correia. E.g. Collie v. The Icee Co., 52 Cal.App.5th 477, 480 (2020) (“[w]e also join Correia . . . in holding that Epic Systems . . . does not undermine the reasoning of Iskanian”); Provost v. YourMechanic, Inc., 55 Cal.App.5th 982 (2020) (“[w]e reaffirm here our analysis and decision in Correia that Epic did not overrule Iskanian”) (Provost was previously covered on the ILJ here).

Epic cannot overrule Iskanian because Epic did not address private attorney general laws like PAGA or qui tam suits. “Epic held that an employee who agrees to individualized arbitration cannot avoid this agreement by asserting claims on behalf of other employees under the FLSA or federal class action procedures.” Slip op. at 11, quoting the trial court. But, a PAGA claim is a qui tam type action, and the PAGA litigant’s status is as “the proxy or agent” of the state, acting “on behalf of state law enforcement agencies.” Id. at p. 12, discussing Iskanian, 59 Cal.4th at 238 (emphasis added). No employee can waive PAGA claims because the claims are not theirs to waive. “[A] PAGA claim is a dispute between the state on the one hand, and the employer on the other.” Slip op. at 6, citing Iskanian at pp. 385-387.  Yet another court reiterates that, since Epic did not overrule Iskanian, PAGA waivers remain unenforceable in California.

Authored by:
Robert Friedl, Senior Counsel
CAPSTONE LAW APC