Employee Who Gave Sufficient Notice of PAGA Claims Can Proceed with Lawsuit

By Joanne Deschenaux January 25, 2022
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​An employee who brought claims under the California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) adequately notified the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) and her former employer about ongoing violations of wage and hour laws that affected multiple workers, a California appeals court held. The plaintiff failed to use the words "other aggrieved employees" in the letter she sent to the agency and to the employer, but she provided fair notice of her representative claims. Thus, the lower court erred in dismissing the PAGA claims before trial, the appeals court ruled.

Nature of PAGA Claims

PAGA was enacted in 2003 to authorize private parties to sue under the California Labor Code for the civil penalties previously only recoverable by the state. An employee bringing a representative action under PAGA does so as an agent of the state's labor law enforcement agencies, not other employees, the appellate court noted.

Civil penalties for California Labor Code violations are recoverable through an action brought by an aggrieved employee on the employee's own behalf and that of other current or former employees.

Before bringing a PAGA claim, a plaintiff must comply with administrative procedures outlined in the California Labor Code, requiring notice to the LWDA and to the employer of the specific laws alleged to have been violated and describing the "facts and theories" supporting the claims. The notice should be detailed enough to allow the employer to respond to the allegations and the state to decide whether to investigate, the court said.

To satisfy PAGA's prefiling requirements in this case, the plaintiff's attorney provided written notice to the LWDA and the employer, stating that, over the course of four years, the plaintiff had been denied required meal and rest breaks, was not paid properly for overtime hours, was not given accurate wage statements, and was not given her payroll records within 21 days after requesting them in writing. The employer's time-keeping records would reflect these violations, the notice said.  

The letter noted the specific provisions of the Labor Code that the employer allegedly violated and stated that the plaintiff was proceeding under PAGA and was seeking PAGA penalties.

The plaintiff subsequently filed the PAGA lawsuit against her former employer, but the trial court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiff failed to provide adequate notice to both her employer and the LWDA that her claims included other similarly situated employees. The plaintiff appealed.

Notice Was Sufficient

The notice in this case complained of ongoing violations of wage and hour laws, referred to "other acts by the employer," and stated that the plaintiff wished to proceed with PAGA claims, the appellate court noted.

The employer argued that because PAGA requires notice of the facts and theories supporting the claims, a plaintiff must identify the group of other alleged employees that are also allegedly affected by the claimed wrongs. But the appeals court did not think that a general reference to "a group of others" or to "other aggrieved employees" was necessary to inform the LWDA or the employer of the representative nature of a PAGA claim.

"While we appreciate that uniquely individual claims would not satisfy the statute, a prefiling notice is not necessarily deficient merely because a plaintiff fails to state that she is bringing her PAGA claim on behalf of herself and others," the court said.

PAGA claims function as a substitute for an action brought by the government itself. Thus, PAGA claims, by their very nature, are only brought on a representative basis, the court explained.

Because a PAGA claim is brought by an aggrieved employee on the employee's own behalf and that of other current or former employees and because the plaintiff's notice was not limited to an individual claim, the plaintiff's failure to refer to an employee other than herself did not limit the alleged violations to the plaintiff alone, the court said.

The trial court incorrectly found the plaintiff's notice insufficient under PAGA, the appeals court ruled.

Santos v. El Guapos Tacos LLC, Calif. Ct. App., No. H046470 (Nov. 30, 2021).

Professional Pointer: Although PAGA notice letters must describe the "facts and theories" supporting the legal violations alleged, the statute does not define how detailed these "facts and theories" must be. At a minimum, a PAGA notice should be specific enough to fulfill the purposes of the notice requirement: to allow the state to decide whether to investigate and the employer to respond to the allegations.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D. is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

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