Prior Settlement Bars PAGA Lawsuit on Meal and Rest Breaks

By Joanne Deschenaux September 15, 2020
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A truck driver brought a claim under California's Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) that his employer denied workers legally required meal and rest breaks, but a California appeals court blocked the lawsuit, since the same claims had been settled in a prior PAGA action.

PAGA allows workers to pursue civil penalties for California Labor Code violations on their own behalf and on the behalf of other workers by stepping into the shoes of state regulators to recover civil penalties. Seventy-five percent of the penalties that are recovered go to the state, and 25 percent go to employees.

The truck driver worked for the employer from Feb. 4, 2015, through June 14, 2017. In August 2018, he filed a PAGA action claiming that the employer denied employees meal and rest breaks.

In February 2019, the San Diego County Superior Court approved a settlement in a class action that sought individual damages, as well as civil penalties under PAGA for the same alleged violations. The settlement covered all persons employed by the company in certain job classifications between March 17, 2013, and Jan. 26, 2018.

The employee and three other workers opted out of the class settlement. The employee amended the allegations of his complaint to represent employees of the company who opted out of the settlement and people who were employed by the company from Jan. 27, 2018, to the present.

The trial court dismissed the amended complaint, ruling that the employee was barred from bringing a PAGA action asserting the same claims that were settled in a previous suit, and that he could not bring a representative action on behalf of workers who were employed by the company after he left.

The employee appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the decision dismissing the lawsuit. The claim-preclusion doctrine prohibits a second suit between the same parties on the same legal claim once a final judgment has been issued in the first lawsuit.

In this case, the court said, there was no dispute that the two lawsuits raised the same PAGA claims. The employee claimed that because he opted out of the class action, the doctrine of claim preclusion did not apply, but the court rejected this argument.

Difference Between PAGA Suits and Class Actions

A PAGA claim is an enforcement action between the state and the employer, not simply a collection of individual claims for relief, and so it is different from a class action, the court explained.

A class action is a procedural device for aggregating claims when the parties are numerous. In a class action, the representative plaintiff still possesses only a single claim for relief: the plaintiff's own, the court noted.

But there is no individual component to a PAGA action because every PAGA action is a representative action on behalf of the state. Plaintiffs may bring a PAGA claim only as the state's designated proxy, suing on behalf of all affected employees.

There is no mechanism for opting out of the judgment entered on a PAGA claim, the court said. Nonparty employees, as well as the government and employer, are bound by the judgment in a PAGA action.

The employee also could not bring a representative action for violations that occurred after Jan. 27, 2018. By that date, the plaintiff was no longer employed by the company and so was not affected by any of the alleged violations. Therefore, the employee could not be an "aggrieved employee" permitted by PAGA to bring an action "on behalf of himself or herself and other current or former employees."

Robinson v. Southern Counties Oil Co., Calif. Ct. App., No. A158791 (Aug. 13, 2020).

Professional Pointer: This decision bars a second PAGA suit regarding claims settled in a previous suit, even if the second suit is brought by a different named plaintiff. All PAGA suits are brought on behalf of the government. The named plaintiff is merely acting as a proxy for the state.

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

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