California Supreme Court's PAGA Decision Permits Broad Discovery

Plaintiffs may face fewer hurdles when bringing actions on behalf of themselves and others

By Toni Vranjes Aug 9, 2017
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A recent California Supreme Court decision—allowing broad, statewide discovery in Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) cases—should be on employers' radar screen.

In the case, Williams v. Superior Court, the plaintiff, a former Marshalls employee, sought contact information for all the retailer's California workers. The state Supreme Court held that he could seek the contact information of the workers without first providing an evidentiary showing that they were aggrieved employees.

Because of the Williams case, plaintiffs might face fewer hurdles in PAGA actions, potentially making these cases even more appealing for plaintiffs. For their part, employers should know the strategies that would be useful in these cases.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Preventing Unlawful Workplace Retaliation in California]

Williams Case

Michael Williams had worked at Marshalls' Costa Mesa store and later sued the company under PAGA. Williams contended that Marshalls failed to provide workers with meal and rest breaks, or compensation in lieu of those breaks.

Under PAGA, aggrieved employees can recover civil penalties over alleged labor code violations. They can sue on behalf of themselves, other workers and the state. In these cases, 75 percent of the penalties recovered goes to the state Labor and Workforce Development Agency, while 25 percent goes to employees.

To bolster his case, Williams sought the contact information of each nonexempt worker in California for a specified period. Marshalls refused to provide the contact information, arguing that the request was too broad and burdensome and invaded the privacy of workers.

The trial court ordered Marshalls to supply the contact information of the workers—but only for those at the Costa Mesa store.

Williams appealed the ruling but the appellate court found that Williams must "set forth specific facts showing good cause justifying the discovery sought" and that he had failed to do that.

The case ultimately reached the California Supreme Court. In its ruling, the state high court found that Williams could seek contact information for all Marshalls employees in California, said Ashton Riley, an attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Irvine.

The court found that the Belaire-West process—which generally provides an opt-out procedure for potential class members to prevent disclosure of private information—would sufficiently protect the privacy of employees, Riley said.

The Williams case puts PAGA actions on equal footing as class actions regarding discovery of employee contact information, according to Gary McLaughlin, an attorney with Akin Gump in Los Angeles.

In class actions, "the contact information of those a plaintiff purports to represent is routinely discoverable as an essential prerequisite to effectively seeking group relief, without any requirement that the plaintiff first show good cause," according to the Supreme Court's opinion.

"Nothing in the characteristics of a PAGA suit ... affords a basis for restricting discovery more narrowly," the opinion stated.

The court's ruling likely will make PAGA actions even more appealing for plaintiffs, said McLaughlin, citing two previous decisions. The 2009 Arias v. Superior Court decision found that plaintiffs in PAGA actions don't need to meet class-action certification requirements, and the 2014 Iskanian v. CLS Transportation ruling held that employers can't force employees to arbitrate PAGA claims.

In the Williams case, the employer attempted to "push back against the rising tide of PAGA actions and decisions that [have] made it easier and easier to litigate PAGA claims," McLaughlin said.

Employer Takeaways

If plaintiffs in PAGA cases contend that labor code violations happened statewide or companywide, they potentially can seek discovery for the entire group of employees almost immediately, Riley observed.

"A single plaintiff working at one location can say, 'I think this happened across hundreds of stores,' with no basis for the allegation," Riley said. "So long as they allege that, they potentially can use the discovery process to find out how broad the practice is."

This could have a major impact on companies. If an employer is facing a PAGA action, it might be required to defend the action on a statewide or companywide basis, he added.

However, employers should also know that judges have discretion to limit discovery in cases.
One way for an employer to defend a PAGA action is to take a more aggressive stance in conducting its own discovery, Riley noted. For instance, in a case in which a plaintiff seeks to represent all of the company's employees in the state, the company could use document requests, interrogatories or other discovery methods to try to limit the scope of the claim.

"Ultimately, it's going to remain with the trial court's discretion as to whether it allows broad discovery," Riley said.

Employers should seek the advice of an attorney in these matters, according to Riley and McLaughlin.

Toni Vranjes is a freelance business writer in San Pedro, Calif.

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