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California Supreme Court Hands Employers A Rare Victory, Trims Bloated PAGA Claims

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court held that private litigants may not recover unpaid wages under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”).  See ZB, N.A. v. Superior Court (Lawson) (Cal. S. Ct. Sept. 12, 2019).

In a rearguard effort to fight employment arbitration agreements, which usually include class action waivers, plaintiffs’ lawyers have been routinely filing PAGA representative actions in an effort to stay in court and out of arbitration.  Plaintiffs relied on Thurman v. Bayshore Transit Management, Inc., 203 Cal. App. 4th 1112 (2012), to argue that, in addition to obtaining the PAGA penalties, they also could recover underlying unpaid wages under Section 558 of the Labor Code.  Essentially, Plaintiffs have been seeking the same recovery they otherwise would have obtained through a class action.

By circumventing their class action waivers and seeking unpaid wages in the PAGA action, Plaintiffs have attempted to revive class action claims for unpaid wages and turned PAGA claims into “sloppy class actions.”  The result has been grossly inflated settlement demands—and higher potential verdicts.  Happily, Lawson forecloses this attempted end-run around class action waivers and the misinterpretation of Labor Code Section 558.

In yesterday’s ruling, the Supreme Court rejected Thurman’s conclusion and noted that “[d]eeming … unpaid wages … to be a civil penalty … cannot be squared with the understanding of that term under the PAGA.”  The Court held that “the civil penalties a plaintiff may seek under … [the Labor Code] through the PAGA do not include the ‘amount sufficient to recover underpaid wages.’”

Lawson therefore significantly reduces the amount of potential exposure employers face in lawsuits brought under the PAGA.  Although PAGA penalties often far eclipse the potential underlying wage liability, Lawson restricts recovery to actual civil penalties—not unpaid wages—and deprives plaintiffs’ lawyers of a workaround to class action waivers in arbitration agreements.

© 2019 Proskauer Rose LLP.

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About this Author

Anthony J Oncidi, Employment Attorney, Proskauer Rose Law Firm
Partner

Anthony J. Oncidi heads the Labor & Employment Law Group in the Los Angeles office. Tony represents employers and management in all aspects of labor relations and employment law, including litigation and preventive counseling, wage and hour matters, including class actions, wrongful termination, employee discipline, Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, executive employment contract disputes, sexual harassment training and investigations, workplace violence, drug testing and privacy issues, Sarbanes-Oxley claims and employee raiding and trade secret protection....

310-284-5690
Kate Gold Labor and Employment Lawyer Proskauer
Partner

Kate Gold is a partner in the Labor & Employment Law Department in the Los Angeles office.

Kate has over 25 years of experience representing clients in a range of industries, across all areas of employment law.  An experienced litigator, she has represented clients in all types of employment-related suits, including class and collective actions, discrimination, retaliation and harassment, non-compete and wage/hour matters.  In addition to litigating, she conducts high-level workplace investigations and routinely counsels clients on matters involving the full range of state and federal employment issues.

Kate also represents clients in disputes involving  misappropriation of intellectual property and trade secrets, interference with contract, and unfair competition. Kate also counsels on classification of employees, employment issues in the context of purchase and sale of businesses, and non-competition agreements. Additionally, she negotiates and drafts executive employment and separation agreements and conducts training on sexual harassment prevention.

Kate received her B.A. and J.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

+1.310.284.5623
Associate

Philippe (Phil) A. Lebel represents employers in all aspects of employment litigation, including wage and hour, wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, whistleblower, trade secrets, and breach of contract litigation, in both the single-plaintiff and class-action context, at both the trial and appellate level, and before administrative agencies. Phil also represents employers in connection with labor law matters, such as labor arbitrations and proceedings before the National Labor Relations Board. Additionally, Phil counsels clients to ensure compliance with federal...

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