California Supreme Court Marshalls out More Plaintiffs’ Private Attorneys General Act Rights
On July 13, the California Supreme Court issued its long awaited decision in Williams v. Superior Court. The Court greatly expanded a plaintiff’s discovery rights in the early stages of litigation. For context, Marshalls of CA, LLC, a retailer with approximately 130 stores and more than 16,000 nonexempt employees, was sued by Williams under PAGA. Williams propounded an interrogatory seeking the contact information for all of Marshalls’ 16,000-plus nonexempt employees in the state of California from March 2012 through February 2014. Marshalls refused to produce this mountain of information, arguing that it was overbroad, unduly burdensome, and invaded employees’ privacy. Williams, who had provided exactly zero evidence of statewide labor code violations, let alone evidence that he himself was an aggrieved employee, filed a motion to compel production of the employee information.
Below, the trial court and the court of appeals largely agreed with Marshalls, and held that Williams was entitled to limited production. The trial court granted William’s motion for the Costa Mesa location, allowing discovery contingent on the parties sending Belaire-West notices to allow employees to opt to keep their information private. For the remaining California locations, the lower courts denied the motion to compel and required the plaintiff to either sit for six hours of deposition or show “a compelling need for discovery” before it would grant the discovery request.
The California Supreme Court wasn’t so persuaded. The Court first dealt with Marshalls’ argument that the discovery was overbroad, and that for PAGA claimants to obtain discovery on behalf of other current and former employees, “an aggrieved employee…must have some modicum of substantial proof before proceeding.” In no uncertain terms, the Court declared that the standard a PAGA claimant must meet before requesting such broad discovery is nothing higher than the generally applicable requirement of nonfrivolousness. Because the plain text of PAGA grants standing to any person employed by the “alleged violator” and against whom an “alleged violation” was committed, the Court found that nothing more than a mere allegation was necessary.
The Court went on to overturn the lower courts’ conclusions that discovery seeking statewide contact information was unduly burdensome. Integral to this determination was the Supreme Court’s finding that the plaintiff was not required to make a showing of “good cause” before seeking employees’ contact information. The Court was also unconvinced that the discovery posed any serious threat to the employees’ privacy rights, assuming employees were provided the opportunity to opt out of having their information shared, using a Belaire-West notice.
In an effort to balance the scales, the William’s Court did leave a few guideposts for employers trying to protect themselves and their employees. First, the court recognized that there may be a “special reason to limit or postpone” the plaintiff’s access to contact information, although deciphering those reasons was left to employers. Second, the Court suggested that an employer may seek a protective order that conditions discovery on, for example, a confidentiality requirement or a prohibition against using it outside a given case. These orders would theoretically bar plaintiffs from using the contact information they receive to communicate with employees about any other suit or for any other reason. Third, the Court laid the foundation for the idea that an employer may subvert the discovery request by filing a motion to “establish the sequence and timing of discovery for the convenience of parties and witnesses and in the interests of justice” pursuant to California Civil Code section 2019.020.
In the end, in a post-Williams California, employers must be more cautious than ever in monitoring compliance with the Labor Code to avoid the same result the Court issued here.