Prop 65 Settlements Predominantly Benefit Claimants’ Lawyers

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Over the last several years, the  California Attorney General’s Office has released annual reports of Proposition 65 settlements.  These reports make one thing clear – Proposition 65 continues to be a lucrative source for private Proposition 65 claimants and their lawyers, as the total settlement payments continues to rise through the years.

In the past, we noted that private Proposition 65 claimants and their lawyers collected at total of $17 million in settlement payments (comprised of civil penalties, “PILPs” or “Payments in Lieu of Penalties” [also known as “Additional Settlement Payments”] and attorneys’ fees and costs) in 2013, and $20 million in 2012. The trend since then has been upward on all fronts, with one notable recent qualification regarding PILPs.

Proposition 65 contemplates that private claimants will share any civil penalties collected, with 75 percent going to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and 25% being kept by the private claimants.  However, Prop 65 claimants are allowed an alternative remedy of PILPs, in which the claimants can pocket 100% of the PILPs and share nothing with OEHHA. All private claimants needed to do is establish that the PILP payments will go to fund some kind of activities with a nexus to the basis for the litigation, and show how those funds would be spent.  Until recently, this was not a big obstacle for Prop 65 claimants. As can be seen from the OAG reports, many Prop 65 claimants are special-purpose entities that contend their own business of pursuing Prop 65 claims serves the environmental interests they are trying to protect through pursuit of more Prop 65 claims.  As a result, these entities could pocket the PILP money to self-fund their own activities to make more Prop 65 claims. Being able to keep all of the PILP money, rather than the alternative of having to give 75% of civil penalties to OEHHA, undoubtedly made PILPs very attractive to Prop 65 claimants. Perhaps the only bright spot in the chart below is the significant reduction (by more than 50%) in PILP recoveries, which followed an amended regulation that went into effect on October 1, 2016 to tighten requirements for PILP settlements. We’ll develop more on this amendment and its effects in a future blog post.

Finally, but clearly most significantly in terms of dollars spent on settlements of Prop 65 claims, private claimants’ lawyers are entitled to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs. As seen in OAG reports, and displayed graphically below, this attorney fee recovery constitutes by far the largest portion of Prop 65 settlements.

Since 2012, total settlement payments have increased substantially, reaching their high-water mark in 2016 but not declining very much in 2017 (2018 figures have not yet been released). Between 2014 and 2017, Prop 65 settlement payments totaled well over $25 million per year.  Overall, the settlement payments are comprised of attorney fee recoveries to claimants’ lawyers, PILP recoveries to claimants, and a smaller number of civil penalties that are shared 25% with claimants and 75% with OEHHA. In sum, every dollar shown in the chart below, other than the OEHHA portion shown in red, has gone to either the Prop 65 claimants or the claimants’ lawyers:

When viewed graphically, it becomes all the more evident that the vast majority of Prop 65 settlements benefit claimants and their lawyers, not OEHHA or any other government agency charged with protecting the public. Questions must arise whether this was really the intent of Proposition 65, however beneficent was its purpose.

2016 was the biggest year for Prop 65 private claimants, according to data released by the California Attorney General’s Office.  In 2016, private claimants settled 760 cases, suing smaller businesses and larger entities like K-Mart, Michaels, Williams-Sonoma, and Twinings.  The settlements for that year totaled over $30 million.

Of the $30 million collected in settlement payments in 2016, attorneys’ fees made up more than $21.5 million, or 71.5% of all private settlements.  In addition, while civil penalties amounted to just over $5 million, or 18% of all private settlements, private claimants can take 25% of any civil penalty assessed as a “bounty.”  In 2016, the civil penalties retained by claimants represented a sum of $1,361,500, or 4.51% of all private settlements.  PILP money made up 10.42% of all private settlements.  That means approximately $3.1 million landed in the hands of private claimants and their attorneys, in addition to the attorneys’ fees and civil penalty bounties they received.

A few firms did particularly well that year.  In 2016, The Chanler Group brought in 242 settlements for over $7.4 million.  83% of this figure, or over $6 million, was paid out in the form of attorneys’ fees and costs.  Brodsky & Smith brought in 99 settlements for nearly $2.5 million.  90% of the nearly $2.5 million, or $2.2 million, in settlement payments went to the lawyers as attorneys fees and costs.

Some claimant representatives obtained settlements that were not quite as disproportionately in favor of attorneys’ fees and costs.  For example, the Center for Environmental Health brought in 93 settlements in 2016, for a total of $4 million, broken down as follows: 11% as non-contingent civil penalties, 16% as PILP payments, and 74% as attorneys’ fees and costs.  Similarly, the Consumer Advocacy Group brought in approximately $4 million across 71 settlements, recovering 11% as non-contingent civil penalties, 14% as PILP payments, and 75% as attorneys’ fees and costs.

The Environmental Research Center brought in 55 settlements for nearly $5 million, and the breakdown of payments was split more evenly: 36% as civil penalties, 31% as PILP payments, and 33% as attorneys’ fees and costs.

In 2017, private claimants continued to pursue Prop 65 claims, settling 688 cases.  The settlements totaled more than $25 million. As can be readily seen in the chart above, although the total claimants’ recoveries were somewhat lower, they were on par with 2015 recoveries. Further, attorneys fees were proportionately even higher in 2017 than in preceding years, and the reduction was primarily in the PILP recoveries. Attorneys’ fees made up more than $19.4 million, or 75.6% of all private settlements, and civil penalties retained by claimants represented an additional $1,210,786 or 4.7% of all private settlements.

If these trends continue, total Prop 65 settlement payouts will continue to rise, imposing the “unnecessary burdens for businesses” that “are cause for public concern,” as the OAG noted in 2014. Conkle, Kremer & Engel routinely represents businesses against Prop 65 claims and lawsuits brought by private claimants, and works with businesses to develop compliance strategies to minimize the risk that they will be future targets of Prop 65 claimants.

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California Expands Sexual Harassment Training Requirements to Most Employers

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As usual, a new year means new laws, especially in California.  For 2019, one law that all employers need to be aware of is SB1343, which amended Government Code Sections 12950 and 12950.1 to impose new sexual harassment training requirements on most employers.  Previously, only employers of at least 50 employees were required to train their supervisory employees.  Starting now, if you have 5 workers, including both employees and contract workers, you have to comply with several training requirements:

  • – Within the next year, all supervisory employees must complete two hours of sexual harassment training.

– The definition of “supervisor” is fairly broad and covers more than just your managers. Under California Government  Code 12926(t), “Supervisor” means “any individual having the authority, in the interest of the employer, to hire, transfer, suspend, lay off, recall, promote, discharge, assign, reward, or discipline other employees, or the responsibility to direct them, or to adjust their grievances, or effectively to recommend that action, if, in connection with the foregoing, the exercise of that authority is not of a merely routine or clerical nature, but requires the use of independent judgment.”

  • – Within the next year, all nonsupervisory employees must complete one hour of sexual harassment training.
  • – For all employees, the training must be provided within six months of the employee’s assumption of a position with the company.
  • – After January 1, 2020, each employee must receive sexual harassment training once every two years.
  • – Beginning January 1, 2020, seasonal and temporary employees, and any employees hired to work for less than six months, must receive sexual harassment training within 30 calendar days after the hire date or within 100 hours worked, whichever occurs first. If the temporary employee is employed by a temporary services employer (i.e., a temporary staffing agency), the temporary services employer is required to provide this training, not the client.

California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) is required to develop online sexual harassment training courses.  DFEH has stated that it expects to have such training programs available on its website by late 2019.  If they are available on time, employers can direct their workers to those online courses, but otherwise employers must develop or provide their own training.

Employers should also take this as a reminder to check your work site and make sure you have prominently displayed the required posters.  For example, California law requires employers to display the DFEH poster regarding workplace discrimination and harassment in a prominent and accessible location in the workplace, and to distribute a sexual harassment prevention brochure to their employees.

Constant vigilance is required for employers to comply with rapidly changing requirements.  Employers should consult with experienced counsel particularly in regard to interpretation of new requirements such as these.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced with counseling employers in the face of the changing legal landscape in employment law.  CK&E attorneys help companies identify and reduce areas of exposure to liability for employment claims, including wage and hour, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims.

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GDPR is Coming: If Your Business is Online, Beware the New EU Privacy Regulation

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If you sell or offer goods to EU residents, even from the U.S., it is now necessary to re-examine your data processing and privacy procedures. There is a new EU privacy law that will go into effect on May 25, 2018, with significant penalties for violations. The EU General Data Protection Regulation, or “GDPR,” covers any website, including a U.S.-based website, selling to EU residents and processing personal data of those EU residents.  Here are some basic questions and issues to address concerning your online presence:

Do you collect, store, or use Personal Data? You are subject to this regulation if your website collects, organizes, stores, disseminates, uses or otherwise processes personal data of EU residents, regardless of where your website keeps or uses such information.

“Personal Data” will likely be broadly interpreted. The GDPR defines “Personal Data” very broadly to include any information that can be used to identify an individual. This can include all sorts of data, like names, e-mail addresses, office addresses, and even IP addresses.

Can your users easily revoke consent? The GDPR takes consent seriously. The GDPR requires you to demonstrate consent was “freely given, specific, informed and unambiguous” by a “clear affirmative action” on the part of the user for the processing of personal data. When you ask for the user’s consent, you must articulate “specified, explicit, and legitimate purposes” for processing the data. Limit the data you collect to what is necessary to achieve these articulated purposes. Be extra careful if you are collecting sensitive personal data – the GDPR raises the bar for obtaining consent to process “special categories of personal data.” And make sure it is as easy for the user to withdraw consent as it is to give consent.

Can you respond quickly and effectively when the user exercises rights under the GDPR? The GDPR grants users, or “data subjects,” quite a few rights, including but not limited to knowing where and why you are taking the data and anything that happens to it, objecting to its collection or use, obtaining a copy of it, correcting or erasing it, or restricting its use. Make sure you have procedures in place to respond appropriately in the event a user exercises rights under the GDPR.

Penalties for failure to comply can be steep. Failure to comply with the GDPR can expose companies to administrative fines of up to 20 million Euros or 4% of the total worldwide annual turnover of an “undertaking” of the preceding financial year, whichever is greater. Even if you use vendors to process your data, you are still responsible for monitoring compliance. You are required to “implement appropriate technical and organizational measures to ensure and to be able to demonstrate that processing is performed in accordance with this Regulation.”

The EU GDPR is a minefield of regulatory requirements that require a close examination of your data processing and privacy procedures. Some companies, such as Microsoft, are implementing a single system worldwide to comply with the EU’s requirements, effectively granting greater-than-required  rights to non-EU residents.  There will likely be considerable uncertainty and confusion as the GDPR requirements are implemented and enforcement begins.  Contact Conkle, Kremer & Engel to help bring your data processing and privacy procedures into compliance.

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California’s New, Stricter Test for Independent Contractors and Employees

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Does Your Business Pass California’s New, Stricter Test for Independent Contractors Rather Than Employees?

On April 30, 2018, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County that will make it more difficult for employers to classify their workers as independent contractors.  Under the new Supreme Court test, workers are presumed to be employees, not independent contractors.  Incorrect classification can have serious consequences.

Previously, many California employers thought an agreement stating a worker was an independent contractor was enough.  No more.  The Supreme Court has adopted a strict “ABC” test to determine whether a worker is properly classified as an “employee” or as an “independent contractor.”  Under this test, the Court presumes a worker is an “employee” unless the hiring business can establish that the worker meets all three conditions of an independent contractor:

(A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hirer in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract for the performance of such work and in fact;

(B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and

(C) apart from the independent contractor relationship, the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed for the hiring entity.

The presumption means that when in doubt employers should err on the side of classifying their workers as employees.  An employer that misclassifies a worker as an independent contractor can be liable for back wages and wage and hour penalties, including willful misclassification penalties that can range from $5,000 to $25,000 per violation.  These issues may be raised by the worker after the “independent contractor” relationship has ended.

If your workers do not meet this new 3-part test for independent contractors, make sure you re-classify them as employees and pay them all the wages and benefits given to your employees under the wage and hour laws, deduct payroll taxes, cover them under your worker’s compensation insurance, and generally treat them like your other employees.

If you have questions about how the new decision applies, or whether your workers meet the new strict ABC test for independent contractors, you should promptly consult with experienced employment counsel.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have years of experience in employment matters, advising businesses and litigating and arbitrating disputes, including class actions.

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Do You Have to Pay Your Summer Interns?

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Do I Have to Pay My Interns?

Spring will soon draw to a close.  As you prepare for the arrival of your summer interns, make sure you have asked yourself this question: Do I need to pay my interns?

The easiest answer is generally, YES!  But the easiest answer is not the whole story, because you do not have to pay your interns in accordance with wage and hour laws if the company-intern relationship meets the federal (and state, as applicable) test.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s New Test

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Labor helped private businesses out.  It announced that it would be using a new (more employer-friendly) test to determine whether an intern is an “employee” that must be paid in compliance with wage and hour laws.  Whether an intern must be paid in compliance with federal wage and hour laws now depends on seven factors:

  • The extent to which the intern and the company clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa;
  • The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions;
  • The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit;
  • The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar;
  • The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning;
  • The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern; and
  • The extent to which the intern and the company understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

According to the DOL, “no single factor is determinative.”  Thus, companies need to conduct a case-by-case analysis of each internship position to determine whether that intern should be paid.

I’m Located in California.  Do I Need to Be Concerned About State Laws Controlling Wage and Hour Requirements?

Here, the clear answer is YES!  For many years, the California Department of Labor Industrial Relations, Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) has relied on the DOL’s old six-factor test.  For now, California businesses should also look to the DOL’s old six-factor test to determine whether they need to pay their interns.

The DOL’s adoption of this new seven-factor test this year followed a decision in the Ninth Circuit (which covers California).  In 2017, the federal Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made a predictive statement, that the California Supreme Court would no longer use the old DOL test, and would instead apply a test more similar to the one set forth above.  Benjamin v. B & H Educ., Inc., 877 F.3d 1139 (9th Cir. 2017).  However, this statement is only predictive of what the federal court thinks the California courts would do, so it is not actually controlling law in California.

Thus, until the California state agencies and courts take a position on whether they will follow the Ninth Circuit and the DOL, companies should also check that they have considered the DLSE’s interns test to make their decision to pay (or not pay) interns.  That requires an analysis under the DOL’s old six-factor test:

  • The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the company, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  • The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  • The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  • The company that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  • The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  • The company and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

If you have not examined your internship programs with these federal and state legal considerations in mind, you should do so immediately, before your summer interns arrive.  Review your internship materials, including your recruitment postings, company policies, and any other documents you anticipate having the intern sign before starting the summer program.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced with counseling employers in the face of a constantly changing legal landscape in employment law, and with helping companies identify and reduce areas of exposure to liability for employment claims, including wage and hour, discrimination, harassment, and retaliation claims.

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How Does Marijuana Legalization Affect Employer Workplace Policies?

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Do I have to change my drug-free workplace policy now that marijuana is legal?

On January 1, 2018, recreational marijuana became legal in California.  That raises a few questions, to put it mildly.  For California employers and employees, one of the first questions is, must employers change their drug-free workplace policies now that cannabis use is legal?

Generally speaking, the answer is no.  A California employer can still keep its drug-free workplace policy (as long as it was legally compliant before January 1) that prohibits the use of alcohol and drugs, including cannabis, in the workplace.  There is even a California Health and Safety Code statute protecting employers: The legalization of cannabis use “does not amend, repeal, affect, restrict, or preempt…[t]he rights and obligations of public and private employers to maintain a drug and alcohol free workplace or require an employer to permit or accommodate the use, consumption, possession, transfer, display, transportation, sale, or growth of cannabis in the workplace, or affect the ability of employers to have policies prohibiting the use of cannabis by employees and prospective employees, or prevent employers from complying with state or federal law.”

Does this mean I can terminate an employee who tests positive for cannabis?

Yes, if you have a zero-tolerance policy that provides for dismissal of employees who test positive for drugs.  An employer can keep its drug-free workplace policy and test employees for alcohol and drugs, including cannabis, in compliance with the law.  That means that an employer can refuse to hire an employee who tests positive for cannabis.  It also means that an employer can ask an employee to take a drug test when the employer reasonably suspects the employee is under the influence of any substances prohibited under the employer’s policy.  An employer can terminate an employee who refuses to take the test, or who tests positive for those prohibited substances, including cannabis.

What if the employee is using marijuana to treat a disability?

With all the medical leave and disability discrimination laws protecting employees with certain medical conditions, employers are also understandably nervous about terminating an employee who relies on medical marijuana.  For now, employers can rest easy.  Because federal law still prohibits cannabis use, both state and federal law refuse to protect the employee’s illegal drug use, even if the employee is using medical marijuana, with a prescription, to treat a medical condition.

Of course, cannabis law is quickly evolving.  From legalizing marijuana at the state level in parts of the country, to rescinding “hands-off policies” at the federal level that were intended to leave states to decide on the cannabis issue on their own, cannabis laws are subject to change.  Employers should keep a close eye on the interaction between federal and state laws on cannabis use, and be prepared to modify their drug policies as needed.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced with counseling employers who face a constantly changing landscape of laws, ordinances, and regulations, and resolving employment issues as they arise.

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Can Employers Ask, “So, What Did You Make?”

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A new law in California is squarely aimed at reducing historical wage disparity, particularly between male and female employees.  On January 1, 2018, a new law will take effect in California to prohibit employers from seeking “salary history information, including compensation and benefits, about an applicant for employment.”  The new law, Section 432.3 of the Labor Code, also requires employers to provide the pay scale of the position to the applicant upon reasonable request.

But even under this new law, employers can still access salary history information under certain circumstances.  Employers may review salary history information that is publicly available under federal or state law, including information that is obtainable under the California Public Records Act or the federal Freedom of Information Act.  Employers may also consider and rely on salary history information in determining the salary for that applicant, if the “applicant voluntarily and without prompting discloses salary history information to a prospective employer….”  But, even when employers can rely on voluntarily disclosed salary information to set a particular salary, job applicants are still protected by California’s Equal Pay Act.  Any prior salary information about the applicant still cannot be used as the sole justification for “any disparity in compensation” for employees of different sexes, races, or ethnicities for “substantially similar work.”

It seems likely there will be a challenge to the constitutionality of the new restriction, most likely on free speech grounds.  Other states and municipalities have passed similar laws restricting employers from inquiring about salary history.  Philadelphia has a similar ordinance passed earlier this year to prohibit employers from asking an applicant about prior salaries and from relying on salary information unless that information was voluntarily disclosed by the applicant.  The Chamber of Commerce for Greater Philadelphia filed a lawsuit, challenging the ordinance on several grounds, including “chilling” the protected speech of employers under the First Amendment, and violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because of the severe penalties employers risk incurring.  While this case is still pending, the Chamber of Commerce raises questions of constitutionality that could apply as well to California’s new law.

Employment laws change constantly at federal, state and local levels.  In preparation for the new year, employers should review the documents they use in the hiring process, including job applications and new hire documents, and remove questions pertaining to salary history.  Employers should also instruct any employees who may be interviewing applicants not to ask about an applicant’s salary history.  And, for each open position, employers should ensure pay scales are readily available to disclose in response to an applicant’s request.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are experienced at helping employers navigate the shifting maze of laws and regulations they face, and resolving employment issues as they arise.

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California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

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If you’re a California employer, you may have heard people refer to “PAGA” and wondered what it’s all about.  PAGA is a legal device that employees can use to address Labor Code violations in a novel way, in which employee representatives are allowed to act as if they are government enforcement agents.

The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (CLWDA) has authority to collect civil penalties against employers for Labor Code violations.  Seems simple enough.  But in an effort to relieve an agency with limited resources of the nearly impossible task of pursuing every possible Labor Code violation committed by employers, the California legislature passed the Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”).  PAGA grants aggrieved employees the right to bring a civil action and pursue civil penalties against their employers for Labor Code violations, acting on behalf of the State of California as if they were the CLWDA.  If the aggrieved employees prevail against the employer, the employees can collect 25% of the fines that the state of California would have collected if it had brought the action.

Penalties available for Labor Code violations can be steep – for some violations, the state of California can recover fines of $100 for an initial violation to $200 for subsequent violations, per aggrieved employee, per pay period.  These penalties can add up to serious money, especially if the aggrieved employee was with the company for some time.  But what makes PAGA particularly dangerous for employers is the ability of employees to bring a representative action (similar to a class action), in which they can pursue these penalties for violations of the Labor Code on behalf of not only themselves, but also all others similarly situated.  Under this scheme, an aggrieved employee can bring an action to pursue penalties on behalf of an entire class of current and former employees, thereby multiplying the penalties for which an employer can be on the hook and ballooning the risk of exposure.  That risk is further amplified because PAGA also permits plaintiff employment attorneys to recover their fees if their claim is successful.

There is an upward trend in use of PAGA against California employers.  A July 2017 California Supreme Court decision, Williams v. Superior Court, exacerbated the problem for employers:  The California Supreme Court decided that plaintiff employment attorneys can obtain from employer defendants the names and contact information of potentially affected current and former employees throughout the entire state of California.  This means the PAGA plaintiffs can initiate an action and then pursue discovery of all possible affected employees and former employees throughout California, which can greatly expand the pool of potential claimants and ratchet up the exposure risk for employers.

Employers in California need to be attuned to Labor Code requirements and careful in their manner of dealing with employees, so that they avoid exposure to PAGA liability to the extent possible.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are familiar with the latest developments in employment liability and able to assist employers avoid trouble before it starts, or respond and defend themselves if problems have arisen.

 

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