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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Fire Your Employee for His Noxious Memo? Not So Fast.

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Is an employer free to fire an employee who circulates to co-employees a memo expressing ideas that are noxious to the employer’s efforts to avoid prohibited discrimination?  Perhaps surprisingly, the answer can be, “No.”

A good example is the recent event in which Google fired James Damore, an engineer, for circulating a memo, or “manifesto,” explaining a basis for gender bias among computer engineers.  His memo, entitled, “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber – How bias clouds our thinking about diversity and inclusion,” purported to be a personal response to what he viewed as the shaming and silence of those in his field who have differing views about gender in the workplace, and whose views are inconsistent with Google’s “dominant ideology.”  In the memo, Damore provided what he called “biological” explanations for why there is a gender gap in technology, such as: women are more neurotic and thus tend to pick less stressful jobs; women are more “directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas;” and men have a higher drive for status.  Damore posted this screed to Google’s internal messaging board.  It was a message to his co-workers, and hostile to his employer’s position.

As Damore acknowledged, engineering at Google requires collaboration and teamwork.  Damore’s statement put Google’s management in a difficult place – how can Damore continue to work on any team that involves women? Further, Google’s employee review process emphasizes peer reviews, particularly by high-level engineers such as Damore.  Damore’s expressed biases could cause questions as to the fairness of his reviews, and his position as a supervisor could be argued to create a hostile work environment for the female minority with whom he works.  It is not surprising, then, that Google employees reacted by demanding Damore be disciplined or terminated.  Google agreed, and Damore was terminated.

But Damore seems to have anticipated that reaction, and took steps to protect his own interests.  As quoted by the New York Times, Damore included in his memo an unusually lawyerly statement:  “I have a legal right to express my concerns about the terms and conditions of my working environment and to bring up potentially illegal behavior, which is what my document does.”  After the termination, Damore submitted a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) claiming that Google’s upper management was “misrepresenting and shaming me in order to silence my complaints,” and reminding Google that it is “illegal to retaliate” against an NLRB charge.

Was Google’s action defensible?  The National Labor Relations Act Sections 7 & 8(a)(1) (29 U.S.C. Section 157 & 158(a)(1)) makes unlawful violating employees’ rights to engage in “protected concerted activities.” “Concerted activities” are broadly defined to include “the right to self-organization, to form, join or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection….” Most often, “concerted activities” are associated with union activity, but the NLRB protects activity that is not specifically union oriented.  This can include communicating with coworkers regarding wages and working conditions, and expressing preferences for political candidates who support favorable labor issues such as higher wages for hourly workers.  In doing so, employees are permitted to use company bulletin boards, both electronic and physical, and company email, on non-working time.

The effect of this protection is that, if Damore challenges his termination, he will likely argue that Google’s decision to terminate him curtailed his rights to discuss his political beliefs and to engage like-minded employees about his view that the hiring and promotions practices at Google are unfair to men.

Because Damore works in California, there are additional considerations under state law.  California Labor Code §1101 provides that “No employer shall make, adopt, or enforce any rule, regulation, or policy: (a) Forbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics or from becoming candidates for public office; or (b) Controlling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees.”  While this may not control an adverse employment decision by an employer against a single individual, once coworkers learn that an employee was fired based on his speech or political activities, those coworkers may perceive that action as a threat or policy.  As the Supreme Court has recognized, employees’ economic dependence on the employer can reasonably lead them to pick up even subtle signals when their jobs are at stake.  NLRB v. Gissel Packing Co., 395 U.S. 575, 617 (1969).  Here, Damore’s like-minded coworkers could interpret his firing as a threat to their employment should they express views similar to his.

The unfortunate upshot for Google is that Damore’s termination seems like a retaliation claim ripe for filing.  Though many may personally disagree with Damore’s views on gender in the workplace, and he may have absolutely no factual or evidentiary basis for his position, he could argue in an action against Google that he was attempting to organize a group of like-minded workers to oppose what he believes are Google’s gender biases or an unfair reverse discrimination policy. His “manifesto” appears to structured for this very argument.

It is ironic that the policies of the NLRB and California Labor Code, which protect political organization and prohibit retaliation, are what may ultimately force Google to suffer legal liability for Damore’s termination for expressing disagreement with Google’s anti-discrimination policies.

As these events demonstrate, the application of employment law and policies in real world situations can be challenging.  Protection of one worthwhile policy can seemingly conflict with others, and well-meaning employers can find themselves having to make very difficult choices.  Employers should consult counsel experienced in the sometimes complex issues that can arise in many different employment circumstances.

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The Conkle Firm and Social Media Influencers at Beautycon LA 2017

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On August 13, 2017, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Amanda Washton, Desiree Ho, Aleen Tomassian, Heather Laird and paralegal Chelsea Clark attended Beautycon in Los Angeles, both to assist clients and to observe first-hand the latest trends in the beauty industry. In addition to the thousands of youthful fans and future beauty marketing gurus in attendance, more than 100 brands and over 70 “creators” were featured at the two-day festival.

An annual gathering, Beautycon serves as a space for beauty industry participants to interact with young fans. As the popular beauty ideal moves away from the conventional toward one that is more inclusive and identity based, with the help of a talented team of influencers Beautycon advocated for authenticity – a sentiment to which all attendees could relate.

Beautycon heavily emphasized the growing trend of using social media influencers and celebrity endorsements to connect with consumers.  In exchange for a prized “like” on Instagram, many vendors gifted product samples or even full product lines.  Beautycon exemplified the partnerships that are possible between beauty businesses and social media influencers.  There were plenty of celebrities, “exclusives” and photo-ready backdrops on hand for influencers’ selfies and videos.  There were a number of forward-thinking panels on social media topics, including using beauty-oriented social media platforms to deliver positive self-esteem and diversity messages.  Beautycon demonstrated that connecting brands with social media influencers is rapidly becoming vital to the success of emerging beauty businesses.

For businesses, working with social media influencers involves a host of practical and legal issues and considerations.  Areas of concern can include contracts, copyrights, trademarks, privacy, rights of publicity, false advertising claims, regulatory issues and even trade libel and defamation, among other issues.  With continually evolving social media platforms and issues, it is essential that cosmetics and personal care products companies fully consider the implications of both their social media activities and those of the influencers they seek to help them promote their brands.  CK&E attorneys are excited to participate in dynamic events like Beautycon to help their beauty industry clients meet their needs in the shifting landscape of social media.  (And as the photos show, it doesn’t hurt to partake in a little of the fun, either.)

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Manufacturers, Distributors and Reps Must Be Familiar with California’s Sales Rep Act

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Independent sales representatives are a vital part of many industries, from beauty products and electronics to simple plumbing materials like tankless water heater valves.  Independent sales reps often develop considerable expertise in both the customer base in their territories and their manufacturers’ or distributors’ products, while saving resources that the principal can better use toward product development and customer service after the sale.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have extensive experience on behalf of both representatives and manufacturers/distributors/importers in strengthening those agency-principal relationships, and resolving commission, territorial or termination disputes when they arise.

In California, there is a relatively little-known statute that governs certain contractual requirements and responsibilities in a principal-sales representative relationship, called the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act (the “Sales Rep Act”) (California Civil Code § 1738.10).  The Sales Rep Act can be a powerful tool for sales reps, particularly because it offers the possibility of treble damages and attorney fees awards when the representative prevails.  For example, CK&E was counsel for a sales rep who was cheated out of his earned commissions by a principal who denied that it had ever agreed to pay those commissions.  After a jury trial, the sales rep received a jury award of $2.1 million that was then trebled to $6.2 million, plus attorney fees, after CK&E showed that the Sales Rep Act was properly applied in the situation at hand.  When the judgment was affirmed on appeal, that case became one of the most important published California court decisions about the correct application of the Sales Rep Act.   (Reilly v. Inquest Technology, 218 Cal. App. 4th 536 (2013)).

But like many powerful tools, the Sales Rep Act can be hazardous to either side when it is misapplied.  For sales representatives, distributors, manufacturers and importers alike, it is critically important to understand the requirements and potential effects of various factors to both the application and key exceptions to the Sales Rep Act.  For example, in a recent matter, CK&E attorneys Eric S. Engel and Evan Pitchford represented a Southern California importer-distributor of plumbing materials that was sued by a terminated sales rep who sought treble damages for commissions claimed owed, plus attorney fees, under the Sales Rep Act.  CK&E was able to demonstrate in a pretrial motion that the sales rep had in fact engaged in a prohibited sale of “tankless water heater valves” to an “ultimate consumer.”  That disqualified the sales rep from claiming the benefits of the Sales Rep Act, and limited the sales rep to just ordinary contract damages at most.  After the Court agreed that the claim under the Sales Rep Act was not available for this sales rep, the lawsuit was quickly settled.

These two examples demonstrate that intimate knowledge of how the Sales Rep Act operates is crucial for both sides of disputes between sales representatives and importers, manufacturers and distributors.  If you are an independent sales representative, distributor, or manufacturer that is facing commission, territorial or termination disputes, you would be well served to consult with counsel who is familiar with the very precise requirements of the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act (California Civil Code § 1738.10).

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The Conkle Firm Attends Cosmoprof North America’s Exhibition in Las Vegas

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On July 9, 2017, the attorneys of Conkle, Kremer & Engel attended Cosmoprof North America’s annual exhibition in Las Vegas, both to assist clients and to observe first-hand the latest trends in the beauty and personal care industry.  Tens of thousands of professionals attended the three-day exhibition, which featured over 1,150 exhibitors from 38 countries. CK&E attorneys attend to connect with clients and others in the cosmetics, personal care, packaging, labeling and professional beauty markets, to help clients secure distribution agreements, and to learn about the newest industry innovations.

This year, brands dedicated to “green” products were showcased as consumers continue to be interested in eco-friendly beauty and technology.  Skincare brands also made a strong showing as consumers have been increasingly interested in anti-aging and other preventative products and technologies.  Facial mask and dedicated ethnic products made a particularly strong showing this year.  Globalization of the beauty market is readily apparent – Euromonitor International has an excellent detailed analysis of recent international growth in the beauty and personal care industry on a global scale:  http://blog.euromonitor.com/2017/05/reimagining-growth-in-the-global-beauty-industry.html

CK&E’s attorneys pride themselves on effectively and efficiently assisting clients of all sizes with brand protection and growth and regulatory compliance, both domestically and internationally.  CK&E is an active member of the Professional Beauty Association, and other important industry trade organizations.

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The Conkle Firm Attends Mayor Garcetti’s Export Program

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On May 24, 2017 Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Mark Kremer, John Conkle and Eric Engel attended a conference to promote export development in the health and beauty industry.  The program was jointly presented by Los Angeles Mayor Garcetti’s Export Program and Beauty Industry Market Access (BIMA).  The Mayor’s Office of Economic Development was represented at the program by Eric Eide, Director of International Trade, who spoke of the Los Angeles City government’s interest in helping Los Angeles businesses develop exports as a means of economic growth.

This conference focused on the export opportunities that are available to Los Angeles area health and beauty businesses.  Mr. Eide and other speakers such as Patty Schmucker of American Made Beauty emphasized that international opportunities abound, because 96% of the world consumers, representing 72% of worldwide buying power, reside outside the United States, yet less than 2% of U.S. companies engage in export to those consumers.  The “Made in the USA” labeling is a way to leverage the natural advantage that U.S. beauty and cosmetics manufacturers have from being constantly promoted worldwide through Hollywood movies, celebrities and culture in media.  Harlan Kirschner, President of The Kirschner Group, Inc., a preeminent global sales representative organization for the beauty industry, spoke about the importance of thinking about export from the very inception of launching new product lines so that the products are globally compliant and export-ready when the time comes.  Mr. Kirschner offered tips such as hiring local college professors of languages for quick and inexpensive translations of product labels and marketing materials.

Emilio Smeke of Daily Concepts, himself a highly successful graduate of the BIMA program, encouraged entrepreneurs to do their homework and choose well the product lines and marketing most likely to succeed in the particular foreign markets they want to develop.  Mr. Smeke offered, for example, that in the U.S. people shower or bathe on  average less than once per day, but in Mexico people shower or bathe up to twice per day.  Mr. Smeke expressed the importance of carefully listening and observing the markets that you want to develop, offering the sage advice that people were given two eyes, two ears and one mouth, and should use them all proportionately.

CK&E attorneys regularly participate in programs to advance their clients’ interests, including leveraging government and private initiatives to promote business growth through international sales.

Emilio Smeke at Mayor Garcetti’s Export Program

Harlan Kirschner at Mayor Garcetti’s Export Program

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The Conkle Firm Advocates for Beauty Industry at State Capitol

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For many years, Conkle, Kremer & Engel has advocated for members of the beauty, health and cosmetics industry in the legislature, as well as in business negotiations, before state and federal regulators, and in court.   This year, CK&E attorney John Conkle was a member of the delegation of the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC) that visited the California state capitol in Sacramento in April 2017.  The PCPC advocates for the personal care products, beauty and cosmetics industry at federal, state and local levels on legislative priorities and regulatory issues. For the PCPC’s California Lobby Day in Sacramento, John participated in group discussions with state executives and regulatory personnel relating to the most current topics affecting the personal care products industry. In the afternoon session, John joined teams of PCPC staff and member representatives who met with legislative personnel to discuss the economic impact of the industry in California and pending legislation of interest to the industry.

California is an extremely important part of the beauty, health and cosmetics business, and it is vital for members of the state legislature to understand and appreciate the economic impact that the industry has for California, and to take steps to protect that interest.  CK&E is proud to be in a position to help the industry make its voice heard by California’s lawmakers and regulators.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel is a proud and active member of the Personal Care Products Council.  CK&E attorneys are glad to lend their legal expertise to the PCPC and its member companies by participating in PCPC conferences and industry advocacy efforts.

John Conkle with State Senator Ed Hernandez

John Conkle with Assemblyman Heath Flora

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The Conkle Firm Featured Panel of 2017 PCPC Legal & Regulatory Conference

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney H. Kim Sim was on the featured panel of this year’s Legal & Regulatory Conference sponsored by the Personal Care Product Council.  The featured panel, called “California: The Wild, Wild West,” explored the changes and challenges of the new business landscape in California, which boasts an economy that would place it sixth among the world’s nations.  The panel discussion was held on May 10, 2017 at Hilton La Jolla Torrey Pines in San Diego, California.   John Conkle, the CK&E attorney originally scheduled to speak on this panel, was unable to appear due to a federal court trial conflict.

 

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What are “Natural” Products Anyway?

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Personal care products that claim to be “natural”, “all natural” or “100% natural” continue to draw scrutiny from consumer advocates and regulatory agencies such as the FTC. Perhaps surprisingly, there still is no clear definition of the word “natural” for personal care products.  It’s no small concern, as consumers and manufacturers can have different expectations of what “natural” means, which can lead to confusion and accusations of false or misleading advertising.

Despite the uncertainty, “natural” product claims matter to consumers. According to a 2015 Nielsen report, 53% of consumers surveyed said that an “all-natural” description was moderately or very important to their purchasing decision. The worldwide natural products industry is estimated at $33 billion – and it’s growing.  “Naturally,” companies want to capitalize on this trend.

But what exactly is a “natural” product? Is it plant-derived? Is it made from ingredients found in nature?  Is it free of preservatives? Is it made without synthetic ingredients?  There are no FDA regulations regarding use of the word natural. However, the FDA has issued non-binding guidance that states it will not contest food products labeled as “natural” if the product does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances. Though this provides a limited understanding of the term “natural”, the guidance is as to food, pertains only to FDA enforcement and is not a legal requirement.

In a recent complaint filed with FTC, California Naturel’s sunscreen was alleged to be not “all natural”, as it claimed, because 8% of it was Dimethicone, a synthetic ingredient. Following the FTC complaint, California Naturel put a disclaimer on its website, which was later ruled as ineffective in a 2016 FTC decision.

Starting in 2015, the Honest Company also found itself in court for false advertising in regard to their “natural” products.  Though the Honest Company markets its products as “natural”, the products contain a number of synthetic ingredients. Consumers argued that their understanding of “natural” was a product free of synthetic or artificial ingredients, and the court held that the Honest Company’s  “natural” claims for its products is misleading.

The current trend is that the surest way to avoid complaints when products are advertised as “natural” or “100% natural” is to make certain they are free of synthetic ingredients.  Next to that, disclosure of what you mean by “natural” as used on your product can be an important measure to avoid consumer confusion.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys help their clients navigate these tricky currents by staying up to date on developments affecting the personal care products industry.

 

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The Conkle Firm Wins Injunction Prohibiting Trade Dress Infringement by Zotos

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In September 2016, Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys filed a case on behalf of Moroccanoil against Zotos International, Inc. for trademark infringement by its “Majestic Oil” products. Just four months later, CK&E obtained a Preliminary Injunction against Zotos’ competing products, and within days the case was over.

A Preliminary Injunction is a powerful litigation tool that can immediately stop a defendant from selling products during the litigation. Securing a Preliminary Injunction at the beginning of the case often brings a prompt settlement, as the defendant must decide whether to settle or to fight over the product packaging that it cannot sell.

Getting a Preliminary Injunction can be challenging because the plaintiff must show that it is likely to win the case, and that it will be irreparably harmed if the defendant’s products are allowed in the market while the case proceeds to trial. Recently, courts have made Preliminary Injunctions tougher to get by raising the standards for showing irreparable harm.

In Moroccanoil’s case, the Preliminary Injunction prohibited Zotos from selling its Majestic Oil products in packaging that was confusingly similar to Moroccanoil’s distinctive trade dress. Zotos is a subsidiary of Shiseido America.  Drawing on its knowledge of the beauty industry, CK&E’s presentation of irreparable harm to Moroccanoil’s reputation proved effective – the Court found that continued sales of Majestic Oil products would erode Moroccanoil’s premium position in the hair care market as a professional brand. The Court’s Order granting Moroccanoil’s Motion for Preliminary Injunction is available here, and is published at Moroccanoil, Inc. v. Zotos Int’l, Inc., 230 F. Supp. 3d 1161 (USDC C.D. Cal. 2017).

On the heels of the Preliminary Injunction, the parties settled the case with Zotos agreeing to pay a substantial portion of Moroccanoil’s attorneys’ fees and to drop the confusingly similar trade dress of the Majestic Oil products. In total, the case was fully resolved within 6 months of filing, and the only litigation activity was CK&E’s Motion for the Preliminary Injunction.

To learn more about the case, contact the CK&E attorneys who lead the team for Moroccanoil, Mark Kremer, Evan Pitchford and Zachary Page.

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