It’s Time: New Prop 65 Warnings are Required August 30, 2018

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In November 2017, we advised readers of Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s blog that products sold in California would become subject to new Proposition 65 warning requirements beginning August 30, 2018.  The new “Clear and Reasonable Warning Regulations” from California Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) significantly changed warning requirements for affected products that are manufactured on or after August 30, 2018.  Among other changes, the new regulations affect the safe-harbor warning requirements that govern the language, text, and format of such warnings, and also impose downstream warning mandates through retail, online and catalog sales channels. Generally, some of the major changes that companies selling consumer products should be aware of include:

  • The “warning symbol” :  A graphic “warning symbol” is now required on consumer products, other than food products. The “warning symbol” must be printed in a size no smaller than the height of the bolded word “WARNING,” and should be in black and yellow, but can be in black and white if the sign, label, or shelf tag for the product is not printed using the color yellow. The entire warning must be in a type size no smaller than the largest type size used for other “consumer information” on the product, and in no case should be smaller than 6-point type.
  • Listing of a specific chemical:  Warnings must now specifically identify at least one listed ingredient chemical for each toxicological endpoint (cancer and reproductive toxicology) and include a link to OEHHA’s new website P65Warnings.ca.gov. Certain special categories of products, such as food and alcoholic beverages, have a specialized URL that must be used instead.
  • New warning language:  Warning language must now warn of an exposure to a chemical or chemicals from the product, rather than just warn that the product contains the chemical or chemical. For example, “ WARNING: This product can expose you to diethanolamine, which is known to the State of California to cause cancer. For more information go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • Internet and catalog requirements:  For internet sales, warnings must be provided with a clearly marked hyperlink on the product display page, or otherwise prominently displayed to the purchaser before completion of the transaction. It will not be sufficient if the product sold on the internet bears the required label, but the internet point of purchase listing does not. For catalog sales, a warning must be provided in a manner that clearly associates it with the item being purchased.
  • Short-form warnings:  The regulations allow the use of certain abbreviated “short-form” warnings, which may omit the identity of any specific chemical, only if the warning is printed on the immediate container, box or wrapper of the consumer product or is affixed to the product.  For example, “ WARNING: Cancer – www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”  If a short-form warning is used on the product, the same short-form warning may be used for internet and catalog sales.

In addition, the regulations seek to minimize the burden on retail sellers of consumer products. Manufacturers, producers, distributors, and other upstream businesses comply with warning requirements if they affix a clear and reasonable warning to the product, or provide written notice and warning materials to an authorized agent of a retailer, among other requirements. Retailers will only be liable for Proposition 65 violations under limited circumstances, such as if they cover, obscure, or alter a product’s warning label.

The particular requirements for each specific product can vary, so manufacturers and resellers are well-advised to seek qualified counsel to review their circumstances before committing to potentially costly label and website changes that may not comply with the new requirements.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate the changing regulatory landscape in California and elsewhere.

 

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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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Consumers are Exposed to Extreme Risks from Counterfeit Products

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Some consumers may view offers of brand name goods from sellers not within the manufacturer’s regular distribution chain as just a way to “get a good deal.”  But those offers can result in purchasers receiving counterfeit products, which are no bargain and can expose unknowing consumers to some of the worst risks imaginable.

At the very least, counterfeit products are frauds – they are not from the manufacturer whose trademark appears on the product, so the consumer is cheated out of the quality that the brand represents.  But in reality, the consumer has absolutely no idea what the contents and construction of a counterfeit product may be – it is a product of unknown origin, regardless of whether the consumer purchased from a known reseller.  Because virtually any product a consumer can purchase can be counterfeited, consumers can be placed in great danger from unknowingly purchasing substandard products.  A couple of recent events in the news highlight the extreme risks of counterfeit products.

In April 2018, the Los Angeles Police Department announced that it had raided sellers of supposedly discount brand name cosmetics, and seized $700,000 of counterfeits.  Consumers had complained to the brand manufacturers that makeup products they purchased were causing rashes and bumps on their skin.  The products were determined to be counterfeits that tested positive for high levels of bacteria and animal waste.  This is undoubtedly because the counterfeits are not manufactured with any quality controls or regulatory oversight – they are the result of a black market, pirate operation.  LAPD Detective Rick Ishitani was quoted in the press as saying, “Those feces will just basically somehow get mixed into the product they’re manufacturing in their garage or in their bathroom — wherever they’re manufacturing this stuff.”  One of the brands asserted to be counterfeit was Kylie Cosmetics. Kylie Jenner’s sister, Kim Kardashian West, tweeted:  “Counterfeit Kylie lip kits seized in LAPD raid test positive for feces. SO GROSS! Never buy counterfeit products!”

The risks to consumers of counterfeits unfortunately do not stop even there.  An even more extreme case of product counterfeiting hit the press a few days later.  Tragically, famed rock artist Prince died in April 2016.  It was soon determined that he had died from an overdose of fentanyl, an extremely powerful and dangerous synthetic opioid.  But in April 2018, local prosecutors announced that Prince had consumed the fentanyl by taking tainted counterfeit Vicodin, a brand name medication of AbbVie, Inc.  There was no determination as to how Prince obtained the counterfeit Vicodin pharmaceuticals.  “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him.  Others around Prince also likely did not know that the pills were counterfeit containing fentanyl,”  Carver County, Minnesota Attorney Mark Metz was quoted as saying at a news conference.

Some believe that counterfeits can be identified by the price alone, and warn against buying brand name products at steep discounts.  While an inexplicably low price is certainly a red flag of a potential counterfeit, in fact counterfeit products are often sold to consumers at prices very close to those of the brand name product.  This is often because many intermediaries have handled the product, taking a profit with each transaction, in the course of a murky gray market distribution process.

The popularity of online sales make the risks even worse for consumers, as it is nearly impossible for the consumer to inspect the product before purchase and delivery, and it is often very difficult for consumers to determine who is actually selling the product online.  For example, many popular online sellers act as marketplaces for innumerable third party sellers, and a purchaser cannot always determine which seller will actually deliver the product purchased.

If you are a consumer, you really need to exercise great caution when considering purchases of brand name products from sellers who are not in that manufacturer’s authorized distribution channels.  It generally matters little whether the seller is known to the consumer – it only matters where the seller obtained the product.

If you are a brand name manufacturer or trademark holder who suspects that unauthorized parallel market sellers may be offering counterfeit products, you are well advised to promptly contact counsel well-versed in the issues and methods of enforcement of your intellectual property rights.

 

 

 

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Counterfeits Can Take the Joy Out of the Holidays

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As the holiday shopping season reaches peak fervor and consumers seek out the best deals available on hot products, gift-givers are more at risk of purchasing counterfeit products of all kinds.  Recently, news articles have warned of counterfeit Fingerlings – the latest “it” toy – along with fake versions of popular electronics, clothing, personal care products, and many other types of goods.  Government bureaus like the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol regularly release holiday bulletins advising of the escalating volume of phony products entering the United States (for example, https://www.ice.gov/news/releases/buyer-beware-counterfeit-goods-and-holiday-shopping-season).  Counterfeits are far from harmless.  Not only are these counterfeit goods generally inferior to authentic products in both quality and safety, fake products are fraud, theft, and infringements of valuable trademarks and other intellectual property.  Sales of counterfeit products can even be criminal.

As a consumer, what can you do to help ensure you’re receiving the genuine article?  The most obvious method is to avoid unfamiliar sources and to buy directly from the manufacturer’s website or from an authorized retailer whenever possible.  If buying on websites like Amazon and eBay (where products are often actually sold by unrelated third parties), it helps to make sure that the seller of the product is the manufacturer or Amazon itself, not an unknown third party.  Often times, third party sellers do not have the ability or desire to properly perform checks on the goods they are selling, and in many cases the third party sellers never actually possess the products – when they receive your order they simply forward the product from a warehouse they have never even seen.  While outlets like Amazon and eBay have some anti-counterfeiting policies and procedures, experience has shown that not every fake product will be screened out.  Consumers should also check the price of the goods to ensure that it is not abnormally low, and examine the packaging and presentation of the product as depicted on the website to help determine whether the product might be fake or foreign-labeled goods.  Compare the look of the product offered with the same product on the manufacturer’s website – if it’s different, that’s a red flag.  Consumers should also not hesitate to contact the manufacturer if they suspect that they have received counterfeit or foreign-labeled goods – in addition to being the primary victims, consumers are often the first line of defense in the fight against counterfeiting.

As a manufacturer or trademark owner, what can you do when you discover your products being sold in an unauthorized channel, with risk of counterfeiting?  Conkle, Kremer & Engel has extensive experience helping manufacturers and distributors to investigate and, when necessary, litigate counterfeit and other trademark- and intellectual property-infringement claims.  CK&E attorneys are well-versed in the careful initial steps that should promptly be taken when sales of illicit products are suspected.  If the seller is cooperative, litigation can often be avoided.  But if the seller is not, that is a strong indicator that the seller has been selling, and will continue to sell, infringing products unless stopped through litigation.  Whatever you choose to do, consult experienced counsel and decide on your course of action promptly – unreasonable delays can seriously harm your ability to protect your rights.

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Sunscreen Ingredient Restrictions in Maui, Hawaii?

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Sunscreen manufacturers and distributors should take note:  Maui County in the state of Hawaii could become the first county in the United States to ban the sale and use of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two active ingredients approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in sunscreens.

In November, a Maui Hawaii County Council committee introduced and recommended for approval a bill for an ordinance that would prohibit the sale and use of sunscreen containing the ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. These ingredients are commonly used in commercial chemical sunscreens as protection against ultraviolet (UV) light radiation.  The county-level move came after Senate Bill 1150 – introduced in 2017 by Hawaii Senator Will Espero to ban the use and application of sunscreens containing oxybenzone throughout the state of Hawaii – stalled at the end of the legislative session.

The FDA currently approves of only 16 active ingredients for use in over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens, generally recognizing them as safe and effective.  Among the ingredients are oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are commonly found in commercial sunscreen products, including from major sunscreen brands such as L’Oreal, Neutrogena and Supergoop.  The European Union already imposes strict limits on the use of oxybenzone in sunscreen products as well as warning requirements.

The Maui County proposal was prompted by environmental concerns and intended to promote the health and welfare of Maui’s coral reefs and marine life. The bill’s supporters claim that oxybenzone and octinoxate have a significant impact on the marine environment, noting that both ingredients have been detected in the ocean surrounding Maui at levels that well exceed the toxicity range for coral reefs.  Opponents of the ban, on the other hand, contend that the ingredients are safe for use, as they have been approved for use by the FDA.

The proposal to ban sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and oxtinoxate, other than prescription products, is now before the full Maui County Council. If approved, manufacturers, retailers and distributors of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and oxtinoxate would have a year to ensure that their products no longer contain the banned ingredients. Businesses or persons found in violation of the law would be subject to civil penalties and administrative enforcement procedures. As of now, the bill does not contain a private right of action to allow consumers to bring actions for violations.  If passed, Maui’s outright ban could still face enforcement and legal challenges – including state preemption and federal Commerce Clause challenges.

While this is a unique development, local efforts to protect against health and environmental concerns are nothing new, but they do not always remain confined to their original purpose.  For example, California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, commonly known as Proposition 65, was originally passed to protect the state’s drinking water sources from being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  However, Proposition 65 does not act to ban the use of any chemicals; instead, it imposes warning requirements prior to consumer exposure to certain chemicals known to the state to cause cancer or reproductive harm.  The 2012 listing of benzophenone to the state’s list of regulated chemicals has already caused many sunscreen manufacturers using octocrylene, another FDA-approved active ingredient that may contain small amounts of benzophenone, to reformulate or use a more purified form of the ingredient.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel has many years of experience representing clients in the beauty and skin care industry address challenging regulatory compliance issues.  CK&E attorneys help clients stay out of legal crosshairs by working with them to ensure their products continue to meet all legal requirements, and helping them plan for foreseeable changes in the law.

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WARNING: Are Your Products and Websites Ready for the New Prop 65 Requirements?

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California’s Office of Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) has issued new Proposition 65 Warning Regulations that will go into effect on August 30, 2018. It is important for companies to understand the changed regulations and be proactive in adapting their product labels and even internet marketing to adapt to the new regulations.  The coming changes have introduced a variety of new concepts, imposing additional burdens on businesses selling their products in California, and making it easier for plaintiff Prop 65 attorneys and groups to bring costly private enforcement actions.

The OEHHA has made significant changes to the safe-harbor language requirements that govern the language, text, and format of such warnings. The new regulations introduce the concept of a “warning symbol,” which must be used on consumer products, though not on food products. The “warning symbol” must be printed in a size no smaller than the height of the word “WARNING,” and should be in black and yellow, but can be in black and white if the sign, label, or shelf tag for the product is not printed using the color yellow.

Warnings must now also specifically state at least one listed chemical found in the product and include a link to OEHHA’s new website www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.  These are examples of the new format for more specific warnings:

  • For exposure to carcinogens: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”
  • For exposure to both carcinogens and reproductive toxins: “ WARNING: This product can expose you to chemicals including [name of one or more listed chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause cancer, and [name of one or more chemicals], which is [are] known to the State of California to cause birth defects or other reproductive harm. For more information, go to www.P65Warnings.ca.gov.”

Certain special categories of products, such as food and alcoholic beverages, have a specialized URL that must be used. For example, warnings on food products must display the URL www.P65Warnings.ca.gov/food.

Recognizing that many consumer products have limited space “on-product” to fit the long-form warnings, the OEHHA has enacted new regulations allowing abbreviated “on-product” warnings. This short warning is permissible only if printed on the immediate container, box or wrapper of the consumer product. An example of the required format for the abbreviated warnings is:

  • WARNING: Cancer and Reproductive Harm – www.P65Warnings.ca.gov

The new regulations also specifically address internet sales for the first time. Warnings must be provided with a clearly marked hyperlink on the product display page, or otherwise prominently displayed to the purchaser before completion of the transaction.  It will not be sufficient if the product sold on the internet bears the required label, but the internet point of purchase listing does not.

The particular requirements for each specific product can vary, so manufacturers and resellers are well-advised to seek qualified counsel to review their situation before committing to potentially costly label and website changes that may not comply with the new requirements.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay up to date on important regulatory developments affecting their clients in the manufacturing and resale industries, and are ready to help clients navigate the changing regulatory landscape in California and elsewhere.

Although the new regulations take effect August 30, 2018, and the new warning labels are required for products manufactured after that date, companies can begin using the changed labels now. It is definitely not advisable to wait until August 2018 to begin making the required changes.

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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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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 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 parts 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 engaged in prohibited sales of certain parts to a purchaser who did not qualify under the Sales Rep Act.  Those sales precluded 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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