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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Trade Secrets: Part 2 of CKE Article on Restraints of Trade

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As described in earlier posts, Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors often include post-termination non-competition clauses, which can be tricky for both parties.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is nonetheless possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former rep from working with competitors.  In addition, reps and principals often work across state lines and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.

CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel earlier contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA) to help reps and principals understand and grapple with the non-competition/restraint of trade issues that they face.  In November 2016, the second installment of this article, Trade Secret Protection in Rep Agreements, was published in Agency Sales Magazine to further explain the related issues of trade secret protection in the principal-rep relationship, and how trade secret concerns can limit the ability of a rep to compete with his or her principal during or after termination of the representation.

CK&E is proud to be able to assist reps and principals to negotiate the sometimes difficult legal issues that can help or hinder their effective partnership in serving their customers.

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CKE Publishes on Restraints of Trade Affecting Manufacturers’ Sales Reps

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel represents commissioned sales representatives (“reps”) and manufacturers or distributors (often termed “principals”) who contract with them.  Often, contracts drafted by manufacturers or distributors include post-termination non-competition clauses that can be problematic in several respects.  California generally disallows non-competition clauses as unlawful restraints of trade, but it is often possible to have effective trade secret agreements that can substantially restrict a former representatives from working with competitors.  Further, reps and principals often work across state lines, and many states allow post-termination non-competition terms that are “reasonable” in scope.  Principals and reps must be conscious of which state’s law controls their agreement, and the state venue in which any dispute would be determined by a court or arbitrator.  To help reps and principals understand issues that they face, CK&E attorney Eric S. Engel contributed an article to the October 2016 edition of Agency Sales Magazine, published by the Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA).  The October 2016 article, Limiting the Risks of Restraint of Trade, is the first of two parts addressing the enforceability of restraints of trade in various states, and methods to assure that a favorable venue is available if a dispute arises. Next month’s article will focus on the intersection of restraints of trade and trade secret protection.

 

 

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California ARB’s Third Product Survey Starts July 1, 2016

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The California Air Resources Board’s ambitious, three-year long data collection effort is rounding third and heading for home.  The mandatory reporting period for the third and final year of the Consumer and Commercial Products Survey (now called “Data Reporting for the Consumer Products Program”) will begin July 1, 2016 and end November 1, 2016.

Businesses will once again be required to report detailed product ingredient information and annual sales for products sold in California during 2015, as they were required to do for chemically formulated consumer and commercial products sold or supplied for use in California during the 2013 and 2014 calendar years.  ARB requires the ingredient and sales information to be reported through its online Consumer Products Reporting Tool.  Veterans of the two prior Surveys may notice that ARB no longer refers to the mandatory reports as “Surveys,” apparently because that name suggested to some that the reports were somehow optional.  They are not optional.  Non-compliance will draw letters from ARB and persistent non-compliance will result in referral to ARB’s Enforcement Division.

Reports must be filed by each “responsible party” listed on the label of a consumer or commercial product that was sold or supplied for use in California during the calendar year, if the product falls into one of the many categories listed for 2015.  The general categories of consumer products that are subject to reporting are personal care products, adhesives, sealants and related products, household and institutional products, pesticide products, solvent and thinning-related products, vehicle and marine vessel aftermarket products, and aerosol coating products.  But for the 2015 Report, ARB has exempted 232 categories of consumer products due to its assessment that the products contain low or no volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions – less than 0.05 tons per day of emissions.  A number of beauty products, including facial cleansers and soaps, nail glues and gel nail polishes, are now exempt from reporting for 2015, even though they were required to be reported for 2013 and 2014 Surveys.  ARB’s full list of exempt consumer products is available here.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys assist clients with achieving compliance with California’s many regulatory requirements, including the Consumer and Commercial Products Survey, so that clients can focus on expanding their businesses in valuable markets.

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The Conkle Firm Attends INTA Annual Meeting in Orlando

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Mark Kremer and Zachary Page attended the Annual Meeting of the International Trademark Association (INTA) in Orlando, Florida this week. The Annual Meeting is INTA’s largest event of the year in which intellectual property attorneys, brand owners and administrative officials gather to discuss developments and trends in trademark law in the United States and across the globe. This year’s Annual Meeting included discussions about rule changes for proceedings in the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, the impact of TTAB decisions on later litigation, anti-counterfeiting strategies, enforcement strategies in online marketplaces and social media, and changes to international trademark prosecution systems.

CK&E regularly works with clients to identify and protect their intellectual property both in the United States and abroad, and participates in industry conferences like INTA’s Annual Meeting and others to stay abreast of the developing issues affecting the firm’s clients.

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Making a Federal Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

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On April 27, 2016, the Defend Trade Secrets Act (DTSA) passed the House of Representatives and went to President Obama’s desk, where it is expected to be signed.  With that, trade secret misappropriation claims will exist under federal law and can be pursued in federal courts.

The DTSA will provide businesses with more effective new tools to protect their sensitive information from misappropriation.  In the context of trade secrets, misappropriation is generally considered the acquisition of hidden information through some improper means .  The broadly structured language of the DTSA extends its protection to “all forms and types of financial, business, scientific, technical, economic, or engineering information” so long as (1) the owner has taken reasonable steps to keep the information secret and (2) the information derives its value from that secrecy.  The DTSA largely tracks the concepts of trade secrets that have long existed in most states.  But under the DTSA, plaintiffs will be able to bring claims for misappropriation of trade secrets in federal court.

Previously, trade secrets have been an outlier in the world of intellectual property.  Unlike copyright, patent and trademark claims, which receive the wider benefit and protection of federal court jurisdiction, trade secret claims have mostly been litigated in state court.  The problem with this has been that, given the diffuse and global nature of business and commerce, state courts are often not the best venue for intellectual property claims.   If a misappropriation occurs across state or national borders, a federal court is better suited to address such jurisdictional conflicts.

To gain access to the DTSA, and federal court jurisdiction, all that is required is that the “trade secret is related to a product or service used in, or intended for use in, interstate or foreign commerce.”  This is generally a very low threshold, as most products and services these days are used or intended for use in at least interstate commerce – only the most localized of businesses would not be able to meet this minimal requirement.

The DTSA will confer on trade secret holders a greater ability to pursue misappropriation beyond the borders of the United States, and can even pursue remedies before the International Trade Commission.  In addition, a secondary benefit gained from access to the federal court system is a potential for more uniform decisions and precedent than the more disparate and varied state courts decisions.

Another interesting development that the DTSA will usher in relates to injunction and damages.  Injunctions are often sought in trade secret cases to prevent the information at issue from being disclosed.  Previously,  under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act (UTSA), which almost all states have adopted in some form or another, the injunction would end when the trade secret ceased to exist or after an amount of time necessary to stop any potential commercial advantage being gained from a misappropriation.  The DTSA however contains no such limitation, which presumably will give courts more discretion in applying an extended injunction.  Also, where the UTSA allows for double damages in cases of “willful and malicious misappropriation”, the language of the DTSA has upped this to treble damages.

Perhaps the biggest tool in the DTSA tool belt is the ability to seek ex parte civil seizures.  What this means is that a plaintiff can, without giving a defendant notice, seek the seizure of property if the plaintiff can demonstrate that the defendant, or someone working in concert with the defendant, is likely to “destroy, move, hide, or otherwise make such matter inaccessible to the court”.  This type of ex parte seizure is a powerful new tool that will likely allow trade secret holders to better combat harm associated with a misappropriation.  And being a powerful tool, it may be subject to misuse among competitors.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys stay current on developments that may be important to their clients concerned about commercial and intellectual property issues.  If you have questions about the DTSA or other aspects of trade secret or intellectual property protection, we would be glad to hear from you.

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The Conkle Firm Helps Electronics Business Owners Strenghten Their Hands at ERA SoCal Event

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Eric Engel was pleased to have been invited for a return engagement to present to the Electronic Representatives Association for Southern California, at the ERA SoCal Owners’ Forum in Carlsbad on April 6, 2016.  ERA is the international association of professional manufacturers representatives firms and electronics industry manufacturers who use independent sales reps.  ERA’s member firms sell more than $40 billion annually in electronics products for thousands of manufacturers in industries ranging from consumer to military and aerospace.  ERA SoCal is one of the most proactive chapters in ERA, covering Central California through Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, and extending into Southern Nevada and Mexico.  ERA SoCal sponsors frequent events to promote, educate and protect manufacturer’s representatives.

The theme of this ERA SoCal roundtable forum was “Strengthening Your Hand,” and featured Eric’s presentation on ways that business owners can improve their contracts, business relations and collection rates.  The focus was on avoiding disputes that can lead to litigation, and being prepared to present a strong hand if a dispute does arise.

The open forum included many thoughtful questions and comments by business owners, who shared their industry experiences and challenges they have faced.  In addition to outlining important terms that should be included in written contracts, discussion also concerned the application of the Independent Wholesale Sales Representatives Contractual Relations Act, California Civil Code §§ 1738.10 et seq., a “pro-representative” law in California that requires manufacturers to have a signed written contract with sales reps, and provide written accountings with every payment of commissions.  When a manufacturer willfully fails to comply with requirements of the Act, the sales rep agency is entitled to “treble damages” – three times the unpaid commissions – plus attorney fees.

Eric has handled commission matters for many years, and was lead trial attorney in Reilly v. Inquest Technology.  The Reilly case was the first precedent in California that enforced the full remedy of treble damages under the Act, resulting in $2.1 million jury verdict becoming a judgment for $6.2 million, plus attorney fees and interest.  ERA and its partner organization, Manufacturers’ Agents National Association (MANA), were important sponsors of the Act and similar legislation enacted in about 36 other states to protect the rights of independent wholesale sales representatives.  CK&E is proud to be able to help sales representatives create contracts that protect their rights to be paid for their services, and to help them enforce their rights when disputes arise.

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No Fooling! On April 1, Almost All Employers are Subject to New Employment Regulations in California

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Effective April 1, 2016, new regulations of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) impose stringent new anti-discrimination and anti-harassment requirements on almost all employers having any employees in California.  Unlike in the past, the new amendments to regulations under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) apply to any employer having five or more “employees,” any of whom are located in California.  The word “employees” is important, because the new FEHA regulations count toward the minimum of five “employees” unpaid interns, volunteers and persons out on leave from active employment.  Further, it appears that this new FEHA regulation is intended to apply even to employers with headquarters outside of California if any of their employees are located in California.

The FEHA regulatory amendments require all affected employers to have written policies prohibiting workplace discrimination and harassment.  The policies must apply to prohibit discrimination and harassment by co-workers, who are made individually liable for their own violations, and by third parties such as vendors in the workplace.  The regulations demand that the written policy list all currently-protected categories protected under FEHA:  Race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, sexual orientation, and military or veteran status.  Prohibited “sex discrimination” includes discrimination based on pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and related medical conditions.  Interestingly, the regulations also prohibit discrimination against employment applicants holding a special California driver’s license issued to persons without proof of legal presence in the United States.  It is not yet clear how this will work in conjunction with the employer’s existing Federal obligation to confirm eligibility for employment.

The employer’s written policy must specify a confidential complaint process that satisfies a number of criteria.  Workplace retaliation for making good faith complaints of perceived discrimination or harassment is prohibited.  The written policy must be publicized to all employees, with tracking of its receipt by employees.  If 10% of the employer’s work force speaks a language other than English, the written policy must be translated to that language.

Further, the new regulations attempt to resolve a number of uncertainties about who is protected, specifying that both males and females are protected from gender discrimination, and requiring that transgender persons be treated and provided facilities consistent with their gender identity.  There are many other changes, such as a new entitlement to four months for pregnancy leave that is not required to be taken continuously.  If an employer has more than 50 employees, there are additional requirements, such as periodic sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors.

Employers operating in California are well advised to review their policies and practices, and to consult with qualified counsel regarding changes that may be required.  Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys help clients remain compliant with laws, regulations and case developments affecting employers in California.

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California Pavilion Exhibitors Achieve Goals at Cosmoprof Bologna

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Positive Global Sales

Cosmoprof Bologna came to a successful close on March 21.  The overall show statistics are not available yet, but participants in the California Pavilion experienced brisk business.  The California Pavilion this year expanded to two islands with 18 exhibitors, and booths were often crowded with interested buyers.  The CK&E lounge at the center of the California Pavilion buzzed with deal negotiations, and CK&E attorneys Mark Kremer and Eric Engel were glad to be able to lend their assistance to help participants expand their global reach.

Mark Kremer and Eric Engel at Cosmoprof Bologna 2016

Mark Kremer and Eric Engel at the CK&E Lounge in the California Pavilion

Organizer Cesar Arellanes of California Trade Alliance commented that California Pavilion participants reported meeting or exceeding their goals for the show, expanding and strengthening their international business.

CK&E attorneys advise clients to prepare for major trade shows, particularly foreign shows, by verifying that they have taken all appropriate steps to protect their trademarks, trade dress and other valuable intellectual property, before problems arise.  To help one well-prepared client, Mark Kremer successfully initiated an immediate takedown of counterfeit products being sold in another hall.  CK&E attorneys attend major beauty industry trade shows to help protect clients’ brands, to keep current on trends, and to assist clients with the full range of legal skills needed to grow their businesses internationally.

David Lester at Cosmoprof Bologna 2016

COOLA at California Pavilion

 

 

 

 

CK&E Lounge at the center of California Pavilion

CK&E Lounge at the center of California Pavilion

 

 

 

Daily Concepts and Afterspa in California Pavilion at Cosmoprof Bologna 2016

Daily Concepts and Afterspa in California Pavilion

 

 

 

 

Infinite Aloe booth at California Pavilion

Infinite Aloe at California Pavilion

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