California Employers’ Risks of PAGA Exposure

Posted by:

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.

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

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

Posted by:

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).

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

CKE Publishes on Restraints of Trade Affecting Manufacturers’ Sales Reps

Posted by:

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.

 

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

The Conkle Firm Attends INTA Annual Meeting in Orlando

Posted by:

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

Making a Federal Case of Trade Secret Misappropriation

Posted by:

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

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

Posted by:

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

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

Posted by:

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.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

Hot Yoga and Cold Law: Employment Retaliation Claims Can Arise Anywhere

Posted by:

Most people would agree that working in a government office that supervises lawyers is quite different than working in a 104 degree “hot yoga” studio. But recent matters involving these two very different work environments show that employment retaliation claims can be asserted against any employer – whether you’re a yoga master or the master of all lawyers in California.

The California State Bar has the staid mission of regulating the admission of attorneys and investigating assertions of attorney misconduct. Yet in November 2015, the State Bar found itself charged with wrongful employment retaliation after it fired one of its top managers, John Noonen. Noonen asserted that the termination was retaliatory because, just a few weeks earlier, he submitted a 40-page internal complaint against the State Bar’s top attorney for allegedly failing to properly investigate complaints against the president of the State Bar. The State Bar has denied Noonen’s retaliation allegations and has said that Noonen’s position was eliminated as part of a cost-saving effort.

Less than two months later, the same types of claims led to a sizeable jury verdict against a completely different business run by famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury made his fortune teaching yoga instructors his techniques and allowing graduates to operate yoga studios that feature a specific yoga sequence performed in a 104-degree room. In January 2016, a Los Angeles jury found that Choudhury sexually harassed his former legal advisor and wrongfully fired her for investigating others’ claims of sexual discrimination and assault against him. Choudhury asserted he had good cause to fire his legal advisor because she was not licensed to practice law in California. The jury first ordered Choudhury and his yoga business to pay $924,000 in compensatory damages, and the next day the jury upped the ante with a further award of $6.4 million in punitive damages.

In each of these recent cases, employees alleged that their bosses improperly “retaliated” against them for investigating workplace misconduct. Most employers and employees know that laws exist to protect employees from wrongful discrimination and harassment. The same laws also provide that employers cannot punish or “retaliate” against employees for making complaints about other potentially wrongful employment conduct, such as discrimination or harassment, or for participating in workplace investigations about such potential wrongful employment conduct.

“Retaliation” is prohibited by the same federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability and gender. “Retaliation” can take many forms, including termination, demotion, suspension or other employment discipline against the employee for engaging in protected activity, such as reporting perceived employer discrimination or other misconduct. Owing to its broad scope, retaliation is a claim commonly raised by disgruntled or terminated employees. In fact, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), retaliation is the most common basis of discrimination claims in EEOC cases.

These cases illustrate some of the many circumstances in which employment issues can lead to litigation against a wide variety of employers. Conkle, Kremer & Engel regularly advises employer and individuals on workplace issues and the ramifications of retaliation and harassment claims so that all involved can take steps to resolve conflicts in a meaningful, efficient way. When circumstances do not do not allow a non-litigated solution, CK&E attorneys litigate and arbitrate employment disputes including retaliation claims, whether the claims are asserted individually or as a class action.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

Conkle Firm Article Explains Special Protections for Sales Representatives

Posted by:

The Conkle firm published an article in the June 30, 2015 edition of the Electronics Representatives Association Southern California’s member newsletter to explain to ERASoCal members the special protections that California law provides for independent wholesale sales representatives.  Among other points, the article describes the requirements for a signed written contract, the types of information that manufacturers and distributors are required to provide to their independent sales reps, and the potential for treble damages (three times the actual damages) plus attorney’s fees for violations.

The article was written by Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorney Eric S. Engel and CK&E’s summer law clerk Ryan Fisher, a student at University of California, Irvine Law School.  CK&E is proud to be a member of ERASoCal, which is a trade association of independent manufacturers sales representative firms in Southern California’s vibrant electronics industry.  Eric has significant experience in sales commission claims, and he was lead trial counsel in the case that resulted in the first published decision in California applying the special protections of Civil Code Section 1738.10 et seq., including treble damages and attorney fees for unpaid sales commissions: Reilly v Inquest Court of Appeal Decision, Case No. G046291 (July 31, 2013)

 

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0

Last Call for 2013 CARB Survey Submissions; Deadline for 2014 Survey Coming Soon

Posted by:

The limited reprieve granted to small businesses for complying with the 2013 Consumer and Commercial Products Survey is coming to an end: Small businesses – defined as companies with 25 or fewer employees – must report 2013 sales and formulation data to the California Air Resources Board (CARB) by no later than July 1, 2015.

For other businesses, the deadline to report 2013 data has passed. Unless they have been granted an extension from CARB, formulators were required to comply by April 1, 2015 and all other businesses, by March 1, 2015.

The 2013 Consumer and Commercial Products Survey is part of a comprehensive three-year data collection effort by CARB, which is authorized by law to collect data about chemically formulated products. The Survey collects formulation data and sales information for chemically formulated consumer and commercial products sold or supplied for use in California during the 2013 calendar year. Compliance with the Survey is mandatory.

The Survey is remarkable in its breadth, targeting virtually all consumer and commercial products. The Survey requires that 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, and falls into a category listed on that year’s Survey Category List, is required to report detailed product ingredient information, as well as annual sales on a per-product basis, to CARB through the online Consumer Products Reporting Tool.

The general categories of consumer products that are subject to reporting in 2013 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.

In addition, updated data for the 2014 and 2015 calendar years must also be reported to CARB. Businesses who are required to report should plan for timely compliance with the 2014 Survey, which opens on July 1, 2015. The deadline for reporting 2014 Survey data – including 2014 sales – is November 1, 2015. In addition, CARB expects to begin collecting 2015 data on July 1, 2016 with all 2015 data due by November 1, 2016.

Conkle, Kremer & Engel provides expert guidance to clients as they navigate compliance with California’s complex and ever-changing regulatory requirements, including the Consumer and Commercial Products Survey.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
0
Page 2 of 6 12345...»