California Employers: Do You Know When Your Furlough is a Discharge?

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To employers, it may seem like California regulates nearly everything about employment relations. Yet, surprisingly, statutes and courts in California never answered the question of when a temporary layoff becomes a “discharge” of furloughed employees. That is, until the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals did so recently in Hartstein v. Hyatt Corporation, 82 F.4th 825. The implications of this new ruling for California employers and employees are considerable.

Under the new ruling, any temporary layoff or furlough of employees without a specific return-to-work date within the employees’ regular pay period is considered a “discharge” under California Labor Code Section 201. That in turn triggers an immediate obligation for employers to pay all laid off employees all of the wages they have earned, including any pay owed for accrued vacation or Paid Time Off (“PTO”). Failure to pay in full all accrued wages, vacation and PTO when due runs the risk of substantial “waiting time penalties” under Labor Code Section 203. That can be a huge burden and risk for employers, as the Hartstein case demonstrated.

Hartstein arose during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many businesses were forced to greatly reduce or cease business operations without knowing when they would be able to reopen. In March 2020 Hyatt, like many employers, furloughed thousands of employees and was unable to provide any specific return-to-work date. Hyatt advised employees that vacation and PTO would not accrue during the temporary layoff, and Hyatt offered to pay any accrued vacation to employees upon request. A month later, in June 2020, Hyatt sent a letter advising employees that the temporary layoff had become permanent and employees would be paid their accrued vacation and PTO as required by Labor Code Section § 201 when a “discharge” occurs.

Hyatt employee Karen Hartstein filed a class-action and Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) lawsuit, arguing that a “discharge” had occurred with the indefinite temporary layoff in March 2020, and not when employees were permanently laid off in June 2020. The key question was whether a temporary layoff, lacking a specified return date, constituted a “discharge” under Labor Code Section 201, which had no definition of “discharge.” No previous published case had addressed the issue.

The Ninth Circuit turned to the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) for guidance in its previously-issued Opinion and its Policies and Interpretations Manual. DLSE had indicated that, when an employee is laid off without a specified return date within the regular pay period, the employer must immediately give the employee a final paycheck that includes vested vacation pay. DLSE reasoned that this interpretation best aligned with the statute’s purpose of protecting workers and ensuring prompt payment of earned wages.

The Ninth Circuit characterized Hyatt’s actions as “understandable given the uncertainty during the early period of the pandemic,” but remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Hyatt’s failure to issue full final paychecks in March 2020 constituted a “willful” violation, which would expose Hyatt to waiting time penalties. That question remains open and will be watched closely by employment lawyers.

Hartstein v. Hyatt provides new guidance to California employers who may need to implement open-ended furloughs or temporary shutdowns. This decision has made clear that California employers who furlough or temporarily lay off employees without specifying a return-to-work date within the same pay period should immediately issue final paychecks that include each employee’s vested and unused vacation or PTO.

Hartstein v. Hyatt demonstrates again that employment law in California is constantly evolving, and outcomes may not be as predictable as employers would hope. California employers facing such issues are well-advised to consult with qualified employment counsel to stay up-to-date on these and other important employment issues. Conkle, Kremer & Engel’s attorneys can help advise employers in navigating these complex and evolving issues.

 

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AB51, California’s Law Against Mandatory Employee Arbitration Agreements, is Invalidated

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California employers – especially those that required employees to sign arbitration agreements – have reason to celebrate. On February 15, 2023, the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Chamber of Commerce v. Bonta, (Case No. 20-15291) 2023 WL 2013326 (9th Cir. Feb. 15, 2023), ruled that AB 51, a California law effectively prohibiting and criminalizing mandatory arbitration provisions in employment agreements, is invalid because it is preempted by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA).

This development was not unexpected, as the U.S. Supreme Court has rendered a series of decisions supporting arbitration and striking down state laws prohibiting arbitration clauses in employment contracts as violations of the FAA. Yet despite this precedent, the California legislature has tried time and time again to enact anti-arbitration laws that creatively seek to avoid FAA preemption. AB 51 was the most recent attempt to circumvent the FAA.

AB 51 added California Labor Code Section 432.6, which prohibited employers from: (1) requiring employees to waive, as a condition of employment, the right to litigate certain claims in court; and (2) retaliating against applicants for employment or employees based on their refusal to waive such rights. Id. at (a) & (b). These two prohibitions by themselves would almost surely be preempted by the FAA but the California legislature sought to avoid that result by adding § 432.6(f), providing that nothing “in this section is intended to invalidate a written arbitration agreement that is otherwise enforceable under the [FAA].” To give the statute teeth, AB 51 also amended other codes to impose civil and criminal liability on an employer who violates Labor Code Section 432.6. Together, these provisions had the strange effect of imposing criminal and civil liability on employers who enter into arbitration agreements that are valid and enforceable.

The Chamber of Commerce of the United States filed a lawsuit seeking to declare that AB 51 was preempted by the FAA. In 2020, the trial court granted temporary injunctions against enforcement of AB51, because the court found that the Chamber of Commerce was likely to succeed in establishing that AB51 is preempted by the FAA. For that reason, employers did not feel the brunt of AB51 while the challenge made its way through appellate court.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals (after some unusual twists, including a published decision that was later withdrawn by the Court) ultimately agreed with the trial court. The Ninth Circuit held that although AB 51 does not expressly prevent the formation of employment contracts containing an arbitration provision, it clearly disfavors the formation of arbitration agreements by placing civil and criminal liability on employers who require employees to sign arbitration agreements. That kind of penalty is an exception to generally applicable law that allows employers to require agreements, such as confidentiality agreements, as a condition of employment. The Ninth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court has held that “state rules that burden the formation of arbitration agreements stand as an obstacle to the FAA.” Kindred Nursing Centers Ltd. Partnership v. Clark, 137 S.Ct. 1421, 1423 (2017). In addressing AB 51’s strange mechanism of imposing liability for the formation of valid contracts, the Court held that that “[a] state rule interferes with arbitration if it discriminates against arbitration on its face or if it covertly accomplishes the same objective by disfavoring contracts that have the defining features of arbitration agreements.” Id. The Court held that “[b]ecause the FAA’s purpose is to further Congress’s policy of encouraging arbitration, and AB 51 stands as an obstacle to that purpose, AB 51 is preempted.” Id., at *10.

California employers should welcome this decision. The decision clarifies that businesses have broader freedom to contract as they see fit, and that it is permissible, even in California, to require employees to sign mandatory arbitration provisions as a condition of employment. The overall perception is that arbitration results in faster, less expensive resolution of employee-employer disputes, and keeps employment disputes out of California courts. Still, there are other schools of thought that believe that employment arbitrations can be more expensive for employers than the courts because private arbitrators often charge high hourly rates, the fees and costs of the arbitration must be advanced by employers, and dispositive motion victories (for example, a successful motion to dismiss a frivolous claim) are less common in arbitration. As well, even if arbitration is enforceable some employees may file their claims in court in the hope that the employer fails to take action to enforce arbitration.

Moreover, there are important limitations on employment arbitration agreements in California. In Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc., 24 Cal.4th 83 (2000), the California Supreme Court held that employer-employee arbitration agreements may be “unconscionable” and unenforceable if they do not include provisions for: (1) a neutral arbitrator; (2) all remedies allowed under statutes; (3) adequate discovery procedures; (4) a written and well-reasoned arbitration decision; and (5) the employer’s payment of all costs unique to the arbitration process itself.

It is predictable that the same labor groups that supported AB 51 will continue to try to develop alternative measures to restrict employment arbitration agreements. Employers are well-advised to consult with well-qualified employment attorneys to stay on the right side of the rapidly changing laws. The attorneys at the Conkle firm stay abreast of developments and are well equipped to help your business navigate all aspects of wage & hour, discrimination, class actions, Private Attorney General (PAGA) claims and employment law, including the intersection of employment arbitration and litigation. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys have many years of experience drafting arbitration provisions in conformance with California law and handling employment disputes—whether in arbitration or litigation.

Amanda Washton and Alec Pressly

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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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At Critical Juncture, CK&E Defeats Consumer Class Action Against Charity

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On October 13, 2016 Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys Eric S. Engel and Zachary Page successfully defended a charitable organization faced with an attempted consumer class action.  In Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, a charity that accepted donations of vehicles was charged with fraud, false advertising, unfair competition and violation of the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA).  Plaintiff Delgado had donated a boat and trailer to Cars 4 Causes, and later complained that Cars 4 Causes did not adequately disclose its fees before providing a portion of the net proceeds from sale of the donation to Delgado’s designated third party charity.

In a class action, a critical juncture is reached when the plaintiff files a motion to ask the court to certify a class.  Without a class certification, the action is just an individual claim, often with little value on its own.  In Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, CK&E was able to present compelling evidence and legal arguments that the claims of the prospective class members did not have sufficient common issues of fact, and that the proposed class members were not sufficiently ascertainable, to permit class certification.  When class certification is denied, courts often allow the plaintiff a second or third chance to modify his class definition or otherwise amend his claims in order to meet the class certification requirements.  But in Delgado v. Cars 4 Causes, CK&E was able to present such solid evidence and legal argument that the court was convinced of the futility of any such additional chances for the plaintiff.  As a result, the court denied Delgado’s motion for class certification
“with prejudice.”  This permanent denial of class certification ended the plaintiff’s effort to pursue a class action against Cars 4 Causes.

CK&E attorneys have substantial experience and success in defending class actions ranging from consumer unfair competition, false advertising and CLRA claims, to employment wage and hour claims.

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

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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.

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Labels Matter: Consumer Class Actions are Available for Organic Labeling Violations

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The California Supreme Court has affirmed that “labels matter” to both buyers and sellers of consumer products. “They serve as markers for a host of tangible and intangible qualities consumers may come to associate with a particular source or method of production.” California protects consumers from mislabeling through a number of laws, including possible class action lawsuits under the Consumers Legal Remedies Act (Civil Code §§ 1750 et seq.), unfair competition laws (Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17200 et seq.) and false advertising laws (Bus. & Prof. Code §§ 17500 et seq.)

Aside from California’s general false labeling laws, there are specific laws and regulations regarding organic product labeling. The California Organic Products Act (COPA), generally requires that multi-ingredient cosmetics labeled or sold as organic contain at least 70% organically produced ingredients. But COPA is designed to work in concert with Federal regulations that direct baseline standards for production, labeling and sale of organic products. The California Supreme Court recently addressed whether the Federal regulations of organic products in some manner preempt or supersede California’s consumer protection laws, so that only the very limited Federal remedies can be pursued when there are alleged violations of organic labeling laws.

In Quesada v. Herb Thyme Farms, Inc., the California Supreme Court determined that California’s general laws prohibiting labeling misrepresentation do not conflict with the Federal laws concerning organic production, labeling and sale, but rather complement those Federal laws by allowing additional remedies to be pursued when those laws are broken by fraudulent organic product labeling. The Supreme Court observed that “permitting state consumer fraud actions would advance, not impair” the goals of providing “a level playing field” to manufacturers of organic products and “enhance consumer confidence in meaningful labels and reduce the distribution network’s reluctance to carry organic products.” From this perspective, where products are fraudulently mislabeled as organic, “the prosecution of such fraud, whether by public prosecutors where resources and state laws permit, or through civil suits by individuals or groups of consumers, can only serve to deter mislabeling and enhance consumer confidence.”

The result for manufacturers, distributors and resellers is that organic product labeling can create concerns at multiple levels, including federal and state regulatory liability, and class actions under strong state consumer protection laws. All those involved in the chain of manufacturing and distribution of products labeled as organic should consult with experienced counsel to protect themselves from potential adverse outcomes that can come from several directions. Conkle, Kremer & Engel attorneys are well versed in helping their clients proactively avoid and resolve such problems.

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Closing the Door to Class Actions for False Advertising Claims

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Advertising claims are often the subject of lawsuits in California. Ads, slogans, packaging or even product images are claimed to be “false or misleading.” Plaintiffs make claims under a variety of consumer protection laws, such as California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), Business and Professions Code section 17200; False Advertising Law (FAL), Business and Professions Code section 17500; and the Consumer Legal Remedies Act (CLRA), Civil Code section 1750.

But an individual who wants to sue has a problem, because a single person who claims to have been misled into purchasing a product will usually only have purchased one product and therefore has just a few dollars (or sometimes only pennies) of “out of pocket” money damages. It’s usually not realistic for a lawsuit to be pursued for just a few dollars. As a result, plaintiffs’ lawyers sometimes try to make a “class action” claim to join together many people who can each claim a few dollars of damages, which can add up to a great deal of money. In a class action, the plaintiff can assert that similar injuries happened under similar circumstances to a large number of people, and the plaintiff should be allowed to make a claim for all of the damages to that group of people. Further, the lawyers for the class action can make claims for attorneys’ fees that are much larger than they would otherwise be permitted for representing an individual claimant.

To proceed with a class action lawsuit, the plaintiff must show the court that the proposed “class” meets the rules for “certification.” That is a big hurdle in many cases, because it requires that the plaintiff show that all of the proposed class members have similar claims and issues. A recent ruling from the United States District Court, Central District of California shows how hard it can be to prove that there are such common claims and issues. In Mara Chow v. Neutrogena Corp., Case No. CV 12-04624, the plaintiff claimed that Neutrogena had made false and misleading labels and advertising for its “anti-aging” skincare products, including that the products are “clinically proven,” can cause a person to look younger, and can prevent and repair signs of aging within one week. The plaintiff tried to show that she had a proper class action because all of the class members had similar claims. But District Judge Manuel L. Real refused to certify a class.

Judge Real found that too many individual questions existed as to whether the Neutrogena product had worked as advertised for each individual class member. In other words, each member would have to individually show whether the claims were false as to that member. Further, some of the claims required that each class member would have to show that she “relied” on the false advertising when she purchased the Neutrogena product, which also could only be proved individually and not on a class-wide basis. But the news wasn’t all bad for plaintiff – the individual plaintiff was allowed to continue asserting her own individual claim for a few dollars in damages. No one will be surprised when the case is dismissed, because it isn’t worth pursuing.

CK&E’s lawyers have experience handling all aspects of claims of false or misleading advertising under the UCL, FAL and CLRA. CK&E’s lawyers are particularly well-versed in developing methods to reduce the risk of such lawsuits before they are filed. If a claim does arise, it often comes first to a business in the form of a demand letter, and CK&E attorneys are skilled at responding to such demand letters in ways that eliminate or minimize the claim and can lead to a quick and cost-effective resolution.

Update:  The plaintiff filed a petition for permission to appeal the District Court’s Order denying class certification.  On April 23, 2013, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied the petition for permission to appeal.  The lawsuit was subsequently settled and dismissed with prejudice on June 10, 2013.

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