Thursday, August 30, 2007

California Supreme Court: Class Action Waiver in Arbitration Clause Void in Overtime Case; Opt-Outs Not a Shield

Well, the California Supreme Court giveth and it taketh away. If you enjoyed the Court's decisions in the Ralph's and Green cases issued last week, you might have been looking forward to another employer victory in the Gentry opinion. Not so much.

In fact, not at all. The California Supreme Court in another 4-3 split, decided that class action waivers may be deemed invalid. Trial courts must decide, case by case, whether a class action waiver is void according to these criteria:

when it is alleged that an employer has systematically denied proper overtime pay to a class of employees and a class action is requested notwithstanding an arbitration agreement that contains a class arbitration waiver, the trial court must consider the factors discussed above:
- the modest size of the potential individual recovery,
- the potential for retaliation against members of the class,
- the fact that absent members of the class may be ill informed about their rights, and
- other real world obstacles to the vindication of class members’ right to overtime pay through individual arbitration.
If it concludes, based on these factors, that a class arbitration is likely to be a significantly more effective practical means of vindicating the rights of the affected employees than individual
litigation or arbitration, and finds that the disallowance of the class action will likely lead to a less comprehensive enforcement of overtime laws for the employees alleged to be affected by the employer’s violations, it must invalidate the class arbitration waiver to ensure that these employees can “vindicate [their] unwaivable rights in an arbitration forum.”
The above may be the headline, but the rest of the opinion is worse. Disagreeing with the Ninth Circuit, the court decided that Circuit City's "opt-out" provision did not save an arbitration agreement from procedural unconscionability. Here the Court frankly just made up a rationale for why an employee who has a 30 day period to choose whether to sign an agreement actually may not have any choice. The Court had to do this, or its unconscionability jurisprudence would not apply simply because the employer gave the employee a meaningful chance to either sign or not sign the arbitration agreement.
Justices Moreno, Werdegar, Kennard, and ... Chief Justice George made up the majority. Justices Baxter, Corrigan and Chin joined in the dissent.
Wow, this is another blow to using arbitration agreements in employment cases. It's almost at the "why bother" stage.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Court of Appeal Rejects Trade Secrets Claim

The Court of Appeal in Yield Dynamics, Inc. v. Tea Systems Corp. undertook a detailed analysis of Yield's claims for misappropriation of trade secrets, asserted against a former employee. The court upheld the trial court's conclusions that Yield had failed to establish (1) the misappropriated items were properly defined as "trade secrets" because there was no independent economic value associated with their secrecy (2) damages. The court also upheld the trial court's decision in favor of the defense on a number of other claims, including breach of contract, fraud, and unfair competition. This case provides a useful roadmap to litigants attempting to establish trade secrets status.


California Supreme Court: Plaintiffs Must Prove They Are Qualified Individuals With Disabilities Under California Law

The federal ADA requires employees to prove as part of their prima facie case that they can perform the essential functions of the job they hold or seek, with or without reasonable accommodation. Put another way, if they can't do the job regardless of accommodation, they cannot claim discrimination under the ADA.
The California FEHA is broader than the ADA in many respects. Lower courts were split on whether the employee had to prove they were qualified - that they could perform essential job functions with or without accommodation. In Green v. State of California, the court of appeal held that employers, not employees, had the burden of proof on this issue. That is, the lower court said that employers must show the employee was NOT able to perform essential job functions with or without any accommodation.
The California Supreme Court, reviewing Green v. California, held that FEHA is analyzed like the ADA, in that employees have the burden of proving they can perform their essential job functions with or without reasonable accommodation.


California Supremes: Bonuses Legal in California!

When I am asked to give examples of California employment law that makes people in other states smack their foreheads, wage and hour law always provides the best ones. In recent years, courts held that profit-based bonus plans were illegal in California because they took into account costs such as workers' compensation premiums and breakage, merely within the FORMULA used in calculating a profit-based bonus. Pity me. When I advise out-of-state employers on this issue, I usually have to hold the phone six inches from my ear.

No more. A sliver of sanity was restored today. The California Supreme Court decided in PRACHASAISORADEJ v. RALPHS GROCERY COMPANY, INC., that such bonuses are perfectly legal. That is, employers no longer have to fear giving extra compensation to employees based on profitability. The essence of the Court's decision:

The Plan was not illegal, we conclude, simply because, pursuant to normal concepts of profitability, ordinary business expenses, such as storewide workers’ compensation costs, and storewide cash and merchandise losses, were figured in, along with such other store expenses as the electric bill and the cost of goods sold, to determine the store’s profit, upon which the supplementary incentive compensation payments were calculated. By doing so, Ralphs did not illegally shift those costs to employees. After fully absorbing the expenses at issue, Ralphs simply determined what remained as profits to share with its eligible employees in addition to their normal wages.