Friday, February 25, 2011

California Supreme Court Holds No Arbitration in Lieu of Labor Commissioner Hearing

The California Supreme Court decided that an employer cannot require an employee to go to arbitration instead of a "Berman" hearing before the Labor Commissioner.  Rather, the employee must be permitted to go to the labor commissioner and then the arbitration agreement can be used for the "appeal" de novo.
This 4-3 decision involves lengthy discussions of preemption and unconscionability. 

The majority, led by retiring Justice Moreno, finds that the waiver of the labor commissioner hearing deprives the employee of so many benefits that the arbitration agreement violates public policy.  The U.S. Supreme Court may take a look at this one under the Federal Arbitration Act.  Until then, though, employees get to see the Labor Commissioner, even if they have arbitration agreements.

The case is Sonic-Calabasas A, Inc. v. Moreno and the opinion is here.

Court of Appeal: Meals and Breaks are Penalties for Attorneys Fees Law

Did you know the Labor Code permits employers to recover attorney's fees when the employer wins certain wage claims?  It's true.
Labor Code section 218.5 contains a reciprocal fee recovery provision in favor of the "prevailing party" in certain wage disputes. Section 218.5 states, in relevant part: "In any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions, the court shall award reasonable attorney‟s fees and costs to the prevailing party if any party to the action requests attorney‟s fees and costs upon the initiation of the action. . . . [¶] This section does not apply to any action for which attorney’s fees are recoverable under Section 1194."
 In light of the last sentence, claims involving "overtime" are not subject to this fee statute, but rather section 1194.  That is a "one way" fee provision that precludes employers from recovering fees even when they win claims for unpaid overtime.  Thus, the Court of Appeal decided that UPS could not recover attorney's fees when it won a lawsuit by a single plaintiff challenging his exemption.

But what if the complaint alleges unpaid overtime AND other wage claims.  The Court of Appeal decided that fees MAY be recovered by employers relating to the non-overtime-related claims.  But then things got weird.

In United Parcel Service Wage and Hour Cases, the court dealt with Thomas McGann's individual claim, which not only involved overtime, but also meals and breaks.  UPS sought its fees when it prevailed on the meal and break portion of the case. 

Section 218.5 applies only to "wage" claims.  Rather than award UPS the fees, the Court of Appeal held that meal and rest period penalties are penalties for purposes of the attorneys' fees statute permitting employers to recover attorney's fees for unsuccessful suits to recover wages.  But wait. I thought the California Supreme Court said that meal period penalties were wages for the purposes of the statute of limitations.  You're right.  The Supreme Court did so in the Murphy v. Kenneth Cole case, discussed here.

But the Court of Appeal decided that Murphy does not apply because it did not address attorney's fees, but rather which statute of limitations should apply.

UPS contends Murphy establishes that an action for recovery of the statutory remedies for missed meal and rest breaks is a claim for “nonpayment of wages” within the meaning of Labor Code section 218.5. UPS offers no analysis to support its contention that Murphy, which decided a statute of limitations question under the Code of Civil Procedure, should control or guide our analysis of the Labor Code attorney fees provisions. We are not persuaded that extending the holding in Murphy to the discreet fee issue presented here is appropriate or in keeping with our duty to construe statutes regulating the conditions of employment liberally, “with an eye to protecting employees.” (Murphy, supra, 40 Cal.4th at p. 1111; accord, Ramirez v. Yosemite Water Co. (1999) 20 Cal.4th 785, 794.)

Recognizing that the statutory remedy for denial of breaks -- payment of one additional hour of regular pay for each day a break is denied -- was susceptible to an interpretation as a wage and also as a penalty, the Supreme Court in Murphy found the remedy provided in Labor Code section 226.7 was primarily intended “to compensate employees for their injuries” occasioned by missed breaks and was, therefore, akin to a wage for purposes of assigning the appropriate statute of limitations. (Murphy, supra, 40 Cal.4th at p. 1111.) The court therefore gave employees the benefit of the three-year statute of limitations. However, nothing in the Murphy opinion suggests the court intended its decision to permit a prevailing employer-defendant in a section 226.7 action to recover attorney fees from the unsuccessful employee. To so find would undermine the Supreme Court‟s heavy reliance in its analysis on the principle that statutes governing working conditions must be liberally construed in favor of employees.
So, the court instead decided that section 218.5 permits employers to recover attorney's fees when wage claims are based on contractual wages, such as unpaid bonuses, rather than wages - such as meal period penalties- that are required by statute. I guess vacation pay disputes won't result in awards of attorneys' fees either now?
Sorry - but if Murphy held that meal periods are subject to the limitations period applicable to wages not penalties, then Murphy said that meal and break penalties are wages. Since 218.5 applies to "wages" and not just "contractual-based wages" the court giveth something to the statute, and taketh away from employers.
The case is United Parcel Services Wage and Hour Cases, and the opinion is here.

Court of Appeal: Union Representing County Employees Entitled to Contact Information of Non-Union Members

To facilitate union organizing and collective bargaining, the union representing LA county employees wanted the county to disclose the names and addresses of employees who opted not to be represented by the union. These employees paid an "agency" fee, lower than union dues, but were not full fledged members.

Reviewing the case, the court of appeal decided that the county must disclose the information, but first must give the employees the right to "opt out" of the disclosure, similar to the law that applies in class action discovery:

Pioneer Electronics because there is no underlying presumption these non-member County employees would want their personal information disclosed, as might be the case in class-action litigation in which the disclosure might lead to affirmative relief or the vindication of statutory rights. Rather, the opposite is true. As in Valley Bank, employees would assume the personal information they provided to their employer as a condition of employment would not be further disseminated. While there may be a parallel between union representation and class representation, we cannot assume these non-member County employees would perceive a benefit to having their personal information disclosed to the Union. These County employees, whether by inaction or action, are not Union members, and they have a right not to join the Union. The non-members‟ failure to voluntarily provide their personal information to the Union might indicate their desire not to join the Union, indifference, or simply a desire not to be bothered at home by unwanted mail and telephone calls.
we hold non-member County employees are entitled to notice and an opportunity to object to the disclosure of their personal information. The privacy concerns here are more significant than in
The court rejected the union's argument it was entitled to the information regardless of the employees' objection.

The case is County of LA v. LA County Employee Relations Commission and the opinion is here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Court of Appeal: Reporting Time Pay and Discharge

The Court of Appeal addressed California's "reporting time" pay requirement in the context of discharge. 
First it explained "reporting time" pay in the Wage Orders.
Section 5(A) of Wage Order Number 5-2001 states: “Each workday an employee is required to report for work and does report, but is not put to work or is furnished less than half said employee‟s usual or scheduled day‟s work, the employee shall be paid for half the usual or scheduled day‟s work, but in no event for less than two (2) hours nor more than four (4) hours, at the employee‟s regular rate of pay, which shall not be less than the minimum wage.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11050, subd. 5(A).)

The employee was called in for an unscheduled day to be fired. The company paid the employee 2 hours, but the employee wanted four hours' pay.  The Court of Appeal held that only two hours of reporting time pay was due.  In explaining why, the court will help employers in the case of meetings that are scheduled on employees' days off.

If an employee is required to work, reports to work, and is not put to work or does not work half of the employees‟ usual or scheduled day‟s work, the employee is paid a half-shift reporting wage not to exceed four hours. (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 8, § 11050, subd. 5(A).) If an employee is not scheduled to work or does not expect to work his usual shift, but must report to work for a meeting, the employee falls into the regulatory category of those employees called to work on their day off for a scheduled meeting. Price was entitled to the minimum payment, which is what he received.10
* * *
We do not agree with Price that he is entitled to receive more than the two-hour minimum; he did not report to work with the expectation that he would work a scheduled shift, but rather was scheduled to attend a meeting for an unspecified number of hours. Nor do we agree with Price that the term "usual" in the statute means the average of his previously scheduled days‟ worked during his employment at Starbucks. Rather, the term "usual" refers to the employee‟s expectation of the hours in the customary workday, just as, in the alternative, a scheduled work day formalizes the expectation of the hours worked. During his employment, Price's expectations of hours worked was solely based upon his scheduled hours. Price was not scheduled to work on November 16, and his expectation was he had been called to work for a meeting on his day off. He did not lose any pay because of a scheduling error. He was paid for reporting to the meeting consistent with the reporting time pay regulation.
This case also is very good because it, once again, says you have to have an actual injury to recover on a wage statement claim.  No injury, no money.  And a missing piece of information is not an injury.

The case is Price v. Starbucks Corp. and the opinion is here.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Court of Appeal: Up to 2 Meal / Rest Period Penalties Per Day

The Court of Appeal in UPS v. Superior Court decided that when an employee claims to have been denied both meal AND rest periods in a single day, s/he may recover two of the one-hour penalties made available under Labor Code Section 227.6.  So, one penalty is available for however many meal periods are denied in a day, and a separate penalty is available for however many rest periods are denied.
The case is UPS v. Superior Court and the opinion is here.

Court of Appeal Upholds the Denial of Meal Period Class Action

While the world waits for the California Supreme Court to issue the fabled Brinker decision on meal periods, the courts of appeal continue to find that employers need only make available meal periods, and not force them. 

The latest opinion involves a class action over meal and rest breaks and wage statements. The trial court found that the company took great measures to provide meal breaks and that, therefore, it would be impossible to have a class claim over denial of same. The court also held that wage statement claims require proof of actual injury, which is another subject that the California Supreme Court is considering.

I don't see anything new here for HR to be concerned with. There is a heady discussion of when courts can rely on precedent that is subsequently "de-published," but that's only good for procedure geeks like moi.

This opinion is in Tien v. Tenet Healthcare and it is available here.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ninth Circuit: Pharmaceutical Sales Representatives are Exempt under FLSA

The plaintiffs in Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham Corp. were pharmaceutical sales representatives. They visit doctors on behalf of the company and attempt to persuade the doctors to prescribe their particular drugs to patients.  The company argued that these employees were exempt as "outside sales." The employees argued they were not sales persons, primarily because the patients themselves were the buyers, not the doctors.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed, holding that pharmaceutical sales reps obtain "sales" by convincing a doctor to agree to prescribe the product (a non-binding commitment).

The case is interesting for two reasons. First, the court explains what kinds of activities the outside sales exemption covers, and there is not much case law on this in the Ninth Circuit. In particular, there is a lengthy discussion about the difference between "selling" and "promoting."  The former is exempt and the latter is not. Second, the court refused to follow the US Department of Labor's current position on the exemption, which carried the day in another case in the Second Circuit.  In re Novartis Wage & Hour Litig., 611 F.3d 141 (2d Cir. 2010).

California law should follow the FLSA outside sales exemption. So this case may be helpful in California cases as well.  But, as the Novartis case shows, the US DOL and some courts do not agree that pharmaceutical salespersons are exempt, so keep that in mind.

The case is Christopher v. SmithKline Beecham and the opinion is here.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Medical Pot at Work - It's Back!

The California state senate apparently is taking up another attempt to stop "discrimination" against the stoned at work.  (Yes, there are some exceptions, e.g., they can't be too stoned - impaired - or work at a safety sensitive job). Just read the bill....The text of SB 129 is here.

Like the failed Prop 19, which the voters rejected last year, this bill is too vague and makes it harder for employers to fire people who come to work buzzed than it is to fire people who come to work drunk.  There, I said it.  Unlike Prop. 19, this bill allegedly applies only to "medical marijuana" users, not recreational users.

For the record, I have nothing against pot, medical marijuana, caring cannabis, or wacky weed.  I don't care if pot is legal or illegal.  But I care if people are stoned when making my dinner, caring for my relative in the hospital, fixing my car, or doing my books, etc. The new bill is too solicitous of pot smokers.  Sorry to harsh your mellow.


Friday, February 04, 2011

Follow us on Twitter.

And that's an order. Ok, not really.  Anyway, I'm not sure why an employment lawyer needs to be on Twitter.  I guess it's a way for me to "blog" in fewer than 200 characters, without the guilt. Or the grammar.  And then there's the really significant reason. It justifies an iPad 2.0 when it comes out. One cannot tweet effectively without a sleek, shiny Apple product.

Anyway, I'm going to try to tweet about employment law-related articles, announcements by other tweeting employment law-related government agencies, new cases, etc.  And of course I'll "retweet" everything by Justin Bieber, whoever he is.  Who says I'm old and out of touch?  Oh. Right. I do.

We'll still blog about more in-depth analyses of employment law cases, too.  So, please do not despair if you're not part of the twittering horde. 

But if you ARE in our super cool club of twittering employment law-lovers, please follow us on Twitter and do your bit to make us the 3,000,000th most popular member.  OK, it's a stretch goal.  You can sign up here