Thursday, June 30, 2011

California Supreme Court: Out of State Employers Bound by California Overtime Law...

...when employees work in California for at least a day or a week at a time.

Sullivan v. Oracle is a wage hour class action we addressed here.  If you don't remember, you're forgiven. This was back in 2008.  I had more and darker hair; Lehman Brothers was a functioning company.  You could buy a Pontiac. Remember?

Anyway, so Sullivan and his class were employees who periodically worked in California.  They wanted California wage law to apply during any full day in which they worked in California. The federal court of appeals asked the California Supreme Court to answer "certified questions."
First, does the California Labor Code apply to overtime work performed in California for a California-based employer by out-of-state plaintiffs in the circumstances of this case, such that overtime pay is required for work in excess of eight hours per day or in excess of forty hours per week?
Here, the Court said "yes." When employees visit California from other states, California overtime laws apply:
To exclude nonresidents from the overtime laws’ protection would tend to defeat their purpose by encouraging employers to import unprotected workers from other states.  Nothing in the language or history of the relevant statutes suggests the Legislature ever contemplated such a result.

The Court ensured its holding was limited to overtime, not necessarily to other wage-hour laws:

the case before us presents no issue concerning the applicability of any provision of California wage law other than the provisions governing overtime compensa­tion.  While we conclude the applicable conflict-of-laws analysis does require us to apply California’s overtime law to full days and weeks of work performed here by nonresidents (see post, at p. 12), one cannot necessarily assume the same result would obtain for any other aspect of wage law.  California, as mentioned, has expressed a strong interest in governing overtime compensation for work performed in California.  In contrast, California’s interest in the content of an out-of-state business’s pay stubs, or the treatment of its employees’ vacation time, for example, may or may not be sufficient to justify choosing California law over the conflicting law of the employer’s home state.  No such question is before us.

The court then turned to the second question:
Second, does [Business and Professions Code section] 17200 apply to the overtime work described in question one?  Third, does [section] 17200 apply to overtime work performed outside California for a California-based employer by out-of-state plaintiffs in the circumstances of this case if the employer failed to comply with the overtime provisions of the FLSA?”
The Supreme Court noted it already has held that the UCL applies to overtime claims. Therefore, the Court answered "the second certified question as follows:  Business and Professions Code section 17200 does apply to the overtime work described in question one. "

As for the third question, the Supreme Court decided that out of state plaintiffs could not sue a California-based employer for overtime violations occurring outside of California.  Thus, merely because an employer is headquartered in CA, that does not make the employer subject to suit under the UCL for alleged wrongs entirely occurring somewhere else.

The case is Sullivan v. Oracle Corp. and the opinion is here.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Facebook -

No, not the NLRB again. On this fifth anniversary of the blog, we are proud to launch our Facebook page here.  Yeah, we know, we're a few years late to the party.  Please "like" us to pieces anyway. We'll be BFF. TTFN.


Ninth Circuit En Banc Expands ERISA liability

The Ninth Circuit issued an "en banc" opinion to set the law in the Circuit regarding who is a proper defendant in certain ERISA cases.

Laura Cyr worked for CTI as a  vice president.  CTI offered long term disability benefits through Reliance Insurance.  Reliance ultimately controlled whether benefits would be awarded, but it was not the "plan administrator" under ERISA.  Cyr sued CTI for unequal pay, resulting in a settlement and a retroactive adjustment to her salary.   She was on a "long term disability" at the time, and sought an increase to her benefits. Reliance allegeldy denied that application. So Cyr sued CTI as the plan administrator, CTI's Long Term Disability Plan, and Reliance under different sections of ERISA and the common law.

In the 9th Circuit, beneficiaries were limited to suing the plan and plan administrator for denial of benefits under ERISA plans.  But no more.  The en banc court overruled prior decisions to that effect.

We conclude, therefore, that potential liability under 29  U.S.C. § 1132(a)(1)(B) is not limited to a benefits plan or the  plan administrator. Reliance is a proper defendant in a lawsuit  brought by Cyr under that statute.

As a result, insurance companies will now be sued where they have a role in denying benefits independent of the plan administrator, which apparently was the case here.  It's unclear whether this decision will result in increased premiums and legal costs, not to mention conflicts of interest between insurers and employers. We shall see.

The case is Cyr v. Reliance Standard Life Ins. Co. et al. and the opinion is here.

U.S. Supreme Court on FELA Liability

Most of you don't care about this, but when the U.S. Supremes decide an employment law case, I just have to post.

The Federal Employers’ Liability Act (FELA), 45 U. S. C. §51 et seq. renders railroads liable for employees’ injuries or deaths “resulting in whole or in part from [carrier] negligence.”  This is basically in lieu of workers' compensation benefits for railroad employees covered by the FELA.

Robert McBride, a locomotive engineer, injured his hand while operating a manual brake.  He brought suit against his employer, CSX.

The issue was what is the causation standard under the FELA.  Must the railroad's negligence be the "proximate" cause of the injury (i.e., the harm was the probable consequence of the risk), or does some other standard apply?  

The Court held that a much lower standard applies under FELA than under traditional negligence cases. Surveying years of precedent, the Court upheld the lower courts' jury instruction:  

defendant railroad “caused or contributed to” a railroad worker’s injury “if [the railroad's] negligence played apart—no matter how small—in bringing about the injury.” That, indeed, is the test Congress prescribed for proximate causation in FELA cases. 
Again, this decision is limited to injuries under the FELA. So, it is not applicable to most employers.  

The case is CSX Transportation, Inc.  v.  McBride and the opinion is here. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Supreme Court Rules on Dukes v. Walmart

The U.S. Supreme Court issues its opinion in Dukes v. Walmart.  Here is the opinion.

Wal-Mart, the country's largest employer, faces the largest employment law class action ever.  We've posted about it a number of times as it made its way through the courts.  The U.S. Supreme Court decided to review the case to see if the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure authorizes a class action under the facts presented.  

The facts that give rise to the discrimination claims are as follows:

Pay and promotion decisions at Wal-Mart are generally committed to local managers’ broad discretion, which is exercised “in a largely subjective manner.” 222 F. R. D. 137, 145 (ND Cal. 2004). Local store managers may increase the wages of hourly employees (within limits) with only limited corporate oversight. As for salaried employees, such as store managers and their deputies, higher corporate authorities have discretion to set their pay within preestablished ranges. 

Promotions work in a similar fashion. Wal-Mart permits store managers to apply their own subjective criteria when selecting candidates as “support managers,” which isthe first step on the path to management. Admission to Wal-Mart’s management training program, however, does require that a candidate meet certain objective criteria,including an above-average performance rating, at least one year’s tenure in the applicant’s current position, and a willingness to relocate. But except for those requirements, regional and district managers have discretion to use their own judgment when selecting candidates for management training. Promotion to higher office—e.g., assistant manager, co-manager, or store manager—is similarly at the discretion of the employee’s superiors after prescribed objective factors are satisfied.

Thus, there is no "corporate wide" policy of intentional or even unintentional discrimination. Rather, the plaintiffs asserted the following theory regarding class-wide discrimination on behalf of hundreds of thousands of store level employees and supervisors:

local managers’ discretion over pay and promotions is exercised disproportionately in favor of men, leading to anunlawful disparate impact on female employees, see 42 U. S. C. §2000e–2(k). And, respondents say, because Wal-Mart is aware of this effect, its refusal to cabin its managers’ authority amounts to disparate treatment, see §2000e–2(a). . . . [T}the discrimination to which they have been subjected is common to all Wal-Mart’s female employees. The basic theory of their case is that a strong and uniform “corporate culture” permits bias against women to infect, perhaps subconsciously, the discretionary decisionmaking of each one of Wal-Mart’s thousands of managers—thereby making every woman at the company the victim of one common discriminatory practice.

The plaintiffs sought injunctive relief, monetary relief that is considered "equitable" such as back pay, and punitive damages. They did not seek individual compensatory damages for emotional distress or front pay, because doing so would be unauthorized by Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23.

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23,  contains a number of requirements.  The plaintiff must satisfy all of the 23(a) provisions:

“(1) the class is so numerous that joinder of all members is impracticable,“(2) there are questions of law or fact common to the class, “(3) the claims or defenses of the representative parties are typical of the claims or defenses of the class, and “(4) the representative parties will fairly and adequately protect the interests of the class”

The Supreme Court held that there was insufficient common law or fact questions.  5-4, the Court explained what "common questions of law or fact" means:

Commonality requires the plaintiff to demonstrate that the class members “have suffered the same injury,” Falcon, supra, at 157. This does not mean merely that they have all suffered a violation of the same provision of law. Title VII, for example, can be violated in many ways—by intentional discrimination, or by hiring and promotion criteria that result in disparate impact, and by the use of these practices on the part of many different superiors in a single company. Quite obviously,the mere claim by employees of the same company that they have suffered a Title VII injury, or even a disparate impact Title VII injury, gives no cause to believe that all their claims can productively be litigated at once. Their claims must depend upon a common contention—for example, the assertion of discriminatory bias on the part of the same supervisor. That common contention, moreover, must be of such a nature that it is capable of classwideresolution—which means that determination of its truth or falsity will resolve an issue that is central to the validity of each one of the claims in one stroke.
The  Court, 5-4, squarely rejected that a common policy of decentralized decisions can support a class action where the standard requries proof of common issues of fact:

The only corporate policy that the plaintiffs’ evidence convincingly establishes is Wal-Mart’s “policy” of allowing discretion by local supervisors over employment matters.On its face, of course, that is just the opposite of a uniform employment practice that would provide the commonality needed for a class action; it is a policy against having uniform employment practices.
To sustain a class action under the federal rules, the plaintiff must establish one of the elements under Rule 23(b).  The plaintiffs in Dukes relied on Rule 23(b)(2):

Rule 23(b)(2) allows class treatment when “the party opposing the class has acted or refused to act on grounds that apply generally to the class, so that final injunctive relief or corresponding declaratory relief is appropriate respecting the class as a whole.” 

Therefore, Dukes did not rely on (b)(3), which is the familiar standard permitting damages when "common issues" predominate.  This is the basis for most class actions seeking money.  Unlike (b)(2), classes under (b)(3) are entitled to "opt out," and must receive adequate notice.  Rule 23(b)(2) is more concerned with injunctive and declaratory relief.

The question was whether the monetary relief that the plaintiffs sought was authorized under  Rule 23(b)(2). The Court (9-0) held that it was not:

Rule 23(b)(2) applies only when a single injunction or declaratory judgment would provide relief to each member of the class. It does not authorize class certification when each individual class member would be entitled to a different injunction or declaratory judgment against the defendant.
The Supreme Court held that "backpay" was not authorized generally by Rule 23(b)(2), and the only monetary relief available would be when it was intertwined with a particular injunction.  In Dukes' case, the injunction would not be common to each member of the class, anyway, so there could be no common monetary relief either.

So, we'll have an article, and you'll be hearing a lot about this case in the coming days.  I hope this brief summary was helpful.  It will result in less blockbuster class actions in federal court.  However, it does not necessarily mean that smaller class actions will be limited when there is a common practice causing a common injury.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


We made it 5 years! So, this is going to be one of those self-promoting / congratulatory posts.... 

We opened our doors 6/19/06. And we started this little blog thing of ours on 6/26/06.  Seems like it was just yesterday. And by "yesterday" I mean Saturday, 20 years ago.  

We've been so fortunate to work with great people and organizations.  We wanted to honor our clients in some way to thank them for our success. But many are not local, and many have anti-gift policies now. So,  rather than throw a party or send gifts, we made a donation to Guide Dogs for the Blind.  Yes, you can call them to make sure.
We have a terrific team of lawyers and non-lawyers in our Sacramento and San Francisco offices.  Since they are local and certainly have no non-gifting policies, we celebrated with a dinner.  We also thank our departed staff and lawyers, who helped us in our formative years.  We hope you had dinner somewhere equally wonderful.

Speaking of offices, we just moved to new space in Sacramento (980 9th St., Ste. 2300, if you are planning on, you know.....visiting.  Or visiting

Our "refreshed" website will roll out imminently, as will our new Facebook presence. It seems Facebook and Twitter may have replaced blogging as a medium for timely updates. But we're stubborn and committed, and somewhat retro. So, we will press on here until we are posting to an empty room.  In case you prefer Twitter, go here.  And we're putting the finishing touches on our Facebook page.  So you will be able to "like" us to your heart's content. We are nothing if not accessible.  And wordy.

So, thanks for hanging in there with us for these 5 years, loyal clients, and the other readers (yes, Dad, I mean you. And happy father's day, by the way). 

Jennifer and Greg

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Upcoming Training Scheduled


This interactive, engaging, and practical seminar complies with and exceeds California's sexual harassment prevention training requirements (as described in Assembly Bill 1825/Government Code section 12950.1). Through real world examples, hypothetical scenarios, practical guidance, and humor, we address the "gray" areas in equal employment opportunity compliance. We address a number of topics, including:
  • Harassment, discrimination and retaliation prevention
  • Supervisors' responsibilities to identify and report policy violations
  • The difference between law and policy
  • Principles of mutual respect and the Platinum Rule
  • Responsibility for "out-of-work" conduct
  • The internal complaint process, including the "15-minute rule"
  • "Bad" vs. unlawful conduct
Employees love this program! Certificates are provided upon seminar completion.

Trainers:Jennifer Brown Shaw, Esq.
Date:June 14, 2011
Time:8:30 a.m. - 11:30 a.m.
(Registration at 8:00 a.m.)
Location:600 I Street
Commission Room
Sacramento, CA 95814

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Court of Appeal Rejects Same-sex Harassment Claim

As stated by the court of appeal,

Patrick Kelley was an apprentice ironworker employed by respondent The Conco Companies (Conco). He complained that he was subjected to a barrage of sexually demeaning comments and gestures by his male supervisor, and later to similar comments by male coworkers, and that he was also subjected to physical threats by coworkers in retaliation for his complaints about his supervisor. Kelley‘s employer changed his work site to separate him from his harassers, but Kelley was later suspended by his union from its apprenticeship program rendering him ineligible for employment. After the suspension expired, he was not rehired by Conco.

Sounds like sexual harassment? Wrong. The court of appeal decided that the supervisor's verbal abuse was not truly based on Kelley's sex. Therefore, although rude, the conduct was not actionable under the Fair Employment and Housing Act:
The sine qua non of any sexual harassment claim is that the plaintiff suffered discrimination because of sex. (Lyle, supra, 38 Cal.4th at pp. 279–280; Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc. (1998) 523 U.S. 75, 81 (Oncale).) ― ‗ ―The critical issue . . . is whether members of one sex are exposed to disadvantageous terms or conditions of employment to which members of the other sex are not exposed.‖ ‘ [Citations.]‖ (Lyle, at pp. 279–280, quoting Oncale, at p. 80.) A FEHA plaintiff must show ― ‗ ―that gender is a substantial factor in the discrimination, and that if the plaintiff ‗had been a man she would not have been treated in the same manner.‘ [Citation.]‘ [Citations.] Accordingly, it is the disparate treatment of an employee on the basis of sex . . . that is the essence of a sexual harassment claim.
The court then surveyed the law and held that sexual harassment is not actionable under FEHA unless there is some link to sexual desire, or treatment that occurs only because of the victim's sex.  That is, merely because Kelley's boss used vicious slurs against Kelley, calling him a number of names and using sexually suggestive language, the boss did so out of anger, and not sexual desire or motivation.

The court, however, revived Kelley's retaliation claim because even though Kelley did not have a viable harassment claim, he had a good faith claim of retaliation.

This case, if it stays on the books, may change some folks' understanding of what "harassment" is.  But it should not change employers' responses to the kind of conduct that occurred in the facts of the opinion, nor should employers rely on this opinion as a way to give a harasser a free pass.  Trust me, when you read the facts, you'll see what I mean.

The case is Kelley v. The Conco Companies, Inc. and the opinion is here.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Supreme Court Unanimously Limits Employers' Right to Attorneys' Fees in Discrimination Cases

In federal cases alleging discrimination, harassment, retaliation and violations of civil rights, when may a defendant employer recover attorneys' fees?  It is long settled that defendants may recover only when the plaintiff's claims are "frivolous, unreasonable or without foundation."  What about when just some of the claims are frivolous?  The Supreme Court answered that question, unanimously, with Justice Kagan writing the opinion:

Section 1988 allows a defendant to recover reasonable attorney’s fees incurred because of, but only because of, a frivolous claim. Or what is the same thing stated as a but-for test: Section 1988 permits the defendant to receive only the portion of his fees that he would not have paid but for the frivolous claim.
The Court then went on to hold that if the defendant spends fees on issues that deal with both frivolous and nonfrivolous claims simultaneously, the defendant may not recover fees:
But if the defendant would have incurred those fees anyway, to defend against non-frivolous claims, then a court has no basis for transferring the expense to the plaintiff. Suppose, for example, that a defendant’s attorney conducts a deposition on matters relevant to both a frivolous and a non-frivolous claim—and more, that the lawyer would have taken and committed the same time to this deposition even if the case had involved only the non-frivolous allegation. In that circumstance, the work does not implicate Congress’s reason for allowing defendants to collect fees. The defendant would have incurred the expense in any event; he has suffered no incremental harm from the frivolous claim. In short, the defendant has never shouldered the burden that Congress, in enacting §1988, wanted to relieve. The basic American Rule thus continues to operate.

Thus, the Supreme Court unanimously made sure that defendants will have a tough time recovering fees in cases including both frivolous and non-frivolous claims, just like the Ninth Circuit decided in Harris v. Maricopa County, which I discussed  here. Yes, I thought the Court of Appeals was out to lunch. I was wr-wr-wr... incorrect.  No wonder I don't have a vote on either court.  My opinion, though, remains the same. The Supreme Court joins the Ninth Circuit in making it very difficult for defendants to recover attorneys' fees in frivolous discrimination cases, unless the case is entirely frivolous. There is little incentive for the plaintiff to dismiss the frivolous component.

The Supreme Court decision is Fox v. Vice and the opinion is here.