Saturday, July 30, 2011

Court of Appeal: Employee Repudiated Settlement Agreement

So, Thomas Ferguson was a bad policeman, having been picked up in a sting, for soliciting a prostitute.  Facing discharge, he made a deal with his employer, Cathedral City, and settled for a suspension. But part of the settlement depended on the resolution of criminal charges pending, i.e., if he was found guilty, he would resign.  Ferguson's lawyer wrote the city, complaining they were trying to influence the DA in Ferguson's criminal case. He went too far, though, and said the settlement agreement was void.  No settlement agreement, no suspension.  The city fired Ferguson, even though his NEW lawyer tried to take back the repudiation of the settlement.

No dice. Upholding the discharge, the Court of Appeal addressed repudiation of a contract and a settlement agreement in particular:
once Ferguson committed his anticipatory breach on June 23, 2007, the City could then elect its remedies, which in this instance meant the reinstatement of Ferguson‟s discharge. The City was no longer bound by the separation agreement and was excused from further performance: “The real operation of a declaration of intention not to be bound appears to give the promisee the right . . . to act upon the declaration and treat it as a final assertion by the promisor that he is no longer bound by the contract, and as a wrongful renunciation of the contractual relation into which he has entered. If [the promisee] elects to pursue the latter course, it becomes a breach of contract, excusing performanceon his part and giving him an immediate right to recover upon it as such. Upon such election the rights of the parties are to be regarded as then culminating, and the contractual relation ceases to exist, . . . [Emphasis added.]”
In English, the employer has two options: treat the agreement as canceled, relieving the employer of obligations under the settlement agreement (such as a neutral reference, COBRA, unpaid settlement sums), or sue for breach of the agreement to recover the settlement proceeds and any damages occasioned by the breach.

Of note, the court held also that Ferguson's attorney had the power to repudiate Ferguson's agreement.

Although a public sector case, the discussion re breach of settlement agreements is generally applicable.

The case is Ferguson v. City of Cathedral City and the opinion is here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

2011 IRS Mileage Reimbursement Rate Went Up mid-year!

The IRS just increased the standard mileage reimbursement rate.  This is the default rate most companies use to pay employees for using their own cars for business.  The new rate, effective July 1, 2011, is $0.55, which will remain in effect through December 31, 2011.

The IRS's new rate for computing deductible medical or moving expenses will also increase by 4.5 cents to 23.5 cents a mile, up from 19 cents for the first six months of 2011. The rate for providing services for charitable organizations is set by statute, not the IRS, and remains at 14 cents a mile.

The IRS announcement is here


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Court of Appeal Steps Around Concepcion

So, you may have heard (over and over again), the U.S. Supreme Court in AT&T Mobility Services v. Concepcion (discussed here, article here)  decided that California cannot hold arbitration agreements unconscionable because they require only individuals to arbitrate and prohibit class actions in arbitration.

The first Court of Appeal to address post-Concepcion arbitration agreements is in Brown v. Ralphs Grocery.   A wage-hour class action, the plaintiffs also sought relief under California's Private Attorney General Act, or PAGA, which allows recovery of penalties on behalf of the named plaintiff and other, unnamed, aggrieved employees.  The penalty money is split 75/25 with the state.  See generally Labor Code Section 2699.

The trial court held that the class action waiver in Ralphs arbitration agreement was unconscionable, following the California Supreme Court's decision in Gentry v. Superior Court.  But the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated Gentry in the Concepcion case.

The Court of Appeal neatly side-stepped that little problem. Instead, the court held that the plaintiff failed to establish via "substantial evidence" that the class action waiver was indeed unconscionable under Gentry.

In doing so, the Court established that class action waivers are not automatically unconscionable under Gentry, and that the plaintiff had to produce evidence satisfying Gentry's four-factor test. Of course, this is all moot, because Gentry is not good law.

The Court's second task was to consider whether the PAGA claim-waiver in the arbitration agreement was unconscionable.  Here, the Court decided Concepcion did not apply. That is because, the court reasoned, a PAGA claim is asserted by the individual, not a "class."  Without a class, Concepcion would not apply - directly.   Rather, the plaintiff would go to arbitration and litigate the PAGA claim. If successful, the plaintiff would distribute the "bounty" of the penalties to the state and keep 25% for him or herself. Given there was a waiver of PAGA claims in the arbitration agreement, though, the court said that the agreement prohibiting arbitration of PAGA claims was unconscionable.

The decision may not survive on the books if the Supreme Court (California or US) decides to accept review.  On review, it will be interesting to see if, following Concepcion, the parties to an arbitration agreement may carve-out claims that can and cannot be arbitrated.  In this instance, the question would be who would be authorized to pursue a PAGA claim if every employee signed an arbitration agreement.  If the PAGA waiver is enforceable, the result might be no one. That's something that the courts might find troubling.  

The plaintiff's bar is cheering this Brown decision as an end-run around Concepcion. But everyone should keep the corks in the champagne. There are other legal battles left to fight.  For example, is it ok for the parties to let the arbitrator decide whether an arbitration clause is unconscionable, and avoid some courts' rather anti-arbitration posture regarding employment arbitration agreements. (There, I said it).   The California courts have not yet definitively decided this issue just yet:

We note that in general, the question whether an arbitration agreement is unconscionable or contrary to public policy is for the court, not the arbitrator, to decide. [Citation.] Recently, the Supreme Court held, in a case brought in federal court, that the question of unconscionability of an arbitration agreement may be for the arbitrator to decide when the agreement has clearly and unmistakably delegated that issue to the arbitrator. (Rent-A-Center[, supra,] 561 U.S. , [177 L.Ed.2d 403, 130 S.Ct. 2772, 2778–2779].) Sonic[-Calabasas A, Inc.] has not contended that the arbitration agreement delegates responsibility to the arbitrator to decide questions of the agreement's unconscionability or violation of public policy. We thus have no need to decide whether Rent-A-Center's five-to-four decision applies to actions brought in state court (see Preston [v. Ferrer (2008)] 552 U.S. 346, 363 [169 L.Ed.2d 917, 128 S.Ct. 978] (dis. opn. of Thomas, J.) [reaffirming the view of Justice Thomas that the FAA does not apply to state court proceedings]), nor whether we would adopt a similar rule as a matter of state law.”
Hartley v. Superior Court, 2011 Cal. App. LEXIS 824 (Cal. App. 4th Dist. June 28, 2011) (quoting (Sonic-Calabasas A, Inc. v. Moreno (2011) 51 Cal.4th 659, 688, fn. 12).

The fat lady is not singing, but she is kind of confused. Time will tell!  In the meantime, wait to see if Brown remains good law. If it does, don't include PAGA waivers in your arbitration agreements.  And talk to your lawyer about including clear and unmistakable language in your arbitration agreement concerning whether the court or the arbitrator will decide unconscionability.

The opinion in Brown v. Ralphs Grocery is here.


Court of Appeal on Discovery of Co-Workers' Files in Discrimination Cases

The appellate courts rarely get involved in discovery issues. It's usually up to the trial courts and parties to fight about what is relevant, what is a privacy issue, etc. So, guidance from the Court of Appeal is a welcome development.

Timothy Joyce sued his former employer, Life Technologies Corporation (LTC), for age discrimination and retaliation. In essence, Life Technologies merged with Joyce's former employer and he was laid off. He alleged that he was on a hit-list of over 40 employees, and that he was set up for termination, among other things.

In litigation, Joyce sought through interrogatories data about co-workers including:

(a) The names of all employees terminated during a two-year period, November 1, 2008 to June 28, 2010. 
(b) The department each worked for when terminated. 
(c) The date of termination. 
(d) The age of each at termination. 
(e) The reason for termination. 
(f) Whether severance benefits were offered.
(g) Whether offered severance benefits were accepted. 
(h) A description of any offered severance benefits. 
(i) A detailed explanation of reasons for any failure to offer severance benefits. 
(j) The identity (including name, address and telephone number) of all former Applied Biosystems employees still employed by LTC after the RIF. 
(k) Whether the terminated employees were former employees of Appelera or Applied Biosystems.

LTC and Joyce became involved in a discovery dispute, which resulted in a trial court order granting access to the information, but requiring the parties to first send a letter to employees notifying them of the proposed disclosure. the information would be disclosed unless the employees at issue filed a motion for protective order.  The court of appeal noted that there was no provision for protection of the information and no "opt-out" other than via a formal motion. 

The court first noted that statistical information could be relevant to a disparate impact claim and that the RIF provided for the requisite facially neutral practice.  Joyce also wanted the data for a disparate treatment claim, i.e., intentional discrimination.  The court of appeal pointed out that statistical evidence is far less important in disparate treatment cases:
Statistical evidence may also be utilized in a disparate treatment case. However, because discriminatory intent must be shown in such a case, statistical evidence must meet a more exacting standard. “[T]o create an inference of intentional discrimination, statistics must demonstrate a significant disparity and must eliminate nondiscriminatory reasons for the apparent disparity. Aragon [v. Republic Silver State Disposal Inc. (9th Cir. 2002) 292 F.3d 654, 663 (Aragon) (finding that statistics unsupported by other probative evidence of discrimination was insufficient to show pretext and to demonstrate discrimination); see also Coleman v. Quaker Oats Co. (9th Cir. 2000) 232 F.3d 1271, 1283 (holding that to raise a triable issue of fact regarding pretext based solely on statistical evidence, the statistics „must show a stark pattern of discrimination unexplainable on grounds other than age‟); United States v. Ironworkers Local 86 (9th Cir. 1971) 443 F.2d 544, 551, fn. omitted] . . . (holding that use of statistical evidence „is conditioned by the existence of proper supportive facts and the absence of variables which would undermine the reasonableness of the inference of discrimination which is drawn.‟).” (Gratch v. Nicholson (N.D.Ca. 2005, No. C04-03028 JSW) 2005 WL 2290315, *4.) 
Thus, “[a]lthough use of statistics is permissible [in a disparate treatment case], statistical evidence „rarely suffices to rebut an employer‟s legitimate, nondiscriminatory rationale for its decision to dismiss an individual employee.‟ Aragon[, supra, at p. 663, fn. 6.] . . . [T]his is so because „in disparate treatment cases, the central focus is less on whether a pattern of discrimination existed [at the company] and more how a particular individual was treated and why. As such, statistical evidence of a company‟s general hiring patterns, although relevant, carries less probative weight than it does in a disparate impact case.‟ [Ibid., citing LeBlanc v. Great Amer. Ins. Co. (1st Cir. 1993) 6 F.3d 836, 848-49.]” (Gratch v. Nicholson, supra, at p. *4, fn. 4.)

The court therefore found that at least some of the information sought would be arguably relevant to Joyce's claims. But the court then turned to privacy analysis.  

The court held that Joyce had made no showing that the identities, addresses and other private information of co-workers, particularly those who were not contended to be witnesses to any discriminatory conduct against Joyce, were sufficiently "needed" to overcome the individuals' privacy interests.  The court distinguished the "class action" discovery cases because the identities of class members are really the identities of potential witnesses, and because of the specific issues that arise in class certification proceedings.

Significantly, the court pointed out that there was no reason why statistics could not be developed without disclosure of individuals' personal information, absent a showing that LTC would provide unreliable data without giving out names and addresses, etc.  Joyce also failed to adequately demonstrate the need for the breadth of information he sought. 

The court also criticized the court's order because it placed too high a burden on objecting employees.  The court noted that if the information had been subpoenaed, a simple objection by the third party could stop the disclosure, rather than a formal motion.  Also, the court would have permitted the plaintiff to send out a notice to third parties, thereby requiring disclosure of names and addresses before the employees had a chance to object.

Finally, the trial court did not put any safeguards in place regarding the use or custody of the needed information via a suitable protective order.

Disputes such as these are common in employment law.  Therefore, when "meeting and conferring," lawyers may use this case to limit disclosure of private personnel information absent a sufficient showing of need, and ensure that private information is kept that way during and after litigation.

The opinion is Life Technologies Corporation v. Superior Court and the opinion is here.  

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Court of Appeal: That's Not a Split Shift

Under California's Wage Orders - 

“Split shift” means a work schedule, which is interrupted by non-paid non-working periods established by the employer, other than bona fide rest or meal periods. 
And "when an employee works a split shift, one (1) hour’s pay at the minimum wage shall be paid in addition to the minimum wage for that workday, except when the employee resides at the place of employment."

The question is: If you work an over night shift, such that you start at 10:p.m., end your shift at 7:00 a.m., and then return to work later the same day, is that a split shift?  No, said the Court of Appeal in Securitas Security Services, Inc. v. Superior Court (opinion here).

So, DLSE? You don't have to issue that opinion letter I asked you to issue years ago. (!)