California’s Private Attorneys General Act

Persons who live and work outside of California, including employment attorneys and the most seasoned of human resources personnel, are often confounded when they first learn about California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”).  And, for many, the first they learn about PAGA is when a PAGA lawsuit has been filed against their company.

The same series of questions and answers often follow:

A single individual can file a lawsuit against an employer alleging that all employees were subjected to certain violations of the California Labor Code?

Yes.

Even if there are thousands of employees?

Yes.

And the employee doesn’t need to get a class certified to proceed?

Correct, because PAGA claims are considered “representative claims,” not “class claims.” (Although courts are beginning to rule more and more that PAGA claims cannot proceed to trial if they are “unmanageable.”)

And each employee can recover up to $200 per pay period for each Labor Code violation?

Yes.  They can get up to $100 for the first pay period, and $200 for each subsequent pay period.

So, hypothetically, if there were five different violations per pay period, each employee could recover up to $1000 per pay period?

Yes.

But 75% of what employees recover must then be returned to the state?

Generally, yes. It must go to the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (“LWDA”).

Why?

Because it’s part of the statute – 75% goes back to the LWDA.

But a plaintiff must arbitrate PAGA claims if he or she signed an arbitration agreement, right?

Generally, no.

But PAGA claims are covered by class action waivers, right?

To date, the courts have held that they are not covered by class action waivers.

Can PAGA lawsuits be removed to federal court under the Class Action Fairness Act?

Generally, no, because PAGA claims aren’t “class actions” per se.  They’re “representative actions.” However, if PAGA claims are filed as part of a complainat that contains class claims, they could still wind up in federal court if the class claims are removable.

Little by little, the courts have answered these and other PAGA-related questions. But at least one major question has remained – are PAGA plaintiffs entitled to a jury trial?

While the appellate courts have yet to weigh in on this issue, the trial courts are doing so as more and more PAGA cases are being filed and as they approach trial. And, to date, they all appear to conclude that a PAGA plaintiff is not entitled to a jury trial. Several of these decisions are in cases we have handled, and we are not at liberty to discuss them. However, another trial court has recently reached the same conclusion. In Espinosa v. Bodycote Thermal Processing, Inc., Judge John Shepard Wiley concluded that PAGA plaintiffs are not entitled to a jury trial because PAGA claims are equitable in nature.

While Judge Wiley’s conclusion is consistent with the other courts that have reviewed the issue, only time will tell whether the California Courts of Appeal agree when the issue is inevitably presented to them. For now, employers with operations in California should take some comfort in knowing that PAGA claims are likely to be tried to a judge and not to a jury.