By Michael Kun
The wage hour class action epidemic that has plagued California employers for the last decade or so appears to have no end.
If anyone tells you otherwise, they are not paying enough attention.
And if they tell you the California Supreme Court is about to put an end to the epidemic, they are mistaken about that, too.
The California Supreme Court couldn’t put an end to it even if it wanted to, at least not with the issues now before it. And who is to say that they want to do that anyway?
As in recent years, employers and their counsel are awaiting several important rulings from the California Supreme Court that relate to these wage hour class actions.
In Brinker v. Superior Court and Brinkley v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court should finally clarify whether employers must "ensure" that meal and rest periods be taken, or merely make them "available" to employees.
In Arias v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court should finally clarify whether claims brought under the Private Attorneys General Act ("PAGA") for alleged Labor Code violations must be brought as a class action and satisfy the requirements for class treatment, or whether an employee can represent a group of employees merely by filing suit under PAGA.
And in Pineda v. Superior Court, the Supreme Court should finally clarify whether California’s Unfair Competition Law allows employees restitutionary recovery of "waiting time" penalties.
More than a few commentators are predicting victories for employers in all four cases.
Hopefully, no one is placing any bets. Predicting what the California Supreme Court will do is, respectfully, a fool’s game.
At the beginning of the decade, many predicted an employer friendly ruling from the Supreme Court in Sav-On v. Superior Court, anticipating that the Supreme Court would hold that wage-hour claims were not appropriate for class treatment, killing the epidemic early. Those predictions, of course, were wrong. Very wrong.
Little more than two years ago, most commentators predicted that the Supreme Court would rule that premiums for missed meal and rest breaks were "penalties," rather than "wages," and hold that they were subject to a one-year limitations period, rather than three (or four) years. The ruling in Murphy v. Kenneth Cole, of course, was otherwise, surprising virtually everyone. And, unless there’s a signed and dated document to prove it, anyone who tells you that he or she expected that the Supreme Court was going to rule that premiums for missed breaks were somehow "wages," not "penalties," just isn’t being candid with you.
So, what should employers expect the Court to do in Brinker, Brinkley, Arias and Pineda?
No predictions here.
But, reading the cases, the applicable statutes and their legislative history would suggest that employer friendly decisions should be rendered in Brinker, Brinkley and Pineda — and, unfortunately, an employee friendly decision in Arias (largely because of missing verbiage in the statute specifiying that PAGA claims are to be brought as class claims).
But there’s an enormous difference between should and will.
Based on the Supreme Court’s recent history in employment cases — particularly Sav-On and Murphy — it would seem prudent for employers to adopt the same conservative, New England-ish approach that, until recently, fans of the Boston Red Sox favored for years– expect the worst, and be pleasantly surprised if something better arrives.
That said, anyone who believes that even employer friendly decisions will put an end to the wage hour class action epidemic in California is mistaken.
These cases make far too much money for plaintiffs’ lawyers, and they are not going to walk away from them without finding ways to get around any unfavorable Supreme Court decision.
And getting around them may not be too difficult.
If, for instance, the Supreme Court rules that meal and rest periods need only be made "available," not "ensured," you can be certain that plaintiff’s counsel will simply change the boilerplate allegations in their complaints to say that meal and rest periods were not made "available."
In the few seconds it takes to make a global change in a document, even an employer friendly Supreme Court decision could effectively be undone.
And in the few seconds it takes to pick up the phone, calls will be placed to legislators throughout the state demanding that the laws be rewritten to provide that breaks must be "ensured," which would completely undo that Supreme Court decision.
Such is the life of the employer who does business in California.
Even a victory can be taken away.