By Michael S. Kun and Aaron Olsen
You probably remember the scene in Jaws when Roy Scheider’s character first sees the shark that he and his crew have been pursuing.
And you probably remember what he says: "We need a bigger boat."
Well, after the California Supreme Court’s latest ruling, California employers may need a bigger boat.
Already besieged by wage-and-hour class actions, California employers now need to brace themselves for a new wave of representative actions under California’s Private Attorneys General Act ("PAGA") after the California Supreme Court has made it easier than ever for employees to pursue such claims.
In Arias v. Superior Court of San Joaquin County (Angelo Dairy), No. S155965 (June 29, 2009), the California Supreme Court concluded that representative actions for alleged Labor Code violations brought under PAGA, often referred to as the "Bounty Hunter" or "Sue Your Boss" law, need not be brought as class actions. Instead, a single employee may proceed with an action on behalf of all aggrieved employees without the need to comply with class action requirements. Although the Court also held that representative actions brought under California’s Unfair Competition Law ("UCL") must be brought as class actions, the ruling on the PAGA issue will likely lead to more employees and their counsel bringing PAGA lawsuits because they will not have to comply with the procedural burdens inherent in class actions.
That’s right. Largely because the legislature left out a few words here or there in their haste to pass PAGA, the Supreme Court has held that employees may pursue the equivalent of a class action without having to actually get a class certified.
Making matters worse, employers could be forced to defend a series of individual actions alleging violations of the Labor Code that would be difficult to settle on a global basis. Although the California Supreme Court determined that, with respect to civil penalties, nonparty employees as well as the government are bound by the judgment in an action brought under PAGA, the Court made it clear that different plaintiffs could bring a series of individual lawsuits seeking other remedies. A proliferation of coordinated individual actions would be difficult to settle because the parties would not have the benefits of the class action settlement process. While class action settlements can oftentimes be complicated, the process is fairly well established. Class action settlements generally provide a procedure by which class members either "opt-in" to the lawsuit or "opt-out," leaving the parties with a great deal of certainty as to whom a settlement involves. That would not appear to be the case in a non-class action representative claim under PAGA.
Will the legislature step in to correct this matter?
That seems unlikely.
Will employees and their counsel start filing new PAGA lawsuits tomorrow?
Employers need to brace themselves by auditing their employment practices even more vigilantly than they already were.