United States: A Cautionary Comment On PAGA (Or Plaintiffs' Attorneys Getting Around) Legislative Intent

Last Updated: February 16 2017
Article by Simon L. L. Yang

Seyfarth Synopsis: Sometimes, plaintiffs' attorneys have circumvented a key aspect of the California Legislature's intent in enacting PAGA: limiting standing to pursue penalties for Labor Code violations to those employees who were actually harmed. Though a new California bill could halt those attempts, PAGA plaintiffs' wiliness warrants a cautionary comment to the Legislature to ensure that any amendment furthers—rather than further frustrates—the original legislative intent.

A New PAGA Bill: Employers should be optimistic that the California Legislature continues to propose bills seeking to curtail PAGA abuse. One recently introduced bill would advance three laudable goals, to close loopholes and preclude arguments that have encouraged absurd interpretations of the original PAGA statute. But the Legislature should mindfully proceed. While one proposed change is straightforward, a second creates confusion absent a quick fix, and a third requires revisiting PAGA's legislative intent to consider what amendment would be best.

Extension of Time for Employers to Exercise Right to Cure Violations: The first part of the pending bill proposes a clearly needed fix of an oversight within the 2016 amendment. As previously noted, 2016 legislation provided the LWDA with more time to respond to PAGA letters, but failed to also extend the employer's time to respond. The pending bill would provide employers with 65 days to cure certain Labor Code violations.

Expansion of Scope of Violations Subject to Right to Cure: The proposed bill would also broaden the availability of the right to cure. Currently, many violations are specifically excluded from the cure provisions. According to the bill, an amendment would "exclude only the health and safety violations from the right to cure provisions." The proposed text within the bill, however, falls short and would create confusion.

A quick fix is all that would be needed, though. To achieve the declared intent, the proposed amendments within Labor Code section 2699.3(c) (providing procedures for curable violations) should be accompanied with deletion of section 2699.3(a), which currently provides procedures lacking any right to cure but applying to some of the Labor Code violations the bill intends to make curable.

Reemphasis on PAGA's Standing Requirement: The third proposal is the most interesting. The bill's suggested amendment would reemphasize that "an aggrieved employee may be awarded civil penalties based only upon a violation by the employer actually suffered by that employee."

At first glance, the proposal restates a given, but it likely responds to some plaintiffs' efforts to obliterate PAGA's standing requirement. These plaintiffs have misled courts into believing that an employee aggrieved by one Labor Code violation can invoke PAGA to seek penalties for other violations that the employee never experienced.

That isn't right. Even PAGA's initial proponents, in 2003, explained that a standing requirement meant that a PAGA plaintiff could only be someone who had been subjected to the Labor Code violation for which that plaintiff sought to recover penalties:

Only Persons Who Have Actually Been Harmed May Bring An Action to Enforce The Civil Penalties. Mindful of the recent, well-publicized allegations of private plaintiff abuse of [California's unfair competition law (the "UCL")], the sponsors state that they have attempted to craft a private right of action that will not be subject to such abuse. Unlike the UCL, this bill would not permit private actions by persons who suffered no harm from the alleged wrongful act. Instead, private suits for Labor Code violations could be brought only by an employee or former employee of the alleged violator against whom the alleged violation was committed. This action could also include fellow employees also harmed by the alleged violation.

The legislative history is consistent throughout, and the final bill analysis preceding PAGA's enactment maintained that PAGA plaintiffs must have suffered harm from an alleged violation. Those individuals could seek penalties on behalf of "other current or former employees against whom one or more of the alleged violations was committed." Simply put, someone who was aggrieved by certain Labor Code violations could be a PAGA plaintiff and could sue on behalf of others who also were subject to any of those violations.

But PAGA plaintiffs argue that the enacted statute is contrary. They seize upon PAGA's definition of an "aggrieved employee," which they read to comingle concepts. Specifically, they argue that PAGA confers standing not only on those plaintiffs whom the Legislature intended to have standing to be a PAGA plaintiff (i.e., those "against whom the alleged violation was committed") but also on those employees on whose behalf the PAGA plaintiff could sue (i.e., those "against whom one or more of the alleged violations was committed").

The result is that absurd arguments abound. For example, some PAGA plaintiffs assert that a non-exempt employee who suffered an expense reimbursement violation can recover penalties on behalf of employees who have been misclassified as exempt!

Two Cents for the Legislature: The proposed amendment—a new Labor Code section 2699.4 establishing that "an aggrieved employee may be awarded civil penalties based only upon a violation by the employer actually suffered by that employee"—is a welcomed attempt to put an end to the silliness. But the proposal restates what was intended to be an evident truth.

Adding a provision to clarify original intent could be argued is unnecessary, especially since the Legislature could simply revisit the definition of an "aggrieved employee." The definition presently can and should be read without absurdity, but PAGA plaintiffs contort statutory language to assert illogical arguments (like the ability to recover penalties as being irrelevant to standing).

In sum, enacting section 2699.4 to preclude an award of penalties for a violation that a PAGA plaintiff has not suffered merely restates the standing requirement that precludes such an award in the first instance. To the extent the Legislature finds a need to respond to PAGA plaintiffs' tactics, enacting section 2699.4 might be unnecessarily complicated. A simple amendment to the definition of an aggrieved employee would have the same result.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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