United States: Beware: Hyper-Technical Labor Code Violations May Expose Employers To Significant Claims For Penalties Under The Labor Code California Private Attorneys General Act Of 2004 (PAGA)

Last Updated: May 10 2017
Article by Angela Reston-Nunez

Most employers know that companywide policies or practices that do not strictly comply with applicable state or federal employment laws can expose employers to class action lawsuits by large numbers of employees seeking recovery of massive sums in damages, attorneys' fees and costs. Unfortunately, traditional class action lawsuits are not the only representative actions employers should be concerned with. Recent litigation trends have shown that California's lesser known Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 ("PAGA") can be equally, if not more harmful to employers than class actions due to steep penalties for minor violations.


Under PAGA, "aggrieved employees" can sue employers for alleged Labor Code violations. Like class actions, a PAGA plaintiff sues on a representative basis on behalf of themselves and other workers. However, unlike class action plaintiffs, PAGA plaintiffs do not seek damages; rather, they seek civil and statutory penalties formerly recoverable solely by state agencies in enforcement actions.

The distinction between recovery of damages in class actions and recovery of penalties in PAGA actions reflects the often-insidious nature of PAGA claims. While workers have long alleged "derivative" PAGA claims for penalties in connection with more substantive underlying Labor Code violations (meal or rest break violations, for example), we have seen a recent spike in PAGA suits alleging hyper-technical Labor Code violations with no underlying substantive violation, and where the "aggrieved employees" have suffered no actual harm.


Equally troubling for employers is the method by which significant penalties are aggregated. With a few significant exceptions, penalties generally range from $50 to $250 per violation. At first blush, this may not seem like much, however total penalties rise rapidly when considering that calculations are made on a per-employee and a per-pay period basis.


Consider the following example based on one recent case:

Issue: An employee brought a PAGA-only lawsuit on behalf of himself and 400 other "aggrieved employees" against his employer for alleged Labor Code violations.

Claim: Under Labor Code section 204(a), work performed between the 1st and the 15th of the month must be paid between the 16th and 26th of the month, and  work performed between the 16th and last day of the month must be paid between the 1st and 10th of the following month. Under Labor Code section 204(d), an employer who deviates from these standard, semimonthly payroll periods, i.e., 1st through 15th and 16th through end of the month, must pay its employees within seven days after the end of each pay period. The plaintiff's PAGA claim alleged that the employer's 30-year practice of paying employees nine days after the close of its non-standard, semi-monthly payroll period violated Labor Code Section 204(d), and that the employer was liable for a minimum penalty of $100 per employee, per pay period, going back at least one year (the statutory limitations period for PAGA claims). Exposure: With 400 employees, 24 pay periods per year, and $100 per violation, the plaintiff sought a minimum of $960,000 in penalties (not including substantial attorneys' fees, costs and interest also available under PAGA), despite offering no evidence of harm suffered by the employees or prior notice of the issue.


In addition to a draconian penalties scheme, there are a myriad of additional aggravating factors for employers involved in PAGA litigation, such as:

  • PAGA plaintiffs are not required to meet the rigorous class certification standards required of class action plaintiffs, meaning plaintiffs' attorneys may be more likely to bring meritless "strike suits" aimed at obtaining quick settlements based on significant alleged penalties exposure.
  • 75% of PAGA penalties recovered by way of settlement or judgment are directed to the state of California, while the "aggrieved employees" only keep 25%, reinforcing the notion that PAGA claims are frequently attorneys'-fee-driven, rather than for protecting employees.


Fortunately, there are a number of measures employers can take prior to and during wage and hour litigation which can dramatically reduce, or even eliminate, exposure to substantial penalties and damages. This includes:

  1. Regular reviews. Prior to litigation, we recommend regular detailed reviews of company policies and practices in order to identify areas of possible concern and ensure compliance with California's everchanging labor laws.
  2. Take action. On receipt of a new PAGA claim, taking immediate action to remedy an alleged violation within the Labor Code's 33-day "safe harbor" time-period may help limit an employer's exposure, and could bar a plaintiff from filing suit at all.
  3. Be aggressive. Once a PAGA or class action claim is in litigation, a proactive, aggressive approach to claim evaluation, investigation and litigation is critical.

For these reasons and more, it's in an employers' best interest to monitor these issues closely and seek input when appropriate.

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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