Los Angeles, Calif. (March 22, 2019) – In Furry v. East Bay Publishing, the California Court of Appeal reversed a trial court's decision denying a plaintiff relief for overtime and meal break claims. Notably, the Court of Appeal held that an employee's "imprecise evidence" of hours worked can still provide a basis for damages when an employer fails to keep accurate time records of hours worked.
In Furry, the plaintiff, a sales and marketing director, sued his former employer for unpaid wages, meal and rest break compensation, and statutory penalties for inaccurate wage statements. At the conclusion of trial, the court found that the employer failed to keep accurate records of plaintiff's work hours. Despite this failure, the plaintiff was still not entitled to relief because he only offered testimony that was too uncertain to support a reasonable inference that the work performed was not paid.
In reversing the trial court's decision, the Court of Appeal held that an employee's imprecise evidence can still provide a sufficient basis for damages when the employer fails to keep accurate records of the employee's work hours. In making this finding, the Court of Appeal applied a burden shifting framework, which requires the employee to not only prove he has in fact performed work for which he was improperly compensated, but also show the amount and extent of that work. The burden then shifts to the employer to come forward with evidence of the precise amount of work performed or with evidence to negate the reasonableness of the inference drawn from the employee's evidence. If the employer fails to produce this evidence, the court may still award damages even though they may only be approximate damages.
In the case at hand, the plaintiff offered estimates based on his recollection of his workload over the years, the duties and tasks he performed in connection with specific events, and the specific tasks that went into creating projects. This evidence, which consisted of nothing more than the plaintiff's memory regarding hours worked, was sufficient to satisfy his initial burden according to the Court of Appeal. The fact that the evidence was imprecise was inconsequential.
The Court of Appeal then determined that the defendant failed to meet its burden because it did not keep accurate records and thus could not prove the plaintiff's figures were incorrect. The trial court, as required by the third step, had a duty to draw whatever reasonable inferences it could from plaintiff's evidence, which it did not do. The Court of Appeal thus reversed the lower court's decision to deny plaintiff relief on his overtime claim.
The primary take-away from this decision is that an employee's imprecise evidence of hours worked can form the basis of an unpaid overtime claim. Accordingly, it is imperative that employers keep and maintain accurate time and payroll records so they can use these records to affirmatively disprove an employee's speculative evidence of overtime hours worked.
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