The California Supreme Court, in Williams v. Marshalls of California, expanded the scope of information plaintiffs can obtain from employers in Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act actions.
PAGA (California Labor Code § 2698 et. seq.) authorizes employees to file representative actions on behalf of themselves and other aggrieved employees for violations of certain Labor Code sections, including, for example, claims for unpaid wages, meal and break period violations, misclassification and retaliation. Williams, who was employed at a Costa Mesa, California, Marshalls store, filed a PAGA representative action against the company in 2013. Williams alleged that Marshalls undertook companywide unlawful practices, including requiring employees to work during meal periods without pay, erasing meal period violations from time records, making late payments and requiring employees to carry out company business without reimbursement.
During discovery, Williams sought the names and contact information for all non-exempt Marshalls employees in California for a two-year period. Marshalls refused to produce the information on three grounds—the request was overbroad, unduly burdensome and an invasion of privacy. The trial court ordered Marshalls to provide information for employees who worked in the same Costa Mesa store as Williams, but denied the request as to employees in the company's other approximately 130 stores unless Williams could demonstrate some merit to his claims after submitting to "at least six productive hours of deposition." The Court of Appeal denied Williams' appeal, holding that he failed to "set forth specific facts showing good cause justifying the discovery sought" and show "a compelling need for discovery" that would justify compromising third party privacy interests. The supreme court granted review to "resolve issues of first impression concerning the appropriate scope of discovery in a PAGA action."
Supreme Court's Reasoning
The supreme court held that Williams was entitled to obtain the names and contact information of every nonexempt Marshalls employee in California for a two-year period and rejected each of Marshalls' three bases for refusing to produce the information. As a general matter, the court emphasized that the right to discovery is broad and must be construed liberally in favor of disclosure unless the request is clearly improper and that under the Labor Code, the right to discovery includes the right to learn "the identity and location of persons having knowledge of any discoverable matter." (Labor Code § 2017.010.)
More specifically, the court held that disclosure of information of others who may be aggrieved was "an essential first step to prosecution of any representative action." Further the court stated that the Labor Code and Code of Civil Procedure do not require a party seeking discovery to establish good cause or prove the merits of the underlying claims before obtaining relevant discovery. Finally, the court concluded that the information sought by Williams was not so highly sensitive and private as to warrant protection. Any residual privacy concerns could be protected by issuing a notice to the employees as set forth in Belaire-West Landscape v. Superior Court, 149 Cal. App. 4th 554 (2007) (notices include assurances that the third parties are under no obligation to talk to plaintiffs' counsel and provide an opportunity to opt out of disclosure).
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