California's Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) allows aggrieved employees to recover civil penalties on behalf of themselves, other employees, and the State of California for Labor Code violations. On July 13, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued its anticipated ruling on the scope of discovery in PAGA cases. In a blow to employers, the Court held that the scope of discovery in PAGA cases is essentially the same as the scope of discovery in class actions, and that PAGA plaintiffs need not show good cause in order to discover contact information of other allegedly aggrieved employees.
In Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California), Michael Williams sued his former employer, the retailer Marshalls under PAGA for allegedly failing to provide employees with meal and rest breaks, accurate wage statements, reimbursement for business expenses and payment of wages owed. Williams sought declaratory relief and civil penalties on behalf of roughly 16,500 Marshalls employees throughout California.
During discovery, Williams served interrogatories to Marshalls for the personal contact information and employment history for all 16,500 California employees. Marshalls objected on the grounds that this request was overbroad, unduly burdensome, and invasive to the privacy rights of 16,500 third parties. The trial court however partially granted Williams' motion to compel this information, allowing discovery of the names and addresses of the employees who worked in the same store location where Williams worked, and denying discovery with respect to other California Marshalls locations. The trial court also conditioned any further disclosure on Williams appearing for at least six hours of deposition and demonstrating that he had reason to believe there was a statewide issue justifying broad disclosure.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision, concluding that as the party seeking to compel this information, Williams had to "demonstrate a compelling need for discovery" by showing that discovery was "directly relevant and essential to the fair resolution of the underlying lawsuit."
The California Supreme Court reversed these holdings, however. According to the Court, Williams was presumptively entitled to the contact information he sought in his interrogatory. This means that PAGA plaintiffs can discover the contact information of other allegedly aggrieved employees without proving specific knowledge of unlawful statewide policies or practices. The Court noted that "a civil litigant's right to discovery is broad," and "the disclosure of the names and addresses of potential witnesses is a routine and essential part of pretrial discovery."
What Should Employers Take Away?
The Williams ruling will likely make PAGA actions even more appealing for plaintiffs. Plaintiffs claiming that labor code violations occurred statewide can likely assert discovery of the contact information for the entire group of employees. The fact that a plaintiff does not show an unlawful companywide policy or uniform practice is probably insufficient to prevent broad discovery. To limit the scope of plaintiff's discovery requests, employers should be prepared with specific facts to demonstrate undue burden and third party privacy concerns.
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