On July 13, 2017, the California Supreme Court issued an important opinion regarding the appropriate scope of discovery in increasingly popular PAGA-only, non-class action cases.  In Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of CA, LLC), No. S227228, the Court unanimously reversed the decision of the trial court and approved class action-like discovery of employee contact information in representative PAGA actions.

In Williams, the plaintiff was an employee at a Marshalls store who brought a PAGA action alleging meal and rest break and other Labor Code violations.  The plaintiff did not bring the claim as a class action, presumably to take advantage of the landmark decision in Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC, 59 Cal. 4th 348 (2014) (holding that, among other things, PAGA representative action waivers were contrary to California public policy and, therefore, PAGA claims could not be compelled to arbitration).  Although the plaintiff elected not to file a class action, he moved to compel production of other employee names and contact information.  The trial court largely denied the motion, ordering production only as to employees who worked in the same store as the plaintiff.  The trial court further ruled that broader production would be allowed, if at all, only after the plaintiff had been deposed, and only if the plaintiff could prove that the case had factual merit.  The Court of Appeal affirmed, finding no abuse of discretion, and holding that production of contact information would be inappropriate even if a Belaire-West notice process were used.

In 2015, the California Supreme Court granted review and identified two issues for determination: (1) Is the plaintiff in a representative action under PAGA entitled to discovery of the names and contact information of other “aggrieved employees” at the beginning of the proceeding or is the plaintiff first required to show good cause in order to have access to such information?; and (2) In ruling on such a request for employee contact information, should the trial court first determine whether the employees have a protectable privacy interest and, if so, balance that privacy interest against competing or countervailing interests, or is a protectable privacy interest assumed?  This morning, the Court answered these two questions.

In answering the first question, the Court held that nothing in PAGA’s provisions support a heightened preliminary proof requirement before discovery relating to other “aggrieved employees” can be sought.  Indeed, the Court specifically found that policy considerations “support extending PAGA discovery as broadly as class action discovery has been extended.”

In answering the second question, the Court held that the framework for evaluating potential invasions of privacy articulated in Hill v. National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (1994) 7 Cal.4th 1, should be used by trial courts in PAGA actions in the same manner as it is used in class actions.  In the particular circumstances before it, the Court determined that while absent employees have a bona fide interest in the confidentiality of their contact information, under the circumstances they do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy because they would not “expect [their contact] information to be withheld from a plaintiff seeking to prove labor law violations committed against them and to recover civil penalties on their behalf.”  The Court further held that providing contact information would not constitute a serious invasion of privacy providing it was disclosed pursuant to a Belaire-West notice process by which employees could opt-out of having their information shared.
Because two of the three threshold requirements in Hill were absent, the Court did not move to the second stage of the Hill framework which requires a balancing of interests.  Nevertheless, the Court noted “in passing” that “complete bans on disclosure to vindicate privacy interests, or disclosure subject to an opt-in requirement, may significantly hamper the ability of aggrieved employees, deputized by the state, to assist in broad and effective enforcement of the labor laws.”  The Court cautioned that “[f]uture courts confronted with privacy objections to similar requested disclosures should be mindful of this potential impact when weighing whether to embrace a complete ban like the one imposed here or instead to seek alternative solutions that might accommodate the competing interests at stake.”

Finally, the court specifically disapproved a litany of prior cases that had held that a party seeking discovery of private information is required to always establish a compelling interest or compelling need, without regard to the other considerations articulated in Hill.

The Williams opinion can be found here.

Keesal, Young & Logan Employment Group

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