The California Supreme Court has granted review of the appellate court decision in Williams v. Superior Court to answer the following question: Is the plaintiff in a representative action under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”) automatically entitled to discovery of the names and contact information of other “aggrieved employees” statewide at the beginning of the proceeding? This case presents an important opportunity for the high court to prevent fishing expeditions by overreaching plaintiff’s counsel looking to represent other “aggrieved,” but unknown, employees.
The Private Attorneys General Act
PAGA permits any “aggrieved employee” to stand in the shoes of the Labor and Workforce Development Agency and bring a civil action on behalf of other current and former “aggrieved employees” to collect civil penalties. See Cal. Lab. Code § 2699(a). While the California Supreme Court has determined that PAGA actions need not meet California’s class action requirements, the Court has not yet provided clear guidance on how such actions are to be procedurally maintained and managed, specifically with respect to discovery.
Court of Appeal’s Decision in Williams
In Williams, the plaintiff was an employee of Marshalls, working in its Costa Mesa store. He filed suit against the company, alleging that he and other employees were deprived of meal and rest breaks, not provided with accurate wage statements, not reimbursed for necessary business-related expenses, and not paid all wages due. In discovery, the plaintiff sought the names and contact information of all nonexempt Marshalls' employees in California who had worked for the company beginning one year prior to the filing of the plaintiff’s complaint. Marshalls objected and the plaintiff moved to compel. The trial court ordered Marshalls to produce contact information for the employees at the Company’s Costa Mesa store, but denied production of that information for the company’s other stores in California.
The plaintiff appealed. The California Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s determination that such discovery was premature. The appellate court stated that “[n]owhere does [the plaintiff] evince any knowledge of the practices of Marshalls at other stores, nor any fact that would lead a reasonable person to believe he knows whether Marshalls has a uniform statewide policy.” Without such knowledge, the appellate court determined, it was “imminently reasonable” to require the plaintiff to first provide some support for his own individual claims and then perhaps permit broader discovery after the plaintiff made such factual showing. Importantly, the appellate court recognized that conducting a statewide opt-out procedure would be costly, perhaps unnecessarily so if the plaintiff could not provide any evidence of violations by Marshalls outside of the plaintiff’s employment or the Costa Mesa store. The appellate court ultimately concluded “bare allegations unsupported by any reason to believe a defendant's conduct extends statewide furnishes no good cause for statewide discovery.” The appellate court also noted that even if the contact information for all Marshalls’ employees statewide was reasonably calculated to lead to admissible evidence, those individuals’ privacy interests outweighed the plaintiff’s need for such information at this stage of the litigation.
Impact of the California Supreme Court’s Review
The California Supreme Court’s determination of whether and when discovery of the names and contact information of all other employees statewide is proper in PAGA actions will provide much needed clarity on the scope of discovery permitted in these representative actions. In class actions, the California Supreme Court has held that such information is “generally discoverable, so that the lead plaintiff may learn the names of other persons who might assist in prosecuting the case.” Pioneer Electronics (USA), Inc. v. Superior Court. California courts have similarly permitted such discovery in employment class actions through the use of an opt-out procedure in which current and former employees are notified of the class action, and then asked to affirmatively state that they do not want their contact information to be shared with plaintiffs’ counsel. Belaire-West Landscape, Inc. v. Superior Court.
Given the lack of clarity on how PAGA actions are maintained, a Supreme Court ruling in Williams that confirms the holding of the Court of Appeal would protect employers from fishing expeditions in which a single employee files suit and alleges wage and hour violations on his own behalf, then obtains contact information to be used to seek out other potential plaintiffs.