PAGA = All Access Pass: California Supreme Court Says There Is No Requirement That Plaintiff Show Good Cause In Seeking Non-Party Employee Contact Information

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07/24/2017

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PAGA = All Access Pass: California Supreme Court Says There Is No Requirement That Plaintiff Show Good Cause In Seeking Non-Party Employee Contact Information

 By: Anthony Oceguera and Rebecca Hause-Schultz

The California Supreme Court‘s decision today in Williams v. Superior Court (“Williams”) is sure excite opportunistic plaintiff attorneys, as it eliminates a potential – and completely reasonable - roadblock to their access of statewide discovery in Private Attorney General Act (PAGA)  actions.  In Williams, the Supreme Court held unequivocally that in PAGA cases plaintiffs are not required to show their claims have some basis in fact prior to seeking statewide discovery of employee contact information, even if the other employees hold vastly different jobs than the plaintiffs.

Marshalls, a retail clothing store employing thousands of employees in California, was sued by an employee at its Costa Mesa store.  The employee alleged company-wide wage and hour violations against Marshalls and sought penalties under The Private Attorney General Act (“PAGA”) on behalf of himself and other “aggrieved employees.”  During the early stages of discovery, before Plaintiff had presented any evidence that he and other employees working at his store had valid claims, Plaintiff’s counsel requested Marshalls disclose the name and contact information for all Marshalls’ employees working in California during a two-year period, some 16,500 employees in all. Marshalls objected and refused to produce the requested information, arguing that Plaintiff’s requests violated the employees’ right to privacy, were overbroad because they asked for contact and employment information beyond Plaintiff’s store and job classification, and were unduly burdensome as Plaintiff had failed to offer evidence establishing he and other employees had valid wage and hour claims.

The trial court agreed with Marshall’s objections, issuing an order requiring Marshalls to provide employee contact information only for the store Plaintiff worked at, and subject to a Belaire-West notice designed to protect third party privacy rights by allowing employees to opt out of having their contact information provided to Plaintiff’s counsel.  On appeal, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s order. We previously reported on the appellate court decision here

In its decision, the Supreme Court rejected the arguments set forth by Marshalls and the appellate court.  The Supreme Court stated that the request for contact information was the first step in identifying other aggrieved employees and obtaining admissible evidence of potential violations, and therefore was clearly within the scope of discovery permissible under the law. And although the Supreme Court recognized that employers have a duty to protect their employees’ private information and privacy interests, it found that the privacy interests in this case were minimal, in part because employees would not expect their information to be withheld from a plaintiff trying to recover penalties on their behalf.  And according to the Supreme Court, whatever privacy interest remained could be addressed through the use of a Belaire-West notice. 

Although the Supreme Court could have stopped there, it took additional steps to clear the path for broad – and in many instances invasive - discovery by Plaintiff attorneys.  Prior to the Williams decision, many courts have stated that when privacy interests are involved, the party seeking to discover private information must show a “compelling need” for the information before a court will order it produced.  In Williams, the Supreme Court held that parties claiming that the requested information is private have the burden of establishing that an obvious invasion of privacy would occur before the party seeking the discovery would be required to supply a compelling interest.  Employers and other parties seeking to withhold records based on privacy objections will likely find themselves facing significantly more motions to compel from aggressive plaintiff attorneys.

COUNSEL TO MANAGEMENT:

This Williams decision is a significant blow to employers, as it severely strips their ability to protect its employees’ contact information and limit the scope of discovery during the early stages of litigation.   Employers should now expect to be forced to provide contact information of other “aggrieved employees” much earlier in a case.  And of course, expanded discovery will result in the cost of defending PAGA actions to increase significantly.  The Supreme Court did say that future courts should consider alternative solutions that could accommodate “competing interests” in these types of disputes, including potentially partial disclosure (which could include providing information from a representative sample of employees).  Aggressive defense attorneys will of course do everything in their power to curtail plaintiffs in these cases.  However, there is no getting around the fact that the Williams decision makes their job more difficult.  Employers who find themselves facing PAGA actions are encouraged to reach out to the experts at The Saqui Law Group for assistance. 

 

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