Last week in a unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that representative plaintiffs in Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) cases are presumptively entitled to discover the names and contact information of other allegedly “aggrieved employees” statewide at the outset of litigation, without the need to show good cause.
Enacted in 2004, PAGA allows allegedly “aggrieved employees” to sue employers on behalf of the state of California to recover civil penalties on behalf of the state for violations of the state Labor Code, and to keep for themselves and other aggrieved employees 25 percent of any civil penalties recovered, with the remaining 75 percent going to the state. PAGA also provides for the recovery of attorneys’ fees.
Michael Williams was employed by Marshalls of CA, LLC, at the company’s store in Costa Mesa, California. He sued Marshalls under PAGA, asserting various wage and hour violations. Early in the case, Williams sought to discover the names and contact information of fellow Marshalls employees throughout California, and offered to use a so-called “Belaire-West notice,” a discovery mechanism whereby non-party employees are notified of a plaintiff’s request to discover their names and contact information, and are given an opportunity to opt out of having their information produced. Marshalls objected on several grounds, including burdensomeness and the privacy rights of its employees. The trial court granted Williams’ motion to compel Marshalls to produce employee contact information, but only as to employees who worked at the Costa Mesa store where Williams worked.
The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding discovery of contact information for employees statewide was premature, and that Williams had failed to show good cause for the production of contact information statewide, given that he had not shown knowledge of unlawful practices at any store other than the Costa Mesa location, or facts putting any uniform statewide practice at issue.
The California Supreme Court reversed, finding the trial court abused its discretion in denying Williams’ motion to discover statewide contact information because the California Code of Civil Procedure does not include a “good cause” standard for discovery, and discovery rules for PAGA actions are no different from the rules governing discovery in putative class actions. Although defendants may object to discovery requests on various grounds (as did Marshalls) and trial courts retain broad discretion to manage discovery, when it opposed the motion the company presented no evidence showing the production of statewide contact information would be unduly burdensome, and the well-established Belaire-West notice procedure provided sufficient privacy protections.
This decision confirms that in a class, collective or PAGA action litigated in a California state court, the names and contact information of non-party employees are presumptively discoverable simply upon the filing of a complaint. Instead of placing the burden on plaintiffs to show good cause for the discovery, the burden is on defendants to show why discovery should be limited. The court found Marshalls failed to do so, but the opinion leaves open the possibility that other employers may be able to limit discovery under the right circumstances.