California Court of Appeal Holds No Right to Jury Trial in PAGA Cases and Affirms Suitable Seating Win for Employer
On February 18, 2022, the California Court of Appeal, Second District, held there is no right to a jury trial in a Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) action for civil penalties. In that same decision the Court of Appeal affirmed a trial court’s judgment in favor of Ralphs Grocery Company after a bench trial in which the trial court found the company’s decision not to provide seats to cashiers did not violate workplace suitable seating requirements under the applicable Industrial Wage Commission (IWC) wage order.
Background on PAGA
Under PAGA, the State of California deputizes “aggrieved employees” to sue employers to recover civil penalties as a mechanism to enforce provisions of the Labor Code. An aggrieved employee is a person who was employed by the defendant employer and against whom one or more of the alleged Labor Code violations occurred. Under PAGA, the plaintiff-employee pursues civil penalties for Labor Code violations the employer allegedly committed against all aggrieved employees (not just the plaintiff). The employee who brings a PAGA action acts as an agent of the state enforcement agencies; therefore the action is considered a dispute between the employer and the state, as opposed to a suit for damages. If the employee prevails in the litigation, 75 percent of the civil penalties go to the state, and the remaining 25 percent go to the aggrieved employees. Prevailing PAGA plaintiffs are also entitled to recover reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.
California’s “Suitable Seating” Requirements
For decades, California’s IWC wage orders have required most employers to provide “suitable seats” to their employees “when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” When the nature of employees’ work requires standing and the employees are not actively engaged in those duties, the wage orders require employers to provide their employees seats when using seats “does not interfere with the performance of their duties.”
These “suitable seating” requirements were little noticed until after the enactment of PAGA in 2004. Although the suitable seating requirement does not appear within the Labor Code itself, section 1198 of the Labor Code makes it unlawful to employ any employee under conditions prohibited by an IWC wage order. The result is that a violation of any IWC wage order is also a violation of Section 1198, which gives rise to a PAGA claim. Under PAGA, the civil penalty for a violation of Section 1198 is $100 for each aggrieved employee per pay period for the initial violation, and $200 for each aggrieved employee per pay period for each subsequent violation. It doesn’t require a calculator to see how PAGA provided the financial incentive behind the explosive growth of suitable seating litigation.
LaFace v. Ralphs Grocery Co.
Ralphs Grocery Company employed Jill LaFace as a cashier. She brought a PAGA action against Ralphs on behalf of herself and other current and former Ralphs cashiers, alleging Ralphs violated an IWC wage order requiring the company to provide suitable seating when the nature of the work reasonably permitted the use of seats, or, for a job where standing was required, to provide seating for employees to use when their use did not interfere with their duties.
The trial court set a jury trial but later granted Ralphs’s motion for a bench trial after finding PAGA actions are equitable in nature and are therefore not triable to a jury. After a bench trial the trial court found Ralphs had not violated the wage order because the evidence showed even when cashiers were not functioning in their primary roles as cashiers, they were required to move about the store fulfilling other tasks. LaFace appealed the judgment, contending she was entitled to a jury trial on her PAGA claim.
On appeal, LaFace and Ralphs agreed that PAGA itself does not confer a right to a jury trial, so the Court of Appeal limited its inquiry to whether the California Constitution’s guarantee of a right to a jury trial applies to PAGA actions. Surveying the line of cases examining the reach of the state constitutional right to a jury trial, the Court of Appeal determined the issue turned on whether a PAGA action is of “like nature” or “of the same class as a pre-1850 common law right of action” that the constitutional provision was designed to protect.
Examining the nature of a PAGA action, the Court of Appeal concluded there is no right to a jury trial in PAGA actions for four reasons. First, notwithstanding the fact that a PAGA action’s designated forum is the trial courts which technically makes it a civil action, PAGA plaintiffs act as mere proxies for the state, bringing on behalf of the state what would otherwise be an administrative regulatory enforcement action. Second, PAGA’s penalty provisions are subject to a variety of equitable factors that call for a qualitative evaluation and the weighing of a variety of factors that is typically undertaken by a court, not a jury. Third, the Labor Code proscribes a wide range of conduct that was unknown at common law, including suitable seating requirements among others. Fourth, although the penalty assessment portion of a PAGA action could be severed from the liability portion, with a jury deciding liability and the court deciding penalties, as noted above many PAGA violations are based on newly created rights that did not exist at common law, with the result that a PAGA action typically does not have a pre-1850 analog that would call for the right to a jury trial under the California Constitution.
After addressing the constitutional issue, the Court of Appeal next turned to the merits of LaFace’s suitable seating claim. On appeal, LaFace did not argue the nature of her cashier duties reasonably permitted the use of seats; her appeal was limited to her contention that she was entitled to a seat during the brief periods of time when she was on the clock but not checking out customers. LaFace and Ralphs generally agreed the evidence, including the testimony of longtime cashiers and expert witnesses, showed that when cashiers were not checking out customers, Ralphs expected them to be performing other tasks that required standing, to include cleaning, restocking, and looking for customers ready to check out.
The parties disagreed, however, whether Ralphs’s expectation about these secondary tasks required Ralphs to provide seats. LaFace contended that notwithstanding Ralphs’ expectation that cashiers would perform these secondary tasks when they were not checking out customers, the “reality” was that cashiers would often remain at their checkstands, talking to other employees or using their mobile phones. Ralphs argued that because cashiers were expected to be active and busy at all times, no seating was required, and “rogue employees” should not be able to create an entitlement to seats by shirking their job duties. The Court of Appeal sided with Ralphs and affirmed the trial court’s judgment, holding an objective inquiry into whether using a seat would interfere with an employee’s performance of job duties properly takes into account an employer’s reasonable expectations regarding customer service and acknowledges an employer’s role in setting job duties. “An expectation that employees work while on the clock, rather than look at their phones or do nothing, seems objectively reasonable.”
While the bulk of suitable seating litigation has been brought by cashiers and other customer service employees who deal directly with the public, any California employer can be the target of a suitable seating claim. Employers are therefore well advised to periodically review job duties and provide suitable seats where warranted. When an employer concludes a seat is not warranted by an employee’s job duties, those duties should be clearly defined to make it clear an employee should not be sitting while on the clock.
Aaron Buckley – Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton LLP – San Diego, CA