Information for representative claims
How much information can employees get about co-workers who may have suffered the same violations of workplace rights?
The Second District Court of Appeal recently addressed the question of whether an employee of Marshalls, in the context of a lawsuit, was entitled to the name and contact information of other Marshalls employees throughout California. In Williams v. Superior Court (Cal. App. 2d Dist. May 15, 2015) 2015 Cal. App. LEXIS 421, the court concluded that a trial court order limiting the employee’s access to contact information for other employees who worked in the same store was appropriate.
In this case, Mr. Williams sued Marshalls for failure to provide meal and rest breaks, to provide accurate wage statements, to reimburse business-related expenses, and to pay all earned wages. His case is a representative action under the Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA), meaning that he sought to enforce both his rights and the rights of other Marshalls employees. During the phase of the case in which the parties seek information from each other and third parties (discovery), Mr. Williams requested the names and contact information of employees who worked for Marshalls in California (129 stores) since March 2012. Marshalls refused to provide the information, even after Mr. Williams offered to send notice to the other employees that their contact information was being sought and that they could prevent this from happening by opting out. The dispute was resolved by the trial court with an order that Marshalls produce the requested information for only the store at which Mr. Williams worked, and that Mr. Williams could seek additional information after he was questioned under oath (deposed) by Marshalls.
Mr. Williams sought review of the trial court’s order believing he was entitled to the full scope of information that he sought. The appellate court began its review with the relevance standard that applies to discovery and the discretion afforded to trial courts to manage it. It rejected Mr. Williams’s contention that statewide contact information was immediately relevant and necessary to his representative (PAGA) claims. The court noted that Mr. Williams’s claims were described in his complaint (initial document filed in court) only in terms of the store at which he worked. The court also pointed to the fact that the case was in its early stages and Mr. Williams had not yet been deposed.
On this basis, the court determined that it was reasonable for the trial judge to manage discovery in a step-by-step fashion. Mr. Williams could not seek extensive statewide discovery based on the unproven allegations in his complaint alone. Instead, he would first have to provide support for his own claims in deposition, leaving open the possibility that he could expand to other employees’ claims later.
The court in Williams also disagreed with Mr. Williams’s assertion that his representative claims allowed him the same access as California’s wage and hour enforcement agency (Division of Labor Standards Enforcement) to all workplaces. The PAGA law allows an individual to sue in court to enforce labor laws, but does not give that individual access to workplaces with the same authority as the enforcement agency. Furthermore, the discovery process for representative claims is subject to the same rules as any other civil action.
The appellate court concluded by indicating that Mr. Williams might eventually justify getting contact information for additional employees if he provided evidence that (1) his rights were violated (through his deposition testimony), and (2) Marshalls’ employment practices are uniform throughout California (through a policy manual or deposition of a corporate officer). This decision provided helpful guidance for developing discovery plans for cases with representative claims.