2017 Cal-Peculiarities

Seyfarth Synopsis: There are many different ways to pay employees in California. What is the scoop behind paying commissions? What are commission agreements and how have courts deciphered their coded mysteries? Read on for the most current intelligence from the SIA (Seyfarth Intelligence Agency).

Rogue Nation: The Rough Terrain Surrounding Commissions

What are commissions? Labor Code Section 204.1 defines a commission as a wage earned from either a sale of a product or a service when the wage depends proportionately on the amount or value of the goods or services sold. Deciphering whether a pay plan is truly commission-based can be a hard code to crack.

While sometimes confused with bonuses or piece-rate pay, commissions are neither. As stated above, they are wages earned by selling a product or a service, rather than by performing a particular task or service. The Labor Code protects commission pay just as it protects other types of wages.

Commissions are not profit-sharing plans, unless the employer has offered to pay a fixed percentage of company sales or profits as pay for work performed.

Paying commissions at termination. Labor Code Section 201(a) provides that earned commissions—like wages generally—are due as soon as employment ends. A DLSE Opinion Letter, however, states that a commission may not actually be earned until the employer has all the information needed to calculate the commission. Payment at separation is subject to this same rule—meaning that calculating wages owed and when they are due to a terminated commissioned employee can be complicated.

The Commission Ultimatum: You Need a Commission Agreement

Under Labor Code Section 2751, employers must provide most commissioned employees with a written agreement detailing how their commissions will be calculated and paid. This duty applies even if only some of the employee’s wages are in the form of commissions. Employers must give each such employee a signed copy of the commission agreement and obtain from the employee a signed receipt.

The conditions determining when a commission is “earned” must be defined in the commission agreement. The employer has a range of options in describing those conditions, so long as they are clear. For example, a commission can be earned when a customer executes a sale agreement, or not until the customer actually completes payment for the item or service. See Koehl v. Verio, Inc. (Cal. Ct. App. 2016) (commissions are earned when the employee has perfected the right to payment: when all the contractual conditions for requiring payment have been met).

Commission agreements can also give an employee advances on commissions, to provide the employee some cash flow before a commission is earned. These advances can act as loans, which the employee must re-pay if not earned, depending on the specific agreement in place.

Bridge of Lawsuits

Unfortunately, the open and customizable nature of commission agreements has led to litigation and trouble for employers down the road.

As commission agreements are contracts, much of the litigation surrounding their enforcement and interpretation has depended on how they are drafted. California courts will not enforce unlawful or unconscionable terms and will construe any ambiguities against the drafter of the commission agreement—usually the employer. See Aguilar v. Zep Inc. (N.D. Cal. 2014) (finding it impermissible to deduct from commissions such items as credit card fees and costs of samples).

Conflicts can also arise if employers misclassify as exempt an employee who earns some wages in the form of commission. Under California’s “commissioned sales exemption,” employees covered by Wage Order 4 or Wage Order 7 qualify as commissioned employees exempt from overtime-pay requirements only if: they earn at least 1.5 times the minimum wage and earn more than one-half of their income from commissions. This exemption applies only when conditions are met during a set pay period, which can mean that a regularly paid employee may be exempt during one pay period and not exempt during another pay period, when the employee has earned less commission. See Peabody v. Time Warner Cable Inc. (Cal. 2014) (an employer may not attribute commission wages paid in one pay period to other pay periods in order to show the minimum earnings needed to establish the commissioned employee exemption). Note also that the federal FLSA limits its own exemption for commissioned employees to those working for retail or service establishments. See 29 C.F.R Section 779.412.

Workplace Solutions: Searching for a “Safe House”?

Thinking of paying your “agents” by commission? Wondering if your commission agreements are a potentially deadly affair? Your friendly SIA Agent here at Seyfarth is happy to provide back-up.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Countless California employers have found that veterans make outstanding employees. As we approach the Veterans Day holiday, read on for a list of the benefits of hiring veterans, as well as helpful resources for veterans seeking employment. We further discuss some state and federal job protections for employees who are in the military.

Why Hire a Vet? 

There are many good reasons to consider hiring veterans. First, employers can apply for federal Work Opportunity Tax Credits (WOTC) of up to $9,600. The California Employment Development Department is the WOTC certifying agency for California employers. You can learn more about this program here.

Moreover, veterans bring invaluable skills. They are trained to be team focused, mission oriented, responsible, dedicated, respectful, and accountable. And many have learned to work well under pressure, to adapt quickly to change, and to understand and respect the chain of command. These qualities can enhance the capabilities of any workforce.

California Resources for Veterans

For veterans seeking employment, California offers various services and benefits. Services include (1) helping veterans find jobs, (2) unemployment benefits while veterans seek jobs, and (3) apprenticeship and on-the-job training programs that pay veterans while they prepare for a sustainable career. The California Department of Veterans Affairs maintains numerous employment-related resources for veterans. It also sponsors a business enterprise program for disabled veterans who want to own a business.

Protection for Military Leave and National Guard Service

Employees who are called to active duty enjoy job protections, under both federal and California law. Protected employees include members of the reserve corps of the armed forces of the United States, the National Guard or the naval militia, and members of the California State Military Reserve.

Federal Law: USERRA

The federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA) protects employees who need time off from their civilian jobs for military service. To be eligible for employment rights under USERRA, (1) the employee must hold or have applied for a civilian job, (2) the total length of the absence cannot exceed five years, and (3) the employee must report to work or submit an application for reemployment in a timely manner.

USERRA contains many complex provisions beyond the scope of this discussion. Generally, USERRA provides that returning service members are to be reemployed in the job that they would have attained had they not been absent for military service, enjoying the same seniority, status, and pay they would had if they had remained continuously employed. USERRA also requires employers to make reasonable efforts—such as training or retraining—to enable returning service members to qualify for reemployment. USERRA also provides that an individual performing military service is deemed to be on a furlough or leave of absence and is entitled to the non-seniority rights accorded to similarly situated individuals who are on non-military leaves of absence.

California Military Leave Laws

California, going beyond the protections afforded by USERRA, provides additional protections for all regular full-time, part-time, and probationary employees who need to be absent from work because of eligible military service, and also for military spouses.

Employees may be eligible to take up to 17 days of unpaid leave per year to engage in military training, drills, encampment, naval cruises, special exercises, or similar activities if they are a member of the reserve corps of the US armed forces, the National Guard, the Naval Militia, or the California State Military Reserve. California employers must not discharge a returning employee who was on active military duty with the National Guard, except for cause, within one year after being restored to the position.

In addition, employees who are the spouses or registered domestic partners have leave rights. California employers with 25 or more employees must grant up to 10 days of unpaid leave to employees who are married to a person who is on leave from a combat zone.

Workplace Solution: Next time you are hiring, consider whether a veteran might fit your bill. Your favorite Seyfarth attorneys are standing by to provide legal assistance with recruiting and hiring questions.

Seyfarth Synopsis: With the widespread use of direct deposit, the thought of an employee regularly reviewing wage statements may seem inconceivable. Still, employers must ensure that their wage statements strictly comply with California law, as even trivial, inadvertent failures to do so can lead to heavy penalties. We highlight here the information to include on wage statements while pointing out some of the legal landmines trod upon by unwary employers.

Labor Code Section 226(a) Is Pain. Anyone Who Says Differently Is Selling Something.

Much like The Princess Bride, wage statements remain incredibly relevant. Section 226(a) forces employers to report nine items of information on each itemized statement that accompanies a payment of wages:

  1. gross wages earned by the employee,
  2. total hours worked by the employee,
  3. all applicable hourly rates during the pay period,
  4. all deductions taken from the employee’s wages,
  5. the net wages the employee earned,
  6. the pay period that the wage statement reflects, including the start and end date,
  7. the employee’s name and ID number (which can be the last four digits of the Social Security number (SSN)),
  8. the name and address of the legal employer, and
  9. if the employee earns a piece rate, then the number of piece-rate units earned and the applicable piece rate.

(Note that employers must also report available paid sick leave, either on the wage statement or on another document issued at the time of each wage payment.)

Avoiding the Fire Swamp: Wage Statement Line Mines to Avoid

  • If you use a payroll service to prepare the itemized wage statement, can you just “set it and forget it”? No, you can’t. Many excellent payroll services do get it just right. Meanwhile, other companies, operating nationally, have not always heeded each California-specific requirement. And they do not feel it’s their responsibility; it’s yours. They do not offer legal advice or indemnification to prevent and correct wage-statement mistakes. If you are the typical California employer, you are on your own to ensure that your wage statements are sufficiently “Cal-peculiar.”
  • If you create in-house wage statements, can you rely on your IT department to capture all the right payroll information in the format that HR has designed? No, you can’t. Many companies have lamented the discovery that the perfect wage statement designed by the legal or HR department did not emerge quite as envisioned once IT completed all the necessary programming. In the world of wage statements, for every ugly duckling turning into a swan there is a swan turning into an ugly duckling.
  • Many well-regarded employers—national behemoths and local start-ups alike—have tripped over innocent, often trivial wage-statement mistakes to fall into a pit of despair, where they’ve found themselves inundated by millions of dollars in penalties that bear little or no relation to any actual employee harm.
  • Among the alleged hyper-technical violations causing employers to spend heavily to defend themselves—and sometimes causing them to incur huge penalties—have been these:
    • Neglecting to total all the hours worked, even though the wage statement lists all the various types of hours individually.
    • Accidentally showing net wages as “zero” where an employee gets direct deposit.
    • Leaving off either the start or end date of the pay period.
    • Not showing the number of hours worked at each applicable rate.
    • Recording an incomplete employer name (“Summit” instead of “Summit Logistics, Inc.”).
    • Recording an incomplete employer address.
    • Failing to provide an employee ID number, or reporting a full nine-digit SSN instead of a four-digit SSN.
  • And remember to keep a copy of your wage statements (or to have the capability to recreate what the employees have received).

Reaching the Cliffs of Insanity: How Recent Case Law Intensifies the Impact of Section 226

By now, you surely ask, “Can it possibly get any worse than that?” Yes, it can. It has been bad enough, of course, that hyper-technical failures to show an item required by Section 226(a) could create large liability unrelated to any real harm. But, until recently, employers at least had the defense that no penalty was available absent a “knowing and intentional” violation, because that was what a plaintiff had to prove to get penalties ($50 or $100 per employee per pay period) under Section 226(e).

But now, if a recent Court of Appeal decision stands, that defense has been stripped away. Lopez v. Friant & Associates, LLC held that an employer whose wage statement failed to record an employee ID number could be subject to penalties under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), even though the mistake was inadvertent and promptly corrected, and even though the employee admittedly suffered no injury by his employer reminding him each pay period what the last four digits of his SSN are. Lopez permitted the employee to sue for PAGA penalties without needing to prove the “injury” and “knowing and intentional” elements of a Section 226(e) claim. In short, Lopez is about as appealing as a Rodent Of Unusual Size (R.O.U.S.). See our detailed client alert on Lopez here.

Workplace Solutions: What Would Miracle Max Do

Though the exact impact of Lopez is unclear at this point (Lopez did not decide whether the extra PAGA penalty would be $250 per employee, under Section 226.3, or $100 per employee per pay period, under Section 2699(f)), Lopez rings the alarm that employers must proactively ensure that their itemized wage statements strictly comply with Section 226(a), lest they be the next to fall in the pit of despair. When is the last time you did your self-audit? Don’t hesitate to reach out to Seyfarth to help you ensure your wage statements are compliant.

Seyfarth Synopsis: This post continues our blog series on the Future of Work, and discusses how, in California as elsewhere, performance management strategies continue to develop in response to the changing workplace. Access our prior Future of Work posts (on independent contractors in California and the effects of job automation) here and here.

Innovation in employee management has been a global phenomenon for the past several years. In San Diego the week of September 14th, a global knowledge-exchange network known as Talent Management Alliance put on a three day Talent Performance Management Summit. Speakers and attendees talked about the radical changes in performance management that have sprung up in recent years in answer to evolving demands of increased competition, the way companies operate, and employee expectations. A number of innovators are based in California (e.g., Gap, Adobe, Cisco). Not surprisingly, a sizeable chunk of the speakers at the San Diego TMA Summit are also from companies based in the Golden State.

Annual Performance Reviews Going the Way of the Dodo

As we all know, the traditional annual performance evaluation is used to rate employees, retrospectively, on how they did during the previous year in a number of areas (such as teamwork, amount and quality of work, quality of client service) and to justify salary increases or decreases. A required annual process has some obvious advantages, including (ideally) consistency, and use of objective criteria. The evaluation can be especially important in the event of litigation, as a contemporaneous record of supervisory impressions and corroborator of employer actions.

However, for leading edge employers in California and elsewhere, this model is outmoded. Progressives predict that the use of annual reviews will continue to decline and that more frequent, goals-oriented communications (often utilizing technology), employee training, attention to personal development, and coaching (rather than managing) will increase.

A New Performance Management Paradigm

These changes reflect updated thinking about what works to drive improvement in an employer’s bottom line. There is new emphasis on maintaining a nimble, employee oriented, data-driven corporate culture, as well as recognizing the roles of science and psychology in motivating employees. Research has shown that Millennials (aka “Gen Y”), who by 2020 will comprise almost half of the U.S. workforce, value receiving more frequent feedback, work-life balance, satisfaction in their work (as opposed to “just having a job”), and more independence and learning opportunities.

Not surprisingly, the new performance management approaches speak in these terms, using concepts like “expectations, goal-setting and feedback.” They ask how employees are measuring up against their goals/expectations, and how management can help. And they do so frequently (i.e., quarterly, if not monthly, or “continuously”). In addition to keeping their employees engaged and productive, these approaches can help employers can gain more current information to reward good work and identify emerging leaders.

Management Training (including How to Coach for Performance) is Essential

However, even with the help of workplace consultants and new generations of management and feedback software, the new performance management paradigms place intense demands on managers and supervisors to implement the changes effectively. Supervisors and managers in California already typically carry a heavy burden of overseeing non-exempt compliance with numerous wage and hour laws. No performance management model, standing alone, can ensure 100% compliance with a company’s employee management objectives, including consistent compliance with anti-discrimination laws and diversity goals. Training thus becomes more important than ever.

Workplace solution.  Employers in all industries and service sectors are developing their own approaches to managing their employees, including some using hybrid approaches that combine frequent feedback with more formal ratings. Even if you are not ready to join the talent management revolution, you should be familiar with what the discussion is about, and able to evaluate whether your organization’s processes are fulfilling your needs.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Labor Day sales may be over, but some savvy California employers might still find a great deal. That’s because not all land inside California’s borders is actually within the legal jurisdiction of California. Rather, some areas are federal enclaves—territory California has ceded to the federal government and in which federal law largely applies. California employers operating within these enclaves are free of many peculiar California employment laws, and need only follow federal employment law. For this reason, employers who prefer federal employment law but love operating inside California’s borders—and who doesn’t?—may want to consider whether they can operate within a federal enclave.

The legal support for the federal enclave doctrine comes from the United States Constitution. Congress has the power to exercise exclusive legislation over “all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-yards, and other needful Buildings.” U.S. Const., Art. 1, § 8, cl. 17. But federal enclaves do not arise just because the federal government has bought some land from a state. Creation of a federal enclave requires an actual transfer of sovereignty from the state government to the United States.

A California employer operating within a federal enclave, may, depending on the circumstances, be free of many complex and onerous requirements imposed by California law. The extent to which California law applies within an enclave varies depending on three circumstances:

  • Reserved Jurisdiction. California law will apply to the extent the California government retained jurisdiction at the time of cession.
  • Congressional Authorization. California law will apply where Congress has specifically authorized its application within the enclave.
  • Laws In Effect At Cession. California laws in effect at the time the land became a federal enclave continue to apply within the federal enclave unless abrogated by Congress. Later-enacted California laws have no force within the enclave (though later state laws nevertheless can apply within an enclave if the “same basic scheme” was in effect at the time of cession).

As an example, both Yosemite National Park (in 1920) and  San Francisco’s Presidio (in 1897) became federal enclaves well before California created most of the statutes that have made its employment law so peculiar. Many employers operate within enclaves such as these, and as a result may be shielded from many of the laws that afflict the common run of California employers.

Alas, a federal enclave is not a viable option for most California employers. Common federal enclaves typically are in national parks and on military bases, and most employers cannot simply pick up and relocate their operations to such sites. Those employers fortunate enough to operate within a federal enclave, however, may have a meaningful defense against many California employment law claims. Employers who believe they may be operating within an enclave should confirm their enclave status and review what laws apply within that enclave. This opportunity, unlike a Labor Day sale, does not expire.

If you would like to learn more about federal enclaves and the protections they provide, please contact a Seyfarth Shaw attorney for assistance.

Edited by Chelsea Mesa.

Seyfarth Synopsis: While California courts have created annoying doctrines with respect to vacation pay, it remains the case that vacation pay is a matter of contract and that employers can avoid many problems with careful drafting of the vacation plan.

As we anticipate Labor Day weekend, note this mid-summer treat from the California Court of Appeal: its decision in Minnick v. Automotive Creations that when an employer’s vacation policy explicitly provides that employees don’t earn vacation until after their first year of employment, the policy is interpreted just like it was written, so that an employee who separated during his first year is not owed any vacation pay upon termination.

Is this holding really new? No and yes. Not new, of course, is the rule that California employers, absent a contract, need not provide any paid vacation at all. But employers that do provide paid vacation must comply with their policies and honor the principle, established by the California Supreme Court’s 1982 opinion in Suastez v. Plastic Dress-Up Co., that vacation pay, once “vested,” cannot be forfeited and must be paid (to the extent unused) when employment terminates (Lab. Code §227.3).

Also not new is the point that an employer may, by policy, impose a waiting period at the beginning of employment before vacation benefits begin to accrue. This kind of provision has been honored by the DLSE and by courts, so long as the employer implements the period consistently; that is, employers that want to avoid the accrual of paid vacation from the start of employment cannot then award vacation pay retroactively upon completion of some period of employment, but rather must provide that vacation pay does not begin to accrue at all until the waiting period is over.

What is new, and welcome, about Minnick is its definitive statement that employer policies can define how and when vacation has been “earned,” and can provide for advances of vacation pay not yet earned. For context, we harken back to Suastez, which interpreted Labor Code section 227.3 to mean that vacation pay is vested as it is “earned,” and that vested vacation pay cannot be forfeited. The vacation policy in Suastez simply provided: “One week—First Year; Two weeks—Second Year; Three weeks—Fifth Year.” The Supreme Court interpreted this language to mean that vacation pay started to accrue on day one, and was earned on a daily basis as the employee worked. Therefore, the employer violated the law when it failed to pay a pro rata share of the vacation pay earned during the year before the employee terminated, even though he had not completed the full year.

The spectre of Suastez haunts California employers when structuring vacation programs, as they strive to (a) avoid the negative of incurring potential liabilities to short-timers (in the form of accrued but unused vacation benefits) while (b) achieving the positive of offering paid vacation as soon as possible. The Court of Appeal provided additional guidance on this dilemma in its 2009 decision in Owen v. Macy’s, which recognized that an employer can lawfully fix the date on which vacation pay begins to accrue; in Owen, the employer imposed a waiting period of six months before vacation pay began to accrue. And, of course, it is common to have 90-day waiting periods for vacation accrual.

No case prior to Minnick had validated a one-year waiting period before accruals begin. Minnick notes that Suastez does not require vesting of vacation pay on day one of employment, and reasons that Suastez does not prohibit an employer from imposing a waiting period (of apparently any length):

[A]n employer may lawfully decide it will not provide paid vacation. By logical extension, an employer can properly decide it will provide paid vacation after a specified waiting period. This is similar to an employer’s authority to limit the amount of vacation pay that may be earned. If employers can lawfully restrict accrual at the back end [a la the often utilized “accrual cap” concept], it follows that employers can lawfully impose a waiting period at the front end.

Meanwhile, employers can address the desire to provide paid vacations as soon as possible by advancing unearned vacation pay (as the employer did in Minnick). (Whether unearned vacation pay could ever be recovered upon termination of employment is an issue that Minnick does not address).

The Minnick decision will be welcome news to employers who wish to impose a longer waiting period before vacation accruals start. And much of we’ve said about vacation applies equally to “paid time off” programs as well. A couple of caveats, though:

  • Drafting clear limitations on vacation accruals is crucial.
  • As to plans that use PTO to satisfy obligations to provide mandatory paid sick time under California (or local municipal) law, note that most paid sick time laws provide for accruals to begin upon employment, so imposing a waiting time for that benefit would get you in trouble.

For more information on this or any other pressing employment Cal-peculiarity, please reach out to your favorite Seyfarth attorney.

Seyfarth Synopsis: Private employers can face competing obligations when it comes to responding to employees’  expressive conduct. Employee rights may collide with employer obligations to maintain a safe and harassment-free work environment, not to mention the employer’s interest in maintaining productivity and avoiding adverse publicity. Here are some guiding principles.

“How’s work?” A common question, whether at a party, catching up with an old friend, or just as small talk. It is also a common topic of online conversation. It would be nice if work-related remarks were always positive, agreeable and civil, but, of course, they are not. The reality is that employees sometimes say offensive things about work, their employer, their co-workers, or a co-worker’s cherished political hero or ideals.

And what of the employee who attends a political rally—either as a protester or counter-protester—or does not attend, but merely posts or tweets an incendiary opinion about the event?

What is an employer’s recourse when such communications cross the line? Where is the line?

As a general rule, unless the employee is using company-owned equipment or systems, employers cannot police their employees’ expression. Various California statutes protect employees’ rights to engage in lawful, off-duty conduct (Lab. Code §§ 96, 98.6) and political activity (Lab. Code §§ 1102, 1103), to say nothing of the California constitutional right to privacy, which applies in both the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, the federal National Labor Relations Act prohibits employers from chilling employee participation in concerted activity with respect to their terms and conditions of employment.

Generally, as long as controversial comments and ideas are lawfully expressed, do not implicate a protected class (such as race, religion, gender), do not name or implicate the employer, and remain out of the workplace, they are none of the employer’s business.

The trouble starts when a controversial comment is not lawfully expressed, implicates a protected class, implicates the employer, or has a deleterious effect in the workplace. Competing against the employee rights set out above are the employer’s duties to prevent and correct harassment in the workplace and to provide a safe workplace. Failure to do so can lead to hostile work environment or retaliation claims, regardless of whether the harassment comes from a supervisor or a co-worker.

Not all offensive remarks will be cause for concern: to get from “how’s work?” to a hostile work environment claim, an employee’s comments must relate to a protected status and be sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter working conditions. But in todays’ highly charged political environment, many people look to their places of employment as the last bastion of civility and stability. Discussion of events, images, symbols, or social media memes concerning topics as varied as immigration, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, and the history of American slavery and its aftermath may, depending on the communication’s content and context, be freighted with racial or gender connotations.

For most people, perception is reality. Remarks or conduct that several years ago would not have raised an eyebrow may now lead to multiple disgruntled people in the HR office, seeking action. And while California employees are guaranteed privacy, the privacy right does not prevent an appropriate reaction from an employer in response to a public online posting, text message, or comment. As someone once said: “Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”

There is no magic bullet to making sure your employees play nice. But there are several steps you can take to ensure that they know what will and will not be tolerated. You can set employee expectations by implementing or reminding them of your anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policy, your code of conduct, your “zero tolerance” policy regarding violence, your social media policy, and your rules concerning use of company internet and other electronic communication systems. We recommend that employers articulate a strong business purpose to justify any occasions when they must intrude on an employee’s privacy, and never intrude more than is necessary to serve that business purpose.

Interpretation of the laws around employee workplace rights and the intersection with employer duties to comply with anti-harassment and OSHA laws are constantly evolving, particularly with the ever-increasing use of social media. To help stay current, don’t hesitate to contact your favorite Seyfarth attorney.

Seyfarth Synopsis: California courts are often hostile towards defendants that seek to require litigious employees to honor their arbitration agreements. The defendant’s plight might seem more stark still if the defendant has not itself signed the agreement. But defendant employers still have means of enforcing such agreements, which can be especially significant in class actions claiming joint employment. 

Despite the strong federal policy favoring arbitration, it is no secret that enforcing arbitration agreements in California can be tough. The task is tougher yet for the defendant that finds itself being sued by someone with whom the defendant has never had a contractual relationship, although she has signed an employment arbitration agreement with a co-defendant. This is because, under the general rule, one must be a party to an arbitration agreement in order to invoke it.

With recent waves of litigation seeking to expand the scope of joint employment, the issue of enforcing arbitration agreements on behalf of nonsignatories has become increasingly important. One typical situation involves a staffing company being sued by an employee who, looking for a deeper pocket, also sues the staffing company’s client. In another typical situation, a franchisee’s employee sues both the franchisee and the franchisor. Suppose, in both situations, the employer and the employee have agreed to arbitrate any claims between them. But in both situations, the upstream defendant (in our situations, the client or the franchisor) has never had a chance to negotiate an arbitration agreement with the plaintiff, as the plaintiff and the upstream defendant have never had any contractual relationship at all. In those cases, the upstream defendant experiences the worst of both worlds: it is being sued as the plaintiff’s “employer” and yet, not really being the plaintiff’s employer, the upstream defendant has never had the chance to implement an arbitration agreement with the plaintiff.

As it turns out, there is hope for enforcing the arbitration agreement on behalf of the upstream defendant in these situations, even though it never signed the agreement. There are three exceptions to the nonsignatory rule. Application of the first two can depend on how the claim is pleaded. Application of the third is relatively sure, if the upstream defendant plans properly to assure itself that the arbitration agreement in place is adequate. We discuss each of the three exceptions below.

Agency

Nonsignatories may enforce an arbitration agreement under an agency theory. If the plaintiff claims that a defendant acted as the agent of a party to an arbitration agreement, then the non-party defendant may enforce the agreement. This claim often arises where the plaintiff alleges that the non-signatory defendant was a joint employer. Earlier this year, a California appellate case upheld the enforcement of an arbitration agreement under this very theory. Employers seeking to avail themselves of this theory should carefully evaluate the allegations in the complaint against them. If they meet these standards, then asserting an agency theory may be a successful way to enforce the agreement.

Equitable Estoppel

A lesser known exception available to nonsignatories seeking to enforce an arbitration agreement is equitable estoppel: a nonsignatory defendant can compel the signatory plaintiff into arbitration when the claims against the nonsignatory are “intimately founded and inextricably intertwined” with the underlying contract obligations. Equitable estoppel applies when the claims are based on the same facts and inherently inseparable from the arbitrable claims against the signatory defendant. A California court recently acknowledged this theory in the employment context, particularly because the plaintiff made no effort to distinguish between his claims against his employer (the signatory) and the non-signatory defendant.

Again, when considering raising this argument, it is important to carefully analyze the allegations in the complaint. Should they be the same against all defendants, equitable estoppel may be an option for enforcing the agreement.

Third Party Beneficiary

While the first two ways for a nonsignatory to enforce an arbitration agreement may depend on how the plaintiff pleads the case, a more certain basis for enforcement exists where the language of the arbitration agreement clearly expresses an intent to allow nonsignatories to enforce it. The intent to thus benefit a third party can appear even if the agreement does not specifically identify the third party by name. It would be enough if the third party belongs to the class of clearly identified beneficiaries.

The third-party beneficiary exception places a premium on the adequacy of the arbitration agreement’s language. The employer that signed the agreement—the staffing agency, for example, or the franchisee—will have every incentive, as a good corporate citizen, to see that its arbitration agreement benefits not just itself but also potential upstream defendants, such as the staffing agency’s client or the franchisee’s franchisor. And the potential upstream defendant, of course, will be more inclined to deal with a potential joint employer if that employer has in place an adequate arbitration agreement that properly addresses issues of enforcement and that provides, where appropriate, for waiver of class or collective or representative arbitration.

Navigating issues enforcing arbitration agreements in California can be complicated. If you would like assistance in drafting an agreement or help enforcing an agreement in the defense of a lawsuit, please contact one of Seyfarth Shaw’s attorneys.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Trump Administration’s hard line on immigration has concerned undocumented immigrants who want to raise wage claims. The LWDA recently reaffirmed a commitment to protect workers regardless of their immigration status.

California has noticed the Trump Administration’s immigration initiatives. Here, as elsewhere, California charts its own path. The state’s labor law enforcement officials worry that the immigration crackdown has panicked undocumented workers, causing them to withhold complaints against their employers, for fear of deportation. Indeed, some undocumented workers reportedly have declined to accept unpaid wages owed to them, and have refused to cooperate with government investigations. There have been reports of ICE agents showing up at California Labor Commissioner proceedings to remove undocumented workers who are appearing to prosecute their labor claims against their employers.

On May 1, 2017, the LWDA reaffirmed its commitment to worker protections regardless of their immigration status:

Just because the federal administration has changed, our laws and policies have not. … We will not tolerate the use of immigration status as a tool of retaliation against workers who are pursuing their rights under California law. … The California Labor and Workforce Development Agency and its partner departments reiterate that we never ask for – nor do we collect – the immigration status of any worker who files a health and safety or wage theft claim with our offices. It has been longstanding state policy that our labor laws apply to all workers, regardless of immigration status, and that the immigration status of a worker is unnecessary information to enforcing our laws.

The full press release appears here.

Thus, regardless of what the Trump Administration does, the LWDA is making it clear that California’s labor protections apply to all employees – regardless of their immigration status – and that the LWDA will ensure that immigrant workers know that California workplace protections apply to them.

The LWDA’s statement reminds California employers that they can still be subject to liability, fines, and investigations for Labor Code violations no matter what the federal government does. Immigration status remains, in the view of the LWDA, irrelevant to the enforcement of California wage and hour laws. Thus, employers should not treat immigrant workers differently because of their status.

California wage and hour law can be difficult to navigate. If you would like to review your policies for compliance, you may contact one of Seyfarth Shaw’s attorneys for assistance.

Edited by Michael Wahlander.

Seyfarth Synopsis: The DLSE enforces California labor laws. In two recent enforcement actions, the DLSE collectively recovered over one million dollars, so California employers should read on to find out more about this robust administrative agency.

What Is The DLSE And Why Should Employers Care?

The California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (aka the DLSE or the Labor Commissioner’s Office) is a recurring character in our blog. Usually we discuss new guidance the DLSE has offered. But the DLSE serves another function as well: it enforces the statutory provisions governing wages, hours, and working conditions of employees, and enforces the wage orders promulgated by the Industrial Welfare Commission. The DLSE’s mission is to “ensure a just day’s pay in every workplace in the State and to promote economic justice through robust enforcement of labor laws.”

To carry out its mission, the DLSE has free access to “all places of labor.” The Labor Commissioner can issue subpoenas to compel the attendance of witnesses and parties or the production of books, papers, and other records. And if employers do not comply with the subpoena, the DLSE can go to court to force compliance. In a nutshell, the DLSE has broad authority to inspect workplaces for wage and hour violations, investigate retaliation complaints, adjudicate wage claims, and prosecute actions on behalf of employees in civil court.

So How Does That Work?

The DLSE executes its mission through various mechanisms. During the 2015-16 fiscal year, the DLSE inspected over 2,400 worksites and issued citations for 2,100 violations. Most citations were for failure to carry workers comp insurance or to issue an itemized wage statement. The inspections led to over $18 million in penalties.

The DLSE also conducts payroll audits, to identify wage violations based on misclassification of employees or misreporting of time. Last year DLSE audits resulted in over $25 million in wage and civil penalty assessments.

What Are The DLSE’s Priorities?

Given the breadth of the DLSE’s authority, and the number of penalties it assesses, it has a wide array of enforcement priorities. We focus here on cases that the Labor Commissioner has deemed significant enough to highlight on the DLSE website.

On June 27, 2017, the DLSE announced it recovered over $48,000 in back wages for a convenience store clerk after the DLSE hearing officer found the clerk was owed minimum wage and premium pay for overtime work. The clerk, acting without an attorney, filed a wage claim in March to seek $14,520 in unpaid regular wages. The hearing officer, finding the clerk was actually owed much more, awarded him $42,980—$22,162 in regular and overtime wages, $14,707 in liquidated damages, $3,586 in interest, and $2,524 in waiting time penalties. The Labor Commissioner noted: “This case shows that when workers exercise their labor rights and come forward to report wage theft, they can do so on their own without an attorney, they can receive the wages they are owed, and in some cases even more.”

The DLSE has also recently defended a judgment it won for five truck drivers on the basis that they had been misclassified as independent contractors and were entitled to reimbursement for expenses and unlawful deductions. The defendant appealed the administrative award, arguing that the Labor Commissioner lacked authority because the claim was preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act. The trial court rejected that argument and found all five drivers were misclassified as independent contractors. The judgment in their favor was for $958,660 plus attorney’s fees and costs.

These cases highlight a few important reminders:

  • An employee does not need an attorney to prosecute claims for wage and hour violations.
  • The DLSE focuses on adjudicating wage and hour claims and is not afraid to pursue these claims in court.
  • California employers should ensure their wage and hour practices remain compliant and that any potential misclassification issues are properly reviewed—or risk judgment by the DLSE and the payment of attorney’s fees and costs if an adverse ruling is appealed and the DLSE succeeds in court.

Please contact your favorite Seyfarth attorney for assistance with remaining compliant with California’s labor laws.

Edited by Michael Cross.