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: Social media information—pictures, status updates, location markers, “likes,” groups, and associated friends, all from the owner’s perspective and documented in real time—can be a  goldmine of information to defend employment lawsuits. Read on for thoughts on how to extract and refine this information, and what limits to observe in using it.

Social media and discovery is an area rife with potential drama: pictures of a plaintiff vacationing in Hawaii after he’s called in sick? Yes, please! How and should we access such juicy information?

Litigation-related discovery of social media content is generally permissible. The main problem is that—both in formal discovery and in other forms of fact-finding—there isn’t a complete picture on how far one can go to obtain it. Below are some tips to help employers stay in the friend-zone while using social media to their advantage in litigation.

Go Narrow! (At Least At First)

In a frequently cited case on the matter, Mailhoit v. Home Depot U.S.A. (C.D. Cal. 2012), the court debated how a defendant could use social media in litigation, and ultimately decided that there is a limited right to discover a party’s social media content. Mailhoit allowed an employer to make “particularized requests”—in that case all social media communications between the plaintiff and her current or former co-workers in any way referring to the lawsuit. But Mailhot said the employer was not entitled to look through the entirety of the plaintiff’s social media information in the hope of “concocting some inference about her state of mind,” and refused to permit other proposed, broader, discovery requests.

But even this limited discovery can be important: once relevance is shown, courts may be more likely to permit additional discovery. Mailhoit suggested that if social media posts are relevant, additional discovery may proceed.

At least one non-California court has already taken this step. In Crowe v. Marquette Transportation Company Gulf-Inland, LLC (E.D. La. 2015), the court ordered an employee to produce an unredacted copy of his entire Facebook page, even though the employee protested that he had deactivated his account. The employer was even entitled to analyze his Facebook messages, which potentially contained a lot of useful information! If a California court can be persuaded that social media communications in some way relate to claims or defenses in the litigation, then they, too, may yield to discovery.

Private vs. Public: Gimme, Gimme!

We know that in California, since 2013, we cannot force employees or job applicants to turn over social media passwords. The California legislation on this point reflects a public policy that recognizes our unique constitutional right of privacy.

But what about publicly available information? California courts agree that there can be no expectation of privacy in publicly posted information on social media websites. See Moreno v. Hanford Sentinel, Inc. (Cal. App. 2009).

This means if the privacy setting on an employee’s Facebook posts is “Public”(i.e., available to anyone on or off Facebook), then anything posted is fair game for discovery. The same goes for publicly available Twitter tweets, publicly available Instagram posts, publicly available LinkedIn info, MySpace page information, etc. Presumably, if someone publicly posts elsewhere (e.g., Reddit, 4Chan, personal blogs), with a link it to the poster’s identity, then those posts may also be accessed and used.

Save, Save, Save!

Social media, like life itself, is evanescent.  Publicly available, incredibly useful information can be here one day, gone the next. Do not rely on information staying up once it is up. To best preserve currently available information, screenshot the information, or print to .pdf. Then save and wait. It doesn’t get much better than seeing the face of a plaintiff when confronted with a photo he thought he had deleted. You know the one: featuring the plaintiff himself, bleary eyed and hoisting a beer, an hour before his scheduled work shift. Or the one showing him wearing stolen merchandise. Or the one showing him partying it up while supposedly suffering from “emotional distress.”

Fake-Friending and Professional Responsibility: Don’t Be a 🙁 

“Fake-friending” is when one creates a fake profile to add a person on Facebook or other social media with the aim of gaining full access to the person’s more limited profile. Rules of professional responsibility for lawyers discourage this practice—(the American Bar Association has recognized at least four areas of concern: (1) confidentiality, (2) truthfulness in statements to others, (3) responsibility regarding non-lawyer assistants, and (4) misconduct). Conducting covert research through fake-friending may also violate California Rules of Professional Conduct, such as Rule 2-100, which forbids “communication with a represented party.” Non-attorneys may be subject to similar ethical responsibilities.  So leave intentional fake-friending out of your litigation arsenal.

Nonetheless, it is not always clear what the limits of these rules mean in practice. For example, would it be OK to accept the help of a third party who has access to shared information (for example, the plaintiff’s co-worker, who has added the plaintiff as a friend online)?

The San Diego County Bar Association released an Opinion (2011-2), stating: represented “parties shouldn’t have ‘friends’ like that and no one – represented or not, party or non-party – should be misled into accepting such a friendship.” Specifically, the opinion states that if the motive is to obtain information about the litigation, then this conduct can violate Rule 2-100 and constitute deceptive conduct forbidden by the California Business and Professions Code.

Outside of California, other jurisdictions have found that it would be unethical even to ask a third person, whose name a hostile witness will not recognize, to obtain social media information, even if the person states only truthful information.

The Future of Social Media and Regulation: “It’s Complicated”

New apps, social media websites, and ways to share information emerge every day. Unfortunately, the law and public policy often lag behind advances in technology. In some states, we’re already seeing some peculiar stuff going on. In New York, courts have since 2013 held that some service via social media can satisfy due process. In one early case, Federal Trade Comm. v. PCCare247 Inc. (S.D.N.Y. Mar. 7, 2013), the court noted: “history teaches that, as technology advances and modes of communication progress, courts must be open to considering requests to authorize service via technological means of then-recent vintage, rather than dismissing them out of hand as novel.” New York courts have also indicated that social media may be considered an effective means of providing notice to potential class members in class actions. See Mark v. Gawker Media, LLC (S.D.N.Y. 2016).

Workplace Solutions

If you find yourself in a pickle—“to like or not to like?”, “to friend or not to friend?”, “to snoop or not to snoop?”—remember that a friendly neighborhood Seyfarth attorney is just a poke away.

Edited by Coby M. Turner.

(with apologies to the song artist)

Seyfarth Synopsis: The Ninth Circuit has suggested it might upset longstanding “on call” practices by making California employers liable for “reporting time” pay to employees who phone in ahead of their schedule, only to find that they are not needed for the day.

On October 5, 2016, a Ninth Circuit panel indicated that it might call on the California Supreme Court to answer whether “calling in” to work amounts to “reporting for work” under California’s Wage Order 7-2001. The panel, in Case No. 15-56162 (9th Cir.), considered an interlocutory appeal from a decision by federal district court judge George H. Wu in the case Casas v. Victoria’s Secret Stores, LLC, CV 14-6412 (C.D. Cal).

Casas involves an on-call scheduling practice common among retailers: “on-call” employees call in a few hours before the scheduled start time to see if they need to appear for work.  Plaintiffs argued that this required act of picking up the phone amounts to “reporting” for work under Wage Order 7’s Reporting Time Pay provision. To Plaintiffs, this means that employers who fail to use call-in employees must pay reporting-time pay (subject to some exceptions). The rules on reporting pay generally provide that an employee who reports for work, but who is not put to work or is furnished less than one-half the usual or scheduled day’s work, is entitled to at least two hours and up to four hours of reporting-time pay.

In December 2014, Judge Wu rejected this “call-in” claim. Judge Wu relied on both the common meaning of “report” and the legislative history of Wage Order 7 to hold that to “report for work” plainly means to physically appear at the work site. Thus, contrary to Plaintiffs, simply lifting a receiver or tapping a touchscreen does not require the employer to pay reporting time when the on-call employee never actually shows up for work.

The Plaintiffs took an interlocutory appeal to the Ninth Circuit.

Will the Ninth Circuit put the call on hold? At oral argument, a panel of Ninth Circuit judges indicated that the panel might, for all practical purposes, place Judge Wu’s decision on hold. Pregerson, Noonan, and Paez—the three circuit court judges who took the line from Judge Wu—expressed skepticism that federal court is the appropriate venue to decide the on-call issue. Both Judges Paez and Pregerson repeatedly suggested transferring the call to the California Supreme Court. Judge Paez went so far as to iterate the statutory certification standard—that federal courts should certify important questions of state law to the state supreme court—and concluded that “this in my view, it seems to me, like a very important question that affects a lot of people.” These statements suggest that it is possible, if not likely, that the panel will call on the California Supreme Court for its guidance as to what California law is on this topic.

But will the Supreme Court accept a transfer? As Judge Paez recognized, even though the Ninth Circuit might put in a call for help, nothing requires the California Supreme Court to answer. Nonetheless, Judge Paez seems confident the Supreme Court will take the call since it has accepted other related employment cases from the Ninth Circuit in the past (including, for example, Oracle and Kilby).

Legislatures, could you help them place the call? Regardless of the Ninth Circuit’s actions, the switchboards of legislative bodies could light up in the coming year with calls to regulate on-call scheduling. As reported in this blog, just last year San Francisco became the first jurisdiction to penalize employers for not using employees scheduled for “on-call” shifts. Under the so-called Workers Bill of Rights, when employers require employees to be available for work but do not actually engage the employee, employers must pay the employee between two and four hours of pay, depending on the duration of the on-call shift.

The California Legislature considered similar legislation in its most recent session. Like the San Francisco ordinance, subject to certain exceptions, it would have required employers to pay on-call employees who were not ultimately called in to work their shifts.  The legislation did not pass,  but it seems likely that the legislative initiatives—at both the municipal and state level—will not end the matter.

Call me (call me) on the line, Call me (call me) any, anytime. The bottom line is that at least for now, Judge Wu’s well-reasoned decision is good law. But be sure to dial up this blog in the coming months to see if that number remains in good working order. We’ll be holding on the line to monitor the messages that courts and legislative bodies leave for employers wishing to continue the time-honored tradition of on-call scheduling.