On September 9, 2021, in Wesson v. Staples the Office Superstore, LLC (Cal. Ct. App., Sept. 9, 2021, No. B302988) 2021 WL 4099059, Division 4 of the Second District Court of Appeal addressed an important question of first impression: whether trial courts have the authority to ensure that claims brought under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”) will be manageable at trial. The plaintiff in Wesson claimed that the Los Angeles Superior Court had no such authority, and that all that he was required to produce was his pan to prove his prima facie case. (A prima facie case means sufficient evidence that, if proven, would support a verdict in the plaintiff’s favor.)
In response, Staples, the defendant, argued that the trial court had to consider its affirmative defenses to the plaintiff’s claims, And, if those affirmative defenses involved individualized proof as to each class member, then the case was “unmanageable” and should be dismissed.
The trial court agreed with Staples, and ruled that it did have the authority to consider manageability. Furthermore, it found that the plaintiff had not shown that the PAGA claim was manageable and dismissed the case. The court of appeal affirmed. Absent review by the California Supreme Court, Wesson is likely to have a significant impact on PAGA cases going forward. This post explores what happened in that case and how it is likely to play out.
First, some background. In Wesson, the plaintiff had worked for Staples the Office Superstore, LLC (Staples) as a store general manager (GM). He claimed that Staples had illegally misclassified him as an exempt employee. Mr. Wesson sued Staples, asserting, among other things, a representative claim under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA) (Lab. Code, § 2698 et seq.). He sought to bring claims on behalf of himself as well as 345 other current and former Staples GMs in California.
After several years of litigation, Mr. Wesson filed a motion to certify a class based on the misclassification claims. The trial court denied that motion, finding that important questions regarding how the GMs had spent their time at work could not be resolved on a classwide basis.
Staples then filed a motion to strike the plaintiff’s PAGA claim. Staples argued that that claim was “unmanageable” because of the nature of its affirmative defense-that it would have to elicit individualized proof as to each of the 346 GMs.
In response, Mr. Wesson contended that the trial court did not have the authority to determine whether PAGA claims were manageable. Although the trial court invited him to submit a trial plan showing that the PAGA claim was manageable, Mr. Wesson declined to do so. Instead, he argued that all that he had to do was to prove his prima facie case using common proof. The trial court then struck (meaning dismissed) the PAGA claim.
The court of appeal agreed, holding that courts have the inherent authority to ensure that a PAGA claims will be manageable at trial. That includes the authority to strike the PAGA claim, if necessary. The court further noted that PAGA claims may present more significant manageability issues than class actions for the following reasons:
PAGA claims do not require a showing that common questions predominate over individual ones.
PAGA claims do not require a showing of a uniform policy.
PAGA claims can cover a wide variety of employees and involve different kinds of violations.
Turning to the facts of the case, the court of appeal found that there was a large amount of variation from store to store in terms of how GMs performed their job duties. Surprisingly Mr. Wesson agreed that resolution of his claims on a classwide basis would require an analysis of how each GM spent his time. He also apparently agreed with Staples’ estimate that it would take eight years to try the case. Based on these facts, the court of appeal had no difficulty in finding that the trial court had not abused its discretion in striking the PAGA claims as unmanageable.
Defendants in PAGA claims will no doubt point to Wesson and argue that their cases too are unmanageable. But courts should not read Wesson too broadly. Among other things, in that case:
Misclassification claims that turn on the workers’ job duties can be inherently fact specific, requiring individualized inquiries as to each person; and
The plaintiff in Wesson refused to provide a trial plan showing how his PAGA claim could be efficiently managed; and
The plaintiff apparently conceded that the trial would last eight years.
For these reasons, Wesson will have little or no impact on most PAGA cases. However, Wesson underscores the importance of ensuring that plaintiffs (1) have a trial plan that addresses all of the issues in the case, including any affirmative defenses, and (2) structure the case in a manner that demonstrates to the trial court that it can be resolved in a reasonable length of time.
The workers rights attorneys at Hunter Pyle Law have handles PAGA and class cases throughout California. If you have questions about your rights in the workplace, please feel free to contact us in order to utilize our free and confidential intake process. We can be reached at email@example.com or at (510) 444-4400.