California Supreme Court Rules That Lack Of Manageability Is An Improper Basis Upon Which To Strike A PAGA Claim, But Leaves Open Due Process Challenges

By Eden E. Anderson, Gerald L. Maatman, Jr., and Jennifer A. Riley

Duane Morris Takeaways: On January 18, 2024, the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills, No. S274340 (Cal. Jan. 18, 2024). It is a game changer for employers operating in California.  The Supreme Court held, in a unanimous decision, that trial courts lack inherent authority to dismiss claims under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 – the “PAGA”- with prejudice due to lack of manageability.  The Supreme Court declined to address whether, and under what circumstances, a defendant’s right to due process might ever support striking a PAGA claim. As such, the decision in Estrada is a required read for employers and their decision-makers.

Case Background

Jorge Estrada filed a putative class and PAGA action against his former employer asserting, as relevant here, meal period violations.  After two classes comprised of 157 individuals were certified, the case was tried to the bench.  The trial court ultimately decertified the classes, finding there were too many individualized issues to support class-wide treatment.  Although the trial court awarded relief to four individual plaintiffs, it dismissed the non-individual PAGA claim on the grounds that it was not manageable.

On appeal, Estrada argued that PAGA claims have no manageability requirement, and the Court of Appeal agreed in Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc., 76 Cal.App.5th 685 (2022). The Court of Appeal reasoned that class action requirements do not apply in PAGA actions and, therefore, the manageability requirement rooted in class action procedure was inapplicable.  Further, the Court of Appeal reasoned that “[a]llowing courts to dismiss PAGA claims based on manageability would interfere with PAGA’s express design as a law enforcement mechanism.” Id. at 712. The Court of Appeal acknowledged the difficulty that employers and trial courts face with PAGA claims involving thousands of allegedly aggrieved employees, each with unique factual circumstances, but concluded that dismissal for lack of manageability was not an available tool for a trial court to utilize.

The Court of Appeal in Estrada recognized its holding was contrary to the holding in Wesson v. Staples the Office Superstore, LLC, 68 Cal.App.5th 746 (2021), and created a split in authority.  In Wesson, the trial court struck a PAGA claim as unmanageable, and the Court of Appeal affirmed. The claims at issue in Wesson involved the alleged misclassification of 345 store managers.  The employer’s exemption affirmative defense turned on individualized issues as to each manager’s performance of exempt versus non-exempt tasks which varied based on a number of factors including store size, sales volume, staffing levels, labor budgets, store hours, customer traffic, all of which varied across the stores.  The split in authority prompted the California Supreme Court to grant review in Estrada.

The California Supreme Court’s Decision

At the outset, the California Supreme Court noted that the issue before it was whether trial courts possess inherent authority to “strike” PAGA claims for lack of manageability, defining the word “strike” to mean a dismissal with prejudice. Jan. 18 Opinion at 7. The Supreme Court then addressed, and rejected, the employer’s argument that trial courts possess inherent authority to, for judicial economy purposes, strike any claim a plaintiff asserts. The Supreme Court explained that the power to dismiss a claim with prejudice is limited to cases involving a failure to prosecute, frivolous claims, or egregious misconduct, and that judicial economy does not warrant the dismissal of any claim.

The Supreme Court rejected the employer’s argument that the manageability requirement for class actions should be imported into PAGA actions. It reasoned that there are three structural differences between class actions and PAGA representative actions that warrant treating these claims differently, as well as differences in jurisprudential history. The three structural differences cited by the Supreme Court were: (1) that plaintiffs in PAGA actions are not required to establish superiority or predominance of common issues; (2) PAGA’s purpose is to maximize enforcement of labor laws; and (3) that the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) can impose civil penalties for Labor Code violations without considering manageability.

As to jurisprudential history differences, the Supreme Court noted that, unlike class actions which were an “invention of equity,” PAGA actions are not “creatures of equity.” Id. at 30. Thus, while class action jurisprudence developed to create various common law requirements for class actions that are not set forth in California’s class action statute, the PAGA statute provides detailed statutory requirements for maintaining a PAGA claim, thereby constraining trial courts from using “extra-statutory inherent authority to strike PAGA claims that the Legislature has authorized.” Id. at 31. Because PAGA’s express wording permits a plaintiff who has suffered one labor code violation to seek civil penalties on behalf of other employees for “violations that vary widely in nature,” imposing a manageability requirement would “defeat the purpose of statute.” Id. at 32.

The Supreme Court declined to address whether, and under what circumstances, a defendant’s right to due process might ever support striking a PAGA claim other than to note that any such authority would be “narrow authority of last resort.” Id. at 41. Although the employer argued its due process rights would be violated if the PAGA claims against it were re-tried, the Supreme Court noted that the employer had only offered the testimony of two employees in the original trial and, thus, the due process issue was “hypothetical.” Id. at 40. The Supreme Court, however, agreed that employers have a due process right to present an affirmative defense, but emphasized that an employer has no due process right to present the testimony of an “unlimited number of individual employees” or “each allegedly aggrieved employee.” Id. at 40.

The Supreme Court concluded by noting that trial courts have “numerous tools” to manage complex cases, and suggested that the “extent of liability” in a PAGA case can be determined by surveys or statistical methods that estimate the number of aggrieved employees. Id. at 41. The Supreme Court emphasized that the burden of proof in a PAGA case remains with plaintiffs who should endeavor to be “prudent in their approach to PAGA claims” and that, if “a plaintiff alleges widespread violations of the Labor Code . . . but cannot prove them in an efficient manner, it does not seem unreasonable for the punishment assessed to be minimal.” Id. at 44.

Implications For Employers

The Estrada opinion strikes a blow to employers facing PAGA claims by removing lack of manageability as a ground for dismissal.  While the California Supreme Court encouraged PAGA plaintiffs to be prudent to their approach to their PAGA theories, in practice, such prudence is uncommon.  On the bright side, the decision leaves open an employer’s ability to seek dismissal on due process grounds.

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The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the author and are not to be construed as legal advice.

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