California has traditionally permitted a broad scope of discovery under the theory that discovery allows parties to ascertain the strength of their case prior to trial. Until recently, the California Supreme Court had not considered the scope of discovery in actions arising under California’s Private Attorneys General Act. Among other things, the Act has been used in recent years by savvy plaintiffs’ attorneys when bringing wage and hour class actions.
In the recent California Supreme Court case of Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California, LLC), a Marshall’s employee brought an action under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”) on behalf of himself and other employees of the store, alleging various wage and hour violations. During discovery, the employee plaintiff sought the contact information–e.g. the names, addresses, and telephone numbers–for all Marshalls employees located in California. The lower court and the Court of Appeal both held that the plaintiff could discover that information as to the store where he worked, but could not obtain the information as to other California stores unless and until he could factually support statewide discovery.
In a 7-0 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and rejected each of the defendant’s arguments that state-wide discovery should be prohibited. The Court found that the plaintiff’s request was not overbroad, did not impose an undue burden on the company, and did not invade the privacy rights of the absent employees. The Supreme Court observed that in the absence of privilege, the right to discovery is broad and will be construed liberally so that parties may ascertain the strength of their case and determine the truth of the matter at trial. The Court also observed that “in non-PAGA class actions, the contact information of those a plaintiff purports to represent is routinely discoverable as an essential prerequisite to effectively seeking group relief.” As a result, the court extended broad discovery rights to PAGA actions, holding that nothing in the inherent nature of a PAGA suit, essentially a representative suit filed on behalf of the state to assist it with enforcement of the labor laws, afforded a basis for narrowing pretrial discovery.
This decision to extend broad discovery rights to PAGA suits may have serious implications for California employers. The Court’s decision eliminates the need for employee plaintiffs to make a threshold showing of good cause to support statewide discovery, exposing employers to burdensome and expensive discovery obligations at the outset of a potentially meritless case. Employers involved in PAGA suits who are faced with discovery requests to provide employee contact information should be prepared to establish evidence demonstrating undue burden or invasion of privacy. Better yet, employers should work closely with their legal counsel to ensure that their workplace policies comply with the myriad of employment laws in California to avoid a wage and hour lawsuit at the outset.
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