California Supreme Court May Limit The Scope Of PAGA Plaintiffs’ Access to Statewide Discovery

The California Supreme Court is poised to clarify what limits may apply to burdensome discovery demands in litigation under California’s Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”), which allows employees to bring non-class representative actions against employers on behalf of themselves and other “aggrieved employees” for alleged violations of the Labor Code.

In Williams v. Superior Court, 187 Cal. Rptr. 3d 321 (Ct. App. 2015), review granted and opinion superseded by Williams v. S.C., No. S227228, 2015 WL 4938936 (Cal. Aug. 19, 2015), the California Court of Appeal upheld a trial court order limiting plaintiff’s discovery to the names and contact information of only the other employees in the plaintiff’s same work location – but not statewide – until after he had “been deposed ‘for at least six productive hours.’”  The Supreme Court’s recent decision to grant review in Williams will give the high court an opportunity to address how trial courts can appropriately manage PAGA discovery and protect the privacy rights of other non-party employees.

Previously, the California Supreme Court held that PAGA plaintiffs are not required to meet class action requirements.  As a result, plaintiffs contend they do not have to establish the predominance of common issues of law or fact to obtain class certification, and can seek discovery about other employees who will not even receive notice or an opportunity to opt out of the action.  As a result, large employers may face broad discovery demands involving hundreds or thousands of employees, potentially imposing a costly burden on the employer and raising concerns about the privacy of the non-party employees.

In Williams, the plaintiff was an employee at a Marshalls store in Costa Mesa, California who brought a PAGA action alleging meal and rest break and other Labor Code violations.  The plaintiff served interrogatories seeking the names and contact information for all non-exempt Marshalls employees in California.  Marshalls objected on grounds of relevance, overbreadth, undue burden, and privacy.  The trial court ordered Marshalls to produce the names and contact information for all the other employees at the plaintiff’s store, but not for employees at the other 128 Marshalls stores statewide.  The trial court also ruled, however, that the plaintiff could renew his motion to compel after his deposition, and that Marshalls could still oppose such a motion by attempting to show that the plaintiff’s claims had no factual merit.

Citing case law recognizing the discretion of trial courts in managing discovery issues, the Court of Appeal upheld these limitations, holding that the plaintiff was not entitled to immediate statewide discovery.  The court reasoned that the plaintiff’s allegations only concerned the practices at his own store.  Without facts about practices at other stores or a uniform statewide policy, the court concluded that incremental discovery was appropriate, with the plaintiff first required to provide support for his own local claims before obtaining broader discovery.  The court also weighed the interests of economy and efficiency, noting that incremental discovery might avoid potentially unnecessary and costly statewide discovery.

The Court of Appeal also considered the privacy interests of the non-party employees whose information the plaintiff was seeking, concluding that their privacy outweighed the plaintiff’s need to discover their identity.  The court stated that the plaintiff’s “first task will be to establish he was himself subjected to violations of the Labor Code” and concluded, “courts will not lightly bestow statewide discovery power to a litigant who has only a parochial claim.”

Following the California Supreme Court’s grant of review, Williams is no longer citable, but employers facing broad, burdensome discovery requests in PAGA cases can still argue that trial courts should exercise their authority to limit discovery appropriately and to protect third-party privacy rights.  And soon, the Supreme Court should provide further guidance on discovery procedures and privacy protections in PAGA cases.