Employee document storage and retention policies: it is not cutting edge legal theory or management philosophy, but companies that think about and actively develop a plan will save large amounts of money.  The costs savings will come from being able to better defend litigation because the key documents were maintained, and it will come in the form of saving time and effort in searching for and retrieving employment documents when needed.  This Friday’s Five review five best practices for document retention for California employers:

  1. Define what is kept in a personnel file

The terms “personnel records” or “personnel file” are not defined under California law and there is considerable ambiguity about what documents should be keep in an employee’s personnel file.

While not legally binding on employers, there is some guidance from the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (“DLSE”) expressing the following view:

Categories of records that are generally considered to be “personnel records” are those that are used or have been used to determine an employee’s qualifications for promotion, additional compensation, or disciplinary action, including termination. The following are some examples of “personnel records” (this list is not all inclusive):

        Application for employment

        Payroll authorization form

        Notices of commendation, warning, discipline, and/or   termination

        Notices of layoff, leave of absence, and vacation

        Notices of wage attachment or garnishment

        Education and training notices and records

        Performance appraisals/reviews

        Attendance records

Employers need to clearly define what they will keep (or not keep) in an employee’s personnel file so that all management understands which documents need to be placed in the personnel file of an employee and where to locate documents pertaining to employees.

2. Time records must be kept long enough and must be in a “user friendly” format

Employers must record and maintain accurate time records under California law. If the employer knows employees are not properly recording their time, the employer needs to enforce a policy to have employees accurately record their time, even if it requires disciplinary action. Also, how can time records be “inadequate”?

  • The records that do not record the employee’s actual time working. For example, the employee records their start and stop time and the same time every day even though the employer knows it changes.
  • Not keeping time records long enough. The statute of limitations can reach back four years in wage and hour class actions, and these records will be the primary issues in most cases.
  • Not recording all required information. For example, employers are required to record employee’s meal periods under the IWC Wage Orders (see section 7 – Records).
  • Not keeping the time records in a manner that is usable. Maintaining records in a form that makes reviewing the records almost impossible is almost equivalent to not maintaining them in the first place. Some thought should be put into how an employer is keeping old time record information and how that data could efficiently be reviewed in the future if needed.

3. No institutional knowledge of document storage and retention policies

Is there one person with full knowledge of the employment policies implemented by the company? Institutional knowledge about the various policies put into place by the company, when they were implemented and why they were implemented is critical knowledge. Also, this information should not reside with just one person in case that person leaves the company.

4. Consider how to store documents and whether certain documents need to be kept separately

Just as I-9 forms are routinely kept separately from other employment documents for employees in order to be able to retrieve them easily if requested by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and to ensure the information is maintained confidentially, employers should consider if any other employment documents should be store separately.

For example, if an employer has arbitration agreements with employees, the arbitration agreements may be store separately for ease of access and easy of verifying which employee has entered into an arbitration agreement.

In addition, employers should consider storing documents electronically.  I’m a big advocate of electronic storage of documents because I believe it is more secure and easier to retrieve the documents, but it there is a matter of preference.  Moreover, federal and state law may regulate whether certain documents (such as time records or I-9s) can be maintained electronically.

5. Consider having a “miscellaneous document” policy

What should employers document? Conversations with employees, reviews, days absent and the reason for the absence, performance issues (both good and bad – see below), etc…. With email and the ability to scan documents or take pictures of documents on a phone, there is almost no excuse not to have everything documented. The only issue preventing employers from documenting issues is not stressing the need to do document, and the press of business.  Employers should have a miscellaneous document retention and storage policy that allows issues to be document and store in a place that can be retrieved later.

Five items parties need to understand about mediation.

1. Mediation is non-binding.
Mediation is a voluntary process in which litigants (or even parties prior to litigation) agree to use a private third-party to help settle the case. People sometimes confuse mediation with arbitration. Arbitration is when parties agree to use a private third-party to hear their case, much like a judge, to make decisions about the case, and eventually decide the case. Arbitration can be binding on the parties, and the arbitrator actually decides who is right and wrong as a matter of law. On the other hand, a mediator is not deciding any issues about the case, but is simply hearing both sides’ positions, and then works with the parties to see if there is a potential resolution that the parties would both agree to. The mediator has no ability to decide issues of the case, or make any binding rulings about the case. The mediator is only an unbiased third-party attempting to get the parties to consider a possible resolution to the case.

2. Mediation takes place with a private mediator –usually not the court.
The parties voluntarily agree upon the selection of a mediator. Usually the mediator has expertise in the area of the law that the case involves so that he or she can move quicker into the substance of the parties’ disagreement. There are many retired judges or lawyers that work as mediators. Some mediators are active practicing lawyers that also have a mediation service established.
The mediation usually takes place at the mediator’s office. Normally the mediator has the parties in separate rooms, and the mediator walks between the two rooms. There are many mediations where the parties will not see other side the entire day.

3. Negotiations during the mediation are privileged and cannot be used against either party during litigation.
California law prevents any of the negotiations or potential admissions made during mediation from being brought up in court or during litigation. The rationale for this rule is that the courts want people to be able to negotiate during mediation, this involves some give and take. Therefore, in order to assist the mediation process, any of the discussions or negotiations during mediation are prevented from being used against the other party. This allows parties to discuss items more freely during mediation in hopes of having a better chance at resolving the case. However, it should be noted that if a party makes an admission during mediation, the other party can still conduct discovery after the mediation and bring that admission into the case through the standard discovery process. So parties should follow their counsel’s advice about which facts to share during the mediation process. But rest assured, the fact that one party agreed to offer a certain amount to settle the case during mediation, this offer to settle cannot be brought up to the jury later in the case as a way to establish liability.

4. The mediator’s only role is to get the case settled.
The mediator is not there to make friends, tell you if he believes you more than the other side, or make a value judgment about the case or people involved. His or her role is simply to get the case resolved. This usually means that for a successful mediator both sides don’t like the mediator. This is because the mediator was able to move two opponents to agree to a resolution of the case, and to get to this point usually means that both sides are unhappy with the resolution.

5. Even if the case does not settle at mediation, it could still be a successful mediation.
The parties need to understand that mediation is a process and it is hard to settle cases in one day – even a long day – of mediation. Sometimes it is clear during the mediation that the parties cannot settle the case. Sometimes it takes the mediator working with the parities for weeks after the mediation to arrive at a settlement. If the case does not settle, it is also beneficial for the parties that during the course of a mediation to realize that maybe they are still too far apart to agree to a settlement and there needs to be further discovery and motions filed to narrow down the issues that are being litigated.

My firm is conducting a webinar on Thursday June 19, 2014 at 10:00 a.m. for a mid-year update on emerging employment law issues and the newly enacted LLC statute effecting most California Limited Liability Companies. 

For more information and to register, please complete the form below:

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1LU6GudLKMnb4yt4qpvQTagUj9OlxJmaR13JQs79urKI/viewform?embedded=true

 

 

What is an arbitration agreement?

            Employers can agree that they and any employees who enter into an arbitration agreement will resolve their differences before a private arbitrator instead of civil court. There are many different arbitration companies to choose from, but the American Arbitration Association and JAMS are two of the larger ones that are routinely appointed in arbitration agreements. 

Are they enforceable in California?

            Generally speaking, if the agreement is drafted and implemented properly, they are. However, arbitration agreements are routinely struck down by courts if they are not properly drafted. For example, recently a California court held in Ajamian v. CantorCO2e, that an arbitration agreement was not enforceable because it required the employee to waive statutory damages and remedies and only allowed the employer to recover its attorney’s fees if successful, not the employee. 

Why would an employer want to implement arbitration agreements?

            There are a number of reasons. The arbitration process can proceed more quickly than civil litigation, saving a lot of time and attorney’s fees in the process.  For example, often times the discovery process moves more quickly, and if there are any disputes, the parties can raise them with the arbitrator telephonically, instead of the lengthy motion process required to resolve disputes in civil court. The arbitration process is also confidential, so if there are private issues that must be litigated, these issues are not filed in the public records of the courts. The parties also have a say in deciding which arbitrator to use in deciding the case, whereas in civil court the parties are simply assigned a judge without any input into the decision. This is very helpful in employment cases, which often times involve more complex issues, and it is beneficial to the parties to select an arbitrator that has experience in resolving employment cases.   

Are class action waivers enforceable in arbitration agreements?

            Yes. Two recent U.S. Supreme Court cases, AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion and Stolt-Nielsen S.A. v. AnimalFeeds Int’l Corp. have established that class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. However, Plaintiffs continually challenge class action waivers on numerous grounds, and it is critical employers’ agreements are properly drafted and up-to-date. 

Should every employer implement arbitration agreements?

            No. The decision to implement an arbitration agreement should be reviewed with an employment lawyer to discuss the positives as well as the negatives of arbitration agreements. As discussed above, there are a lot of benefits of having an arbitration agreement in place, but it does not come without a few drawbacks. The primary drawback is that in California, the employer must pay all of the arbitrator’s fees in employment cases. Arbitration fees can easily be tens of thousands of dollars – a cost that employers do not need to pay in civil cases. However, if the company values the confidentiality and speed of process provided in arbitration, this extra cost may well be worth it.