You may recall from your college business law class of the “American rule” regarding attorney’s fees: generally in the United States each side is responsible to their own attorney’s fees, and unlike other countries, the loser does not have to pay the other party’s attorney’s fees. Employers can basically ignore this general rule in employment litigation under California law. I debated about writing this article because once a lawsuit is filed, employers don’t have any control over what claims and damages the plaintiff will assert, so why would employers need to understand when they have exposure to a current or former employee’s attorney’s fees in litigation? However, employers need to understand the underlying liability of potential claims, the motivations behind those claims, and the major part of many employment law claims can be attorney’s fees. And as shown below, the California legislature has used the award of attorney’s fees to shift the risk in many actions against employers, and it is a concept that employers need to understand to address liability and litigation strategies. Here are five California employment related statutes that can expose employers to a plaintiff’s attorney’s fees:

1. Minimum wage/unpaid overtime claims. Labor Code section 1194, provides attorneys fees for plaintiffs who recover damages for minimum wage or overtime violations:

Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action … reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.

2. Unsuccessful appeal of Labor Commissioner Claim. In order to discourage appeals from Labor Commissioner rulings, California Labor Code section 98.2(c) requires the court “shall” awards costs and reasonably attorney’s fees to the other party. This section permits the employee to obtain fees on an unsuccessful appeal by the employer, or to the employer who prevails on an unsuccessful appeal by employee. The catch for employers however, is that Labor Code section 98.2(c) provides that the employee is “successful” and therefore entitled to attorney’s fees “if the court awards an amount greater than zero.” Yes, even if the employee receives $1, they are successful in the appeal, and are entitled to their attorney’s fees. Therefore, employers have a huge disincentive in appealing Labor Commissioner rulings.

3. Expense reimbursement claims Labor Code section 2802 provides that employers must pay for and reimburse employees for “all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence” of the employee’s job. Therefore, items like mileage reimbursement, even personal cell phone expenses, or other out-of-pocket expenditures employees make while performing their job must be reimbursed by the employer. Labor Code section 2802(c) provides that the employee is entitled to “attorney’s fees incurred by the employee enforcing the rights granted by this section.”

4. Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) claims Plaintiff’s counsel bringing a PAGA claim can seeks attorney’s fees under this statute as well. See Labor Code section 2699(g). Plaintiffs’ attorneys also claims fees under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1021.5, which permits them to recover fees if the case “resulted in the enforcement of an important right affecting the public interest” if certain requirements are satisfied.

5. California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits harassment and discrimination in employment based on protected categories and/or retaliation for protesting illegal discrimination related to one of these categories. “In civil actions brought under [FEHA], the court, in its discretion, may award to the prevailing party . . . reasonable attorney’s fees and costs, including expert witness fees.” (Gov. Code, § 12965, subd. (b).) Under FEHA, the fee shifting provision goes both ways, to the plaintiff but also potentially the employer. Courts have discretion to award the defendant employer attorney’s fees and costs as the prevailing party in cases where plaintiff’s claim is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless or vexatious. As a California court recently explained:

Despite its discretionary language, however, the statute applies only if the plaintiff’s lawsuit is deemed unreasonable, frivolous, meritless, or vexatious. . . . ‘ “[M]eritless” is to be understood as meaning groundless or without foundation, rather than simply that the plaintiff has ultimately lost his case . . . .’

Robert v. Stanford University, 224 Cal.App4th 67 (2014).

Recently I published a list of common exemptions under California law. This list of exemptions did not delve into the details of each exemption in detail, so I will be returning to a few of the exemptions to add more explanation about each exempt classification. I’m currently reading Paul Graham’s Hackers and Painters, Big Ideas From the Computer Age. Therefore, this post turns to the computer professional exemption. In order for any computer professional to be properly classified as exempt from overtime pay under California law, employers should know the following five requirements:

1) The employee is primarily engaged in work that is intellectual or creative and that requires the exercise of discretion of independent judgment, and the employee is primarily engaged in duties that consist of one or more of the following: a. The application of systems analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine hardware, software or system functional specifications. b. The design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, or modification of computer systems or programs, including prototypes, based on and related to, user or system design specifications. c. The documentation, testing, creation, or modification of computer programs related to the design of software or hardware for computer operating systems.

2) The employee must perform the high-level work set forth in item #1 more than 50% of their work time. “Primarily engaged” means that more than 50% of the employee’s work time to be spent on those types of duties.

3) The employee is highly skilled and is proficient in the theoretical and practical application of highly specialized information to computer systems analysis, programming, and software engineering. A job title is not determinative of whether or not the position is exempt or not, and like every other exempt classification a determination must be made only on the types of duties the employee is supposed to be performing.

4) The employee is paid a wage that meets a certain minimum level that is adjusted each year. For 2015, the amount is set at $41.27 per hour or an annual salary of not less than $85,981.40 for full time employment, and not paid less than $7,165.12 per month. Therefore, in order to prove this exemption, an employer must maintain time and pay records to prove it has paid an employee at the level required by the law.

5) The exemption does not apply to certain types of computer workers. The computer professional exemption does not apply to individuals if any of the following apply:

  1. Trainees or entry-level employees. The employee is a trainee or employee in an entry-level position who is learning to become proficient in the theoretical and practical application of highly specialized information to computer systems analysis programming, and software engineering.
  2. Cannot work independently. The employee is in a computer-related occupation but has not attained the level of skill and expertise necessary to work independently and without close supervision.
  3. Work consists of repairing computer hardware. The employee is engaged in the operation of computers or in the manufacture, repair, or maintenance of computer hardware and related equipment.
  4. Work is not computer systems analysis or programming. The employee is an engineer, drafter, machinist, or other professional whose work is highly dependent upon or facilitated by the use of computers and computer software programs and who is skilled in computer-aided design software, including CAD/CAM, but who is not in a computer systems analysis or programming occupation.
  5. Work consists of developing user manuals. The employee is a writer engaged in writing material, including box labels, product descriptions, documentation, promotional material, setup and installation instructions, and other similar written information, either for print or for on screen media or who writes or provides content material intended to be read by customers, subscribers, or visitors to computer-related media such as the World Wide Web or CD-ROMs.
  6. Work consists of developing special effects. The employee is engaged in creating imagery for effects used in the motion picture, television, or theatrical industry.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Hart

1. What is a class action? To understand what a class action is, it is better to start with the basic individual litigation concept. Normally, parties bring their own disputes to court and litigate the case against the other parties who have been officially designated a parties and served with process and understand that they are parties to the lawsuit. Class actions, on the other hand, are brought against a defendant, but the claims are being asserted on behalf of parties who are not actually in the courtroom or named as individual plaintiffs. In the employment context, the plaintiffs are usually represented by at least one named plaintiff who is bringing claims that he or she has an individual on behalf of any other worker to is similar to the named plaintiff. The named plaintiff has to prove to the court that there is a clear class definition that can be arrived at, and the individuals who meet that definition can be ascertained in some manner. This proof is required to be presented when plaintiff brings their motion for class certification as described below. Class actions were developed for a number of reasons. One is to address the problem of  “negative value claims” as described by the court in Baker v. Microsoft:

In particular, class actions are an important way of resolving so-called “negative value claims”; that is, claims that are legitimate, but cost too much to litigate individually. Thus, denying class certification to claims that can be treated in the aggregate is equivalent to denying those claims on the merits.

In addition, because class actions can resolve claims for many individuals in one case, it can potentially save the parties as well as the courts time and costs when compared to requiring multiple cases for individuals involving the same facts and legal issues.

2. Who can bring a class action in the employment context? Any employee or worker who believes that they have suffered an injury while working for an employer could bring a class action on behalf other workers or employees. The complaint filed by the named plaintiff will set for the allegations that they believe make the case suited to be a class action, but the case will not become a class action until the Plaintiffs file a motion with the court asking for the case to be certified as a class action. There are certain requirements that the Plaintiff must prove to the court in order to have the case certified as a class action, and this determination is usually not made early in litigation. The parties will conduct discovery into the allegations and the issues of the case in order to develop the arguments supporting their position of whether or not the case can be certified as a class action. The determination of class certification has a large impact on the case, as the Court in the Microsoft case described:

As the Supreme Court has recognized, the decision whether or not the class is certified is usually the most important ruling in such a case; once a class is certified, plaintiffs who brought claims of even dubious validity can extract an “in terrorem” settlement from innocent defendants who fear the massive losses they face upon an adverse jury verdict. See, e.g., AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1752 (2011) (“Faced with even a small chance of a devastating loss, defendants will be pressured into settling questionable claims.”).

3. How many employees does there need to be for a class action? In California, there is no set rule for how many individuals need to be in the putative class in order to meet the requirement of “numerosity.” Under Federal law, generally the numerosity element is met if the number of potential class members exceeds 40 people.

4. If the employer can prove it did not violate the law, is this a defense to having a class certified? No. As set forth above, usually before the court is asked to determine the merits of plaintiff’s allegations, the court requires the plaintiff to bring a motion for class certification. The motion for class certification only deals with the requirements regarding whether the case should be certified as a class action, and the court is not allowed to make a ruling on class certification based on the merits of the case. Courts have noted, however, that sometimes when conducting this analysis that there will sometimes be overlap with the merits of plaintiff’s underlying claim.

5. If class certification is denied, can another class action be filed on the same claims? It depends on the facts. Court have recently grappled with this issue, and as noted by the court in the Microsoft case, this has been an issue for courts:

Thus, plaintiff’s counsel need not present meritorious claims to achieve victory; they need obtain only a favorable class certification ruling. In light of the minimal costs of filing a class complaint, an obvious strategy suggests itself: keep filing the class action complaint with different named plaintiffs until some judge, somewhere, grants the motion to certify. So long as such a decision is reached while the plaintiffs who have not yet filed are numerous enough to justify class treatment, the plaintiffs will have a certified class that they can use to extract an in terrorem settlement. … If in terrorem settlements are bad, duplicative lawsuits employed to extract such a settlement are worse. It is no surprise, then, that appellate courts have long been trying to solve this problem.

For example, in California the case Alvarez v. May Dept. Stores Co. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 1223, held that two cases filed against May Department Stores prior to the Alvarez case precluded the Alvarez case from proceeding as a class action. The court, in applying the collateral estoppel doctrine, found that the two prior cases sought to certify the same class of employees, concerned the same policies, concerned the same time period, and one of the prior cases had the same attorneys and therefore did not allow the third filed class action to proceed. The principle behind the collateral estoppel doctrine is to prevent re-litigation of issues previous argued and resolved in an earlier proceeding. As the court set out, in order for the doctrine to apply, the issues must be identical to an issue that was actually litigated and decided to be final on the merits. Photo courtesy of Phil Roeder

Uber and Lyft have been sued in separate class action lawsuits in California by drivers challenging

Picture via Mic V

the two companies’ classification of the drivers as independent contractors. The plaintiffs in the two cases argue that the drivers should be classified and paid as employees, which triggers many additional Labor Code provisions for the drivers than if they are classified as independent contractors.

The cases are good reminders to California employers, and start-ups especially, about how difficult the analysis can be in some cases. For example, in early March 2015, the judge denied Uber’s motion for summary judgment on the issue (the opinion is embedded below). Employers should take the following five lessons from this pending litigation:

1. The independent contractor analysis is becoming extremely difficult to apply in technology companies or “sharing economy” companies.
Part of the difficulty arises from the fact that the test to determine whether a worker is properly classified was developed before these new business models existed, and as the judge noted in the Uber case, “many of the factors in that test appear outmoded in this context.” With this ambiguity in the existing law, employers should approach with caution.

2. The burden is on the employer to prove that the workers are properly classified as independent contractors.
If the putative employee establishes a prima facie case (i.e., shows they provided services to the putative employer), the burden then shifts to the employer to prove, if it can, that the “presumed employee was an independent contractor.” Narayan v. EGL, Inc., 616 F.3d 895, 900 (9th Cir. 2010). Employers need to be ready to rebut this burden of proof.

3. The primary factor of the analysis is the control over the worker.
The “most significant consideration” is the putative employer’s “right to control work details.” S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Dep’t of Indus. Relations (Borello), 48 Cal. 3d 341, 350 (1989). The Supreme Court has further emphasized that the pertinent question is “not how much control a hirer exercises, but how much control the hirer retains the right to exercise.” Ayala v Antelope Valley Newspapers Inc., 59 Cal. 4th 522, 533 (2014). In addition, it does not matter if the worker agreed that he was an independent contractor, the determination is made based on the factors of the test.

4. The secondary part of the analysis is an evaluation of 13 factors.
In Borello, the California Supreme Court set out the secondary indications relevant to the analysis of whether a worker is an independent contractor or employee:

  1. whether the one performing services is engaged in a distinct occupation or business;
  2. the kind of occupation, with reference to whether, in the locality, the work is usually done under the direction of the principal or by a specialist without supervision;
  3. the skill required in the particular occupation;
  4. whether the principal or the worker supplies the instrumentalities, tools, and the place of work for the person doing the work;
  5. the length of time for which the services are to be performed;
  6. the method of payment, whether by the time or by the job;
  7. whether or not the work is a part of the regular business of the principal; and
  8. whether or not the parties believe they are creating the relationship of employer-employee.

As the court in Uber noted, the Borello case also “approvingly cited” five additional factors:

  1. the alleged employee’s opportunity for profit or loss depending on his managerial skill;
  2. the alleged employee’s investment in equipment or materials required for his task, or his employment of helpers;
  3. whether the service rendered requires a special skill;
  4. the degree of permanence of the working relationship; and
  5. whether the service rendered is an integral part of the alleged employer’s business.

5. The analysis usually does not turn on one factor.
As the court noted in Uber’s case:

…rarely does any one factor dictate the determination of whether a relationship is one of employment or independent contract. Here, numerous factors point in opposing directions. As to many, there are disputed facts, including those pertaining to Uber’s level of control over the “manner and means” of Plaintiffs’ performance.

While the Uber and Lyft cases are relatively in the early stages of litigation and the Plaintiffs still have to move for class certification, the cases are a good reminder of the difficulties surrounding the classification of independent contractors and how important to conduct this analysis of independent contractors early on in the relationship. For start-ups without the financial backing that Uber and Lyft have, just the initiation of this type of litigation would severely injure the company’s chances of success due to the monetary and time resources that litigation sucks up, in addition to having to shift focus on the primary business goals, and large potential liability if the workers were misclassified.

O'Connor v Uber Technologies – Order Denying Uber's Motion for Summary Judgment

Colin Cochran brought a putative class action against his employers, Schwan’s Home Service, on behalf of 1,500 customer service managers who were not reimbursed for expenses pertaining to the work-related use of their personal cell phones. He alleged causes of action for violation of Labor Code section 2802; unfair business practices under Business and Professions Code section 17200 et seq.; declaratory relief; and statutory penalties under Labor Code section 2699, the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004.

The trial court denied class certification on the grounds that there would be too many individualized questions about each employee’s cell phone expenses incurred for work purpose. In Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Service, the appellate court reversed trial court’s denial of class certification. Below are five lessons employers should learn from this ruling.

1. Employers have an obligation to reimburse business expenses incurred by employees.

Labor Code section 2802, subdivision (a) requires: "[a]n employer shall indemnify his or her employee for all necessary expenditures or losses incurred by the employee in direct consequence of the discharge of his or her duties, or of his or her obedience to the directions of the employer…." This Labor Code section requires employers to reimburse employees for all out-of-pocket expenses the employee incurs (and not just cell phone usage) during the performance of their job.

2. Expenses must be necessary in order to require employer reimbursement.

"In calculating the reimbursement amount due under section 2802, the employer may consider not only the actual expenses that the employee incurred, but also whether each of those expenses was `necessary,’ which in turn depends on the reasonableness of the employee’s choices. [Citation.]"

Cochran at 1144.  What is necessary or not could vary from case to case. Apparently, in this case, the employer had a clear policy requiring the service representatives to use their personal cell phones, so there was no need for the court to conduct any analysis about whether the putative class members’ use of their personal cell phones was a necessary expense.

3. Employers must always reimburse employee for expense of cell phone use even though the employee did not pay additional cell phone fees for using their cell phone for work purposes.

This is the essential holding of the Cochran case. The court explains:

The threshold question in this case is this: Does an employer always have to reimburse an employee for the reasonable expense of the mandatory use of a personal cell phone, or is the reimbursement obligation limited to the situation in which the employee incurred an extra expense that he or she would not have otherwise incurred absent the job? The answer is that reimbursement is always required.

Cochran at 1144.  The employer argued that the case could not be certified as a class action because there are too many individualized questions surrounding each employee’s cell phone plan, and if the employee actually incurred any more expenses as a result of using their cell phone for work. Many people now have unlimited data plans, and if so, the employee would not incurred any additional expenses when using the phone for work.

The court explained that any time a cell phone is required for work, the employer must reimburse the employee. The court stated that to hold otherwise would provide a “windfall” to the employer.

4. The court held that the details about each employee’s cell phone plan do not determine liability.

Not only does our interpretation prevent employers from passing on operating expenses, it also prevents them from digging into the private lives of their employees to unearth how they handle their finances vis-a-vis family, friends and creditors. To show liability under section 2802, an employee need only show that he or she was required to use a personal cell phone to make work-related calls, and he or she was not reimbursed.

Cochran at 1145.

5. The court did not explain how to calculate a reasonable reimbursement for employee’s cell phone use when the employee has an unlimited data plan.

The court passed in explaining how an employer and employee would go about figuring out the amount of reimbursement for personal cell phone use given the different data plans available for cell phones. The court stated that section 2802 requires that the employer should pay some “reasonable percentage” of the employees’ cell phone plans when the cell phone is required for work. Cochran at 1144.

This ambiguity is a blessing and a curse for employers. It is a blessing in that it leaves many options available to employers and employees to structure a reasonable reimbursement plan, but it is a curse because the ambiguity could still lead to future challenges to the agreed upon reimbursement plan. 

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has asked the California Supreme Court to clarify three questions pertaining to California’s little known, and very rarely litigated, laws regarding a day of rest every seven days. The case is Mendoza v. Nordstrom. The California Supreme Court’s clarification could result in a new-found focus on these laws, and it is worth it for California employers to follow the issues raised in this case. Below are five issues employers ought to pay attention to:

1. Is the requirement to provide one day of rest every seven days based on a rolling seven days or on the workweek?
The first issue the Appellate Court seeks clarification on is California Labor Code section 551. This section states that “[e]very person employed in any occupation of labor is entitled to one day’s rest therefrom in seven.” Section 552 further states that “[n]o employer of labor shall cause his employees to work more than six days in seven.” The issue is whether these Labor Code sections apply to seven consecutive days on a rolling basis or only apply to each workweek. The difference in how the days are counted can have a significant impact. The court provides the following example to illustrate its point:

 

 

Sun.

Mon.

Tues.

Wed.

Thurs.

Fri.

Sat.

Week 1

Off

Work

Work

Work

Work

Work

Work

Week 2

Work

Work

Work

Work

Work

Work

Off

If the workweek begins each Sunday, if the statute is read to apply to consecutive seven days, then the employer in this example has violated sections 551 and 552. Alternatively, if the statute applies to each workweek, then the employer has not violated these provisions. The appellate court could not find any support to both plausible interpretations of these Labor Code sections, and therefore is asking the California Supreme Court to clarify.

2. When is an employer exempt from the seven day rule?
The second issue the Appellate Court seeks clarification on pertains to California Labor Code section 556. The section exempts employers from the day-of-rest requirement “when the total hours [worked by an employee] do not exceed 30 hours in any week or six hours in any one day thereof.” The court provides the following example of hours worked each day: 8-9-5-8-8-8-9. Would this work schedule exempt the employer from providing a day of rest on the seventh day? The court explained that the interpretation of the word “any” in section 556 could easily mean one (as in “Pick any card from the deck.”) or it could mean all (as in “Any child knows the answer to that simple question.”).

3. What does it mean to cause employees to work seven days?
The next question the Appellate Court proposed to the California Supreme Court is for clarification of Labor Code section 552. This section provides that employers may not “cause” its employees to work more than six days in seven. The court asks the Supreme Court to clarify the term “cause.” The court states:
To “cause” can mean to “induce,” so is it enough for an employer to encourage or reward an employee who agrees to work additional consecutive days? In another context, causation is defined in terms of the “natural and probable consequence” of one’s action. Is it enough for an employer to permit employees to trade shifts voluntarily, when a natural and probable consequence may be that an employee works more than the day-of-rest statutes allow?

4. Definition of workday.
While this case did not address the issue of overtime, it is a good reminder to review the definition of workday and workweek under California law.
The DLSE defines workday as:

A workday is a consecutive 24-hour period beginning at the same time each calendar day, but it may begin at any time of day. The beginning of an employee’s workday need not coincide with the beginning of that employee’s shift, and an employer may establish different workdays for different shifts. However, once a workday is established it may be changed only if the change is intended to be permanent and the change is not designed to evade overtime obligations.

5. Definition of workweek.
The DLSE defines the workweek as:

Any seven consecutive days, starting with the same calendar day each week beginning at any hour on any day, so long as it is fixed and regularly occurring. "Workweek" is a fixed and regularly recurring period of 168 hours, seven consecutive 24-hour periods. An employer may establish different workweeks for different employees, but once an employee’s workweek is established, it remains fixed regardless of his or her working schedule. An employee’s workweek may be changed only if the change is intended to be permanent and is not designed to evade the employer’s overtime obligation.

If an employer does not set a designated workweek, the DLSE will presume the employer uses the calendar week, from 12:01 a.m. Sunday to midnight Saturday, with each workday ending at midnight.

I apologize for the long post in advance, but I’ve been receiving many questions about exempt vs. non-exempt classification of employees lately. This article is the first in a series of articles to help employers tread through this technical area, hopefully in a manner that makes it at least somewhat easier for employers to understand.

California law presumes that all employees are non-exempt employees, meaning that they are not exempt from the Labor Code requirements, such as overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, and minimum wage. Exempt employees are designated as such because they are “exempt” from certain wage and hour requirements due to their duties and pay. However, the employer bears the burden when classifying an employee as exempt, and simply providing a title to an employee does not make them exempt. The employee must meet very specific requirements for each applicable exemption, and if the requirements are not met the employer must comply with all wage and hour requirements – such as overtime pay, etc…. It is also important to note that some exemptions only exempt the employee from specific Labor Code provisions (for example, the inside sales exemption only exempts the employee from overtime pay requirements, but the employer is still required to provide meal and rest breaks).

There are many exemptions, and many nuances to each exemption, so employers should perform this analysis very carefully and receive advice from an experienced attorney or HR professional when classifying employees as exempt.

In my experience, here are the most common exemptions that arise in a workplace under California law and the requirements to meet each one:

1. Executive/managerial exemption
In order to meet the executive (managerial) exemption, the employee must meet all of the following requirements:

  1. Employee’s duties and responsibilities involve the management of the enterprise in which he or she is employed or of a customarily recognized department or subdivision of the enterprise;
  2. Employee customarily and regularly directs the work of two or more other employees;
  3. Employee has the authority to hire or fire other employees, or whose suggestions and recommendations as to the hiring or firing and as to the advancement and promotion or any other change of status or other employees is given particular weight;
  4. Employee customarily and regularly exercises discretion and independent judgment in performing his or her duties;
  5. Is “primarily engaged” in duties that meet the test of the exemption;
  6. Earns a monthly salary equivalent to no less than two times the state minimum wage for full-time employment.

The term "primarily engaged in" means that more than one-half of the employee’s work time must be spent engaged in exempt work and differs substantially from the federal test which simply requires that the "primary duty" of the employee falls within the exempt duties. Therefore, to qualify for this exemption, the employee must spend more than 50% of their work time on exempt duties.

2. Administrative exemption
To meet the administrative exemption, an employee must meet all of the following requirements:

  1. Employee spends more than one-half of their work time performing office or non-manual work directly related to management policies or general business operations for the employer or the employer’s customers;
  2. Employee “customarily and regularly” exercises discretion and independent judgment in carrying out job duties as to matters significant to the employer’s business;
  3. Performs his or her job only under general supervision and works along specialized or technical lines requiring special training, experience, or knowledge; and
  4. Is paid a salary equivalent to no less than two times the state minimum wage.

3. Computer professional exemption
To be an exempt computer professional, the employee must meet the following requirements:

1. The employee is primarily engaged in work that is intellectual or creative and requires the exercise of discretion and independent judgment.

“Primarily” is defined as requiring more than 50% of the employee’s work time be spent on these types of duties.

2. The employee is primarily engaged in duties that consist of one or more of the following:

  • The application of systems analysis techniques and procedures, including consulting with users, to determine hardware, software, or system functional specifications.
  • The design, development, documentation, analysis, creation, testing, or modification of computer systems or programs, including prototypes, based on and related to, user or system design specifications.
  • The documentation, testing, creation, or modification of computer programs is related to the design of software or hardware for computer operating systems.

3. The employee is highly skilled and is proficient in the theoretical and practical application of highly specialized information to computer systems analysis, programming, and software engineering.

4. The employee’s hourly rate of pay, or annual salary if paid on salaried basis, meets a minimum threshold amount set by California’s Division of Labor Statistics and Research (DLSR). For 2015, the DLSR set the amounts at $41.27 per hour or annual salary of not less than $85,981.40 for full time employment, and paid not less than $7,165.12 per month.

4. Commissioned inside sales exemption
To qualify as an exempt commissioned inside sales employee, an employee must meet the following requirements:

  1. Employee’s earnings must exceed one and one-half times the California minimum wage; and
  2. More than half of the employee’s compensation must be commissions.

Employers must note that this exemption is only for the overtime requirement, and other wage and hour requirements such as minimum wage, meal and rest breaks, time recording requirements still must be met.

5. Outside salesperson exemption
To qualify as an exempt outside salesperson the employee must:

  1. Be at least 18 years old;
  2. Must customarily and regularly work more than 50% their work time away from the employer’s place of business; and
  3. Must be engaged in selling tangible items or obtaining orders or contracts for products, services, or use of facilities.

In litigation, the following five issues make defending an employment lawsuit much more difficult.

1. No documentation.
No matter what type of employment litigation is at issue – wage and hour claims, leave issues, or harassment claims – the amount of documentation an employer has dramatically increases the odds of prevailing in litigation. I would even go as far as to say there is a relationship in place here (similar to Moore’s law in the computing industry) that the likelihood of avoiding a devastating judgment is proportionate to the amount of documentation the employer has regarding the particular employee or group of employees involved in the litigation.

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.

2. Inadequate time records.
Employers have the burden to 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 year 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 policies and changes to 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. Not communicating goals and performance expectations to employees routinely.
This is pretty basic, but it helps to be reminded about conducting employee reviews routinely and accurately. The reviews will likely be the primary focus in a wrongful termination, discrimination or relation claim, and therefore the reviews should be accurate. It is hard to counsel employees on performance issues, but it is critical that these issues are addressed with employees in writing.

5. No written policies.
Sometimes employers operate with unwritten policies. It is important to have the policies clearly spelled out in an employee handbook or in some other manner. It is critical to have the policies in writing to prevent an employee from claiming that he or she is being arbitrarily singled out for discipline.

Happy New Year.  I started the Friday’s Five articles at the beginning of last summer, and the interest in the articles has been astounding, so I appreciate everyone who has read them and provided comments and feedback. If you have any topics you would like me to address, please let me know. With that said, here is a list of five resolutions for California employers in 2015:

1. Relax–make sure your employees are taking their meal and rest breaks.

2. Train – your supervisors to comply with California’s required sexual harassment prevention training for employers with 50 or more employees.

As of 2015 this training now must also discuss bullying in the workplace to be legally compliant.

3. Read – and update employment handbook policies on a yearly basis.

2015 has a few new laws that should be addressed the employee handbook and new hire packets.

4. Run. Sorry, no play on words with this one, you just need to get outside and run a bit.

5. Organize – and keep employment files, time records and wage information for at least the length of any applicable statute of limitations.

Employers should review their systems to ensure there is a process in place on how to organize and maintain employment information for the required time periods, it is required under the law and can help defend the company should litigation ensue.

Ok – one more bonus resolution:
Learn – more by attending my webinars on California employment laws to stay up to date.

In February, I will be presenting on what documents should be in new hire packets to employees. Date is still to be determined, but drop me an email if you are interested and I will forward you information as we set the date.

Let me start with the lawyer’s disclaimer up-front: this Friday’s Five list has no scientific or statistical backing whatsoever, I generated it based on the cases I’ve been litigating in 2014. My experience may be (and probably is) skewed a bit, but nevertheless California employers should pay attention to the following areas of potential litigation.

1. Meal and rest break litigation.

Meal and rest break class action litigation is still very prevalent in California. While employers are becoming more sophisticated in ensuring compliance with their obligations, the litigation has turned to more nuanced issues, such as the employer’s failure to record meal breaks or provide a full 30 minutes for the meal break. Meal and rest break policies and procedures should always been under review by employers to ensure compliance.

2. Rounding policies.

There have been a number of cases I’ve litigated this year involving time rounding policies. It is important for employers to simply no use the default settings provided by their time keeping software, but instead ensure that the rounding complies with California law.
The Division of Labor Standards Enforcement (DLSE) provides the following guidance for California employers in regard to time rounding:

…the federal regulations allow rounding of hours to five minute segments. There has been practice in industry for many years to follow this practice, recording the employees’ starting time and stopping time to the nearest 5 minute s, or to the nearest one-tenth or quarter of an hour. Presumably, this arrangement averages out so that the employees are fully compensated for all the time they actually work. For enforcement purposes this practice of computing working time will be accepted by DLSE, provided that it is used in such a manner that it will not result, over a period of time, in failure to compensate the employees properly for all the time they have actually worked. (See also, 29 CFR § 785.4 8(b))

3. Private Attorneys General Act claims.

In 2014, the California Supreme Court held that class action waivers in arbitration agreements are enforceable. Click here to read more about the holding, Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC. This holding provided a tool for employers to reduce their class action liability by entering into arbitration agreements with their employees. However, Plaintiffs continually challenge class action waivers on numerous grounds, and it is critical employers’ arbitration agreements are properly drafted and up-to-date. In addition, while courts will uphold class action waivers, the California Supreme Court held that employee may still bring representative actions under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). PAGA claims are limited to specific penalties under the law, and have a much shorter one year statute of limitations compared to potentially a four year statute of limitations for most class actions. Given that the California Supreme Court found that the arbitration agreements could not have employees waive their rights to bring “representative actions” under PAGA, the PAGA claims are more prevalent and being litigated harder by both plaintiffs and defendants.

Click here to read more about PAGA and what do to in response to receiving a Private Attorney Generals Act notice.

4. Required information on pay stubs/itemized wage statements.

Employers are cautioned to rely on their payroll companies for compliant itemized wage statements, as these companies often times do not understand the legal requirements. Ensuring the required information is properly listed on the itemized wage statements is an item that employers should review at least twice a year for compliance.

Labor Code Section 226(a) requires the following information to be listed on employees’ pay stubs:

1. Gross wages earned
2. Total hours worked (not required for salaried exempt employees)
3. The number of piece-rate units earned and any applicable piece rate if the employee is paid on a piece rate basis
4. All deductions (all deductions made on written orders of the employee may be aggregated and shown as one item)
5. Net wages earned
6. The inclusive dates of the period for which the employee is paid
7. The name of the employee and the last four digits of his or her social security number or an employee identification number other than a social security number
8. The name and address of the legal entity that is the employer
9. All applicable hourly rates in effect during the pay period, and the corresponding number of hours worked at each hourly rate by the employee

Here is an example of an itemized wage statement published by the DLSE:

Also, do not forget that with California’s paid sick leave law taking effect July 1, 2015, employers will have additional reporting information regarding employees’ accrued paid sick leave and usage. Employers must show how many days of sick leave an employee has available on the employee’s pay stub or a document issued the same day as a paycheck.

5. Off the clock claims.

Litigation alleging that employees were not paid for all time worked was continuing strong in 2014. This claim arises in various scenarios. The basic claim is that the employee clock out from work and was required to or voluntarily continued to work. This type of claim is usually very difficult to have certified as a class action because the employer’s liability for not paying for off the clock work is whether the employer knew or should have known that the work was being performed and that the employee was not compensated for the work. Anther common scenario given rise to an off the clock claim is when employees have to do some task before or after clocking or out for their work. While the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that security screenings of employees at the end of their shifts to ensure they were not stealing product was not compensable time, employers need to review their practices to avoid these types of situations in their workplace.