Labor Code section 1198.5

Happy Friday!  This Friday’s Five provides five legal requests and/or notices that, if ignored, can create huge liability for a California employer.

1. Requests for personnel records and time records

There are many different Labor Code provisions that obligate the employer to provide current and former employees with a copy of their personnel files and/or payroll records.  For example, Labor Code section 432 permits employees to obtain a copy of any document they signed, Labor Code section 1198.5 allows current and former employees to obtain copies of their personnel records, and Labor Code section 226(c) permits employees to inspect or copy payroll records within 21 days after making a request to do so.

2. PAGA notice

Employees seeking recovery under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) must comply with requirements that place the Labor and Workforce Development Agency and the employer on notice that the employee will be seeking remedies under the Act and give the Agency a chance to investigate.  If the Agency does not investigate, then the plaintiff can proceed with the claim.  Employers have the the ability to cure some issues set forth in the plaintiff’s letter to the LWDA, which could bar the plaintiff from obtaining any penalties.  Plus, the PAGA notice usually results in litigation being filed shortly after receiving the notice, so employers should begin discussing defense strategies as soon as it receives a PAGA notice.

3. Labor commissioner or DOL investigation notice

Under the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Department of Labor (DOL) has certain permissions to investigate and gather date about wages, hours worked, and other working conditions at workplaces. The FLSA also provides the DOL limited permission to enter employers’ premises, review records, and even potentially question employees about employment practices.  Under California law, the Labor Commissioner has subpoena power and the ability to review records and workplaces in order to enforce California employment laws.  Upon receiving a request from any public agency, such as the DOL or the California Labor Commissioner, an employer should immediately review what obligations and rights it has in responding to the request.

4. Subpoenas from third parties

Employers may receive subpoenas from third parties seeking employment records.  The “custodian of records” is responsible for responding to the requests and producing employment records in certain circumstances.  California law requires that a request for a personnel file include a “Notice to Consumer” notifying the employee that such records are being sought, and providing the individual an opportunity to object to the disclosure of the information.  If the employee or former employee has not been notified, or objects to the production of the requested records, the employer should not produce the information requested unless and until a court orders otherwise, or the affected employee agrees to the production.  If the subpoena seeks the disclosure of confidential or proprietary information, the employer should contact an attorney to see if the company has an obligation to move to quash the subpoena or seek an appropriate protective order to preserve the confidentiality of the information sought.

Employers should not produce requested documents without being satisfied that the proper subpoena procedures and notice requirements, if applicable, have been met.  Employers have a duty to maintain the privacy rights of current and former employees, which includes personnel files.

5. Service of a Complaint

Ultimately, once a lawsuit is initiated, Plaintiffs will serve the complaint on the registered agent of the company.  Generally speaking, defendants have 30 days to respond to a complaint once served.  It is important to immediately begin assessing the company’s rights and obligations once a complaint has been served in order to ensure its rights are protected.  If a company does not timely respond to a lawsuit, entry of default judgment could be entered against the company, which could result in providing the plaintiff a judgment in the full amount of damages sought.

Employers can receive requests for employment records of current and former employees though different ways. It is important for employers to first carefully review the request to understand what is being requested. It is important to understand who is making the request? Is the request only seeking a personnel file? Is the request only seeking payroll records? It is possible that a third party, such as a governmental agency or a party in litigation is seeking employment records for an employee. In this case, it is important for the employer to understand its obligations in protecting the privacy interest of the employee in connection with the rights of third parties to obtain these records.

The following are five ways that employers may have to provide copies of employment records or make employment records available for inspection.

1. Request under Labor Code Section 432, which provides employees with a right to receive a copy of any signed document upon request by the employee.

2. Request under Labor Code section 1198.5, which provides for the right of current and former employees to inspect and receive a copy of personnel records.

A few guidelines regarding requests under section 1198.5:

  • Employers must comply no later than 30 days from when the request is received.
  • If employee asks for copy of file, employer may charge actual costs of coping to employee.
  • Employers may take reasonable steps to ensure identity of the current or former employee.
  • Employers may redact the names of any nonsupervisory employees contained in the personnel file.
  • Employees have no right to inspection under this section if lawsuit has already been initiated.
  • Failure to comply with this section can result in a $750 penalty.

3. Request under Labor Code section 226(b), which allows current and former employees to inspect or copy records pertaining to their employment.

A few guidelines regarding requests under section 226(b):

  • Employers can take reasonable steps to ensure the identity of a current or former employees, and that they are actually making the request.
  • Actual costs of reproduction may be charged by the employer.
  • Employers must comply within 21 days of request.
  • Failure to comply with this section can result in a $750 penalty.

4. Public agencies, such as the Department of Labor or California Labor Commissioner, have the right to inspect records and workplaces under limited circumstances.

For example, under the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Department of Labor (DOL) has certain permissions to investigate and gather date about wages, hours worked, and other working conditions at workplaces. The FLSA also provides the DOL limited permission to enter employers’ premises, review records, and even potentially question employees about employment practices. Upon receiving a request from any public agency, such as the DOL or the California Labor Commissioner, an employer should immediately review what obligations and rights it has in responding to the request.

5. Requests for records through subpoenas.

Employers can also receive subpoenas from third parties seeking employment records. The “custodian of records” is responsible for responding to the requests and producing employment records in certain circumstances. California law requires that a request for a personnel file include a “Notice to Consumer” notifying the employee that such records are being sought, and providing the individual an opportunity to object to the disclosure of the information. If the employee or former employee has not been notified, or objects to the production of the requested records, the employer should not produce the information requested unless and until a court orders otherwise, or the affected employee agrees to the production. If the subpoena seeks the disclosure of confidential or proprietary information, you should contact an attorney to see if the company has an obligation to move to quash the subpoena or seek an appropriate protective order to preserve the confidentiality of the information sought.

Employers should not produce requested documents before they are due and without being satisfied that the proper subpoena procedures and notice requirements, if applicable, have been met. Employers do have a duty to maintain the privacy rights of current and former employees.

1. Current and former employees have the right to inspect or copy personnel files.
Under Labor Code section 1198.5 employees have the right to inspect or receive copies of personnel files and records relating to the employee’s performance or grievance concerning the employee. Employers are legally required to maintain personnel files for at least three years after the employee stops working for the employer. However, since the statute of limitations for wage and hour claims can extend back four years, many employers keep the files at least four years.

2. The terms “personnel file” or “personnel records” are not defined in the Labor Code.
Without the terms “personnel records” or “personnel file” ever being defined, 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):

  1. Application for employment
  2. Payroll authorization form
  3. Notices of commendation, warning, discipline, and/or termination
  4. Notices of layoff, leave of absence, and vacation
  5. Notices of wage attachment or garnishment
  6. Education and training notices and records
  7. Performance appraisals/reviews
  8. Attendance records

Employers should also consider placing the following documents in personnel files:

  • Signed arbitration agreements
  • Sexual harassment compliance records for supervisors
  • Sign acknowledgements of policy by employee (for example, confidentiality/proprietary information agreements, meal and rest break acknowledgments, handbook acknowledgments)
  • Wage Theft Protection Act notice
  • If commissioned employee, written commission agreement signed by both the employer and employee beginning January 1, 2013.
  • Warnings and disciplinary action documents.
  • Performance reviews
  • Documents of any grievance concerning the employee
  • Documents pertaining to when the employee was hired
  • Records pertaining to last day of work and documenting reason for departure from employment

3. Personnel records must be made available not less than 30 days from date employer receives a written request to view the file.
The employer may charge the employee for the costs of copying the file, but the charge cannot exceed actual cost of reproduction.

4. Employers have the right to redact the names of any other nonsupervisory employee that are listed in the employee’s personnel file before making it available to the employee.

5. Employers may be subject to a $750 penalty for not making requested records available.
The penalty can be assessed by the Labor Commissioner, and the employee could also bring an action to compel production of his or her file and recover attorney’s fees.