Christine Brewer, a longtime waitress employed at the Cottonwood Golf Club restaurant, quit her job in March 2005. Shortly thereafter, Brewer filed this action against her employer, Premier Golf Properties, LP, dba Cottonwood Golf Club alleging a causes of action for age discrimination, for meal and rest break violations (among other Labor Code violations), sought compensatory and punitive damages, and attorney fees.
The jury returned special verdicts in favor of Brewer on most of her Labor Code violations, and allowed Brewer to recover attorney fees and costs pursuant to section 218.5 and costs pursuant to Code of Civil Procedure section 1032.
The issue in this case is that the jury also granted plaintiff punitive damages for $195,000. In order for there to be punitive damages, the defendant must act with fraud, oppression or malice toward Brewer. The jury found that the defendant had acted with malice, but only in regards to the Labor Code violations and not on the conduct underlying Brewer’s age discrimination claim.
The court held that Labor Code violations alone could not support the finding for punitive damages:
We are convinced, both by application of the "new right-exclusive remedy" doctrine and under more general principles that bar punitive damages awards absent breach of an obligation not arising from contract, punitive damages are not recoverable when liability is premised solely on the employer’s violation of the Labor Code statutes that regulate meal and rest breaks, pay stubs, and minimum wage laws.
The “New Right-exclusive Remedy” Doctrine Bars Punitive Damages for Labor Code Violations
The court explained that the “new right-exclusive remedy” doctrine provides that "[w]here a statute creates new rights and obligations not previously existing in the common law, the express statutory remedy is deemed to be the exclusive remedy available for statutory violations, unless it is inadequate." The court acknowledged that meal and rest break provisions of the Labor Code created new rights that were not already provided under common law (i.e., meal and rest break requirements) and that the statutes provided an adequate remedy (i.e., premium wage of one hour of pay at the employee’s regular rate of pay for a violation). Therefore, because the right to meal and rest breaks is created by a statute that provides for adequate remedies, an employee could not add punitive damages to his or her claim.
Punitive Damages Not Available For Obligations Arising From Breach Of Contract
The court also found that, even were the remedies provided by the statutory scheme not the exclusive remedies for the new rights, punitive damages would not be available in this case because punitive damages can only be recovered "for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract." (Civ. Code, § 3294) The court stated that Brewer’s claims for unpaid wages and missed meal and rest breaks all arise from her “employment contract” and, therefore, punitive damages were not available for this additional reason.