In Chindarah v. Pick Up Stix, Inc. (February 26, 2009) the court of appeal held that employers may enter into settlement agreements with current and former employees over disputed wage claims. At issue in the case was whether the employer’s settlement and release agreements entered into with individual employees settling disputed overtime wages were valid and enforceable under California law. Thankfully for the thousands of employers in California who have entered into settlement agreements regarding wage and hour claims, the appellate court held the agreements are enforceable.
Two former employees of Pick Up Stix sued for claims for unpaid overtime, penalties and interest due to the misclassification of their jobs as exempt from overtime pay. The employer participated in a mediation, but to no success. Stix then decided to approach the putative class members on its own in an attempt to settlement with them individually. Stix offered the putative class members an amount that the employees would have received under the amount offered by Stix during the mediation. More than two hundred current and former employees accepted the settlement amount and signed a general release. The release acknowledged that the employees had spent more than 50% of their time performing managerial duties and agreed “not to participate in any class action that may include …any of the released Claims….” The release also provided:
In exchange for the release from Employee set forth below, the Company will pay Employee by check the gross amount of [varied amounts] less payroll deductions, in full and complete satisfaction of all issues and claims by Employee for unpaid overtime, penalties, interest and other Labor Code violations for the time period of February 28, 1999 through September 2003.
Plaintiffs challenged the settlement agreements arguing that the agreements were void under Labor Code sections 206 and 206.5.
Labor Code section 206.5 provides:
An employer shall not require the execution of a release of a claim or right on account of wages due, or to become due, or made as an advance on wages to be earned, unless payment of those wages has been made. A release required or executed in violation of the provisions of this section shall be null and void as between the employer and the employee. Violation of the provisions of this section by the employer is be a misdemeanor.
In regards to the waivability of overtime rights, Labor Code section 1194, subdivision (a) provides:
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 the unpaid balance of the full amount of this minimum wage or overtime compensation, including interest thereon, reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.
Plaintiffs argued that the release in this case was void as a matter of law to the extent it releases claims for any wages actually due and unpaid and because it constitutes an agreement to work for less than the overtime compensation actually due and unpaid. The court rejected Plaintiffs’ argument:
The Plaintiffs claim “wages actually due and unpaid” means wages that are disputed, if they are ultimately found to be owing. In other words, the Plaintiffs claim any settlement of a dispute over overtime compensation runs afoul of sections 206.5 and 1194.
The court also noted various federal court cases that have also reached the same conclusion. In Reynov v. ADP Claims Services Group, Inc. (N.D. Cal., Apr.30, 2007), after plaintiff quit his job, he signed an agreement releasing the employer “from ‘all claims, actions, and causes of action, of every kind, nature, and description, which exist as of the date you sign the Letter Agreement, arising out of or related to your employment.’” As consideration for the release, the plaintiff received “substantial compensation to which he was not otherwise entitled, including a severance payment in excess of $29,000.” The plaintiff argued the release was unenforceable under section 206.5. Relying on other state court cases, the Reynov court found that section 206.5 prohibited a release of wages due unless paid in full, and “wages are not due if there is a good faith dispute as to whether they are owed. Because [the employer’s] defense that [the plaintiff] was an exempt employee under California law would, if successful, preclude any recovery for [the plaintiff], a bona fide dispute exists and the overtime pay cannot be considered ‘concededly due.’” (citations omitted)
The court also rejected Plaintiffs’ argument that the newly decided case of Edwards v. Arthur Andersen (2008) supports their position. The Plaintiffs contended that because the Supreme Court found in Edwards that an employee’s statutorily unwaivable indemnity rights under Labor Code section 2802 could not be waived as part of a general release, a dispute over past overtime wages cannot be settled. The court recognized that an employee cannot waive his or her right to overtime pay under Labor Code section 1194 (as well as other statutorily provided rights), but the court also reasoned that there was not statute prohibiting employees from releasing their claims to past overtime as settlement “of a bona fide dispute over those wages.”
In conclusion, the court reasoned the public policy underlying section 1194 to protect worker from employer coercion to forgo overtime is not violated by its holding. The releases here were to settle disputes about whether the employees were properly paid in the past and the agreements did not bar employees from suing over future violations.