Being named as a defendant in a class action lawsuit can be overwhelming, especially for a quickly growing company. However, with planning, a company can minimize the impact of the litigation on its existing operations and put forth the best defense. Here are seven items a company can do as part of this planning process when it is first notified of an existing lawsuit.
1. Contact employment counsel.
A lawyer who has experience in employment law and class actions should be contacted as soon as possible. There are certain deadlines that begin to run when a lawsuit is filed, and any delay could adversely affect the company’s defense. If the company does not know of an employment lawyer, a good start is to reach out to trusted advisors for recommendations, such as the company’s corporate lawyer or accountant. Wage and hour litigation, especially in California, is very unique and it is recommended that the company utilize a lawyer that has experience in this area.
2. Review allegations with counsel to see if the safe harbor provision of the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) could apply.
With the advice of counsel, there should be a review of the allegations in the complaint, and if the Plaintiff is seeking damages under PAGA, the PAGA notice sent to the Labor Workforce & Development Agency (“LWDA”). PAGA provides the employer a short window of time (33 days from receiving the PAGA notice) to “cure” any alleged violations. If the employer cures the problems within the time period, the Plaintiff cannot recover penalties under PAGA. Whether or not any items need to be cured, and the process for utilizing this safe harbor should be reviewed closely with counsel.
3. Gather time records and personnel files for the Plaintiff.
The personnel file for the named Plaintiff will have to be produced early in the case. In addition, the information in the personnel file will (hopefully) document any performance issues or other possible defenses the company has to the Plaintiff’s allegations. Also, if the company has implemented an arbitration agreement, it will be important to determine if the Plaintiff has signed it and whether or not there is an argument that in signing the agreement the Plaintiff cannot bring a class action.
4. Begin constructing a list of all employees who have worked in similar positions as the Plaintiff during the last four years (which is likely the statute of limitations).
In California, the statute of limitations for most wage and hour class actions is four years from the date the complaint is filed. Therefore, the employees who have worked in the same or similar positions as the Plaintiff will likely be the group of employees the Plaintiff is seeking to represent in the class action. It is important to know how many of these employees there are. For example, if there are too few this could be a defense to class certification.
5. Gather employee handbooks and policies that were in effect during the last four years.
The litigation will likely revolve around what policies the company had in place, and whether the policies were legally compliant. The company’s counsel will have to review these policies and handbooks. It is also likely that the company will have to produce these early in the litigation as well.
6. Review any applicable insurance policies.
The company should review all insurance policies it has to see if any of them could potentially cover the litigation. Most employment practices liability insurance (“EPLI”) policies exclude class action lawsuits from coverage, but there may be coverage for defense costs, or there may be something unique about the litigation facing the company that triggers coverage. It is also important to assess whether the lawsuit needs to be tendered to the insurance company.
7. Develop a plan about how to communicate the existence of the class action with current employees.
Word usually starts to spread quickly among the employees about the existence of the lawsuit. The company, with advice from counsel, should determine whether it wants to be proactive about communicating with the employees about the lawsuit, as well as what can and cannot be said to employees. At the minimum, a person within the company should be designated to handle any questions about the lawsuit. This will ensure a consistent message is used.