The Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) is a Labor Code provision that permits aggrieved employees to recover civil penalties that are only recoverable by the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA) and the Labor Commissioner. PAGA expands the scope of penalties available through wage and hour lawsuits. PAGA is sometimes referred to as the “bounty-hunter law” because it allows a plaintiff to recover these civil penalties that were only recoverable by the Labor Commissioner, but it requires that the plaintiff provide 75% of the civil penalties recovered to the LWDA and the remaining 25% to the aggrieved employees.
However, as a result of frivolous lawsuits under PAGA, the legislature amended the law in 2004 to require plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies prior to commencement of a civil action under PAGA. Therefore, in order to exhaust the administrative remedies, a plaintiff must send a letter via certified mail to the LWDA and the employer listing the specific Labor Code violations, including the facts and theories to support the alleged violations. Then the LWDA may then send a letter back to the plaintiff informing them that it will or will not be pursuing the case. If the LWDA responds that it will not pursue the case, or simply does not respond within 30 days, the plaintiff may then proceed with a civil lawsuit to collect PAGA penalties.
Because the plaintiff must send this notice to the LWDA and the employer, the employer receives some advance notice about a potential lawsuit. And if the notice is properly drafted by the plaintiff, the employer should be able to understand the plaintiff’s legal theories and alleged violations. It is also important the employer contact employment counsel as soon as receiving a PAGA letter to the LWDA. This is because the employer has a short time period (33 days) to “cure” any alleged violations. The employer can correct any alleged violations, and provide written notice to the plaintiff and the LWDA describing the actions taken and that the plaintiff cannot recover PAGA penalties. It is critical that the employer review whether or not it should utilize this safe harbor cure provision to prevent plaintiff from recovering PAGA penalties with counsel. Quick action by the employer could preclude plaintiffs from being able to recover PAGA penalties before the lawsuit even begins.