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.

It is time to start planning for how the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as ObamaCare, will effect your business.  Peterson Milaney Associates, will be hosting a webinar on the new law and what employers need to start planning for now.  The webinar is taking place on Monday, December 3, at 10:00 a.m. 

The webinar is free for readers of the blog.  Registration is here

It may come as a surprise, but Stephen Colbert is human, and like the rest of us, has a mother. He has taken a leave of absence from his show to apparently spend time with his ailing mother. An article I read recently notes how Colbert’s leave could trigger family medical leave. I thought the article does fine explaining family and medical leave, but given Colbert’s importance to The Colbert Report, it is also a good reminder about a narrow exemption to an employee’s reinstatement rights if they are a “key employee.”

Basic Medical Leave Rights
The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) both provide employees the opportunity to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain “qualified” events. Employers with 50 or more employees (part-time employees are counted to make this determination) are covered by the FMLA and CFRA. Employees who have worked for at least 12 months and at least 1,250 hours in the immediately preceding 12 months are covered by the laws. However, employers do not need to provide the leave if the employee works at a location with fewer than 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.

“Key Employee” Exception
If the employee is covered by the FMLA or CFRA the employee is entitled to return to his or her former position, or a position that is equivalent to the previous position held with equivalent benefits, pay, and conditions of employment. The small exception to this is for “key employees.” A key employee is defined as a salaried employee who is the highest paid 10% of employees within a 75-mile radius. If the key employee’s reinstatement would cause “substantial and grievous economic injury” to the employer, then the key employee may be denied reinstatement. However, when the employee takes the leave of absence, the employer must provide notice to the employee that he or she is a “key employee” and explain their reinstatement rights. If the employer fails to do so at the time the employee goes on the leave of absence, it loses the ability to deny reinstatement to the employee under the “key employee” exception.

No need to worry about Colbert though. It is being reported that Colbert will be returning to our televisions tonight.

Mat Honan at Gizmodo wrote recently about a new company that helps employers search applicant’s “internet background” to assist in the hiring process. As Mat rightly points out, much of the concern over this “new technology” is overblown, and as he puts it, "[e]mployers would have to be stupid not to Google job candidates."  As I have pointed out before, much of the unduly concern is that lawyers don’t understand the technology, and therefore if they don’t understand it, their client’s use of the technology can only lead to bad things.

I think Guy Kawasaki had a great perspective on this issue when I recently interviewed him. He said he would be worried about a job applicant who did not have a Facebook page: what is wrong with this person? Is he anti-social? Is he not with the times or just simply does not understand simple technology? As Mat points out as well, with some common sense a job applicant can easily manage the results of an online search by being careful about which information he or she provides to the employer. For example, an internet search for the job applicant’s private email address might turn up more personal information than if the applicant has a separate email they only use for work purposes and lists on their c.v.

From the employer’s perspective I don’t think the analysis changes much for searching employees background on the Internet:

Generally, under Federal law, employers may utilize social networking sites to conduct background checks on employees if:

  1. The employer and/or its agents conduct the background check themselves;
  2. The site is readily accessible to the public;
  3. The employer does not need to create a false alias to access the site;
  4. The employer does not have to provide any false information to gain access to the site; and
  5. The employer does not use the information learned from the site in a discriminatory manner or otherwise prohibited by law.

The US House of Representatives introduced a bill (H.R. 5107), Employee Misclassification Prevention Act, that if passed would amend the FLSA to required employers who employ “non-employees” to keep records of classification of the non-employees. The bill refers to non-employees, which is targeting employers’ classification of independent contractors.

Should the employer fail to maintain the records required under the proposed bill, a presumption would be created that the worker is an employee – not an independent contractor. The employer could only then overturn this presumption by presenting “clear and convincing evidence” that the worker is properly classified.

The bill would also require employers to provide written notice to any non-employees about their classification. Among other items, the notice would need to state:

Your rights to wage, hour, and other labor protections depend upon your proper classification as an employee or non-employee. If you have any questions or concerns about how you have been classified or suspect that you may have been misclassified, contact the U.S. Department of Labor.

The notice would also need to include additional information that Department of Labor deems necessary by regulation at a later date.

Violation of the proposed bill’s requirements carries a civil fine of $1,100 per worker, which could increase to $5,000 for willful repeat violations.

The bill (H.R. 5107) can be read here. From what I could gather, it appears that the bill has a strong chance of becoming law. This is definitely one I will be keeping my eye on in coming months.