California’s Supreme Court holds that representative plaintiffs in PAGA actions brought in state court on behalf of California employees are generally entitled to discovery of statewide employee contact information as an “essential first step” to the prosecution of the case.
On July 13, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Williams v. Superior Court regarding the permissible scope of interrogatories seeking statewide employee contact information in a representative action pursuant to the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). The court held that, in general, contact information for all employees claimed to be aggrieved in a PAGA lawsuit is discoverable—the same as in class actions. As the court explained, “We recognize that in a particular case there may be special reason to limit or postpone a representative plaintiff‘s access to contact information for those he or she seeks to represent, but the default position is that such information is within the proper scope of discovery, an essential first step to prosecution of any representative action.”
In reaching its decision, the court rejected the lower court’s view that the plaintiff should first “show some merit to the underlying litigation” before receiving contact information for all the defendant’s employees in the state. The court reasoned that because employee contact information in a class action lawsuit is “routinely discoverable. . .without any requirement that the plaintiff first show good cause,” the same rule should apply in PAGA lawsuits as well. “Nothing in the characteristics of a PAGA suit. . .affords a basis for restricting discovery more narrowly.”
In addition to recognizing that there may be a special reason to limit or postpone access to contact information in a particular case, the court also held that to protect the privacy interests of the other employees, a court should condition the production of their contact information on the employees first being provided
- notice of the action,
- an assurance that they are under no obligation to talk to plaintiff’s counsel, and
- an opportunity to opt out of having their contact information disclosed to plaintiff’s counsel by returning a postcard, as was required in the class action context in Belaire-West Landscape, Inc. v. Sup. Ct.
Plaintiff Williams, who worked at one retail location of the defendant, sued under PAGA on behalf of himself and all of the company’s nonexempt California employees. His complaint alleged that, on a companywide basis, the defendant violated California meal and rest break, wage payment, wage statement, and business expense reimbursement laws.
Williams served interrogatories seeking, among other things, the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of all of the company’s current and former nonexempt employees in California during the relevant time period. The defendant objected to this statewide discovery, and the trial court ordered it to be limited to the single store where Williams worked. The court conditioned discovery of contact information as to other California stores on Williams sitting for his deposition and showing some merit to his claims. The plaintiff appealed, and the court of appeal affirmed the trial court, but the California Supreme Court reversed.
The California Supreme Court’s Holding
PAGA Plaintiffs Are Presumptively Entitled to All Relevant Employee Contact Information
The court first reasoned that, pursuant to the Civil Discovery Act, a civil litigant’s right to discovery is broad and “includes an entitlement to learn ‘the identity and location of persons having knowledge of any discoverable matter.’” Therefore, Williams was presumptively entitled to obtain the identity and contact information of his fellow employees unless the defendant could establish cause to refuse to provide the information. The court then rejected all of the defendant’s objections.
Nothing about the Nature of PAGA Changes the Fact that Contact Information Is Within the Legitimate Scope of Discovery
The court ruled that the request for statewide contact information was not overbroad because it merely sought to “identify [the defendant’s] other California employees, inferentially as a first step to identifying other aggrieved employees and obtaining admissible evidence of the violations and policies alleged in the Complaint.”
While recognizing that “in a particular case there may be special reason to limit or postpone a representative plaintiff‘s access to contact information for those he or she seeks to represent,” the court found that the “default position” is that the discovery of such contact information is proper in a PAGA representative action. The court rejected the defendant’s argument that under PAGA an employee must have some modicum of proof before proceeding with discovery, because a “PAGA-specific heightened proof standard” as a threshold to discovery would undercut the statute’s legislative purpose.
The court also rejected the argument that discovery in a PAGA action should be distinguished from class action discovery. Although PAGA and class actions are procedurally distinct, the court ruled that their similarities and overlapping policy considerations support extending PAGA discovery as broadly as class action discovery.
Unless There Is Evidence of Undue Burden, a PAGA Plaintiff May Obtain Statewide Contact Information
The court rejected the defendant’s argument that producing the contact information for approximately 16,500 employees would be unduly burdensome without a prior showing that Williams or others had been subject to Labor Code violations. The court noted that the defendant submitted no evidence that responding to the interrogatory would be unduly burdensome. Even when there is such evidence, the court noted that trial courts should consider alternatives such as partial disclosure or shifting of costs before completely denying discovery.
The court found that it was improper to impose a “good cause” requirement as a prerequisite to answering an interrogatory seeking employee contact information—even if the PAGA plaintiff lacks personal knowledge as to how prevalent the purported violations may be. The court noted that a good cause showing is required for document requests but not interrogatories. The court also noted that California law allows a court on a showing of “good cause” to “establish the sequence and timing of discovery for the convenience of the parties and witnesses and in the interests of justice,” but that issue had not been raised with the trial court.
Finally, the court found that the discovery of contact information should not be denied on privacy grounds. The court agreed that absent employees do have a bona fide interest in the confidentiality of their contact information, but they lack a reasonable expectation of privacy in the context of a PAGA action because they would not expect that their contact information would be withheld from a plaintiff seeking to prove labor law violations and recover civil penalties on their behalf. Therefore, the court held that employee privacy interests can and should be addressed by conditioning discovery of contact information on issuing a so-called “Belaire-West notice” to employees. The court also authorized trial courts to supplement such a notice with a protective order prohibiting disclosure of the contact information outside the confines of the specific lawsuit.
In light of the court’s holding, employers facing PAGA lawsuits in state court will have limited options to try to prevent the presumptive right to statewide contact information. One option is to make an early request to sequence or phase discovery pursuant to Code Civ. Proc. § 2019.020. Another option is to present evidence of the undue burden of producing statewide employee contact information.