A California appeals court has determined that the state Labor Code requires employers to reimburse employees who “must use their personal cell phones for work-related calls”; so ruling, the court reversed a class-certification denial and ordered the lower court to reconsider the motion in light of this interpretation of the law. Cochran v. Schwan’s Home Serv., Inc., No. B247160 (Cal. Ct. App., decided August 12, 2014).

The trial court denied certification due to lack of commonality and because a class action was not a superior method to litigate the claims. In its view, if an employee did not pay the cell phone charges because someone else did or the employee purchased a different cell phone plan that accommodated the calls, individual inquiries into the plans and payments would be necessary to determine liability. According to the appeals court, the issue in the case is whether an employer must always “reimburse an employee for the reasonable expense of the mandatory use of a personal cell phone,” or is the “obligation limited to the situation in which the employee incurred an extra expense that he or she would not have otherwise incurred absent the job.”

The court held that, under section 2802 of the Labor Code, “[t]he answer is that reimbursement is always required. Otherwise, the employer would receive a windfall because it would be passing its operating expenses onto the employee. Thus, to be in compliance with section 2802, the employer must pay some reasonable percentage of the employee’s cell phone bill.”The court also noted that “it is no concern to the employer that the employee may pass on the expense to a family member or friend, or to a carrier that has to then write off a loss. It is irrelevant whether the employee changed plans to accommodate work-related cell phone usage. Also, the details of the employee’s cell phone plan do not factor into the liability analysis.”

simply put, according to the court, “[t]o show liability under section 2802, an employee need only show that he or she was required to use a personal cell phone to make work-related calls, and he or she was not reimbursed. Damages, of course, raise issues that are more complicated.”