The California Court of Appeal in Meda v. AutoZone, Inc. recently reversed a trial court’s finding that an employer demonstrated it “provided” seats to its employees as a matter of law under California’s suitable seating requirement. This rule stems from subdivision 14(A) of the Wage Orders, which provides that California employers must provide suitable seats to employees “when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats.” In Kilby v. CVS Pharmacy, Inc., 63 Cal. 4th 1 (2016), the California Supreme Court set forth the fact-intensive framework and multiple factors in analyzing whether the “nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seat,” triggering the employer’s obligation to provide suitable seats. However, no published California authority had considered what steps employers must take to “provide” seats under subdivision 14(A).
On July 19, 2022, in Meda v. AutoZone, the Court of Appeal grappled with the issue, and ultimately made clear that even where an employer makes seats available, the inquiry whether an employer “provided” suitable seats may be fact-intensive and involve a multitude of job- and workplace-specific factors.
Background of Meda v. AutoZone, Inc.
Meda, a former sales associate who worked at an AutoZone store operated by AutoZoners, asserted one cause of action under the California Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), alleging that AutoZoners failed to provide suitable seating to its employees at the parts counter and cashier station in violation of subdivision 14(A) of Wage Order 7. AutoZoners moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Meda was not “aggrieved” because there were chairs available to Meda at all times. AutoZoners’ stated policy was to make two raised chairs available to any employee that needed or wanted one. The Los Angeles Superior Court interpreted “provide” to mean “make available,” and, on that basis, concluded that AutoZoners satisfied its requirement to “provide” seating under the Wage Order.
The Court of Appeal’s Decision
On appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s entry of summary judgment in favor of the employer. Meda argued that although her store was typically staffed by five to nine employees, only two raised chairs were available on-site. Moreover, both chairs were generally located near the manager’s station area of the store, and were separated and not visible from the cashier and parts counter. And despite the stated policy to make chairs available, AutoZoners did not include this policy in its general employee handbook or offer employee training on its seating policy. Significantly, although she admitted that no one told her she could not use the seats, Meda testified she was unaware she could use a raised chair at the front counter stations and never saw another employee use one.
In its published decision, the Court expressly declined to adopt a rule requiring that employers place a seat at every workstation in order to comply with the Wage Order, as “that may not always be feasible given the particular characteristics of a workspace.” But where the employer does not place a seat at the workstation, a seat’s proximity to the workspace and accessibility is relevant in the analysis of whether seats are “provided,” particularly where the employees are not advised that seats are available in a written policy or training. To use a seat, according to the Court, employees had “to leave the front counter workstations, proceed down a short hallway and around a corner into the manager’s work area—and out of customer view—to locate, and then move, one of the raised chairs to the front counter.” Employees might also “feel uncomfortable taking a chair from the manager’s area for their own use in another location.” Even though the employer demonstrated that it made seats available, under these circumstances there were sufficient factual disputes to preclude summary judgment regarding whether suitable seats were “provided.”
While the Court of Appeal in AutoZone was careful not to adopt any hard and fast rules, it does provide some guidance on what it means to “provide” suitable seats. To maximize chances of compliance, employers should consult with their Sheppard Mullin attorneys regarding whether to revise their seating policies and practices in light of this decision.