Last week in Green v. Bank of America Corp., No. 11.56365 (9th Cir. Feb. 13, 2012), the Ninth Circuit held that “suitable seats” lawsuits cannot be dismissed at the pleading stage based on an employee’s failure to allege that he or she requested suitable seating. The Ninth Circuit’s reversal raises significant questions regarding one of the more common employer defenses to the recent wave of “suitable seats” litigation based upon IWC Wage Order 7-2001.
Filed in April 2011, the plaintiffs in Green raised standard “suitable seats” allegations by claiming Bank of America failed to comply with the requirement of Section 14 of IWC Wage Order 7-2001 that employees be provided with “suitable seats when the nature of the work reasonably permits use of seats.” The district court granted Bank of America’s motion to dismiss, holding that the bank only needed to provide tellers access to seats if seats were requested. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the district court mistakenly assumed a requirement that employees allege that they requested seats where the text of the Wage Order does not expressly require such a request. The Court’s brief opinion also clarified that its reversal did not present an opinion on whether any seating provided to the employees was “suitable” or whether the nature of the work “reasonably permits use of seats” because these issues would be developed at the district court upon remand.
Though Green is confined to its context and should not be read to preclude employers from raising the defense of a failure to request suitable seating, it nonetheless raises the critical question of whether employers have an affirmative obligation to provide suitable seats in the absence of any employee requests. As more “suitable seats” lawsuits reach the summary judgment and trial stages, and as state appellate courts begin to take up the issue, employers should expect more clarity. In the meantime, employers should stay tuned for further updates regarding this rapidly changing area of employment law.