Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls): California Supreme Court to Allow Broad Discovery in PAGA Cases

by Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP
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On July 13, 2017, the California Supreme Court held that plaintiffs need not demonstrate good cause to discover contact information of other allegedly aggrieved employees in an action brought pursuant to the Private Attorneys’ General Act (“PAGA”).  The Court’s pro-employee decision resolves an issue of first impression concerning the scope of discovery in PAGA cases.

In Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California), Plaintiff Michael Williams filed a representative action under the PAGA against Marshalls alleging that the company failed to provide him and other aggrieved employees with proper meal and rest breaks.  Williams also alleges that Marshalls failed to provide timely wage payments and accurate wage statements.  He seeks declaratory relief and civil penalties on behalf of approximately 16,500 current and former non-exempt employees who worked at Marshalls stores throughout California.

In early discovery, Williams propounded interrogatories seeking the names, contact information and employment history for all 16,500 employees statewide.  Marshalls objected to the requests on the grounds that the interrogatories were (1) overbroad, (2) unduly burdensome, and (3) invasive of the right to privacy of third-parties under Article I, Section One of the California Constitution.

The trial court granted Williams’ motion to compel in part and ordered Marshalls to provide the contact information for the employees of the Costa Mesa store where Williams had worked.  The trial court stated that Williams could renew his discovery motion after appearing for “at least six productive hours of deposition.”  In opposing a renewed motion for discovery, the trial court indicated that Marshalls could rely on Williams’ deposition testimony to challenge the merit of his statewide claims.

The Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that as the party seeking to compel discovery, Williams must “set forth specific facts showing good cause justifying the discovery sought.”  In this case, the Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court’s assessment that Williams had failed to demonstrate good cause to discover the contact information and employment history for all 16,500 employees statewide.

Williams appealed again to the Supreme Court.  At oral argument, Williams argued that the trial court abused discretion by sequencing discovery in a manner that gave Marshalls an unfair advantage in defending the statewide claims.  In opposition, Marshalls argued that requests for statewide discovery placed an undue burden on employers, who would likely feel pressured to settle meritless PAGA claims to avoid the cost of litigation.  Marshalls emphasized that Williams had not produced evidence of a facially unlawful policy or uniform practice that would support his allegations of statewide wage and hour violations.

The Supreme Court rejected Marshalls’ argument.  The Court held that plaintiffs need not demonstrate an unlawful companywide policy or uniform practice to discover the contact information of other allegedly aggrieved employees in a PAGA action.  The Court reasoned that “a civil litigant’s right to discovery is broad,” and it includes the right to discover information concerning percipient witnesses.  The PAGA statute does not require litigants to meet a heightened showing to conduct discovery.

Additionally, the Court held that the right to privacy did not bar Williams’ right to discover the contact information of other employees.  The Court expressly disapproved of a string of Court of Appeal decisions holding that a party seeking to discover employee contact information must always establish a compelling need or interest without regard to the other considerations set forth in the Hill v. National Collegiate Athletic Association test.

Takeaways

Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls of California) is a significant decision for plaintiffs pursuing wage and hour claims pursuant to the PAGA.  It signals that the courts will likely allow plaintiffs to conduct “fishing expeditions” in discovery to support statewide claims.  The fact that a plaintiff does not have specific knowledge of statewide policies or practices will likely be insufficient to bar statewide discovery PAGA cases. Therefore, in opposing requests for employee contact information, employers should be prepared to articulate specific facts to demonstrate undue burden and privacy concerns.

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