California Supreme Court

Our colleague Michael Kun, attorney at Epstein Becker Green, has a post on the Wage & Hour Defense Blog that will be of interest to many of our readers in the retail industry: “Clarification of California’s Obscure ‘Suitable Seating’ Wage Rule Likely to Lead to More Employers Providing Seats – and to More Class Actions Against Those Who Don’t.”

Following is an excerpt:

The Court explained, “There is no principled reason for denying an employee a seat when he spends a substantial part of his workday at a single location performing tasks that could reasonably be done while seated, merely because his job duties include other tasks that must be done standing.”

The California Supreme Court’s opinion should help employers assess whether and when to make seating available to employees.  And employers should review their practices promptly to try to comply with the law.  Now that the California Supreme Court has provided some much needed guidance on the issue, employers can expect that their practices will be challenged, and those challenges will often come in the context of class action lawsuits.

Read the full post here.

By: Amy B. Messigian

In a major blow to California employers who utilize a monthly commission scheme but pay biweekly or semimonthly salary to their commission sales employees, the California Supreme Court ruled earlier this week in Peabody v. Time Warner Cable, Inc. that a commission payment may be applied only to the pay period in which it is paid for the purposes of determining whether an employee is exempt from overtime.  Employers may not divide the commission payment across multiple pay periods in order to satisfy the minimum compensation threshold for meeting the exemption in any earlier pay period.  California employers who classify their commission sales employees as exempt should immediately take action to ensure compliance with the law.

The plaintiff in the case, Susan Peabody, worked approximately 45 hours per week as a commissioned salesperson for Time Warner Cable.  Peabody received biweekly paychecks, which included her salary for the pay period, as well as commission wages on a monthly basis.  After leaving her employment, she sued for a variety of wage and hour violations.  Peabody alleged that Time Warner Cable had misclassified her as an exempt employee for which it was not required to pay overtime.

In order to meet the commission sales exemption under California law, among other things, an employee must earn more than one and one-half times the minimum wage.  Peabody was paid less than one and one-half times the minimum wage in any pay period in which she did not also receive her commission payment; however, she was paid far in excess of one and one-half times the minimum wage on each pay period in which she also received her commission payment and her total monthly wages exceeded one and one-half times the minimum wage.  Based on the fact that the commission payment was reflective of commissions earned over the course of a month, Time Warner Cable argued that it should be permitted to split the commission payment between the pay periods in the month for the purposes of determining Peabody’s exemption from overtime.

The California Supreme Court rejected this approach holding that commission wages paid in one biweekly pay period cannot be attributed to other pay periods for purposes of meeting the exemption.  Rather, whether the minimum earnings prong of the commission sales exemption is satisfied depends on the amount of wages actually paid in a pay period.  “An employer may not attribute wages paid in one pay period to a prior pay period to cure a shortfall.”  This holding further differentiates that California commissioned sales exemption from the federal exemption, which permits employers to defer paying earned commissions so long as the employee is paid the minimum wage each pay period.

The Peabody ruling greatly impacts the manner in which companies structure their commission plans and payroll for commissioned employees.  Because a commission payment may only be allocated to the period in which it is paid for purposes of meeting the exemption, employers should consider adopting biweekly or semimonthly payroll structures for both salary and commission payments or allocating a greater distribution of employee income to base salary as opposed to commissions in order to meet the minimum salary threshold each pay period.

The ruling also forebodes a new wave of misclassification suits for unpaid overtime in cases such as this where an employee may only meet the exemption part of the time.  Of great concern will be the ability of employers to defend such suits where they have not kept good records of the hours worked by the employee, or their meal or rest breaks, due to the mistaken belief that they were exempt from overtime.  Employers with large numbers of commissioned salespeople should consult employment counsel to perform misclassification auditing and assess the risks of class litigation.


By Marisa S. Ratinoff and Amy B. Messigian

One of the main battlegrounds between employers and employees relates to the ability of employers to preclude class actions by way of arbitration agreements containing class action waivers.  In California, the seminal case of Gentry v. Superior Court (“Gentry”) has had the practical effect of invalidating class action waivers in employment arbitration agreements since 2007.  Gentry held that an employment class action waiver was unenforceable as a matter of California public policy if the class action waiver would “undermine the vindication of the employees’ unwaivable statutory rights” under the Labor Code.  Thus, California retailers and national retailers with a business presence in California have found it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce class action waivers in their employment arbitration agreements over the past seven years and have seen scores of California wage and hour cases proceed in court under the harsh hand of Gentry.

The landscape changed drastically in 2010 when the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in AT&T Mobility, LLC v. Concepcion (“Concepcion”).   There, the Supreme Court held that the Federal Arbitration Act (“FAA”) preempts state laws or policies that deem arbitration agreements unconscionable and unenforceable on the basis that they preclude class actions.  While the Concepcion case related to a consumer arbitration agreement, many have questioned whether its impact extended to employment arbitration agreements, such as the ones invalidated on public policy grounds under Gentry

Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC is the first case to test this issue before the California Supreme Court.  The decision takes one step forward and one step back.  First, the Court held that Gentry has been abrogated by Concepcion.  As such, courts may not refuse to enforce an employment arbitration agreement simply because it contains a class action waiver.  The Court further rejected the argument that a class action waiver is unlawful under the National Labor Relations Act. 

However, the Court also found that an employee’s right to bring a representative action under Private Attorney General Act (“PAGA”) is nonwaivable. Under PAGA, an employee may bring a civil action personally and on behalf of other current or former employees to recover civil penalties for Labor Code violations.  Of the civil penalties recovered, 75 percent goes to the State of California and the remaining 25 percent go to the “aggrieved employees.”  The Court held that “an arbitration agreement requiring an employee as a condition of employment to give up the right to bring representative PAGA actions in any forum is contrary to public policy.”  The Court also found that “the FAA’s goal of promoting arbitration as a means of private dispute resolution does not preclude [California’s] Legislature from deputizing employees to prosecute Labor Code violations on the state’s behalf.”  The Court explained that PAGA waivers do not frustrate the FAA’s objectives because the FAA aims to ensure an efficient forum for the resolution of private disputes, whereas a PAGA action is a dispute between an employer and the State, which is being brought in a representative capacity by the employee.  Because the State derives the majority of the benefit of the claim and any judgment is binding on the government, it is the “real party in interest,” making a PAGA claim more akin to a law enforcement action than a private dispute.  Because of this, it is within California’s police powers to enact PAGA and prevent the waiver of representative PAGA claims.

The practical effect is that even if a class action waiver is enforceable, any purported waiver of a representative PAGA action will be unenforceable.  As a result, a complaint filed in court that includes a PAGA cause of action will arguably remain with the court unless the claims are bifurcated.  As for Iskanian and his former employer, the Court left these questions to the parties to resolve.  While it is possible that Iskanian will be appealed to the United States Supreme Court for guidance, at least for the foreseeable future employers should expect plaintiffs’ counsel to include PAGA causes of action in order to frustrate employer efforts to move wage and hour claims to arbitration.

Going forward, retail employers may want to consider adopting agreements with their California employees that expressly permit representative PAGA claims to be brought in arbitration while waiving all other class claims to the extent allowed by law.  Alternatively, employers may revise their agreements to allow for bifurcation of claims or expressly exclude PAGA claims from the scope of the agreement.  In either case, employers should use this opportunity to review the terms of their arbitration agreements and put new agreements in place with California employees, if necessary.