California Supreme Court Disapproves Discovery Limitation in PAGA Action
Topics: Wage & Hour Issues
Yesterday, the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls), reversing a trial court decision limiting the scope of discovery in a representative PAGA action. In Williams, the plaintiff was an employee at a Marshalls store in Costa Mesa, California who brought a PAGA action alleging meal and rest break and other Labor Code violations. The plaintiff served interrogatories seeking the names and contact information for all non-exempt Marshalls employees in California. Marshalls objected on grounds of relevance, overbreadth, undue burden, and privacy. The trial court ordered Marshalls to produce the names and contact information for all employees at the plaintiff’s store in Costa Mesa, but not for employees at the other 128 Marshalls stores statewide. The trial court also ruled, however, that the plaintiff could renew his request for the statewide name and contact information after his deposition, and that Marshalls could oppose such a request by attempting to show that the plaintiff’s claims had no factual merit and/or that there was no evidence of a statewide violation of wage and hour law.
The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision, relying heavily on the fact that trial courts have broad discretion in managing discovery and ruling on discovery issues. The court approved the trial court's use of incremental discovery, reasoning that the plaintiff's allegations were limited to alleged practices at the particular store where he worked and that these allegations, without more, did not support statewide discovery of private contact information for employees of other stores throughout the state.
The California Supreme Court granted review, and reversed the lower court decision. The Court reiterated that discovery rights are broad under state law (with no exception for PAGA cases) and that discovery extends to all information that is reasonably likely to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence. The Court explained that where information sought meets this broad standard, the party opposing production of the information must establish that it is privileged or otherwise objectionable. In this regard, the Court examined Marshall's specific objections and held that none of the objections justified withholding the contact information of other employees. The Court held that Marshalls' relevance and overbreadth objections were not well taken, and that Marshalls failed to substantiate its objection that producing the information would be unduly burdensome. As for the privacy rights of employees not to have their contact information provided, the Court held that the privacy rights could be adequately protected by using the Belaire notice and opt-out procedure used in class action cases when similar information is sought. (Under this procedure, employees are first provided with written notice that their contact information is being sought in the case and they are provided an opportunity to opt-out of having their information provided.)
The Williams ruling is a poor development for employers litigating PAGA cases because it further fuels these shakedown lawsuits by limiting trial court discretion to limit "fishing expedition" discovery, which is burdensome and costly and adds to the pressure on defendant employers to settle these cases regardless of the merits (or lack thereof).