Last month, a split emerged in the California Court of Appeal regarding whether trial courts have authority to strike or limit unmanageable claims under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). In Estrada v. Royalty Carpet Mills, Inc., 76 Cal. App. 5th 685, 2022 WL 855568 (2022), the court held that although a trial court may limit the plaintiff’s presentation of evidence to ensure a manageable trial, trial courts do not have authority to strike claims in whole or in part. (To read about the Estrada decision, click here.) Estrada conflicts with Wesson v. Staples The Office Superstore, LLC, 68 Cal. App. 5th 746 (2021), which explicitly held that trial courts do have authority to strike or limit unmanageable PAGA claims. (To read about the Wesson decision, click here.)
The Estrada decision rests on the principle that PAGA plaintiffs, as proxies for the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA), must be placed on equal footing as the LWDA when they pursue PAGA claims in court. The court found that a manageability requirement would place PAGA plaintiffs at a disadvantage, because “[t]he LWDA is not subject to a manageability requirement when it investigates Labor Code violations and assesses fines internally.” Estrada, 2022 WL 855568, at *12.
However, this observation is questionable because the LWDA has a duty to act in the public interest, and that duty is inconsistent with spending tax dollars pursuing a wholly unmanageable claim. The agency is required by statute to focus not on individualized claims alleging sporadic and idiosyncratic violations, but on enforcement efforts that will have the greatest public benefit. Cal. Lab. Code § 90.5(c) (Labor Commissioner must prioritize “industries, occupations, and areas in which employees are relatively low paid and unskilled, and those in which there has been a history of” noncompliance with labor standards). That is because California’s policy is not only “to vigorously enorce minimum labor standards,” but to “protect employers who comply with the law[.]” Id. § 90.5(a). Frequently, claims are unmanageable precisely because the employer has attempted to comply with the law, so the only potential violations are sporadic and individualized.
Although PAGA deputizes private plaintiffs to step into the LWDA’s shoes, it effectively divides the LWDA’s responsibility for overseeing a claim between private plaintiffs and the courts, with plaintiffs controlling the strategy for prosecuting the claim and courts controlling the administration and adjudication of the claim. For example, a PAGA plaintiff cannot simply issue a fine like the LWDA. Instead, a penalty may be assessed only after a trial on the merits, in which the court determines both whether a violation occurred and, if so, the amount of an appropriate penalty. See Cal. Lab. Code § 2699(e); LaFace v. Ralphs Grocery Co., 75 Cal. App. 5th 388 (2022).
As Estrada acknowledges, PAGA plaintiffs are subject to the court’s discretion regarding the presentation and admissibility of evidence at trial, and it would be wasteful and impractical to permit a PAGA plaintiff to try to present evidence regarding “hundreds or thousands of alleged aggrieved employees, each with unique factual circumstances.” Estrada, 2022 WL 855568, at *12. Yet Estrada does not explain why an unmanageable claim must proceed all the way to trial before its scope can be limited, when the LWDA is unlikely to ever pursue such a claim itself. Rather than place PAGA plaintiffs on equal footing, it arguably places them on a pedestal. This critique of Estrada may provide a basis for trial courts to follow Wesson while this split of authority persists.