On February 18, 2022, in LaFace v. Ralphs Grocery Co., 2022 WL 498847 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 18, 2022), the California Court of Appeal (2nd District) ruled in a published decision that there is no right to a jury trial in claims brought under the Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA). The question was one of first impression for the Court of Appeal, which was “surprised that it took so long for the jury trial issue to present itself for appellate review.” Id. at *2 n.6.

Under California law, a right to a jury trial derives either from the California Constitution or from statute. Because PAGA does not include any provision providing for a jury trial, the court analyzed whether the state constitution provided such a right. In doing so, it examined “the gist of the action” to determine whether it was similar to the “common law actions at law that were triable by a jury in 1850,” when the right to a jury trial was enshrined in the California Constitution. Id. at *3.

For three main reasons, the Court determined that a PAGA action was not the type of action that would have been triable to a jury under the common law. First, although actions for civil penalties are usually actions at law, a PAGA claim “would otherwise be an administrative regulatory enforcement action,” which would occur without the benefit of a jury. Id. at *7. It would be “anomalous to vest the state’s proxies with more rights than the state would otherwise have on its own.” Id.

Second, courts have broad discretion to fix the amount of any PAGA penalty to avoid a result that is “unjust, arbitrary and oppressive, or confiscatory.” Cal. Lab. Code § 2699(e)(2). These factors are equitable in nature, because they do not primarily concern any harm suffered by the plaintiff. LaFace, 2022 WL 498847, at *6. Weighing such equitable factors is generally the province of a court, not a jury. Id. at *7.

Third, the purpose of PAGA is to enforce a “wide range” of requirements that were “unknown at common law,” such as requirements related to suitable seating, wage statements and countless others. Id. at *8.

Prior to LaFace, a consensus had seemed to develop among the wage and hour bar that there was likely no right to a jury trial in a PAGA case, and the few accessible trial court decisions were in accord. Thus, LaFace likely will not upset the expectations of seasoned practitioners in the space. Nevertheless, the decision provides some welcome certainty to one of the great unanswered questions about PAGA.