May 16, 2008

Pending Appeal Will Affect Punitive Damages Claims in Wage & Hour Class Actions

The California Court of Appeal may soon resolve a punitive damages issue of critical importance to California employers: whether employees may seek punitive damages when they sue their employers for wage and hour violations.

In 2003, a California trial court certified a class in Savaglio v. Wal-Mart, reportedly consisting of more than 115,000 hourly Wal-Mart employees, which sought to recover premium payments from Wal-Mart under Labor Code section 226.7 for missed or late meal periods. Subsequently, the class amended their allegations to seek punitive damages in addition to premium payments. In December 2005, following a rare class action trial, an Alameda jury awarded the class more than $66 million in premium payments and $115 million in punitive damages. Wal-Mart appealed and the case is currently pending before the First Appellate District, Division Four. (See the court's online docket.)

Among the issues that Wal-Mart has raised on appeal is whether California's "new right-exclusive remedy" rule bars the punitive damages award in this wage and hour case. Under this rule, "where a statute creates a right that did not exist at common law and provides a comprehensive and detailed remedial scheme for its enforcement, the statutory remedy is exclusive." (Rojo v. Kliger (1990) 52 Cal.3d 65, 79.) According to Wal-Mart's opening appellate brief, no California appellate cases have upheld an award of punitive damages for any statutory wage and hour claims, and at least three federal district courts have applied the "new right-exclusive remedy" rule to dismiss claims seeking punitive damages predicated on alleged wage and hour violations.

California has seen a boom in wage and hour class actions in the last decade and, according to some reports, claims seeking relief for meal period violations have been among the fastest growing areas of employment law over the past few years. Indeed, a recent report issued by Littler Mendelson (which specializes in labor and employment law) indicates that at least 311 wage and hour related class actions were filed in California state courts alone in the nearly six-month period between October 1, 2007, and March 28, 2008. (Hat tip to Wage Law Blog.) Given the dramatic rise in wage and hour class actions, the issue of whether punitive damages are available in wage and hour cases will likely have a significant impact on the potential liability California employers could face in the future.