Articles Posted in Topics of Interest

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Labor law class action claims are on the rise. Congress and the courts have noted with dismay the widespread abuse of class actions. For example, in the House Conference Report accompanying what later became the Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995 (PSLRA), 109 Stat. 737 (codified at 15 U.S.C. §§ 77z-1 and 78u-4), Congress explained that class actions were hurting “the entire U.S. economy.” H.R.Rep. No. 104-369, p. 31 (1995). The House Conference Report identified widespread abuse, including frivolous lawsuits, burdensome discovery requests (aimed at extorting settlements), targeting deep-pocket defendants, and “manipulation by class action lawyers of the clients whom they purportedly represent.” Id. Perhaps nowhere is this abuse more prevalent than in the meteoric rise of class actions alleging labor law violations.

In the litigious society we live in, the knee-jerk reaction of individuals who are fired for valid grounds such as theft, incompetence, disruptive behavior, etc. is a lawsuit back against the company for alleged labor law violations. This vehicle provides the means for the disgruntled employee to exact his or her “pound of flesh.” Unfortunately, all too often the employee simple desire to exact vengeance is manipulated by plaintiff’s counsel into a purported class action, “identifying” patterns of abuse that exist only in the imagination of plaintiff’s counsel.

This is not to suggest, of course, that an employer can do no wrong. Certainly if a company is violating state or federal labor laws, litigation is an appropriate vehicle to rectify such deficiencies. Not all such class actions are frivolous: as with every profession and every field, there are many honest and talented attorneys who devote their energies to carefully investigating “facts” reported to them by prospective clients, and to filing class actions that seek to redress what they in good faith believe to be a pattern and practice of employee abuse. If personal experience is any guide, however, these attorneys represent the minority of those who file class actions.

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Scope of California Business & Professions Code Section 16600

As businesses increasingly seek to hire the key employees of their competitors, the differences in state laws concerning non-compete agreements and protection of trade secrets has become more important. In California, the general rule is that non-compete agreements are unenforceable. That statement, however, is an oversimplification. In fact, non-compete agreements are enforceable in California under the right circumstances.

California Business and Professions Code section 16600 provides that “every contract by which anyone is restrained from engaging in a lawful profession, trade, or business of any kind is to that extent void.” The California Supreme Court has held that that “[t]his section invalidates provisions in employment contracts prohibiting an employee from working for a competitor after completion of his employment or imposing a penalty if he does so [citations], unless they are necessary to protect the employer’s trade secrets [citation]. Muggill v. Reuben H. Donnelley Corp., 62 Cal.2d 239, 242 (1965) (italics added). (California’s Uniform Trade Secrets Act may be found at Civil Code section 3426.1.)

Despite the sweeping language utilized by some courts, the exception to the statutory prohibition against non-compete agreements is actually read expansively. In fact, several cases hold that the “trade secret” exception encompasses any act that may be considered “unfair competition.” Thus, one appellate court recently held that Section 16600 “prohibits the enforcement of [a] noncompete clause except as is necessary to protect trade secrets,” Metro Traffic Control, Inc. v. Shadow Traffic Network, 22 Cal.App.4th 853, 860 (1994) (citing Muggill, 62 Cal.2d at 242), but then explained:

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A class action defendant often benefits if it is able to remove the case to federal court whenever possible. Plaintiffs, however, know this, and often artfully draft their class action complaints with an eye toward avoiding federal court jurisdiction. “[I]n general, district courts have federal-question jurisdiction only if a federal question appears on the face of a plaintiff’s complaint. [Citations.] The artful pleading doctrine creates an exception to this general rule.” T & E Pastorino Nursery, 268 F.Supp.2d at 1247.

“Artful pleading exists where a plaintiff articulates an inherently federal claim in state-law terms. [Citations.] A federal court may exercise removal jurisdiction under the ‘artful pleading’ doctrine, even if a federal question does not appear on the face of a well-pleaded complaint, in three circumstances: (1) where federal law completely preempts state law; (2) where the claim is necessarily federal in character; and (3) where the right to relief depends on the resolution of a substantial, disputed federal question.” T & E Pastorino Nursery, at 1247.

If the plaintiff’s right to relief depends on the resolution of a substantial, disputed federal question, then removal is proper regardless of the disguises the plaintiff utilizes to hide the true nature of his or her claims. Thus, if a plaintiffs’ suit is couched in terms of state law but is founded on and wholly derivative of federal law, then removal is proper. As Sparta Surgical Corp. v. National Ass’n of Sec. Dealers, Inc., 159 F.3d 1209, 1212 (9th Cir. 1998), held:

Here, although Sparta’s theories are posited as state law claims, they are founded on the defendants’ conduct in sus-pending trading and de-listing the offering, the propriety of which must be exclusively determined by federal law. The viability of any cause of action founded upon NASD’s conduct in delisting a stock or suspending trading depends on whether the association’s rules were violated.

“To bring a case within the [federal-question removal] statute, a right or immunity created by the Constitution or laws of the United States must be an element, and an essential one, of the plaintiff’s cause of action.” Gully v. First Nat’l Bank in Meridian, 299 U.S. 109, 112 (1936). “Claims brought under state law may ‘arise under’ federal law if vindication of the state right necessarily turns upon construction of a substantial question of federal law, i.e., if federal law is a necessary element of one of the well-pleaded claims.” Ultramar America Ltd. v. Dwelle, 900 F.2d 1412, 1414 (9th Cir. 1990).

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California Court Upholds Arbitration Clause With Class Action Waiver In Employment Agreement

On January 19, 2006, the California Court of Appeal for the Second District, Division 5, addressed “the enforceability of a pre-employment arbitration agreement containing a class action waiver.” Gentry v. Superior Court, 135 Cal.App.4th 944, 37 Cal.Rptr.3d 790, 791 (Cal.App. 2006). In 1995, while employed by Circuit City, Gentry received an “Associate Issue Resolution Package” and a copy of the company’s “Dispute Resolution Rules and Procedures” setting forth various procedures for resolving employment-related disputes. The documents contained an arbitration agreement that included a class action waiver provision. The company provided each employee with 30 days to opt out of the arbitration agreement, but Gentry did not elect to do so. 37 Cal.Rptr.3d at 791-92.

In 2002, Gentry filed a putative class action against Circuit City in California state court alleging that Circuit City misclassified employees in order to avoid paying overtime. Id., at 791. Circuit City moved to compel arbitration. The trial court compelled arbitration with the class action waiver, and stayed the superior court action. The appellate court stated:

The issue in this case is a narrow one: whether the class action waiver in the Circuit City arbitration agreement is an unconscionable provision that renders the provision unenforceable. We conclude the provision is neither procedurally nor substantively unconscionable. Id., at 792.

Gentry recognized that the California Supreme Court “has found pre-employment arbitration agreements is to be adhesive where the agreement is made a condition of employment.” Id., at 793 (citations omitted). This case was different, however, because “Signing the arbitration agreement was not made a condition of Gentry’s employment; he was given 30 days to decide whether or not to opt out of the agreement, and chose not to do so.” Id. The Court also rejected Gentry’s claim that Circuit City “attempted to ‘sucker unsophisticated employees into opting out’ by touting the advantages of arbitration”; the court found that Circuit City had fairly presented both the advantages and disadvantages of arbitration. Id., at 794.

Finally, the court observed that Circuit City would not preclude litigation by means of the class action waiver: “Gentry has alleged statutory violations that could result in substantial damages and penalties should he prevail on his individual claims.” Id., at 795-96. For all of these reasons, the appellate court believed that Discover Bank v. Superior Court, 36 Cal.4th 148 (Cal. 2005), which invalidated a class action waiver provision in a consumer contract of adhesion involving a credit card company, “does not render the class action waiver in this case unenforceable.” Id., at 791.

The opinion is well worth reading. If the case remains viable, Gentry will prove extremely useful in preventing employment law class actions. Defense attorneys and in-house counsel are well advised to keep track of the status of Gentry.

Download PDF file of Gentry v. Superior Court

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California Appellate Court Resolves Matter of First Impression Regarding Reattaching Liens

Under California law, a wiped out junior lien reattaches if the trustor repurchases the real property that secured the debt. The question is, if the trustor obtains a purchase-money loan to buy the property, does the reattaching lien have priority over the purchase-money loan?

This was a matter of first impression when addressed by the court in DMC, Inc. v. Downey Sav. & Loan Assn., 99 Cal.App.4th 190 (2002). As the DMC Court explained at page 195,

The issue in this case, assuming that the original owner’s repurchase of the property after a nonjudicial foreclosure revives the previously-extinguished junior lien, is whether the new purchase-money deed of trust has lien priority over the revived junior lien. This court and the parties have not found any California cases addressing this specific issue.

The junior lienor, DMC, argued that its lien was “first in time” and, accordingly, was entitled to priority. “In California, lien priority is determined by the “first in time, first in right” approach. In regards to real property, liens that are recorded first have priority over any later-recorded liens.” DMC, at 195-96 (footnote and citations omitted).

The new lender, Downey Savings, on the other hand, argued that purchase-money loans are entitled to “super-priority” under California law:

A purchase-money mortgage, for example, has priority over all other liens on real property. Civil Code section 2898, subdivision (a) provides: “A mortgage or deed of trust given for the price of real property, at the time of its conveyance, has priority over all other liens created against the purchaser, subject to the operation of the recording laws.”

DMC, at 196 (footnote and citations omitted).

After analyzing cases from sister jurisdictions, the court held that both equity and law required that the purchase-money mortgage be given priority:

In this case, the foreclosure sale extinguished DMC’s lien. Without Downey’s loan, DMC would have been left holding a wiped out junior lien without any legal claim to repayment. The money advanced by Downey, therefore, afforded DMC a second bite at the apple. Regardless of whether the unexpected opportunity would be fruitful, DMC was no worse off than before the repurchase. Under these circumstances, we conclude that, when the original owner’s repurchase of the property after a trustee’s sale revives the junior deed of trust, that lien remains second to the purchase-money deed of trust that essentially replaced the original senior lien and made possible the repurchase, and hence, the revival of the junior lien.

DMC, at 200 (footnotes and citations omitted).