Plaintiff’s Pre-Class Certification Discovery Request for Contact Information of Putative Class Members Properly Limited to Employees who Worked in the Same Store Location as Plaintiff California Court of Appeal Holds
The decision of the California Court of Appeal in Williams v. Superior Court (Marshalls), No. B259967 (Cal. Ct. App. May 15, 2015) will have California employers breathing a sigh of relief, at least for representative actions involving multiple locations.
In Williams, the California Court of Appeals for the Second Appellate District (which includes Los Angeles County) upheld the decision of the trial court denying Plaintiff’s motion to compel the disclosure of the names and contact information for all putative class members in a representative wage and hour action brought under California’s Private Attorney General Act (“PAGA”).
Plaintiff Michael Williams alleged in his PAGA action that Marshalls failed to provide its employees with meal and rest breaks, accurate wage statements, reimbursement for business-related expenses, and earned wages as required by California law.
At the outset of the case and prior to Plaintiff sitting for his own deposition, Plaintiff served interrogatories seeking production of the names and contact information for all non-exempt employees of Marshalls. Defendant objected to the requests and Plaintiff moved to compel.
The trial court granted the motion only with respect to the names and addresses of employees who worked in the same store location as Plaintiff and denied it with respect to Defendant’s other locations. The trial court ordered that Plaintiff could renew his motion to compel the remaining information after he had been deposed “for at least six productive hours.” The court also ruled that that in opposition to any such motion, Marshalls could attempt to show Plaintiff’s substantive claims had no factual merit. Plaintiff appealed the decision by writ of mandate.
Noting that “the courts will not lightly bestow statewide discovery power to a litigant who has only a parochial claim”, the Court of Appeal denied Plaintiff’s writ. The Court reasoned that Plaintiff did not “evince any knowledge of the practices of Marshalls” at stores other than his own and did not allege any fact that would lead a reasonable person to believe he knows whether Marshall’s has a uniform state policy. The court wrote: “We conclude bare allegations unsupported by any reason to believe a defendant’s conduct extends statewide furnishes no good cause for statewide discovery.”
The Court of Appeals also held that, even if Plaintiff’s request for the names and contact information of putative class members was justified, the privacy rights of those employees under the California Constitution would outweigh Plaintiff’s need for the information.
Applying this balancing test we conclude Marshall’s employees’ privacy interests outweigh plaintiff’s need to discover their identity at this time. Those interests begin with the employees’ right to be free from unwanted attention and perhaps fear of retaliation from an employer. On the other hand, plaintiff’s need for the discovery at this time is practically nonexistent. His first task will be to establish he was himself subjected to violations of the Labor Code. As he has not yet sat for his deposition, this task remains unfulfilled.
The potential for vast premature discovery and all that it entails – costly discovery quarrels, expensive document productions, and distraction of employees and management alike – has bedeviled California employers for years. This case may signal the end of expensive discovery fishing expeditions where the quarry is potential additional class representatives and new theories of discovery unknown to the initial class plaintiff. This decision is also important because it clarifies the extent of an employer’s obligation to maintain the privacy of employee identifying information in the context of a representative action.
Scott Brink is a partner at Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP. Mr. Brink is a class action litigator and employment law specialist.