Third District Holds that Employer May Recover Fees for Defense Against Allegation of Wrongly Denied Rest Periods

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In a case with serious implications for Plaintiff’s wage & hour attorneys, the Third District Court of Appeal held that an employer may recover its attorneys fees in a case alleging wrongful denial of rest breaks.  In Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., 2010 WL 2910075 (Cal. Ct. App. 3 Dist. July 27,2010) two former employees challenged an award of attorney’s fees to an employer who successfully defended against allegations of labor law violations. Plaintiff-Appellants Anthony Kirby and Rick Leech, Jr. sued Respondent-Defendant Immoos Fire Protection, Inc. as well as 750 Doe defendants for violating various labor laws as well as the unfair competition law (Bus. & Prof.Code, § 17200 et seq.). Plaintiff dismissed the case after the trial court denied class certification.

Judge Loren McMaster of the Sacramento Superior Court subsequently awarded $49,846.05 in attorney’s fees to Defendant for its defense of the first, sixth and seventh causes of action.  The first cause of action sought recover for violations of the UCL.  The third cause of action alleged that Immoos failed to pay overtime compensation, as required by sections 204.3, 510, and Industrial Wage Commission Order No. 16-2001 (Order No. 16-2001).  The sixth cause of action alleged that Immoos failed to provide Kirby with rest periods as required by Order No. 16-2001.  The Third District Court of Appeal reversed, allowing reasonable fees for the sixth cause of action only.

Defendant moved to recover attorney’s fees from Plaintiff pursuant to Labor Code section 218.5. Plaintiff opposed the motion arguing, in part, that the unilateral fee-shifting provision in favor of plaintiffs provided by Labor Code section 1194 barred an award of fees to Immoos.

Section 218.5 provides in pertinent part: “In any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions, the court shall award reasonable attorney’s fees and costs to the prevailing party if any party to the action requests attorney’s fees and costs upon the initiation of the action…. [¶] This section does not apply to any action for which attorney’s fees are recoverable under Section 1194.”

Section 1194 provides in relevant part: “Notwithstanding any agreement to work for a lesser wage, any employee receiving less than the legal minimum wage or the legal overtime compensation applicable to the employee is entitled to recover in a civil action the unpaid balance of the full amount of this minimum wage or overtime compensation, including interest thereon, reasonable attorney’s fees, and costs of suit.”

The trial court concluded that it is “apparent from the express language of … section 218.5, that only section 1194 can defeat a prevailing party employer’s entitlement to attorneys’ fees under that statute, under the rule of statutory construction, expressio unius est exclusio alterius-the expression of one thing is the exclusion of another.”  “As only [section] 1194 is named as an exception to 218.5, no other Labor Code sections may be implied to defeat a prevailing party employer’s entitlement to attorneys’ fees under that section.”

In addition to the fees allowed for defense against the complaint, the trial court awarded Immoos fees for bringing the motion for attorney’s fees.  Altogether, attorney’s fees were awarded to Immoos in the amount of $49,846.05.

The Court of Appeals concluded that the trial court did not err in awarding fees to Defendant for the sixth cause of action.  However, the court erred in awarding attorney’s fees for defense against claimed violations of section 2810 as set forth in the first and seventh causes of action.

Plaintiff argued that fees should not be awarded since section 218.5 includes an express exception to its bilateral fee-shifting provision, which states: “This section does not apply to any action for which attorney’s fees are recoverable under Section 1194.” Arguing that an “action” refers to an entire case, Kirby concluded that the inclusion of causes of action subject to section 1194 bars Immoos’s recovery of any attorney’s fees in this case.  The Court rejected the argument.

The Court construes the “section 1194 exception as applying only to causes of action for unpaid minimum and overtime wages.”  Id. at *6. “To adopt Kirby’s statutory construction would allow the exception of section 1194 ‘s unilateral fee shifting to eviscerate the rule of section 218.5.”  Id.

We harmonize sections 218.5 and 1194 by holding that section 218.5 applies to causes of action alleging nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or contributions to health, welfare and pension funds. If, in the same case, a plaintiff adds a cause of action for nonpayment of minimum wages or overtime, a defendant cannot recover attorney’s fees for work in defending against the minimum wage or overtime claims. Nonetheless, the addition of a claim for unpaid minimum wages or overtime does not preclude recovery by a prevailing defendant for a cause of action unrelated to the minimum wage or overtime claim so long as a statute or contract provides for fee shifting in favor of the defendant.

Id.

Since Plaintiff’s sixth cause of action alleged that Plaintiff was “owed an additional one hour of wages per day per missed rest period” the court concluded that it was a claim seeking additional wages.  Therefore section 218.5’s provision of attorney’s fees for “any action brought for the nonpayment of wages, fringe benefits, or health and welfare or pension fund contributions…” applied.  Id. **7-8.

It is now common practice to include a rest break claim in wage & hour complaints.  Plaintiffs attorneys will need to seriously reconsider whether they will continue this practice or risk bearing defendant’s fees in an unsuccessful claim.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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