Tag Archives: Trial court

Second District Orders Published Serpa v. California Surety Investigations, Inc.

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Old crest of the club. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, the Second District ordered published Serpa v. California Surety Investigations, Inc., et al., No. B237363, __ Cal. App. 4th __ (filed Mar. 21, 2013, modified Apr. 19, 2013).  At the trial court level, the court denied defendants’  motion to compel arbitration, finding the agreement to arbitrate lacked mutuality.  Defendants argued that the requisite mutuality was provided by the bilateral arbitration provisions in the employee handbook, incorporated by reference into the arbitration agreement.  The trial court rejected this argument because defendant could change the handbook at its sole discretion and without notice.  The Second District reversed.

The motion to compel arbitration was based on three documents: (1) “Acknowledgment of Receipt of Arbitration and Agreement to Arbitrate”; (2) “Acknowledgment of Receipt of Employee Handbook”; and (3) a copy of the employee handbook.  Plaintiff contended the agreement to arbitrate is one-sided because it requires her to submit claims against her employer to arbitration but does not require her employer to arbitrate its claims against her: “I understand and agree that if my employment is terminated or my employment status is otherwise changed or any other dispute arises concerning my employment . . . , I will submit any such dispute exclusively to binding arbitration.”

The Court of Appeal agreed that if “that the full extent of the agreement, we would likely agree it lacked mutuality because it requires Serpa to submit to arbitration ‘any such disputes’ involving her employment without imposing a similar obligation on CSI.”

However, because the agreement incorporated the arbitration policy in the employee handbook, the Court concluded that this “salvages the agreement by establishing an unmistakable mutual obligation on the part of CSI and Serpa to arbitrate ‘any dispute’ arising out of her employment.”  Plaintiff argued that the while the arbitration policy in the handbook establishes a bilateral obligation to arbitrate, she insisted that the mutual obligation is illusory because, the employer is authorized to alter the terms of any policy contained in the handbook at its sole discretion and without notice.  The Court disagreed, reasoning that the right to alter the terms was limited by the covenant of good faith and fair dealing implied in every contract.

The implied covenant of good faith prevents one contracting party from “unfairly frustrating the other party‟s right to receive the benefits of the agreement actually made.” (Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 349; accord, American Express Bank, FSB v. Kayatta (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 563, 570.) Thus, it has long been the rule that a provision in an agreement permitting one party to modify contract terms does not, standing alone, render a contract illusory because the party with that authority may not change the agreement in such a manner as to frustrate the purpose of the contract. (See Perdue v. Crocker National Bank (1985) 38 Cal.3d 913, 923 [“„where a contract confers on one party a discretionary power affecting the rights of the other, a duty is imposed to exercise that discretion in good faith and in accordance with fair dealing‟”]; see generally Asmus v. Pacific Bell (2000) 23 Cal.4th 1, 16 [employer‟s right to unilaterally modify employment agreement does not make agreement illusory]; Badie v. Bank of America (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 779, 787-788 [contracting party with unilateral right to modify contract does not have “carte blanche to make any kind of change whatsoever”; unilateral right to modify, when limited by the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, requires the party holding the power to affect the other party‟s rights to exercise it in a manner consistent with the reasonable contemplation of the parties at the time of the contract].) Application of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is no different in the arbitration context. In 24 Hour Fitness, Inc. v. Superior Court (1998) 66 Cal.App.4th 1199 (24 Hour Fitness), a former employee brought an action against the company, doing business as 24 Hour Nautilus, for sexual harassment and related torts. The employer moved to compel arbitration based on an arbitration policy in its employee handbook, which also contained a provision allowing the company to amend the handbook at its sole discretion. The 24 Hour Fitness court rejected the plaintiff‟s contention the unilateral right-to-amend provision made the arbitration agreement illusory and thus unconscionable. Observing the parties to an arbitration agreement, like any contract, are bound by the contract‟s implied covenant of good faith, the court explained, “Nautilus‟s discretionary power to modify the terms of the personnel handbook on [written] notice indisputably carries with it the duty to exercise that right fairly and in good faith. [Citation.] So construed, the modification provision does not render the contract illusory.” (Id. at p. 1214.)

Judges & Attorneys

Presiding Justice Perluss delivered the opinion for the court, with Associate Justices Woods and Jackson concurring.

Appeal from an order of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Judge Ruth Ann Kwan.

Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton, Fred M. Plevin, Jeffrey P. Ames and Matthew R. Jedreski for Defendants and Appellants, California Surety Investigations, Inc., Two Jinn, Inc., Aladdin Bail Bonds and Peter Holdsworth.

Stevens, Carlberg & McMillan and Daniel P. Stevens for Plaintiff and Respondent Valerie Serpa.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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Engaging in Voluminous Discovery and Litigating Two Motions to Compel Sufficient to Waive Right to Arbitrate

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In an unpublished decision, the First District Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court’s denial of a motion to compel arbitration in a wage and hour class action, where defendants conducted voluminous discovery and filed and fully litigating two motions to compel further responses to discovery, a motion for sanctions and a motion for a protective order.    Partridge, et al. v. Hott Wings, Inc., et al., No. A130266, 2012 WL 470458 (Feb. 14, 2012).

Discussion

The Court found that Defendants’ delay in filing their petition to compel arbitration “connotes an intent not to arbitrate”.  Id. Defendants conducted substantial discovery:

Between March 2010 and the October 2010 hearing on defendants’ motion to compel arbitration, defendants engaged in voluminous written discovery to which plaintiffs responded.   In addition, defendants deposed numerous plaintiffs and third party witnesses.   Although plaintiffs had begun deposing witnesses, they had not yet obtained basic documents from defendants through discovery.   The discovery focused on the liability of individual defendants and the franchise defendants that employ plaintiffs.   As a result of defendants’ discovery requests, plaintiffs provided information regarding plaintiffs’ estimated damages, which defendants were responsible for which violations, and the liability of the individual as well as the franchise defendants.   A reasonable inference is that the information gained from defendants’ discovery goes to significant issues in plaintiffs’ case.

Id.

In addition, the Court found that Defendants “substantially invoked the litigation machinery” by: Continue reading

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Second District Reverses Class Action Judgment Relating to Bonuses Allegedly Due After Merger

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The Second District reversed a trial court’s judgment in favor of employees in a class action trial.  Pearline Zalewa v. Tempo Research Corporation, B210429, 2010 WL 3735240 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist. Sept. 27, 2010).  Defendant  fiber-optic equipment manufacturer was sued in a class action by its former employees who claimed that the manufacturer breached an obligation to pay them annual bonuses, an obligation that allegedly continued for years after they were laid off from work during a business downturn.  Id. The court concluded that the employees were not entitled to any recovery: “All but two of the employees relinquished their right to sue when they were laid off, in return for compensation that exceeded their earned severance pay. In any event, there was no promise made to pay bonuses to the employees after they were laid off.”  Id.

The Trial Court’s Judgment

The trial court conducted a bench trial in January 2008, finding that plaintiffs were entitled to recover a direct bonus under theories of breach of contract, promissory estoppel, accounting, and unfair business practices. Id. The court deemed the bonus payments to be “wages” under the Labor Code. Id. And because the bonus payments are wages, plaintiffs were awarded prejudgment interest and attorney fees under the Labor Code. Id. The court enumerated the amount of the award for each employee, less offsets for monies already paid by defendants, plus interest. Id. The total amount of the award, including interest, was approximately $99,000, and plaintiffs’ counsel was awarded attorney fees of $881,715.  Id. Continue reading

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Fourth District Affirms Reduction of Fee Award to 12% of Fees Requested Under Labor Code Section 218.5

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The Fourth District Court of Appeal affirmed a fee award of $7,475 (about 12% of requested fees) under Labor Code section 218.5, where plaintiff recovered only $3,290 in statutory waiting time penalties and the damages sought in his complaint and ultimately obtained at trial were substantially less than the jurisdictional maximum for a limited civil case.  Cochran v. El Cajon Motors, No. D055390, 2010 WL 3637540 (Cal. Ct. App. 4th Dist. Sept. 21, 2010).

Background

Defendant El Cajon Motors employed Cochran as a sales manager at its El Cajon Ford dealership until it terminated his employment in mid-January 2007. Id. *1. Continue reading

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Second District Holds That, Pending Brinker, Employer Has a Duty to Provide Meal Breaks “as a Practical Matter”

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While the California Supreme Court will resolve this issue shortly, in Brookler v. Radioshack Corp., B212893, 2010 WL 3341816 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist. Aug. 26, 2010), an unpublished opinion issued today, the Second District Court of Appeal held that “Unless and until our Supreme Court holds otherwise, we agree with the analysis in Cicairos which held an employer’s obligation under the Labor Code and related wage orders is to do more than simply permit meal breaks in theory; it must also provide them as a practical matter.”

Morry Brookler filed a class action complaint against Radioshack for its alleged failure to provide employees with a meal period of not less than 30 minutes during a work period of more than five hours.  Id. *1.  The trial court certified the class. Radioshack filed a second motion for decertification after issuance of the opinion in Brinker, 165 Cal. App. 4th 25 which the trial court granted. The California Supreme Court granted review in Brinker and the matter is currently pending. Continue reading

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New Trial Granted for Arguing to Jury That Future Wages Are Recoverable Even After Resignation

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In an unreported opinion, Wolfson v. Tukatech, Inc., 2010 WL 3170521 (Cal. Ct. App. 2d Dist. Aug. 12, 2010), the Second District Court of Appeal considered whether a new trial was correctly ordered after plaintiff’s attorney argued to the jury about plaintiff’s right to recover for his future wages.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the new trial order because the “record supports the trial court’s finding that Wolfson’s trial counsel committed prejudicial misconduct when arguing to the jury about Wolfson’s right to recover for his future wages”.

The court held that the plaintiff’s attorney misstated the law by “repeatedly argu[ing] unauthorized instructions whose flaws should have been obvious, even after repeated objections to those instructions were sustained”; thus, the court held “that the trial court did not abuse its broad discretion by finding that misconduct occurred.” Continue reading

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Waiting Time Penalty Under Labor Code Section 203(a) Should Be Calculated Based on Actual Hours Worked

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The Fourth District issued an unpublished opinion discussing the proper means of calculating the waiting time penalty under Labor Code section 203.  In Riley v. Valencia, 2010 WL 3195816 (Cal. Ct. App. 4th Dist. Aug. 13, 2010), the trial court utilized the actual hours the employee worked to calculate the penalty.  The employee, Ashley Riley, contended the trial court improperly calculated the section 203 waiting time penalty, arguing that the court should have multiplied her hourly rate ($6.75) for 30 days at eight hours per day for a total penalty of $1,620, as opposed to multiplying her hourly rate ($6.75) by her average daily hours worked (3.5 hours) for 30 days for a total penalty of $708.75.  Riley contends that section 203 required the trial court to use eight hours per day in its calculations, even though Riley actually worked only three to four hours per day.

The Fourth District concluded the trial court properly calculated the penalty and affirmed the judgment.

Facts

Riley bused tables for employer Valencia (doing business as La Carreta Mexican Restaurant). Eventually, Riley left or was discharged from her employment and filed suit against Valencia for waiting time penalties for unpaid wages due, among other employment-related causes of action. The trial court found in favor of Riley pursuant to section 203 and made the following calculations: “a. Penalty for failure to pay all wages due upon discharge: 6.75 x 3.5 = 23.625 x 30 = $708.75.”

Issue

The sole issue facing the Fourth District was whether the trial court properly calculated the waiting time penalty pursuant to section 203 where it used Riley’s actual hours worked, instead of a generic eight-hour work day, to calculate the “wages” of the employee at the “same rate” pursuant to Labor Code § 203(a).

Because section 203 does not explicitly define “same rate,” Riley contends the waiting time penalty calculus should rely on section 510, subdivision (a)’s definition of a day’s work: “Eight hours of labor constitutes a day’s work.” We conclude the trial court properly calculated the waiting time penalty because the trial court averaged Riley’s daily pay rate ($6.75 x 3.5 hours) and applied that number ($23.625) to reach the correct penalty result of $708.75.

Section 203(a) states:

If an employer willfully fails to pay, without abatement or reduction, in accordance with Sections 201, 201.3, 201.5, 202, and 205.5, any wages of an employee who is discharged or who quits, the wages of the employee shall continue as a penalty from the due date thereof at the same rate until paid or until an action therefor is commenced; but the wages shall not continue for more than 30 days. An employee who secretes or absents himself or herself to avoid payment to him or her, or who refuses to receive the payment when fully tendered to him or her, including any penalty then accrued under this section, is not entitled to any benefit under this section for the time during which he or she so avoids payment.”

The court concluded that “same rate” as used in Section 203(a) means the “employee’s actual daily wage and does not refer to an arbitrary daily wage based on a standard eight-hour workday.”  Id. *2.

Following the plain meaning of section 203, California courts have consistently construed the “same rate” variable of the waiting time penalty calculus to consist of the ratio of dollars per hours actually worked. (Mamika v. Barca (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 487, 490; Barnhill v. Robert Saunders & Co. (1981) 125 Cal.App.3d 1, 7-8; Oppenheimer v. Sunkist Growers, Inc. (1957) 153 Cal.App.2d Supp. 897, 898-899.) Courts take this “daily wage” and multiply it by up to 30 days, thereby yielding the waiting time penalty. (Mamika, at p. 490; Barnhill, at pp. 7-8; Oppenheimer, at pp. Supp. 898-899.)

Following this authority, we also conclude that section 203, subdivision  (a) means exactly what it says that “the wages of the employee shall continue … at the same rate” for up to 30 days. Here, the trial court correctly calculated the waiting time penalty because the employee’s “same rate” plainly refers to the employee’s actual daily wage and does not refer to an arbitrary daily wage based on a standard eight-hour workday. (Mamika v. Barca, supra, 68 Cal.App.4th at pp. 492-493.) This interpretation has been utilized by California courts since at least 1957, and as early as 1909 in other state courts interpreting similar statutes. (Oppenheimer v. Sunkist Growers, Inc., supra, 153 Cal.App.2d at pp. Supp. 898-899; St. Louis, I.M. & S.R. Co. v. Bryant (1909) 92 Ark. 425 [122 S.W. 996].) Riley does not cite, nor have we found, any case law supporting her contention that section 203 requires trial courts to calculate the waiting time penalty with a fixed eight-hour workday.

Plaintiff contended that the court should import section 510(a) statement that eight hours of labor constitutes a “day’s work” into section 203’s waiting time penalty calculation.  But the court concluded that section 510(a) “applies to overtime pay rates and thus is not applicable to section 203’s waiting time penalty calculation”.  The court noted that “neither a ‘day’s work,’ nor ‘an 8 hour workday,’ nor any reference to section 510 appears in section 203.”  Id. *2.  The court found that section 203(a) requires “employee-specific calculations because it refers to ‘the wages of an employee’ or the employee’s wage per the employee’s hours worked.”

Judges and Attorneys

The appeal was taken from a judgment of Hon. Eddie C. Sturgeon, the Superior Court of San Diego County.

Justice Gilbert Nares wrote the opinion, with Justices Patricia D. Benke and Cynthia Aaron concurring.

Scott A. McMillan of The McMillan Law Firm, APC in La Mesa, CA represented Plaintiff and Appellant.

Marc Howard Mandelblatt of the Law Offices of Marc Mandelblatt in San Diego, CA represented Defendant and Respondent.

By CHARLES H. JUNG

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Sixth District Reverses Grant of Summary Adjudication of UTSA Claim on Equitable Estoppel Grounds

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In Insyst Ltd. v. Applied Materials, Inc., 2010 WL 2892712 (Cal. Ct. App. Jul. 22, 2010) (unpublished), the California Sixth District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s grant of summary adjudication of plaintiff’s misappropriation of trade secrets cause of action. The trial court granted summary adjudication based on the lapse of the statute of limitations. The Court of Appeal reversed on equitable estoppel grounds. Defendant “effectively concedes that in its motion it presented no evidence of plaintiff’s conduct after December 2002 apart from the filing of the complaint on July 30, 2004. Instead, in its reply defendant simply challenged plaintiff to present evidence of its diligence, arguing that plaintiff made no showing of diligence. This is not how a party should be able to obtain a summary adjudication.”
By CHARLES H. JUNG

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