In Michael Williams v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. S227228, (Cal. 2017) the action is seeking civil penalties on behalf of the State of California and aggrieved employees statewide for alleged wage and hour violations based on Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”). In the course of discovery, plaintiff Michael Williams (“Williams”) sought contact information for fellow California employees. When the defendant employer, Marshalls of CA, LLC, (“Marshalls”) resisted, Williams filed a motion to compel.
In 2013, Williams sued Marshalls under PAGA. The complaint alleged Marshalls failed to provide Williams and other aggrieved employees meal and rest periods or compensation in lieu of the required breaks. According to the complaint, Marshalls understaffed stores, required employees to work during meal periods without compensation, and directed managers to erase violations from its time records.
Williams issued two interrogatories asking Marshalls to supply the name, address, telephone number, and company employment history of each nonexempt California employee in the period March 2012 through February 2014, as well as the total number of such employees. Marshalls responded that there were approximately 16,500 employees, but refused to provide their information. It contended the request was overbroad; unduly burdensome because Williams sought private information without first demonstrating he was aggrieved or that others were aggrieved; and an invasion of the privacy of third parties under California Constitution, article I, section 1. Williams moved to compel responses.
The Court of Appeal denied relief. It held that, as the party seeking to compel discovery, Williams needed to set forth specific facts showing good cause justifying the discovery sought but had failed to do so. And the Court of Appeal concluded that because third party privacy interests were implicated, Williams must demonstrate a compelling need for discovery.
The Court examined the lower courts actions to determine if there was an abuse of discretion. A trial court construe the facts liberally in favor of discovery, may not use its discretion to extend the limits on discovery beyond those authorized by the Legislature, and should prefer partial to outright denials of discovery. And in the absence of contrary court order, a civil litigant’s right to discovery is broad if the matter either is itself admissible in evidence or appears reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.
Williams was presumptively entitled to an answer to his interrogatory seeking the identity and contact information of his fellow Marshalls employees. Marshalls had the burden of establishing cause to refuse Williams an answer.
Marshalls asserts Williams exceeded “the scope of permissible discovery” by requesting contact information for employees not sharing his position, job classification, and store location. As this objection involves no claim of privilege, whether contact information for employees at other stores is discoverable turns in the first instance on whether the request for it is reasonably calculated to lead to the discovery of admissible evidence.
On its face, the complaint alleges Marshalls committed Labor Code violations and seeks penalties and declaratory relief on behalf of Williams and any other injured California employees. The interrogatory seeks to identify Marshalls’s other California employees, as a first step to identifying other aggrieved employees and obtaining admissible evidence of the violations and policies alleged in the complaint. The Court says contact information for potential class members is generally discoverable, so that the lead plaintiff may learn the names of other persons who might assist in prosecuting the case.
Marshalls contends the text of PAGA reflects a legislative judgment that broad discovery in PAGA actions should be limited until after a plaintiff has supplied proof of alleged violations. The Court held that in non-Paga class actions, the contact information for potential other plaintiffs is routinely discoverable. The Court also said that nothing in a specifically PAGA lawsuit leads to construing the rules of discovery more narrowly. The Court also said Marshalls did not meet its burden to show why the discovery was inappropriate. Therefore, the Court reversed the lower court’s ruling denying the plaintiff’s motion for contact information of other Marshalls employees.