California Appeals Court Tosses Pro Se PAGA Suit

Employment Law

A pro se Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) plaintiff was engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, a California appellate court held in an unpublished decision, affirming dismissal of the action.

Christopher Stone, a non-attorney, filed a pro se PAGA action against his former employer, Charles Kim.

The trial court sustained a demurrer, dismissed the case and awarded costs in Kim’s favor.

Stone appealed, but the appellate panel affirmed.

PAGA allows employees to file lawsuits on behalf of the state to help the state with labor law enforcement, with employees suing as proxies or agents of the state’s labor law enforcement agency.

In Viking River Cruises, Inc. v. Moriana, the U.S. Supreme Court distinguished between representative and individual components of claims under PAGA for the issue of arbitrability, but noted that all actions pursuant to the statute are representative “in that they are brought by employees acting as representatives—that is, as agents or proxies—of the state.”

An employee plaintiff represents the same legal rights and interests as the state agency, the appellate court said. Recovery of civil penalties the agency would have assessed and collected and a judgment under PAGA bind both the employee and the state.

“Stone, a nonattorney, cannot represent the state agency,” the court wrote. “Litigants may represent their own interests in civil proceedings. Although no California statute codifies this right, California courts have consistently acknowledged it. Nonattorneys may not practice law for others, however, without being active members of the bar. By bringing claims under the Act, Stone attempts to represent the state agency. He cannot do this, for he is not an attorney.”

Federal precedents support this outcome, the court added, with at least two opinions from California federal district courts that have found plaintiffs may not bring pro se PAGA claims.

The court also analogized to the False Claims Act, where relators represent the United States and cannot bring pro se actions.

Similarly, PAGA plaintiffs “represent and can bind the government, which needs adequate representation,” the court explained. “The Act does not expressly authorize pro per litigants to bring claims in court. Stone does not identify another legal source for nonattorneys to represent other people or entities under the Act. Pro per litigants cannot sue under the Act.”

Because the trial court correctly dismissed the action, the award of costs for the employer was proper, the appellate panel said, rejecting Stone’s argument that the award was improper because he is indigent and the case was not frivolous.

To read the opinion in Stone v. Kim, click here.

Why it matters

Although it is unpublished, the decision provides a road map for employers to obtain dismissal of a pro se PAGA action.



pursuant to New York DR 2-101(f)

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