California Appellate Panel Revives PAGA Action

Employment Law

A California appellate panel recently reversed the dismissal of a nurse’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA) suit involving meal and rest break claims.  

According to Cecilia Arce, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at Southland Care Center, the nursing facility was so chronically understaffed – and she was so overworked – that she never took a rest break and frequently had to work through her meal breaks.  

Even with a typical load of 20 patients per CNA, Arce didn’t have sufficient time to accomplish her assigned tasks. But if one of the other CNAs called in sick, the absent CNA’s patients would be divided up, increasing each person’s workload.  

Although she initially tried to take breaks, Arce said that she was told that it was her duty to help when asked for assistance by a supervising nurse.  

Arce worked her last shift on November 8, 2018. She received payment for her accrued vacation time on November 19 and her final wage statement on November 21, which was payment for the hours she had worked during her last pay period. Neither wage statement contained premium wages for missed meal and rest breaks.  

On November 15, 2019, Arce submitted a prefiling PAGA notice to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency (LWDA).  

After her termination, Arce filed a PAGA complaint. Southland moved for summary judgment, arguing that Arce did not suffer any Labor Code violations during the limitations period and thus lacked standing to pursue her PAGA claims.  

The trial court agreed, but the appellate panel reversed.  

Southland told the court that Arce’s claims were time-barred because her last day of work was November 8, 2018 and therefore, she could not have missed a meal or rest break after November 15, 2018 – one year before she submitted the prefiling notice to the LWDA.  

“This was not sufficient to negate standing,” the court said.  

Arce was entitled to a 10-minute rest break per four hours of work and a 30-minute meal break per five hours of work. For any day Arce’s employer failed to provide a break, it was required to compensate her with a one-hour pay premium. All unpaid premiums were “wages” due upon termination.  

“Thus, any overdue premiums were required to have been paid in the Nov. 21, 2018 wage statement – and every outstanding premium Arce’s employer failed to pay as part of this wage statement constituted its own Labor Code violation, each of which fell within the limitations period,” the court wrote.  

Therefore, it was not enough for Southland to show that Arce had not been denied a meal or rest break during the year before she submitted her PAGA notice, the court explained.  

“They also needed to establish that Arce had been paid all outstanding meal and rest premiums – either before or after her termination,” the court said. “That is, [Southland] needed to provide evidence that either (1) Arce had never suffered a Labor Code violation, and thus, no premiums were due upon her termination, or (2) they paid all premiums at the time of the violations, so no additional monies were due Arce upon her termination.” 

Southland did neither. While the employer emphasized that Arce knew Southland’s policies required her to take meal and rest breaks and that she was never explicitly told not to follow these policies, it failed to negate Arce’s claim that understaffing and workload issues made it effectively impossible for her to take the required breaks.  

To the contrary, Southland’s own evidence supported this claim, the court said, as the employer documented multiple attempts by Arce to speak with her supervisors about staffing shortages.  

“Neither supervisor remedied the staffing shortages, and no one ever told Arce how to take breaks in a way that would be consistent with her duty to her patients,” the court noted, nor did the employer submit data about staffing levels or information about how its patient-to-nurse ratio compared to the industry standards.  

The court reversed summary judgment in favor of the employer and remanded.  

To read the opinion in Arce v. The Ensign Group, Inc., click here.

Why it matters

The California appellate panel was clear: it was not enough for the employer to show that the plaintiff had not been denied a meal or rest break during the year before she submitted her PAGA notice; an employer must also establish that a plaintiff has been paid all outstanding meal and rest premiums, either before or after her termination.    



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