No Jury Right for PAGA Claims

Employment Law


Does an employee have the right to a jury trial in a PAGA suit?

Not according to a recent California appellate panel decision in a suit brought by a cashier at Ralphs Grocery Company.

Jill La Face alleged that Ralphs violated a wage order that requires employers to provide suitable seating when the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of seats, or for a job where standing is required, to provide seating for employee use when their use does not interfere with an employee’s duties.

Ralphs moved for a bench trial. The trial court granted the motion and held a 12-day bench trial, featuring testimony on both sides from ergonomics experts and Ralphs employees and supervisors.

The trial court found that Ralphs had not violated the applicable wage order because the evidence showed that even when lulls occurred in a cashier’s primary duties, the cashiers were still required to move about the store fulfilling various other tasks.

La Face appealed, but the panel affirmed.

Under California law, the right to a jury trial may be afforded by statute or pursuant to the state constitution, which preserves the right as it existed at common law in 1850. Courts look to the “gist” of the action to determine whether a jury right is available, the panel explained, “whether the nature of the rights involved and the facts of the particular case show that it is legal and therefore cognizable at law.”

La Face took the position that PAGA actions are for civil penalties (traditionally tried to juries) and arise out of the employment relationship, akin to common law causes of action for breach of contract.

Alternatively, Ralphs argued that no right to a jury trial exists because PAGA is a modern statutory innovation unknown at common law, PAGA plaintiffs act as proxies for the state and the penalties that serve as remedies are subject to equitable considerations at the court’s discretion.

Relying on Iskanian v. CLS Transportation to emphasize that PAGA actions are representative actions on behalf of the state, the panel sided with the employer.

“PAGA plaintiffs stand in the shoes of the administrative agency and possess the same right and interest as it does,” the court wrote. “The nature of that right is administrative regulatory enforcement, which occurs in administrative proceedings and which is subject to judicial review without a jury trial right.”

The panel also analogized to other legislative creations (such as Proposition 65, the Unfair Competition Law and the False Advertising Law) for the principle that although PAGA provides for monetary penalties, it also permits courts to award less than the maximum penalty authorized “if, based on the facts and circumstances of the particular case, to do otherwise would result in an award that is unjust, arbitrary and oppressive, or confiscatory.”

These equitable factors weigh against the existence of a jury trial right, the court said.

“We understand [La Face’s] contention that PAGA is just another action for a civil penalty and therefore an action at law triable by a jury,” the panel wrote. “But … PAGA is not a garden variety civil penalty action. Instead, it contains several unique features that we conclude make it unlike any pre-1850 common law action and therefore unsuitable for a trial by jury.”

First, PAGA is a civil action only in the sense that its designated forum is the trial courts.

“PAGA plaintiffs are still mere proxies for the state, bringing what would otherwise be an administrative regulatory enforcement action on its behalf,” the court said. “The action is still subject to the same legal rights and interests as the state and that right does not include the right to a jury trial.”

It would be anomalous to vest the state’s proxies with more rights than the state would otherwise have on its own, the panel pointed out.

Further, PAGA’s penalty provisions are subject to a variety of equitable factors which “call for ‘the type of qualitative evaluation and weighing of a variety of factors that is typically undertaken by a court and not a jury.’”

The wage order at issue—involving suitable seating—also represents “the kind of novel rights unknown at common law.”

“If tried to a jury, the parties would gain a jury trial right not otherwise available to either the agency or employers,” the panel wrote. “Many of the violations would be based on newly created rights that did not exist at common law. Jurors would be called upon to sometimes exercise the same discretion, subject to the same limitations and conditions, as the administrative agency on whose behalf the action was brought, when deciding whether to assess penalties in the first place. They would then be asked to apply equitable principles to determine whether to reduce those penalties below the amounts set by statute. On balance, we cannot conclude that such an action has a pre-1850 common law analog that would call for the right to a jury trial under the California Constitution.”

The panel also affirmed the trial court’s merits decision.

“The trial court’s findings were based on the evidence presented about cashiers’ job duties as a whole, not simply Ralphs’s stated preferences about the nature of customer service,” the court said. “Witnesses called by both parties testified about the cashiers’ duties, including the expectation that cashiers were supposed to stay busy even while not checking out customers. An expectation that employees work while on the clock, rather than look at their phones or do nothing, seems objectively reasonable.”

To read the opinion in La Face v. Ralphs Grocery Company, click here.

Why it matters: Given the unique nature of PAGA claims—from the fact that plaintiffs stand in as proxies for the state to the equitable nature of the remedies—there is no right to a jury trial, the appellate panel held.

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