The California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”) allows aggrieved employees to sue their employer to recover civil penalties on behalf of themselves, other employees, and the State of California for various Labor Code violations. PAGA allows claims to be brought for violations of the Labor Code specifically listed in the PAGA statute, as well as any other violation of the Labor Code. PAGA was enacted because California state agencies were having difficulty enforcing violations of the Labor Code.

In a recent case[1], the California Court of Appeal ruled that plaintiffs in PAGA cases do not have the right to a jury trial with respect to their PAGA-based claims. In California, the right to a jury trial is derived from either the statute under which a claim is brought or the state constitution. PAGA does not provide a right to a jury trial, so the court considered whether the state constitution provided plaintiffs with such right.

The Court of Appeal determined that the constitution did not provide the right to a jury trial for PAGA claims for two main reasons. First, by allowing a plaintiff to bring claims on behalf of the State of California, PAGA acts as an administrative regulatory enforcement action. Enforcement actions which are brought by the State do not provide for a jury trial because they are administrative in nature. Per the Court’s decision, a PAGA plaintiff does not have the right to a jury trial because such right was unavailable to other state agencies. Thus, despite PAGA claims being brought by employees rather than state agencies, the Court found that there was no right to a jury trial.

Second, PAGA grants courts broad discretion to determine the amount of penalties for violations of labor law. The courts’ discretion in determining these penalties is equitable in nature and the weighing of equitable factors is traditionally up to the court, rather than a jury. Due to the equitable nature of the court’s analysis, combined with the fact that the harm suffered by the plaintiff is not an issue, only the court has the right to determine such penalties.

Employers should be aware of the Court’s decision, as well as PAGA as a whole, because the potential penalties employers face for violations of the Labor Code in California can be severe. PAGA provides employees with a great deal of power to assert claims against employers, including claims asserting violations of labor laws suffered by others.  However, the Court’s recent ruling makes clear that such claims will be heard by the Court rather than a jury, which is at least a small consolation for most employers.

[1] LaFace v. Ralphs Grocery Co., 2022 WL 498847 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 18, 2022).