In a big blow to employers, the California Supreme Court unanimously held today that plaintiffs and their lawyers must be given access to companywide employee contact information—including addresses and phone numbers—at the onset of a lawsuit and without first establishing a prima facie showing their case has merit. 

In Williams v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County, S227228, Ct. App. 2/1 B259967, the California Supreme Court rejected both the trial court and lower appellate court's holding that the plaintiff in a PAGA or Private Attorney General Action could only get the employee contact information for some 16,500 employees statewide at one of the defendant's stores by first showing his claim of wage and hour violations had some merit.

Instead, the California Supreme Court said companywide contact information must be provided at the onset of the litigation in either a PAGA or wage and hour class action before any determination of merit or before any class certification.

The Court gave only two concessions to employers' concerns over privacy and misuse of the information. First, the Court adopted a long-standing lower court decision, Belaire-West Landscape, Inc. v. Superior Court, 149 Cal App.4th 554 (2007) which allows employers to first notify the affected employees of the potential release of their individual contact information and provide them with an opportunity to opt out (as opposed to opt in) the release of that information.

Second, the Court endorsed a court "prohibiting disclosure of any received contact information outside the confines of a specific lawsuit."

The Court rejected any burden on the employer to produce these lists, saying with computer databases, the cost of providing information for 10,000 employees "might prove little different than for 1,000 or 100."

However, the Court's opinion [Link] strongly endorsed liberal discovery at the onset of these employment lawsuits, saying it promoted the discovery of new violations in addition to finding evidence supporting those violations alleged in the existing complaint.

Today's decision gives tremendous leverage to plaintiff's counsel in both PAGA and wage and hour class actions to use this discovery to disrupt relations between employers and employees, even where there are no underlying violations of California labor law. It rejects attempts by California employers to require these plaintiffs to demonstrate some meritorious case first before launching into release of California-wide employee contact information.

This decision highlights, now more than ever, the importance of early intervention in these types of cases and for companies who employ people in California to rigorously ensure their practices comply with California's web of wage and hour regulations, which are often far different than federal standards.

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