California Court of Appeal Holds No Punitive Damages Available for Wide Variety of Labor Code Violations

For the past several years, plaintiffs have routinely sought punitive damages in their wage and hour actions under the California Labor Code. A December 3, 2008 decision by the California Court of Appeals for the Fourth Appellate District may put a stop to that practice.

The plaintiff in Brewer v. Premier Golf Properties sued her former employer for denying her meal and rest breaks, failing to pay her minimum wage for all hours worked, and not providing her with accurate itemized wage statements. The jury awarded the plaintiff $26,300 in unpaid wages and penalties and, after finding that the defendant employer had engaged in malice, awarded the plaintiff an additional $195,000 in punitive damages.

The court of appeal reversed the punitive damages award on two grounds. First, the court held that the Labor Code statutes regulating pay stubs (§ 226), minimum wages (§ 1197.1), meal breaks (§ 512) and rest breaks all create new rights and obligations not previously existing in the common law. Those statutes also established detailed remedial schemes for the rights they created. Accordingly, the court concluded that those Labor Code provisions fell within the long-standing “new right-exclusive remedy” doctrine, which provides that “where a statute creates new rights and obligations not previously existing in the common law, the express statutory remedy is deemed to be the exclusive remedy available for statutory violations, unless it is inadequate.” The plaintiff did not raise, and the court did not address, the question of under what circumstances a statutory remedy would be deemed inadequate. 

The court also noted that punitive damages are ordinarily limited to actions “for the breach of an obligation not arising from contract.” Although the plaintiff’s claims for unpaid wages, failure to provide meal/rest breaks and improper wage statements were all based upon statutory provisions, the statutory provisions apply only when the parties have entered into an employment contract and are therefore obligations “arising from the employment contract.” Accordingly, the court viewed the defendant’s violation of the Labor Code provisions as a breach of obligations arising from its employment contract with the plaintiff for which punitive damages were not available.

The good news for employers is that the court’s reasoning can be applied to a wide variety of Labor Code provisions, many of which apply only in the context of the employment relationship. 

Marlene Muraco authored this blog entry.

Information contained in this publication is intended for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, nor is it a substitute for the professional judgment of an attorney.