Court Holds Employees' Contact Information Must Be Disclosed Despite Employee Agreement Stating Otherwise

To close out 2008 wage and hour law, an appellate court issued a ruling in Crab Addison, Inc. v. Superior Court.  The case is a very significant holding on employees' privacy rights in the context of wage and hour class actions. 

Crab Addison, Inc. (CAI), which operates Joe’s Crab Shack, refused to disclose employee names and contact information when asked to do so by plaintiff’s counsel in a wage and hour class action. Plaintiff, Martinez, argued that this information was necessary to meeting his burden of proving class certification was appropriate, he was entitled to the information, and production of the information would not violate the witnesses’ right to privacy.

CAI argued that its employees had a heightened expectation of privacy as to their contact information based on forms they signed regarding release of their contact information. After the lawsuit was filed by plaintiff, CAI had its employees sign a form stating the following:

RELEASE OF CONTACT INFORMATION

            From time to time, Joe’s Crab Shack (the “Company”) may be asked to provide your contact information, including your home address and telephone number, to third parties. The Company may be asked to provide such information in the context of legal proceedings, including class action lawsuits.

            We understand that many employees may consider this information to be private and may not want it released. Accordingly, please indicate whether you consent to the disclosure of your contact information by marking the appropriate box.

  • No, I do not consent to the Company’s disclosure of my contact information to third parties.
  • Yes, I consent to the Company’s disclosure of my contact information to third parties.
  • I would like to be asked on a case-by-case basis whether I consent to the disclosure of my contact information to a particular third party, and my contact information should only be provided if I affirmatively consent in writing.

The bottom of the release forms contained the following:

            NOTE: Your response does not create a guarantee that the Company will not release your contact information as circumstances may require or warrant it. For instance, the Company may be required or compelled by law to disclose your contact information, regardless of whether you consent to such disclosure, or it may determine that it must do so should it determine that you are a witness in a lawsuit or should it be requested by law enforcement officers. In such an event, the Company cannot be held responsible for disclosing this information even if you have not consented to disclosure or asked for a case-by-case determination of disclosure.

Arguing that this release form created a heightened expectation of privacy, CAI said that if the employees’ contact information is disclosed, only contact information for employees who affirmatively “opt in” to have their information disclosed should be given to plaintiff's counsel. Defendant argued for an “opt in” process because it would result in a smaller number of employees’ contact information being disclosed. This is opposed to an “opt out” process by which the employees’ contact information is automatically disclosed to plaintiff’s counsel unless they object to the disclosure. 

The appellate court heavily relied on the recent case, Puerto v. Superior Court (2008) 158 Cal.App.4th 1242. In that case the court explained that “[t]he ‘expansive scope of discovery’ is a deliberate attempt to ‘take the “game” element out of trial preparation’ and to ‘do away “with the sporting theory of litigation—namely, surprise at the trial.”” [citations omitted] Therefore, discovery statutes are broadly construed in favor of discovery whenever possible in order to aid the parties in preparation for trial. The court also noted, however, that there needs to be a balancing of interests. In summarizing the Puerto case, the court stated:

The right of privacy in the California Constitution (art. I, § 1), ‘protects the individual’s reasonable expectation of privacy against a serious invasion.’” (Puerto v. Superior Court, supra, 158 Cal.App.4th at p. 1250, quoting Pioneer Electronics (USA), Inc. v. Superior Court (2007) 40 Cal.4th 360, 370.) 

While contact information generally is considered private, this “does not mean that the individuals would not want it disclosed under these circumstances.” (Puerto v. Superior Court, supra, 158 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1252-1253.) While employees would not likely want their contact information broadly disseminated, this does not mean they would want it withheld “from plaintiffs seeking relief for violations of employment laws in the workplace that they shared.” (Id. at p. 1253.) Rather, employees similarly situated to petitioners “may reasonably be supposed to want their information disclosed to counsel whose communications in the course of investigating the claims asserted in [petitioners’] lawsuit may alert them to similar claims they may be able to assert.” (Ibid.)

The court said there were two major differences between this case and the Puerto case. First, in Puerto, the employer voluntarily disclosed the identities of the witnesses but sought to protect addresses and telephone numbers. Here, CAI sought to protect the names of employees as well as addresses and telephone numbers. Second, in Puerto there was no release form like the one used here.

In quickly rejecting defendant’s argument on the first issue, the court found that employees’/witnesses’ names do not have any more heightened protection than their addresses and telephone numbers, and therefore should be disclosed. 

The court then turned its analysis to the effect that the release forms had in this case:

CAI argues that these forms gave their employees a heightened expectation of privacy in their contact information, requiring that the contact information be given greater protection and making an “opt in” notice procedure proper. We are unconvinced by this argument.

We first address the question whether, as a matter of public policy, we should enforce a release form that may have the effect of waiving an employee’s right to notice of a pending class action lawsuit concerning the employer’s alleged violations of overtime and wage statutes. While not determinative, the Supreme Court’s recent opinion in Gentry v. Superior Court (2007) 42 Cal.4th 443 is instructive. In Gentry the court addressed the question “whether class arbitration waivers in employment arbitration agreements may be enforced to preclude class arbitrations by employees whose statutory rights to overtime pay [under the Labor Code] allegedly have been violated.” (Id. at p. 450.) The court noted the Legislature through its enactment in the Labor Code established “‘“a clear public policy”’” that “minimum wage and overtime laws should be enforced in part by private action brought by aggrieved employees.” (Id. at p. 455.) So great is the public policy protecting employees’ right to overtime compensation that the right is “unwaivable.” (Ibid.)

The court looked to a recent case, Gentry v. Superior Court, for guidance on this issue. Gentry did not deal with disclosure of putative class members’ contact information, but with arbitration agreements in which the employee agreed not to participate in class actions for wage and hour violations. The Gentry court observed that class arbitration waivers in wage and overtime cases would frequently exculpate employers for violations and undermine the enforcement of wage and overtime laws; second, current employees suing their employers run a greater risk of retaliation; and, third, that employees may be unaware of the violation of their rights and their right to sue.

Based on this analysis, the court in this case concluded that the release form used by CAI did not create a higher expectation of privacy in the employees’ contact information. The court found that “public policy concerns weigh in favor of enforcing unwaivable statutory wage and overtime rights through class action litigation over a right to privacy in “relatively nonsensitive [contact] information.” (citing Puerto v. Superior Court, supra, 158 Cal.App.4th at p. 1259.) The court held:

[T]o the extent the right to privacy is based on the release forms, there are strong reasons for not giving effect to those forms. Employees indicating that they did not want their contact information disclosed, or wanted disclosure on a case-by-case basis, were unaware at the time they signed the forms of the pending litigation to enforce their statutory wage and overtime rights through a class action lawsuit. We may presume that, had they known about the litigation, their response on the form would have been different. Additionally, the forms apprised them that their contact information could be disclosed if required by law, so they were aware of the limitation on privacy offered by the forms.

Therefore, Defendant was required to provide the employees’ names, addresses, and telephone numbers even though the release form had been utilized by Defendant in this case. The case is a must read for every wage and hour class action litigator in California. 

 

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