A decision in the California Court of Appeals serves as a reminder that compliance with wage and hour laws should be a primary concern for all employers.
The case is Atempa v. Pedrazzani. Arguing that their former employer did not pay them in accordance with the law, two former co-workers from a restaurant filed a suit against the company. They sued not only their former employer Pama, Inc. but also the owner of the company, Paolo Pedrazzani.
The plaintiffs alleged that Pama and Pedrazzani violated several wage and hour laws. Among these were California Labor Code Section 558 regarding unpaid overtime and California Labor Code Section 1197.1 regarding unpaid minimum wages. The plaintiffs used the Private Attorney General Act of 2004, or PAGA, as the basis for their suit. In a bench trial, the plaintiffs prevailed. According to the court’s decision, Pedrazzani and Pama were jointly and severally responsible for any civil penalties that were based on wage and hour violations. Using PAGA, the court also declared that Pedrazzani was liable for the plaintiffs’ attorney fees.
Pedrazzani and Pama appealed the decision, and when Pama filed for bankruptcy, Pedrazzani became the only party to be held responsible for paying the attorneys’ fees and civil penalties.
In his appeal, Pedrazzani argued that an individual could not be held legally responsible for the wage and hour violations of an employer unless plaintiffs showed that the employer was an alter ego of the individual. However, the appeals court denied this argument and decided that Pedrazzani was personally liable for all civil penalties.
The court stated that an employer and an “other person” could be held liable for failing to follow wage and hour laws and that the employer’s business structure is irrelevant. Pedrazzani, so the court argued, was the “other person” under the definition of Labor Code Sections 558 and 1197.1.
With this decision, the court says that an employer and its owners and officers may be held personally liable for civil penalties arising from wage and hour violations. Clearly, vigilance with regard to wage and hour compliance is more critical than ever.