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by Jennifer Brown Shaw and Lukas J. Clary | The Daily Recorder | Aug 23, 2013

This article is the second installment of a two-part article in which we summarize recent California Supreme Court decisions in employment law.

L.A. County v. Los Angeles County Employee Relations Commission

The Supreme Court held in L.A. County v. Los Angeles County Employee Relations Commission that public-sector employers must provide unions the names and contact information of all employees for whom the unions are obligated to bargain, even non-member employees. This holding has implications for union and non-union employers alike.

Service Employees International Union, Local 721 (Union) represents L.A. County’s employees. While the County employees have the option not to join the Union as full members, the Union had a statutory duty to act on behalf of all employees, whether they were union members or not. These employees pay the Union a reduced fee for bargaining activities.

The Union sought non-union members’ names and contact information to aid its representation. The County historically did not disclose non-members’ contact information, and the Union would instead send packets to a third party, the LA County Employee Relations Commission (ERC) for distribution to non-members.

In 2006, the Union sought to amend the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) to require disclosure directly from the County. The County refused, and the Union filed an administrative charge with the ERC, which held that the County’s refusal constituted an unfair labor practice. The County filed a writ proceeding with the Superior Court, which held that the non-members’ privacy interests must give way to the Union’s duty to represent non-members. The Court of Appeal held the Union was entitled to the information, but only after the non-members were provided notice and the opportunity to opt out of disclosure.

The Supreme Court on review concluded that the non-members’ contact information was relevant to the union’s bargaining obligations. Therefore, the Union was entitled to the information even for the non-member employees.

The Court then balanced the Union’s right to that information against the employees’ right to privacy. The Court noted that all employees (and applicants) have a reasonable expectation that prospective and actual employers would keep their contact information private, and that disclosure of that information amounts to a serious intrusion of privacy. But the Court held, despite that expectation and serious intrusion, the Union’s interest in obtaining the information was sufficiently important to justify the intrusion.

The Supreme Court rejected the Court of Appeal’s opt-out requirement, which was based on cases involving class action plaintiffs’ entitlement to contact information of absent class members. The Court noted the County could bargain with the Union in its future CBAs to require such procedures. Alternatively, employers could disclose in handbooks and employment contracts that the employees’ contact information may be subject to disclosure in certain circumstances.

The Court’s conclusion that employees have a right to privacy in their personal contact information is significant to all employers, public- and private-sector, union and non-union. It means employees should be notified and should consent to disclosure of their personal contact information to third parties, such as customers and vendors. These notices and consents usually occur when employees sign up for benefits. Employers should consider informing employees in their handbooks or employment contracts that their contact information may be disclosed for these reasons. Public employers should also consider bargaining for an opt-out procedure before disclosure is required.

Lefiell Manufacturing Co. v. Superior Court

California’s Workers’ Compensation Acts preempts most civil lawsuits by injured workers. There are exceptions, however, including lawsuits seeking damages for unlawful harassment and other employers’ conduct that violates public policy. Labor Code section 4558 provides what is known as the “power press” exception. The statute allows a civil lawsuit for damages when an employee is injured because an employer knowingly removed or failed to install a safety guard on a power press, provided such a guard was installed, required or otherwise recommended by the manufacturer.

In Lefiell Manufacturing Co. v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court addressed whether a spouse could rely on the “power press” exception to sue for loss of consortium. After an employee was injured while operating a power press that did not include a safety guard, the employee and his wife brought a civil lawsuit that included a loss of consortium claim. The employer argued that the Workers’ Compensation Act precluded the loss of consortium claim. The trial court disagreed, holding that because the employee could maintain a civil suit under the “power press” exception, his spouse could rely on the exception to file a loss of consortium claim. The Court of Appeal agreed, and the case proceeded to the California Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that the loss of consortium claim could not withstand workers’ compensation preemption. Workers who suffer power press injuries can bring a civil action. But claims arising from the accident that caused those injuries remain compensable under the workers’ compensation system. As a result, under settled principles of workers’ compensation law, the exclusivity rule bars a dependent spouse’s claim for loss of consortium.

The California Supreme Court has several significant employment law cases that remain on the docket. Decisions that may come down in the next year concern a variety of employment law matters of significance, including arbitration of employment disputes, acceptable statistical evidence in class actions, whether an employee’s insubordination disqualified the employee from receiving unemployment benefits, the employer’s defenses under the California Family Rights Act defenses, proper calculation of overtime and more.