Friday, February 24, 2023

Wood v. Kaiser Foundation Hosp. (Cal. Ct. App. - Feb. 24, 2023)

I love -- love, love, love -- the opening paragraph of this opinion. It strikes the perfect tone to me; a sense of sincere inquiry, modesty, respect, etc. Qualities that every good judge (and opinion) should have. Plus its last sentence is a tiny bit low-key funny. (Super low-key.)

The opening paragraph reads:

"The judiciary’s responsibility to interpret statutes often places courts in the position of trying to decide how the Legislature would have resolved an issue we strongly suspect it never actually considered. We endeavor, as best we can, to be prognosticators. Sometimes, however, our role in statutory interpretation is more that of a detective. The Legislature included a provision or used a particular term in a statute, and it is our job to uncover what it had in mind when it employed those words. In this case we function largely as detectives, hopefully more like Sherlock Holmes than Inspector Clouseau."

The next couple of paragraphs also articulate a super-clear guide to the underlying issue and what the rest of the opinion is about. Which, again, I love. Here are those two paragraphs:

"California’s Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014 (the Act) (Labor Code,1 § 245 et seq.) generally requires employers to provide eligible employees with at least three paid sick days per year. The Labor Commissioner and the Attorney General are charged with enforcing this law. Violators may be assessed compensatory as well as liquidated damages, plus civil penalties. (§ 248.5.)

The last clause of section 248.5, subdivision (e) is the focus of this appeal. It provides that “any person or entity enforcing this article on behalf of the public as provided for under applicable state law shall, upon prevailing, be entitled only to equitable, injunctive, or restitutionary relief . . . .” (Ibid.) It would seem fairly obvious that the Legislature had something specific in mind when it used the phrase, “enforcing this article on behalf of the public as provided for under applicable state law.” It was envisioning some kind of enforcement action. But what was it? In particular, did the Legislature mean to include—and thus restrict—actions by aggrieved employees to recover civil penalties under the Labor Code Private Attorney General Act of 2004 (PAGA) (§ 2698 et seq.) as defendant Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (Kaiser) contends? Or instead, as plaintiff Ana Wood argues, did the Legislature have in mind an entirely different statutory scheme, the Unfair Competition Law (UCL) (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 17200 et seq.)?"

Awesome. A beautiful way to begin an opinion, in my view.

The rest of the opinion discusses the merits. Ultimately deciding in favor of the appellant and reversing the contrary decision of the trial court. Notwithstanding the fact that every single federal district court has decided the issue the same way it was decided below.

So, at a minimum, the opinion is an important one. Particularly given the contemporary prevalence of PAGA suits in Our Great State.

On this score, maybe Justice Dato's opinion is right, and maybe it's wrong. Reasonable minds might differ on this score; indeed, undeniably do.

Regardless, the way that Justice Dato both frames the issue and then resolves it is really well done, in my view. So kudos for that. Great job.

And, honestly, I feel a little bad about saying that, since it comes literally on the heels of me giving big kudos to Justice Dato for yet another opinion. So I'm kinda piling on.

But respect deserves respect. And I didn't find out that it was Justice Dato until the very end, at which point I'd already come to the conclusion that the opinion was a darn good one.

So I shan't backtrack. Really well-written. Twice over.