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Friday, June 1, 2012

Sciborski v. Pacific Bell: Court of Appeal Rejects LMRA Preemption Defense in Wage Deduction Action

In Sciborski v. Pacific Bell Direct. (5/8/12) --- Cal.App.4th ----, the plaintiff sued her former employer, Pacific Bell Directory ("Pac. Bell"), challenging Pacific Bell's actions in deducting approximately $19,000 from her wages to recover a $36,000 sales commission paid to her. A jury found Pac. Bell's wage deductions violated Labor Code section 221 and resulted in Sciborski's constructive discharge in violation of public policy. It awarded her $36,000 in lost earnings, but found she did not prove her claimed future economic loss and emotional distress damages. The court awarded her attorney fees based on her prevailing on the section 221 claim.

Pac. Bell appealed, arguing that Sciborski's claims were preempted by section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act ("LMRA") because she was a union member governed by a collective bargaining agreement and her claims required the court to interpret the CBA.  The Court rejected this argument and held that Sciborski's claims were not preempted because they arose from independent state law and did not require the interpretation of the CBA.  

I am not going to discuss LMRA preemption at any length, but here is the basic law, as stated by the Court: 
Under section 301 preemption analysis, it is helpful to apply a two-part test to determine whether a claim is preempted.  First, the court should evaluate whether the claim arises from independent state law or from the collective bargaining agreement.  If the claim arises from the collective bargaining agreement, the claim is preempted as a matter of law.  However, if the claim arises from independent state law, the court must then proceed to the second step.  In this step, the court determines whether the claim requires "interpretation or construction of a labor agreement," or whether a collective bargaining agreement will merely be "reference[d]" in the litigation.  A state law claim is preempted if a court must interpret a disputed provision of the collective bargaining agreement to determine whether the plaintiff's state law claim has merit.  
The term "interpret" in this context "is defined narrowly — it means something more than 'consider,' 'refer to,' or 'apply.'"  Although the plaintiff cannot avoid preemption by "artfully pleading" the claim , the claim must "require interpretation" of the collective bargaining agreement.  Preemption does not arise when interpretation is required only by a defense.  Preemption occurs when a claim cannot be resolved on the merits without choosing among competing interpretations of a collective bargaining agreement and its application to the claim.  The determination of whether a claim is preempted depends on the particular facts of each case.  
Slip op. at 14-15.  The Court rejected Pac. Bell's argument that Sciborski's section 221 claim required interpretation of the CBA: 
We agree that the CBA (and incorporated documents) contain detailed and complicated rules for assigning employees to particular customer accounts, and that disputes regarding the meaning of these provisions require interpretation of the CBA.  However, the fundamental issue for the jury's determination in this case was not the nature of these assignment rules, i.e., whether Sciborski was a "loaner" representative or whether the new-connect account was properly assigned to her....  Instead, she argued that the misassignment based on Pacific Bell's admitted clerical error was not a proper basis for concluding that she did not earn the commission.  
No interpretation of the CBA was necessary to resolve this claim.  There were provisions in the CBA and the incorporated Market Selection document supporting Pacific Bell's position that the assignment of the new-connect account to Sciborski was inconsistent with her status as a "loaner" representative in the Metro account area.  However, there was nothing in these documents stating this inconsistency was a basis for finding a commission was not earned if the employee performed all of the other work to earn the commission.  And there was nothing in these documents providing that Pacific Bell was permitted to deduct amounts from an employee's wages based on the employer's clerical error in the account assignment process.  
Absent an express provision to this effect, Pacific Bell was not entitled to unilaterally declare that the commission was not earned and use self-help measures to deduct funds from Sciborski's wages that had already been paid to her.  Under California law, employers and employees may agree that an employee must satisfy certain conditions before earning a sales commission and an employer may recoup an advance if these conditions are not satisfied.  However, to rely on those conditions as a basis for recouping an advance paid for a commission, the condition must be clearly expressed and generally must be set forth in writing.  Additionally, the conditions must relate to the sale and cannot merely serve as a basis to shift the employer's cost of doing business to the employee.   
Under these principles, Pacific Bell's argument that the jury was required to interpret implied provisions in the CBA to determine whether Pacific Bell had a legal right to recoup Sciborski's commission is unsupported by California law.  Because the claimed disputed provisions of the CBA were irrelevant to Sciborski's right to recover on her state law claim, they did not support section 301 preemption.  
Slip op. at 23-25. The Court held that Sciborski's wrongful discharge claims were not preempted for the same reasons.

The trial court (San Diego County, Judge Frederic L. Link) awarded Sciborski $291,155 in attorney fees based on her prevailing on the Labor Code section 221 claim. The Court rejected Pac. Bell's argument that the award was excessive, holding that the award fell within the trial court's discretion, even though it seemed large in comparison to the $36,000 damage award. Slip op. at 34-35. The Court also rejected Sciborski's argument that the trial court abused its discretion in rejecting her request for a multiplier. Slip op. at 36.

The full opinion is here.  Sorry for the long block quotes on this one.  I promise to do better next time.  

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