Plaintiff Winning Meal Periods Claim Not Entitled To Fees, But Entitled To Routine Costs.
In the last few months, there have been several cases interpreting the public policy exception to arbitral finality. Ling v. P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, Inc., Case No. H039367 (6th Dist. Mar. 25, 2016) (published) is another one on this subject, although occurring in the fee award context.
Plaintiff won in part on a meals period claim but overall lost overtime/employee misclassification claims against a well-known restaurant business, her employer. The arbitrator later awarded employer $29,046 in costs and $212,685 in fees under Labor Code section 218.5 based on defending the exempt employee claim and on partially prevailing on the missed meal periods claim. Plaintiff petitioned to vacate the final award in entirety, with the lower court ruling that the defense was precluded from obtaining fees under Labor Code section 1194’s pro-employee unilateral fee shifting provision and that plaintiff might be entitled to fees as the prevailing party on her missed meal periods claim (remanding to the arbitrator on this issue). On remand to the arbitrator, the arbitrator denied fees to plaintiff under Kirby v. Immoos Fire Protection, Inc., 53 Cal.4th 1244, 1254, 1259 (2012), finding that both the missed meal period violations and section 203 penalties for those violations did not allow for fee recovery. However, plaintiff was awarded $18,936 in costs for prevailing on a part of her missed meal periods claim. Plaintiff filed a second vacatur petition, but the corrected arbitration awards were confirmed. Subsequently, the trial judge granted plaintiff fees of $47,037 for work performed on the first vacatur petition (but not the second).
Overall, the appellate court affirmed the corrected arbitration awards, but reversed the fee recovery to plaintiff on the first vacatur petition.
Section 1194 was found to be a one-way fee shifting provision such that the trial judge correctly corrected the prior arbitration award because it contravened an explicit legislative expression of public policy protecting employees. No defense fees were proper for the inextricably intertwined meal periods and overtime claims. Plaintiff was properly denied fee recovery on the missed periods claim under Kirby, with the derivative section 203 waiting time claim also precluded. However, plaintiff was entitled to routine costs but the fee award for the first vacatur petition could not be sustained under any fee entitlement basis.