Legal Roundup: Several Recent Rulings Impact Counties
New Court Opinion Reinstates State Fiscal Responsibility for ‘Sexually Violent Predator’ Mandates
The Court of Appeal in San Diego has put the burden for paying for certain mandates required by the Sexually Violent Predator Act back with the State. In 1998, the Commission on State Mandates determined that certain activities required by the Sexually Violent Predator Act were reimbursable mandates. In 2006, the electorate adopted Prop. 83 (Jessica’s Law), which broadened and increased penalties under the Sexually Violent Predator Act, but made no changes to the mandated activities. Nevertheless, at the request of the Department of Finance, the Commission on State Mandates reconsidered its previous determination and in 2013 concluded that the mandated activities were now required by ballot initiative, not the State, and therefore reimbursement was no longer required. San Diego, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Orange and San Bernardino challenged that decision through CSAC’s Litigation Coordination Program. Yesterday, the Court of Appeal agreed with the counties and reversed. The court concluded that unless a ballot initiative actually modifies existing mandates, the source of the mandate remains the State and not the ballot initiative. The decision will require the State to restore $20-25 million annually to counties to reimburse the costs related to the Sexually Violent Predator Act, as well provide back payment to 2013 when the funding was eliminated. The opinion’s narrow interpretation of exceptions to the mandate reimbursement requirement will also be useful in other contexts, allowing counties to push back against the State’s attempt to use loopholes to avoid mandate reimbursements. CSAC filed an amicus brief in the case, in addition to coordinating the five plaintiff counties.
Outside Counsel Billing Records for Active Litigation Do Not Need to Be Disclosed
The California Supreme Court has found that outside counsel billing records for active litigation do not need to be disclosed in response to a Public Records Act request. The Court found that for active and pending legal matters, billing records are protected by the attorney-client privilege because they reveal strategy and their disclosure would put public agencies at a disadvantage in litigation. The Court went on to find that after litigation is closed, the records may be subject to disclosure since the risks posed by revealing litigation strategy no longer applies. The Court was divided on that point— while all seven Justices agreed that records for active cases do not need to be disclosed, three of the Justices would have also concluded that the protection applies even after the litigation is closed. CSAC filed an amicus brief in support of Los Angeles County in the case.
California Supreme Court Rules in On-Call Breaks Case, Increasing Employers’ Liability
The California Supreme Court recently issued a ruling that will have a significant impact on business operations in our state. Although the ruling centered on a private company and its rest break practices, public agencies should still take note as this is a landmark decision that may have substantial ripple effects. Additional detail on the decision, and its impact on public employers, is provided at the end of the article.
The case involved a class action lawsuit in which the plaintiffs alleged that ABM Security Services, Inc. violated California labor laws by requiring their employees to remain “on-call” during their rest breaks. The company, which employs thousands of security guards throughout several sites in California, required its employees to carry their radios and pagers with them so that they could be reached during their rest breaks and return to work if need be.
The majority of the five-member California Supreme Court ultimately decided that “on-call” rest breaks do not comply with California Labor Code and Wage Orders. In the final decision, it concluded that “during required rest periods, employers must relieve their employees of all duties and relinquish any control over how employees spend their break time.” This may prove to be a challenge, particularly for employers in industries where exigent circumstances often arise. As the Supreme Court pointed out, however, employers have the option to apply to the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for an exemption. Or, to ensure employees receive their entitled rest, employers can alternatively reschedule break times within the same shift to accommodate interruptions.
In terms of how the decision relates to public employers, most of the Wage Orders and Labor Code provisions are not applicable to public agencies, so the impact of the decision is minimal in comparison to private companies. However, it is important to note that some Wage Orders on meal and rest periods contain language specifically providing that public agencies must comply. Counties are strongly encouraged to check with their legal counsel to determine the applicability of such laws to public employers.