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How an $80 Mistake Became an $88,410 Mistake

California’s Labor Code is full of technical requirements that can trip up even those employers who are trying to comply with their obligations. And, because of the monetary penalties and attorney’s fees that can be assessed for violations of those technical requirements, the consequences may be out of proportion to the seriousness of the wrongdoing. A recent decision from the Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District illustrates the problem.

Labor Code section 202 requires an employer to pay all wages due within 72 hours after the employee gives notice of his or her intention to quit. (If the employer discharges the employee, the wages are immediately, under section 201.) If the employer does not pay the final wages within the deadline imposed by the Labor Code, it is subject to waiting time penalties under section 203, which provides: “If an employer willfully fails to pay … any wages of an employee who is discharged or who quits, the wages of the employee shall continue as a penalty from the due date thereof at the same rate until paid or until an action therefor is commenced; but the wages shall not continue for more than 30 days.”

In Nichiki v. Danko Meredith, APC, Case No. A147733 (August 1, 2018), the employer mailed a handwritten check to its departing employee for her final wages, on November 18 (which was within 72 hours of reading an email from the employee announcing her resignation). In the dollar amount box, the amount was given as “2,880.31,” the correct amount. But, the amount was spelled out as “Two thousand eight hundred and 31/100.” Because of the discrepancy, the employee was unable to deposit the check. She emailed the employer about the problem on November 26. The employer issued a new check for the correct amount on December 5, 9 days later. After a hearing the Labor Commissioner ruled that the employee should recover waiting time penalties for 17 days, from November 18 to December 5, at a daily rate of $250 per day — a total of $4,250. The employer appealed the ruling to Superior Court, which upheld the waiting time penalty of $4,250, and awarded $86,160 in attorney’s fees under Labor Code section 98.2(c).

The Court of Appeal reduced the waiting time penalties to $2,250, for the nine days from November 26 to December 5. By statute, the words written on a check prevail over numbers, which made the original check $80 short. (See Cal. U. Com. Code, section 3114.) Although that mistake was inadvertent, the delay in paying the correct amount became willful once the employer received notice of the mistake on November 26.

The attorney’s fees award under section 98.2 was appropriate. That section provides, that the reviewing court must award reasonable attorney’s fees to the opponent of an unsuccessful appellant, whether that is the employer or the employee. However, an employee is deemed to be successful if the court awards an amount greater than zero. Because the result, even after the appeal, was an amount greater than zero, the employee is also entitled to the costs and attorney’s fees incurred for the proceedings in the Court of Appeal.

The lesson for employers is that you should cut your losses. Once you determine that there has been a violation of the Labor Code, make the employee whole for the violation immediately.