The litigation swamp for California employers would get even muckier if the Legislature approves a bill to allow employees to file unlimited liens over unproven pay disputes. Up today in the Assembly Judiciary Committee, this bill should be titled the Permission to Harass Employers Act of 2014.
It’s a sad fact that California has the most complex and onerous employer-employee regulations in the country. Litigation is a constant threat. Wage-related disputes are common over classification of employees as exempt or not, as independent contractors or not, and over appropriate wages for hours worked. The law is unsettled, with shiftingdefinitions and uncertain statutory or judicial guidance. Employers are subject not only to scrutiny by the state Labor Commissioner and federal Labor Department, but are also open to private class action lawsuits from their workers.
Rather than helping bring order to this regulatory chaos, labor unions are feeding the fire.
Legislation introduced by freshman Assemblyman Mark Stone would allow an employee – or the employee’s union – to record a lien against the employer’s real or personal property simply on the basis that the employee believes he or she has a valid wage claim against the employer.
Let’s be clear – the employee would bear no burden of proof, must present no evidence of employer wrongdoing, and would undergo exactly no independent scrutiny of the claim. The upshot of such a system would be to tie up an employer’s real and personal property with a “super-priority” lien, in effect crippling an employer’s ability to access credit, personal mortgages, to dispose of property or his or her business, and implicate non-employer third parties who may have, say, leased office or production space, but not otherwise employed the litigating worker.
The “super-priority” lien would take precedence over child support and alimony liens and judgement liens but not, mercifully, tax liens.
The consequences of such a law are difficult to exaggerate. What investor would possibly put money in California commercial or industrial real estate if he could be subject to a lien on the property generated by a dispute between a tenant and its employee?
The goal of this legislation is not to prevent “wage theft,” as the union organizers are spinning. State regulators today can and do file liens when they have evidence of improper or illegal behavior by employers in wage and hour disputes. The real purpose of this law would be to enable unions to exert enormous leverage over employers large and small – especially in opening their facilities to union organizing and bargaining. Under this law, the employer-employee relationship would be under a constant cloud, with an implicit threat that an employee or union would file multiple liens to force an action not otherwise warranted in the course of that relationship.
If there is one thing workers don’t lack in California, it’s the opportunity to litigate their wages, hours and working conditions. The burden from this proposed legislation won’t materially improve a worker’s recourse for perceived harm, but will undoubtedly reduce an employer’s incentive to maintain a robust workforce in the state.