Written by Jeremy Mittman
Last week, a California appeals court reversed a summary judgement in favor of AutoZoners, who was sued by an ex-employee for failing to provide her with suitable seating, ruling that triable issues of material fact exist.
The plaintiff worked as a sales associate at an AutoZone parts store operated by AutoZoners, assisting customers at cashier counter and parts counter workstations. After she resigned, she filed one claim under California’s Private Attorneys General Act (PAGA), asserting that AutoZoners failed to provide her with suitable seating. Under California’s Wage Orders, employees must be provided with suitable seats when the nature of work allows them to be seated. The plaintiff claimed that she was able to perform all or most of her work behind the cashier and parts counters while sitting, and although two chairs were available in the store they were not placed at the cashier or parts counter workstations.
AutoZoners moved for summary judgment, arguing that the plaintiff was not “aggrieved” by their seating policy. They further argued that they provided suitable seating by making two chairs available in the store. The chairs were located in the manager’s office area which was accessible to all employees. The plaintiff countered that no one told her the chairs were available for use at the cashier and parts counter workstations and she was only ever given the option to use a chair for two days as an accommodation for a foot injury. The court granted AutoZoner’s motion for summary judgment, focusing on the definition of “provide” as it relates to the wage order seating requirement. According to the trial court, “provide” means “make available,” which AutoZoners satisfied by having a company policy to make chairs available in the store.
Court of Appeals
The plaintiff appealed, asserting that triable issues of material fact existed as to whether AutoZoners provided her with suitable seating. The appellate court agreed and reversed the trial court’s judgement. In an opinion published last week, Justice Luis A. Lavin wrote, “We conclude that where an employer has not expressly advised its employees that they may use a seat during their work and has not provided a seat at a workstation, the inquiry as to whether an employer has “provided” suitable seating may be fact-intensive and may involve a multitude of job and workplace-specific factors.” The appellate panel held that the proximity of a seat to an employee’s workstation is a relevant factor, especially in this case where the seats were not placed behind the cashier or parts counters and AutoZoners did not specifically advise employees that the seats were available for their use. Furthermore, the plaintiff frequently observed the store manager using one of the provided chairs and never observed other employees using the chairs at their workstations, which the appellate court concluded could support a reasonable inference that the chairs could not be used at the cashier or parts counters.
Given the Court of Appeal’s decision, employers may want to evaluate their written seating policy, and make sure that employees whose nature of work allows them to be sitting know that they are permitted to use the seating provided.