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Beck v. Stratton

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Fourth Division

February 14, 2017

THOMAS E. BECK, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
ANTHONY STRATTON, Defendant and Respondent.

          Order Filed Date 3/8/17

         APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County No. BS152046, Mark A. Borenstein, Judge. Affirmed.

          Thomas E. Beck in pro. per.

          David Maxim Balter for Defendant and Respondent.

          COLLINS, J.

         The Labor Commissioner awarded respondent Anthony Stratton approximately $6, 000 in unpaid wages and penalties against his former employer, appellant Thomas Beck. Beck unsuccessfully appealed the award to the superior court under Labor Code section 98.2, subdivision (a). Stratton then moved for attorney's fees under Labor Code section 98.2, subdivision (c) 58 days later. Beck opposed the motion as untimely, because Stratton filed it after the 30-day deadline applicable to fee motions in limited civil cases. Stratton maintained the motion was timely because it was filed within the 60-day deadline applicable to fee motions in unlimited civil cases. The superior court agreed with Stratton and awarded him $31, 365 in attorney's fees.

         On appeal, Beck contends that the motion for attorney's fees was untimely because the case was a limited civil case. He further contends that, even if the motion was timely, the fee award was unreasonably high and unsupported by competent billing evidence. We disagree with both arguments and affirm the judgment of the superior court.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Beck hired Stratton to work for him in September 2013. Stratton quit the job two months later, in November 2013, while Beck was out of town. Stratton left a “somewhat confusing” note on his desk, in which he claimed he was owed a total of $1, 957.95 in wages, overtime, and other compensation. Of that, $1, 075 was for 43 hours of “straight time” at Stratton's hourly wage of $25.

         Beck promptly directed his payroll service, ADP, to pay Stratton the $1, 075 in ordinary wages. For reasons “no one at trial could explain, ” ADP paid Stratton only $771.45 instead of the requested $1, 075. Beck later paid Stratton the other moneys he had requested, but did not pay the $303.55 difference between the $1, 075 in ordinary wages Stratton was owed and the $771.45 ADP remitted.

         Stratton filed a claim for unpaid wages in the amount of $303.50 with the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, the state agency empowered to enforce California's labor laws.[1] (Morillion v. Royal Packing Co. (2000) 22 Cal.4th 575, 581.) After conducting an administrative hearing, the Labor Commissioner awarded Stratton the $303.50 he requested, plus an additional $5, 757.46 in liquidated damages, interest, and statutory penalties, for a total award of $6, 060.96.

         Beck timely sought review of the Labor Commissioner's order by filing an appeal in the Los Angeles County superior court. (See Lab. Code, § 98.2, subd. (a).)[2] He completed and filed the “Notice of Appeal” form designed by the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement for such cases, [3] to which he attached a copy of the $6, 060.96 award issued by the Labor Commissioner. Beck did not file the civil case cover sheet required for all civil cases by California Rules of Court, rule 3.220. The civil case cover sheet is the form on which a party indicates whether a civil case is limited or unlimited; Beck accordingly made no such designation. The clerk charged Beck a filing fee of $435. This filing fee, which is fixed for all appeals of Labor Commissioner awards, is equivalent to the fee charged for unlimited civil cases. (See Lab. Code, § 98.2, subd. (a); Gov. Code, § 70611; see also Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles Civil Fee Schedule for 2014 at pp. 1, 7, available at http://www.lacourt.org/forms/Fees.) The clerk assigned a case number prefix, BS, that is used in unlimited special proceeding civil cases, rather than a prefix, K, that is used in limited civil cases.

         Shortly after Beck initiated the superior court proceeding, the Labor Commissioner served notice to Beck that the Labor Commissioner would be representing Stratton in the matter. (See Lab. Code, § 98.4.) The caption on that notice stated that the case was “Limited Civil.” The Commissioner later filed a case management statement form on which it checked boxes indicating that the case was limited and that the economic litigation procedures set forth in Code of Civil Procedure sections 90-98-for limited civil cases-should apply. The Commissioner's “brief statement of the case” indicated that the case concerned “unpaid wages, liquidated damages, interests, and additional wages... in the amount of $6, 060.96.” Beck later checked the same boxes on the case management statement form he filed, and similarly represented that the case concerned “the sum of $6, 060.96.” After holding a case management conference, the superior court ordered discovery to proceed under Code of Civil Procedure sections 94-96.

         The superior court has discretion to permit an employee to raise additional wage-related claims at the de novo trial, and the court permitted Stratton to do so here. (Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. (2007) 40 Cal.4th 1094, 1118-1119.) Approximately one month before trial, Stratton filed a “Notice of Claims” that added statutory minimum wage and wage statement claims and penalties in unspecified amounts.

         The matter proceeded to a bench trial. There, Stratton clarified that his recently added wage statement claims were for damages of $100 per day for each of the 612 days he spent without accurate wage statements-a total of $61, 200. During closing arguments, the court asked Beck if he wanted “to say anything about the claim that as a result of the incorrect November 27th, 2013, wage statement that Mr. Stratton has suffered damages, general damages of $61, 000?” Beck told the court that the claim “took [his] breath away, ” not least because the amount was “way over the top” for a limited civil case. The court told Beck the case was an unlimited one, to which Beck responded, “Well, all right, then I'll withdraw what I just said because I thought this was a limited jurisdiction.” The court noted, “This is the only courtroom in Mosk [Courthouse] that does both limited and unlimited.” Beck proceeded with his substantive argument and did not mention the jurisdictional classification of the case further.

         The superior court issued a statement of decision in which it found that Stratton was entitled to $303.55 in unpaid wages, and noted that Beck had paid Stratton all but five cents of that amount on the eve of trial. The court further awarded Stratton a waiting time penalty of $6, 000 under Labor Code section 203, a wage statement penalty of $750-rather than the requested $61, 200-under Labor Code section 226, subdivision (e)(1), and prejudgment interest of $28.85, for a total award of $6, 778.85, exclusive of fees and costs. The court entered judgment on October 21, 2015.

         Fifty-eight days later, on December 18, 2015, Stratton filed a motion for attorney's fees pursuant to Labor Code sections 98.2, subdivision (c) and 226, subdivision (e)(1), and California Rules of Court, rule 3.1702. He sought $43, 835, computed as 79.7 hours at a rate of $550 per hour, plus an additional $3, 300 ...


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