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To hear some litigators tell it, California’s unfair competition law is a statutory version of Robin Hood’s bow and arrow that the Merry Men — plaintiffs lawyers — use to ambush corporations. Enacted way back in 1872, the California Business and Professions Code Section 17200 has evolved into a popular cause of action against everything from Joe Camel ads to hot dog stands. With broad wording that encompasses any “unlawful, unfair, or fraudulent business practice,” it is becoming what Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison’s David Brown describes as “a panacea” wielded by “anybody, whether they were affected by the practice or not.” Brown represents Nike, Inc., in a “17200″ case brought by Marc Kasky, a San Franciscan who claims that the sportswear manufacturer made misleading statements about working conditions in its Asian factories. In June, weeks before the California Supreme Court agreed to hear Kasky v. Nike, Inc. , it handed down two long-awaited rulings with crucial implications for suits under this law. “It just turns 17200 into a horrible weapon,” says Tom Nunziato, of Los Angeles’ Krieger & Nunziato, of Cortez v. Purolator Air Filtration Products Company. The seven justices unanimously held that Nunziato’s client, the Henderson, North Carolina-based Purolator, must restore unpaid overtime wages to Cortez and other employees of its Santa Rosa plant, acquired in a 1988 merger. Purolator had argued that a contested work schedule was set by the prior owner. While he got a mixed result, Nunziato, normally a plaintiffs’ lawyer, sees future plaintiff windfalls due to the court’s ruling that a four-year statute of limitations, rather than the state Labor Code’s three-year window, applies to unfair competition suits under section 17200. Nunziato’s cocounsel, Theresa Marchlewski of Haight, Brown & Bonesteel in Los Angeles, concedes that such holdings may serve as “a green light” for 17200 cases. But she praises the new checks on remedies that were enunciated in the state supreme court’s same-day decision in Kraus v. Trinity Management Services, Inc.In this suit, brought by tenants claiming they’d been overcharged on rent, the justices held that if suits lack class action certification, trial courts cannot order defendants to surrender profits into a general pool; they can only reimburse individuals. “It can’t go to a lawyer’s slush fund for future lawsuits,” says John Sullivan, president of the tort reform group Civil Justice Association of California. He views these decisions as signs that courts sense “this is a bizarre law that makes California look a little bit stupid.”

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