What started as a dispute over about $300 in unpaid wages, has cost Southern California lawyer Thomas Beck five years of grief and, by his estimate, about $100,000.
In a decision issued last month and published Wednesday, the Second District Court of Appeal upheld a $57,420 appellate fee award against Beck. The court, weighing in on Beck’s case for the second time, sided with his former employee’s lawyer, finding that the employee was entitled to appellate attorneys fees.
Beck maintained the Second District’s directive in its prior ruling that “the parties are to bear their own costs of appeal” foreclosed the possibility for his former employee getting appellate fees and stripped the trial court of jurisdiction over the issue. In its opinion, however, the Second District upheld the trial court which had found that the attorneys fees were a separate issue from costs and that the employee was entitled to them by statute.
“This case began as a dispute over approximately $300 in unpaid wages. It has since transmogrified into a dispute concerning attorney fees totaling nearly 200 times that amount,” wrote Second District Justice Audrey Collins. ”Marshaling the record and affirmatively demonstrating error are the appellant’s burdens, and Beck failed to carry those burdens here,” she wrote.
Reached by phone Thursday, Beck said that he doesn’t intend to seek further review because there isn’t grounds for one. “[The court] just rejected all my arguments and made new law,” he said. “I’m sorry about the anxiety this has cost me, and the financial cost is overwhelming.”
Beck’s misadventure started back in November 2013 when Anthony Stratton, a short-time employee of his firm, made a claim for about $300 in unpaid wages after quitting while Beck was out of town. Beck called in his remaining hours to his payroll company, ADP, and for reasons still unknown, Stratton ended up getting short-changed—paid $771.45 instead of the requested $1,075.
Stratton filed a complaint the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, the entity that enforces California’s labor laws, and the Labor Commissioner granted him his $303.50, plus interest and penalties bringing the total Beck owed to around $6,000.
Beck appealed that decision to Los Angeles Superior Court, but in doing so, made a crucial mistake. He did not file the civil case cover sheet required for all civil cases—the form on which a party indicates whether a civil case is limited or unlimited. That led to multiple findings that the case was unlimited, meaning the trial court and appellate court had jurisdiction and attorneys fees were fair game.
Stratton’s lawyer, David M. Balter, assistant chief counsel with the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement, said that appellate fees can be awarded under Labor Code section 98.2 (c). “What we think is important is that employers understand, yes, they have a right to appeal but it’s not something the claimant needs to finance,” throughout prolonged litigation, Balter said.
“If the employer pushes litigation and they’re not successful in completely eliminating the worker’s claim, it could be a very uneconomical decision,” Balter said.
In a prepared statement California Labor Commissioner Julie Su said that employers should pay all the wages workers are due at the time they’re earned.
“In this case, Beck could have paid his paralegal the $300 in wages owed,” Su said. “By not doing so even after my office found that the wages were owed and instead making unwarranted challenges to the Labor Commissioner’s decision, he now owes more than $100,000.”
Beck, for his part, said that “if there was a bright spot to this” it would be if the ruling “furthers people who are getting ripped off getting their money sooner.”
“That wasn’t my claim,” Beck said. “My guy walked off the job, I called in his hours and my payroll service made a mistake.”
“I didn’t really want to bring ADP into it although I probably should have,” Beck said Thursday. “I never thought this would get to the point that it would cost me $100,000″
“I made the mistake of representing myself,” Beck added.