California law contains unique rules regarding seating for employees. Under the Wage Orders of the Industrial Welfare Commission, an employee is entitled to use a seat while working if the nature of the work reasonably permits the use of a seat. An employer is required, in that circumstance, to provide the employee with a suitable seat. These rules were recently examined by a California Court of Appeal in Meda v. AutoZone Inc., _ Cal. App. 5th _ (July 19, 2022). The court reversed summary judgment that had been granted to the employer because a triable issue of material fact existed as to whether the employer “provided” suitable seating to its customer service employees at the front of the store by placing seats at other workstations in a separate area of the store.

1. Background

The plaintiff, Monica Meda, worked as a sales associate for about six months at an AutoZone auto parts store operated by AutoZoners. After she resigned from her position, she filed a lawsuit asserting one claim under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (“PAGA”). She claimed AutoZoners failed to provide suitable seating to employees at the cashier and parts counter workstations, even though some or all of the work required could be performed while sitting.

2. The Motion For Summary Judgment Should Not Have Been Granted

AutoZoners moved for summary judgment, arguing the plaintiff lacked standing to bring a representative action under PAGA because she was not aggrieved by AutoZoner’s seating policy. Specifically, it argued it satisfied the seating requirements by making two chairs available to its associates. The chairs were not placed at the cashier or parts counter workstations, but were in, or just outside, the manager’s office.

The plaintiff opposed the summary judgment motion, contending that AutoZoners did not “provide” seating as required because no one was told her chairs were available for use at the front counter workstations, she never saw anyone else use a chair at those workstations, and she was only given the option to use a chair as an accommodation after an on-the-job injury. The trial court agreed with AutoZoners and granted the summary judgment motion.

The court of appeal reversed. It began by pointing out that no published California authority had considered what steps should be taken by an employer to “provide” suitable seating within the meaning of the seating requirement. The court then concluded that when 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. Accordingly, resolution of the issue at the summary judgment stage may be inappropriate. Because the undisputed facts created a triable issue of material fact as to whether AutoZoners “provided” suitable seating to its customer service employees at the front of the store by placing seats at other workstations in a separate area of the store, summary judgment was found improper.

The court explained that although two raised chairs were present in the store, they were not placed at the cashier workstation or the parts counter workstation, nor were they in the immediate vicinity of those workstations. While it did not suggest that an employer must always place a chair at or within a specific distance of a workstation, the proximity of a seat to an employee’s workstation is a relevant factor to be considered when assessing whether a seat has been provided for the employee’s use. This is particularly true where, as in the case at issue, the employer has not advised its employees that seats are available for their use by either directly informing the employees or including the seating policy in its employee handbook.

3. Practical Observations

Suitable seating cases under PAGA have been filed throughout California in recent years. They are expensive and often difficult to defend. Employers can learn valuable lessons from the Meda case. In addition to recognizing the need to know when, where and how suitable seating must be provided, employers should take steps to advise their employees that seats are available for their use. The court explained that two ways of accomplishing this include directly informing employees that seats are available for their use or including a seating policy in the employee handbook. Using other means to disseminate notice may also prove helpful, such as by posting policies in the workplace.

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About The Author

Richard J. Simmons is a Partner in the law firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton LLP in Los Angeles. He represents employers in various employment law matters involving litigation throughout the country and general advice regarding state and federal wage and hour laws, employment discrimination, wrongful discharge, employee discipline and termination, employee benefits, affirmative action, union representation proceedings, and arbitrations. Mr. Simmons received his B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Massachusetts, where he was a Commonwealth Scholar and graduated in the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society. He received his J.D. from Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley where he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Industrial Relations Law Journal, now the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law.

Mr. Simmons argued the only case before the California Supreme Court that produced a victory for employers and business in 2018. He was recently recognized as the Labor and Employment Attorney of the Year by the Los Angeles Business Journal and was inducted into the Employment Lawyers Hall of Fame. He has lectured nationally on wage and hour, employment discrimination, wrongful termination, and other employment and labor relations matters. He is a member of the National Advisory Board to the Berkeley Journal of Employment and Labor Law, published by Berkeley Law at the University of California at Berkeley. He was also appointed by the California Industrial Welfare Commission as a member of three Minimum Wage Boards for the State of California.