New Case Highlights Duty to Reimburse Employees for Using Personal Cell Phones for Work Purposes

New Case Highlights Duty to Reimburse Employees for Using Personal Cell Phones for Work Purposes

 Last week a California Court of Appeal held that class certification was appropriate in a case alleging that the employer failed to reimburse employees for expenses associated with using their personal cell phones for work calls. At the trial court level, the employer successfully opposed class certification, arguing that liability could not be established on a class wide basis because it required individualized inquiry regarding whether an employee purchased a plan over and above what he normally would have had for purely personal use, and/or whether the employee incurred charges over and above his personal plan. The employer also argued that if someone other than the employee paid the employee’s cell phone bill, the employee would not have standing to pursue a claim for relief and this also created individualized issues. In addition to the individualized issues bearing on liability under Labor Code section 2802, the employer also successfully argued that damages would be highly individualized. The trial court denied class certification based on the predominance of individualized issues.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the trial court abused its discretion in denying class certification. The Court of Appeal held that the trial court relied on the wrong standard for liability for a reimbursement claim under Labor Code section 2802. According to the Court of Appeal, all that is required to prove liability under Labor Code section 2802 is that the employee necessarily incurred expenses in the course of his job duties. The employee does not need to prove that he incurred expenses over and above what he would have incurred absent the job, nor does he have to prove that he actually paid his cell phone bill. The court held that if the rule were otherwise, the employer would receive a windfall by being able to pass on some of its operating expenses to employees. Thus, the court held that to be in compliance with Labor Code section 2802, “the employer must pay some reasonable percentage of the employee’s cell phone bill” if the employee uses a personal cell phone for work purposes. In other words, "reimbursement is always required."  The court did not define what a “reasonable percentage” is, but instead held that “the calculation of reimbursement must be left to the parties and the court in each particular case.”

Based on its interpretation of the standard for liability under Labor Code section 2802, the Court of Appeal held that a class should have been certified because liability could be determined on a class wide basis and did not depend on adjudication of numerous individualized issues. The court acknowledged that damages issues were “more complicated” (i.e. individualized) but held that individualized damage issues do not defeat class certification and that the trial court could employ statistical sampling to calculate damages under the standards set forth by the California Supreme Court in Duran v. U.S. Bank.

The case is Cochran v. Schwan Home Service, Inc. and is available here [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to lexis.com subscribers]. Employers that have employees using personal cell phones for business calls should review their expense reimbursement policies to ensure that these employees are reasonably compensated for the expense of making business calls on their personal devices.

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