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Sitting Pretty in California

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Attorney Harrison Oldham

 

 

In California, 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.

 

Recently, in Meda v. Autozone, Inc., a California Court of Appeal took a serious look at what it means to “provide” a suitable seat.  Ultimately, the Court of Appeal held that despite chairs being present at the store where the plaintiff worked, and the fact that the plaintiff used a chair for two days, there were triable issues of fact as to whether the employer had “provided” suitable seating.

 

Background

Monica Meda spent about six (6) months working as a sales associate for a franchisee at a franchised auto parts store.  While working as a sales associate, Meda assisted customers at a cashier station and parts counter.  She also operated the cash register, cleaned the store, moved merchandise around the store, and stocked shelves.

 

Meda estimated that in the normal course of her work, she spent approximately 40 percent of her time at the cashier station and stated that she could do all cashier tasks while seated. In addition, she estimated that she spent another 40 percent of her time at the parts counter and that roughly half of the work required at that workstation could be performed while seated.

 

Both the parts counter and the cashier workstations were located at elevated counters. According to Meda, a desk-height chair would be too low to use at the elevated counters. Instead, a raised chair or stool was needed at those workstations. Per company policy, the store had two raised chairs on-site and they were generally located and used at two raised workstations in or near the manager’s station area of the store. That area was open (i.e., did not have a door) but was separate and not visible from the cashier and parts counter workstations.

 

No one at the store told Meda that she was allowed to or was prohibited from using a raised chair at the front workstations.  Said another way, the employer did not expressly advise Meda she could use the chairs while working at these locations, and Meda never asked for permission to do so. Nonetheless, Meda did use one of the chairs for two days when she injured her foot.

 

Although the employer’s stated policy was to make a stool available for any employee that needed or desired to use one, the employer did not offer training regarding its seating policy, and the policy was not included in the employee handbook, or otherwise communicated to sales associates.

 

After she resigned from her position, Meda filed suit against the franchisee asserting a single cause of action – that her former employer failed to provide suitable seating to employees at the cashier and parts counter workstations.

 

The Trial Court Decision

Under California’s Wage Orders, “working employees shall be provided with suitable seats when the nature of the work permits the use of seats.” However, in response to Meda’s complaint, the Employer moved for summary judgment, arguing that Meda was not an “aggrieved” employee because the store had, in fact, “provided” suitable seating by making chairs available for employee use.

 

The trial court granted the Employer’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that “provide” (as it relates to seating, at least) means “to make available” and that the Employer had provided Meda suitable seating within the meaning of California law.

 

The Court of Appeal’s Decision

The Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s summary judgment ruling, concluding that there were material disputes of fact as to whether the store had established that it “provided” suitable seating.

 

During its review, the Court of Appeal reasoned that “No published California authority has considered what steps should be taken by an employer to ‘provide’ suitable seating within the meaning of the wage order seating requirement.”  As a result, the court concluded that “where 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.”

 

Three points caused the Court of Appeal to conclude there were triable issues of material fact. First, although two raised chairs were present in the store, they were not placed in the immediate vicinity of these work areas. The court found this fact to be especially significant because the Employer did not advise employees that they could move chairs located in other areas of the store to these two work areas.

 

Second, the raised chairs were placed in an area where a manager worked, and Meda often observed the store manager using one of the raised chairs. The Court of Appeal concluded this could support a reasonable inference that the Employer did not provide the raised chairs for use at the cashier station and parts counter.

 

Finally, no other employees used the raised chairs at the parts counter or cashier workstations. According to the Court of Appeal, this created a reasonable inference that the Employer either prohibited or discouraged the use of the chairs at those locations (of course the Employer had a policy that said the opposite, but, that policy was not well communicated).

 

For these reasons, the court found there was a triable issue of fact as to whether the Employer “provided” suitable seats as required.

 

Key Takeaways

Of course, as it relates to Meda, employers should carefully evaluate whether they have employees working in positions where “the nature of the work permits the use of seats.” If so, employers should consider adopting a written policy and making sure that employees are informed of the policy and specifically permitted to use the seats that are provided.  On a larger scale, if nothing else, Meda should serve to provide employers with another example of how important the details continue to be.

 


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About Harrison Oldham

Harrison grew up in Mansfield, Texas. He attended Texas A&M University for his bachelor’s degree, where he met his wonderful wife, Kelsey. After graduating magna cum laude from Texas A&M, he attended SMU Dedman School of Law, graduating with honors in 2012. Today, Harrison and his wife live in Dallas, Texas with their son, Teddy.

Since graduating from SMU Law, Harrison has worked exclusively in the field of business law. He has spent time in private practice and in-house, working with clients of every size; from single person startups to Fortune 250 companies. Today his practice focuses on serving the diverse needs of businesses and individuals throughout Texas. You can learn more about Harrison by visiting his website, at: http://lonestarbusinesslaw.com/.

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