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The California Supreme Court handed workers a major victory Thursday, allowing them to bring class-action lawsuits alleging labor code violations even if they had signed agreements with their employers requiring them to arbitrate such disputes. By letting workers bypass these now-ubiquitous arbitration clauses, the ruling probably will add to the high volume of back-pay and overtime class-action cases already on court dockets, experts say, and will probably set a standard for courts in other states to follow.

"For many workers, class-action lawsuits are the only type of lawsuits they can bring against their employer" because attorneys are reluctant to take on individual suits in which the potential awards are small, said Michael Rubin, a San Francisco lawyer who represented a former Circuit City worker in the case that went to the state Supreme Court.

"Today's decision prevents employers from continuing this divide-and-conquer approach and reinstitutes the worker's rights to join with their fellow workers to sue for common violations of statutory rights," Rubin said.

Some of the primary beneficiaries of the ruling would be thousands of white-collar workers in industries such as retail, food service, insurance, technology and banking who are called managers or assistant managers but who spend much of their day ringing up sales, stocking shelves or sweeping the floor alongside the workers they supervise.

Class-action lawsuits by such employees seeking back pay for overtime and missed breaks have risen dramatically over the last decade. Most eventually settle, with employers typically paying millions of dollars to avoid the prospect of bigger losses at trial. In response to these suits, thousands of employers have asked their workers to sign agreements promising to resolve their disputes through arbitration instead of going to court, Rubin said.

Thursday's decision centered on the agreement that Circuit City asked its 46,000 employees to sign, waiving their right to file a class-action lawsuit and limiting damages, the statute of limitations to bring their claims and the attorney fees they could recover.

In a 4-3 ruling, the high court said that some of those agreements undermined employees' "unwaivable statutory rights" and "pose a serious obstacle to the enforcement of the state's overtime laws."

"Corporations are trying to wipe out their employees' ability to hold them accountable" by barring class actions in wages-and-hours cases, employment discrimination and sexual harassment cases, said Arthur Bryant, executive director of Washington-based Public Justice, a public interest law firm that filed an amicus brief on behalf of the plaintiff in the Circuit City case. Thursday's ruling, he said, "essentially preserves employment class actions in California."

The decision follows a ruling two years ago in which the justices invalidated an arbitration clause barring bank customers from bringing class actions to resolve consumer disputes. This month, a San Francisco federal appeals court ruled that Cingular Wireless could not compel customers to sign away their right to file class-action lawsuits against the company. That ruling applies in several Western states.

The Circuit City case was filed by former customer service manager Robert Gentry in 2002, claiming that the retailer had illegally denied him overtime pay. The Los Angeles resident signed an arbitration agreement when he began working for the company in 1995 but later claimed that the agreement violated state labor laws and was unconscionable because employees were coerced into signing and feared retaliation if they didn't.

Circuit City countered that the agreement was not unfair to workers, noting the documents highlighted the advantages of arbitration for employees -- for instance, that their disputes could be resolved faster and more cost-effectively than through litigation. Moreover, the retailer argued that employees had 30 days to opt out of the agreement once they signed it and Gentry had not done so.

The trial and appellate court judges agreed with those arguments and rejected Gentry's claim.

But the Supreme Court called the company's "explanations of benefits . . . markedly one-sided" for failing to mention "any of the additional significant disadvantages" of Circuit City's agreement. For instance, the agreement limited back pay to one year, but an employee filing suit could potentially recover up to three years of back pay.

The high court did not issue a blanket ban on provisions such as the one Gentry signed but remanded his case to the trial court, instructing it to void such agreements if employees can more effectively pursue their rights through class actions.

Circuit City pointed to the lack of a blanket ban as a silver lining in an otherwise disappointing loss and expects "that when the Superior Court considers this case in light of the Supreme Court's new decision, it will once again fully enforce our arbitration agreement," said Jim Babb, company spokesman.

Lawyers say the ruling will spark more class actions.

The decision "dashes the hopes of employers that contractual class-action waivers will be an effective tool to stem the flow of debilitating class-action litigation," said Colleen Regan, a Los Angeles attorney who represents employers.

The "good news," she said, is that the decision does not affect the viability of a "properly constructed arbitration agreement" that does not bar class actions and meets other legal requirements.

Although the Gentry decision binds only California employers, it will probably undermine arbitration waivers nationally. California law tends to set the standard in labor cases, Regan said. "National companies really desire consistency in their human resources policy, so they set the bar at California," she said.

Circuit City operates 652 stores nationwide, including 90 in California.

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