SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - Siding with a former deputy attorney general for California, an appeals court found that state labor law affords her prompt payment of her final pay.
Two years after retiring in 2010, former deputy attorney general Janis McLean sued the California and the controller's office because she had not received her final paycheck within 72 hours of leaving her job. McLean also said that the state missed a mandated deadline to transfer unused vacation pay into her retirement account as she asked.
Lawyers for the Golden State objected on the basis that McLean had retired rather than quit - the only word used in the relevant section of the labor code. They also said McLean was employed by the Department of Justice, not the state or the controller's office, and moved to strike the majority of her complaint.
In dismissing the action, a Sacramento judge found that state labor law does not authorize penalties for employees who have retired. The Third Appellate District reversed judgment for the state Tuesday, however, highlighting California's "fundamental" commitment to the "prompt payment of wages due an employee."
Labor law expressly required the state to move McLean's unused vacation pay as requested when she retired by Feb. 1 of the next calendar year - a deadline the state missed entirely, according to the ruling.
As to the difference between quitting and retiring, the panel rejected the state's argument that public servants have different rules than private-sector employees.
"Nothing in the language of either statute permits an interpretation where the word 'quits' has one meaning for the state employer and its employees, and another meaning where the employers and employees are in the private sector," Judge Elena Duarte wrote for a three-member panel. "We decline to adopt an interpretation of a statute which adds a distinction between types of employers and employees 'which is neither expressly included in nor suggested by its plain language.'"
What while the Legislature used three different words for the separation of state employees in an earlier section of the labor code - quits, retires and disability-retires - a subsequent section makes clear that state employees should be treated the same as everyone else whether they quit to work somewhere else or retire, the court found.
"Statutes governing conditions of employment, such as the payment of wages, are to be liberally construed 'in favor of protecting employees,'" Duarte wrote, citing the 2007 ruling Murphy v. Kenneth Cole Productions Inc.
"This policy and purpose is not furthered by excluding retirees from the full protections of section 202, enforced by the penalty provisions of section 203. We interpret an employee who 'quits' in section 202(a) and section 203 to include an employee who quits to retire."
The appeals court affirmed the dismissal as to the controller's office, however, since it is an agency of the state.
McLean will see an award amounting to 30 days' wages, the state's penalty for missing the final pay deadline.