Why Californians should sue directly in court rather than file a claim with the California Labor Commissioner
California labor law offers employees two alternatives when making a claim for wages: file a claim in superior court or file a claim with the Labor Commissioner's office. At first blush, the Labor commissioner appears a better choice, you can represent yourself , and this is certainly less expensive than hiring an attorney and faster than going to Court. However, theses benefits don't amount to much if the law is not properly considered or the decision is not properly reasoned.
Generally, in my experience, employees who file with the Labor Commissioner's Office do not do as well as employees who sue directly in superior court. Here are several reasons why.
The California Labor Commissioner
The people who act as the judge in these proceedings do not necessarily know the law. They're not required to be attorneys and many are not. In more complicated cases, in my experience, the subtleties of wage and hour law are completely glossed over. This may be due to the immense workload of the commissioners, something likely not to improve given California's budget problems.
At these hearings the rules of evidence do not apply. These rules usually preserve fairness, and when they are disregarded, it 's not usually to the employee's advantage. On occasion, I have seen the California Labor Commissioner require that the rules of evidence be observed for some matters, but not for others.
Basically, the decision of the California Labor Commissioner does not count. The loser can appeal 'de novo' to the superior court, and this means that the case is given a whole new trial. At the superior court level, the decision of the commissioners is entitled to no weight whatsoever, and the facts presented to the trial court may include entirely new evidence.
Attorney's Fees Award
When employees sue in superior court for minimum wages or overtime, if the employer wins, the employer cannot get an award of fees and costs against the employee. However in 'de novo' trials in superior court, the employer can. This can be a significant liability.
Exceptions to the Rule
Like everything, there are exceptions to the rule. In some cases, I have advised people to file in the Labor Commissioner's office. Many Labor Commissioners are quite good and some times the lack of procedural rules works to the employee's advantage. If your case is really simple, and you can avoid any nuance in the law, then the Labor Commissioner's office may offer a less expensive and much faster alternative to court. I would consult with an attorney before deciding to file with the Ca Labor commission.
Good luck with your case!