Wage Claim Options: Labor Commissioner/Board or Civil Court?

Under California law, employees can bring wage claims in three different venues. The employee can file with the California Labor Commissioner (sometimes called the Labor Board). (Click here to find your local Labor Commissioner office.) The employee can file in the superior court where they live or where they worked for their employer. Or they can file in federal court in the district where they live or where they worked.

While there are three types of venues, the choice of where to file a wage claim really boils down to two options: with the Labor Commissioner or in state court, because federal court actions are more rare for wage claims.

So, between the Labor Commissioner and civil court, here are the differences:

Labor CommissionerCivil Court (State or Federal)
Look-Back Period3 Years4 Years
Attorney Fees?NoYes
Additional Penalties?NoYes


Scenario: John Doe worked for Acme Inc. for 6 years, but was fired last Friday. John worked for an insurance company as an office worker. He spent most of his time scanning documents, making photocopies, organizing the office, ordering supplies when they were running low, and performing other similar tasks. John was paid a salary and was not paid overtime and did not receive any lunch breaks. He worked overtime and missed meal periods for the full six years he worked for Acme. It is determined that John was “misclassified” as exempt when he was really non-exempt. Therefore, John can bring a wage claim for unpaid overtime and missed lunch breaks. He doesn’t know where to file his claim, whether with the Labor Commissioner/Labor Board or in civil court.

John files his wage claim with the Labor Commissioner

Limited Claims: If John files with the Labor Commissioner the Monday after he is fired, the only overtime wages he can collect are those that he worked within three years of the date he files his claim.

No Attorney Fees: John wants to hire an attorney to represent him in his wage claim, but if he files it with the Labor Commissioner, he cannot get reimbursed for his attorney fees.

Reduced Penalties: The Labor Commissioner can’t get John all of the penalties that could be available to him under California law. These include “Private Attorneys General Act” (PAGA) penalties, and they could make his claim a significant amount more.

John files his wage claim in civil court

ONE ADDITIONAL YEAR OF CLAIMS: If John still files on that same Monday, but in civil court instead, his claim can go back four years – one year more than he could claim if he filed with the Labor Commissioner.

ATTORNEY FEES AVAILABLE: Filing a wage claim in civil court entitles John to receive his attorney fees for bringing his wage claim. Not only does this increase the amount of his claim, but it also can serve as a strong reason for ACME to pay him what he is owed, because the more ACME fights his civil court wage claim, the more John will incur in attorney fees.

MORE PENALTIES AVAILABLE: John has the option of bringing a PAGA action along with his wage claim in civil court. This could possibly result in a greater sum that he could collect.

Other Practical Differences

Length of time from start to finish

Unfortunately, the California Labor Commissioner’s office is very busy these days. The result is that wage claims filed with the Labor Commissioner can take a very long time from start to finish. In multiple instances, the Labor Commissioner has been known to make its decisions years after a wage claim has been filed.

In civil court, wage claims usually are resolved more quickly. California courts have a “fast track” system that encourages the speedy resolution of all cases. Cases in civil court usually resolve from between one month and one year.

Variety of claims

The Labor Commissioner sometimes will not let an employee bring a wage claim based on all wages the employee may be owed. Instead, the Labor Commissioner will limit an employee to claiming just his or her strongest claims.

There are more types of claims available in civil court. Wage claimants have the ability to bring all of their claims in front of a jury.

Access to documents

Employees who bring their wage claim with the Labor Commissioner can have trouble gaining access to the documents they need to prove their case. The Labor Commissioner makes it difficult, if not impossible, to subpoena documents prior to the wage hearing. Without these documents, it may be difficult to prepare for your hearing.

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