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Can An Employee's Labor Be Stolen Property?

Section 496 of the California Penal Code makes it a crime to receive stolen property.  Any person who has been injured by a violation of the statute may bring an action for three times the amount of actual damages, if any, costs of suit, and reasonable attorney’s fees.  But what constitutes "property" for purposes of the statute? 

In Lacagnina v. Comprehend Systems, Inc., 2018 Cal. App. LEXIS 682, a terminated employee advanced the creative theory that his labor was property stolen by his former employer.  The trial court didn't buy the argument and neither did the Court of Appeal, finding it inconsistent with the plain language of the statute and the legislative purpose.  The Court of Appeal also expressed concern for the likely consequences of the plaintiff's argument:

"If every plaintiff in an employment or contract dispute could also seek treble damages and attorneys’ fees on the ground that the defendant received 'stolen property,' such claims would become the rule rather than the exception, parties would more frequently assert claims for 'theft' in run-of-the-mill commercial disputes, and cases would be harder to settle."

The Court of Appeal acknowledged that labor was something that could be the subject of a theft, but found that it was not "property".

 

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