A Massachusetts Superior Court judge recently upheld a jury award of $435,000 to an employee who was terminated after he complained to the Attorney General’s Office that he believed his employer had placed him in the wrong job classification and, therefore, paid him on the wrong pay scale.
The Housing Authority employed David Fernandes as a mechanic for approximately 8 years before he filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office alleging that he had not been compensated at the pay rate appropriate for his level of experience and, instead, was compensated as if he were an entry-level mechanic. About a month after Fernandes filed his complaint, the Housing Authority, citing budgetary reasons, laid off Fernandes. Fernandes claimed that the layoff was in retaliation for having filed a wage claim, and the jury agreed.
While Fernandes’ orginal complaint was for an approximately fifty-cent-per-hour underpayment, the jury concluded that the Housing Authority owed him approximately $132,000 in wages and benefits. Because the Massachsuetts Wage Act mandates triple damages, that award ballooned to $396,000. Attorneys’ fees and costs totalling approximately $38,000 were also awarded to Fernandez, turning what was originally a relatively modest claim into a $435,000 bill for his former employer.
Excepting complaints that are fraudulent, employees whose claims are miniscule (or even bogus) are entitled to be free from retaliation for having engaged in “protected activity,” which, in this case, was complaining about unpaid wages. In many cases, employers are found not liable for the underlying alleged wrongdoing, yet still face liability for retaliating against that employee for asserting his or her rights, which may provide incentive for employee’s counsel to pursue what otherwise may be a claim of little value. That fact, combined with the Massachusetts Wage Act’s mandate that a successful plaintiff is entitled to three times any award received for violation of the Act (plus attorneys’ fees and costs), continues to make Massachusetts the forum of choice for wage and hour claims. If you are concerned that your organization may inadvertently be violating wage and hour laws, consider a wage practices audit now–before an employee asserts a claim. For assistance in doing so, feel free to contact any of the attorneys at Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C.