Treble Damages for Violations of the Massachusetts Wage Act Could Be Limited in Certain Circumstances

by Amelia J. Holstrom

When a Massachusetts employer discharges an employee, Massachusetts law requires the employer to pay the discharged employee all outstanding wages, which includes accrued, unused vacation time, on the employee’s final day of work.  If an employee voluntarily resigns , he must be paid his wages on the next regularly scheduled pay day or if there is no such day, on the Saturday following the last date of employment.  If an employer fails to do so, an employee may bring a lawsuit and if he succeeds, he automatically recovers treble damages (i.e., three times the amount of wages owed to him), attorneys’ fees, and costs.   The statute suggests, but does not explicitly state, that an individual is entitled to treble damages only after a complaint has been filed in civil court.  Weighing in on this issue, the Massachusetts Superior Court has interpreted the treble damages provision to apply only after an employee has filed a civil complaint.

In Littlefield v. Adcole Corporation, the employer had terminated the plaintiff’s employment but did not give him his final paycheck on his last day of work.  As a result, the Plaintiff filed a Complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office alleging violation of the Massachusetts Wage Act.  A few days later, the employer finished processing the payments owed to the plaintiff and the plaintiff received his wages and vacation, albeit several weeks late.   Several weeks after receiving the payment, the plaintiff filed a civil action in Superior Court seeking treble damages on the entire amount owed to him on the date of termination.   The Superior Court determined that the plaintiff was not entitled to treble damages on the entire amount, but rather only the interest lost due to the delay in payment.  In doing so, the court reasoned that the employer had paid the plaintiff all wages and vacation owed prior to the “bringing of the complaint.”  The court stated that the “bringing of a complaint” refers to the filing of a civil action and that filing a complaint with the Attorney General’s Office was not sufficient.  In its decision, the court referenced a Massachusetts District Court case which noted that, although late payment is not a defense to a violation of the Wage Act, it serves to greatly diminish any damage done by the failure to pay wages on the day of discharge.

This decision will likely be appealed, but for now it serves as persuasive authority in the trial court.  It may also open the door for an employer to argue that if it pays everything owed to the employee plus interest before the filing of a civil action, an employee will not be able to recover treble damages on any amount after filing suit.  This will be a case to watch closely as it works its way through the courts.

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