Massachusetts law prohibits an employer from taking any adverse action against an employee because he or she has complained about not being properly paid. The Attleboro Housing Authority (AHA) learned about this law the hard way, after a court awarded nearly $500,000 to a former employee that alleged that AHA paid him 50 cents less per hour than it should have. This case, Fernandes v. Attleboro Housing Association, is a cautionary tale for employers about the dangers of not complying with the Massachusetts wage laws, and not understanding the implications of retaliating against an employee that complains about wage concerns.
David Fernandes worked for AHA as a mechanic. In April 2009, he filed a complaint with the Attorney General’s office alleging that AHA classified him as an entry level mechanic so it could pay him 50 cents less per hour than it paid more senior mechanics. All in all, Fernandes alleged AHA owed him about $2,300. Fast forward one month when AHA laid off Fernandes for what it called budgetary reasons. This is when a relatively small problem turned into a disaster. Believing the reason AHA provided for laying him off was a pretext, Fernandes amended his complaint to add a claim for retaliation.
Fast forward another three years to when a jury agreed with Fernandes that AHA terminated him in retaliation for complaining about the 50 cents an hour pay dispute. The jury awarded Fernandes $2,300 plus $130,000 in lost wages. So, how did the award turn into nearly half a million? In 2008, the Massachusetts Legislature passed a law to impose triple damages on any employer that violates the wage laws. Employers that lose wage claims also must pay the plaintiff’s attorneys’ fees and court costs. Imposition of these triple damages, attorneys’ fees and costs is mandatory: neither judge nor jury has any discretion about whether to apply this stiff penalty against employers. Said another way, even if an employer makes a “good faith” wage mistake, triple damages, fees and costs will be awarded to the plaintiff.
The Fernandes case reminds us that retaliation claims are not limited to the discrimination and harassment arenas, where the line of retaliation cases developed. Employers must be vigilant in ensuring that all managers understand the obvious violations of the wage laws (like misclassification) but also understand that taking an adverse action against an employee that complains about wage violations, even if the complaint is an internal one, can cost the employer big.
As an employment attorney primarily representing employers, I educate and counsel my clients about the Massachusetts wage laws and defend them when litigation arises. Over the next week, I will write about frequently made wage mistakes and what Massachusetts employers can do to avoid them.