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Damages for Retaliation under the Massachusetts Wage Act

The Massachusetts Wage Act protects employees' right to receive timely payment of their wages. The law requires that employers generally must pay employees weekly or bi-weekly wages within six or seven days of the end of the pay period, depending upon the number clock-1241088-640x480-300x225.jpgof days in the week the employee worked. G. L. c. 149, § 148. Employers are prohibited from penalizing employees who assert their rights under the wage and hour provisions of the Wage Act. G. L. c. 149, § 148A. An employee who suffers a violation of § 148 or § 148A may file an action for an injunction, damages incurred, lost wages, and other benefits after filing a complaint with the attorney general and waiting 90 days or obtaining the attorney general's permission to file sooner. G. L. c. 149, § 150.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently considered whether an employee may recover lost wages after a retaliatory firing in Wessell v. Mink Brook Associates, Inc.

The employer in this case was a franchisee of a national company that performed restoration work on houses. The plaintiff initially worked for the company as a subcontractor, but she was subsequently hired as the business manager at a salary of $50,000 per year in 2008. Her responsibilities included payroll, bookkeeping, insurance, vehicle registration and licenses, managing accounts, and human resources. The plaintiff testified that she worked about 50 hours per week, but she also performed unpaid duties outside her business hours.

The plaintiff was injured in an automobile accident in 2011. The owner of the business raised the issue of the plaintiff's lost time, and she began working part-time from home at an hourly rate. The opinion states in a footnote that the plaintiff's accident "required approximately eight weeks of recuperation and lost work," but it does not indicate how long the employee worked part-time.

The plaintiff observed some issues with the company's finances and operations in late 2011 and told the owner of her concerns. She also told him that she believed one of the employees was stealing from him.

In January 2012, the owner brought the plaintiff into a meeting with the employee she had said she believed was stealing from the owner. The owner accused the plaintiff of lying about her hours since her accident. He demoted her from her position of business manager, replaced her with the employee she had accused of stealing, and made the plaintiff report to that person.

In March, the owner mentioned the business' finances in a meeting and named employees who would receive their upcoming paychecks. When the plaintiff asked about hers, he told her she would not get it. The plaintiff asked for a private meeting with the owner. In that meeting, she demanded her paycheck, and the owner told her she "could afford not to get paid." She met the next day with the owner and the employee who replaced her as business manager. The owner accused the plaintiff of stealing and reimbursing herself without authorization and fired her.

The plaintiff subsequently filed suit against the employer and the owner, alleging a failure to pay wages and a retaliatory firing. The jury awarded her lost wages and unused vacation up to the date of her termination in the amount of $3,750, as well as lost compensation from the date of termination through the date of verdict of $54,880.90. The court trebled that amount pursuant to § 150 and added interest. The plaintiff received a total award of $187,111.38. She also received an award of $40,000 for attorney's fees and costs. The defendants appealed, although the appeal did not include the award of fees and costs.

The defendants argued that § 148A did not allow recovery of damages from the date of termination to judgment, but instead it allowed only criminal and civil penalties. The appeals court noted that the defendants' argument ignored the right to a private cause of action for retaliation provided in § 150. The opinion clearly sets out an employee's right to recover damages.

An employee who has a wage claim under § 148 "may recover earned wages that an employer has withheld." An employee who is fired in retaliation for asserting a wage right may recover the damages that arise from that termination, including earnings from the termination to trial.

The court found that the plaintiff's termination was a retaliation in violation of § 148A. The plaintiff therefore had a right to recover the damages she incurred, including lost wages, pursuant to § 150. The appeals court found that the judge was correct in instructing the jury that they could award damages for wages from the plaintiff's termination to their verdict if they found that the defendants had fired her in retaliation for her assertion of her wage rights. The appeals court affirmed the amended judgment.

Retaliation against an employee who has asserted his or her legal rights can significantly increase an employer's liability. If you have a legal issue involving the Wage Act, you should seek the assistance of a knowledgeable Massachusetts wage violations attorney immediately to protect yourself. The Law Offices of Richard Mucci have experience handling both sides of wage and hour claims. Call us at (781) 729-3999 to schedule an appointment to discuss your case.

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