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Massachusetts Employment Retaliation Claims Can Mean Treble Damages

Employee claims, whether based on allegations of wage and hour laws or discrimination, can sour a workplace. Nevertheless, retaliation against an employee who has made a complaint is not the answer. State and federal laws can make terminating an employee or imposing other adverse consequences because of a complaint or claim for an employment law violation very costly. In fact, even if the employer articulates a legitimate reason for the termination, a retaliation claim may still succeed if the fact-finder determines it was a pretext. file000229353560-225x300.jpg

In the recent case of Travers v. Flight Services & Systems, Inc., a skycap filed suit against his employer, alleging that the company fired him for helping organize a class action suit against it. The skycap won his unlawful termination case, and the company appealed both the verdict and the award of damages and fees and costs. The skycap also appealed, alleging error in the District Court's elimination of front pay damages, failure to treble front pay and emotional distress damages, and denial of prejudgment interest.

The defendant provides skycap services for JetBlue at Logan International Airport. According to the opinion, the skycaps rely on tips for the bulk of their pay. The plaintiff in this case was also the named plaintiff in the class action lawsuit. The class action was based on a JetBlue decision to start charging $2 per bag checked in via skycap and then keeping the fee, rather than passing it on to the skycap. The suit claimed that this fee diminished the tips skycaps received and violated Massachusetts wage and tips laws and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The defendant fired the plaintiff while the class action was pending. The plaintiff alleged he was fired for organizing the class action, while the defendant claimed he was fired because a customer claimed he had solicited a tip. The jury found the company liable for retaliatory termination in violation of state and federal laws, but the verdict form did not apportion the award between the claims. The jury awarded the plaintiff back pay, front pay, and emotional distress. The District Court ordered a remittitur of the $400,000 award for emotional distress to $50,000 and eliminated the entire front pay award. The plaintiff sought treble damages, attorney's fees and costs, and prejudgment interest. The District Court trebled the back pay but not the emotional distress award and granted fees and costs, but not prejudgment interest. The plaintiff and defendant each appealed.

The First Circuit found that there was sufficient evidence to support a reasonable inference of retaliation. The circuit court held that it was sufficient that the jury could reasonably determine that the employer had discretion and chose to exercise the discretion against Travers because of his involvement in the class action and then relied on a pretextual cover. The circuit court affirmed the decision to deny the defendant's motions for judgment as a matter of law.

The plaintiff argued that the district court abused its discretion by eliminating the front pay award. Front pay damages may not be determined by speculation, but the circuit court noted that some amount of uncertainty is inevitable and does not preclude front pay damages. Like the district court, the circuit court found that awarding front pay for the entire 20-year period the plaintiff claimed he wanted to work would amount to unsupported speculation. In Massachusetts cases in which the Supreme Judicial Court has upheld larger front pay awards over long time periods, there was generally more detail about the likelihood of future earnings. The circuit court agreed that the $450,000 front pay award was too speculative but not that the entire award should be eliminated. The circuit court found there was sufficient evidence for the jury to have awarded something, specifically the plaintiff's testimony as to the losses he would sustain and his intention to remain in his job. The circuit court vacated the order eliminating the front pay award and remanded.

The plaintiff also argued the district court erred in not trebling the emotional distress award under Massachusetts law. The statute states that an employee is to be awarded treble damages "for any lost wages and other benefits...." Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 149 § 150. The plaintiff argued that the emotional distress award was an "other benefit." The circuit court found no support for the plaintiff's argument that the emotional distress award was a "benefit" and subject to trebling under the statute.

The defendant argued that prejudgment interest was no longer appropriate after an amendment to § 150 made trebling damages for back pay mandatory and characterized the treble damages as liquidated damages. The defendant argued that this amendment expressed the legislature's intention to compensate for the loss that prejudgment interest would otherwise cover through the treble damages. The First Circuit found a lack of clarity in the statutes and no controlling precedent to guide the court. It therefore certified a question to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, asking if the amendment to § 150 that made trebling damages mandatory impliedly repealed the prejudgment interest statute as to cases in which the party was awarded liquidated damages under § 150. The First Circuit also affirmed the district court's denial of pre-judgment interest on the emotional distress award, noting that the plaintiff had not properly preserved the issue. When he agreed to the remittitur of the emotional distress award, he did not make it clear whether he was accepting that amount inclusive of the prejudgment interest he had requested. He did not include the emotional distress award in his renewed motion for prejudgment interest. The plaintiff had also failed to show that, if the denial of prejudgment interest did constitute an error, it resulted in a miscarriage of justice. The First Circuit affirmed the denial of prejudgment interest on the emotional distress award.

This case illustrates the significant risk businesses face in terminating employees who have made a complaint or who are involved in potential litigation. A retaliation claim can result in mandatory treble damages. It is therefore important for an employer to contact a skilled Massachusetts employment law attorney as soon as it becomes aware of a potential claim by an employee and to consult with the attorney before taking any adverse action against any employee involved in the case, even if there are legitimate reasons to take such action.

If you have an employment law issue, call the Law Offices of Richard Mucci at (781) 729-3999.

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