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Massachusetts State Court Holds Employee Cannot Recover Treble Damages on Late Wage Payments

Can an employer escape a treble damage award under the Massachusetts Wage Act where it makes a late payment of final wages to a fired employee after the employee filed a wage complaint with the state Attorney General but before the employee filed a complaint with the court?  That is the question which a Massachusetts Superior Court recently answered in the affirmative.

The Massachusetts Wage Act puts employers on the hook for treble (or triple) damages where they fail to pay all earned wages, including accrued and unused vacation time, to an involuntarily terminated employees on the date of termination.  The Wage Act also says that employers cannot avoid liability simply by making full payment of owed wages after the employee files a wage complaint.

In Littlefield v. Adcole Corp., Adcole fired Littlefield, but failed to pay him his final wages and accrued but unused vacation time on his last day.  Instead, it paid these final wages in three separate checks in a two-week period after his termination.  While Adcole was processing the second check, Littlefield filed a wage complaint with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, but he did not alert Adcole.  Then, after receiving the third payment and after he received a right to sue letter from the AG’s office, he filed a complaint in superior court seeking treble damages.  He argued that the Wage Act’s post-complaint defense exclusion applied because he made the complaint to the AG’s office while Adcole still owed him unpaid wages.

The Superior Court did not agree.  Relying on a 2003 superior court decision issued by current Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants and a recent Massachusetts federal district court decision, the court rejected Littlefield’s argument because the Wage Act’s post-complaint defense exclusion applied to complaints filed with the Superior Court and not the AG’s office.  Here, Adcole paid the wages owed before Littlefield filed his complaint in the Superior Court.  Further, even if the Wage Act’s post-complaint defense exclusion did apply to complaints made to the AG’s office, Littlefield’s argument remained unavailing, because he failed to notify Adcole of the complaint until after it had already paid him.  Thus, the court limited Littlefield’s damages to treble damages on foregone interest suffered as a result of the delay between his termination date and the dates it made the wage payments, which in the end, was a trivial amount.

Littlefield confirms that employers may act to mitigate their potential liability under the Wage Act, but it further confirms that employers who fail to pay out wages owed on the termination date should act quickly.  Of course, the best way to avoid these claims is to simply pay the wages owed on the last day of employment.

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