Archives for June 2014

Minimum Wage Bill Passes; Governor Expected to Sign

The two legislative branches in the Commonwealth recently reached accord on a proposal to hike the minimum wage here in Massachusetts. Given the prior statements of Governor Deval Patrick, it appears the legislation will become law within a matter of days.

The bill will increase the minimum wage by one dollar in each of the next three years, from its current $8/hour to $9/hour in 2015, $10/hour in 2016 and $11/hour in 2017. It will also gradually increase the amounts employers must pay to tipped employees from the current $2.63/hour to $3.75/hour. This class of worker — generally wait staff in restaurants, bartenders, and others who typically receive tips from customers — must receive the minimum wage through a combination of hourly pay and tips. Under current law, a waiter, e.g., must receive $2.63/hour from his employer and an additional $5.67/hour in tips, at a minimum. Any shortfall must be paid by the employer.

If the new bill becomes law as expected, Massachusetts will join a growing list of states to increase the minimum wage this year. The movement in this area has plainly gained a strong foothold at the state level, though the federal government, not surprisingly, remains unable to move in the face of patent Republican obstructionism. Minimum wages have been generally unchanged for many years. The debate over how increasing them may affect employers notwithstanding, there exists no serious dispute that, at current levels, few if any full-time minimum wage workers can afford to support themselves and/or their families.

Employers Need Not Pay Legal Fees to Discrimination Employees who Don’t Win Damages

Employers facing discrimination lawsuits got a bit of help from the Massachusetts Court of Appeals recently when it held that employees cannot force them to repay their legal fees unless they do more than win their cases at trial. In a somewhat surprising decision, the Court concluded that proving discrimination is not enough. The law, they held, also requires employees to win some sort of tangible damage award as a result of the discrimination.

Damages sufficient to require a legal fee award can come in two types – measurable, such as lost wages, and non-measurable, such as a promotion order. “[T]he important distinction is between ‘actual but not clearly measurable damages or loss, contrasted with no actual damage or loss,’” the court conclude in Kiely v. Teradyne, Inc. “Actual but not clearly measurable damages or loss, like injunctive relief, would entitle a party to attorney’s fees. By contrast, an absence of actual damages or loss would not.”

The case involved a challenge to a superior court’s judge’s decision to both vacate a punitive damages jury award and deny a winning plaintiff’s legal fee request. The former employee won her retaliation case but did not receive financial damages or equitable relief. The jury did, however, award her $1.1 million in punitive damages, a type intended to punish employers for outrageous conduct. The anti-discrimination statute, Chapter 151B, generally requires losing employers to repay the legal fees of winning employees at the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination or in state court lawsuits. Fee awards against employers often reach $100,000 or more.