Not even a government agency, it seems, can escape the potentially dire consequences of violating the Massachusetts Wage Act, even when an employee enjoys civil service protection that many thought, at least, provides the sole remedy for covered workers.
In a decision issued last week, the SJC upheld a large judgment for retaliation against the Attleboro Housing Authority. A jury found that the Authority improperly laid off its employee about a month after he filed a seemingly minor complaint that his hourly pay rate should have been higher than it was. The jury awarded a mere $2,300 in lost wages based on the hourly rate discrepancy, then added $130,000 for retaliatory discharge under the Act. The court tripled both figures and awarded legal fees to the employee, as it must under Mass. Gen. L. ch. 149, s. 150, and the award against the Housing Authority exceeded $400,000 before interest at 12% was added.
The moral of this story is patent: when an employee has made any claim regarding the payment of his/her wages, discretion dictates that employers approach layoffs and other job terminations with extreme caution. In the Attleboro Housing Authority case, the poignancy of this lesson is heightened by the fact that the Authority took the plausible position that the Wage Act did not apply because the employee enjoyed the protection of the civil service system, which provides a wholly separate avenue for redress of job terminations like the one at issue. Both the lower court and the SJC concluded, however, that civil service employees have a choice to pursue their claims under the Wage Act.