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Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts
October 6, 2021, Argued; April 4, 2022, Decided
Kafker, J. On the day the plaintiff, Beth Reuter, was discharged from employment, the city of Methuen (defendant or city) owed her $8,952.15 for accrued vacation time. Rather than pay this amount on the day of her termination, as required by the Wage Act, G. L. c. 149, § 148 (Wage Act or act), the defendant paid her three weeks later. After a demand from the plaintiff's [**2] lawyer over a year after that, the defendant paid the plaintiff a further $185.42, which represented the trebled interest for the three weeks between the plaintiff's termination and the payment of the vacation pay. The present suit followed.
The issue is not whether the city violated the Wage Act in failing to pay the plaintiff for her vacation time on the day she was fired — it clearly did. Rather, the parties dispute the proper measure of damages for the private right of action for Wage Act violations under G. L. c. 149, § 150, when the employer pays wages after the deadlines provided in the act but before the employee files a complaint. Given the strict time-defined payment policies underlying the Wage Act, and the liquidated damages provision providing for treble damages for “lost wages and other benefits,” we conclude that an employer is responsible for treble the amount of the late wages, not trebled interest. As the prevailing party, the plaintiff is also entitled to attorney's fees and costs.1
1. Background. a. The plaintiff's termination and procedural history. The relevant facts are not disputed by the parties. Reuter worked as a custodian for the city's school department starting in 1988. In [**3] February 2013, the plaintiff was convicted of larceny over $250 in a single scheme under G. L. c. 266, § 30 (1). The defendant sent a letter formally terminating the plaintiff on March 7, 2013. At the time she was terminated, the plaintiff had accrued $8,952.15 in unused vacation time.
The defendant sent four separate checks totaling this amount on March 28, 2013. The plaintiff unsuccessfully contested her ter- [*467] mination before the Civil Service Commission and appealed to the Superior Court. On March 11, 2014, while that appeal was pending, the plaintiff's counsel sent the city a demand letter for $23,872.40, which represented a trebling of the late vacation pay, plus $5,986.10 for attorney's fees, minus setoff for the late payment. The plaintiff's termination was affirmed by the Superior Court on April 14, 2014. Shortly after, on July 24, 2014, the defendant responded to the demand letter with an “unconditional check” for $185.42, which represented a trebling of the twelve percent annual interest2 on the plaintiff's vacation pay accrued during the three weeks between her termination and payment. The payment was made “without admitting any liability as to the payment of these wages.”
Full case includes Shepard's, Headnotes, Legal Analytics from Lex Machina, and more.
489 Mass. 465 *; 2022 Mass. LEXIS 152 **; 184 N.E.3d 772
Beth Reuter vs. City of Methuen.
Prior History: [**1] Essex. Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on September 24, 2014.
The case was heard by John T. Lu, J., and a motion for attorney's fees and costs was also heard by him.
The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.
damages, wages, Wage Act, employees, treble, lost wages, benefits, terminated, liquidated damages, attorney's fees, late payment, treble damages, discharged, liquidated, late-paid, vacation, vacation pay, trial judge, prevailing, violations, costs, class certification, sentence, consequential damages, negative implication, payment of wages, prompt payment, pay in full, paycheck